"Some Contemporary Poets of the Negro Race."

by William  Stanley  Braithwaite

The present revival of poetry in America could scarcely advance without carrying in its wake the impulse and practice of a poetic consciousness in the Negro race.

While we have no traditions in the art, we have a rich and precious tradition in the substance of poetry: vision, intense emotionalism, spiritual and mystical affinities, with both abstract and concrete experience, and a subtle natural sense of rhythmic values. All these are essential folk-qualities, primal virtues in the expression of impassioned experience, whether festive of ceremonial, in all the indigenous folk-literatures of the world. But when a race advances from primitive life and customs, or when the divisions of a particular race become sharply differentiated by learning and culture, and intercourse with other peoples with modes of culture more perfect in certain respects affects them, there is produced a standard of form in written and oral speech that becomes a characteristic of class co-racial consciousness. This standard becomes the medium of literary expression in which taste is the vital essence, and is opposed by the "vulgar tongue" of the "people" in which the vigorous and imaginative folk-ballads are recited, the communal chants of traditional custom and ritual dramatized, and national songs sung.

The survival of the vulgar tongue in modern times, where the influence of formal and conventional civilization has penetrated among primitive communities, is in dialect the attempt of the invaded, enslaved, and suppressed peoples, to imitate phonetically the speech of the dominant class or race. Dialect is, thus, not the corruption of the folk or tribal language, of the Frankish invaders of Gaul, of the Anglo-Saxon conquest of ancient Britain, of the absorption of the African savages—who be likened in every tribal respect to the Franks, Angles and Saxons—by America, but of the language of the Latins, the Britons, and the English.

Dialect may be employed as the langue d'oc of Frédéric Mistral's Provençal poems, as a preserved tongue, the only adequate medium of rendering the psychology of character, and of describing the background of the people whose lives and experience are kept within the environment, where the dialect survives as the universal speech; or it may be employed as a special mark of emphasis upon the peculiar characteristic and temperamental traits of a people whose action and experiences are given in contact and relationship with a dominant language, and are set in a literary fabric of which they are but one strand of many in the weaving.

I have gone to some length in the foregoing because the matter is of vital importance to those who regard the future accomplishment of the Negro in American literature. It holds, too, I think, the explanation of that gap which exists between the mysterious and anonymous period of the "Sorrow Songs"—vivid, intense poetry of a suffering, but eternally confident folk—and the advent of Paul Laurence Dunbar. The Negro poet as such, can be said to have inherited no poetic traditions which would make him a bi-national artist: that is to say, he had no precursors sufficient in numbers and of decided genius, the substance of whose song was racial, while the expression was national—the glorious and perfect instrument of English poetic art, which we know as the common possession of Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Wordsworth, Keats, Shelley, Swinburne, Browning, Longfellow, Poe and Lowell.

This gap I postulate as a silent transition to a new order of imaginative and emotional racial utterance. Remember that here was a race of many tribes, members of which amounting to hundreds of thousands were stolen from their native homes, from their immemorial customs and traditions, which in many instances have been proven to be the traits of a highly organized primitive culture and social code, and forcibly held in a captivity that suppressed every virtue but work and every ideal but obedience. The struggle through two centuries under this unchristian suppression was toward the acquisition of a new language which in all its unfamiliar and tortuous meanings had to be learned through the auditory sense, as the invaluable aids of reading and writing were denied; and it is little wonder that the earliest and latest folk utterance of these people was the collective yearning of sorrow, impassioned and symbolic, addressed to the one benign spirit their masters taught them from whom to seek love and mercy in a mystical hereafter as a compensation for their miserable existence on earth. It was the poetry of an ancient race passing through the throes of an enforced re-birth into the epoch of an alien and dominating civilization.

When it sought voice in Paul Laurence Dunbar, it did so with old memories and impulses; it was the finale, in a rather conscious manner, of centuries of spiritual isolation, of a detached brooding and yearning for self-realization in the universal human scale, and in a childish gayety in eating the fruits of a freedom so suddenly possessed and difficult to realize. Dunbar was the end of a régime, and not the beginning of a tradition, as most careless critics, both white and colored, seem to think. But his niche is secure because he made the effort to express himself, and clothe his material artistically; though he never ventured into the abstract intricacies and wrung from the elements of rhythmic principles the subtle and most haunting forms of expression. His work reflected chiefly the life of the Negro during the era of Reconstruction and just a little beyond, when the race was emerging from the illusion of freedom to the hard and bitter reality of how much ground still remained to be dishearteningly but persistently fought for before a moral and spiritual liberty, as well as a complete political freedom and social fraternity, was attained. When Mr. Howells said that Dunbar was the first poet of his race to express and interpret the life of his people lyrically, he told only a half-truth; what survives and attracts us in the poetry of Dunbar is the life of the Negro in the limited experience of a transitional period, the rather helpless and still subservient era of testing freedom, and adjusting in the mass a new condition of relationship to the social, economic, civil and spiritual fabric of American civilization. Behind all this was an awakening impulse, a burning and brooding aspiration, creeping like a smothered fire through the consciousness of the race, which broke occasionally in Dunbar as through the crevices of his spirit—notably the sonnet to "Robert Gould Shaw," the "Ode to Ethiopia," and a few other poems—but which he did not have the deep and indignant and impassioned vision, or the subtle and enchanting art to sustain.

Such a poet we did have in substance, though he chose to express himself in the rhythms of impassioned prose rather than the more restricted and formal rhythm of verse. But the fact is as solid as the earth itself, that Dr. DuBois in "The Souls of Black Folk" began a poetry tradition. This book has more profoundly affected the spiritual nature of the race than any other ever written in this country; and has more clearly revealed to the nation at large the true idealism and high aspiration of the American Negro; and the intellectual mind of the country accepted it as the humanistic doctrine by which on terms of equal economic, political and social endeavor the Negro was to work out his destiny as an American citizen—sharing pound for pound the weight of responsibility, enjoying the same indivisible measure of privilege in the American democracy.

It is only through the intense, passionate, spiritual idealism of such substance as makes "The Souls of Black Folk" such a quivering rhapsody of wrongs endured and hopes to be fulfilled that the poets of the race with compelling artistry can lift the Negro into the only full and complete nationalism he knows—that of the American democracy. "There is no difference between men;" declared G. Lowes Dickinson, the English Platonist, "wealth, position race or nationality, make no difference between men: it is only the growth of the soul." And the poets of a race give expression and reality to the soul of a people through whose eternal laws no unnatural impediments of injustices or wrongs can keep from ascendancy to the highest fulfillment and the fullest participation in ideal and eternal privileges of life.

I am not one who believes that a Negro writer of verse—or of fiction, for that matter—must think, feel or write racially to be a great artist; nor can he be distinctively labeled by the material he uses. This is a fallacy too often expressed by critics to confirm the desired hypothesis that the Negro is humanly different in the scale of mankind, that even after some centuries of civilizing process in America, he is still nearer in his most cultivated class to the instincts of his ancestral forbears than any other of the conglomerate races who compose the citizenry of the Republic. In every race and nation there are primitives who retain and impulses of barbarism, more evident and prevalent among peoples of the Teutonic stock than among those of the Latin stock. But the Negro has absorbed, in his advanced class, just as the advanced class of any other peoples, the culture of the best civilizations in the world today, and in his imaginative and artistic expression he is universal. What I said about embodying racial aspirations and material does not alter this fact. All great artists are interracial and international in rendering in the medium of any particular art the fundamental passions and the primary instincts of humanity.

The promise of this I seem to detect in the spiritual voice of the Negro becoming articulate in the poets who are beginning to emerge from the background of the people. They are springing up around us everywhere, and it is the profound duty of the race to encourage and support them. There is power and beauty in this pristine utterance—wood notes wild that have scarcely yet been heard beyond the forest of their own dreams. But if we will cherish these with a responsive audience, one day, and not very long hence, we shall have a great chorus of these singers to glorify our souls and the soul of America.

These notes do not include all the poets who have published books within recent years; they are intended rather to indicate tendencies, which I regard as more important for the moment, and illustrated by the examples of representative work printed during the past year. Thus, such writers as the late James D. Corruthers, Edward Smyth Jones, George Reginald Margetson, and others, do not fall within the scope of this paper. Nor do these writers quite reach the artistic development of those I deal with, neither does Mr. Fenton Johnson, a young man already the author of three volumes, and whose recent work shows a rapid and steady progress. This question of equipment, of a thorough grounding in the technical elements of the science of versification, is the greatest handicap to the progress of many contemporary writers of verse. It is the hard and laborious task of mastering the subtle and fluctuating rhythms of verse that the average individual tries to escape which produces such a mass of mediocre work, often choking and wasting the substance of a passionate and imaginative poetic spirit. It is difficult to impress upon such individuals that they must serve a jealous and consecrated apprenticeship to this divine mistress, and that ambition is but a humble offering upon the altar of her sacred mystical religion.

There are, however, three books recently published, which show not only a distinctive poetic quality, but also an artistic adequacy of expression and which promise the fulfillment of the Negro in poetry I have so confidently predicted for the future. Besides these books, I have in the past year come across single poems in the magazines by unknown writers confirming more specifically the rapid development of the higher poetic qualities that are manifesting themselves in the Negro. These latter I will deal with first, because they represent what I hope most to see accomplished; because they are the proofs of the contention that poets of the race may deal with a rich and original vein of racial material and give it the highest forms of creative literary expression, which neither differentiates the author from the artist in general nor tolerates for a moment the false psychology of that gratuitous, separate standard by which white critics are prone to judge the works of Negro authors.

The most significant accomplishment among these recent poems are two sonnets signed by "Eli Edwards" which appeared in The Seven Arts for last October. "Eli Edwards," I understand, is the pseudonym of Claude McKay, who lives in New York City, choosing to conceal his identity as a poet from the associates among whom he works for his daily bread. His story as it is, which I had from Mr. Oppenheim, who accepted his poems when editor of The Seven Arts, is full of alluring interest, and may one day be vividly featured as a topic of historic literary importance. For he may well be the keystone of the new movement in racial poetic achievement. Let me quote one of the sonnets: The Harlem Dancer Applauding youths laughed with young prostitutes And watched her perfect, half-clothed body sway; Her voice was like the sound of blended flutes Blown by black players upon a picnic day. She sang and danced on gracefully and calm, The light gauze hanging loose about her form; To me she seemed a proudly-swaying palm Grown lovelier for passing through a storm. Upon her swarthy neck black, shiny curls Profusely fell; and, tossing coins in praise, The wine-flushed, bold-eyed boys, and even the girls, Devoured her with their eager, passionate gaze; But, looking at her falsely-smiling face I knew her self was not in that strange place. [source]

Here, indeed, is the genuine gift—a vision that evokes from the confusing details of experience and brings into the picture the image in all its completeness of outline and its gradation of color, and rendered with that precise surety of form possessed by the resourceful artist. The power in this poet is, I think, his ability to reproduce a hectic scene of reality with all the solid accessories, as in "The Harlem Dancer," and yet make it float as it were upon a background of illusion through which comes piercing the glowing sense of a spiritual mystery. Note the exalted close of Mr. Edward's riotous picture of the dancer when . . . . looking at her falsely-smiling face, I knew herself was not in that strange place— he translates the significance of the intoxicated figure with its sensuous contagion into something ultimate behind the "falsely-smiling face," where "herself"—be it the innocent memory of childhood, perhaps of some pursuing dream of a brief happiness in love, or a far-away country home where her corybantic earnings secures in peace and comfort for the aged days of her parents—is inviolably wrapped in the innocence and beauty of her dreams. This sonnet differs in both visionary and artistic power from anything so far produced by the poets of the rate. The visual quality here possessed is extraordinary; not only does Mr. Edwards[SIC] evoke his images with a clear and decisive imagination, but he throws at the same time upon the object the rich and warm colors his emotional sympathies.


Braithwaite, William Stanley. "Some Contemporary Poets of the Negro Race." The Crisis: A Record of the Darker Races (April, 1919).


Harlem Shadows (1922)

Additional Poems by Claude McKay

Contemporary Reviews

Supplementary Texts