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

Robert Kerlin, Chapter 3, "The Heart of Negro Womanhood" (Eva A. Jessye, J.W. Hammond, Alice Dunbar-Nelson, Georgia Douglas Johnson, Angelina W. Grimke, Anne Spencer, Jessie Fauset)

 III

THE HEART OF NEGRO WOMANHOOD


_I. Miss Eva A. Jessye_

[Illustration: MISS EVA A. JESSYE]

From newspapers I have clipt several poems by Miss Jessye that exhibit a
nature touched to the finer things of the world and of life. She has
fancy, and skill in expression. I concluded section I of chapter II with
a poem of hers, and I will here give two more. The first, in a lighter
vein, betrays the human nature of a school-teacher in the midst of her
vexations while she tries to appear above the reach of common desires.

SPRING WITH THE TEACHER

    ’Tis now the time of silver moon,
    Of swelling bud and fancies free
    As western winds, but then, ah me!
    May cannot come too soon;
    The rover calls in every child,
    And sets his pulses running wild!

    “Do stop that noise and take your seat!
    Joe, learn to study quietly!
    Why girl, it surely has me beat
    How you forget geography!
    Brazil’s in Spain? Here, close that book!
    What caused the Civil War, you say?--
    Suzanna says somebody took
    Her beads; return them right away!

    “Now boy, I told you once before
    To put that story book away!
    I’ll call the roll: Beatrice Moore,
    Why were you absent yesterday?
    Why yes, I heard that mocking bird.
    Lee Arthur, straighten up your face!
    Well, surely, class, you never heard
    Of adverbs having tense and case!

    “Now, James, explain the term ‘per cent,’
    My, my, ’tis surely not forgot!
    If it were fun or devilment
    You’d know it all, sir, like as not!
    Who put that bent pin in my chair?
    No one of course--bent pins can walk!
    I’ll tell you though, had I sat there
    I’d make these straps and switches talk.

    “A picnic on for Saturday?
    (I wish that I were going, too!)
    Oh, no! I couldn’t get away,
    I have so many things to do.
    Well, there’s the bell! Goodbye, goodbye,
    And be good children, don’t forget.”--
    Well, thank the Lord they’re gone, but I
    Can hear their joyous laughter yet.

    ’Tis now the time of silver moon,
    Of swelling bud and fancies free
    As western winds, but then, ah me!
    May cannot come too soon!

Though the moral motive is rarely consistent with the artistic, yet in
the next poem of Miss Jessye’s I shall give there is a perfect
reconciliation. Original no doubt is the idea of this poem, but Sappho,
it seems to me, as one of her fragments bears witness, had meditated
upon the very same idea twenty-five centuries ago.

TO A ROSEBUD

    O dainty bud, I hold thee in my hand--
    A castaway, a dead, a lifeless thing,
    A few days since I saw thee, wet with dew,
    A bud of promise to thy parent cling,
    Now thou art crushed yet lovely as before,
    The adverse winds but waft thy fragrance more.

    How small, how frail! I tread thee underfoot
    And crush thy petals in the reeking ground:
    Perchance some one in pity for thy state
    Will pick thee up in reverence profound--
    Lo, thou art pure with virtue more intense,
    Thy perfume grows from earthly detriments.

    Why do we grieve? Let each affliction bear
    A greater beauty springing from the sod,
    May sweetness well as incense from the urn,
    Which, rising high, enshrouds the throne of God.
    Envoy of Hope, this lesson I disclose--
    “Be Ever Sweet,” thou humble, fragrant rose!

Miss Jessye, now a teacher of the piano in Muskogee, Oklahoma, was born
in Kansas and was graduated from Western University. She has taken
prizes in oratory, poetry, and essay-writing. Yet in her early twenties,
she has a volume of verse ready for publication.


_II. Mrs. J. W. Hammond_

[Illustration: MRS. J. W. HAMMOND]

Self-taught, and disclaiming knowledge of books, Mrs. Hammond of Omaha,
Nebraska, contributes to _The Monitor_ of that city verses of musical
cadences and gentle beauty. Her response to the scenes and objects of
nature is that of a poetic mind. The spirit of joy sings through her
verses. As a representative poem the following may be accepted:

THE OPTIMIST

    Who would have the sky any color but blue,
      Or the grass any color but green?
    Or the flowers that bloom the summer through
      Of other color or sheen?

    How the sunshine gladdens the human heart--
      How the sound of the falling rain
    Will cause the tender tears to start,
      And free the soul from pain.

    Oh, this old world is a great old place!
      And I love each season’s change,
    The river, the brook of purling grace,
      The valley, the mountain range.

    And when I am called to quit this life,
      My feet will not spurn the sod,
    Though I leave this world with its beauty rife,--
      There’s a glorious one with God!

One other poem of Mrs. Hammond’s I will give that is beautiful alike in
feeling and treatment.

TO MY NEIGHBOR BOY

    When sweet Aurora lifts her veil,
    And floods the world with rosy light,
    When morning stars, grown dim and pale,
    Proclaim the passing of the night--
    With waking bird and opening flower,
    I greet with joy the new-born day--
    For oft at this exquisite hour,
    I hear a strange new roundelay.
    No syncopating “jazz” or “blues,”
    Insults my eager listening ear,
    But softly as the falling dews,
    The strains come stealing sweet and clear.
    With lilting grace they rise above
    The early traffic’s sordid din--
    My neighbor boy is making love
        To his beloved violin.

    Sometimes I catch a quivering note--
    An over-burdened wordless cry.
    I say: “Those are the lines he wrote
    The day he told some one goodbye.”
    But when I hear a joyous strain
    Of melody serene and clear,
    I smile and say: “All’s well again--
    The little maiden must be near!”
    But best of all I love the mood
    That prompts a soft sweet minor key.
    My longing soul forgets to brood,
    While drinking in the melody.
    My restless spirit will not rove,
    Nor lose its faith in God and men,
    The while my neighbor boy makes love
      To his beloved violin.


_III. Mrs. Alice Dunbar-Nelson_

A sonnet has already been given from Mrs. Dunbar-Nelson to which I think
Mrs. Browning or Christina Rossetti might have appended her signature
without detriment to her fame. It is one of a series entitled _A Dream
Sequence_, the rest of the sequence being as yet unpublished. Instead
of pillaging this sequence, marring the effect of the individual member
so dislocated, I will take from her compilation, _The Dunbar
Speaker_,[3] so named for her first husband, the poet, two of her
original poems. The first is a war poem, doubtless, but the occasion is
immaterial. The spirit of rebellion against confinement to the petty
thing while the something big calls afar might be evoked into play by
any of a hundred situations.

[Illustration: ALICE DUNBAR-NELSON]

I SIT AND SEW

    I sit and sew--a useless task it seems,
    My hands grown tired, my head weighed down with dreams--
    The panoply of war, the martial tread of men,
    Grim-faced, stern-eyed, gazing beyond the ken
    Of lesser souls, whose eyes have not seen Death,
    Nor learned to hold their lives but as a breath--
    But--I must sit and sew.

    I sit and sew--my heart aches with desire--
    That pageant terrible, that fiercely pouring fire
    On wasted fields, and writhing grotesque things
    Once men. My soul in pity flings
    Appealing cries, yearning only to go
    There in that holocaust of hell, those fields of woe--
    But--I must sit and sew.

    The little useless seam, the idle patch;
    Why dream I here beneath my homely thatch,
    When there they lie in sodden mud and rain,
    Pitifully calling me, the quick ones and the slain?
    You need me, Christ! It is no roseate dream
    That beckons me--this pretty futile seam,
    It stifles me--God, must I sit and sew?

The second poem I shall give is also not unrelated to the recent World
War, and to all war: the lights alluded to, shining across and down the
Delaware for miles, are the lights of the DuPont powder mills. It is a
poem of fine symmetry, highly poetic diction, and great allusive
meaning--a poem that will bear and repay many readings, never growing
less beautiful.

THE LIGHTS AT CARNEY’S POINT

    O white little lights at Carney’s Point,
      You shine so clear o’er the Delaware;
    When the moon rides high in the silver sky,
    Then you gleam, white gems on the Delaware.
    Diamond circlet on a full white throat,
      You laugh your rays on a questing boat;
    Is it peace you dream in your flashing gleam,
      O’er the quiet flow of the Delaware?

    And the lights grew dim at the water’s brim,
      For the smoke of the mills shredded slow between;
    And the smoke was red, as is new bloodshed,
      And the lights went lurid ’neath the livid screen.

    O red little lights at Carney’s Point,
      You glower so grim o’er the Delaware;
    When the moon hides low sombrous clouds below,
      Then you glow like coals o’er the Delaware.
    Blood red rubies on a throat of fire,
      You flash through the dusk of a funeral pyre;
    Are there hearth fires red whom you fear and dread
      O’er the turgid flow of the Delaware?

    And the lights gleamed gold o’er the river cold,
      For the murk of the furnace shed a copper veil;
    And the veil was grim at the great cloud’s brim,
      And the lights went molten, now hot, now pale.

    O gold little lights at Carney’s Point,
      You gleam so proud o’er the Delaware;
    When the moon grows wan in the eastering dawn,
      Then you sparkle gold points o’er the Delaware.
    Aureate filigree on a Crœsus’ brow,
      You hasten the dawn on a gray ship’s prow.
    Light you streams of gold in the grim ship’s hold
      O’er the sullen flow of the Delaware?

    And the lights went gray in the ash of day,
      For a quiet Aurora brought a halcyon balm;
    And the sun laughed high in the infinite sky,
      And the lights were forgot in the sweet, sane calm.

Mrs. Dunbar-Nelson has not applied herself to poetry as she has to prose
fiction. As a short-story writer she has special distinction.


_IV. Mrs. Georgia Douglas Johnson_

[Illustration: MRS. G. D. JOHNSON]

Exquisite artistry in verse, with infallible poetic content, is
exhibited in Mrs. Georgia Douglas Johnson’s _The Heart of a Woman_. It
is also the saddest book produced by her race. Perfect lyrical notes,
the most poignant pathos--that is an exact description of it. Triple
bronze cannot armor any breast successfully against its appeal. For the
heart that speaks here is a heart that has known its garden of sorrows,
its Gethsemane. This is the harvest of her sorrows--dreams and songs, of
which she comments:

    The dreams of the dreamer
      Are life-drops that pass
    The break in the heart
      To the Soul’s hour-glass.

    The songs of the singer
      Are tones that repeat
    The cry of the heart
      Till it ceases to beat.

Neither in memory nor in dreams is there a refuge for the life-wounded
heart of this woman:

    What need have I for memory,
      When not a single flower
    Has bloomed within life’s desert
      For me, one little hour?

    What need have I for memory,
      Whose burning eyes have met
    The corse of unborn happiness
      Winding the trail regret?

And thus of her dreams, on the last page of her book:

    I am folding up my little dreams
      Within my heart to-night,
    And praying I may soon forget
      The torture of their sight.

What are the experiences and what the conditions of life--what must they
have been--which have had the tragic power to make a soul “try to forget
it has dreamed of stars?” The world little kens what hearts in it are
breaking, and why. To the grave the secret goes with the many, one in a
million betrays it in a cry. But not here is it betrayed:

SMOTHERED FIRES

    A woman with a burning flame
      Deep covered through the years
    With ashes--ah! she hid it deep,
      And smothered it with tears.

    Sometimes a baleful light would rise
      From out the dusky bed,
    And then the woman hushed it quick
      To slumber on, as dead.

    At last the weary war was done,
      The tapers were alight,
    And with a sigh of victory
      She breathed a soft--goodnight!

Not without hurt to itself may the oyster produce its pearl. These poems
from the heart of a woman remind me of nothing so much as a string of
pearls. Each one is witness to a bruise or gash to the spirit. The lyric
cry has not been more piercing in anything written on American soil,
piercing all the more for the perfect restraint, the sure artistry. It
was a heart surcharged with sorrow in which these pearls of poesy took
shape from secret wounds. The heart of one woman speaks in them for
thousands in America, else inarticulate. “We weep,” says the African
proverb, “we weep in our hearts like the tortoise.” Without one word or
hint of race in all the book there is yet between its covers the
unwritten, unwritable tragedy of that borderland race which knows not
where it belongs in the world, a truly homeless race in soul. A sadder
book could hardly be.

Mrs. Georgia Douglas Johnson was born in Atlanta, Georgia, and received
her academic education in Atlanta University and a musical education at
Oberlin. She now lives in Washington, D. C. She is at the beginning of
her career as an author. Two other books of lyrics, under the titles of
_An Autumn Love Cycle_, and _Bronze_,[4] she has in preparation for the
press at this time. Some of their contents have already appeared in
magazines. These two new volumes will make an advance in power and in
richness of content beyond _The Heart of a Woman_. They will also
provide the key to the tragic mystery concealed in that book. A poem
that is to appear in _Bronze_ will be given in a later chapter. I will
here give another. Both have already been published in magazines.

THE OCTOROON

    One drop of midnight in the dawn of life’s pulsating stream
    Marks her an alien from her kind, a shade amid its gleam.
    Forevermore her step she bends, insular, strange, apart--
    And none can read the riddle of her strangely warring heart.

    The stormy current of her blood beats like a mighty sea
    Against the man-wrought iron bars of her captivity.
    For refuge, succor, peace, and rest, she seeks that humble fold
    Whose every breath is kindliness, whose hearts are purest gold.


_V. Miss Angelina W. Grimké_

[Illustration: MISS ANGELINA GRIMKÉ]

Not less distinctive in quality than Mrs. Johnson’s, and not less
beautiful in artistry, are the brief lyrics of Miss Angelina W. Grimké,
also of the city of Washington. If hers should be called imagist poetry
or no I cannot say, but I am certain that more vivid imaging of objects
has not been done in verse by any contemporary. This, too, in stanzas
that suggest in their perfection of form the work of the old lapidaries.
Nor is there but a surface or formal beauty. There is passion, there is
beauty of idea, the soul of lyric poetry is there as well as the form. I
am weighing well my words in giving this praise, and I know that not
one in the thousand of those who write good verse would deserve them.
But I ask the sceptical individual to re-read them after he has perused
the poems themselves.

I will present several without interrupting comment:

DAWN

    Grey trees, grey skies, and not a star;
      Grey mist, grey hush;
    And then, frail, exquisite, afar,
      A hermit-thrush.

A WINTER TWILIGHT

    A silence slipping around like death,
    Yet chased by a whisper, a sigh, a breath;
    One group of trees, lean, naked and cold,
    Inking their crests ’gainst a sky green-gold;
    One path that knows where the corn flowers were;
    Lonely, apart, unyielding, one fir;
    And over it softly leaning down,
    One star that I loved ere the fields went brown.

THE PUPPET-PLAYER

    Sometimes it seems as though some puppet-player.
      A clenched claw cupping a craggy chin.
    Sits just beyond the border of our seeing,
      Twitching the strings with slow, sardonic grin.

THE WANT OF YOU

    A hint of gold where the moon will be;
    Through the flocking clouds just a star or two;
    Leaf sounds, soft and wet and hushed,
    And oh! the crying want of you.

EL BESO

    Twilight--and you,
    Quiet--the stars;
    Snare of the shine of your teeth,
    Your provocative laughter,
    The gloom of your hair;
    Lure of you, eye and lip;
    Yearning, yearning,
    Languor, surrender;
      Your mouth,
    And madness, madness,
    Tremulous, breathless, flaming,
    The space of a sigh;
    Then awakening--remembrance,
    Pain, regret--your sobbing;
    And again quiet--the stars,
    Twilight--and you.

AT THE SPRING DAWN

    I watched the dawn come,
      Watched the spring dawn come.
    And the red sun shouldered his way up
      Through the grey, through the blue,
    Through the lilac mists.
    The quiet of it! The goodness of it!
      And one bird awoke, sang, whirred
    A blur of moving black against the sun,
      Sang again--afar off.
    And I stretched my arms to the redness of the sun,
      Stretched to my finger tips,
        And I laughed.
    Ah! It is good to be alive, good to love,
      At the dawn,
        At the spring dawn.

TO KEEP THE MEMORY OF CHARLOTTE FORTEN GRIMKÉ

    Still are there wonders of the dark and day;
    The muted shrilling of shy things at night,
    So small beneath the stars and moon;
    The peace, dream-frail, but perfect while the light
    Lies softly on the leaves at noon.
    These are, and these will be
    Until Eternity;
    But she who loved them well has gone away.

    Each dawn, while yet the east is veiled gray,
    The birds about her window wake and sing;
    And far away each day some lark
    I know is singing where the grasses swing;
    Some robin calls and calls at dark.
    These are, and these will be
    Until Eternity;
    But she who loved them well has gone away.

    The wild flowers that she loved down green ways stray;
    Her roses lift their wistful buds at dawn,
    But not for eyes that loved them best;
    Only her little pansies are all gone,
    Some lying softly on her breast.
    And flowers will bud and be
    Until Eternity;
    But she who loved them well has gone away.

    Where has she gone? And who is there to say?
    But this we know: her gentle spirit moves
    And is where beauty never wanes,
    Perchance by other streams, ’mid other groves;
    And to us here, ah! she remains
    A lovely memory
    Until Eternity.
    She came, she loved, and then she went away.

The subject of these beautiful memorial verses was not simply in feeling
but in expression also a poet herself. From “A June Song” written by her
I will take a stanza in evidence:

    How shall we crown her bright young head?
    Crown it with roses, rare and red;
    Crown it with roses, creamy white,
    As the lotus bloom that sweetens the night.
    Crown it with roses as pink as shell
    In which the voices of ocean dwell.
    And a fairer queen
    Shall ne’er be seen
    Than our lovely, laughing June.


_VI. Mrs. Anne Spencer_

Who can fathom to its depths the heart of womanhood? Under the
conditions of American

[Illustration: MRS. ANNE SPENCER]

life the Negro woman’s heart offers difficulties peculiar to itself.
These various writers--talented, cultured, with the keen sensibilities
of a specially sensitive people--have given us glimpses into some of the
depths, not all. A poet of the other sex, Mr. McKay, with that
divination which belongs to the poet, intimates in _The Harlem Dancer_,
quoted on page 128, that the index of the heart is not always in the
occupation or the face:

    But, looking at her falsely-smiling face,
    I knew her self was not in that strange place.

No, her self was free and too noble to be smirched by the “passionate
gaze of wine-flushed, bold-eyed boys.” It is a paradox that has puzzled
a recent white novelist. Cissie Dildine, in Mr. Stribling’s
_Birthright_, pilferer though she is, and sacrificer of her maidenhood,
yet does not lose caste among her people. They speak affectionately of
her and minister lovingly to her in jail, with no hint of reproach. It
is not other standards, as the novelist intimates, that we must apply,
but only right standards, in view of circumstances.

I am able to give here a poem that may start in the reader’s mind a
fruitful train of reflections, tending toward profound ethical truth.
The writer, Mrs. Anne Spencer of Lynchburg, Virginia, in all of her work
that I have seen, has marked originality. Her style is independent,
unconventional, and highly compressed. The poem which follows will
fairly represent her work and at the same time open another avenue to
the secret chambers of the Negro woman’s heart:

AT THE CARNIVAL

    Gay little Girl-of-the-Diving-Tank,
    I desire a name for you,
    Nice, as a right glove fits;
    For you--who amid the malodorous
    Mechanics of this unlovely thing,
    Are darling of spirit and form.
    I know you--a glance, and what you are
    Sits-by-the-fire in my heart.
    My Limousine-Lady knows you, or
    Why does the slant-envy of her eye mark
    Your straight air and radiant inclusive smile?
    Guilt pins a fig-leaf; Innocence is its own adorning.
    The bull-necked man knows you--this first time
    His itching flesh sees form divine and vibrant health,
    And thinks not of his avocation.
    I came incuriously--
    Set on no diversion save that my mind
    Might safely nurse its brood of misdeeds
    In the presence of a blind crowd.
    The color of life was gray.
    Everywhere the setting seemed right
    For my mood!
    Here the sausage and garlic booth
    Sent unholy incense skyward;
    There a quivering female-thing
    Gestured assignations, and lied
    To call it dancing;
    There, too, were games of chance
    With chances for none;
    But oh! Girl-of-the-Tank, at last!
    Gleaming Girl, how intimately pure and free
    The gaze you send the crowd,
    As though you know the dearth of beauty
    In its sordid life.
    We need you--my Limousine-Lady,
    The bull-necked man, and I.
    Seeing you here brave and water-clean,
    Leaven for the heavy ones of earth,
    I am swift to feel that what makes
    The plodder glad is good; and
    Whatever is good is God.
    The wonder is that you are here;
    I have seen the queer in queer places,
    But never before a heaven-fed
    Naiad of the Carnival-Tank!
    Little Diver, Destiny for you,
    Like as for me, is shod in silence;
    Years may seep into your soul
    The bacilli of the usual and the expedient;
    I implore Neptune to claim his child to-day!


_VII. Miss Jessie Fauset_

[Illustration: MISS JESSIE REDMON FAUSET]

By way of indicating the idealistic aspirations of the colored people I
gave at the end of Chapter I. J. Mord Allen’s poem _The Psalm of the
Uplift_. For the same purpose I will give here, at the end of this
chapter, a poem of the very present day from one of the most
accomplished young women of the Negro race. Besides its intrinsic merit
as a poem it has the further recommendation for a place in this chapter
that it celebrates a woman of the black race who was the very embodiment
of its noblest qualities--illiterate slave though she was. It is a
splendid testimonial to her people of this later day that Negro
literature is filled with tributes to Sojourner Truth. She was indeed a
wonderful woman, altogether worthy to be ranked with the noble heroines
of biblical story. From a Negro historian I take the following
restrained account of her:[5]

     Two Negroes, because of their unusual gifts, stood out with great
     prominence in the agitation. These were Sojourner Truth and
     Frederick Douglass. Sojourner Truth was born of slave parents about
     1798 in Ulster County, New York. She remembered vividly in later
     years the cold, wet cellar-room in which slept the slaves of the
     family to which she belonged, and where she was taught by her
     mother to repeat the Lord’s Prayer and to trust in God at all
     times. When in the course of gradual emancipation in New York she
     became legally free in 1827, her master refused to comply with the
     law. She left, but was pursued and found. Rather than have her go
     back, a friend paid for her services for the rest of the year. Then
     came an evening when, searching for one of her children that had
     been stolen and sold, she found herself a homeless wanderer. A
     Quaker family gave her lodging for the night. Subsequently she went
     to New York City, joined a Methodist Church, and worked hard to
     improve her condition. Later, having decided to leave New York for
     a lecturing tour through the East, she made a small bundle of her
     belongings and informed a friend that her name was no longer
     Isabella but Sojourner. She went on her way, lecturing to people
     where she found them assembled and being entertained in many
     aristocratic homes. She was entirely untaught in the schools, but
     she was witty, original, and always suggestive. By her tact and her
     gift of song she kept down ridicule, and by her fervor and faith
     she won many friends for the anti-slavery cause. As to her name she
     said: “And the Lord gave me Sojourner because I was to travel up
     an’ down the land showin’ the people their sins an’ bein’ a sign
     unto them. Afterwards I told the Lord I wanted another name, ’cause
     everybody else had two names, an’ the Lord gave me Truth, because I
     was to declare the truth to the people.”

The poem follows, with the author’s note on the saying of Sojourner
Truth which occasioned it:

ORIFLAMME

     I can remember when I was a little, young girl, how my old mammy
     would sit out of doors in the evenings and look up at the stars and
     groan, and I would say, ‘Mammy, what makes you groan so?’ And she
     would say, ‘I am groaning to think of my poor children; they do not
     know where I be and I don’t know where they be. I look up at the
     stars and they look up at the stars!’--Sojourner Truth.

    I think I see her sitting bowed and black,
      Stricken and seared with slavery’s mortal scars,
    Reft of her children, lonely, anguished, yet
      Still looking at the stars.

    Symbolic mother, we thy myriad sons,
      Pounding our stubborn hearts on Freedom’s bars,
    Clutching our birthright, fight with faces set,
      Still visioning the stars!

“Still visioning the stars”--that is the idealism of the Negro. The soul
of Sojourner Truth goes marching on, star-led.
 

This page has paths: