One of the poets whom James Weldon Johnson quotes in his "Book of American Negro Poetry," himself defines unconsciously the significance of this collection. This poet, Charles Bertram Johnson, after noting in the development of Negro Poets "the greater growing reach of larger latent power," declares: We wait our Lyric Seer, By whom our wills are caught. Who makes our cause and wrong The motif of his song; Who sings our racial good, Bestows us honor's place, The cosmic brotherhood Of genius—not of race.
Not all of the 32 poets quoted here give evidence of this cosmic quality, but there is a fair showing, notably Mrs. Georgia Douglas Johnson whose power however is checked by the narrowness of her medium of expression, Claude McKay and Anne Spencer. Of Claude McKay I shall speak later, but I wonder why we have not heard more of Anne Spencer. Her art and its expression are true and fine; she blends a delicate mysticism with a diamond clearness of exposition, and her subject matter is original.
This anthology itself has the value of an arrow pointing the direction of Negro genius, but the author's preface has a more immediate worth. It is not only a graceful bit of expository writing befitting a collection of poetry, but it affords a splendid compendium of the Negro's artistic contributions to America. Mr. Johnson feels that the Negro is the author of the only distinctively American artistic products. He lists his gifts as follows: Folk-tales such as we find in the Joel Chandler Harris collection; the Spirituals; the Cakewalk and Ragtime. What is still more important is the possession on the part of the Negro of what Mr. Johnson calls a "transfusive quality," that is the ability to adopt the original spirit of his milieu into something "artistic and original, which yet possesses the note of universal appeal."
The first thought that will flash into the mind of the reader of "Harlem Shadows" will be: "This is poetry!" No other later discovery, a slight unevenness of power, a strange rhythm, the fact of the author's ancestry, will be able to affect that first evaluation. Mr. McKay possesses a deep emotionalism, a perception of what is fundamentally important to mankind everywhere—love of kind, love of home, and love of race. He is extraordinarily vivid in depicting these last two. "Flameheart" and "My Mother" fill even the casual reader with a sense of longing for home and the first, fine love for parents. The warmth and sweetness of those days described in the former poem are especially alluring; the mind is caught by the concept of the poinsettia's redness as the eye is fixed by a flash of color. But Mr. McKay's nobler effort has been spent in the poems of "America" (quoted in this issue's Looking Glass) is the finest example. He has dwelt in fiery, impassioned language on the sufferings of his race. Yet there is no touch of propaganda. This is the truest mark of genius.
Max Eastman prefaces these poems with a thoughtful and appreciative foreword.
This excerpt considers McKay's Harlem Shadows, but the longer review treats seven works:
Fauset's review essay also includes a pencil drawing of McKay by Hugo Gellert on page 67.