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

Robert Kerlin, Chapter 2.10. Leslie Pinckney Hill

_X. Leslie Pinckney Hill_

[Illustration: LESLIE PINCKNEY HILL]

Bearing the diploma of the Lyric Muse, Mr. Leslie Pinckney Hill,
schoolmaster of Cheyney, Pennsylvania, and authentic singer, is one of
the newest arrivals on the slopes of Parnassus. A first glance tells
that he is an agile climber, sinewy, easy of movement, light of step,
with both grace and strength. Every indication in form and motion is for
some point far up toward the summit. Youthful he is, ambitious, plainly,
and, in spite of a burden, buoyant. “Climber,” I said. I will drop the
figure. Poets were never pedestrians. Mr. Hill comes not afoot. If not
on the wings of Pegasus, yet on wings he comes--_the wings of
oppression_. Sad wings! yet it must be remarked that it is commonly on
such wings that poets of whatever race and time rise. And Mr. Hill’s
race knows no other wings. On the wings of oppression the Negro poet and
the Negro people are rising toward the summits of Parnassus, Pisgah, and
other peaks. This they know, too, and of it they are justly proud.

In his _Foreword_ Mr. Hill thus states the case of his people, and, by
implication, of himself: “Nothing in the life of the nation has seemed
to me more significant than that dark civilization which the colored man
has built up in the midst of a white society organized against it. The
Negro has been driven under all the burdens of oppression, both material
and spiritual, to the brink of desperation, but he has always been saved
by his philosophy of life. He has advanced against all opposition by a
certain elevation of his spirit. He has been made strong in tribulation.
He has constrained oppression to give him wings.”

The significant thing about these wings, in a critical view, is that
they fulfill the proper function of wings--bear aloft and sustain in
flight through the azure depths. Mr. Hill’s wings do bear aloft and
sustain: if not always, nor even ever, into the very empyrean of poetry
yet invariably, seventy times, into the ampler air. Like all his race,
he has suffered much; and, like all his race still, he has gathered
wisdom from sorrow. As a true poet should have, he has philosophy, also
vision and imagination--vision for himself and his people, imagination
that sees facts in terms of beauty and presents truths with vital
imagery. Add thereto craftsmanship acquired in the best traditions of
English poetry and you have Hill the poet.

The merit of his book cannot be shown by lines and stanzas. As ever with
true art, the merit lies in the whole effect of complete poems. Still,
we may here first detach from this and that poem a stanza or two,
despite the wrong to art. The first and fourth stanzas of the title-poem
will indicate Mr. Hill’s technique and philosophy:

    I have a song that few will sing
    In honor of all suffering,
    A song to which my heart can bring
    The homage of believing--
    A song the heavy-laden hears
    Above the clamor of his fears,
    While still he walks with blinding tears,
    And drains the cup of grieving.

         *       *       *       *       *

    So long as life is steeped in wrong,
    And nations cry: “How long, how long!”
    I look not to the wise and strong
    For peace and self-possession;
    But right will rise, and mercy shine,
    And justice lift her conquering sign
    Where lowly people starve and pine
    Beneath a world oppression.

The character and temper of the Negro in those gentler aspects which
make such an appeal to the heart are revealed in the following sonnet:

MATER DOLOROSA

    O mother, there are moments when I know
    God’s presence to the full. The city street
    May wrap me in the tumult and the heat
    Of futile striving; bitter winds may blow
    With winter-wilting freeze of hail and snow,
    And all my hopes lie shattered in defeat;
    But in my heart the springtime blossoms sweet,
    And heaven seems very near the way I go.

    These moments are the angels of that prayer
    Which thou hast breathed for many a troubled year
    With bended knee and swarthy-streaming face--
    “Uphold him, Father, with a double care:
    He is but mortal, yet his days must bear
    The world cross, and the burden of his race.”

If these poems, taken collectively, do not declare “what is on the
Negro’s mind” they yet truly reveal, to the reflecting person, what has
sunk deep into his heart. They are therefore a message to America, a
protest, an appeal, and a warning. They will penetrate, I predict,
through breast-armor of _aes triplex_ into the hearts of those whom
sermons and editorials fail to touch in the springs of action. Such is
the virtue of music wed to persuasive words. In strong lines of soaring
blank verse, in which Mr. Hill is particularly capable, he makes a
direct appeal to America in behalf of his people, in a poem entitled
Armageddon:

    Because ye schooled them in the arts of life,
    And gave to them your God, and poured your blood
    Into their veins to make them what they are,
    They shall not fail you in the hour of need.
    They own in them enough of you to feel
    All that has made you masters in your time--
    Dear art and riches, unremitting toil,
    Proud types of beauty, an unbounded will
    To triumph, wondrous science and old law--
    These have they learned to covet and to share.

    But deeper in them still is something steeled
    To hot abhorrence and unmeasured dread
    Of your undaunted sins against the light--
    Red sins of lust, of envy and of hate,
    Of guilty gain extorted from the weak,
    Of brotherhood traduced, and God denied.
    All this have they beheld without revolt,
    And borne the brunt in agonizing prayer.

    For other strains of blood that flow from times
    Older than Egypt, whence the dark man gave
    The rudiments of learning to all lands,
    Have been a strong constraint. And they have dreamed
    Of a peculiar mission under heaven,
    And felt the force of unexampled gifts
    That make for them a rare inheritance--
    The gift of cheerful confidence in man,
    The gift of calm endurance, solacing
    An infinite capacity for pain,
    The gift of an unfeigned humility,
    Blinding the eyes of strident arrogance
    And bigot pride to that philosophy
    And that far-glancing wisdom which it veils,
    Of joy in beauty, hardihood in toil,
    Of hope in tribulation, and of wide
    Adaptive power without a parallel
    In chronicles of men.

A sonnet entitled _To a Caged Canary in a Negro Restaurant_ will present
the poet’s people with the persuasiveness of pathos as the foregoing
poem with the persuasiveness of reason:

    Thou little golden bird of happy song!
    A cage cannot restrain the rapturous joy
    Which thou dost shed abroad. Thou dost employ
    Thy bondage for high uses. Grievous wrong
    Is thine; yet in thy heart glows full and strong
    The tropic sun, though far beyond thy flight,
    And though thou flutterest there by day and night
    Above the clamor of a dusky throng.
    So let my will, albeit hedged about
    By creed and caste, feed on the light within;
    So let my song sing through the bars of doubt
    With light and healing where despair has been;
    So let my people bide their time and place,
    A hindered but a sunny-hearted race.

It would be an injustice to this poet did I convey the idea that his
seventy-odd poems are exclusively occupied with race wrongs and
oppression. Not a few of them bear no stamp of an oppressed or afflicted
spirit, though of sorrow they may have been nurtured.

A lyric of pure loveliness is the following, entitled

TO A NOBLY-GIFTED SINGER

    All the pleasance of her face
    Telleth of an inward grace;
    In her dark eyes I have seen
    Sorrows of the Nazarene;
    In the proud and perfect mould
    Of her body I behold,
    Rounded in a single view,
    The good, the beautiful, the true;
    And when her spirit goes up-winging
    On sweet airs of artless singing,
    Surely the heavenly spheres rejoice
    In union with a kindred voice.

Schoolmaster I said Mr. Hill was. To represent his didactic quality, not
his purer lyrical note, nor yet his narrative beauty, I choose the
following piece:


SELF-DETERMINATION

_The Philosophy of the American Negro_

    Four things we will not do, in spite of all
    That demons plot for our decline and fall;
    We bring four benedictions which the meek
    Unto the proud are privileged to speak,
    Four gifts by which amidst all stern-browed races
    We move with kindly hearts and shining faces.

    _We will not hate._ Law, custom, creed and caste,
    All notwithstanding, here we hold us fast.
    Down through the years the mighty ships of state
    Have all been broken on the rocks of hate.

    _We will not cease to laugh and multiply._
    We slough off trouble, and refuse to die.
    The Indian stood unyielding, stark and grim;
    We saw him perish, and we learned of him
    To mix a grain of philosophic mirth
    With all the crass injustices of earth.

    _We will not use the ancient carnal tools._
    These never won, yet centuries of schools,
    Of priests, and all the work of brush and pen
    Have not availed to win the wisest men
    From futile faith in battleship and shell:
    We see them fall, and mark that folly well.

    _We will not waver in our loyalty._
    No strange voice reaches us across the sea;
    No crime at home shall stir us from this soil.
    Ours is the guerdon, ours the blight of toil,
    But raised above it by a faith sublime
    We choose to suffer _here_ and bide our time.

    And if we hold to this, we dream some day
    Our countrymen will follow in our way.

But though teacher Leslie Pinckney Hill is singer too. And though he has
a message for America he also has music. His powers are rich, varied,
cultured, and developing. His second book will be better than his
excellent first.
 

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