African American Poetry (1870-1928): A Digital Anthology

Leslie Pinckney Hill, "Foreword" to the "Dunbar Speaker and Entertainer" (1920)


What the children read the fathers will believe. What the fathers believe will constitute the ideals of the race. Therefore nothing is more important to the development of any people than the content of those printed pages on which they form their youthful minds. Bishop Spaulding said, "The voices that spoke to me in my boyhood are now speaking through me to the world." Let those voices speak of self-reliance, noble striving, and ambition for high achievement, and the quality of the adult life will generally be of the same character. Let those voices suggest low self-esteem or mediocre life aims, and the later manhood will be correspondingly low in thought, feeling, and conduct.

So well known is the operation of this principle that the vast machinery of our system of education in America has always revolved about its reading courses. But these reading courses have been almost necessarily one-sided and undemocratic. Devised and executed exclusively by experts of the white race, they have naturally reflected only the ideals of that race. They have set before America and the world only those traditions of heroism, self-sacrifice, delicacy of feeling, high thinking, and noble endeavor which have been exemplified in representative white men and women. The result naturally is a universal and solidified conviction in the minds of all American youth that the progress of the world—industrial, political, intellectual and social—has been exclusively the white man's achievement. Nothing could have been a more reasonable conclusion for the long generations which have been nourished on Livy, Plutarch, Green, Grote, Mommsen, Parkman, Bancroft or Fisk. These have been the historians of the white world just as Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, Milton and Lowell have been its poets, and Thackeray, Eliot, Dickens and Hawthorne its romancers. The massive influence of these great spokesmen has all been on the side of the amazing mind power and outward competency of their exalted race, and their estimation of the white man's superiority has been universally received by public opinion. In vain may you search their pages—those pages upon which all our reading has been founded—for anything other than a patronizing view of that vast, brooding world of colored folk—yellow, black and brown—which comprises by far the largest portion of the human family.

The results of this one-sided reading have long been very clear to see, and they have been very mischievous. The two most important results alone need mention here. The first is a feeling of contempt, tempered with pity, on the part of the white man 
everywhere for his colored brother. The second is a disastrous, unconscious acceptance on the part of large masses of the colored races themselves of the estimation placed upon them by their white neighbors. These two conditions in turn have bred those misunderstandings between race groups and those misinterpretations of one race by another that lie at the base of all our horrifying modern war. Exactly as Germans have looked with contempt upon Frenchmen or Englishmen, so the whole white world has viewed the darker races. These darker people have consequently been at a tremendous disadvantage in having little or no recognized literature for the expression of their highest ideals and aspirations, and no channels through which their recognized spokesmen might make known to the world the inner heart of the race. Colored boys and girls have not been reading about heroic black warriors and statesmen, martyrs or saints, though the progress of the world has depended largely upon these. They have not seen often enough even the poor reproductions of world famous works of art wrought by bronze or ebony hands. They do not ponder enough the pages of the black man's romance written by the black novelist. They have not stored their minds with the poetry that has sung its way out of the black man's sorrow and travail and made a place for itself among the lasting monuments of the world's music. And not knowing how much they have to be proud of,  how much to live for, strive for, and die for, colored people in enormous masses plod on wearily in the path of life discouraged and half efficient. Twelve millions of American Negroes in particular are, to use Mary White Ovington's expression, "half men," because they do not know even so much of the nobility and grandeur of the black man's finer traditions as Doctor DuBois has set forth in his stimulating little book "The Negro."

Surely the highest interests of American democracy and the needs of the war-torn world dictate now that nothing be left undone to awaken to new life, and to call to a high plane of self-reliance and activity, so potent a portion of our population. The great conceptions of liberty, inter-racial and international justice, and of universal democracy are in the air. Now that the insane waste and frightful misery of war are done, the colored races everywhere must be given a just and untrammeled opportunity to contribute all they can to the reconstruction of a new, more liberal and democratic social order.

It is against this background of the world need that Mrs. Alice Dunbar-Nelson's book is seen to have peculiar significance to the colored race in America. Hers is the first attempt I have known of directly on the part of any Negro to frame a speaker composed entirely of literature produced by black men and women, and about black men and women, and embodying the finest spiritual ideals of the Negro 
race. The selections that make up this volume will reveal to the colored youth of the land the mind and heart quality of their own representative men and women. The result ought to be a great increase among them of self-reliance and race pride, a wider spread impulse to noble striving and the placing of a very much higher estimation upon the potential abilities of dark complexioned people everywhere. Above all things, it Aught to mean a better understanding between the races in these States because of the truth which this little volume seeks to prove—that the white man has no fine quality, either of heart or mind, which is not shared by his black brother.

Leslie Pinckney Hill
The Cheyney School for Teachers,
Cheyney, Pa.

This page has tags: