Negro Poets and Their Poems/Chapter 6

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


’Tis a scene so sad and lonely,
’Tis the site of ancient toil;
Where our fathers bore their burdens,
Where they sleep beneath the soil;

And the fields are waste and barren,
Where the sugar cane did grow,
Where they tilled the corn and cotton,
In the years of long ago;

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

Go en fetch er lawyer, ’Tilda,
’Kaze I wants ter make mah will;
Neenter min’ erbout de doctor—
’Tain’t no use ter take er pill.—
Chunk up de kitchen fire,
En fetch mah easy-ch’er,
En put er piller in it:
Maybe I’ll git better hyeah.

I done hyeahed de doctor say it—de doctor hisse’f said it—
I’m plumb chock full o’ microbes en mah time’s ercomin’ quick.
So, ’stid o’ up en fussin’ wid me fer bein’ lazy,
Yer’d better be er nussin’ me, ’kaze I’m jes’ mighty sick.

I ’spec’ I must er cotch it
Back in Tennessee;
’Kaze, fur ez I kin ’member,
I wuz bad ez I could be—
P’intly hated hoein’ ’taters—
Couldn’t chop er stick o’ wood—
Couldn’t pick er sack o’ cotton—
Never wuz er lick o’ good.

En de folks dey called me lazy—my own mammy called me lazy
When, ’stid o’ gwine plowin’, I wuz fishin’ in de creek;
Took en tole de white folks ’bout it, en made er heap o’ trouble,
En all fer want o’ medersun—me bein’ mighty sick.

So, now yer knows de reason
Why I’m always loafin’ ’roun’,
When jobs is runnin’ after men
In ev’y part o’ town.
Dar’s patches on mah breeches,
En you’s er sight ter see;
Dat’s de work o’ dem same microbes,
En it kain’t be laid on me.

’Kaze de doctor he explained it, en de doctor’s book explained it,
En some Latin words explained it, en explained it mighty quick—
It’s mah lights er else mah liver, er maybe, its mah stomach—
It’s somep’n in mah insides, en it sho’ has made me sick.

En so, I hope yer’ll git yerse’f
Er washin’, now, er two,
Er get er job o’ scrubbin’
Er somp’n else ter do;
’Kaze dat doctor p’intly showed me
So I couldn’t he’p but tell
Dat dem microbes got me han’ en foot
En I jes’ kain’t git well.

Darfo’ I hope yer’ll he’p me ter pass mah las’ days easy,
En keep er fire in de stove en somep’n in de pan.
I know it’s hard ter do it, en I’m sorry I kain’t he’p yer;
But me ’n de doctor bofe knows I’m er mighty sick man.

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


(Negro Love Song)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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