1. Selected Poems by Dunbar and Moore

    March 28, 2019 by Chris Motley

    In my post about Phillis Wheatley, I concluded with some remarks about the debate over expression. How does one express the experience of being black in America? Is it necessary to appropriate a certain style and form that can “prove” one’s humanity to a white audience? Or is it necessary to seek new forms of expression that are unique to yourself and your people? 

    Paul Laurence Dunbar and his wife Alice Dunbar Nelson worked at an inflection point in this debate. Writing at the turn of the 20th century, their poetry reflects the priorities of the centuries that came before, while pointing toward new possibilities that would become available in the Harlem Renaissance and beyond. 

    In particular, while Dunbar’s use of meter and rhyme clearly participates in the broader tradition of English poetry, his incorporation of speech patterns and sounds from various regions and communities in black America demonstrates his desire to capture the unique experience of his people. In this way he would inspire later poets who would work in each vein: Countee Cullen, for example, who worked in a “traditional” mode, but also others who would turn to dialect in their poetry, such as Langston Hughes and Sterling A. Brown. Dunbar was hailed in his day as a landmark and a prophet.

    My favorite poem of his is “Frederick Douglass,” and the following stanza both aptly captures the spirit of Douglass and of Dunbar himself:

     

    And he was no soft-tongued apologist;

           He spoke straightforward, fearlessly uncowed;

    The sunlight of his truth dispelled the mist,

           And set in bold relief each dark hued cloud;

    To sin and crime he gave their proper hue,

       And hurled at evil what was evil’s due.

     

    I am inspired by Dunbar and the poets and writers of his generation (and any generation) because they believed a belief that we seem to have lost now: that poetry and eloquence really do fight evil. 

    Alice Dunbar Nelson’s poems were personal as well as social. “If I Had Known” is able to point in both directions, as it sings of personal disappointment that can reflect the disappointment of a people. But “To the Negro Farmers of the United States” is overtly political, praising a generation of freed people for overcoming the odds:

     

    God washes clean the souls and hearts of you,

    His favored ones, whose backs bend o’er the soil,

    Which grudging gives to them requite for toil

    In sober graces and in vision true.

    God places in your hands the pow’r to do

    A service sweet. Your gift supreme to foil

    The bare-fanged wolves of hunger in the moil

    Of Life’s activities. Yet all too few

    Your glorious band, clean sprung from Nature’s heart;

    The hope of hungry thousands, in whose breast

    Dwells fear that you should fail. God placed no dart

    Of war within your hands, but pow’r to start

    Tears, praise, love, joy, enwoven in a crest

    To crown you glorious, brave ones of the soil.

     

    To sing in praise of free black farmers, who had until recently tilled the land under the whip, is a declaration of pride and freedom. Here Dunbar speaks to a generation that can shape its own destiny, in turn gesturing toward the plain fact that black labor and innovation shapes the destiny of us all. 

    This poem is a sonnet, and so it is a clear example of how this debate over expression can play out. In this way it is a harbinger of what would come in the Renaissance: sonnets that speak directly to black people and the experience of being black in America. And in this way, too, we see once again the value of poems as historical documents that can enlighten us to so much about our shared past that we easily overlook. 


  2. Selected Poems by Phyllis Wheatley

    March 21, 2019 by Chris Motley

    I am tempted to say to myself, “It’s amazing that we have Phillis Wheatley.” The odds of her life situation were so against her producing a book of poetry. And still she became the first person of African descent to publish a book of poetry in America. But if I am going to say, “It’s amazing that we have Phillis Wheatley,” I must, like James Baldwin, also say, “How many Phillis Wheatleys have we lost?” We can not know the answer to that question, because the enslaved in America were not only denied the chance to explore their genius, but also their very lives were not recorded for posterity at all. So we must be careful to marvel at Wheatley as some kind of an exception because she was an enslaved person who wrote poetry. Rather, we must lament all the poetry that has been lost to America because of what we have done to her and her people.

    When I teach Phyllis Wheatley, I show my students “On Being Brought from Africa to America”:

     

    ‘Twas mercy brought me from my Pagan land,

    Taught my benighted soul to understand

    That there’s a God, that there’s a Saviour too:

    Once I redemption neither sought nor knew.

    Some view our sable race with scornful eye,

    “Their colour is a diabolic die.”

    Remember, Christians, Negros, black as Cain,

    May be refin’d, and join th’ angelic train.

     

    Even those unpracticed in the reading of poetry can identify certain traits in the poem, such as the AA BB CC DD rhyme scheme. They might talk about the language, which dates Wheatley, but it is also a language (observing syntax and word choice) that registers, regardless of when the poem was written, as “poetic.” Extra bonus points if you identified the iambic pentameter (you may remember that term from high school), another basic feature of eighteenth-century verse. 

    But then we talk about the subject matter. Indeed it is this poem and certain others that earn Wheatley the label of “problematic.” My students see immediately what is “problematic” here: Wheatley is expressing gratitude for being kidnapped, trafficked, and enslaved. My students know that there is nothing – nothing – merciful about slavery (even the seeming “benevolent” form Wheatley encountered in Boston). They also know (they really do) that it is precisely the slavery-was-not-that-bad argument that sustains many racists who speak in public today. So praising the poem and Wheatley can certainly feel “problematic.” 

    And so I invite my students to look at the poem in a slightly different way. When we examine the context and the history of African American poetry, we observe that this “problematic” poem can become emblematic – emblematic of so many of the questions at the core of literary work by black Americans for centuries. Wheatley was regarded as someone, through her literary talent, who could prove to the white world that their darker-skinned brothers and sisters possessed precisely the same humanity as those who would deny it. But Wheatley expressed her humanity in a poetic form that is distinctly European: rhyming couplets, iambic pentameter, elevated language. Therefore I contrast this poem with other types of poetry that all slaves knew: spirituals, folk tales, and other musical and narrative forms. Are these forms not to be equally regarded as evidence of humanity? 

    This question persists, and it is important to the series we have created here. Throughout history we see this debate over how black artists should express their humanity. For further reading I especially suggest essays published on this topic during the Harlem Renaissance: George Schuyler’s “The Negro Art Hokum,” Langston Hughes’ response, “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain,” and W.E.B. Du Bois’ “Criteria for Negro Art.” The beauty of this debate, when we step back, is that these thinkers understood that it was art, first and foremost, that could negotiate a community’s standing within a broader society. Something seemingly useless as a poem could not have higher stakes for everyone involved in the struggle for freedom.


  3. Cane

    March 14, 2019 by Chris Motley

    Jean Toomer is one of the most interesting figures from that period known variously as the Harlem Renaissance, the New Negro Renaissance, or the Renaissance. He was born Nathan Pinchback Toomer in 1894, the grandson of P.B.S. Pinchback, the first African-American governor in the United States (Louisiana). He was of mixed race. During his childhood in Washington, D.C., he attended a segregated all-black school. When he moved to New York City, conversely, he attended an all-white school. His appearance would allow him to straddle literary worlds as an adult, on the one hand participating in the literary society of the Renaissance, while on the other participating in the movement that came to be known as Modernism, a white-dominated literary and intellectual shift. This aspect of his identity allowed his masterpiece Cane to gain more exposure than the work of many of his black counterparts, and the work itself addresses the difficulties that people of mixed race encounter (manifesting at times Toomer’s own ambivalence about his blackness).  Toomer thought of himself as a member of a new race becoming conscious of itself, one that would do away with hard and fast distinctions and therefore make way for self-determinism. Mouse Books is proud to publish the first section of the book on the occasion of its entry into the public domain.

    Cane was immediately hailed as a wholly original work upon its publication in 1923 (regarded by Langston Hughes as “the finest prose written by a Negro in America [and] truly racial.”) It is a collection of prose and verse largely inspired by his short time as substitute principal of Sparta Agricultural and Industrial Institute in Georgia. The first section of the book, which you have here, takes place in the South. It manifests the atmosphere of retributive violence, including violence against women. The final story, “Blood-Burning Moon,” concludes with a lynching, a horrific act of mob violence that was endemic to this time and place. Amid this fear and brutality, Toomer holds up the human being. But such an important part of Cane’s success is its ability to hold up a human being who is embedded in a time and place. Toomer, without romanticizing nostalgia or wholesale condemnation, depicts the South, the land and the sky and the plants – the people – in mythological terms, as a land that in fact belongs to the people who tended it for centuries. 

    The second section of Cane shifts its focus from Georgia to Washington, D.C., where Toomer spent much of his life. As a citizen of Washington and a fifth-generation descendent, I find this section to be personally fascinating, as Toomer depicts areas of the city – 7th Street and The Old Soldiers Home, for example – that I frequent. I sense that literature from the Renaissance, particularly the scant literature that we have of and about Washington, will become increasingly important as gentrification deepens and broadens. Of the many effects that this decade and more of “transformation” will have on American cities, the erasure (or worse, the commodification) of black history and culture will be crucial but also overlooked, even invisible. Again, we are not talking about nostalgia; Washington has its own history of segregation and oppression. Rather, we are talking about people, whose people and whose people’s people have lived in these neighborhoods going back to Emancipation. Meanwhile, history and culture emerge all the time. How can we hold it up, while the land-grab continues? 

    The third section of Cane is a prose story called “Kabnis.” Its protagonist, Ralph Kabnis, is a middle-class Northern intellectual attempting to come to terms with his racial identity and, inextricably, his identity as an artist. This story is a landmark moment in the development of African American literature, a mode of writing that would find its culmination in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. What does it mean to be black and to write? The first two sections of Cane prepare this question, while “Kabnis” is a burst of autobiographical and aesthetic energy in pursuit of an ultimately unanswerable question. It can be read on its own as a watershed. 

    We hope you enjoy Volume 1 of Cane, and we urge you to pick up the rest. Then, we urge you to read more black writers in general, poets, novelists, historians, journalists, scholars. We live in a time when American culture is fighting for its survival. The simple act of reading a book can resist the destructive forces bearing down. 


  4. On African American Poetry

    March 7, 2019 by Chris Motley

    This series on “African American Poetry” will be the first of many, and it is an addition to our broader commitment to publishing the work of black Americans past and present. By way of introduction, I thought I would offer a note about the title of the series itself. The title “African American Poetry” seems clear enough, safe and conventional. But when we look at the poets and the works included in the series, we can begin to unpack the label.

    What does it mean to be “African American”? Phillis Wheatley, the first person of African descent to publish a book of poetry in the land that would come to be known as The United States, witnessed the American Revolution, even gaining her emancipation in 1773. But amid the fervor over freedom, self-rule, and democracy that characterized this era, would Wheatley have been included in the Founders’ definition of a citizen? Would they not balk at counting her an “American”? Therefore to refer to people of African descent alive at the time of the Revolution as “African Americans” should give us pause, so that we can ask ourselves (because this question is still imminently relevant today) what it really means to be an American.

    Jean Toomer was the grandson of the first African American governor in the United States. But he was also light-skinned enough to “pass” in white literary circles. His work manifests his quest to determine his racial identity for himself. And he believed that doing so would usher in a new era of race consciousness in America. Rather than allowing publishers and editors to label his work as the work either of a black or white man, Toomer asserted his natural right to label himself (or not). Though publishers and scholars have subsequently done the work of firmly placing his masterpiece Cane within the canon of “African American” literature, I know I would love to hear Toomer’s thoughts on the matter today. 

    If the term “African American” is flexible, so is the term “poetry.” Much of the verse in this series is recognizably “poetic.” It consists of rhyme, meter, and a degree of elevated language. This is certainly the case for Phillis Wheatley, who was taught to read and write in a decidedly European context. It is also the case for Paul and Alice Dunbar, who lived during a time when poetry was expected to contain certain fundamental elements, participating in the broader tradition of English-language poetry. But the Dunbars are also working at a time when the question of black expression was coming to the surface. As African Americans migrated North in huge numbers, a cultural explosion ensued. Now artists and intellectuals are beginning to ask what a uniquely black American art form would look, sound, and feel like. 

    Jean Toomer’s Cane offers a response. Indeed, much of what we see in this book is not poetry at all but narrative fiction, with poetry blended in. And that poetry does not look like the kind of poetry written only a generation before. What effect does this technique have on the reader’s imagination? What statement is Toomer making about what black literature can look like, and about what black existence itself looks like? 

    This collection provides a philosophical arc. And the debate continues, with relevance for anyone interested in the arts. What does it mean to express yourself? What does it mean to express yourself as a member of a community? What does it mean to express yourself as a member of an oppressed community? What responsibilities, if any, does an artist have? What forms of expression are “high” and what are “low”? I am a fan of rap and hip-hop, one of the most popular musical genres on the planet (popular indeed among rich whites who vote to continue racial oppression and who behave accordingly). Are these questions not central today?