200 Years of Afro-American Poetry
Poet and writer Langston Hughes stood at the center of the Harlem renaissance, and advocated the preservation and communication of African American traditions across the genres of music, poetry, and theater. His own poetry often used the musical patterns of spirituals and the blues as received forms. In the 1960s, when this essay was published, Hughes’ refusal to convey a definitive political stance in his work caused some tension within the African American community, where conversation was dominated by the voices of Martin Luther King and Stokely Carmichael.
“200 Years of Afro-American Poetry” was originally intended as the introduction to Les Poetes Negres des Etats-Unis (1962, ed. Jean Wagner), which was published in the U.S. in 1973 as Black Poets of the United States: From Paul Laurence Dunbar to Langston Hughes.
In this essay, published two years before his death, Hughes offers an historical examination of the trajectory of African American poetry, beginning with the work of Lucy Terry, a slave, in 1746, and continuing through Phillis Wheatley and Paul Laurence Dunbar to the rising generation of African American poets in the 1950s and 60s, including LeRoi Jones, Julia Fields, Julian Bond, and David Henderson.
Hughes examines how the themes, and use of plantation dialect, in the early poets’ work impacted the extent of these poets’ successes among white and African American audiences. He praises James Weldon Johnson’s groundbreaking approach to the African American poet’s dilemma of wanting to convey and preserve racial elements in poetry while struggling against the limited vocabulary of plantation dialect. Johnson’s approach to this challenge, followed by Hughes and many other African American poets, was to use standard English to frame, and preserve, cultural idioms rather than poetry composed entirely within the limitations of dialect.
Finally, Hughes examines why most African American poets have been protest poets. As he notes, “over the years, the basic and most pertinent subject matter of Negro poetry has been not love, roses, moonlight, or death or sorrow in the abstract, but race, color, and the emotional problems related thereunto in a land that treats its black citizens, including poets, like pariahs.” While acknowledging the desire of many African American poets— and their critics—to address different, or more “universal” themes in their work, the prevalence of racism in the daily lives of African American poets makes its avoidance in poetry a near-impossibility, if, as Hughes asserts, “art is to be an intensification or enlargement of life, or to give adequate comment on what living is like in the poet's own time.”
Poets and versifiers of African descent have been publishing poetry on American shores since the year 1746 when a slave woman named Lucy Terry penned a rhymed description of an Indian attack on the town of Deerfield, Massachusetts, a quarter of a century before the revolt of the New England colonies against Britain.(1) And it was a Negro woman, Phillis Wheatley, who in one of her poems applied the oft quoted phrase “First in Peace” to General George Washington before he became the first President of the United States, From his rebel field encampment the General sent the young poetess a note which read in part, “If you should ever come to Cambridge or near headquarters, I shall be happy to see a person so favored by the Muses, and to whom Nature has been so liberal and beneficent in her dispensations. I am with great respect, Your Obedient Humble Servant, George Washington.”
Born in Senegal, Phillis Wheatley fortunately had been purchased at the age of seven or eight by a kindly master and mistress who took a fancy to the little black girl offered for sale on the decks of a slave ship in Boston Harbor. Of course, the tiny African spoke no English, and nobody knew her name, so she was given her master’s name, Wheatley, and her mistress, who called her Phillis, taught her to read and write. In her teens, the black youngster began to write poetry. Before Phillis was twenty, she was well known throughout the New England colonies for her poems. She wrote herself to freedom, modeling her verses after those of Milton, Dryden, and Alexander Pope (as was the fashion of her times) and, as a representative of colonial culture, Phillis Wheatley was sent to England where her book, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and
Moral, was printed in London in 1773. It was the first bound volume of poems by an Afro-American to appear in print.
Previously, a Long Island slave, Jupiter Hammon, had published broadsides as early as 1760. But it was more than fifty years before another actual book by a Negro poet was published. Then in 1829 George Moses Horton issued The Hope of Liberty while still in bondage in North Carolina. Later other volumes followed, but Horton’s books never sold enough copies, as he had hoped they might, to buy his freedom. Perhaps this was because Freedom was often the subject of his poems, and such a subject was no more pleasing to white southerners a hundred years ago than it is today in this century of Mississippi madness. Horton had to wait until the end of the Civil War to become a free man. Once liberated, he continued to protest in writing concerning the sad fate of the black man on American shores, in slavery or out. Almost all Negro poets—except the French speaking Louisiana Creoles—wrote plaints against slavery. The best of the black anti-slavery poets was a free woman in Baltimore, Frances E. W. Harper, whose books are said to have sold more than fifty thousand copies.(2) Hers was distinctly a poetry of protest, as has been most Negro poetry for two hundred years—which has limited its appreciation in America to a comparatively small circle of readers.
The first Negro poet whose work had a wide appeal for the white public was Paul Laurence Dunbar, born in Ohio in 1872 of parents who had been slaves. His mother could not read or write so, after Paul acquired some book learning in school, he began to teach his mother. But fortunately, the little boy did not erase from his mother’s tongue the quaint broken speech of the slave period. Her plantation dialect, and that of other elderly negroes who had known bondage in the Deep South, injected the folk flavor in much of Dunbar’s poetry. The charm and humor of this now almost unreadable slave English gave unique color to his work. Unfortunately, this idiomatic flavor is well nigh impossible to translate into European tongues—or even to put successfully into contemporary English—just as Chaucer or Shakespeare’s original language loses much of its patina when transcribed into modern speech. Paul Laurence Dunbar was Negro America’s first major (albeit minor) poet. A half century after his death, some of his poems are still read and recited by the Negro people, and some like Li’l’ Gal have been made into charming songs.
Oh, de weathah it is balmy an’ de breeze
is sighin’ low,
An’ de mockin’ bird is singin’ in de locus’
by de do’,
Dere’ a hummin’ an’ a bummin’ in de
lan’ f’om eas’ to wes’,
I’s a-sighin’ fo’ you, honey, an’ I nevah
know no res’,
Fu’ dey’s lots o’ trouble brewin’ an’
a-stewin’ in my breas’,
Li’l’ gal . . . . . . . .
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.
She does not know
She thinks her brown body
Has no glory
If she could dance naked,
Under palm trees
And see her image in the river
She would know.
But there are no palm trees
On the street,
And dish water
Gives back no images.
Directly concerned with the race problem, my own poem, I, Too, written in 1920 when I was eighteen years old, has over the years been translated into many languages and is still being reprinted in anthologies around the world.
I, too, sing America.
I am the darker brother.
They send me to eat in the kitchen
When company comes,
But I laugh,
And eat well,
And grow strong.
I’ll sit at the table
When company comes.
Say to me,
“Eat in the kitchen,”
They’ll see how beautiful I am
And be ashamed—
I, too, am America.
The desire to be an integral part of the life of the country whose soil the Negro people have inhabited for three hundred years is a majority desire. The Black muslims who wish a separate state, and the African Nationalists who advocate a return to the ancestral homeland, are the exceptions—and a small part only of twenty-two million colored Americans. In any case, over the years, the basic and most pertinent subject matter of Negro poetry has been not love, roses, moonlight, or death or sorrow in the abstract, but race, color, and the emotional problems related thereunto in a land that treats its black citizens, including poets, like pariahs. Only a very few Negro writers have been able to escape the impact on their lives of this white shadow across America.
It would seem to me then only fitting and proper—if art is to be an intensification or enlargement of life, or to give adequate comment on what living is like in the poet’s own time—
that Negro art be largely protest art. Our time today is the time of color from Selma to Saigon, and of the heartaches and heartbreaks of racial conflict from Cape Town to Chicago. A poet may try to hide in the bosom of Ezra Pound as much as he wishes, but the realities of conflict are inescapable. The color problem is a drag on the whole world, not just on Negro poetry.
The only Pulitzer Prize winning poet of color, Gwendolyn Brooks, has written that Negro poets “are twice-tried. They have to write poetry, and they have to remember that they are Negroes. Often they wish that they could solve the Negro question once and for all, and go on from such success to the composition of textured sonnets or buoyant villanelles about the transience of a raindrop, or the gold stuff of the sun.” But, she continues, “The raindrop may seem to them to represent racial tears—and those might seem indeed other than transient. The golden sun might remind them that they are burning.”
Among the most interesting young Negro poets writing today are the exciting LeRoi Jones (also a playwright of no mean ability), Julia Fields (who was in Birmingham at the height of its racial disturbances), Julian Bond (of the Student Non-violent Committee), and David Henderson (only twenty-one, of Greenwich Village), all of whom are most intense in their poetic fervor against injustice.(5) “The Negro in Western civilization has been exposed to overwhelming historical and sociological pressures that are bound to be reflected in the verse he has written and inspired,” wrote Arna Bontemps, which he balances by saying, “The fact that he has used poetry as a form of expression has also brought him into contact with literary trends and influences. How one of these forces or the other has predominated, and how the results may be weighed and appraised are among the questions to which the poetry itself contains answers.” In the Annual Poetry Issue of the Negro Digest (September, 1965) there is a poem by Dudley Randall of Detroit,(6) “Black Poet, White Critic,” which ends with a question that is also in its inverse way an answer:
A critic advises
Not to write on controversial topics
Like freedom or murder,
But to treat universal themes
And timeless symbols
Like the white unicorn.
A white unicorn?
Does it believe in integration?
And why not a black unicorn?
(1) Hughes intended this piece as an introduction to Jean Wagner’s Anthology de la Poésie Negro-Américaine, which was translated as Black Poets of the United States: From Paul Laurence Dunbar to Langston Hughes (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1973). The pome to which Hughes refers is “Bar Fight,” by the African American writer Lucy Terry (ca. 1730-1821).
(2) Jupiter Hammon (1711-ca. 1806), the first published African American writer, was a poet, essayist, and preacher; George Moses Horton (ca. 1797-ca. 1883), the first African American to use verse to protest slavery; Frances Ellen Watkins Harper (1825-1911), African American novelist, poet, essayist, and orator.
(3) William Waring Cuney (1906-1976), one of the lesser-known poets of the Harlem Renaissance.
(4) Richard Gibson, African American journalist.
(5) Julia Fields (1938-), African American poet, short story writer, teacher, and dramatist; Julian Bond (1940-), African American activist, historian, and educator; David Henderson, African American poet and biographer.
(6) Dudley Randall (1914-2000), African American poet, publisher, and editor.
Langston Hughes was first recognized as an important literary figure during the 1920s, a period known as the "Harlem Renaissance" because of the number of emerging black writers. Du Bose Heyward wrote in the New York Herald Tribune in 1926: "Langston Hughes, although only twenty-four years old, is already conspicuous...