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

Robert Kerlin, Chapter 5, "The New Forms of Poetry"



The newer methods in poetry--free-verse, rhythmic strophes, polyphonic
prose--have been tried with success by only a few Negroes. Of free-verse
particularly not many noteworthy pieces have come from Negro poets. Well
or ill, each may judge according to his taste. But the objection has
been made that the Negro verse-makers of our time are bound by
tradition, are sophisticated craftsmen. More independence, more
differentness, seems to be demanded. But the conditions of their poetic
activity seem to me in this demand to be lost sight of. They are as much
the heirs of Palgrave’s Golden Treasury as their white contemporaries.
And the Negro is said to be preëminently imitative--that is, responsive
to environing example and influence. One requirement and only one can we
lay upon the Negro singer and that is the same we lay upon the artists
of every race and origin. However, for artistic freedom he has an
authority older than free-verse, and that authority is not outside his
own race. It is found in the old plantation melodies--rich in artistic
potentiality beyond exaggeration.


In Negro newspapers and magazines, rarely as yet in books, are to be
found some free-verse productions of which I will give some specimens.
From Will Sexton I shall quote here two brief poems in this form and in
a later chapter another (p. 233). His Whitemanesque manner will be
remarked. These brief pieces will suggest a poet of some force:

_Songs of Contemporary Ethiopia_


    Down with everything black!
    Down with law and order!
    Up with the red flag!
    Up with the white South!
    I am America’s evil genius.


    Out of the mist I see a new America--a land of ideals.
    I hear the music of my fathers blended with
         the “Stars and Stripes Forever.”
    I am the crown of thorns Tyranny must bear
         a thousand years--
    I am the New Negro.

Another vers-librist of individual quality is Andrea Razafkeriefo. He is
a prolific contributor to _The Negro World_, the newspaper organ of the
Universal Negro Improvement Society. This paper regularly gives a
considerable portion of a page of each issue to original verse
contributions. One of Mr. Razafkeriefo’s recent free-verse poems is the
following, in which the style seems to me to be remarkably effective:


    That the Negro church possesses
    Extraordinary power,
    That it is the greatest medium
    For influencing our people,
    That it long has slept and faltered,
    Failed to meet its obligations,
    Are, to honest and true thinkers,
    Facts which have to be admitted.

    For these reasons there are many
    Who would have the church awaken
    And adopt the modern methods
    Of all other institutions.
    Make us more enlightened Christians,
    Teach us courtesy and English,
    Racial pride and sanitation,
    Science, thrift and Negro history.

    Yea, the preacher, like the shepherd,
    Should be leader and protector,
    And prepare us for the present
    Just as well as for the future;
    He should know more than Scriptures,
    And should ever be acquainted
    With all vital, daily subjects
    Helpful to his congregation.

    Give us manly, thinking preachers
    And not shouting money-makers,
    Men of intellect and vision,
    Who will really help our people:
    Men who make the church a guide-post
    To the road of racial progress,
    Who will strive to fit the Negro
    For this world as well as heaven.

In another chapter I give one of Mr. Razafkeriefo’s poems in regular
stanzas of the traditional type. It is but just to state that his
productions exhibit a great variety of forms. His moods and traits, too,
are various. There is the evidence of ardent feeling and strong
conviction in most he writes.

[Illustration: LANGSTON HUGHES]

This poet gets his strange name (pronounced rä-zäf-ker-rāf) from the
island of Madagascar. His father, now dead, “falling in battle for
Malagasy freedom,” before the poet’s birth, was a nephew of the late
queen of Madagascar, Ranavalona III. His mother, a colored American, was
a daughter of a United States consul to Madagascar. The poet was born
in the city of Washington in 1895 and now resides in Cleveland, Ohio.

To a young student in Columbia University we are indebted for some of
the most symmetrical and effective free-verse poems that have come to my
attention. His name is Langston Hughes. For information about him I
refer the reader to the first index, at the end of this book. This poem
appeared in _The Crisis_, January, 1922:


    I am a Negro:
      Black as the night is black,
    Black like the depths of my Africa.

    I’ve been a slave:
      Cæsar told me to keep his door-steps clean,
    I brushed the boots of Washington.

    I’ve been a worker:
      Under my hand the pyramids arose.
    I made mortar for the Woolworth building.

    I’ve been a singer:
      All the way from Africa to Georgia I carried my sorrow songs.
    I made ragtime.

    I’ve been a victim:
      The Belgians cut off my hands in the Congo.
    They lynch me now in Texas.

    I am a Negro:
      Black as the night is black,
    Black like the depths of my Africa.

Other specimens of free-verse have been given on pages 67, 102, and 119.
In every instance the poet’s choice of this form seems to me justified
by the particular effectiveness of it.


_I. W. E. Burghardt DuBois_

[Illustration: W. E. B. DUBOIS]

The name of no Negro author is more widely known than that of W. E.
Burghardt DuBois. Editor, historian, sociologist, essayist, poet--he is
celebrated in the Five Continents and the Seven Seas. It is in his
impassioned prose that DuBois is most a poet. _The Souls of Black Folk_
throbs constantly on the verge of poetry, while the several chapters of
_Darkwater_ end with a litany, chant, or credo, rhapsodical in character
and in free-verse form. In all this work Dr. DuBois is the spokesman of
perhaps as many millions of souls as any man living.

“A Litany at Atlanta,” placed as an epilogue to “The Shadow of the
Years” in _Darkwater_,[6] should be read as the litany of a race. Modern
literature has not such another cry of agony:


O Silent God, Thou whose voice afar in mist and mystery hath left our
ears an-hungered in these fearful days--

    _Hear us, good Lord!_

Listen to us, Thy children: our faces dark with doubt are made a mockery
in Thy Sanctuary. With uplifted hands we front Thy Heaven, O God,

    _We beseech Thee to hear us, good Lord!_

We are not better than our fellows, Lord; we are but weak and human men.
When our devils do deviltry, curse Thou the doer and the deed,--curse
them as we curse them, do to them all and more than ever they have done
to innocence and weakness, to womanhood and home.

    _Have mercy upon us, miserable sinners!_

And yet, whose is the deeper guilt? Who made these devils? Who nursed
them in crime and fed them on injustice? Who ravished and debauched
their mothers and their grandmothers? Who bought and sold their crime
and waxed fat and rich on public iniquity?

    _Thou knowest, good God!_

Is this Thy Justice, O Father, that guile be easier than innocence and
the innocent be crucified for the guilt of the untouched guilty?

    _Justice, O Judge of men!_

Wherefore do we pray? Is not the God of the Fathers dead? Have not seers
seen in Heaven’s halls Thine hearsed and lifeless form stark amidst the
black and rolling smoke of sin, where all along bow bitter forms of
endless dead?

    _Awake, Thou that steepest!_

Thou art not dead, but flown afar, up hills of endless light, through
blazing corridors of suns, where worlds do swing of good and gentle men,
of women strong and free--far from cozenage, black hypocrisy, and chaste
prostitution of this shameful speck of dust!

    _Turn again, O Lord; leave us not to perish in our sin!_

    From lust of body and lust of blood,--
        _Great God, deliver us!_
    From lust of power and lust of gold,--
        _Great God, deliver us!_
    From the leagued lying of despot and of brute,--
        _Great God, deliver us!_

A city lay in travail, God our Lord, and from her loins sprang twin
Murder and Black Hate. Red was the midnight; clang, crack, and cry of
death and fury filled the air and trembled underneath the stars where
church spires pointed silently to Thee. And all this was to sate the
greed of greedy men who hide behind the veil of vengeance.

    _Bend us Thine ear, O Lord!_

In the pale, still morning we looked upon the deed. We stopped our ears
and held our leaping hands, but they--did they not wag their heads and
leer and cry with bloody jaws: _Cease from Crime!_ The word was mockery,
for thus they train a hundred crimes while we do cure one.

    _Turn again our captivity, O Lord!_

Behold this maimed and broken thing, dear God: it was an humble black
man, who toiled and sweat to save a bit from the pittance paid him. They
told him: _Work and Rise!_ He worked. Did this man sin? Nay, but someone
told how someone said another did--one whom he had never seen nor known.
Yet for that man’s crime this man lieth maimed and murdered, his wife
naked to shame, his children to poverty and evil.

    _Hear us, O Heavenly Father!_

Doth not this justice of hell stink in Thy nostrils, O God? How long
shall the mounting flood of innocent blood roar in Thine ears and pound
in our hearts for vengeance? Pile the pale frenzy of blood-crazed
brutes, who do such deeds, high on Thine Altar, Jehovah Jireh, and burn
it in hell forever and forever!

    _Forgive us, good Lord; we know not what we say!_

Bewildered we are and passion-tossed, mad with the madness of a mobbed
and mocked and murdered people; straining at the armposts of Thy throne,
we raise our shackled hands and charge Thee, God, by the bones of our
stolen fathers, by the tears of our dead mothers, by the very blood of
Thy crucified Christ: What meaneth this? Tell us the plan; give us the

    _Keep not Thou silent, O God._

Sit not longer blind, Lord God, deaf to our prayer and dumb to our dumb
suffering. Surely Thou, too, art not white, O Lord, a pale, bloodless,
heartless thing!

    _Ah! Christ of all the Pities!_

Forgive the thought! Forgive these wild, blasphemous words! Thou art
still the God of our black fathers and in Thy Soul’s Soul sit some soft
darkenings of the evening, some shadowings of the velvet night.

But whisper--speak--call, great God, for Thy silence is white terror to
our hearts! The way, O God, show us the way and point us the path!

Whither? North is greed and South is blood; within, the coward, and
without, the liar. Whither? To death?

    _Amen! Welcome, dark sleep!_

Whither? To life? But not this life, dear God, not this. Let the cup
pass from us, tempt us not beyond our strength, for there is that
clamoring and clawing within, to whose voice we would not listen, yet
shudder lest we must,--and it is red. Ah! God! It is a red and awful


In yonder East trembles a star.

    _Vengeance is Mine; I will repay, saith the Lord!_

Thy Will, O Lord, be done!

    _Kyrie Eleison!_

Lord, we have done these pleading, wavering words.

    _We beseech Thee to hear us, good Lord!_

We bow our heads and hearken soft to the sobbing of women and little

    _We beseech Thee to hear us, good Lord!_

Our voices sink in silence and in night.

    _Hear us, good Lord._

In night, O God of a godless land!


In silence, O Silent God.


_II. Kelly Miller_

[Illustration: KELLY MILLER]

Dr. Kelly Miller is professor of sociology in Howard University. He has
been professor of mathematics. He is the author of several prose
works--able expositions of aspects of inter-racial problems. It is
rumored that he is a poet. However that may be, his admirable volume of
essays entitled _Out of the House of Bondage_ concludes with a strophic
chant, highly poetical, and poured forth with the fervor of some old
Celtic bard, triumphant in the vision of a new day dawning:


The vision of a scion of a despised and rejected race, the span of whose
life is measured by the years of its Golden Jubilee, and whose fancy,
like the vine that girdles the tree-trunk, runneth both forward and

     I see the African savage as he drinks his palmy wine, and basks in
     the sunshine of his native bliss, and is happy.

     I see the man-catcher, impelled by thirst of gold, as he entraps
     his simple-souled victim in the snares of bondage and death, by use
     of force or guile.

     I see the ocean basin whitened with his bones, and the ocean
     current running red with his blood, amidst the hellish horrors of
     the middle passage.

     I see him laboring for two centuries and a half in unrequited toil,
     making the hillsides of our southland to glow with the snow-white
     fleece of cotton, and the valleys to glisten with the golden
     sheaves of grain.

     I see him silently enduring cruelty and torture indescribable, with
     flesh flinching beneath the sizz of angry whip or quivering under
     the gnaw of the sharp-toothed bloodhound.

     I see a chivalric civilization instinct with dignity, comity and
     grace rising upon pillars supported by his strength and brawny arm.

     I see the swarthy matron lavishing her soul in altruistic devotion
     upon the offspring of her alabaster mistress.

     I see the haughty sons of a haughty race pouring out their lustful
     passion upon black womanhood, filling our land with a bronzed and
     tawny brood.

     I see also the patriarchal solicitude of the kindly-hearted owners
     of men, in whose breast not even iniquitous system could sour the
     milk of human kindness.

     I hear the groans, the sorrows, the sighings, the soul striving of
     these benighted creatures of God, rising up from the low grounds of
     sorrow and reaching the ear of Him Who regardeth man of the
     lowliest estate.

     I strain my ear to supernal sound, and I hear in the secret
     chambers of the Almighty the order to the Captain of Host to break
     his bond and set him free.

     I see Abraham Lincoln, himself a man of sorrows and acquainted with
     grief, arise to execute the high decree.

     I see two hundred thousand black boys in blue baring their breasts
     to the bayonets of the enemy, that their race might have some
     slight part in its own deliverance.

     I see the great Proclamation delivered in the year of my birth of
     which I became the first fruit and beneficiary.

     I see the assassin striking down the great Emancipator; and the
     house of mirth is transformed into the Golgotha of the nation.

     I watch the Congress as it adds to the Constitution new words,
     which make the document a charter of liberty indeed.

     I see the new-made citizen running to and fro in the first fruit of
     his new-found freedom.

     I see him rioting in the flush of privilege which the nation had
     vouchsafed, but destined, alas, not long to last.

     I see him thrust down from the high seat of political power, by
     fraud and force, while the nation looks on in sinister silence and
     acquiescent guilt.

     I see the tide of public feeling run cold and chilly, as the vial
     of racial wrath is wreaked upon his bowed and defenceless head.

     I see his body writhing in the agony of death as his groans issue
     from the crackling flames, while the funeral pyre lights the
     midnight sky with its dismal glare. My heart sinks with heaviness
     within me.

     I see that the path of progress has never taken a straight line,
     but has always been a zigzag course amid the conflicting forces of
     right and wrong, truth and error, justice and injustice, cruelty
     and mercy.

     I see that the great generous American Heart, despite the temporary
     flutter, will finally beat true to the higher human impulse, and my
     soul abounds with reassurance and hope.

     I see his marvelous advance in the rapid acquisition of knowledge
     and acquirement of things material, and attainment in the higher
     pursuits of life, with his face fixed upon that light which shineth
     brighter and brighter unto the perfect day.

     I see him who was once deemed stricken, smitten of God, and
     afflicted, now entering with universal welcome into the patrimony
     of mankind, and I look calmly upon the centuries of blood and tears
     and travail of soul, and am satisfied.

_III. Charles H. Conner_

As a companion piece to this litany and this vision I will present
another vision that for calm, clear beauty of style takes us immediately
back to _Pilgrim’s Progress_. The author calls it a sermonette, and it
is one of three contained in a very small book entitled _The Enchanted
Valley_. But the author is no preacher. He is a ship-yard worker in
Philadelphia--I almost said a “common” worker. But such workmen were
never common, anywhere, at any time. Charles Conner wears the garb and
wields the tools of a common workman, but he has most uncommon visions.
He is a seer and a philosopher. He has informed me that there is
American Indian blood in his veins. From the mystical and philosophical
character of his writings, both prose and verse, I should have expected
an East Indian strain. Twice have I visited his humble habitation, and
each time it was a visit to the Enchanted Valley.

[Illustration: CHARLES H. CONNER]


At the dawning of a day, in a deep valley, a man awoke.

     *       *       *       *       *

It was a valley of treasures that everywhere abounded.

     *       *       *       *       *

He opened his eyes, and beheld the greensward bedecked with many colored
jewels that sparkled in the light.

     *       *       *       *       *

His ears caught the medley of sounds, that awoke innumerable echoes; and
with the balmy air peopled the valley with delights. How he came there,
or why, he knew not; nor scarcely thought or cared.

     *       *       *       *       *

As he gazed upon the multitude of things, in his heart upsprung desire;
and he gathered the treasures that lay around, till his arms were full,
and his body decked in all their bright array.

     *       *       *       *       *

Then the sun went down behind the hill; and the vale grew dark; and the
night air chill; and the place grew solemn, silent, still.

     *       *       *       *       *

A new thing then, to mortal ken, seemed hovering on the threshold near.
A strange, fantastic thing, it crept, intangible, nearer, nearer swept,
the pallid, startling face of Fear!

     *       *       *       *       *

But, the night brings sleep at last--and dreams; and day follows night;
and sunshine follows storm throughout the length of days. But a trace of
the dreams remains, like the faintly clinging scent that marks a hidden
trail; and so, because of his dreams, the man’s desire reached out, and
scaled the lofty peaks that walled him in.

     *       *       *       *       *

His pleasant valley seemed too narrow and confined.

     *       *       *       *       *

So, with his treasures fondly pressed to his beating heart, he tried to
scale the heights.

     *       *       *       *       *

He scrambled and struggled with might and main, slipped and arose; and
fell again and again. The spirit was willing, and valiant, and brave;
but the treasure encumbered it with fatal hold; and held him bound, as
with fold on fold a corpse is held in its lowly grave. So, try as he
might, he could not rise much higher than one’s hands can reach; and one
by one, his gathered treasures lost their brightness and their charm; as
gathered flowers wilt and fade; and his arms weary from the burden that
they bore, let fall and scattered lie, little by little, more and more
of the things he had gathered and vainly prized. And each thing lost was
so much lightness gained, enabling him to mount a little higher up the
rugged steep. And so it was till night was come again at last; and worn
and weary, he sank down to sleep and rest.

     *       *       *       *       *

And, as he slept, his arms relaxed their hold; and down the steep his
dwindling treasures rolled, till the last of them found their natural
level and resting place, the lower stretch of ground. ’Twas then a
strange sight met my gaze, long to be remembered in the coming days of
trial and endeavor.

     *       *       *       *       *

From out that sleeping form a luminous haze arose, airy and white; and
glowed within it an amber fire, as it mounted higher, higher; and, as it
arose, it had the appearance of a man; and its countenance was the
countenance of him that slept. Thus up and up it winged its flight,
until above the highest peak ’twas lost to sight. I pondered the matter
in wonder and awe, until long past the midnight hour, how that a soul
at last gained its longed for power to win the distant height.

     *       *       *       *       *

There is a kingdom of earth, and of water and of air.

     *       *       *       *       *

Each has its own. The heavier cannot rise above its level, to the next
and lighter zone.

     *       *       *       *       *

The treasures of the soul’s desire, were treasures of earth, whose
lightest joys were too heavy and too gross to be sustained in the finer,
rarer atmosphere; and thus were as a leaden weight that anchored the
soul to earth, without its being at all aware that the things it thought
so pleasant and so fair, were shackles to bind it hard and fast; and
make it impossible for it to gain the region that instinctively it felt
and knew was the rightful place of its abode.

_IV. William Edgar Bailey_

Yet one more prose-poem I will give, as a sort of coda to the series. It
is taken from a paper-covered booklet entitled _The Firstling_, by
William Edgar Bailey, from which _The Slump_, on page 65, was taken:


The wild rose silently peeps from its uncouth habitation, thrives and
flourishes in its glory; its fragrant bud bows to sip the nectar of the
morning. Its delicate blossom blushes in the balmy breeze as the wind
tells its tale of adoration. Performing well its part, it withers and
decays; the chirping sparrow perches serenely on its boughs, only to
find it wrapped in sadness and solemnity--yet its grief-stained leaf and
weather beaten branches silently chant euphonic choruses in natural
song, in solemn commemoration of its faded splendor.

Dead, yes dead--but in thy hibernal demise dost thou bequeath a truth
eternal as the stars. I saw thee, Rose, when the elf of spring hung thy
floral firstling upon that thorny bower and robed thy ungainly form in a
garb of green, and, Rose, thou wert sweet!

     *       *       *       *       *

I saw the same vernal sprite pay homage to thy highbrowed kinsman in
yonder stench-bestifled dell, and, in his pause of an instant, baptized
its sacred being in the same aromatic blood. I saw thee, Rose, in thy
autumnal desolation, when the Storm-God was wont to do thee harm, laid
waste thy foliage, and cast at thy feet, as a challenge, his mantle of
snow, and the Law of Non-resistance was still unbroken.

     *       *       *       *       *

Tell me thy story, Rose! Do the stars in their unweary watch breathe
forth upon thee a special benediction from the sky? Or did the wind waft
a drop of blood from the Cross to thy dell to sanctify thy being? Oh,
leave me not, thou Redeemer of the Woods, to plod the way alone! My
Nazarene, grant but to me a double portion of thy humble pride--and in
my tearful grief permit thou me to pluck a fragrant thought from thy
thorny bosom!

_V. R. Nathaniel Dett_

Primarily a composer and pianist, Mr. Dett exemplifies the close kinship
of poetry and music, for in the former art as well as in the latter he
exhibits a finely creative spirit. To speak first of his compositions
for the piano, the following works are widely known and greatly admired
by lovers of music: “Magnolia Suite,” “In the Bottoms Suite,” “Listen to
the Lambs,” “Marche Negre,” “Arietta,” “Magic Song,” “Open Yo’ Eyes,”
and “Hampton, My Home by the Sea.” Mr. Dett took a degree in music at
Oberlin Conservatory of Music, and a Harvard prize in music (1920). The
musical endowment for which his race is celebrated is cultured and
refined in him and guided by science. The basis of his brilliant
compositions is to be found in the folk melodies of his people. The
musical genius of his people expresses itself through him with
conscious, perfected art. To sit under the spell of his performance of
his own pieces is to acquire a new idea of the Negro people.

[Illustration: R. NATHANIEL DETT]

The same refined and exalted spirit reveals itself in Mr. Dett’s verse
as in his music. Having this combination of gifts, he cannot but raise
the highest expectations. I present in this place a poem in blank verse
of nobly contemplative mood, suggesting far more, as the best poems do,
than it says:


   --No, no! Not tonight, my Friend,
     I may not, cannot go with you tonight.
     And think not that I love you any less
     Because this now I’d rather be alone.
     My heart is strangely torn; unwonted thoughts
     Have so infused themselves into my mind
     That altogether there is wrought in me
     A sort of hapless mood, whose phantom power
     Born perhaps of my own fantasies
     Has ta’en me. By its subtle spell
     I’m wooed and changed from what’s my natural self.
     I am so possessed I can but wish
     For nothing else save this and solitude.
     If in companionship I sought relief
     Yours indeed would be the first I’d seek.
     There is none other whom I so esteem,
     None who quite so perfect understands.
     Your presence always is a soothing balm,
   --Ne’er failing me when troubled. But tonight,
     Forgive me, Friend--I’d rather be alone.
     Leave me, let me with myself commune.
     Presently if no change come, I shall go
     Stand in the shadowed gorge, or where the moon
     Throws her silver on the rippling stream,
     List to the sounding cataract’s thundering fall,
     Or hark to spirit voices in the wind.
     For methinks sometimes that these strange moods
     Are heaven-sent us by the jealous God
     Who’d thus remind us that no human love
     Can fully satisfy the longing heart:
     Perhaps an intimation sent to souls
     That he would speak somewhat, or nearer draw.
     Therefore I’ll to Him. Talking waters, stars,
     The moon and whispering trees shall make me wise
     In what it is He’d have my spirit know.
     And Nature singing from the earth and sky
     Shall fill me with such peace, that in the morn
     I’ll be the gay glad self you’ve always known.
     Urge me no further, now you understand.
     A nobler friend than you none ever knew--
     But not this time. Tonight I’ll be alone;
     And if from moonlit valley God should speak,
     Or in the tumbling waters sound a call,
     Or whisper in the sighing of the wind,
     He’ll find me with an undivided heart
     Patient waiting to hear; but Friend,--alone.


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