Negro Poets and Their Poems/Chapter 8

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I. Eulogistic

Altogether admirable is the disposition of Negro verse-writers to eulogize the notable personages Mae Smith Johnson of their race, the men and women who have blazed the trail of advance. The mention of Attucks, Black Sampson, Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, and others like these, all practically unknown to white readers, is frequent, and reverential odes and sonnets to Douglass, Toussaint L’Ouverture, Washington, Dunbar, are many and enthusiastic. Here as elsewhere, however, I refrain from giving mere titles and from comments on productions merely cited. The reader will find such poems as I allude to in every poet’s volume. I refer to this body of eulogistic verse only to suggest to the reader who takes up the writings of the American Negroes that he will learn that they have a heritage of heroic traditions from which poetry springs in every race.

Instead of giving here such specimens of poetic eulogy as I have alluded to, however, I shall give a few poems of a more general significance, poems of appeal or tribute to the entire black race or poems of affectionate tribute to individuals. A free-verse poem entitled “The Negro,” by Mr. Langston Hughes, on page 200, may be recalled. Here is a sonnet with the same title, by Mr. McKay, which appeared in The People’s Pilot, published in Richmond, Va.:


Think ye I am not fiend and savage too?
Think ye I could not arm me with a gun
And shoot down ten of you for every one
Of my black brothers murdered, burnt by you?
Be not deceived, for every deed ye do
I could match—outmatch: am I not Afric’s son,
Black of that black land where black deeds are done?
But the Almighty from the darkness drew
My soul and said: Even thou shalt be a light
Awhile to burn on the benighted earth;
Thy dusky face I set among the white
For thee to prove thyself of highest worth;
Before the world is swallowed up in night,
To show thy little lamp; go forth, go forth!

From another Virginia magazine, also now defunct, The Praiseworthy Muse, of Norfolk, I take the following poem, signed by John J. Fenner, Jr.:


Ho! we from slumber wake!
Rise! young Negro—rise!
Begin our daily task anew—
Thank God we’re spared to—
Rise! young Negro—rise!

Thy task may be an humble one.
Rise! young Negro—rise!
However great, however small,
Honesty and respect for all—
Rise! young Negro—rise!

Each has a race to run.
Rise! young Negro—rise!
Enter now while we’re young,
Though weak and just begun.
Rise! young Negro—rise!

Our banner flown will some day read:
Rise! young Negro—rise!
Victory’s ours! We’ve won the race.
Then let us live in God by grace.
Rise! young Negro—rise!

In spirit and in form both these productions seem to be quite noteworthy. The first has in it something darkly and terribly ominous, while the second has all the fervor of religion in its youth. The class of poems to follow will afford a contrast. They will bear witness to that pride of race, perhaps, which we of the white race have commended to the colored people:


Awake! Arise! Men of my race—
I see our morning star,
And feel the dawn breeze on my face
Creep inward from afar.

I feel the dawn, with soft-like tread,
Steal through our lingering night,
Aglow with flame our sky to spread
In floods of morning light.

Arise, my men! Be wide-awake
To hear the bugle call
For Negroes everywhere to break
The bands that bind us all.

Great Lincoln, now with glory graced,
All Godlike with the pen,
Our chattel fetters broke and placed
Us in the ranks of men.

But even he could not awake
The dead, nor make alive,
Nor change stern Nature’s laws, which make
The fittest to survive.

Let every man his soul inure
In noblest sacrifice,
And with a heart of oak endure
Ignoble, arrant prejudice.

Endurance, love, will yet prevail
Against all laws of hate;
Such armaments can never fail
Our race its best estate.

Let none make common cause with sin,
Be that in honor bound,
For they who fight with God must win
On every battleground.

Though wrongs there are, and wrongs have been,
And wrongs we still must face,
We have more friends than foes within
The Anglo-Saxon race.

In spite of all the Babel cries
Of those who rage and shout,
God’s silent forces daily rise
To bring his will about.

—George Marion McClellan.


Were it mine to select a woman
As queen of the hall of fame;
One who has fought the gamest fight
And climbed from the depths of shame;
I would have to give the sceptre
To the lowliest of them all;
She, who has struggled through the years,
With her back against the wall.

Wronged by the men of an alien race,
Deserted by those of her own;
With a prayer in her heart, a song on her lips
She has carried the fight alone.
In spite of the snares all around her;
Her marvelous pluck has prevailed
And kept her home together—
When even her men have failed.

What of her sweet, simple nature?
What of her natural grace?
Her richness and fullness of color,
That adds to the charm of her face?
Is there a woman more shapely?
More vigorous, loving and true?
Yea, wonderful Negro woman
The honor I’d give to you.

Andrea Razafkeriefo.


My little one of ebon hue,
My little one with fluffy hair,
The wide, wide world is calling you
To think and do and dare.

The lessons of stern yesterdays
That stir your blood and poise your brain
Are etching out the simple ways
By which you must attain.

An echo here, a memory there,
An act that links itself with truth;
A vision that makes troubles air
And toils the joy of youth.

These be your food, your drink, your rest,
These be your moods of drudgeful ease,
For these be nature’s spur and test
And heaven’s fair decrees.

My little one of ebon hue,
My little one with fluffy hair,
Go train your head and hands to do,
Your head and heart to dare.

Joseph S. Cotter, Sr.


The mother soothes her mantled child
With plaintive melody, and wild;
A deep compassion brims her eye
And stills upon her lips the sigh.

Her thoughts are leaping down the years,
0’er branding bars, through seething tears:
Her heart is sandaling his feet
Adown the world’s corroding street.

Then, with a start, she dons a smile,
His tender yearnings to beguile;
And only God will ever know
The wordless measure of her woe.

Georgia Douglas Johnson.

The foregoing poems are generic in character, the following, specific. And yet there is much in these also that is typical and universal:


I hear you croon a little lullaby,
I see you press his little lips to yours,
Again old scenes come to my memory,
As if Love’s stream had gained the long lost shores;
As if the tidal wave of human good
Had thrown o’er me the mantle of control;
As if the beauty of true motherhood
Had gained the premise of my common soul.

The poet’s heart is yet within your breast,
The captain’s sword unconsciously you wield;
You know the sculptor’s masterpiece the best,
Thro’ you the master painter is revealed.
In you there dwells the Race’s latent power—
The power to make, the power to break apart;
The power to lift, the power again to lower
That burnished shield that guards the Race’s heart

And am I speaking as in hapless rhymes
Of things at least that may not come to pass?
Or is it not the spirit of the times
All things that savour power to amass?
Canst thou not see within thine own pure soul
That which thy Race and all the world awaits,
The master-leader who will reach the goal
And hew with sword of flame the city gates?

O Negro mother, from the dust arise,
Take up your task with grace and fortitude,
Knowing the goal is not the azure skies,
But here, and now, for thine own Race’s good.
Create anew the captains of the past;
Build in your soul the Ethiopian power,
That when the mighty quest is gained at last,
O Negro mother, fame shall be your dower.

Ben E. Burrell.


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.

Asleep, one night, an angel kissed
Your hair and on the morn
The raven threads were silv’ry gray;
The angel fair had borne
Your youth away ere it you missed
And left old age to bless your way.

Smile on, for when you smile, it seems
I cannot do a wrong;
Your smiles go with me all the while
And make life one sweet song;
And oft at night my troubled dream
Grows gay at thoughts of your bright smile.

Dark Africa with Caucasian blood
To tinge your veins combined,
Your proud head bowed to slavery’s thrall,
Your hands to toil consigned.
The Lord of hosts becalmed the flood,
The God Omnipotent o’er all.

Your ears have heard the din of war,
The martial tramp of feet,
Your voice has risen to your God
In supplications sweet.
May angels kiss each furrowed scar
Upon your brow where care has trod.

God bless the hands all withered now
By age and weary care.
God rest the feet that sought the way
To freedom bright and fair.
God bless thy life and e’er endow
Thee with new strength each new-born day.

—Mae Smith Johnson.


The sweetest charm of all the earth
Came into being with her birth.
All that without her we would lack
She is in purity and black.

The pansy and the violet,
The dark of all the flowers met
And gave their wealth of color in
The sable beauty of her skin.

Glad winds of evening are her face,
Gentle with love and rich in grace;
The blazing splendors of her eyes
Are jewels from the midnight skies.

Her hair—the darkness caught and curled,
The ancient wonder of the world—
Seems, in its strange, uncertain length,
A constant crown of queenly strength.

Her smile, it is the rising moon,
The waking of a night in June;
Her teeth are tips of white, they gleam
Like starlight in a happy dream.

Her laughter is a Christmas bell
Of “peace on earth and all is well!”
Her voice—it is the dearest part
Of all the glory in her heart.

The height of joy, the deep of tears,
The surging passion of the years,
The mystery and dark of things,
We feel their meanings when she sings.

Her thoughts are pure and every one
But makes her good to look upon.
Daughter of God! you are divine,
O, Ebon Maid and Girl of Mine!

—Lucian B. Watkins.

I will conclude this section with a very well rhymed tribute to two Negro bards between whom there was a friendship and a correspondence similar to that which existed between Burns and Lapraik. The writer, James Edgar French, was a native of Kentucky, studied for the ministry, and died early:


Dunbar and Cotter! foster-brothers, ye,
Nurst at the breast of heav’nly minstrelsy!
The first two Negroes who have dared to climb
Parnassus’ mount, and carve your names in rhyme;
Who, over icy walls of prejudice,
Where twice ten thousand gorgon monsters hiss,
Did scale the peak and make the steep ascent;
For which great feat ye had small precedent.
There were who said: “The Negro is not fit
To write good prose, much less to rhyme with wit”;
That nothing ever Negroes could inspire
With Spenser’s fancy or with Shakespere’s fire:
With Dryden’s vigor, with the ease of Pope,
To weave the iambic pentametric rope,
But ye, immortal sons of Afric, ye
Have proved these charges gross absurdity;
That old Dame Nature’s no respecter in
Regard to person or the hue of skin.
Omnific God, at whose fiatic hand
Did primogenial light deluge the land;
Whose word supreme did out of chaos draw
A world, and order made its guiding law,
Bequeath’d like talents to the black and white;
To read form’d some and others made to write;
To govern these, and those to governed be,
And you, great twain, endued with poesy!

—James Edgar French.

II. Commemorative and Occasional

From this body of Negro verse which I have been describing and giving specimens of may be selected pieces commemorative of days and seasons that are quite up to the standard of similar pieces provided for white children in their school-readers. These selections will further illustrate the variety of themes and emotional responses in this body of contemporary verse.

The first selection hardly needs any allowance to be made for it, I think, on the score that it was written by a girl only sixteen years of age:


’Tis Christmas time! ’Tis Christmas time!
Dear hallowed name of every clime!
How each one’s heart now happy feels,
How each one’s face fresh joy reveals
As Christmas Day is drawing near
The merriest day of all the year!

Old spite and hate, the scowl, the sneer
Are vanquished, all, by kindly cheer,
And friendships nigh forgot and cold
Glow warm again as once of old.
Man’s worries cease, his hope returns,
His breast with love now brighter burns;
So, Christmas cheer! Oh, Christmas cheer!
A hearty welcome to you here.

A welcome through the world where trod
The source of joy, the Son of God,
The Lowly One who from above
First warmed cold earth with gladsome love:
Who still proclaims with golden voice,
“Peace on earth! Rejoice! Rejoice!”

Corinne E. Lewis.

If the reader is disposed to make comparisons he might recall, without very great detriment to the following poem, Tennyson’s famous stanzas on the same theme. It is in the effective manner of the poems already given from its author:


Goodbye, Old Year. Here comes New.
You’ve done wonders; now you’re through;
Adding wisdom to the ages,
Making history’s best pages;
Rest and slumber with the sages.
Good-bye, Old Year. Welcome, New.

Goodbye, Old Year. Welcome, New.
Off with false hopes; on with true.
Nations raise a mighty chorus,
Rich intoning, grand, sonorous,
Blithe and gladsome, sad, dolorous;
Goodbye, Old Year. Welcome, New.
Off with false hopes. On with true.

Goodbye, Old Year. Hail the New.
Goodbye, hatreds. Wrongs, adieu.
Down Life’s lane, with high or lowly,
Weak, or strong, sin-cursed, or holy,
Time is reaping—trudging slowly.
Goodbye, Old Year. Hail the New.
Goodbye, hatreds. Wrongs, adieu.

Goodbye, Old Year. Come in, New.
Stout hearts look for light to you.
Rising hopes new scenes are staging;
Brotherhood our thoughts engaging.
Dreams of Peace hide battle raging.
Goodbye, Old Year. Come in, New.
Stout hearts fondly look to you.

—Joshua Henry Jones, Jr.

The remainder of the series will be given without comment:


To herald in another year,
With rhythmic note the snowflakes fall
Silently from their crystal courts,
To answer Winter’s call.
Wake, mortal! Time is winged anew!
Call Love and Hope and Faith to fill
The chambers of thy soul to-day;
Life hath its blessings still!

The icicles upon the pane
Are busy architects; they leave
What temples and what chiseled forms
Of leaf and flower! Then believe
That though the woods be brown and bare,
And sunbeams peep through cloudy veils,
Though tempests howl through leaden skies,
The springtime never fails!

Robin! Robin! call the Springtime!
March is halting on his way;
Hear the gusts. What! snowflakes falling!
Look not for the grass to-day.
Ay, the wind will frisk and play,
And we cannot say it nay.

She trips across the meadows,
The weird, capricious elf!
The buds unfold their prefumed cups
For love of her sweet self;
And silver-throated birds begin to tune their lyres,
While wind-harps lend their strains to Nature’s magic choirs.

Sweet, winsome May, coy, pensive, fay,
Comes garlanded with lily-bells,
And apple blooms shed incense through the bow’r,
To be her dow’r;
While through the leafy dells
A wondrous concert swells
To welcome May, the dainty fay.

Roses, roses, roses,
Creamy, fragrant, dewy!
See the rainbow shower!
Was there e’er so sweet a flower?
I’m the rose-nymph, June they call me.
Sunset’s blush is not more fair
Than the gift of bloom so rare,
Mortal, that I bring to thee!

Sunshine and shadow play amid the trees
In bosky groves, while from the vivid sky
The sun’s gold arrows fleck the fields at noon,
Where weary cattle to their slumber hie.
How sweet the music of the purling rill,
Trickling adown the grassy hill!
While dreamy fancies come to give repose
When the first star of evening glows.

Haste to the mighty ocean,
List to the lapsing waves;
With what a strange commotion
They seek their coral caves.
From heat and turmoil let us oft return,
The ocean’s solemn majesty to learn.

With what a gentle sound
The autumn leaves drop to the ground;
The many-colored dyes,
They greet our watching eyes.
Rosy and russet, how they fall!
Throwing o’er earth a leafy pall.

The mellow moon hangs golden in the sky,
The vintage song is over, far and nigh
A richer beauty Nature weareth now,
And silently, in reverence we bow
Before the forest altars, off’ring praise
To Him who sweetness gives to all our days.

The leaves are sere,
The woods are drear,
The breeze, that erst so merrily did play,
Naught giveth save a melancholy lay;
Yet life’s great lessons do not fail
E’en in November’s gale.

List! List! the sleigh bells peal across the snow;
The frost’s sharp arrows touch the earth and lo!
How diamond-bright the stars do scintillate
When Night hath lit her lamps to Heaven’s gate.
To the dim forest’s cloistered arches go,
And seek the holly and the mistletoe;
For soon the bells of Christmas-tide will ring
To hail the Heavenly King!

—H. Cordelia Ray.


(A Song for Arbor Day.)

Come, let us plant a tree today—
Forsake your book, forsake your play,
Bring out the spade and hie away
While April breezes blow.

Your life is young, and it should be
As full of vigor as this tree,
As fair, as upright and as free,
While April breezes blow.

Come, let us plant a tree to stand
Both fair and useful in the land,
Supremely tall and nobly grand
A strong and trusty oak.

Dig deep and let the long roots hold
A firm embrace within the mold:
And may your life in truth unfold
A strong and trusty oak.

Come, let us plant a supple ash,
A tree to bend when others crash,
And stand when vivid lightnings flash,
And clouds pour down the rain:

So while we plant we’ll learn to bend
And hold our ground, tho’ storms descend
Throughout our life, and lightnings rend,
And clouds pour down the rain.

Then let us plant these trees between
A graceful spruce in living green,
That e’en in winter days is seen
Like changeless springtime still:

And so may you as years go by,
And winter comes and snowflakes fly,
Be yet in heart, and mind and eye,
Like changeless springtime still.

Bring out the spade and hie away,
And let us plant a tree today
While skies are bright and hearts are gay,
And April breezes blow.

In other days ’neath April skies,
Around this tree may joyful cries
And happy children’s songs arise,
While April breezes blow.

D. T. Williamson.


What makes a nation truly great?
Not strength of arms, nor men of state,
Nor vast domains, by conquest won,
That knew not rise nor set of sun;
Nor sophist’s schools, nor learned clan,
Nor laws that bind the will of man,—
For these have proved, in ages past,
But futile dreams that could not last;
And they that boast of such today,
Are fallen, vanquished in the fray,
Their glory mingled with the dust,
Their archives stained with crime and lust;
And all that breathed of pomp and pride,
Like the untimely fig, has died.
One thing, alone, restrains, exalts
A nation and corrects its faults;
One thing, alone, its life can crown
And give its destiny renown.
That nation, then, is truly great,
That lives by love, and not by hate;
That bends beneath the chastening rod,
That owns the truth, and looks to God!

Edwin Garnett Riley.


My heart gives thanks for many things—
For strength to labor day by day,
For sleep that comes when darkness wings
With evening up the eastern way.
I give deep thanks that I’m at peace
With kith and kin and neighbors, too;
Dear Lord, for all last year’s increase,
That helped me strive and hope and do.

My heart gives thanks for many things;
I know not how to name them all.
My soul is free from frets and stings,
My mind from creed and doctrine’s thrall.
For sun and stars, for flowers and streams,
For work and hope and rest and play,
For empty moments given to dreams—
For these my heart gives thanks today.

William Stanley Braithwaite.

I will conclude this anthology with a selection from our Madagascar poet, Andrea Razafkeriefo, which, in a happy strain, conveys a very good philosophy of life—which is especially the Afro-American’s:


On rainy days I don’t despair,
But slip into my rocking chair;
With my old pipe and volume rare
And wade in fiction deep.
The pitter-patter of the rain
Upon the roof and window pane
Comes like a lullaby’s refrain,
Till soon I’m fast asleep.

I’m grateful for the rainy days:
’Tis only then my fancy plays,
And mem’ry wanders back and strays
O’er paths I loved so dear.
The lightning’s flash, the thunder’s peal
Convinces me that God is real;
And it’s a wondrous thing to feel
That he is really near.

Of the manifold and immense significance of poetry as a form of spiritual expression the Negro American has lately become profoundly aware, as this presentation must amply reveal. Not only the industrial arts are the objects of his ambition, according to the far-looking doctrine of Tuskegee, but as well those arts which are born of and express the spiritual traits of mankind, the fine arts—music, painting, sculpture, dramatics, and poetry. In them all the Negro is winning distinction. In consequence it would seem that there must dawn upon us, shaped by the poems of this collection, a new vision of the Negro and a new appreciation of his spiritual qualities, his human character. A profounder human sympathy with a greatly hampered, handicapped, and humiliated people must also ensue from such considerations as these poems will induce. One of the poets here represented cries out, as if from a calvary, “We come slow-struggling up the hills of Hell.” Another, in milder but not less appealing tone, cries: “We climb the slopes of life with throbbing hearts.”

This appeal, expressed or implicit throughout the entire range of present-day Negro verse, an appeal sometimes angrily, sometimes plaintively uttered, an appeal to mankind for fundamental justice and for human fellowship on the broad basis of kinship of spirit, may fittingly be the final note of this anthology:

We climb the slopes of life with throbbing hearts.