"Negro Poets."

by Robert  Littell

If it were possible to read Mr. Johnson's collection without knowing that all of it was written by Negroes, it is rather unlikely that one would think it remarkable in any way. One would be struck, here and there, by a certain simplicity, or technical competence, or musically flowing rhythm, or warmth of feeling, or occasional vivid phrase. Longer than any of these things, which are to be found in fairly good poetry anywhere, one would remember flashes of an aching indissoluble bitterness, a white anger stripped of all merely personal unhappiness, which, if one did not know by what oppressed it was uttered and against what oppressor, would be puzzling and disquieting.

But since it is known who wrote them, it is impossible to read these poems as one reads most poetry. There arise at once, from the auction block and cotton field and lynching post and Harlem slum, the faces of our dark step-children, whom we have mistreated and misunderstood, whose time of trouble is not yet over, who are struggling painfully out of darkness toward some degree of happiness in an alien land. We think of the general assumption—which has always been the master's excuse for keeping down the slave—that they are essentially inferior to us. Perhaps they are inferior in many of the things which our civilization likes to think are important—who can say so for sure? And who can say for sure that they are not our equals in some things, and in others even our betters?

They have their own fields to plough, which are not ours. The only music native to America is theirs; and in its particular quality of spontaneity, of free rhythm and rich harmonies, only possible in an uncomplicated spirit very near to the earth, there is nothing else like it in the world.

Is poetry one of their fields? Impossible to say as yet. On the strength of this collection by Negroes—nearly all now living—it is clear that they can write poetry as good as the great mass of ours, and they have produced one real poet, though by no means a great one—Mr. Claude McKay. It is an uneven collection. Too much of it is in the tradition of echoes, flowery phrase and emotion vaguely expressed which have always afflicted poetry. Too much of it is modeled after what is least worth copying. A good deal of it is in dialect, which always leaves me uneasy. Print cools and distorts phrases which, when spoken or sung, have a charming spontaneous gusto. Mr. Du Bois' "A Litany at Atlanta" is impressive, but as poetry is buttered to thick with indignation. Mr. Braithwaite's Sandy Star stirs pleasantly, like a light wind. Miss Spencer has great mastery over dreamy, half-mystical melodies. Mr. Fenton Johnson has a fine gift for direct observation and biting phrase in short prose poems whose reality makes him perhaps the most original contributor to the collection, though Mr. Claude McKay is by far the ablest poet.

I cannot quite agree with Mr. Max Eastman that Mr. McKay "reminds us of Burns and Villon and Catullus." I feel that a hospitality to echoes of poetry he has read has time and again obscured a direct sense of life, and made rarer those lines of singular intensity which express as Mr. Eastman aptly says, "the naked force of character." I am sorry he so often uses such indoor and inbred poetic phrases as "the Northland wreathed in golden smiles," "I have forgot what time the purple apples...", or "'neath the floating moon," when he is capable of the stark sincerity of Harlem Shadows or Spring in New Hampshire, or the poignancy of The Barrier.

If Mr. McKay and the other poets don't stir us unusually when they travel over poetic roads so many others have traveled before them, they make us sit up and take notice when they write about their race and ours. They strike hard, and pierce deep. It is not a merely emotion that they express, but something fierce, and constant, and icy cold, and white hot. We believe Mr. Johnson when he says that "the Negro in the United States is consuming all of his energy in this grueling race struggle." For it is the common thread running all through the book. It ranges from the restraint of Mr. Corrothers: "To be a Negro in a day like this demands rare patience—patience that can wait in utter darkness"; through Mr. Johnson's own bitter lines: Lessons in degradation, taught and learned, The memories of cruel sights and deeds, The pent-up bitterness, the unspent hate, Filtered through fifteen generations. . . . to Mr. McKay's bitterness (in To the White Fiends), when he writes Think you I could not arm me with a gun And shoot down ten of you for every one Of my black brothers murdered, burnt by you? is only speaking for thousands of his race who feel the same hatred—hatred which boils over once in a while, as we know, but breaks in ineffectual waves on the stony white shore, and turns to something like the bottomless despair, felt by Mr. Fenton Johnson: I am tired of work; I am tired of building up somebody else's civilization. . . . Throw the children into the river; civilization has given us too many. It is better to die than it is to grow up and find out that your are colored.

Robert Littell.


Littell, Robert. "Negro Poets." The New Republic (July 12, 1922).


Littell's short review treats both Harlem Shadows and James Weldon Johnson's Book of American Negro Poetry.


Harlem Shadows (1922)

Additional Poems by Claude McKay

Contemporary Reviews

Supplementary Texts