THE BOOK OF AMERICAN NEGRO POETRY. Chosen and Edited by James Weldon Johnson. Harcourt, Brace & Co.
If they are right—the prophets who predict the eventual submersion of the white race in a "rising tide of color"—this decade may come to be known as the first black renaissance. Even without the perspective of time, we can see how curiously this generation has been influenced by the dark strain. African sculpture has made a powerful impress on the art of our day. American music music reflects, in an increasing strength, the savage insistence of Congo drum beats, as well as the syncopated poignance of our Southern spirituals. In sociology the negro has begun to be his own interpreter, W. E. Burghardt Du Bois, editor of "The Crisis," has made two important contributions to the psychology of the suppressed race in "The Souls of Black Folk" and "Darkwater." Benjamin Brawley, author of that excellent handbook, "A Short History of the English Drama," has done splendid pioneer's work with his "The Negro in Art" and "A Social History of the American Negro."
In literature the field is more uneven. In belles lettres, criticism and purely creative work the negro seems to suffer from an inhibition that prevents him from expressing his own emotions. Instead of giving free rein to a vision sharply differentiated from that of his white compatriots, he is content to ape their gestures, their inflections—too anxious to imitate with a stammering complaisance their own imitations. Instead of being proudly race conscious, he is too often merely self-conscious.
A Harlem Freud may some day rise to explain this quality in terms of mass repression; the negro as artist suffers, he may conclude, from a race inferiority complex. The implications of such an analysis are too deep and far-reaching for an article as superficial as this. They would, however, find repercussions in a recently published collection of poems chosen and edited by James Weldon Johnson, himself a poet, as was proved by his original volume, "Fifty Years."
"The Book of Negro Poetry" is a record of the successes as well as the failures of the American negro (or, as Mr. Johnson prefers to call him, the Aframerican) as poet. Here are lyrics as native, as genuinely emotional, as "A Death Song" and "Little Brown Baby," by Paul Laurence Dunbar, and here, also, are verses as maudlin and imitative as "Ships That Pass in the Night" by the same writer. Here are rhapsodies as passionate as "A Litany of Atlanta," by W. E. Du Bois[SIC], and quatrains as cryptic as the obviously Robinsonian echoes of that ardent anthologist, William Stanley Braithwaite. Fenton Johnson adopts, without hesitation or apology, Master's Spoon River idiom, but his angry intensity is his own.
The outstanding discoveries of this collection are two, and they are less familiar—even to their own race. They are Claude McKay and Anne Spencer. McKay does not disguise either himself or his poetry; his lines are saturated with a people's passion: they are colored with a mixture of bitterness and beauty. McKay's quieter and idyllic moments are less noteworthy; his muse is more characteristic when she is rebellious than resigned. This singer does not mistake polemics for poetry; he knows to evoke a power of communication without shouting at the top of his voice. "The Lynching" proves this. So does the impulsive sonnet, "To the White Fiends," and this significant outcry, written during the recent race riots: If We Must Die If we must die—let it not be like hogs Hunted and penned in an inglorious spot, While round us bark the mad and hungry dogs, Making their mock at our accursed lot. If we must die—oh, let us nobly die, So that our precious blood may not be shed In vain, then even the monsters we defy Shall be constrained to honor us though dead! Oh, kinsmen! We must meet the common foe, Though far outnumbered, let us still be brave, And, for their thousand blows, deal one death blow! What though before us lies the open grave? Like men we'll face the murderous cowardly pack, Pressed to the wall, dying, but—fighting back! [source]
Anne Spencer's work sounds the other extreme of the gamut. Her verse is remarkably restrained, closely woven, intellectually complex. "The Wife-Woman" and "Translation" are steeped in a philosophy that has metaphysical overtones. But there is a racial opulence, an almost barbaric heat in the color of her lines.
The names of Alex Rogers, J. W. Johnson and Paul Dunbar—all of whom wrote well known lyrics for popular songs like "Lover's Lane," "Nobody" and "The Jonah Man"—recall the negro composers who promised so much and who have performed so little. Will Marion Cook, one of the ablest musicians ever produced in America, startle us with the amazing "Rain Song," originally written for a Williams and Walker show.
H. T. Burleigh is another negro composer who apparently has been ruined by the conservatories. W. C. Handy must be given credit for an entire tendency which originated with his "Memphis Blues." What has happened to him? Or to Rosamond Johnson, most adroit of ragtime adapters? Or to Nathaniel Dett, whose "Listen to de Lambs" is one of the most eloquent pieces of choral writing ever scored by an American? Is the answer to be found, in spite of the negro's bursts of enthusiasm and gusto, in his lack of sustained effort? In a sheer inability to cope with the strain of continued creative effort?
In short, is this almost equal alternation of achievement and failure a physical or a psychical thing? This collection poses such questions even though it does not pretend to supply the answers. What it does supply is a full sized portrait of the American negro's contribution to a definitely American art. It shows that if the Aframerican has not yet had his renaissance, his poetry has at least passed its pains of parturition. It is no discredit to him that, with two exceptions, the most balanced and cumulative contribution to this compilation is Mr. Johnson's forty-page preface. It is a mark of which any group could allow itself to be proud.