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

Richard E.S. Toomey, "The American Negro" (1901)

 Was Webster and was Whittier wrong 
 When one in speech and one in song 
 Told brave deeds by the Negro done 
 Or his qualities dwelt upon? 
 Phyllis Wheatley, Afric's daughter, 
 Trained by the good soul who bought her, 
 Was nobly praised by Washington 
 When her work he had looked upon. 
 Banneker, who, we understand, 
 The first time-piece makes in the land, 
 The " Dixie Line," with others lays, 
 From Jefferson evoked great praise. 
 At Valley Forge or Bunker Hill, 
 Where Liberty's hopes all hearts thrill, 
 On land or sea or on the lakes, 
 A warrior's place the Negro takes. 
 In after years, 'mid fire and smoke, 
 Where cruel, belching cannon spoke, 
 He bears his part nor shuns the fray, 
 Though " Hell incarnate" bars the way. 
 Inspired by freedom, firm he gripes 
 His gun, defends the " Stars and Stripes " 
 Yet while he fights his brother keeps 
 Guard while his foeman's family sleeps. 
His trust in neither case betrays, 
Himself in each a man displays, 
 When from false tongues this thought did roll 
 "The Negro is without a soul." 
 He shows this lie to be untrue 
 By doing just what others do. 
 'T was said: "With freedom he will die,  
 He can't survive or with us vie." 
 Instead, ten millions have we grown, 
 And this a fallacy have shown. 
 "The Negro will deteriorate 
 And soon return to savage state."
 So did our foes most sanguine tell; 
 Facts old and new such thoughts dispel 
 From the state where freedom found us, 
 From the mental night which bound us. 
 Three millions whence ignorance frowned 
 Have now the light of knowledge found. 
 These Negroes, thought to be but fools, 
 Have grasped the prize in varied schools. 
 Some shove the plane or ply the forge, 
 The railroads lay through mountain gorge. 
 In each field where we are allowed 
 Our work dispels the adverse cloud. 
We know the strength of every race 
 Grows from the workman's steady pace; 
 Yet some fill pulpits or plead law, 
 Or pains from beracked bodies draw. 
 A few aspire to higher arts, 
 And Dunbar's verses touch all hearts; 
 Still some would show to human eyes 
 Their soul, and Tanner wins the prize. 
 Touched by such art as moved the Greek, 
 Lewis near makes the stone to speak. 
 Forgetful of the centuries past, 
 Some expect us to rise too fast. 
 Not from the heights attained by some, 
 But " By the depths whence we have come," 
 Justly compare our worst and best; 
 Thus judged, we shrink not from the test. 
 We know we share that wondrous love 
 Which emanates from God above; 
 At noble thoughts our soul-bells chime, 
 With them our beating pulse keeps time. 
 The nation's weal we have at heart, 
 In all her conflicts play our part, 
 And never has the traitor's stain 
 On the brow of a black man lain. 
Though so evident our progress, 
 Our foes on these things lay no stress, 
 Notwithstanding what we have shown, 
 The like of which was never known. 
 Still in our land such men are found 
 As in whom evil thoughts abound, 
 Who say, "That under each black skin, 
 When scratched, a savage lurks within." 
 Yet, in spite of such aspersions, 
 Such unfounded, false assertions, 
 We form a part of the Nation; 
 Are also heirs of salvation. 
 No part could we have in Christ's plan, 
 Lacking what constitutes a man. 
 When the Creator made man whole 
 He breathed himself into his soul. 
 Hence shape, nor hair, nor tint of skin 
 Distorts or mars the soul within; 
 Therefore, it is as men we try 
 To acquire what is useful, high. 
 Discarding not such humbler art 
 As will strength to the race impart, 
 But would develop hand, as soul, 
 Thus be an entire man and whole. 
In order thus to grow, thriving, 
 Let us not keep oft reviving 
 The ills which we have undergone, 
 Nor hope by "others to be borne." 
 Follow not the hot-head leaders 
 Who, like leeches, are but bleeders; 
 They rant and howl and " saw the air," 
 Making our trials more hard to bear. 
 Make friends of neighbors, with them work 
 This does not mean to cringe or smirk. 
 In all business fill well your place, 
 Such things alone will lift the race. 
 Let none fear that we shall invade 
 Against their social barricade, 
 Nor think we seek to dominate 
 Folks unwilling in any state. 
 All we ask is that we may draw 
 Free breath of "Liberty and law! "
 Have equal chance in life's great race, 
 Fill, as Americans, our place. 
 My countrymen, be fair and just, 
 Betray ye not the "Founder's " trust 
 That all may, who our banner see, 
 Know it floats o'er "The brave and free"! 

Published in Richard E.S. Toomey, Thoughts for True Americans, 1901

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