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

Robert T. Kerlin, "Preface" to "Negro Poets and Their Poems" (19230


_Ad astra per aspera_--that is the old Roman adage. Magnificent is it, and magnificently is it being in these days exemplified by the American Negroes, particularly by the increasing number of educated and talented American Negroes, and most particularly by those who feel the urge to express in song the emotions and aspirations of their people. A surprisingly large number is this class. Without exhausting the possibilities of selection I have quoted in this anthology of contemporary Negro poetry sixty odd writers of tolerable verse that exhibits, besides form, at least one fundamental quality of poetry, namely, passion.

The mere number, large as it is, would of course not signify by itself.
Nor does the phrase “tolerable verse,” cautiously chosen, seem to
promise much. What this multitude means, and whether the verse be worthy of a more complimentary description, I leave to the reader’s judgment. Quality of expression and character of content are of course the prepotent considerations.

While, in a preliminary section, I have passed in review the poetry of
the Negro up to and including Dunbar, not neglecting the old religious songs of the plantation, or “Spirituals,” and the dance, play, and nursery rhymes, or “Seculars,” yet strictly speaking this is a
representation of new Negro voices, an anthology of present-day Negro verse, with biographical items and critical, or at least appreciative comment.

I wish most heartily to express my obligations to the publishers and
authors of the volumes I have drawn upon for selections. They are named in the Index and Biographical and Bibliographical Notes at the end of the text. But for the reader’s convenience I collect their names here:

Richard E. Badger, publisher of Walter Everette Hawkins’s _Chords and Discords_; A. B. Caldwell, Atlanta, Ga., publisher of Sterling M. Means’ _The Deserted Cabin and Other Poems_; the Cornhill Company, publishers of Waverley Turner Carmichael’s _From the Heart of a Folk_; Joseph S. Cotter’s _The Band of Gideon_; Georgia Douglas Johnson’s _The Heart of a Woman_; Charles Bertram Johnson’s _Songs of My People_; James Weldo Johnson’s _Fifty Years and Other Poems_; Joshua Henry Jones’s _Poems of
the Four Seas_; Dodd, Mead and Company, publishers of Dunbar’s _Poems_; the Grafton Press, publishers of H. Cordelia Ray’s _Poems_; Harcourt, Brace & Company, publishers of W. E. Burghardt DuBois’s _Darkwater_; Pritchard and Ovington’s _The Upward Path_; the Macmillan Company, publishers of Thomas W. Talley’s _Negro Folk Rhymes_; the Neale Publishing Company, publishers of Kelley Miller’s _Out of the House of Bondage_; J. L. Nichols & Company, Naperville, Ill., publishers of Mrs. Dunbar-Nelson’s _The Dunbar Speaker and Entertainer_, and _The Life and
Works of Paul Laurence Dunbar_; the Stratford Company, publishers of Joshua Henry Jones’s _The Heart of the World and Other Poems_; and Leslie Pinckney Hill’s _The Wings of Oppression_. It is with their kind permission I am privileged to use selections from the books named. To _The Crisis_, _The Favorite Magazine_, and _The Messenger_, I am indebted for several selections, which I gratefully acknowledge.

To readers who are disposed to study the poetry of the Negro I would commend Dr. James Weldon Johnson’s _The Book of American Negro Poetry_ (Harcourt, Brace & Co.) and Mr. Arthur A. Schomburg’s _A Bibliographical Checklist of American Negro Poetry_ (Charles F. Hartman, New York). I am indebted to both these books and authors. To Mr. Schomburg I am also indebted for the loan of many of the pictures of the earlier poets.

                                                               R. T. K.

West Chester, Pa.
March 22, 1923.


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