"Effect of Freedom on the Literary Art of Negroes."

by George  W.  Douglas

Three recent books of verse by Negroes afford an excellent opportunity for those interested in such matters to examine into the literary development of the race and incidentally into the changing temper of its literary spokesman.

The Negro of slavery and the years immediately following the emancipation is represented in "Negro Folk Rhymes" (Macmillan), a collection of folk verse made of Prof. Thomas W. Talley, of Fisk University. These rhymes have no known author. They grew up among the Negroes and were developed by repetition and adjustment until they reached the form in which they are now reported in the South. They are dance songs and love songs, songs of animal and nature lore, charms and incantations, and so on. It is remarkable that there are so few in the whole collection that show any realization of the enslavement of the Negro or any resentment against that condition. Almost without exception the rhymes indicate an acceptance of the world and a cheerful adaptation to it. Even where there is resentment against slavery it is not argued but exhibited indirectly. Take, for example, "Promises of Freedom," in which the singer tells how the master promised to set him free and broke the promise. It continues: Ole Mosser lakwise promise me, W'en he died, he'd set me free, But ole Mosser go an' make his Will Fer to leave me a-plowin' ole Beck still. Yes, my ole Mosser promise me; But "his papers" didn' leave me free, A doze of pizen helped 'im along, May de Devil preach 'is funer'l song.

One may assume that the slave had something to do with the poison, but there is no moralizing or justifying of resentment against injustice. The fact is stated with the simplicity of a primitive people.

A similar simplicity rules in the songs of nature, a simplicity that sometimes becomes beautiful.

There is no sophisticated and trained poet who could produce more nearly perfect things than some that have been handed down by word of mouth among untutored Negroes. Only a person with a sensitive ear and a feeling for rhythm could have produced the 'Bob White Song': Bob white! Bob White! Is yo' peas all ripe? No—! not—! quite! Bob white! Bob white! W'en will dey be ripe? Tomor—! row! night! Bob white! Bob white! Does you sing at night? No—! not—! quite! Bob white! Bob white! W'en is de time right? At can—! dle—! light!

Of course, many of the rhymes in the volume are little more than nonsense jingles. They are the product of a comparatively happy and irresponsible phase of the life of the Negro in America. There is no conscious literary art, no introspection and no philosophizing. These things had to wait until a later period.

Within the past twenty years the Negroes have become conscious literary artists.

They have written such a considerable volume of poetry as to justify the production of an anthology. Under the title of "The Book of American Negro Poetry" (Harcourt, Brace & Co.), James Weldon Johnson has set forth selections from the work of more than thirty Negroes who have published verse since the late Paul Laurence Dunbar began to write. Mr. Johnson says in his preface that more than one hundred Negroes in the United States have published volumes of poetry and that only thirty of them came between Phillis Wheatley and Dunbar. The remaining seventy belong to the present and the recent past. It is evident that a literary consciousness is awakening in the race. And after Mr. Johnson's anthology one must admit that the Negro has a gift for poetry, even if the simpler and more spontaneous folk rhymes in Prof. Talley's volume had not demonstrated it.

There is no great poetry in the volume; that is hardly to be expected. But there is a considerable body of good poetry, distinguished by imagination and insight and written with a fine sense of the requirements of verse. Some of the poets represented are educated men, college professors or preachers or journalists. Others are more humble workers, one of the best having been a kitchen worker in a restaurant.

Many of these modern Negro poets express their resentment against the race that once enslaved their ancestors and even now lynches their fellows.

Mr. Johnson, who has put his own poem, "Brothers," into his anthology is much more tolerant than some of the others, for he only makes the white who have burned a Negro at the stake for an atrocious crime wonder what the victim meant when he said, "Brothers in spirit, brothers in deed are we." Claude McKay, of whom I shall speak a little later, is voluble with hater. Joseph S. Cotter, Jr., merely asks: Why do men sneer when I arise And stand in their councils, And look them eye to eye, And speak their tongue? Is it because I am black?

The late James D. Corrothers was in a very different mood when he wrote of the obstacles in the way of recognition for a Negro versemaker: Thus, my true Brother, dream-led, I Forfend the anathema, following the span. I hold my head as proudly high As any man.

But the Negro poet has not yet arise who sees any overruling Providence in the forced migration of his ancestors from Africa.

The bitterest of the whole company is Claude McKay, whose name appears on the title page of "Harlem Shadows" (Harcourt, Brace, & Co.) Mr. McKay was born in Jamaica of slave ancestors. He came to this country in 1912 and has lived here since, and has received the medal of the Institute of Arts and Sciences in recognition of his verse. When he came to the United States he intended to study agriculture and go back to Jamaica and teach it to his people. He had not been here more than two years before he gave up the study and abandoned the plan to return to his native island. He earned a living at whatever work he could get. For a time he was a waiter in the dining car on the railroad between this city and New York. One of his poems is an expression of disgust for the diners and other waiters alike. Another begins I will not toy with it nor bend an inch. Deep in the secret chambers of my heart I nurse my life-long hate, and without flinch I bear it nobly as I live my part. [source]

In poem after poem he varies this expression of hatred, until it seems as if it were a morbid obsession. Yet he has written a tenderly beautiful piece about his mother and some love lyrics that sing.

It is not strange that the Negro should feel resentment at the wrongs his race has suffered at the hands of the whites. But as he grows in spiritual and intellectual stature he will discover that hatred will not redress a single wrong nor elevate him a single inch. It is from the poet, who is supposed to see more deeply and more clearly than the rest of us, that the recognition of the futility of hate is expected. Was it not Tennyson who said that the poet should be dowered with the hate of hate and the scorn of scorn.


Douglas, George W.. "Effect of Freedom on the Literary Art of Negroes." "Unconscious and Conscious Art Displayed in Poetry by Negroes." Evening Public Ledger (May 23, 1922).


Transcribed from page image available from Chronicling America.


Harlem Shadows (1922)

Additional Poems by Claude McKay

Contemporary Reviews

Supplementary Texts