African American Poetry (1870-1926): A Digital Anthology

Robert Kerlin, Chapter 2.1: "The Cotters, Father and Son"

I. THE COTTERS, FATHER AND SON


_The Father_

[Illustration: JOSEPH S. COTTER, SR.]

On the Kentucky plantation where Stephen Collins Foster one June
morning, when the mocking birds were singing and “the darkies were gay,”
composed and his sister sang, “My Old Kentucky Home,” there was among
those first delighted listeners who paused in their tasks to hear the
immortal song at its birth a slave girl in whose soul were strange
melodies of her own. Born of free people of color, she was bonded to the
owner of this plantation, yet her soul was such as must be free.
Faithful in her work, respectful and obedient, she was yet a dangerous
character among slaves, being too spirited. Hence her master ordered her
to leave, fearing she would demoralize discipline in the quarters. She
demanded to be taken away as she had been brought--in a wagon; and it
was so done. It seems that one-half of her blood was African and the
other half was divided between Indian and English, though it is
impossible to be sure of the exact proportion. An account of her in
those days by one who knew her reveals her as one of nature’s poets--a
Phillis Wheatley of the wash-tubs. “She was very fervent in her
religious devotions”--so runs this account--“and a very hard worker. She
would sometimes wash nearly all night and then have periods of prayer
and exaltation. Then again during the day she would draw from her bosom
a favorite book and pause to read over the wash-tub. She had a strong
dramatic instinct and would frequently make up little plays of her own
and represent each character vividly.” Of such mothers are seers and
poets born. And so in this instance it proved to be.

At the age of twenty, while yet a slave, she was married, under the
common law--though marriage it was not called--to a Scotch-Irishman, a
prominent citizen of Louisville, her employer at the time, who was
distinguished by a notably handsome physique and a great fondness for
books. Of this union was born, at Bardstown, a son, Joseph, so named for
the dreamer of biblical story.

The vision-seeing slave mother, her mind running on the bondage of her
people, named her son Joseph in the hope of his becoming great in the
service of his people, like the Hebrew Joseph. She lived to see her hope
fulfilled. The boy’s earliest education was in song and story invented
and sung or told by his mother. He got a few terms of school, reaching
the third grade. At ten years of age he went to work in a brickyard of
Louisville to help support his mother. Even there the faculty that
afterwards distinguished him appears in action, to his relief in time of
trouble. Bigger boys, white and black, working in the same yard, hazed
and harried him. Fighting to victory was out of the question, against
such odds. Brains won where brawn was wanting. He observed that the men
at their noon rest-hour, the time of his distress, told stories and
laughed. He couldn’t join them, but he tried story-telling in the boy
group. It worked. The men, hearing the laughter, came over and joined
them. The persecuted boy became the entertainer of both groups. He had
won mastery by wit, the proudest mastery in the world.

Then, until he was twenty-two years of age, he was a teamster on the
levee. At this time the desire for an education mastered him and he
entered a night school--the primary grade. Hard toil and the struggle to
get on had not killed his soul but had wiped out his acquisitions of
book-knowledge. In two terms he was qualified to teach. He is now the
principal of the Samuel Coleridge-Taylor High School in Louisville, the
author of several books, a maker of songs and teller of stories, and a
man upright in conduct and wise in counsel.

It was at Bardstown, February 2, 1861, that Joseph Seamon Cotter was
born. Let Bardstown be put on the literary map of America, not because
Stephen Collins Foster wrote “My Old Kentucky Home” there, but because
one was born there the latchet of whose poetic shoes he was not worthy
to unloose. “A poet, a bard, to be born in Bardstown--how odd, and how
appropriate!” one exclaims. And _bard_ seems exactly the right
appellation for this song-maker and story-man. But it is not altogether
so. In character bardlike, but not in appearance. Bards have long,
unkempt, white hair, which mingles with beards that rest on their
bosoms. Cotter’s square-cut chin is clean-shaven, and his large
brain-dome shows like a harvest moon. But he makes poems and invents and
discovers stories, and, bard-like, recites or relates them to whatever
audience may call for them--in schools, in churches, at firesides. Minus
the hairy habiliments he is a bard.

Some of Cotter’s stories come out of Africa and are “different,” as the
word goes. Some are “current among the colored folks of Louisville.”
These, too, are different. Some are tragedies and some are comedies and
some are tragi-comedies of everyday life among the Negroes. I will give
one entire tale here, selecting this particular one because of its
brevity, not its pre-eminence:

THE BOY AND THE IDEAL

Once upon a time a Mule, a Hog, a Snake, and a Boy met. Said the Mule:
“I eat and labor that I may grow strong in the heels. It is fine to have
heels so gifted. My heels make people cultivate distance.”

Said the Hog: “I eat and labor that I may grow strong in the snout. It
is fine to have a fine snout. I keep people watching for my snout.”

“No exchanging heels for snouts,” broke in the Mule.

“No,” answered the Hog; “snouts are naturally above heels.”

Said the Snake: “I eat to live, and live to cultivate my sting. The way
people shun me shows my greatness. Beget stings, comrades, and stings
will beget glory.”

Said the Boy: “There is a star in my life like unto a star in the sky. I
eat and labor that I may think aright and feel aright. These rounds will
conduct me to my star. Oh, inviting star!”

“I am not so certain of that,” said the Mule. “I have noticed your kind
and ever see some of myself in them. Your star is in the distance.”

The Boy answered by smelling a flower and listening to the song of a
bird. The Mule looked at him and said: “He is all tenderness and care.
The true and the beautiful have robbed me of a kinsman. His star is
near.”

Said the Boy: “I approach my star.”

“I am not so certain of that,” interrupted the Hog. “I have noticed your
kind and I ever see some of myself in them. Your star is a delusion.”

The Boy answered by painting the flower and setting the notes of the
bird’s song to music.

The Hog looked at the boy and said: “His soul is attuned by nature. The
meddler in him is slain.”

“I can all but touch my star,” cried the Boy.

“I am not so certain of that,” remarked the Snake. “I have watched your
kind and ever see some of myself in them. Stings are nearer than stars.”

The Boy answered by meditating upon the picture and music. The Snake
departed, saying that stings and stars cannot keep company.

The Boy journeyed on, ever led by the star. Some distance away the Mule
was bemoaning the presence of his heels and trying to rid himself of
them by kicking a tree. The Hog was dividing his time between looking
into a brook and rubbing his snout on a rock to shorten it. The Snake
lay dead of its own bite. The Boy journeyed on, led by an ever inviting
star.

(Negro Tales.--Joseph S. Cotter, The Cosmopolitan Press, New York,
1912.)

     *       *       *       *       *

Yes--Uncle Remus, in reality--and not exactly so. No copy. Not every
like is the same. An Uncle Remus with culture and conscious art, yet
unspoilt, the native qualities strong. And how poetic those qualities
are!

Well might one expect a teacher, if he writes verse, to write didactic
verse. But I think you will pronounce him to be an extraordinary teacher
and verse-writer who writes as Mr. Cotter does, for example, in:

THE THRESHING FLOOR

    Thrice blessed he who wields the flail
      Upon this century’s threshing floor;
    A few slight strokes by him avail
      More than a hundred would of yore.

    Around him lies the ripened grain
      From every land and every age;
    The weakest thresher should attain
      Unto the wisdom of the sage.

    Ambitious youth, this is the wealth
      The ages have bequeathed to thee.
    Thou canst not take thy share by stealth
      Nor by mere ingenuity.

    Thy better self must spur thee on
      To win what time has made thy own;
    No hand but labor’s yet has drawn
      The sweets that labor’s hand has sown.

In verse presuming to be lyrical we hearken for the lyrical cry. That
cry is in his lines, melodiously uttered, and poignant. For example:

    The flowers take the tears
      Of the weeping night
    And give them to the sun
      For the day’s delight.

    My passion takes the joys
      Of the laughing day
    And melts them into tears
      For my heart’s decay.

The sweet sadness of those stanzas lingers with one. A stanza from a
poem entitled “The Nation’s Neglected Child” may help us to their
secret:

    I am not thy pampered steed,
      I am not thy welcome dog;
    I am of a lower breed
      Even than thy Berkshire hog;
    I am thy neglected child--
      Make me grow, but keep me wild.

In many of Cotter’s verses there is a sonorous flow which is evidence of
poetic power made creative by passion. Didacticism and philosophy do not
destroy the lyrical quality. In _The Book’s Creed_ this teacher-poet
makes an appeal to his generation to be as much alive and as creative as
the creed makers of other days were. The slaves of the letter, the
mummers of mere formulas, he thus addresses:

    You are dead to all the Then,
      You are dead to all the Now,
    If you hold that former men
      Wore the garland for your brow.

    Time and tide were theirs to brave,
      Time and tide are yours to stem.
    Bow not o’er their open grave
      Till you drop your diadem.

    Honor all who strove and wrought,
      Even to their tears and groans;
    But slay not your honest thought
      Through your reverence for their bones.

Cotter is a wizard at rhyming. His “Sequel to the Pied Piper of Hamelin”
surpasses the original--Browning’s--in technique--that is, in rushing
rhythms and ingenious rhymes. It is an incredible success, with no hint
of a tour-de-force performance. Its content, too, is worthy of the
metrical achievement. I will lay the proof before the competent reader
in an extract or two from this remarkable accomplishment:

    The last sweet notes the piper blew
      Were heard by the people far and wide;
    And one by one and two by two
      They flocked to the mountain-side.

    Some came, of course, intensely sad,
    And some came looking fiercely mad,
    And some came singing solemn hymns,
    And some came showing shapely limbs,
    And some came bearing the tops of yews,
    And some came wearing wooden shoes,
    And some came saying what they would do,
    And some came praying (and loudly too),
    And all for what? Can you not infer?
    A-searching and lurching for the Pied Piper,
    And the boys and girls he had taken away.
    And all were ready now to pay
    Any amount that he should say.

So begins the _Sequel_. Another passage, near the end, will indicate the
trend of the story:

    The years passed by, as years will do,
      When trouble is the master,
    And always strives to bring to view
      A new and worse disaster;
    And sorrow, like a sorcerer,
      Spread out her melancholy pall,
      So that its folds enveloped all,
    And each became her worshipper.
    And not a single child was born
      Through all the years thereafter;
    If words sprang from the lips of scorn
      None came from those of laughter.

Finally, the inhabitants of Hamelin are passing through death’s portal,
and when all had departed:

   --a message went to Rat-land

         *       *       *       *       *

    And lo! a race of rats was at hand

         *       *       *       *       *

    They swarmed into the highest towers,
    And loitered in the fairest bowers,
    And sat down where the mayor sat,
    And also in his Sunday hat;
    And gnawed revengefully thereat.
    With rats for mayor and rats for people,
    With rats in the cellar and rats in the steeple,
    With rats without and rats within,
    Stood poor, deserted Hamelin.

Like Dunbar, Cotter is a satirist of his people--or certain types of his
people--a gentle, humorous, affectionate satirist. His medium for satire
is dialect, inevitably. Sententious wisdom, irradiated with humor,
appears in these pieces in homely garb. In standard English, without
satire or humor that wisdom thus appears:

    What deeds have sprung from plow and pick!
      What bank-rolls from tomatoes!
    No dainty crop of rhetoric
      Can match one of potatoes.

The gospel of work has been set forth by our poet in a four-act poetic
drama entitled _Caleb, the Degenerate_. All the characters are Negroes.
The form is blank verse--blank verse of a very high order, too. The
language, like Shakespeare’s--though Browning rather than Shakespeare is
suggested--is always that of a poet. The wisdom is that of a man who has
observed closely and pondered deeply. Idealistic, philosophical,
poetical--such it is. It bears witness to no ordinary dramatic ability.

“Best bard, because the wisest,” says our Israfel. Verily. “Sage” you
may call this man as well as “bard.” The proof is in poems and tales,
apologues and apothegms. Joseph Seamon Cotter is now sixty years of age.
Yet the best of him, according to good omens, is yet to be given forth,
in song, story, precept, and drama. His nature is opulent--the
cultivation began late and the harvest grows richer.

The chief event of his life, I doubt not, remains to be mentioned--a
very sad one. This was the untimely death of his poet-son, Joseph S.
Cotter, Jr. Born of this sorrow was the following lyric:

    Oh, my way and thy way,
      And life’s joy and wonder,
    And thy day and my day
      Are cloven asunder.

    Oh, my trust and thy trust,
      And fair April weather,
    And thy dust and my dust
      Shall mingle together.

_The Son_

Dead at the age of twenty-three years, Joseph S. Cotter, Jr., left
behind a thin volume of lyrics, entitled _The Band of Gideon_, and about
twenty sonnets of an unfinished sequence, and a little book of one-act
plays. I will presently place the remarkable title-poem of his book of
lyrics before the reader, but first I will give two minor pieces,
without comment:

[Illustration: JOSEPH S. COTTER, JR.]

RAIN MUSIC

    On the dusty earth-drum
      Beats the falling rain;
    Now a whispered murmur,
      Now a louder strain.

    Slender silvery drumsticks,
      On the ancient drum,
    Beat the mellow music,
      Bidding life to come.

    Chords of earth awakened,
      Notes of greening spring,
    Rise and fall triumphant
      Over everything.

    Slender silvery drumsticks
      Beat the long tattoo--
    God the Great Musician
      Calling life anew.

COMPENSATION

    I plucked a rose from out a bower fair,
      That overhung my garden seat;
    And wondered I if, e’er before, bloomed there
      A rose so sweet.

    Enwrapt in beauty I scarce felt the thorn
      That pricked me as I pulled the bud;
    Till I beheld the rose, that summer morn,
      Stained with my blood.

    I sang a song that thrilled the evening air,
      With beauty somewhat kin to love,
    And all men knew that lyric song so rare
      Came from above.

    And men rejoiced to hear the golden strain;
      But no man knew the price I paid,
    Nor cared that out of my soul’s deathless pain
      The song was made.

The lyrical faculty is evinced by such poems. But other singers of our
day might have produced them--singers of the white race. Not so, I
think, of “The Band of Gideon.” Upon that poem is the stamp, not of
genius only, but of Negro genius. In it is re-incarnated, by a cultured,
creative mind, the very spirit of the old plantation songs and sermons.
The reader who has in his possession that background will respond to the
unique and powerful appeal of this poem.

THE BAND OF GIDEON

    The band of Gideon roam the sky,
    The howling wind is their war-cry,
    The thunder’s roll is their trumpet’s peal
    And the lightning’s flash their vengeful steel.
        Each black cloud
        Is a fiery steed.
        And they cry aloud
        With each strong deed,
    “The Sword of the Lord and Gideon.”

    And men below rear temples high
    And mock their God with reasons why,
    And live in arrogance, sin, and shame,
    And rape their souls for the world’s good name.
        Each black cloud
        Is a fiery steed.
        And they cry aloud
        With each strong deed,
    “The Sword of the Lord and Gideon.”

    The band of Gideon roam the sky
    And view the earth with baleful eye;
    In holy wrath they scourge the land
    With earthquake, storm, and burning brand.
        Each black cloud
        Is a fiery steed.
        And they cry aloud
        With each strong deed,
    “The Sword of the Lord and Gideon.”

    The lightnings flash and the thunders roll,
    And “Lord have mercy on my soul,”
    Cry men as they fall on the stricken sod,
    In agony searching for their God.
        Each black cloud
        Is a fiery steed.
        And they cry aloud
        With each strong deed,
    “The Sword of the Lord and Gideon.”

    And men repent and then forget
    That heavenly wrath they ever met.
    The band of Gideon yet will come
    And strike their tongues of blasphemy dumb.
        Each black cloud
        Is a fiery steed.
        And they cry aloud
        With each strong deed,
    “The Sword of the Lord and Gideon.”

The reader, I predict, will be drawn again and again to this mysterious
poem. It will continue to haunt his imagination, and tease his thought.
The stamp of the African mind is upon it. Closely allied, on the one
hand by its august refrain to the Spirituals, on the other hand it
touches the most refined and perfected art; such, for example, as
Rossetti’s ballads or Vachel Lindsay’s cantatas. It can scarcely be
wondered at that the people of his race should call this untimely dead
singer their Negro Lycidas.
 

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