Negro Poets and Their Poems/Chapter 2

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I. A Glance at the Field

Many are the forms of expression that the life of a developing people or group finds for itself—business and wealth, education and culture, political and social unrest and agitation, literature and art. It can scarcely happen that any people or group has a vital significance for other peoples or groups, or any real potency, until it begins to express itself in poetry. When, however, a race or a portion of our common race begins to embody its aspirations, its grievances, its animating spirit in song the world may well take notice. That race or portion of our common race has within it an unreckoned potency of good and evil—evil if the good be thwarted.

It is not, then, to editorials and speeches and sermons, nor to petitions, protests, and resolutions, but to poems that the wise will turn in order to learn the temper and permanent bent of mind of a people. Witness the recent history of Ireland. Her literary renascence preceded her effective political agitation. The political agitation which resulted in her independence was the work of poets. The real life of a people finds its only adequate record in song. All of a people’s history that is permanently or profoundly significant is distilled into poetry.

It is to the unknown poetry of a despised and rejected people that I call attention in these pages. One of this people’s poets sings:

We have fashioned laughter
Out of tears and pain,
But the moment after—
Pain and tears again.

—Charles Bertram Johnson.

And when he so sings we know there is one race above all others which these words describe. Another sings:

I will suppose that fate is just,
I will suppose that grief is wise,
And I will tread what path I must
To enter Paradise.

—Joseph S. Cotter, Sr.

And when he so sings we know out of what tribulations his resignation has been born. The resolution of despair cries out in the lines of another:

My life were lost if I should keep
A hope-forlorn and gloomy face,
And brood upon my ills, and weep,
And mourn the travail of my race.

—Leslie Pinckney Hill.

Another singer, coming out of the Black Belt of the lower South, records the daily and life-long history of his people in these lines:


A day of joy, a week of pain,
A sunny day, a week of rain;
A clay of peace, a year of strife;
But cling to Him, it’s all through life.

An hour of joy, a day of fears,
An hour of smiles, a day of tears;
An hour of gain, a day of strife,
Press on, press on, it’s all through life.

—Waverley Turner Carmichael.

In the poetry which the Negro is producing to-day there is a challenge to the world. His race has been deeply stirred by recent events; its reaction has been mighty. The challenge, spoken by one, but for the race, the inarticulate millions as well as the cultured few, comes thus:


How would you have us—as we are,
Or sinking ’neath the load we bear?
Our eyes fixed forward on a star?
Or gazing empty at despair?

Rising or falling? Men or things?
With dragging pace, or footsteps fleet?
Strong, willing sinews in your wings?
Or tightening chains about your feet?

—James Weldon Johnson.

With slight regard for smooth words another declares his grievances, that all may understand:

Yes, I am lynched. Is it that I
Must without judge or jury die?
Though innocent, am I accursed
To quench the mob’s blood-thirsty thirst?

Yes, I am mocked. Pray tell me why!
Did not my brothers freely die
For you, and your Democracy—
That each and all alike be free?

—Raymond Garfield Dandridge.

So runs the dominant note of this poetry. But it would be unjust to the race producing it to convey the idea that this is the only note. The harp of Ethiopia has many strings and the brothers of Memnon are many. Sometimes the note is one of simple beauty, like that of a wild rose blossoming by the wayside. No reader could tell what race produced such a lyric as the one following, but any reader responsive to the beauty of art and to the truth of passion would assert its excellence:

I will hide my soul and its mighty love
In the bosom of this rose,
And its dispensing breath will take
My love wherever it goes.

And perhaps she’ll pluck this very rose,
And, quick as blushes start,
Will breathe my hidden secret in
Her unsuspecting heart.

—George Marion McClellan.

In a Negro magazine one may chance upon a sonnet that the best poet of our times might have signed and feared no loss to his reputation, nor would there be any mark of race in its lines. To candid judgment I submit the following, from Mrs. Alice Dunbar-Nelson:


I had not thought of violets of late,
The wild, shy kind that spring beneath your feet
In wistful April days, when lovers mate
And wander through the fields in raptures sweet.
The thoughts of violets meant florists’ shops,
And bows and pins, and perfumed papers fine;
And garish lights, and mincing little fops,
And cabarets and songs, and deadening wine.
So far from sweet real things my thoughts had strayed,
I had forgot wide fields and clear brown streams;
The perfect loveliness that God has made—
Wild violets shy and Heaven-mounting dreams
And now unwittingly, you’ve made me dream
Of violets, and my soul’s forgotten gleam.

It needs not that a poet write an epic to prove himself chosen of the muse. The winds of time may blow into oblivion all but five lines of an opus magnum, in which five lines alone was the laborious author a poet. Wise is the poet who writes but the five lines, as here:


Since Poets have told of sunset,
What is left for me to tell?
I can only say that I saw the day
Press crimson lips to the horizon gray,
And kiss the earth farewell.

—Mary Effie Lee.

The theme may be as old as man and as common as humanity yet it can be made to be felt as poetic by one who has the magic gift, as here:


I cannot make my thoughts stay home;
I cannot close their door;
And, oh, that I might shut them in,
And they go out no more!

For they go out, with wistful eyes,
And search the whole world through;
Just hoping, in their wandering,
To catch a glimpse of you!

—Winifred Virginia Jordan.

One’s find may be in The Poet's Ingle of a newspaper, where an unknown name is attached to verses that have the charm which Longfellow found in the simple and heartfelt lays of the humbler poet. From such a poem, entitled To My Grandmother, by Mae Smith Johnson, I take two stanzas, the first two as beautiful as the theme evoked:

You ’mind me of the winter’s eve
When low the sinking sun
Casts soft bright rays upon the snow
And day, now almost done,
In silence deep prepares to leave,
And calmly waits the signal “Go.”

Your eyes are faded vestal lights
That once the hearth illumed,
Where vestal virgins vigil kept,
And budding virtue bloomed:
Like stars that beam on summer nights,
Your eyes, by joy and sorrow swept.

Less beautiful, less original, but in another way not less appealing, are these stanzas, also signed by an unknown name and taken from the Christmas number of a newspaper. They are the last stanzas but one of a poem entitled The Child Is Found, by Charles H. Este:

O hearts that mourn and sorrow so,
That doubt the power of God,
An angel now is bending low—
To comfort as you plod.

He speaks with tones of whispering love,
With feelings true and strong,
And sings of sweetest joys above,
For souls without a song.

Pride of race, no less than grief for wrongs endured, is one of the notes of this living verse. Eulogies of the men and women who have lived heroically for their people, giving vision, quickening aspiration, opening roads of advance, find a place in every volume of verse and in the pages of newspapers. Few white persons perhaps have paused to reflect how noteworthy this traditionary store of heroic names really is and how potent it is with the people inheriting it. Both practical and poetic uses—if these two things are different—it has. One cannot foretell to what reflections upon life the eulogist will be led ere he concludes. From an ode to Booker T. Washington, by Roscoe Riley Dungee, I take a stanza, by way of illustration:

Yet, virtue walks a path obscure,
And honor struggles to endure,
While arrogance and deeds impure
Adorn the Hall of Fame.
Still, power triumphs over right,
And wrong is victor in the fight;
Greed, graft, and knavery excite
Vociferous acclaim.

It has become evident to those who have seriously studied the present-day life of the Negroes that there has been in these recent years a renascence of the Negro soul. Poetry, as these pages will show, is one of its modes of expression. Other expressions there are, very significant ones, too, expressions which are material, tangible, expressible in figures. Not of this kind is poetry. Yet of all forms whereby the soul of a people expresses itself the most potent, the most effective, is poetry. The re-born soul of the Negro is following the tradition of all races in all times by pouring itself into that form of words which embodies the most of passionate thought and feeling.

Out of the very heart of a race of twelve million people amongst us comes this cry which a Negro poet of Virginia utters as


We would be peaceful, Father—but, when we must,
Help us to thunder hard the blow that’s just!

We would be prayerful: Lord, when we have prayed,
Let us arise courageous—unafraid!

We would be manly—proving well our worth,
Then would not cringe to any god on earth!

We would be loving and forgiving, thus
To love our neighbor as Thou lovest us!

We would be faithful, loyal to the Right—
Ne’er doubting that the Day will follow Night!

We would be all that Thou hast meant for man,
Up through the ages, since the world began!

God! save us in Thy Heaven, where all is well!
We come slow-struggling up the Hills of Hell!

—Lucian B. Watkins.

Too confidently, as we may learn, have we of the other race relied upon the Negro's innate optimism to keep him a safe citizen and a long-suffering servant. That optimism, that gaiety and buoyancy of spirit, if not indestructible in the African soul, is yet reducible to the vanishing point. There are signs of something quite different in the attitude of Negroes toward their white neighbors to-day. In their poetry this reputed optimism, where it exists, is found in union with a note of melancholy or of bitter complaint. A characteristic utterance of this mood I find in a poem entitled “The Optimist,” from which I will give one-third of its stanzas:

Never mind, children, be patient awhile,
And carry your load with a nod and a smile,
For out of the hell and the hard of it all,
Time is sure to bring sweetest honey—not gall.

Out of the hell and the hard of it all,
A bright star shall rise that never shall fall:
A God-fearing race—proud, noble, and true,
Giving good for the evil which they always knew.


So dry your wet pillow and lift your bowed head
And show to the world that hope is not dead!
Be patient! Wait! See what yet may befall,
Out of the hell and the hard of it all.

—Ethyl Lewis.

But in dark days the Negro has ever had refuges and sources of strength for the want of which other races have been crushed. One of these refuges for them is the benignant breast of nature—the deep peace of the woods and the hills, the quiet soothing of pleasant-running water, the benediction of bright skies. A rarely-gifted woman, Mrs. Georgia Douglas Johnson, singing her own consolation, with a pathos that pierces the heart, has sung for thousands of the women of her race else dumb alike in grief and in joy, and in mingled grief and joy:


I rest me deep within the wood,
Drawn by its silent call;
Far from the throbbing crowd of men
On nature’s breast I fall.

My couch is sweet with blossoms fair,
A bed of fragrant dreams,
And soft upon my ear there falls
The lullaby of streams.

The tumult of my heart is stilled,
Within this sheltered spot,
Deep in the bosom of the wood,
Forgetting, and—forgot!

Death and the mysteries of life, the pain and the grief that flesh and soul are heirs to, the eternal problems that address themselves to all generations and races, produce in the soul of the Negro the same reactions as of old they produced in the soul of David or of Homer, or as, in our own day, in the soul of a Wordsworth or a Shelley. Of this we have a glimpse in the following lyric, from Walter Everette Hawkins:


Curses come in every sound,
And wars spread gloom and woe around.
The cannon belch forth death and doom,
But still the lilies wave and bloom.
Man fills the earth with grief and wrong,
But cannot hush the bluebird’s song.
My stars are dancing on the sea,
The waves fling kisses up at me.
Each night my gladsome moon doth rise;
A rainbow spans my evening skies;
The robin’s song is full and fine;
And roses lift their lips to mine.

The jonquils ope their petals sweet,
The poppies dance around my feet;
In spite of winter and of death,
The Spring is in the zephyr’s breath.

This poetry but re-affirms the essential identity of human nature under black and white skins. But it will remind most of the white race of how ignorant they have been of that black race next door that is acquiring wealth and culture and is expressing in art and literature the spirit of an aspiring people—how ignorant of their real life, their very thoughts, their completely human joys and griefs. One of their poets was cognizant of this unhappy ignorance—the source of so much harshness of treatment—when he wrote:

My people laugh and sing
And dance to death—
None imagining
The heartbreak under breath.

—Charles Bertram Johnson.

Nothing weighs more heavily upon the soul of this race to-day than this everywhere self-betraying crass ignorance, made the more grievous to endure by the vain boast accompanying it, that “I know the Negro better than he knows himself.” This poetry in every line of it is a convincing contradiction of this insulting arrogancy. Essential identity, that is the message of these poets.

This kinship of souls and essential oneness of human nature, which Shylock, speaking for a similarly oppressed and outrageously treated people, pressed home upon the Christian merchants of Venice, finds typical expression in the following lines:

We travel a common road, Brother,—
We walk and we talk much the same;
We breathe the same sweet air of heaven—
Strive alike for fortune and fame;
We laugh when our hearts fill with gladness,
We weep when we’re smothered in woe;
We strive, we endure, we seek wisdom;
We sin—and we reap what we sow.
Yes, all who would know it can see that
When everything’s put to the test,
In spite of our color and features,
The Negro’s the same as the rest.

—Leon R. Harris.

It is to be expected that, notwithstanding the Anglo-Saxon culture of the producers of this poetry, the white reader will yet demand therein what he regards as the African traits. Perhaps it will be crude, artless, repetitious songs like the Spirituals. The quality of the Spirituals is indeed not wanting in some of the most noteworthy contemporary Negro verse. From Fenton Johnson’s three volumes of verse I could select many pieces that exhibit this quality united with disciplined art. For example, here is one:


(A Negro Spiritual)

Last night I played on David’s harp,
I played on little David’s harp
The gospel tunes of Israel;
And all the angels came to hear
Me play those gospel tunes,
As the Jordan rolled away.

The angels shouted all the night
Their “Glory, Hallelujah” shout;
Old Gabriel threw his trumpet down
To hear the songs of Israel,
On mighty David’s harp,
As the Jordan rolled away.

When death has closed my weary eyes
I’ll play again on David’s harp
The last great song in life’s brief book;
And all you children born of God
Can stop awhile and hear me play,
As the Jordan rolls away.

No less certain it is that many a reader will demand something more crude, more obscure, more mystical. Something, perhaps, at once ridiculous and wise—with big and strangely compounded words, ludicrously applied, yet striving at the expression of some peculiarly African idea. Of such verse I can produce no example. The nearest I can come to meeting such impossible demand is by submitting the following from William Edgar Bailey:


Mr. Self at the bat!
Well, we’re all at the bat—
For one thing or other,
For this or for that.
The ball may be hurled, in the form of this plea:
“Will you please help the poor?
God, have mercy on me!”
Mr. Self stops to think;
But the ball cuts the plate—
He’s aware that he slumped,
Grasps the bat,—but too late.
What you say, Mr. Ump?
Can it be? Yes, ’tis done!
“Well, I’ve said what I’ve said!”
Mr. Self,
Strike One!

Mr. Self’s face is grim.
’Tis the critical test—
For his heart, conscience-sick,
Heaves stern at his breast.
The Truth must be hurled, ’tis the law of the game;
If in life or in death,
If in falsehood or shame.
Mr. Self, strike the ball—
There’s a Tramp at your Gate!
Mr. Self still amazed—
And the ball cuts the plate.
Mr. Self murmured not;
The decision he knew,
“Well, you’ve done that before.”
Sighed the Ump.
Strike Two!

There’s the Beggar and Gate—
But his silver and gold,
Is amix with his blood;
A part of his soul.
The Nazarene stooped—as all Umpires will do,
With His eye on a line,
That his verdict be true—
Just a shift of the Truth,
Stern, the Nazarene tried,
But he tho’t of the Cross,
And the blood from His side.
“Your decision is false;
Oh, have mercy on me.”
But a voice from the sky,
Whispered low.
Strike three.

Of humorous verse there is very little produced by the Negro writers of these times. They take their vocation seriously. When their singing robes are on it is to the plaintive notes of the flute or the dolorous blasts of the trumpet they tune their songs.

These voices, and others like them, have but lately been lifted in song, they are still youthful voices, and they are but preluding the more perfect songs they are yet to sing. One voice that is now still, silenced lately in death, at the age of twenty-three years, has sung for them all what all feel:


Ashamed of my race?
And of what race am I?
I am many in one.
Through my veins there flows the blood
Of Red Man, Black Man, Briton, Celt, and Scot,
In warring clash and tumultuous riot.
I welcome all,
But love the blood of the kindly race
That swarths my skin, crinkles my hair,
And puts sweet music into my soul.

—Joseph S. Cotter, Jr.

“Sweet music in the soul”—that is heaven’s kind gift to this people, music of sorrow and of faith; music, low and plaintive, of hope almost failing; music, clear and strong, born of vision triumphant; music, alas, sometimes marred by the strident notes of hatred and revenge. Verily, poets learn in suffering what they teach in song.

In concluding this preliminary survey it should be reiterated that, if one meets here but with the rhythms and forms, as he may think, which are familiar to him in the poetry of the white race, he should reflect that only in that poetry has the Negro had an opportunity to be educated. He has been educated away from his own heritage and his own endowments. The Negro’s native wisdom should lead him back to his natural founts of song. Our educational system should allow of and provide for this. His own literature in his schools is a reasonable policy for the Negro.

As regards the essential significance of this poetry, one of its makers, Miss Eva A. Jessye, has said in a beautiful way almost what I wish to say. Her poem shall therefore conclude this presentation:


Because his speech was blunt and manner plain
Untaught in subtle phrases of the wise,
Because the years of slavery and pain
Ne’er dimmed the light of faith within his eyes;
Because of ebon skin and humble pride,
The world with hatred thrust the youth aside.

But fragrance wafts from every trodden flower,
And through our grief we rise to nobler things,
Within the heart in sorrow’s darkest hour
A well of sweetness there unbidden springs;
Despised of men, discarded and alone—
The world of nature claimed him as her own.

She taught him truths that liberate the soul
From bonds more galling than the slaver’s chain—
That manly natures, lily-wise, unfold
Amid the mire of hatred void of stain;
Thus in his manhood, clean, superbly strong,
To him was born the priceless gift of song.

The glory of the sun, the hush of morn,
Whisperings of tree-top faintly stirred,
The desert silence, wilderness forlorn,
Far ocean depths, the tender lilt of bird;
Of hope, despair, he sang, his melody
The endless theme of life’s brief symphony.

And nations marveled at the minstrel lad,
Who swayed emotions as his fancy led;
With him they wept, were melancholy, sad;
“’Tis but a cunning jest of Fate,” they said;
They did not dream in selfish sphere apart
That song is but the essence of the heart.

II. Representatives of the Present Era

I. The Cotters, Father and Son

The Father

On the Kentucky plantation where Stephen Collins Foster one June morning, when the mocking Joseph S. Cotter, Sr. birds were singing and “the darkies were gay,” composed and his sister sang, “My Old Kentucky Home,” there was among those first delighted listeners who paused in their tasks to hear the immortal song at its birth a slave girl in whose soul were strange melodies of her own. Born of free people of color, she was bonded to the owner of this plantation, yet her soul was such as must be free. Faithful in her work, respectful and obedient, she was yet a dangerous character among slaves, being too spirited. Hence her master ordered her to leave, fearing she would demoralize discipline in the quarters. She demanded to be taken away as she had been brought—in a wagon; and it was so done. It seems that one-half of her blood was African and the other half was divided between Indian and English, though it is impossible to be sure of the exact proportion. An account of her in those days by one who knew her reveals her as one of nature's poets—a Phillis Wheatley of the wash-tubs “She was very fervent in her religious devotions”—so runs this account—“and a very hard worker. She would sometimes wash nearly all night and then have periods of prayer and exaltation. Then again during the day she would draw from her bosom a favorite book and pause to read over the wash-tub. She had a strong dramatic instinct and would frequently make up little plays of her own and represent each character vividly.” Of such mothers are seers and poets born. And so in this instance it proved to be.

At the age of twenty, while yet a slave, she was married, under the common law—though marriage it was not called—to a Scotch-Irishman, a prominent citizen of Louisville, her employer at the time, who was distinguished by a notably handsome physique and a great fondness for books. Of this union was born, at Bardstown, a son, Joseph, so named for the dreamer of biblical story.

The vision-seeing slave mother, her mind running on the bondage of her people, named her son Joseph in the hope of his becoming great in the service of his people, like the Hebrew Joseph. She lived to see her hope fulfilled. The boy's earliest education was in song and story invented and sung or told by his mother. He got a few terms of school, reaching the third grade. At ten years of age he went to work in a brickyard of Louisville to help support his mother. Even there the faculty that afterwards distinguished him appears in action, to his relief in time of trouble. Bigger boys, white and black, working in the same yard, hazed and harried him. Fighting to victory was out of the question, against such odds. Brains won where brawn was wanting. He observed that the men at their noon rest-hour, the time of his distress, told stories and laughed. He couldn't join them, but he tried story-telling in the boy group. It worked. The men, hearing the laughter, came over and joined them. The persecuted boy became the entertainer of both groups. He had won mastery by wit, the proudest mastery in the world.

Then, until he was twenty-two years of age, he was a teamster on the levee. At this time the desire for an education mastered him and he entered a night school—the primary grade. Hard toil and the struggle to get on had not killed his soul but had wiped out his acquisitions of book-knowledge. In two terms he was qualified to teach. He is now the principal of the Samuel Coleridge-Taylor High School in Louisville, the author of several books, a maker of songs and teller of stories, and a man upright in conduct and wise in counsel.

It was at Bardstown, February 2, 1861, that Joseph Seamon Cotter was born. Let Bardstown be put on the literary map of America, not because Stephen Collins Foster wrote "My Old Kentucky Home" there, but because one was born there the latchet of whose poetic shoes he was not worthy to unloose. "A poet, a bard, to be born in Bardstown—how odd, and how appropriate!" one exclaims. And bard seems exactly the right appellation for this song-maker and story-man. But it is not altogether so. In character bardlike, but not in appearance. Bards have long, unkempt, white hair, which mingles with beards that rest on their bosoms. Cotter's square-cut chin is clean-shaven, and his large brain-dome shows like a harvest moon. But he makes poems and invents and discovers stories, and, bard-like, recites or relates them to whatever audience may call for them—in schools, in churches, at firesides. Minus the hairy habiliments he is a bard.

Some of Cotter's stories come out of Africa and are “different,” as the word goes. Some are “current among the colored folks of Louisville.” These, too, are different. Some are tragedies and some are comedies and some are tragi-comedies of everyday life among the Negroes. I will give one entire tale here, selecting this particular one because of its brevity, not its pre-eminence:


Once upon a time a Mule, a Hog, a Snake, and a Boy met. Said the Mule: “I eat and labor that I may grow strong in the heels. It is fine to have heels so gifted. My heels make people cultivate distance.”

Said the Hog: “I eat and labor that I may grow strong in the snout. It is fine to have a fine snout. I keep people watching for my snout.”

“No exchanging heels for snouts,” broke in the Mule.

“No,” answered the Hog; “snouts are naturally above heels.”

Said the Snake: “I eat to live, and live to cultivate my sting. The way people shun me shows my greatness. Beget stings, comrades, and stings will beget glory.”

Said the Boy: “There is a star in my life like unto a star in the sky. I eat and labor that I may think aright and feel aright. These rounds will conduct me to my star. Oh, inviting star!”

“I am not so certain of that,” said the Mule. “I have noticed your kind and ever see some of myself in them. Your star is in the distance.”

The Boy answered by smelling a flower and listening to the song of a bird. The Mule looked at him and said: “He is all tenderness and care. The true and the beautiful have robbed me of a kinsman. His star is near.”

Said the Boy: “I approach my star.”

“I am not so certain of that,” interrupted the Hog. “I have noticed your kind and I ever see some of myself in them. Your star is a delusion.”

The Boy answered by painting the flower and setting the notes of the bird's song to music.

The Hog looked at the boy and said: “His soul is attuned by nature. The meddler in him is slain.”

“I can all but touch my star,” cried the Boy.

“I am not so certain of that,” remarked the Snake. “I have watched your kind and ever see some of myself in them. Stings are nearer than stars.”

The Boy answered by meditating upon the picture and music. The Snake departed, saying that stings and stars cannot keep company.

The Boy journeyed on, ever led by the star. Some distance away the Mule was bemoaning the presence of his heels and trying to rid himself of them by kicking a tree. The Hog was dividing his time between looking into a brook and rubbing his snout on a rock to shorten it. The Snake lay dead of its own bite. The Boy journeyed on, led by an ever inviting star.

(Negro Tales.—Joseph S. Cotter, The Cosmopolitan Press, New York, 1912.)

Yes—Uncle Remus, in reality—and not exactly so. No copy. Not every like is the same. An Uncle Remus with culture and conscious art, yet unspoilt, the native qualities strong. And how poetic those qualities are!

Well might one expect a teacher, if he writes verse, to write didactic verse. But I think you will pronounce him to be an extraordinary teacher and verse-writer who writes as Mr. Cotter does, for example, in:


Thrice blessed he who wields the flail
Upon this century's threshing floor;
A few slight strokes by him avail
More than a hundred would of yore.

Around him lies the ripened grain
From every land and every age;
The weakest thresher should attain
Unto the wisdom of the sage.

Ambitious youth, this is the wealth
The ages have bequeathed to thee.
Thou canst not take thy share by stealth
Nor by mere ingenuity.

Thy better self must spur thee on
To win what time has made thy own;
No hand but labor's yet has drawn
The sweets that labor's hand has sown.

In verse presuming to be lyrical we hearken for the lyrical cry. That cry is in his lines, melodiously uttered, and poignant. For example:

The flowers take the tears
Of the weeping night
And give them to the sun
For the day's delight.

My passion takes the joys
Of the laughing day
And melts them into tears
For my heart's decay.

The sweet sadness of those stanzas lingers with one. A stanza from a poem entitled “The Nation's Neglected Child” may help us to their secret:

I am not thy pampered steed,
I am not thy welcome dog;
I am of a lower breed
Even than thy Berkshire hog;
I am thy neglected child—
Make me grow, but keep me wild.

In many of Cotter's verses there is a sonorous flow which is evidence of poetic power made creative by passion. Didacticism and philosophy do not destroy the lyrical quality. In The Book's Creed this teacher-poet makes an appeal to his generation to be as much alive and as creative as the creed makers of other days were. The slaves of the letter, the mummers of mere formulas, he thus addresses:

You are dead to all the Then,
You are dead to all the Now,
If you hold that former men
Wore the garland for your brow.

Time and tide were theirs to brave,
Time and tide are yours to stem.
Bow not o'er their open grave
Till you drop your diadem.

Honor all who strove and wrought,
Even to their tears and groans;
But slay not your honest thought
Through your reverence for their bones.

Cotter is a wizard at rhyming. His “Sequel to the Pied Piper of Hamelin” surpasses the original—Browning's—in technique—that is, in rushing rhythms and ingenious rhymes. It is an incredible success, with no hint of a tour-de-force performance. Its content, too, is worthy of the metrical achievement. I will lay the proof before the competent reader in an extract or two from this remarkable accomplishment:

The last sweet notes the piper blew
Were heard by the people far and wide;
And one by one and two by two
They flocked to the mountain-side.

Some came, of course, intensely sad,
And some came looking fiercely mad,
And some came singing solemn hymns,
And some came showing shapely limbs,
And some came bearing the tops of yews,
And some came wearing wooden shoes,
And some came saying what they would do,
And some came praying (and loudly too),
And all for what? Can you not infer?
A-searching and lurching for the Pied Piper,
And the boys and girls he had taken away.
And all were ready now to pay
Any amount that he should say.

So begins the Sequel. Another passage, near the end, will indicate the trend of the story:

The years passed by, as years will do,
When trouble is the master,
And always strives to bring to view
A new and worse disaster;
And sorrow, like a sorcerer,
Spread out her melancholy pall,
So that its folds enveloped all,
And each became her worshipper.
And not a single child was born
Through all the years thereafter;
If words sprang from the lips of scorn
None came from those of laughter.

Finally, the inhabitants of Hamelin are passing through death's portal, and when all had departed:

—a message went to Rat-land

And lo! a race of rats was at hand

They swarmed into the highest towers,
And loitered in the fairest bowers,
And sat down where the mayor sat,
And also in his Sunday hat;
And gnawed revengefully thereat.
With rats for mayor and rats for people,
With rats in the cellar and rats in the steeple,
With rats without and rats within,
Stood poor, deserted Hamelin.

Like Dunbar, Cotter is a satirist of his people—or certain types of his people—a gentle, humorous, affectionate satirist. His medium for satire is dialect, inevitably. Sententious wisdom, irradiated with humor, appears in these pieces in homely garb. In standard English, without satire or humor that wisdom thus appears:

What deeds have sprung from plow and pick!
What bank-rolls from tomatoes!
No dainty crop of rhetoric
Can match one of potatoes.

The gospel of work has been set forth by our poet in a four-act poetic drama entitled Caleb, the Degenerate. All the characters are Negroes. The form is blank verse—blank verse of a very high order, too. The language, like Shakespeare's—though Browning rather than Shakespeare is suggested—is always that of a poet. The wisdom is that of a man who has observed closely and pondered deeply. Idealistic, philosophical, poetical—such it is. It bears witness to no ordinary dramatic ability.

“Best bard, because the wisest,” says our Israfel. Verily. “Sage” you may call this man as well as “bard.” The proof is in poems and tales, apologues and apothegms. Joseph Seamon Cotter is now sixty years of age. Yet the best of him, according to good omens, is yet to be given forth, in song, story, precept, and drama. His nature is opulent—the cultivation began late and the harvest grows richer.

The chief event of his life, I doubt not, remains to be mentioned—a very sad one. This was the intimely death of his poet-son, Joseph S. Cotter, Jr. Born of this sorrow was the following lyric:

Oh, my way and thy way,
And life’s joy and wonder,
And thy day and my day
Are cloven asunder.

Oh, my trust and thy trust,
And fair April weather,
And thy dust and my dust
Shall mingle together.

The Son

Dead at the age Joseph S. Cotter, Jr.of twenty-three years, Joseph S. Cotter, Jr., left behind a thin volume of lyrics, entitled The Band of Gideon, and about twenty sonnets of an unfinished sequence, and a little book of one-act plays. I will presently place the remarkable title-poem of his book of lyrics before the reader, but first I will give two minor pieces, without comment:


On the dusty earth-drum
Beats the falling rain;
Now a whispered murmur,
Now a louder strain.

Slender silvery drumsticks,
On the ancient drum,
Beat the mellow music,
Bidding life to come.

Chords of earth awakened,
Notes of greening spring,
Rise and fall triumphant
Over everything.

Slender silvery drumsticks
Beat the long tattoo—
God the Great Musician
Calling life anew.


I plucked a rose from out a bower fair,
That overhung my garden seat;
And wondered I if, e'er before, bloomed there
A rose so sweet.

Enwrapt in beauty I scarce felt the thorn
That pricked me as I pulled the bud;
Till I beheld the rose, that summer morn,
Stained with my blood.

I sang a song that thrilled the evening air,
With beauty somewhat kin to love,
And all men knew that lyric song so rare
Came from above.

And men rejoiced to hear the golden strain;
But no man knew the price I paid,
Nor cared that out of my soul's deathless pain
The song was made.

The lyrical faculty is evinced by such poems. But others singers of our day might have produced them—singers of the white race. Not so, I think, of "The Band of Gideon." Upon that poem is the stamp, not of genius only, but of Negro genius. In it is re-incarnated, by a cultured, creative mind, the very spirit of the old plantation songs and sermons. The reader who has in his possession that background will respond to the unique and powerful appeal of this poem.


The band of Gideon roam the sky,
The howling wind is their war-cry,
The thunder's roll is their trumpet's peal
And the lightning's flash their vengeful steel.
Each black cloud
Is a fiery steed.
And they cry aloud
With each strong deed,
“The Sword of the Lord and Gideon.”

And men below rear temples high
And mock their God with reasons why,
And live in arrogance, sin, and shame,
And rape their souls for the world's good name.
Each black cloud
Is a fiery steed.
And they cry aloud
With each strong deed,
“The Sword of the Lord and Gideon.”

The band of Gideon roam the sky
And view the earth with baleful eye;
In holy wrath they scourge the land
With earthquake, storm, and burning brand.
Each black cloud
Is a fiery steed.
And they cry aloud
With each strong deed,
“The Sword of the Lord and Gideon.”

The lightnings flash and the thunders roll,
And “Lord have mercy on my soul,”
Cry men as they fall on the stricken sod,
In agony searching for their God.
Each black cloud
Is a fiery steed.
And they cry aloud
With each strong deed,
“The Sword of the Lord and Gideon.”

And men repent and then forget
That heavenly wrath they ever met.
The band of Gideon yet will come
And strike their tongues of blasphemy dumb.
Each black cloud
Is a fiery steed.
And they cry aloud
With each strong deed,
“The Sword of the Lord and Gideon.”

The reader, I predict, will be drawn again and again to this mysterious poem. It will continue to haunt his imagination, and tease his thought. The stamp of the African mind is upon it. Closely allied, on the one hand by its august refrain to the Spirituals, on the other hand it touches the most refined and perfected art; such, for example, as Rossetti's ballads or Vachel Lindsay's cantatas. It can scarcely be wondered at that the people of his race should call this untimely dead singer their Negro Lycidas.

II. James David Corrothers


So oft our hearts, beloved lute,
In blossomy haunts of song are mute;
So long we pore, ’mid murmurings dull,
O'er loveliness unutterable;
So vain is all our passion strong!
The dream is lovelier than the song.

The rose thought, touched by words, doth turn
Wan ashes. Still, from memory’s urn,
The lingering blossoms tenderly
Refute our wilding minstrelsy.
Alas! we work but beauty's wrong!
The dream is lovelier than the song.

Yearned Shelley o’er the golden flame?
Left Keats, for beauty's lure, a name
But “writ in water”? Woe is me!
To grieve o’er floral faëry.
My Phasian doves are flown so long—
The dream is lovelier than the song!

Ah, though we build a bower of dawn,
The golden-winged bird is gone,
And morn may gild, through shimmering leaves,
Only the swallow-twittering eaves.
What art may house or gold prolong
A dream far lovelier than a song?

The lilting witchery, the unrest
Of winged dreams, is in our breast;
But ever dear Fulfilment's eyes
Gaze otherward. The long-sought prize,
My lute, must to the gods belong.
The dream is lovelier than the song.

Cherokee-Indian, Scotch-Irish, French, and African blood in James David Corrothers, the J. D. Corrothers author of this poem, makes his complexion, he supposed, “about that of the original man.” The reader has already had, at the beginning of the discussion of Dunbar, a sonnet from this poet. The sonnet, the above poem, and the others given here were published in The Century Magazine. Not unworthy of The Century’s standards, the reader must say.

James David Corrothers was born in Michigan, July 2, 1869. His mother in giving him life surrendered her own. His father never cared for him. Sheltered for a few years by maternal relatives, he was out on the world in early boyhood, dependent on his own resources. Soon, because he was a Negro, he was a wanderer for work through several states. Often without money, friends, or food, he slept out of doors, sometimes in zero weather. At nineteen years of age, as before stated, he was shining shoes in a Chicago barber shop. There he was “discovered.”

Henry D. Lloyd was having his boots shined by young Corrothers when the two fell into book talk. The distinguished writer was astonished at the knowledge possessed by one engaged in such a menial occupation. Out of this circumstance, it seems, the Negro boot-black became a student in Northwestern University at Evanston, Illinois. By mowing lawns and doing whatever odd jobs he could find he worked his way for three years in the university. Then, by the kindness of Frances E. Willard, he had a year in Bennett College, Greensboro, North Carolina. Prior to his entrance at Northwestern there had been but one brief opportunity in his life for attending school. But the wandering youth, battling against the adverse fates, or, concretely stated, the disadvantage of being a Negro, had managed somehow to make great books his companions. Hence, he had entered what Carlyle calls “the true modern university.” Hence, his literary conversation with Mr. Lloyd.

Out of those early struggles, and perhaps also out of later hitter experiences, came such poems as the following:


To be a Negro in a day like this
Demands forgiveness. Bruised with blow on blow,
Betrayed, like him whose woe-dimmed eyes gave bliss,
Still must one succor those who brought one low,
To be a Negro in a day like this.

To be a Negro in a day like this
Demands rare patience—patience that can wait
In utter darkness. ’Tis the path to miss,
And knock, unheeded, at an iron gate,
To be a Negro in a day like this.

To be a Negro in a day like this
Demands strange loyalty. We serve a flag
Which is to us white freedom's emphasis.
Ah! one must love when truth and justice lag,
To be a Negro in a day like this.

To be a Negro in a day like this—
Alas! Lord God, what evil have we done?
Still shines the gate, all gold and amethyst
But I pass by, the glorious goal unwon,
“Merely a Negro”—in a day like this!

Even though his face be “red like Adam's,” and even though his art be noble like that of the masters of song, yet had Mr. Corrothers, even in the republic of letters, felt the handicap of his complexion, as this sonnet bears witness:


O'er all my song the image of a face
Lieth, like shadow on the wild, sweet flowers.
The dream, the ecstasy that prompts my powers,
The golden lyre's delights, bring little grace
To bless the singer of a lowly race.
Long hath this mocked me: aye, in marvelons hours,
When Hera's gardens gleamed, or Cynthia's bowers,
Or Hope's red pylons, in their far, hushed place!
But I shall dig me deeper to the gold;
Fetch water, dripping, over desert miles
From clear Nyanzas and mysterious Niles
Of love; and sing, nor one kind act withhold.
So shall men know me, and remember long,
Nor my dark face dishonor any song.

Death has silenced the muse of this dark singer, one of the best hitherto. That his endowment was uncommon and that his achievement, as evinced by these poems, is one of distinction, to use Mr. Howells's word, every reader equipped to judge of poetry must admit.

III. A Group of Singing Johnsons

In all rosters the name Johnson claims liberal space. Five verse-smiths with that cognomen will be presented in this book, and there is a sixth. These many Johnsons are no further related to one another, so far as I know, than that they are all Adam's offspring, and poets. Only three of them will be presented in this chapter: James Weldon Johnson, of Florida, author of Fifty Years and Other Poems (1917); Charles Bertram Johnson, of Missouri, author of Songs of My People (1918); Fenton Johnson, of Chicago, author of A Little Dreaming (1914); Visions of the Dusk (1915), and Songs of the Soil (1916). The fourth and fifth are women, and will find a place in another group; the sixth is Adolphus Johnson, author of The Silver Chord, Philadelphia, 1915. The three mentioned above will be treated in the order in which they have been named.

1. James Weldon Johnson

Now of New York, but born in Florida and reared in the South, James Weldon Johnson is a man of various abilities, accomplishments, and activities. He was graduated with the degrees of A. B. and A. M. from Atlanta University and later studied for three years in Columbia University. First a school-principal, then a practitioner of the law, he followed at last the strongest propensity and turned author. His literary work includes light operas, for which his brother, J. Rosamond Johnson, composed the music, and a novel entitled The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man. Having been United States consul in two Latin-American countries, he is a master of Spanish and has made translations of Spanish plays and poems. The English libretto of Goyescas was made by him for the Metropolitan Opera Company in 1915. James Weldon Johnson He is also one of the ablest editorial writers in the country. In the Public Ledger’s contest of 1916 he won the third prize. His editorials are widely syndicated in the Negro weekly press. Poems of his have appeared in The Century, The Crisis, and The Independent.

Professor Brander Matthews in his Introduction to Fifty Years and Other Poems speaks of “the superb and soaring stanzas” of the title-poem and describes it as “a poem sonorous in its diction, vigorous in its workmanship, elevated in its imagination, and sincere in its emotion.” Doubtless this will seem like the language of exaggeration. The sceptic, however, must withhold judgment until he has read the poem, too long for presentation here. Mr. Johnson’s poetical qualities can be represented in this place only by briefer though inferior productions. A poem of special significance, and characterized by the qualities noted by Professor Matthews in “Fifty Years,” is the following:


O Southland! O Southland!
Have you not heard the call,
The trumpet blown, the word made known
To the nations, one and all?
The watchword, the hope-word,
Salvation’s present plan?
A gospel new, for all—for you:
Man shall be saved by man.

O Southland! O Southland!
Do you not hear to-day
The mighty beat of onward feet,
And know you not their way?
’Tis forward, ’tis upward,
On to the fair white arch
Of Freedom's dome, and there is room
For each man who would march.

O Southland, fair Southland!
Then why do you still cling
To an idle age and a musty page,
To a dead and useless thing?
’Tis springtime! ’Tis work-time!
The world is young again!
And God's above, and God is love,
And men are only men.

O Southland! my Southland!
O birthland! do not shirk
The toilsome task, nor respite ask,
But gird you for the work.
Remember, remember
That weakness stalks in pride;
That he is strong who helps along
The faint one at his side.

For pure lyric beauty and exquisite pathos, Wordsworthian in both respects, but no hint of imitation, the following stanzas may be set, without disadvantage to them, by the side of any in our literature:

The glory of the day was in her face,
The beauty of the night was in her eyes,
And over all her loveliness, the grace
Of Morning blushing in the early skies.

And in her voice, the calling of the dove;
Like music of a sweet, melodious part.
And in her smile, the breaking light of love;
And all the gentle virtues in her heart.

And now the glorious day, the beauteous night,
The birds that signal to their mates at dawn,
To my dull ears, to my tear-blinded sight
Are one with all the dead, since she is gone.

Yet one other poem of this fine singer's I will give, selecting from not a few that press for the restricted space. The easy flow of the verse and the ready rhyme will be remarked—and that supreme quality of good lyric poetry, austere simplicity.


Mother, shed no mournful tears,
But gird me on my sword;
And give no utterance to thy fears,
But bless me with thy word.

The lines are drawn! The fight is on!
A cause is to be won!
Mother, look not so white and wan;
Give Godspeed to thy son.

Now let thine eyes my way pursue
Where’er my footsteps fare;
And when they lead beyond thy view.
Send after me a prayer.

But pray not to defend from harm,
Nor danger to dispel;
Pray, rather, that with steadfast arm
I fight the battle well.

Pray, mother of mine, that I always keep
My heart and purpose strong,
My sword unsullied and ready to leap
Unsheathed against the wrong.

Arduous labors in other fields than poetry threaten to silence Mr. Johnson’s muse, and that is to be regretted.

2. Charles Bertram Johnson

School-teacher, preacher, poet—this is Charles Bertram Johnson of Missouri. And in Missouri there is no voice more Charles Bertram Johnson tuneful, no artistry in song any finer, than his. Nor in so bold an assertion am I forgetting the sweet voice and exquisite artistry of Sarah Teasdale. Mr. Johnson’s art is not unlike hers in all that makes hers most charming. Only there is not so much of his that attains to perfection of form. On pages 52 and 63 were given two of his quatrain poems. These were of his people. But a lyric poet should sing himself. That is of the essence of lyric poetry. In so singing, however, the poet reveals not only his individual life, but that of his race to the view of the world. Another quatrain poem, personal in form, may be accepted as of racial interpretation:


So oft from out the verge afar
The dear dreams throng and throng,
Sometimes I think my soul a star,
And life a pulsed song.

Born at Callao, Missouri, October 5, 1880, of a Kentucky mother and a Virginia father, Charles Bertram Johnson attended a one-room school “across the railroad track,” where—who can explain this?—he was “Introduced to Bacon, Shakespeare, and the art of rhyming." It reads like an old story. Some freak of a schoolmaster whose head is tilled with “useless” lore—poetry, tales, and “such stuff”—nurturing a child of genius into song. But it was Johnson’s mother who was the great influence in his life. She was an “adept at rhyming” and “she initiated me into the world of color and melody”—so writes our poet. It is always the mother. Then, by chance—but how marvelously chance comes to the aid of the predestined!—by chance, he learns of Dunbar and his poetry. The ambition to be a poet of his people like Dunbar possesses him. He knows the path to that goal is education. He therefore makes his way to a little college at Macon, Missouri, from which, after five years, he is graduated—without having received any help in the art of poetry, however. Two terms at a summer school and special instruction by correspondence seem to have aided him here, or to have induced the belief that he had been aided. For twenty-odd years he followed the profession of teaching. For ten years of that period he also preached. The ministry now claims his entire energies, and the muse knocks less and less frequently at his door.

Yet he still sings. In a recent number of The Crisis I find a poem of his that in suggesting a life of toil growing to a peaceful close is filled with soothing melody:


Sit here before my grate,
Until it’s ashen gray,
Or till the night grows late,
And talk the time away.

I cannot think to sleep,
And miss your golden speech,
My bed of dreams will keep—
You here within my reach.

I have so much to say,
The time is short at best,
A bit of toil and play,
And after that comes rest.

But you and I know now
The wisdom of the soul,
The years that seamed the brow
Have made our visions whole.

Sit here before my grate
Until the ash is cold;
The things you say of late
Are fine as shriven gold.

Even though one be born to sing, if circumstances have made him a preacher he may be expected to moralize his song. Whether we shall be reconciled to this will depend on the art with which it is done. If the moral idea be a sweet human one, and if the verse still be melifluous, we will submit, and our delight will be twofold-ethical and esthetical. We will put our preacher-poet of Missouri to the test:


So much of love I need,
And tender passioned care,
Of human fault and greed
To make me unaware:

So much of love I owe,
That, ere my life be done,
How shall I keep His will
To owe not any one?

Truth is, Mr. Johnson is not given to preaching in verse any more than other poets. His sole aim is beauty. He assures me it is truth. Instead of admitting disagreement I only assert that, being a poet, he must find all truth beautiful. It is only for relative thinking we need the three terms, truth, goodness, and beauty.

I will conclude this presentation of the Missouri singer with a lyrical sermonette:


Chill the rain falls, chill!
Dull gray the world; the vale
Rain-swept; wind-swept the hill;
“But gloom and doubt prevail,”
My heart breaks forth to say.

Ere thus its sorrow-note,
“Cheer up! Cheer up, to-day!
To-morrow is to be!”
Babbled from a joyous throat,
A robin’s in a mist-gray tree.

Then off to keep a tryst—
He preened his drabbled cloak—
Doughty little optimist!—
As if in answer, broke
The sunlight through that oak.

3. Fenton Johnson

Dreams and visions—such are the treasures of suffering loyal hearts: dreams, visions, and song. Happy even in their sorrows the people to whom God has given poets to be their spokesmen to the world. Else their hearts should stifle with woe. As the prophet was of old so in these times the poet. As a prophet speaks Fenton Johnson, his heart yearning toward the black folk of our land:


These are my people, I have built for them
A castle in the cloister of my heart;
And I shall fight that they may dwell therein.
The God that gave Sojourner tongue of fire
Has made with me a righteous covenant
That these, my brothers of the dusk, shall rise
To Sinai and thence in purple walk
A newer Canaan, vineyards of the West.
The rods that chasten us shall break as straw
And fire consume the godless in the South;
The hand that struck the helpless of my race
Shall wither as a leaf in drear November,
And liberty, the nectar God has blest,
Shall flow as free as wine in Babylon.
O God of Covenants, forget us not!

Fenton Johnson seems to be more deeply rooted in the song-traditions of his people than are most of his fellow-poets. To him the classic Spirituals afford inspiration and pattern. Whoever is familiar with those “canticles of love and woe” will recognize their influence throughout Mr. Johnson’s three volumes of song. I shall make no attempt here to illustrate this truth but shall rather select a piece or two that will represent the poet’s general qualities. Other poems more typical of him as a melodist could be found but these have special traits that commend them for this place.


Mother, must I work all day?
All the day? Ay, all the day?
Must my little hands be torn?
And my heart bleed, all forlorn?
I am but a child of five,
And the street is all alive
With the tops and balls and toys,—
Pretty tops and balls and toys.

Day in, day out, I toil—toil!
And all that I know is toil;
Never laugh as others do,
Never cry as others do,
Never see the stars at night,
Nor the golden glow of sunlight,—
And all for but a silver coin,—
Just a worthless silver coin.

Would that death might come to me!
That blessed death might come to me,
And lead me to waters cool,
Lying in a tranquil pool,
Up there where the angels sing,
And the ivy tendrils cling
To the land of play and song,—
Fairy land of play and song.


Die, you vain but sweet desires!
Die, you living, burning fires!
I am like a Prince of France,—
Like a prince whose noble sires
Have been robbed of heritage;
I am phantom derelict,
Drifting on a flaming sea.

Everywhere I go, I strive,
Vainly strive for greater things;
Daisies die, and stars are cold,
And canary never sings;
Where I go they mock my name,
Never grant me liberty,
Chance to breathe and chance to do.

The Vision of Lazarus, contained in A Little Dreaming, is a blank-verse poem of about three-hundred lines, original, well-sustained, imaginative, and deeply impressive.

In one of the newer methods of verse, and yet with a splendid suggestion of the old Spirituals, I will take from a recent magazine a poem by Mr. Johnson that will show how the vision of his people is turned toward the future, from the welter of struggling forces in the World War:


From a vision red with war I awoke and saw the Prince
of Peace hovering over No Man’s Land.
Loud the whistles blew and thunder of cannon was
drowned by the happy shouting of the people.
From the Sinai that faces Armageddon I heard this
chant from the throats of white-robed angels:

Blow your trumpets, little children!
From the East and from the West,
From the cities in the valley,
From God’s dwelling on the mountain,
Blow your blast that Peace might know
She is Queen of God’s great army.
With the crying blood of millions
We have written deep her name
In the Book of all the Ages;
With the lilies in the valley,
With the roses by the Mersey,
With the golden flower of Jersey,
We have crowned her smooth young temples.
Where her footsteps cease to falter
Golden grain will greet the morning,
Where her chariot descends
Shall be broken down the altar
Of the gods of dark disturbance.
Nevermore shall men know suffering,
Nevermore shall women wailing
Shake to grief the God of Heaven.
From the East and from the West,
From the cities in the valley,
From God’s dwelling on the mountain,
Little children, blow your trumpets!

From Ethiopia, groaning ’neath her heavy burdens I
heard the music of the old slave songs.
I heard the wail of warriors, dusk brown, who grimly
fought the fight of others in the trenches of Mars.
I heard the plea of blood-stained men of dusk and the
crimson in my veins leapt furiously:

Forget not, O my brothers, how we fought
In No Man’s Land that peace might come again!
Forget not, O my brothers, how we gave
Red blood to save the freedom of the world!
We were not free, our tawny hands were tied;
But Belgium’s plight and Serbia’s woes we shared
Each rise of sun or setting of the moon.
So when the bugle blast had called us forth
We went not like the surly brute of yore,
But, as the Spartan, proud to give the world
The freedom that we never knew nor shared.
These chains, O brothers mine, have weighed us down
As Samson in the temple of the gods;
Unloosen them and let us breathe the air
That makes the goldenrod the flower of Christ;
For we have been with thee in No Man’s Land,
Through lake of fire and down to Hell itself;
And now we ask of thee our liberty,
Our freedom in the land of Stars and Stripes.

I am glad that the Prince of Peace is hovering over No Man’s Land.

4. Adolphus Johnson

From the Preface of Adolphus Johnson’s The Silver Chord I will take a paragraph that is more poetic and perfect in expression than any stanza in his book. Poetry, I think, is in him, but when he wrote these rhymes he was not yet sufficiently disciplined in expression. But this is how he can say a thing in prose:

“As the Goddess of Music takes down her lute, touches its silver chords, and sets the summer melodies of nature to words, so an inspiration comes to me in my profoundest slumbers and gently awakens my highest faculties to the finest thought and serenest contemplation herein expressed. Always remember that a book is your best friend when it compels you to think, disenthralls your reason, enkindles your hopes, vivifies your imagination, and makes easier all the burdens of your daily life.”

IV. William Stanley Braithwaite

The critical and the creative faculties rarely dwell together in harmony. One or the other finally predominates. In the case of Mr. Braithwaite it seems to be the critical faculty. He has preferred, it seems, to be America’s chief anthologist, encouraging others up rugged Parnassus, rather than himself to stand on the heights of song. Since 1913 he has edited a series of annual anthologies of American magazine verse, which he has provided with critical reviews of the verse output of the respective year. Of several anthologies of English verse also he is the editor. Three books of original verse stand to his credit: Lyrics of Life and Love (1904). The House of Falling Leaves (1908), and Sandy Star and Willie Gee (1922). These dates seem to prove that the creative impulse has waned.

Verse artistry, in simple forms, reaches a degree of excellence in Mr. Braithwaite’s lyrics that has rarely been surpassed in our times. Graceful and esthetically satisfying expression is given to elusive or mystical and rare fancies. I will give one of his brief lyrics as an example of the qualities to which I allude:


No more from out the sunset,
No more across the foam,
No more across the windy hills
Will Sandy Star come home.

He went away to search it,
With a curse upon his tongue,
And in his hands the staff of life
Made music as it swung.

I wonder if he found it,
And knows the mystery now:
Our Sandy Star who went away
With the secret on his brow.

In a number of Mr. Braithwaite’s lyrics, as in this one, there is an atmosphere of mystery that, with the charming simplicity of manner, strongly suggests Blake. There is a strangeness in all beauty, it has been said. There is commonly something of Faëryland in the finest lyric poetry. Another lyric illustrating this quality in Mr. Braithwaite is the following:


It’s a long way the sea-winds blow
Over the sea-plains blue,—
But longer far has my heart to go
Before its dreams come true.

It’s work we must, and love we must,
And do the best we may,
And take the hope of dreams in trust
To keep us day by day.

It’s a long way the sea-winds blow—
But somewhere lies a shore—
Thus down the tide of Time shall flow
My dreams forevermore.

Mr. Braithwaite’s art rises above race. He seems not to be race-conscious in his writing, whether prose or verse. Yet no man can say but that race has given his poetry the distinctive quality I have indicated. In this connection a most interesting poem is his “A New England Spinster.” The detachment is perfect, the analysis is done in the spirit of absolute art. I will quote but two of its dozen or so stanzas:

She dwells alone, and never heeds
How strange may sound her own footfall,
And yet is prompt to others’ needs,
Or ready at a neighbor’s call.

But still her world is one apart,
Serene above desire and change;
There are no hills beyond her heart,
Beyond her gate, no winds that range.

Here is the true artist’s imagination that penetrates to the secrets of life. No poet’s lyrics, with their deceptive simplicity, better reward study for a full appreciation of their idea. So much of suggestion to the reader of the poems which follow:


Blest be Foscati! You’ve heard tell
How—spirit and flesh of him—blown to flame,
Leaped the stars for heaven, dropped back to hell,
And felt no shame.

I here indite this record of his journey:
The splendor of his epical will to perform
Life’s best, with the lance of Truth at Tourney—
Till caught in the storm.

Of a woman’s face and hair like scented clover,
Te Deums, Lauds, and Magnificat, he
Praised with tongue of saint, heart of lover—
Missed all, but found Foscati!


The warm October rain fell upon his dream,
When once again the autumn sadness stirred,
And murmured through his blood, like a hidden stream
In a forest, unheard.

The drowsy rain battered against his delight
Of the half forgotten poignancies,
That settle in the dusk of an autumn night
On a world one hears and sees.

One was, he thought, an echo merely,
A glow enshadowed of truths untraced;
But the autumn sadness, brought him yearly,
Was a joy embraced.


The way folks had of thanking God
He found annoying, till he thought
Of flame and coolness in the sod—
Of balms and blessings that they wrought

And so the habit grew, and then—
Of when and how he did not care—
He found his God as other men
The mystic verb in a grammar of prayer.

He never knelt, nor uttered words—
His laughter felt no chastening rod;
“My being,” he said, “is a choir of birds,
And all my senses are thanking God.”

Mr. Braithwaite is thoroughly conversant, as these selections indicate, with the subtleties and finest effects of the art poetic, and his impulses to write spring from the deepest human speculations, the purest motives of art. Hence in his work he takes his place among the few.

V. George Reginald Margetson

Under tropical suns, amid the tropical luxuriance of nature, developed the many-hued imagination of the subject of this sketch. His nature is tropical, for Mr. Margetson is a prolific bard: Songs of Life, The Fledgling Bard and the Poetry Society, Ethiopia’s Flight, England in the West Indies—four published books, and more yet unpublished—are proof. No excerpts can fully reveal the distinctive quality of Mr. Margetson’s poetry—its sonorous and ever-varying flow, like George Reginald Margetson a mountain stream, its descriptive richness in which it resembles his native islands. For he was born in the British West Indies, and there lived the first twenty years of his life. Coming to America in 1897, his home has been in Boston or its environment since that time. Educated in the Moravian School at St. Kitts, he has lived with and in the English poets from Spenser to Byron—Byron seems to have been his favorite—and so has cultivated his native talent. I can give here but one brief lyric from his pen.


In the East a star is rising,
Breaking through the clouds of war
With a light old arts revising
Shattering steel and iron bar.
Freedom’s heirs with banners blazing,
Emblems of Democracy,
At the magic light are gazing
Battling with Autocracy.

Through the night brave souls are marching
With the armies of the Free;
Where the Stars and Stripes o’er-arching
Form a sheltering canopy.
Allies! hold a front united!
Shaping well our destiny;
Let each brutal wrong be righted
In the drive for Liberty!

VI. William Moore

The productions I have seen in the Negro magazines and newspapers from William Moore’s pen give me the idea of a poet distinctly original and distinctly endowed with imagination. If there appears some obscurity in his poems let it not be too hastily set down against him as a fault. Some ideas are intrinsically obscure. The expression of them that should be lucid would be false, inadequate. Some poets there needs must be who, escaping from the inevitable, the commonplace, will transport us out into infinity to confront the eternal mysteries. Mr. Moore does this in two sonnets which I will give to represent his poetic work:


I do not care for sleep, I’ll wait awhile
For Love to come out of the darkness, wait
For laughter, gifted with the frequent fate
Of dusk-lit hope, to touch me with the smile
Of moon and star and joy of that last mile
Before I reach the sea. The ships are late
And mayhap laden with the precious freight
Dawn brings from Life’s eternal summer isle.

And should I find the sweeter fruits of dream—
The oranges of love and mating song—
I’ll laugh so true the morn will gayly seem
Endless and ships full laden with a throng
Of beauty, dreams and loves will come to me
Out of the surge of yonder silver sea.


I stood with dear friend Death awhile last night,
Out where the stars shone with a lustre true
In sacred dreams and all the old and new
Of love and life winged in a silver flight
Off to the sea of peace that waits where white,
Pale silences melt in the tranquil blue
Of skies so tender beauty doth imbue
The time with holiness and singing light.

My heart is Life, my soul, O Death, is thine!
Is thine to kiss with yearning life again,
Is thine to strengthen and to sweet incline
To peace and mellowed dream of joy’s refrain.
I ’ll stand with Death again to-night, I think,
Out where the stars reveal life’s deeper brink.

VII. Joshua Henry Jones, Jr.

Poets are born and nurtured in all conditions of life: Joseph Cotter the elder was a slave-woman’s child; Dunbar wrote his first book between the runs of the elevator he tended; Leon Joshua Henry Jones, Jr. R. Harris was left in infancy to the dreary shelter of an orphanage, then indentured to a brutal farmer; Carmichael came from the cabin of an unlettered farmer in the Black Belt of Alabama; of a dozen others the story is similar. Born in poverty, up through adversities they struggled, with little human help save perhaps from the croons and caresses of a singing mother, and a few terms at a wretched school, they toiled into the kingdom of knowledge and entered the world of poetry. Some, however, have had the advantages afforded by parents of culture and of means. Among these is the subject of this sketch, the son of Bishop J. H. Jones, of the African Methodist Episcopal Church. He has had the best educational opportunity offered by American colleges. He is a graduate of Brown University. Writing has been his employment since graduation, and he has been on the staffs of several New England papers. His first book of poems, entitled The Heart of the World (1919), now in the second edition, reveals at once a student of poetry and an independent artist in verse. His second book, Poems of the Four Seas (1921), shows that his vein is still rich in ore.

In Chapter VIII I give his “Goodbye, Old Year.” Another poem of similar technique takes for its title the last words of Colonel Roosevelt: “Turn out the light, please.” The reader cannot but note the sense of proper effect exhibited in the short sentences, the very manner of a dying man. But more than this will be perceived in this poem. It will seem to have sprung out of the world-weary soul of the young poet himself. Struggle, grief, weariness in the strife, have been his also. Hence:


Turn out the light. Now would I slumber,
I’m weary with the toil of day.
Let me forget my pains to number.
Turn out the light. Dreams come to play.

Turn out the light. The hours were dreary.
Clouds of despair long hid the sun.
I’ve battled hard and now I’m weary.
Turn out the light. My day is done.

I’ve done life’s best gloom’s ways to brighten—
I’ve scattered cheer from heart to heart,
And where I could I’ve sought to righten
The wrongs of men ere day depart.

This morn ’twas bright with hope—and cheery.
This noon gave courage—made me brave.
But as the sun sank I grew weary
Till now my soul for rest doth crave.

Turn out the light. I’ve done my duty
To friend and enemy as well.
I go to sleep where things of beauty
In glitt’ring chambers ever dwell.

Turn out the light. Now would I slumber.
To rest—to dream—soon go we all.
Let’s hope we wake soul free of cumber.
Turn out the light. Dream comrades call.

The next piece I select from Mr. Jones’s first book will represent his talent in another sphere. I suggest that comparison might be made between this song in literary English and Mr. Johnson’s Negro love song in dialect, page 226.


Dogwoods all a-bloom
Perfume earth’s big room,
White full moon is gliding o’er the sky serene.
Quiet reigns about,
In the house and out;
Hoot owl in the hollow mopes with solemn mien.
Birds have gone to rest
In each tree-top nest;
Cotton fields a-shimmer flash forth silver-green.

O’er the wild cane brake,
Whip-poor-wills awake,
And they speak in tender voicings, Heart, of You.
Answering my call,
Through the leafy hall,
Telling how I’m waiting for your tripping, Sue.
All the world is glad,
Just because I’m mad.
Sense-bereft am I through my great love for you.

Night is all a-smile,
Happy all the while.
That is why my heart so filled with song o’erflows.
I have tarried long,
Lilting here my song.
And I’ll ever waiting be till life’s step slows.
Come to me, my girl,
Precious more than pearl,
I’ll be waiting for you where the grapevine grows.

How my heart doth yearn,
And with anguish burn,
Hungry for sweet pains awaked with your embrace.
Starward goes my cry.
Echo hears my sigh.
Heaven itself its pity at my plight shows trace.
Parson waits to wed.
Soon the nuptials said.
I’ve a rose-clad cottage reared for you to grace.

The title-piece of Mr. Jones’s first volume reveals his mastery of effective form and his command of the language of passionate appeal. The World War, in which the Negroes of the country gave liberally and heroically, both of blood and treasure, for democracy, quickened failing hopes in them and kindled anew their aspirations. In this poem the writer speaks for his entire race:


In the heart of the world is the call for peace—
Up-surging, symphonic roar.
’Tis ill of all clashings; it seeks release
From fetters of greed and gore.
The winds of the battlefields echo the sigh
Of heroes slumbering deep,
Who gave all they had and now dreamlessly lie
Where the bayonets sent them to sleep.

Peace for the wealthy; peace for the poor;
Peace on the hillside, and peace on the moor.

In the heart of the world is the call for right:
For fingers to bind up the wound,
Slashed deep by the ruthless, harsh hand of might,
When Justice is crushed to the ground.
’Tis ill of the fevers of fear of the strong—
Of jealousies—prejudice—pride.
“Is there no ideal that’s proof against wrong?”
Man asks of the man at his side.

Right for the lowly; right for the great;
Right all to pilot to happiness’ gate.

In the heart of the world is the call for love:
White heart—Red—Yellow—and Black.
Each face turns to Bethlehem’s bright star above,
Though wolves of self howl at each back.
The whole earth is lifting its voice in a prayer
That nations may learn to endure,
Without killing and maiming, but doing what’s fair
With a soul that is noble and pure.

Love in weak peoples; love in the strong;
Love that will banish all hatred and wrong.

In the heart of the world is the call of God;
East—West—and North—and South.
Stirring, deep-yearning, breast-heaving call for God
A-tremble behind each mouth.
The heart’s ill of torments that rend men’s souls.
Skyward lift all faiths and hopes;
Across all the oceans the evidence rolls,
Refreshing all life’s arid slopes.

God in the highborn; God in the low;
God calls us, world-brothers. Hark ye! and know.

From Poems of the Four Seas I will take a piece that gives the Negro background for the yearning expressed in the foregoing poem:


They bind his feet; they thong his hands
With hard hemp rope and iron bands.
They scourge his back in ghoulish glee;
And bleed his flesh;—men, mark ye—free.
They still his groans with fiendish shout,
Where flesh streams red they ply the knout.
Thus sons of men feed lust to kill
And yet, oh God! they’re brothers still.

They build a pyre of torch and flame
While Justice weeps in deepest shame.
E’en Death in pity bows its head,
Yet ’midst these men no prayer is said.
They gather up charred flesh and bone—
Mementos—boasting brave deed done.
They sip of gore their souls to fill;
Drink deep of blood their hands did spill.

Go tell the world what men have done
Who prate of God and yet have none;
Think of themselves as wholly good,
Blaspheme the name of brotherhood;
Who hearken not as brothers cry
For brother’s chance to live and die.
To keep a demon’s murder tryst
They’d rend the sepulcher of Christ.

VIII. Walter Everette Hawkins


I am an Iconoclast.
I break the limbs of idols
And smash the traditions of men.

I am an Anarchist.
I believe in war and destruction—
Not in the killing of men,
But the killing of creed and custom.

I am an Agnostic.
I accept nothing without questioning.
It is my inherent right and duty
To ask the reason why.
To accept without a reason
Is to debase one’s humanity
And destroy the fundamental process
In the ascertainment of Truth.

I believe in Justice and Freedom.
To me Liberty is priestly and kingly;
Freedom is my Bride,
Liberty my Angel of Light,
Justice my God.

I oppose all laws of state or country,
All creeds of church and social orders,
All conventionalities of society and system
Which cross the path of the light of Freedom
Or obstruct the reign of Right.

This is a faithful self-characterization—such a man in reality is Walter Everette Hawkins. A fearless and independent and challenging spirit. He is the rare kind of man that must put everything to the severe test of absolute principles. He hates shams, hypocrisies, compromises, chicaneries, injustices. His poems are the bold and faithful expressions of his personality. Free he has ever been, free he will be ever, striking right out for freedom and truth. Such a personality is refreshing to meet, whether you encounter it in the flesh or in a book.

Born about thirty-five years ago, on a little farm in North Carolina, the thirteenth child of ex-slave parents, young Hawkins, one may imagine, was not opulent in this Walter Everette Hawkins world’s goods. Nor were his opportunities such as are usually considered thrilling. A few terms of miserable schooling in the village of Warrenton, the fragments of a few more terms in a school maintained by the African Methodist Church, then—“the University of Hard Knocks.” In the two first-named schools the independent-spirited lad seems not to have gotten along well with his teachers, hence a few dismissals. Always too prone to ask troublesome, challenging questions, too prone to doubts and reflections, he was thought incorrigible. In his “University” he chose his own masters—the great free spirits of the ages—and at the feet of these he was teachable, even while the knocks were hardest.

A lover of wild nature and able to commune with nature’s spirit, deeply fond also of communing with the world’s master minds in books, Mr. Hawkins is by necessity—while his spirit soars—the slave of routine toil, being, until recently, a mail clerk in the post office of the City of Washington. “My only recreation,” he writes me, “is in stealing away to be with the masters, the intellectual dynamos, of the world, who converse with me without wincing and deliver me the key to life’s riddle.”

A true expression of himself I said Mr. Hawkins’s poems are. In no degree are they fictions. As a companion to Credo, quoted to introduce him, I will give the last poem in his book, which will again set him before us as he is:


Let me seek no statesman’s mantle,
Let me seek no victor’s wreath,
Let my sword unstained in battle
Still lie rusting in its sheath;
Let my garments be unsullied,
Let no man’s blood to me cling;
Life is love and earth is heaven,
If I may but soar and sing.

This then is my sternest struggle,
Ease the load and sing my song,
Lift the lame and cheer the cheerless
As they plod the road along;
And we see ourselves transfigured
In a new and bigger plan;
Man transformed, his own Messiah,
God embodied into man.

For the whining craven class of men Mr. Hawkins has little respect:

The man who complains
When the world is all song,
Or dares to sit mute
When the world is all wrong;
Who barters his freedom
Vile honors to win,
Deserves but to die
With the vilest of men.

Upon the times in which we live his judgment is severe. His condemnation, however, bears witness to that earnestness of soul and that idealism of spirit which will not let the world repose in its wickedness. From a list of several poems attesting this I select the following as perhaps the most complete in form:


These the dread days which the seers have foretold,
These the fell years which the prophets have dreamed;
Visions they saw in those full days of old,
The fathers have sinned and the children blasphemed.
Hurt is the world, and its heart is unhealed,
Wrong sways the sceptre and Justice must yield.

We have come to the travail of troublous times,
Justice must bow before Moloch and Baal;
Blasphemous prayers for the triumph of crimes,
High sounds the cry of the children who wail.
Hurt is the world, and its heart is unhealed,
Wrong sways the sceptre and Justice must yield.

In the brute strength of the sword men rely,
They count not Justice in reckoning things;
Whom their lips worship their hearts crucify,
This the oblation the votary brings.
Hurt is the world, and its heart is unhealed,
Wrong sways the sceptre and Justice must yield.

Locked in death-struggle humanity’s host,
Seeking revenge with the dagger and sword;
This is the pride which the Pharisees boast,
Man damns his brother in the name of his Lord.
Hurt is the world, and its heart is unhealed,
Wrong sways the sceptre and Justice must yield.

Time dims the glare of the pomp and applause,
Vainglorious monarchs and proud princes fall;
Until the death of Time revokes his laws,
His awful mandate shall reign over all.
Hurt is the world, and its heart is unhealed,
Wrong sways the sceptre and Justice must yield.

A number of Mr. Hawkins’s productions reveal possibilities of beauty and effectiveness, which he had not the patience or the skill to realize. One imagines that he has never been able to bring his spirit to a submissive study of the minutiæ of metrical composition. A poet in esse—or in posse—is all that nature ever makes. And even the most free spirit must know well the traditions. Whether this iconoclast knows the Cavalier traditions of English poetry may be left to conjecture, but the following piece, illustrating Mr. Hawkins’s faults and virtues as a singer, will prove his kinship to the poetic tribe of which Lovelace and Suckling were conspicuous members:


Ask me why I love you, dear,
And I will ask the rose
Why it loves the dews of Spring
At the Winter’s close;
Why the blossoms’ nectared sweets
Loved by questing bee,—
I will gladly answer you,
If they answer me.

Ask me why I love you, dear,
I will ask the flower
Why it loves the Summer sun,
Or the Summer shower;
I will ask the lover’s heart
Why it loves the moon,
Or the star-besprinkled skies
In a night in June.

Ask me why I love you, dear,
I will ask the vine
Why its tendrils trustingly
Round the oak entwine;
Why you love the mignonette
Better than the rue,—
If you will but answer me,
I will answer you.

Ask me why I love you, dear,
Let the lark reply,
Why his heart is full of song
When the twilight's night;
Why the lover heaves a sigh
When her heart is true;
If you will but answer me,
I will answer you.

IX. Claude McKay

An English subject, being born and growing to manhood in Jamaica, Claude McKay, a pure blood Claude McKay Negro, was first discovered as a poet by English critics. In Jamaica, as early as 1911, when he was but twenty-two years of age, his Constab Ballads, in Negro dialect, was published. Even in so broken a tongue this book revealed a poet—on the constabulary force of Jamaica. In 1920 his first book of poems in literary English, Spring in New Hampshire, came out in England, with a Preface by Mr. I. A. Richards, of Cambridge, England. Meanwhile, shortly after the publication of his first book, he had come to the United States.

Here he has worked at various occupations, has taken courses in Agriculture and English in the Kansas State College, and has thus become acquainted with life in the States. He is now on the editorial staff of the Liberator, New York. There has been no poet of his race who has more poignantly felt and more artistically expressed the life of the American Negro. His poetry is a most noteworthy contribution to literature. From Spring in New Hampshire I am privileged to take a number of poems which will follow without comment:


Too green the springing April grass,
Too blue the silver-speckled sky,
For me to linger here, alas,
While happy winds go laughing by,
Wasting the golden hours indoors,
Washing windows and scrubbing floors.

Too wonderful the April night,
Too faintly sweet the first May flowers,
The stars too gloriously bright,
For me to spend the evening hours,
When fields are fresh and streams are leaping,
Wearied, exhausted, dully sleeping.


His spirit in smoke ascended to high heaven.
His Father, by the crudest way of pain,
Had bidden him to his bosom once again;
The awful sin remained still unforgiven:
All night a bright and solitary star
(Perchance the one that ever guided him,
Yet gave him up at last to Fate’s wild whim)
Hung pitifully o’er the swinging char.
Day dawned, and soon the mixed crowds came to view
The ghastly body swaying in the sun:
The women thronged to look, but never a one
Showed sorrow in her eyes of steely blue,
And little lads, lynchers that were to be,
Danced round the dreadful thing in fiendish glee.


Applauding youths laughed with young prostitutes
And watched her perfect, half-clothed body sway;
Her voice was like the sound of blended flutes
Blown by black players upon a picnic day.
She sang and danced on gracefully and calm,
The light gauze hanging loose about her form;
To me she seemed a proudly-swaying palm
Grown lovelier for passing through a storm.
Upon her swarthy neck, black, shiny curls
Profusely fell; and, tossing coins in praise,
The wine-flushed, bold-eyed boys, and even the girls,
Devoured her with eager, passionate gaze:
But, looking at her falsely-smiling face,
I knew her self was not in that strange place.


I would be wandering in distant fields
Where man, and bird, and beast live leisurely,
And the old earth is kind and ever yields
Her goodly gifts to all her children free;
Where life is fairer, lighter, less demanding,
And boys and girls have time and space for play
Before they come to years of understanding,—
Somewhere I would be singing, far away;
For life is greater than the thousand wars
Men wage for it in their insatiate lust,
And will remain like the eternal stars
When all that is to-day is ashes and dust:
But I am bound with you in your mean graves,
Oh, black men, simple slaves of ruthless slaves.

Distinction of idea and phrase inheres in these poems. In them the Negro is esthetically conceived, and interpreted with vision. This is art working as it should. Mr. McKay has passion and the control of it to the ends of art. He has the poet’s insight, the poet’s understanding.

Perhaps the most arresting poem in this list, and the one most surely attesting the genius of the writer, is The Harlem Dancer. It is an achievement in portrayal sufficient by itself to establish a poetic reputation. The divination that penetrates to the secret purity of soul, or nobleness of character, through denying appearances—how rare is the faculty, and how necessary! Elsewhere I give a poem from a Negro woman which evinces the same divine gift in the author, exhibited in a poem no less original and no less deeply impressive—Mrs. Spencer’s At the Carnival. Here I will companion The Harlem Dancer with one from Mr. Dandridge, for the comparison will deepen the effect of each:


(Who Was Christened Lucy Jane)

She danced, near nude, to tom-tom beat,
With swaying arms and flying feet,
’Mid swirling spangles, gauze and lace,
Her all was dancing—save her face.

A conscience, dumb to brooding fears,
Companioned hearing deaf to cheers;
A body, marshalled by the will,
Kept dancing while a heart stood still:

And eyes obsessed with vacant stare
Looked over heads to empty air,
As though they sought to find therein
Redemption for a maiden sin.

’Twas thus, amid force-driven grace,
We found the lost look on her face;
And then, to us, did it occur
That, though we saw—we saw not her.

Returning to Mr. McKay, we may assert that his new volume of verse, Harlem Shadows, confirms and enhances the estimate of him we have expressed.

X. Leslie Pinckney Hill

Bearing the diploma of the Lyric Muse, Mr. Leslie Pinckney Hill, schoolmaster of Cheyney, Pennsylvania, and authentic singer, is one of the Leslie Pinckney Hill newest arrivals on the slopes of Parnassus. A first glance tells that he is an agile climber, sinewy, easy of movement, light of step, with both grace and strength. Every indication in form and motion is for some point far up toward the summit. Youthful he is, ambitious, plainly, and, in spite of a burden, buoyant. “Climber,” I said. I will drop the figure. Poets were never pedestrians. Mr. Hill comes not afoot. If not on the wings of Pegasus, yet on wings he comes—the wings of oppression. Sad wings! yet it must be remarked that it is commonly on such wings that poets of whatever race and time rise. And Mr. Hill’s race knows no other wings. On the wings of oppression the Negro poet and the Negro people are rising toward the summits of Parnassus, Pisgah, and other peaks. This they know, too, and of it they are justly proud.

In his Foreword Mr. Hill thus states the case of his people, and, by implication, of himself: “Nothing in the life of the nation has seemed to me more significant than that dark civilization which the colored man has built up in the midst of a white society organized against it. The Negro has been driven under all the burdens of oppression, both material and spiritual, to the brink of desperation, but he has always been saved by his philosophy of life. He has advanced against all opposition by a certain elevation of his spirit. He has been made strong in tribulation. He has constrained oppression to give him wings.”

The significant thing about these wings, in a critical view, is that they fulfill the proper function of wings—bear aloft and sustain in flight through the azure depths. Mr. Hill’s wings do bear aloft and sustain: if not always, nor even ever, into the very empyrean of poetry yet invariably, seventy times, into the ampler air. Like all his race, he has suffered much; and, like all his race still, he has gathered wisdom from sorrow. As a true poet should have, he has philosophy, also vision and imagination—vision for himself and his people, imagination that sees facts in terms of beauty and presents truths with vital imagery. Add thereto craftsmanship acquired in the best traditions of English poetry and you have Hill the poet.

The merit of his book cannot be shown by lines and stanzas. As ever with true art, the merit lies in the whole effect of complete poems. Still, we may here first detach from this and that poem a stanza or two, despite the wrong to art. The first and fourth stanzas of the title-poem will indicate Mr. Hill’s technique and philosophy:

I have a song that few will sing
In honor of all suffering,
A song to which my heart can bring
The homage of believing—
A song the heavy-laden hears
Above the clamor of his fears,
While still he walks with blinding tears,
And drains the cup of grieving. ****** So long as life is steeped in wrong,
And nations cry: “How long, how long!”
I look not to the wise and strong
For peace and self-possession;
But right will rise, and mercy shine,
And justice lift her conquering sign
Where lowly people starve and pine
Beneath a world oppression.

The character and temper of the Negro in those gentler aspects which make such an appeal to the heart are revealed in the following sonnet:


O mother, there are moments when I know
God's presence to the full. The city street
May wrap me in the tumult and the heat
Of futile striving; bitter winds may blow
With winter-wilting freeze of hail and snow,
And all my hopes lie shattered in defeat;
But in my heart the springtime blossoms sweet,
And heaven seems very near the way I go.

These moments are the angels of that prayer
Which thou hast breathed for many a troubled year
With bended knee and swarthy-streaming face—
“Uphold him, Father, with a double care:
He is but mortal, yet his days must bear
The world cross, and the burden of his race.”

If these poems, taken collectively, do not declare “what is on the Negro's mind” they yet truly reveal, to the reflecting person, what has sunk deep into his heart. They are therefore a message to America, a protest, an appeal, and a warning. They will penetrate, I predict, through breast-armor of aes triplex into the hearts of those whom sermons and editorials fail to touch in the springs of action. Such is the virtue of music wed to persuasive words. In strong lines of soaring blank verse, in which Mr. Hill is particularly capable, he makes a direct appeal to America in behalf of his people, in a poem entitled Armageddon:

Because ye schooled them in the arts of life,
And gave to them your God, and poured your blood
Into their veins to make them what they are,
They shall not fail you in the hour of need.
They own in them enough of you to feel
All that has made you masters in your time—
Dear art and riches, unremitting toil,
Proud types of beauty, an unbounded will
To triumph, wondrous science and old law—
These have they learned to covet and to share.

But deeper in them still is something steeled
To hot abhorrence and unmeasured dread
Of your undaunted sins against the light—
Red sins of lust, of envy and of hate,
Of guilty gain extorted from the weak,
Of brotherhood traduced, and God denied.
All this have they beheld without revolt,
And borne the brunt in agonizing prayer.

For other strains of blood that flow from times
Older than Egypt, whence the dark man gave
The rudiments of learning to all lands,
Have been a strong constraint. And they have dreamed
Of a peculiar mission under heaven,
And felt the force of unexampled gifts
That make for them a rare inheritance—
The gift of cheerful confidence in man,
The gift of calm endurance, solacing
An infinite capacity for pain,
The gift of an unfeigned humility,
Blinding the eyes of strident arrogance
And bigot pride to that philosophy
And that far-glancing wisdom which it veils,
Of joy in beauty, hardihood in toil,
Of hope in tribulation, and of wide
Adaptive power without a parallel
In chronicles of men.

A sonnet entitled To a Caged Canary in a Negro Restaurant will present the poet’s people with the persuasiveness of pathos as the foregoing poem with the persuasiveness of reason:

Thou little golden bird of happy song!
A cage cannot restrain the rapturous joy
Which thou dost shed abroad. Thou dost employ
Thy bondage for high uses. Grievous wrong
Is thine; yet in thy heart glows full and strong
The tropic sun, though far beyond thy flight,
And though thou flutterest there by day and night
Above the clamor of a dusky throng.
So let my will, albeit hedged about
By creed and caste, feed on the light within;
So let my song sing through the bars of doubt
With light and healing where despair has been;
So let my people bide their time and place,
A hindered but a sunny-hearted race.

It would be an injustice to this poet did I convey the idea that his seventy-odd poems are exclusively occupied with race wrongs and oppression. Not a few of them bear no stamp of an oppressed or afflicted spirit, though of sorrow they may have been nurtured.

A lyric of pure loveliness is the following, entitled


All the pleasance of her face
Telleth of an inward grace;
In her dark eyes I have seen
Sorrows of the Nazarene;
In the proud and perfect mould
Of her body I behold,
Rounded in a single view,
The good, the beautiful, the true;
And when her spirit goes up-winging
On sweet airs of artless singing,
Surely the heavenly spheres rejoice
In union with a kindred voice.

Schoolmaster I said Mr. Hill was. To represent his didactic quality, not his purer lyrical note, nor yet his narrative beauty, I choose the following piece:


The Philosophy of the American Negro

Four things we will not do, in spite of all
That demons plot for our decline and fall;
We bring four benedictions which the meek
Unto the proud are privileged to speak,
Four gifts by which amidst all stern-browed races
We move with kindly hearts and shining faces.

We will not hate. Law, custom, creed and caste,
All notwithstanding, here we hold us fast.
Down through the years the mighty ships of state
Have all been broken on the rocks of hate.

We will not cease to laugh and multiply.
We slough off trouble, and refuse to die.
The Indian stood unyielding, stark and grim;
We saw him perish, and we learned of him
To mix a grain of philosophic mirth
With all the crass injustices of earth.

We will not use the ancient carnal tools.
These never won, yet centuries of schools,
Of priests, and all the work of brush and pen
Have not availed to win the wisest men
From futile faith in battleship and shell:
We see them fall, and mark that folly well.

We will not waver in our loyalty.
No strange voice reaches us across the sea;
No crime at home shall stir us from this soil.
Ours is the guerdon, ours the blight of toil,
But raised above it by a faith sublime
We choose to suffer here and bide our time.

And if we hold to this, we dream some day
Our countrymen will follow in our way.

But though teacher Leslie Pinckney Hill is singer too. And though he has a message for America he also has music. His powers are rich, varied, cultured, and developing. His second book will be better than his excellent first.