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  4. Wish for an Overcoat by Alfred Islay Walden
Wish for an Overcoat

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Oh! had I now an overcoat,
   For I am nearly freezing;
My head and lungs are stopped with cold,
   And often I am sneezing.

And, too, while passing through the street,
   Where merchants all are greeting,
They say, young man this is the coat
   That you should wear to meeting.

Then, looking down upon my feet,
   For there my boots are bursting,
With upturned heels and grinning toes,
   With tacks which long were rusting.

Ah! how they view my doeskin pants
   With long and crooked stitches,
They say, young man would you not like
   To have some other breeches?

My head is also hatless too,
   The wind is swiftly blowing,
They say, young man will you not freeze?
   See ye not how it’s snowing?

And now they take me by the hand,
   And lead me toward the store,
And some are pulling down the coats
   Before I reach the door.

So walk I in, their goods to price,
   To quench a thirst that’s burning,
And freely would I buy a coat,
   But nothing I am earning.

They say to me, I should have known,
   That winter time was coming,
When I was roaming through the park,
   With birds around me humming.

Their logic’s true, I must confess,
   And all they say is pleasant;
But did I know that I would have
   No overcoat at present?

To satisfy these craving Jews,
   To buy I am not able,
For it is more than I can do
   To meet my wants at table.

Therefore my skin will toughly grow,
   Will grant to me this favor,
That I may learn to stand as much
   As little Jack, the sailor.

And if I live till winter’s passed,
   Though nature’s harps unstringing,
I then will fly to yon woodland
   To hear the oak trees singing.

Then I will not on hero’s fame,
   Ride swiftly on to victory,
Although my saddle may be made
   Of cotton sacks or hickory.

But if I die, farewell to all,
   Oh! who will tell the story,
That I have lived a noble life.
   And now gone home to glory?

Yes, who will chant a song of praise
   For me—who will be weeping—
When I have yielded to the grave,
   And ’mid the dead am sleeping?

But some will ask, “how did he die?
   It was without my knowing;
Was it because he caught a cold,
   Last year when it was snowing?”

The answer now comes hurling back,
   In words I cannot utter,
It was not by a cold alone,
   But partly bread and butter.

[This poem is dedicated to my own necessities and wants.]
Source: African-American Poetry of the Nineteenth Century (University of Illinois Press, 1992)
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Wish for an Overcoat

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  • Alfred Islay Walden was born a slave in Randolph County, North Carolina, and gained freedom only after Emancipation. Sold twice as an infant, he was recognized at a young age for his facility with mental math calculations and general acuity. Determined to become a minister, Walden traveled to Washington, D.C., on foot during the winter of 1867 and supported himself by selling poems on the streets and giving lectures in Pennsylvania and New Jersey. Walden enrolled at Howard University on scholarship, earning his degree in 1876. Despite his struggles with poverty and near-blindness, he established a mission school for needy African Americans in New Brunswick. Walden went on to become one of the first African American graduates of New Brunswick Theological Seminary. After he was ordained in 1879, Walden returned to North Carolina and led a congregation until his death.

    Walden’s most original poetry reflects on personal events and everyday emotions....

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