James Weldon Johnson, in his preface to God’s Trombones, expresses well the problems of the American Negro poet who wishes to preserve in his work racial tones and color, but desires an instrument of greater range than illiterate speech. Mr. Johnson wrote, “What the colored poet in the United States needs to do is something like what Synge did for the Irish; he needs to find a form that will express the racial spirit by symbols from within, rather than by symbols from without—such as the mere mutilation of spelling and pronunciation.” This transition in language from the quaintness of dialect to the preservation of Negro idioms and flavor in straight English, set a style which, since the publication of God’s Trombones in 1927, many other Negro poets including Sterling Brown and myself have followed. In my poems in the manner of the blues and spirituals, I have attempted to inject a sense of racial color and rhythms into the broader framework of the American language. Brown has done likewise in his book Southern Road.
Whatever the forms Negro poetry has taken in the last century, ranging from conventional English couplets and quatrains to free verse, from light lyrics to the well knit sonnet, from the blues and the spirituals to the highly personalized beatnik concepts of some of the younger black poets in Greenwich Village or San Francisco, the subject matter of Negro poetry East, West, North or South has remained more or less constant—the problems of freedom in a white dominated society. Most Negro poets a hundred years ago, and most Negro poets today are protest poets. When Claude McKay (1889-1948) came out of the Caribbean to the United States to publish in 1922 his Harlem Shadows containing many excellent sonnets, the poem therein to attain lasting fame and great popularity was his most militant sonnet, If We Must Die. This poem was a protest against the monstrous barbarity of the race riots which plagued America in the second decade of our century, and its advice to fight back struck a responsive chord in Negroes:
If we must die, let it not be like hogs
Hunted and penned in an inglorious spot,
While round us bark the mad and hungry dogs,
Making their mock at our accursed lot.
If we must die, O let us nobly die,
So that our precious blood may not be shed
In vain; Then even the monsters we defy
Shall be constrained to honor us though dead!
O kinsmen! We must meet the common foe!
Though far outnumbered let us show us brave,
And for their thousand blows deal one death-blow!
What though before us lies the open grave?
Like men we’ll face the murderous, cowardly pack,
Pressed to the wall, dying, but fighting back!
When Countee Cullen in 1925 published Color, a volume of lyric poetry, his poem Incident about a little white boy in Baltimore who insultingly called another little boy nigger soon became and still is the most quoted of Cullen’s poems:
Once riding in old Baltimore,
Heart-filled, head-filled with glee,
I saw a Baltimorean
Keep looking straight at me.
Now I was eight and very small,
And he was no whit bigger,
And so I smiled, but he poked out
His tongue, and called me, nigger.
I saw the whole of Baltimore
From May until December.
Of all the things that happened there
That’s all that I remember.