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

Robert Kerlin, Chapter 6, "Dialect Verse"



The reader of these pages may ask: “But where is the Negro’s humorous
verse? Here is the pathos, where is the comedy of Negro life?” It may
also be asked where the dialect verse is, and the dramatic narratives
and character pieces that made Dunbar famous.

The present-day Negro poets do not, as has been asserted, spurn dialect.
Many of them have given a portion of their pages to character pieces in
dialect, humorous in effect. Whether those who have excluded such pieces
from their books have done so on principle or not I cannot say. In
general, however, these writers are too deeply earnest for dialect
verse, and the “broken tongue” is too suggestive of broken bodies and
servile souls. But by those who have employed dialect its uses and
effects have been well understood. Dialect, as is proven by Burns,
Lowell, Riley, Dunbar, often gets nearer the heart than the language of
the schools is able to do, and for home-spun philosophy, for mother-wit,
for folk-lore, and for racial humor, for whatever is quaint and peculiar
and native in any people, it is the only proper medium. Poets of the
finest art from Theocritus to Tennyson have so used it. Genius here as
elsewhere will direct the born poet and instruct him when to use dialect
and when the language that centuries of tradition have refined and
standardized and encrusted with poetic associations. There is a world of
poetic wealth in the strangely naïve heart of the rough-schooled Negro
for which the smooth-worn, disconsonanted language of the cabin and the
field is beautifully appropriate. There is also another world of poetic
wealth in the Negro of culture for which only the language of culture is
adequate. To such we must say: “All things are yours.”

While, as remarked, many Negro verse-writers have used dialect
occasionally, in the ways indicated, Waverley Turner Carmichael has made
it practically his one instrument of expression in his little book
entitled _From the Heart of a Folk_. A representative piece is the


    Hush now, mammy’s baby scaid,
    Don’ it cry, eat yo’ bread;
    Nothin’ ain’t goin’ bother you,
    Does’, it bothers mammy too.

    Mammy ain’t goin’ left it ’lone
    W’ile de chulen all are gone;
    Hush, now, don’ it cry no mo’e,
    Ain’t goin’ lay it on de flo’.

    Hush now, finish out yo’ nap,
    W’ile I make yo’ luttle cap;
    Blessid luttle sugar-pie,
    Hush now, baby, don’ it cry.

    Mammy’s goin’ to make its dres’,
    Go to sleep an’ take yo’ res’;
    Hush now, don’ it cry no mo’e,
    Ain’t goin’ lay you on de flo’.

Carmichael was born at Snow Hill, Alabama, and in the Industrial
Institute there received the rudiments of an education, which was added
to by a summer term at Harvard. Since the book mentioned I have seen
nothing from his pen.

The elder Cotter in _A White Song and a Black Song_ gives us in the
second part several dialect pieces in the most successful manner.
Several are satirical, like the following:


    Neber min’ what’s in your cran’um
      So your collar’s high an’ true.
    Neber min’ what’s in your pocket
      So de blackin’s on your shoe.

    Neber min’ who keeps you comp’ny
      So he halfs up what he’s tuk.
    Neber min’ what way you’s gwine
      So you’s gwine away from wuk.

    Neber min’ de race’s troubles
      So you profits by dem all.
    Neber min’ your leaders’ stumblin’
      So you he’ps to mak’ dem fall.

    Neber min’ what’s true to-morrow
      So you libes a dream to-day.
    Neber min’ what tax is levied
      So it’s not on craps or play.

    Neber min’ how hard you labors
      So you does it to de en’
    Dat de judge is boun’ to sen’ you
      An’ your record to de “pen.”

    Neber min’ your manhood’s risin’
      So you habe a way to stay it.
    Neber min’ folks’ good opinion
      So you have a way to slay it.

    Neber min’ man’s why an’ wharfo’
      So de worl’ is big an’ roun.
    Neber min’ whar next you’s gwine to
      So you’s six foot under groun’.

Raymond Garfield Dandridge in _The Poet and Other Poems_ has included a
handful of dialect pieces which prove him a master of this species of
composition. I will select but one to represent this class of his work


    I ’fess Ise ugly, big, an’ ruff,
    Mah voice is husky, mannah’s gruff;
    But, mah gal sed, “Neb mine yore hide,
    I jedged you by yore inside side”;
    An’ sed, dat she hab alwuz foun’,
    De gole beneaf de surfuss groun’.

    She claims dat offen rail ruff hides
    Am boun’ erroun’ hi’ grade insides;
    W’ile sum dat ’pear “sharp ez a tack”
    Kinceals a heart dat’s hard an’ black;
    An’, to prove her way ob thinkin’,
    Gibs fo’ zample Abeham Linkin.

    Ole “Hones’ Abe,” so lank an’ tall,
    Worn’t no parlah posin’ doll:
    Yet he stood out miles erbove
    Uddah men, in truf an’ love.
    An’ in han’lin’ ’fairs of state,
    Proved de greates’ ob de great.

    In makin’ great men, Nature mus’
    Fo’ got erbout de beauty dus’
    An’ fashun dem frum nachel clay,
    De gritty kine, dat doan decay.
    But, mos’ her time she spent, I know,
    Erpon de parts dat duzen show.

Two poems by Sterling M. Means, one in standard English and one in
dialect may well be placed here side by side for comparison as being
identical in theme and feeling, and differing but in manner. They are
taken from his book entitled _The Deserted Cabin and Other Poems_:


    ’Tis a scene so sad and lonely,
      ’Tis the site of ancient toil;
    Where our fathers bore their burdens,
      Where they sleep beneath the soil;
    And the fields are waste and barren,
      Where the sugar cane did grow,
    Where they tilled the corn and cotton,
      In the years of long ago;

    And along the piney hillside,
      Where the hound pursued the slave,
    In the dreary years of bondage,
      There he fills an humble grave.


    Dis ole deserted cabin
      Remin’s me ob de past;
    An’ when I gits ter t’inkin’,
      De tears comes t’ick an’ fast.

    I wunner whur’s A’nt Doshy,
      I wunner whur’s Brur Jim;
    I hyeahs no corn-songs ringin’,
      I hyeahs no Gospel hymn.

    Dis ole deserted cabin
      Am tumblin’ in decay;
    An’ all its ole-time dwellers
      Hab gone de silent way.

    Dey voices hushed in silence,
      De cabin drear an’ lone;
    An’ dey who used ter lib hyeah
      Long sense is dead an’ gone.

J. Mord Allen’s poems and tales in dialect are worthy of distinction.
They are executed in the true spirit of art. I should rank his book,
elsewhere named, as one of the few best the Negro has contributed to
literature. I will give here one specimen of his dialect verse:


     NOTE.--Physicians are agreed that laziness is a microbe disease.

              Go en fetch er lawyer, ’Tilda,
                ’Kaze I wants ter make mah will;
              Neenter min’ erbout de doctor--
                ’Tain’t no use ter take er pill.--
              Chunk up de kitchen fire,
                En fetch mah easy-ch’er,
              En put er piller in it:
                Maybe I’ll git better hyeah.
    I done hyeahed de doctor say it--de doctor hisse’f said it--
      I’m plumb chock full o’ microbes en mah time’s ercomin’ quick.
    So, ’stid o’ up en fussin’ wid me fer bein’ lazy,
      Yer’d better be er nussin’ me, ’kaze I’m jes’ mighty sick.

              I ’spec’ I must er cotch it
                Back in Tennessee;
              ’Kaze, fur ez I kin ’member,
                I wuz bad ez I could be--
              P’intly hated hoein’ ’taters--
                Couldn’t chop er stick o’ wood--
              Couldn’t pick er sack o’ cotton--
                Never wuz er lick o’ good.
    En de folks dey called me lazy--my own mammy called me lazy
      When, ’stid o’ gwine plowin’, I wuz fishin’ in de creek;
    Took en tole de white folks ’bout it, en made er heap o’ trouble,
      En all fer want o’ medersun--me bein’ mighty sick.

              So, now yer knows de reason
                Why I’m always loafin’ ’roun’,
              When jobs is runnin’ after men
                In ev’y part o’ town.
              Dar’s patches on mah breeches,
                En you’s er sight ter see;
              Dat’s de work o’ dem same microbes,
                En it kain’t be laid on me.
    ’Kaze de doctor he explained it, en de doctor’s book explained it,
      En some Latin words explained it, en explained it mighty quick--
    It’s mah lights er else mah liver, er maybe, its mah stomach--
      It’s somep’n in mah insides, en it sho’ has made me sick.

              En so, I hope yer’ll git yerse’f
                Er washin’, now, er two,
              Er get er job o’ scrubbin’
                Er somp’n else ter do;
              ’Kaze dat doctor p’intly showed me
                So I couldn’t he’p but tell
              Dat dem microbes got me han’ en foot
                En I jes’ kain’t git well.
    Darfo’ I hope yer’ll he’p me ter pass mah las’ days easy,
      En keep er fire in de stove en somep’n in de pan.
    I know it’s hard ter do it, en I’m sorry I kain’t he’p yer;
      But me ’n de doctor bofe knows I’m er mighty sick man.

James Weldon Johnson entitled a section of his book _Jingles and
Croons_. Among these pieces, so disparagingly designated, are to be
found some of the best dialect writing in the whole range of Negro
literature. Every quality of excellence is there. The one piece I give
is perhaps not above the average of a score in his book:


(Negro Love Song)

    Breeze a-sighin’ and a-blowin’,
    Southern summer night.
    Stars a-gleamin’ and a-glowin’,
    Moon jus shinin’ right.
    Strollin’, like all lovers do,
    Down de lane wid Lindy Lou;
    Honey on her lips to waste;
    ’Speck I’m gwine to steal a taste.

        Oh, ma lady’s lips am like de honey,
        Ma lady’s lips am like de rose;
        An’ I’m jes like de little bee a-buzzin’
        ’Round de flowers wha’ de nectah grows.
        Ma lady’s lips dey smile so temptin’,
        Ma lady’s teeth so white dey shine,
        Oh, ma lady’s lips so tantalizin’,
        Ma lady’s lips so close to mine.

    Bird a-whistlin’ and a-swayin’
    In de live-oak tree;
    Seems to me he keeps a-sayin’,
    “Kiss dat gal fo’ me.”
    Look heah, Mister Mockin’ Bird,
    Gwine to take you at yo’ word;
    If I meets ma Waterloo,
    Gwine to blame it all on you.

        Oh, ma lady’s lips am like de honey,
        Ma lady’s lips am like de rose;
        An’ I’m jes like de little bee a-buzzin’
        ’Round de flowers wha’ de nectah grows.
        Ma lady’s lips dey smile so temptin’,
        Ma lady’s teeth so white dey shine,
        Oh, ma lady’s lips so tantalizin’,
        Ma lady’s lips so close to mine.

    Honey in de rose, I ’spose, is
    Put der fo’ de bee;
    Honey on her lips, I knows, is
    Put der jes fo’ me.
    Seen a sparkle in her eye,
    Heard her heave a little sigh;
    Felt her kinder squeeze mah han’,
    ’Nuff to make me understan’.

Numerous other writers would furnish quite as good specimens of
dialectical verse as those given. This medium of artistic expression is
not being neglected, it is only made secondary and, as it were,
incidental. By perhaps half of the poets it is not used. With a few, and
they of no little talent, it is the main medium. Among this few,
Carmichael has been named; S. Jonathan Clark, of Dublin, Mississippi,
and Theodore Henry Shackelford, of Jamaica Plains, New York, are others.


Shackelford, with little schooling, displays a versatility of talent.
His own pen has illustrated with interesting realistic sketches his book
entitled _My Country and Other Poems_, and for some of his lyrics he has
written music. A large proportion of his pieces are in dialect, much in
the spirit of Dunbar. His best productions in standard English are
ballads. He tells a tale in verse with Wordsworthian simplicity and
feeling. Mr. Clark is a school principal, with the education that
implies. He has not yet published a book.

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