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African American Poetry: a Digital Anthology (1870-1926)
This digital anthology is intended as a resource for students, teachers, and researchers interested in African American poetry, published roughly in the historical period from 1870 to 1926. The aspiration is to provide access to a comprehensive collection of Black poetry from this crucial period, with contextual information, author pages, and curated mini-collections for teachers and students. As of May 2022, this site contains the full text of 34 books of poetry (including anthologies as well as single-author books), and a small but growing collection of periodical poetry.
All poems on this site should be in the public domain. We have brought together material from digital editions in two other digital projects, "Claude McKay's Early Poetry," and "Women of the Early Harlem Renaissance," and also taken advantage of new materials entering the public domain, including Langston Hughes' The Weary Blues (1926), and Countee Cullen's Color (1925). Other materials intended for inclusion in this project include the poems of Paul Laurence Dunbar, Olivia Ward Bush-Banks, James Weldon Johnson, Jean Toomer, Alice Dunbar Nelson, and William Stanley Braithwaite, among many others.
Anthologies: There were at least four major anthologies devoted to African American literature that appeared between 1922 and 1926. Of these, two were edited by Black critics, James Weldon Johnson's Book of American Negro Poetry and Alain Locke's The New Negro: an Interpretation. A third volume appeared in 1924, edited by a trio of professors, with Newman Ivey White as the lead editor: An Anthology of Verse by American Negroes. Finally, an idiosyncratic but enthusiastic contribution appeared in 1923, by the white editor and activist Robert T. Kerlin, Negro Poets and their Poems. Here, we are including the poems printed in these anthologies alongside full books of poetry published by Black authors. There is significant overlap between the anthologies, though the differences are also instructive.
Periodicals: A long-term aspiration for this project will be to include and index periodical publication of poetry by Black writers. To begin with, we have the plain text version of the November, 1926 issue of Fire!! Devoted to the Younger Negro Artists, a magazine edited by Wallace Thurman, with poetry by Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, Helene Johnson, Arna Bontemps, and others, along with short stories by Thurman, Gwendolen Bennett, and Zora Neale Hurston. We are also starting the process of working through issues of magazines like Opportunity (1923-1926), Negro World (esp. the "Poetry for the People" column that regularly appeared in 1920-1921), and The Crisis, to discover and transcribe poetry found there. Some of the poems we have found in those periodicals can be found on this Google Drive folder; also check the Tag for "The Crisis."
Areas of Interest (Thematic Tags): As we add individual poems to the anthology, we are marking them with thematic tags as appropriate; this allows readers to find poems by area of interest -- which might be especially valuable for students. Here are some relevant tags: Race, Sonnet, Slavery, Racism, Interracial, Harlem, Music, Dance, Africa, Caribbean, Intertextual, Labor, Black Vernacular (AAVE), Religion, Labor, Travel/Migration, Frederick Douglass, Paul Laurence Dunbar.
Accessibility: all poems on this site can be downloaded from a publicly-accessible Google Drive folder here.
Students contributing to components of this project include: Heather Simoneau (2015), Hannah Provost (2020), Amira Shokr (2020), and Joanna Grim (2017).
--Amardeep Singh, Lehigh University. May 2022
Welcome: African American Poetry--a Digital Anthology
Edited by Amardeep Singh, Lehigh University
This digital anthology is an open-access resource for students, teachers, and researchers interested in African American poetry, published roughly between 1870 and 1927. The full-text materials on this site can be accessed in several different ways -- either directly (Full Text Collections), or via Author Pages, historical context, periodical name, or thematic tag.
(New: convenient URL shortcut for this site: aapada.net )
What's here -- at a glance:
- Full Text Collections: Books Published by African American Poets
- Author Pages: Profiles and Links to Poetry
- Areas of Interest: Topics and Themes
- Periodicals: African American Poetry -- in the Magazines
- Anthologies: Black Literary Anthologies of the 1920s
- The Beginnings of the Harlem Renaissance: Overview and Timeline
- African American Poetry Before the Harlem Renaissance
- New: Exploring Datasets in African American poetry
In greater depth:
African American Poetry: a Digital Anthology aims to provide access to a comprehensive collection of Black poetry from a crucial historical period. As of summer 2023, this site contains full text versions of about 90 books of poetry (including anthologies as well as single-author books), and a substantial collection of periodical poetry from African American magazines like The Crisis, Opportunity, The Messenger, and Negro World. (See our Note on Historical Language.) The anthology contains substantial collections by major authors like Langston Hughes, Jessie Fauset, Claude McKay, and Countee Cullen, but also materials by many lesser-known writers. By putting all of these materials together on a single site -- a project somewhere between an "anthology," an "archive" and a textual corpus -- we hope to give readers new angles of approach to an important literary movement.
All poems on this site are in the public domain. We have brought together material from digital editions in two other digital projects, "Claude McKay's Early Poetry," and "Women of the Early Harlem Renaissance," and also taken advantage of new materials entering the public domain, including Alain Locke's anthology The New Negro (1925), Langston Hughes' The Weary Blues (1926), and Countee Cullen's Color (1925).
The Harlem Renaissance: This site can be used as an archive of Harlem Renaissance poetry, especially in its early phases. See our introductory overview and timeline of the beginnings of the Harlem Renaissance. Also see: Black Poetry Before the Harlem Renaissance, which is a good introductory guide for the extensive array of materials on this site dated before 1922.
Anthologies: (See African American Poetry: Anthologies of the 1920s) There were several major anthologies devoted to African American literature that appeared between 1922 and 1927, and they played a major role in the creation of the Harlem Renaissance. Of these, three were edited by Black critics, James Weldon Johnson's Book of American Negro Poetry Alain Locke's The New Negro: an Interpretation, and Countee Cullen's Caroling Dusk.
Additional volumes appeared in 1923 and 1924. 1924 saw a collection edited by a trio of professors, with Newman Ivey White as the lead editor: An Anthology of Verse by American Negroes. Finally, an idiosyncratic but enthusiastic contribution appeared in 1923, by the white editor and activist Robert T. Kerlin, Negro Poets and their Poems. Here, we are including the poems printed in these anthologies alongside full books of poetry published by Black authors. There is significant overlap between the anthologies, though the differences are also instructive.
Periodicals: (See African American Poetry: a Story of Magazines.) This project aims to include and index periodical publication of poetry by Black writers from this period. The largest and perhaps the most important collection developed thus far might be the collection of poems published in The Crisis between 1910 and 1926.
We have also added a plain text version of the November, 1926 issue of Fire!! Devoted to the Younger Negro Artists, a magazine edited by Wallace Thurman, with poetry by Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, Helene Johnson, Arna Bontemps, and others, along with short stories by Thurman, Gwendolyn Bennett, and Zora Neale Hurston. We are also starting the process of working through issues of Negro World (esp. the "Poetry for the People" column that regularly appeared in 1920-1921), and The Messenger, to discover and transcribe poetry found there. Finally, we have been developing a collection of poetry for children from The Brownies' Book, a magazine edited by Du Bois and Fauset that ran between 1920-1921.
Areas of Interest (Thematic Tags): (See Areas of Interest: Topics and Themes) As we add individual poems to the anthology, we are marking them with thematic tags as appropriate; this allows readers to find poems by area of interest -- which might be especially valuable for students. Here are some sample thematic tags: African American Poetry of World War I, Civil War, Motherhood, Slavery, Progress/Protest/Racial Uplift, Interracial/Multiracial Themes, HBCU. (You'll see many others if you click on 'Areas of Interest: Topics and Themes')
Datasets: In summer 2023, we've begun to explore datasets related to African American poetry, with an interest in the size and scale of the publishing community and industry, its evolution over time, gender dynamics of African American poetry publishing, and geographic distruction. Some of our preliminary explorations can be found here.
About This Site: Origins, Methods, and a Mission Statement: A more detailed account of the origin story of this project, including predecessor projects, our methods and sources, and a general sense of what we are aiming for.
A Note on Historical Language: An explainer by the site editor regarding this use of historical identifiers for race, such as "Negro," "Black," and "African American."
Accessibility and Rights: The poems and images on this site are all understood to be in the public domain. The site itself is attributed to Amardeep Singh on a Creative Commons "Attribution" basis, with contributions from students whose works appear with permission and full attribution. All poems on this site can be downloaded in plain text format from a publicly-accessible Google Drive folder here.
Latest edits made: June 2023
Project Editor: Amardeep Singh, Professor of English, Lehigh University.
Email amsp [at] lehigh.edu
Editorial team and acknowledgments: Students contributing to components of this project include: Heather Simoneau (2015), Hannah Provost (2020), Amira Shokr (2020), Joanna Grim (2017), Christian Farrior (2022), and Miranda Alvarez Guillen (2023). This project was supported by a grant from the Mellon Humanities Lab at Lehigh University, a Mellon-funded grant, in the summer of 2022, and an internal Faculty Research Grant in the summer of 2023.
Poems by Jean Toomer in "The New Negro" (1925)
The sky, lazily disdaining to pursue
The setting sun, too indolent to hold
A lengthened tournament for flashing gold,
Passively darkens for night’s barbecue,
A feast of moon and men and barking hounds,
An orgy for some genius of the South
With blood-hot eyes and cane-lipped scented mouth,
Surprised in making folk-songs from soul sounds.
The sawmill blows its whistle, buzz-saws stop,
And silence breaks the bud of knoll and hill,
Soft settling pollen where ploughed lands fulfill
Their early promise of a bumper crop.
Smoke from the pyramidal sawdust pile
Curls up, blue ghosts of trees, tarrying low
Where only chips and stumps are left to show
The solid proof of former domicile.
Meanwhile, the men, with vestiges of pomp,
Race memories of king and caravan,
High-priests, an ostrich, and a juju-man,
Go singing through the footpaths of the swamp.
Their voices rise . . . the pine trees are guitars,
Strumming, pine-needles fall like sheets of rain . . .
Their voices rise . . . the chorus of the cane
Is carolling a vesper to the stars.
O singers, resinous and soft your songs
Above the sacred whisper of the pines,
Give virgin lips to cornfield concubines,
Bring dreams of Christ to dusky cane-lipped throngs.
SONG OF THE SON
Pour, O pour that parting soul in song,
O pour it in the saw-dust glow of night,
Into the velvet pine-smoke air to-night,
And let the valley carry it along,
And let the valley carry it along.
O land and soil, red soil and sweet-gum tree,
So scant of grass, so profligate of pines,
Now just before an epoch’s sun declines
Thy son, in time, I have returned to thee,
Thy son, I have in time returned to thee.
In time, although the sun is setting on
A song-lit race of slaves, it has not set;
Though late, O soil, it is not too late yet
To catch thy plaintive soul, leaving, soon gone,
Leaving, to catch thy plaintive soul soon gone.
O Negro slaves, dark purple ripened plums,
Squeezed, and bursting in the pine-wood air,
Passing, before they strip the old tree bare
One plum was saved for me, one seed becomes
An everlasting song, a singing tree,
Caroling softly souls of slavery,
What they were, and what they are to me,
Carolling softly souls of slavery.
Jean Toomer: Author Page
[Here, we are including just the poems from Jean Toomer's "Cane." For the full collection of poems and stories in a simple digital edition, please click here. The following introduction is by Amardeep Singh.]
Jean Toomer (1894-1967) wrote Cane in 1921 and 1922, inspired most directly by his experience as the principal of the Sparta Agricultural and Industrial Institute in rural Georgia. Toomer had grown up and lived largely in urban centers on the east coast -- Washington, DC and New York -- and the culture of the deep south was one of shock, but also inspiration. The first section of Cane features stories and poems related to rural black life in the South, including themes related to lynching, interracial desire, and the many deep-seated structures of racial oppression that were in place at that time. Many stories and poems also engage black religion and spirituality in various ways, though Toomer's approach to Christianity is often ironic (in this he can be contrasted to many black women poets of this era, who used Christian themes more affirmatively).
The second section of Cane explores urban African-American life in Washington, DC and Chicago in the prohibition era. Several stories in this section, most notably "Avey," "Box-Seat," and "Theater," explore themes of art and aesthetics, with male protagonists working through their emergent artistic ambitions in connection with female romantic partners. (The gender politics of these stories is sometimes troubling; for more on this, readers might wish to consult Jennifer D. Williams' essay, "Jean Toomer's 'Cane' and the Erotics of Mourning" .) Some stories explore themes of racial ambiguity that mirror those Toomer himself is known to have struggled with; a particularly notable story along these lines might be "Bona and Paul." (A story from the first section that explores racial ambiguity quite powerfully might be "Fern.") Finally, it seems worth noting that even stories and poems related to urban life on the east coast frequently invoke the lingering memory of the South; an example might be "Theater ," where Dorris, a sophisticated modern woman who dances and sings professionally in Washington, DC, is described as invoking "canebrake loves and mangrove feastings" as she sings and dances in the 1920s jazz style. (A poem that does a version of this might be "Beehive.")
The third and final section of Cane consists of one long short story, "Kabnis," which is at least loosely autobiographical -- it features a light-skinned black man named Richard Kabnis, who is doing a stint as a teacher in a rural southern school, and struggling to find his place in a society he finds to be deeply alien. Many of the themes from the first two sections return in this story, which invokes white supremacy in the south (especially the specter of lynching), the cultural gap between southern and northern blacks, the bootleg liquor culture that emerged as a result of prohibition, and the hints of (taboo) interracial desire baked into the cake of southern American life.
Readers interested in learning more about Jean Toomer and Cane might wish to visit Robert B. Jones' biographical note at the University of Illinois' "Modern American Poetry" site. This detailed biography by Scott W. Williams of the University of Buffalo might also be of interest. Finally, George Hutchinson's recent essay in New York Review of Books addresses many of the complexities of Toomer's racial identity that scholars continue to debate.
Readers interested in approaching the stories and poems in Cane thematically might find this visualization helpful. It a force-directed diagram showing relationships between the stories and poems in Cane based on semantic tags generated by the editor.