There are few Americans of culture who have not heard and been thrilled by the weird, plaintive negro spirituals. There are others who know that modern jazz music was born of musically illiterate negro roustabouts on Mississippi levees. There are yet others who know of the beautiful dialect poetry of Paul Laurence Dunbar, and of the writings of Dr. DuBois, one of the great masters of prose in America.
Beyond these cultural gifts to America, however, all that the negro has given us in the arts has been a closed book. A step toward acquainting America with these no inconsiderable gifts has been taken by James Weldon Johnson in "The Book of American Negro Poetry." Mr. Johnson is eminently qualified to undertake such a task, for he is recognized as one of the two foremost poets of his race and indeed, as one of the few worth while poets of America, regardless of race. He has gathered and examined the work of more than one hundred negro poets and carefully culled the best that has been done by thirty-one of them. Aside form the excellence of much of the verse, the most striking thing, even to the casual reader, is the versatility of these writers. There is much of good dialect but only a small portion is in that form. There is the colorful imaginative poetry of Anne Spencer in her "Before the Feast of Shushan," the strength of thought and charm of phrasing of Claude McKay, the lyrical beauty of Jessie Fauset, the emotionalism of Georgia Douglas Johnson, the polished modernity of William Stanley Braithwaite, the vigor and satire of James Weldon Johnson's protest against lynching in "Brothers" as well as the tenderness of his "Since You Went Away." It is but natural that the negro should propagandic[SIC]—his lot in American never lets him forget that he is a "problem"—his is a bitter struggle for mere existence. Yet, many of the writers have been able to transcend racial lines, forgetting race problems in imaginative flights of rare beauty. Space forbids my quoting, to my regret. I would like to offer exhibits showing the wealth within its covers that makes the book so great a joy.
To me the most important and valuable portion of the book is the preface of some forty pages by Mr. Johnson on "The Creative Genius of the American Negro." In this he shows that the negro "is the creator of the only things artistic that have yet sprung from American soil and been universally acknowledged as distinctive American products." These are four in number: the Uncle Remus stories, America's only folk lore; the negro folk songs or spirituals; the cakewalk, which is distinctly American and from which sprang the modern society dances; and ragtime with its "great melodic beauty and amazing polyphonic structure." To read this essay is to gain a liberal education on the source of much of the few contributions America has made to the arts. If Americans knew and appreciated fully all that the negro has given to America, the race problem would be easy of solution.
Coincident with the publication of Mr. Johnson's book comes Claude McKay's "Harlem Shadows." Here is a young man, born in the British West Indies, who is without doubt the most talented and versatile of the new school of imaginative, emotional negro poets. Feeling intensely, at times bitterly, he succeeds, nevertheless, in preventing his emotions from affecting his genius as a poet. He has surety of expression, depth of feeling, the true lyric gift, and handles amazingly well subtle gradations of thought and of feeling. Mr. McKay is not a great negro poet—he is a great poet! This is his first book of verse to be published in the United States, but it will give him the high place among American poets to which he is rightfully entitled. I offer in evidence one of his shorter poems on which I ground my belief: Sometimes I tremble like a storm-swept flower, And seek to hide my tortured soul from thee, Bowing my head in deep humility Before the silent thunder of thy power. Sometimes I flee before thy blazing light, As from the specter of pursuing death; Intimated lest thy mighty breath, Windways, will sweep me into utter night. For, oh, I fear they will be swallowed up— The loves that are to me of vital worth, My passion and my pleasure in the earth— And lost forever in thy magic cup! I fear, I fear my truly human heart Will perish on the altar-stone of art! [source]