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

Robert Kerlin, Chapter 7, "The Poetry of Protest" (Georgia Douglas Johnson, James Weldon Johnson, Lucian Watkins, Carrie Clifford, Claude McKay)




(Photograph of a panel of the Carl Schurz Monument)]

As elsewhere intimated there is being produced in America a literature
of which America, as the term is commonly understood, is not aware. It
is a literature of protest--protest sometimes pathetic and prayerful,
sometimes vehement and bitter. It comes from Negro writers, in prose and
verse, in the various forms of fiction, drama, essay, editorial, and
lyric. It is only with the lyric form that we are here concerned. Of
that we shall make a special presentation, in this chapter.

An artistic and restrained expression of the protest against irrational
color prejudice, in the plaintive, pathetic key, is found in the
following free-verse poem by Winston Allen:


    I touched the violin,
    I, whose hand was black,
    I touched the violin
    In a grand salon.
    I touched the violin
    In a Russian palace.
    I touched the violin
    And the dream-born strains
    Chanted by the Congo
    Soared to Heaven’s chambers.

    Could I touch the violin?
    I, whose hand was black?
    And bring to life dream music?
    Men had taunted me,
    Age-worn months: their jeers
    Snapped to bits my heartstrings,
    Snapped my inner soul;
    And the sting of living
    Tortured me the livelong day.

Sometimes the protest runs in a lighter vein--as thus, in verses


    Wherever we live, it’s right to forgive,
      It’s wrong to hold malice, we know,
    But there’s one thing that’s true, from all points of view,
      All Negroes hate old man Jim Crow.

    His home is in hell; he loves here to dwell;
      We meet him wherever we go;
    In all public places, where live both the races,
      You’ll always see Mr. Jim Crow.

    Be we well educated, even to genius related,
      We may have a big pile of dough,
    That cuts not a figger, you still are a nigger,
      And that is the law with Jim Crow.
            _The Nashville Eye._

But the Negro is seldom humorous these days on the subject of racial
discriminations. Occasionally, in dialect verse, he still makes merry
with the foibles or over-accentuated traits of certain types of the
Negro. In general, however, the Negro verse-smith goes to his work with
a grim aspect. He is there to smite. Sometimes the anvil clangs, more
mightily than musically. But there is precedent.

A stanza each from two poems somewhat intense will serve to show the
character of much verse in Negro newspapers. The first is from verses
entitled “Sympathy,” by Tilford Jones:

    Mourn for the thousands slain,
    The youthful and the strong;
    Mourn for the last; but pray,
    For those hung by the mobbing throng.
    Pray to our God above,
    To break the fell destroyer’s sway,
    And show His saving love.

The second is the last stanza of a poem entitled _Shall Race Hatred
Prevail?_ by Adeline Carter Watson.

    By the tears of Negro mothers,
    By the woes of Negro wives,
    By the sighs of Negro children,
    By your gallant snuffed-out lives,
    By the throne of God eternal;
    Standing hard by Heaven’s gate,
    Ye shall crush this cursed, infernal,
    Western stigma: groundless hate!

The following two poems have a world of pathos for every reflecting
person, in the unanswered question of each. The first is by Mrs. Georgia
Douglas Johnson:


    Shall I say, “My son, you are branded in this country’s pageantry,
    Foully tethered, bound forever, and no forum makes you free?”
    Shall I mark the young light fading through your soul-enchanneled eye,
    As the dusky pall of shadows screen the highway of your sky?
    Or shall I with love prophetic bid you dauntlessly arise,
    Spurn the handicap that binds you, taking what the world denies?
    Bid you storm the sullen fortress built by prejudice and wrong,
    With a faith that shall not falter in your heart and on your tongue!

The second is by Will Sexton:


    It is well, child of my heart, the rosebush drops
         its petals on your grave.
    It is well, child of my heart, the sparrow sings to
         you when Aurora has rouged the sky.
    In your trundle bed deep in the bosom of the earth
         you can dream pleasanter dreams than I.
    You have never felt the sting of living in a white
         man’s civilization and beneath a white man’s laws.
    You have never been forced to dance to the music of
         hate played by an idle orchestra.
    You have never toiled long hours and bowed and
         scraped for the chance to breathe.
    In your dreams you wonder in the Heaven beyond the
         skies with the God civilization rebukes.
    Tell me, little child, are you not happy in that
         realm no white man can enter?

In much of this utterance of protest, this arraignment of the white
man’s civilization that rebukes God, there may be more passion than
poesy. But out of such passion, as it were a rumbling of thunder, the
lightning will one day leap. A poet born and reared in South Carolina,
Joshua Henry Jones, Jr., appeals from man’s inhumanities to God’s
prevailing power in passionate stanzas of which this is the first, the
rest being like:

    They’ve lynched a man in Dixie.
      O God, behold the crime.
    And midst the mad mob’s howling
      How sweet the church bells chime!
    They’ve lynched a man in Dixie.
      You say this cannot be?
    See where his lead-torn body
      Mute hangs from yonder tree.

This or a similar lynching provoked the following lines from another,
Walter Everette Hawkins, in a poem entitled _A Festival in Christendom_.
After relating that the white people of a certain community were on
their way to church on the Sabbath day, the poem continues:

    And so this Christian mob did turn
    From prayer to rob, to lynch and burn.
    A victim helplessly he fell
    To tortures truly kin to hell;
    They bound him fast and strung him high,
    They cut him down lest he should die
    Before their energy was spent
    In torturing to their heart’s content.
    They tore his flesh and broke his bones,
    And laughed in triumph at his groans;
    They chopped his fingers, clipped his ears
    And passed them round as souvenirs.
    They bored hot irons in his side
    And reveled in their zeal and pride;
    They cut his quivering flesh away
    And danced and sang as Christians may;
    Then from his side they tore his heart
    And watched its quivering fibres dart.
    And then upon his mangled frame
    They piled the wood, the oil and flame.
    Lest there be left one of his creed,
    One to perpetuate his breed;
    Lest there be one to bear his name
    Or build the stock from which he came,
    They dragged his bride up to the pyre
    And plunged her headlong in the fire,
    Full-freighted with an unborn child,
    Hot embers on her form they piled.
    And they raised a Sabbath song,
    The echo sounded wild and strong,
    A benediction to the skies
    That crowned the human sacrifice.

Few are the poets quoted or mentioned in this volume who have not
contributed to this literature of protest. James Weldon Johnson, whose
predominant motive is artistic creation, affords more than one poem in
which the note of protest is sounded in pathos. Pathos is indeed the
characteristic note of the great body of Negro verse. Aided by the two
preceding extracts to an understanding of Johnson’s point of view, the
reader will appreciate the following poem, remarkable for that restraint
which adds to the potency of art:


    O whitened head entwined with turban gay,
    O kind black face, O crude, but tender hand,
    O foster-mother in whose arms there lay
    The race whose sons are masters of the land!
    It was thine arms that sheltered in their fold,
    It was thine eyes that followed through the length
    Of infant days these sons. In times of old
    It was thy breast that nourished them to strength.
    So often hast thou to thy bosom pressed
    The golden head, the face and brow of snow;
    So often has it ’gainst thy broad, dark breast
    Lain, set off like a quickened cameo.
    Thou simple soul, as cuddling down that babe
    With thy sweet croon, so plaintive and so wild,
    Came ne’er the thought to thee, swift like a stab,
    That it some day might crush thine own black child?

There died in Fort McHenry hospital, February, 2, 1921, a soldier-poet
of the Negro race, who had been called “the poet laureate of the New
Negro,” his name Lucian B. Watkins. He deserved the title, whatever may
be the exact definition of “the New Negro.” For in his lyrics, of many
forms, racial consciousness reached a degree of intensity to which only
a disciplined sense of art set a limit.--He was born in a cabin at
Chesterfield, Virginia, struggled in the usual way for the rudiments of
book-knowledge, became a teacher, then a soldier. His health was wrecked
in the World War. He died before his powers were matured.--Short and
simple are the annals of the poet. Before one of his intenser race poems
I shall give his last lyric cry, uttered but a few days before his
lingering death:

[Illustration: LUCIAN B. WATKINS]

    My fallen star has spent its light
        And left but memory to me;
    My day of dream has kissed the night
        Farewell, its sun no more I see;
    My summer bloomed for winter’s frost:
        Alas, I’ve lived and loved and lost!

    What matters it to-day should earth
        Lay on my head a gold-bright crown
    Lit with the gems of royal worth
        Befitting well a king’s renown?--
    My lonely soul is trouble-tossed,
        For I have lived and loved and lost.

    Great God! I dare not question Thee--
        Thy way eternally is just;
    This seeming mystery to me
        Will be revealed, if I but trust;
    Ah, Thou alone dost know the cost
        When one has lived and loved and lost.

The following sonnet, entitled “The New Negro,” will serve to represent
much of Watkins’s verse:

    He thinks in black. His God is but the same
    John saw--with hair “like wool” and eyes “as fire”--
    Who makes the visions for which men aspire.
    His kin is Jesus and the Christ who came
    Humbly to earth and wrought His hallowed aim
    ’Midst human scorn. Pure is his heart’s desire;
    His life’s religion lifts; his faith leads higher.
    Love is his Church, and Union is its name.

    Lo, he has learned his own immortal rôle
    In this momentous drama of the hour;
    Has read aright the heavens’ Scriptural scroll
    ’Bove ancient wrong--long boasting in its tower.
    Ah, he has sensed the truth. Deep in his soul
    He feels the manly majesty of power.

The protest not infrequently takes the form of entreaty and appeal,
sometimes the form of an invocation of divine wrath upon the doers of
evil. The following poem from Watkins, unique and effective in form and
biblical phrasing, is the kind of appeal that will not out of the mind:


    (Loose him and let him go--John 11.44)

    “Loose him!”--this man on whom you plod
    Beneath your heel hate-iron-shod;
    His silent sorrow troubles God--
          “Let him go!”

    There will be plagues, wars will not cease,--
    There cannot be a lasting peace
    Until this being you release--
          “Let him go!”

    Each doomful kingdom--throne and crown--
    Built on the lowly fettered down,
    Shall perish--lo, the heavens frown--
          “Let him go!”

    Naught but a name is Liberty,
    Naught but a name--Democracy,
    Till love has made each mortal free--
          “Let him go!”

    “Loose him!” He has his part to play
    In Life’s Great Drama, day by day,--
    He has his mission, God’s own way,--
          “Let him go!”

    “Loose him!” ’Twill be your master rôle,
    ’Twill be your triumph and your goal:
    ’Twill be the saving of your soul--
          “Let him go!”

Mr. Hawkins, whom I have quoted, entitled his book _Chords and
Discords_. What did he mean by “discords”? Perhaps a disparagement of
his muse’s efforts at music. Perhaps, and rather, something in the
content, for the contrasts are sharp, the tones are piercing. These
“discords” abound in contemporary Negro verse. Between the octave and
the sestet of the following sonnet, by Mrs. Carrie W. Clifford, the
discord is of the kind that stabs you:


    Now quivering to life, all nature thrills
    At the approach of that triumphant queen,
    Pink-fingered Easter, trailing robes of green
    Tunefully o’er the flower-embroidered hills,
    Her hair perfumed of myriad daffodils:
    Upon her swelling bosom now are seen
    The dream-frail lilies with their snowy sheen,
    As lightly she o’erleaps the spring-time rills.
    To black folk choked within the deadly grasp
    Of racial hate, what message does she bring
    Of resurrection and the hope of spring?
    Assurance their death-stupor is a mask--
    A sleep, with elements potential, rife,
    Ready to burst full-flowered into life.

The Negro’s deep resentment of his wrongs has found its most artistic
expression in the verse of a poet who came to us from Jamaica--Mr.
Claude McKay. In another chapter I have given the reader an opportunity
to judge of his merits. He will be represented here by a sonnet,
written, I believe, shortly after the race-riot in the national capital,
July, 1919. It has been widely reprinted in the Negro newspapers.


    If we must die, let it not be like hogs
      Hunted and penned in an inglorious spot,
    While round us bark the mad and hungry dogs,
      Making their mock at our accursed lot.
    If we must die--oh, let us nobly die,
      So that our precious blood may not be shed
    In vain; then even the monsters we defy
      Shall be constrained to honor us, though dead!

    Oh, kinsmen! We must meet the common foe;
      Though far outnumbered, let us still be brave,
    And for their thousand blows deal one death-blow.
      What though before us lies the open grave?
    Like men we’ll face the murderous, cowardly pack,
      Pressed to the wall, dying, but--fighting back!

Race consciousness has recently attained an extraordinary pitch in the
Negro, and there seems to be no prospect of any abatement. The
verse-smiths one and all have borne witness to a feeling of great
intensity on all subjects pertaining to their race--the discriminations
and injustices practised against it, the limitations that would be
imposed upon it, the contumelies that would offend it. Ardent appeals
are therefore made to race pride and ardent exhortations to race unity.
The ancient rôle of the poet whereby he is identified with the prophet
is being resumed by the enkindled souls of black men. With their natural
gift for music and eloquence, with their increasing culture, with their
building up of a poetic tradition now in process, with this
intensification of race consciousness, almost anything may be expected
of the Negro in another generation.

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