History of African American poetry: Songs of Liberty and Slavery/Testament of The Pain
Updated: Feb 7, 2021
Street observations, Stockholm, Sweden
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Can words on paper conjure up four hundred years of suffering and pain? Four hundred years of feeling that freedom and justice, truth and equality are really just that, words on paper. While the civilized world wants to believe that fundamental human rights are guaranteed to everyone, regardless of the color of their skin, in real life, on the streets of the jungle the rules are different. And this is evidenced by the words on paper of many poets who seem to always speak of the same pain and cry out for the same thing - Freedom.
The poetry of the Negro is an anthology of poems about the lives and experiences of the black population in the Western world edited by the American writers Langston Hughes and Arna Bontemps. The anthology provides an overview of poems about the black experience from the perspectives of black, white, and Caribbean poets. Among the first poets represented in the anthology was George Moses Horton (1798 - after 1867) known as "the Black Bard of North Carolina". Horton was an enslaved African-American poet and his first collection of poems, The Hope of Liberty (1829), was supposed to earn enough to buy his freedom, but it failed. The "Black Bard" was not freed from slavery until 1865, when Union troops and the Proclamation of Emancipation reached North Carolina. In the song On Liberty and Slavery, Horton invokes and cries out for the elusive freedom and wonders how long he will have to wear the shackles of slavery. His pain is visible and springs from every line.
"Alas! and am I born for this,
To wear this slavish chain?
Deprived of all created bliss,
Through hardship, toil and pain!
How long have I in bondage lain,
And languished to be free!
Alas! and must I still complain—
Deprived of liberty."
James Weldon Johnson (1871–1938) was a civil rights activist, leader of the NAACP, writer, composer, lawyer, politician, and a leading figure in the creation and development of the Harlem Renaissance. Johnson founded The Daily American and became the first African-American to pass the Florida Bar. In his poem O Black and Unknown Bards, he pays tribute to all the unknown black poets who preceded him and wants to make it known that their struggles and sufferings did not go unnoticed and that their gift to poetry remains remembered.
"O black and unknown bards of long ago,
How came your lips to touch the sacred fire?
How, in your darkness, did you come to know
The power and beauty of the minstrel's lyre?
Who first from midst his bonds lifted his eyes?
Who first from out the still watch, lone and long,
Feeling the ancient faith of prophets rise
Within his dark-kept soul, burst into song?
O black slave singers, gone, forgot, unfamed,
You—you alone, of all the long, long line
Of those who've sung untaught, unknown, unnamed,
Have stretched out upward, seeking the divine."
Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872–1906) was an American poet, novelist, and playwright whose parents were freed slaves and the writer drew inspiration from their stories of life on the plantation throughout his literary career. Dunbar was one of the first black writers to achieve national importance. Interestingly, Dunbar’s song Sympathy served as inspiration for the famous African-American poet Maya Angelou, more precisely the last line of Dunbar’s song that Angelou took for the title of her famous book, I Know Why the Bird in the Cage Sings.
"I know why the caged bird sings, ah me,
When his wing is bruised and his bosom sore,—
When he beats his bars and he would be free;
It is not a carol of joy or glee,
But a prayer that he sends from his heart’s deep core,
But a plea, that upward to Heaven he flings—
I know why the caged bird sings!"
Fenton Johnson (1888-1958) was an American poet, short story writer, essayist, editor, and educator. His works are often included in 20th-century poetry anthologies, and James Weldon Johnson called him "one of the first black revolutionary poets." Fenton’s song Tired speaks to an undeniable historical fact - civilizations are built on the backs of slaves.
"I am tired of work; I am tired of building up somebody else’s civilization.
It is better to die than it is to grow up and find out that you are colored.
Pluck the stars out of the heavens. The stars mark our destiny. The stars
marked my destiny.
I am tired of civilization."
Countee Cullen (1903 - 1946) was an American poet, novelist, children's writer and playwright, and an iconic figure of the Harlem Renaissance. For A Lady I Know is a short song with a strong message. In just a few lines, Cullen successfully sums up the whole worldview of those who consider his race inferior and the astonishing limitations of such thinking that goes as far as the afterlife.
She even thinks that up in heaven
Her class lies late and snores
While poor black cherubs rise at seven
To do celestial chores.
Robert Hayden (1913-1980) was an American poet, essayist, and educator. Hayden was the first African-American writer to serve as a poetry advisor at the Library of Congress, a role known today as the American Poet Laureate. Hayden’s poem Frederick Douglass speaks of an anxious longing and need for freedom. The poem was written in honor of the American social reformer, abolitionist, writer, and advocate of freedom and equality Frederick Douglass (1818–1895). After escaping from slavery in Maryland, Douglass became the national leader of the abolitionist movement in Massachusetts and New York. Abolitionists described him as a living counterexample to slave owner arguments that slaves did not have the intellectual ability needed to function as independent American citizens while Northerners found it hard to believe that such a great speaker was a former slave.
When it is finally ours, this freedom, this liberty, this beautiful
and terrible thing, needful to man as air,
usable as earth; when it belongs at last to all,
when it is truly instinct, brain matter, diastole, systole,
reflex action; when it is finally won; when it is more
than the gaudy mumbo jumbo of politicians:
this man, this Douglass, this former slave, this Negro
beaten to his knees, exiled, visioning a world
where none is lonely, none hunted, alien,
this man, superb in love and logic, this man
shall be remembered. Oh, not with statues’ rhetoric,
not with legends and poems and wreaths of bronze alone,
but with the lives grown out of his life, the lives
fleshing his dream of the beautiful, needful thing.
The anthology The poetry of the Negro also includes white poets who used their writing skills to describe the suffering of the black population. Among those poets who lent their voice to the oppressed was the American poet Walt Whitman (1819-1892), who in one part of his famous poem Song of Myself spoke empathetically from the perspective of a slave. Whitman advocated the abolition of slavery and in the poem Song of Myself, among other things, he tried to convey the message of the importance of all God's creatures.
"I am the hounded slave, I wince at the bite of the dogs,
Hell and despair are upon me, crack and again crack the marksmen,
I clutch the rails of the fence, my gore dribs, thinn’d with the ooze of
I fall on the weeds and stones,
The riders spur their unwilling horses, haul close,
Taunt my dizzy ears and beat me violently over the head with whip-
Agonies are one of my changes of garments,
I do not ask the wounded person how he feels, I myself become the wounded person."
The English writer William Blake (1757-1827) was a strong advocate of equality and used his poetry and art as a protest against various forms of enslavement. Blake’s song The Little Black Boy describes a spirited fact that eludes to many proponents of racism - divine love encompasses all races. Blake, like Whitman, has a sublime understanding of the nature of existence and uses his skill to bring the same closer to those to which it persistently escapes.
"My mother bore me in the southern wild,
And I am black, but O! my soul is white;
White as an angel is the English child:
But I am black as if bereav'd of light.
And we are put on earth a little space,
That we may learn to bear the beams of love,
And these black bodies and this sun-burnt face
Is but a cloud, and like a shady grove.
For when our souls have learn’d the heat to bear
The cloud will vanish we shall hear his voice.
Saying: come out from the grove my love & care,
And round my golden tent like lambs rejoice."
English writer Elizabeth Barret Browning (1806-1861) in her poem The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim’s Point speaks from the perspective of a runaway slave who killed her child in order to save it from slavery. Barret uses this torturous narrative to show the extent to which slavery dehumanized the mother and led her to wonder - what was worse; life in slavery or death?
"I am not mad: I am black.
I see you staring in my face—
I know you, staring, shrinking back,
Ye are born of the Washington-race,
And this land is the free America,
And this mark on my wrist—(I prove what I say)
Ropes tied me up here to the flogging place."
Kenneth Patchen (1911–1972) was an American poet and novelist. Patchen experimented with different forms of writing and incorporated painting, drawing and jazz music into his works, which is why his works were compared to those of William Blake and Walt Whitman. Along with poet Kenneth Rexroth, Patchen had a central influence on the San Francisco Renaissance and the Beat generation. Patchen’s poem Nice Day for Lynching describes the hopelessness of the situation in a divided society when it comes to racial relations. Like his predecessors, Blake and Whitman, Patchen seeks to point out the importance and necessity of a fundamental change in the way other races are perceived.
The bloodhounds look like sad old judges
In a strange court. They point their noses
At the Negro jerking in the tight noose;
His feet spread crow-like above these
Honorable men who laugh as he chokes.
I don’t know this black man.
I don’t know these white men.
But I know that one of my hands
Is black, and one white. I know that
One part of me is being strangled,
While another part horribly laughs.
Until it changes,
I shall be forever killing; and be killed
The anthology ends with the poem The Souls of Black and White by the poet Aquah Laluah, real name Gladys May Casely-Hayford (1904-1950), who was the first poet/writer of the Gold Coast (Ghana) and Sierra Leone. Like many before her, Aquah used poetry to bring closer knowledge that is not obvious or clear to everyone; the knowledge of the equality of all human beings and the existence of the soul as an eternal etheric being that has no racial identity and originates from the same Source.
The souls of black and white were made
By the selfsame God of the selfsame shade.
God made both pure, and He left one white;,
God laughed o'er the other, and wrapped it in night.
Said He, "I've a flower, and none can unfold it;
I've a breath of great mystery, nothing can hold it.
Spirit so illusive the wind cannot sway it,
A force of such might even death cannot slay it."
But so that He might conceal its glow
He wrapped it in darkness, that men might not know.
Oh, the wonderful souls of both black and white
Were made by one God, of one sod, on one night.
The anthology of black poetry Crno na bijelo by the poet and translator Mario Suško includes twenty-five poets of African descent from the North American continent. Suško's anthology deals with the same issues as the anthology The poetry of the Negro - a deep-rooted racism that tears society apart. One of the poems in the anthology that attempts to bring the reader closer to the experience of the black poet in the Western world is Bilješka za ovitak, by the American poet Ishmael Reed (1938). With the subtle symbolism of the barrel, Reed seeks to explain to the reader what exactly it means to be a colored poet and what his physical and social limitations are.
Biti obojeni pjesnik
Isto je što i letjeti niz
Nijagarine slapove u
osmogodišnjak može učiniti
To što činiš bez pomoći
Ne misli da možeš uspjeti
Na mostu nadaju se
Da ćeš pasti na glavu
Turistički autobus pun
Ljudi s ulaznicama
Pokvario se ispred Buffala
Neki bi radije gledali
Prisustvovali tvojemu činu
Milju od ruba
No ono što zbilja boli je
Veći si od
Nikki Giovanni (1943) is an American poet, writer and activist. She has won numerous awards, including the Langston Hughes Medal and the NAACP Image Award. Giovanni gained fame in the late 1960s as one of the most prominent authors of the Black Arts Movement. Pogreb Martina Luthera Kinga Mlađeg is a short and striking poem by which Giovanni seeks to emphasize the price of freedom and the struggle for equality, a price many, like the famous civil rights activist Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., paid with their lives.
Na njegovu nadgrobnu spomeniku stoji
SLOBODAN KONAČNO, SLOBODAN KONA-
Al smrt je sloboda roba
Mi tražimo slobodu slobodnih ljudi
I gradnju svijeta
U kojem Martin bi Luther King mogao živjeti
i propovijedati nenasilje
Ai, born Florence Anthony (1947-2010) was an American poet who won the 1999 National Book Award for her collection of poetry Vice: New and Selected Poems. Her song Ugrožena vrsta speaks directly about the prejudices, stereotypes and discrimination of the black population in America. The violence that racial misconceptions evoke is on the fringes of her song, ready to escalate at any moment, just like in real life.
"Dakako, ne mogu uvijek vjerovati vlastitim očima,
pa se moraju oslanjati na instinkt,
koji im kazuje da sam nesposoban
vladati se uljuđeno,
stoga, kriv sam
što se vozim kroz vlastito susjedstvo
i moram prihvatiti kaznu,
moram se opustiti i uživati
poput dobroga dječaka.
U protivnome, pripravni su očistiti me
od mojih iluzija o pravdi, istini,
koja je doista neuhvatljiva,
dobrano poput čovjekolika Sasquatcha,
kojeg su tragovi i izmetine
samo fizički dokaz
onoga što ne može biti dokazano da postoji,
dobrano poput mene,
"istaknutog" profesora književnosti,
izvučenog iz auta,
budući izgledam sumnjivo.
Moja torba za spise, ispunjena zadaćama za danas,
mogla bi sadržavati drogu
umjesto ogleda uređenih
prema kakvoći sadržaja,
ne boji kože mojih studenata,
Lišen sam vlastita posebna identiteta
i moram uvijek biti rasa umjesto muškarac,
ići na posao u zemlji povoljnih prigoda,
budući ropstvo nije doista nestalo.
Stavilo je jednostavno novu masku"
Two anthologies filled with the voices of poets of different provenance and social backgrounds united in the same thing - freedom and equality for all, and poetry is the means they have chosen to convey their message. Being dark-skinned in a country of the free and home of the brave for the black population often means just the opposite. Centuries of oppression, discrimination, segregation, lynching and persecution are part of their past whose shackles still rattle today. And although poetry cannot solve burning racial issues, it is in itself a witness, a witness to pain, suffering and injustice. A witness who cannot be silenced, lynched, starved, suffocated in the ghettos and his unique identity erased. She is the voice of millions of black souls crying out - give us Freedom, give us Freedom!
1. The poetry of the Negro: 1746-1949: a definite anthology / edited by Langston Hughes and Arna Bontemps (Hughes, L., Bontemps, A. (1949.) The poetry of the Negro: 1746-1949: a definite anthology, Garden City: Doubleday).
2. Crno na bijelo: antologija afro - američkoga pjesništva dvadesetog stoljeća / prikupio i preveo s engleskog Mario Suško (Skušo, M. (2000.) Crno na bijelo: antologija afro - američkoga pjesništva dvadesetog stoljeća, prev. M. Skušo, Zagreb: Meandar).