“Tuskegee” by Leslie Pinckney Hill (1880 – 1960)


Wherefore this busy labor without rest?
Is it an idle dream to which we cling,
Here where a thousand dusky toilers sing
Unto the world their hope? “Build we our best.
By hand and thought,” they cry, “although unblessed.”
So the great engines throb, and anvils ring,
And so the thought is wedded to the thing;
But what shall be the end, and what the test?
Dear God, we dare not answer, we can see
Not many steps ahead, but this we know—
If all our toilsome building is in vain,
Availing not to set our manhood free,
If envious hate roots out the seed we sow,
The South will wear eternally a stain.

“Little Brown Baby” by Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872 – 1906)


Little brown baby wif spa’klin’ eyes,
  Come to yo’ pappy an’ set on his knee.
What you been doin’, suh—makin’ san’ pies?
  Look at dat bib—You’s ez du’ty ez me.
Look at dat mouf—dat’s merlasses, I bet;
  Come hyeah, Maria, an’ wipe off his han’s.
Bees gwine to ketch you an’ eat you up yit,
  Bein’ so sticky an’ sweet—goodness lan’s!

Little brown baby wif spa’klin’ eyes
  Who’s pappy’s darlin’ an’ who’s pappy’s chile?
Who is it all de day nevah once tries
  Fu’ to be cross, er once loses dat smile?
Whah did you git dem teef? My, you’s a scamp!
  Whah did dat dimple come f’om in yo’ chin?
Pappy do’ know you—I b’lieves you’s a tramp;
  Mammy, dis hyeah’s some ol’ straggler got in!

Let’s th’ow him outen de do’ in de san’,
  We do’ want stragglers a-layin’ ‘roun’ hyeah;
Let’s gin him ‘way to de big buggah-man;
  I know he’s hidin’ erroun’ hyeah right neah.
Buggah-man, buggah-man, come in de do’,
  Hyeah’s a bad boy you kin have fu’ to eat.
Mammy an’ pappy do’ want him no mo’,
  Swaller him down f’om his haid to his feet!

Dah, now, I t’ought dat you’d hug me up close.
  Go back, ol’ buggah, you sha’n’t have dis boy.
He ain’t no tramp, ner no straggler, of co’se;
  He’s pappy’s pa’dner an’ playmate an’ joy.
Come to you’ pallet now—go to you’ res’;
  Wisht you could allus know ease an’ cleah skies;
Wisht you could stay jes’ a chile on my breas’—
  Little brown baby wif spa’klin’ eyes!

“Mother to Son” by Langston Hughes


"Mother to Son"
by Langston Hughes

Well, son, I’ll tell you:
Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.
It’s had tacks in it,
And splinters,
And boards torn up,
And places with no carpet on the floor—
Bare.

But all the time
I’se been a-climbin’ on,
And reachin’ landin’s,
And turnin’ corners,
And sometimes goin’ in the dark
Where there ain’t been no light.

So boy, don’t you turn back.
Don’t you set down on the steps
’Cause you finds it’s kinder hard.
Don’t you fall now—
For I’se still goin’, honey,
I’se still climbin’,
And life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.

“Eliza Harris” by Frances Ellen Watkins Harper (1825 – 1911)


“Eliza Harris”

Like a fawn from the arrow, startled and wild,
A woman swept by us, bearing a child;
In her eye was the night of a settled despair,
And her brow was o’ershaded with anguish and care.
She was nearing the river—in reaching the brink,
She heeded no danger, she paused not to think!
For she is a mother—her child is a slave—
And she’ll give him his freedom, or find him a grave!
’Twas a vision to haunt us, that innocent face—
So pale in its aspect, so fair in its grace;
As the tramp of the horse and the bay of the hound,
With the fetters that gall, were trailing the ground!
She was nerved by despair, and strengthen’d by woe,
As she leap’d o’er the chasms that yawn’d from below;
Death howl’d in the tempest, and rav’d in the blast,
But she heard not the sound till the danger was past.
Oh! how shall I speak of my proud country’s shame?
Of the stains on her glory, how give them their name?
How say that her banner in mockery waves—
Her “star-spangled banner”—o’er millions of slaves?
How say that the lawless may torture and chase
A woman whose crime is the hue of her face?
How the depths of forest may echo around
With the shrieks of despair, and the bay of the hound?
With her step on the ice, and her arm on her child,
The danger was fearful, the pathway was wild;
But, aided by Heaven, she gained a free shore,
Where the friends of humanity open’d their door.
So fragile and lovely, so fearfully pale,
Like a lily that bends to the breath of the gale,
Save the heave of her breast, and the sway of her hair,
You’d have thought her a statue of fear and despair.
In agony close to her bosom she press’d
The life of her heart, the child of her breast:—
Oh! love from its tenderness gathering might,
Had strengthen’d her soul for the dangers of flight.
But she’s free!—yes, free from the land where the slave
From the hand of oppression must rest in the grave;
Where bondage and torture, where scourges and chains
Have plac’d on our banner indelible stains.
The bloodhounds have miss’d the scent of her way;
The hunter is rifled and foil’d of his prey;
Fierce jargon and cursing, with clanking of chains,
Make sounds of strange discord on Liberty’s plains.
With the rapture of love and fullness of bliss,
She plac’d on his brow a mother’s fond kiss:—
Oh! poverty, danger and death she can brave,
For the child of her love is no longer a slave!

“Lines” by Francis Ellen Watkins Harper (1825 – 1911)


“Lines”

At the Portals of the Future,
    Full of madness, guilt and gloom,
Stood the hateful form of Slavery,
    Crying, Give, Oh! give me room–
Room to smite the earth with cursing,
    Room to scatter, rend and slay,
From the trembling mother’s bosom
    Room to tear her child away;
Room to trample on the manhood
    Of the country far and wide;
Room to spread o’er every Eden
    Slavery’s scorching lava-tide.
Pale and trembling stood the Future,
    Quailing ‘neath his frown of hate,
As he grasped with bloody clutches
    The great keys of Doom and Fate.
In his hand he held a banner
    All festooned with blood and tears:
‘Twas a fearful ensign, woven
    With the grief and wrong of years.
On his brow he wore a helmet
    Decked with strange and cruel art;
Every jewel was a life-drop
    Wrung from some poor broken heart.
Though her cheek was pale and anxious,
    Yet, with look and brow sublime,
By the pale and trembling Future
    Stood the Crisis of our time.
And from many a throbbing bosom
    Came the words in fear and gloom,
Tell us, Oh! thou coming Crisis,
    What shall be our country’s doom?
Shall the wings of dark destruction
    Brood and hover o’er our land,
Till we trace the steps of ruin
    By their blight, from strand to strand?

“Let the Light Enter” by Francis Ellen Watkins Harper (1825 – 1911)


“Let the Light Enter”

    The Dying Words of Goethe
“Light! more light! the shadows deepen,
        And my life is ebbing low,
Throw the windows widely open:
        Light! more light! before I go.
“Softly let the balmy sunshine
        Play around my dying bed,
E’er the dimly lighted valley
        I with lonely feet must tread.
“Light! more light! for Death is weaving
        Shadows ‘round my waning sight,
And I fain would gaze upon him
        Through a stream of earthly light.”
Not for greater gifts of genius;
        Not for thoughts more grandly bright,
All the dying poet whispers
        Is a prayer for light, more light.
Heeds he not the gathered laurels,
        Fading slowly from his sight;
All the poet’s aspirations
        Centre in that prayer for light.
Gracious Saviour, when life’s day-dreams
        Melt and vanish from the sight,
May our dim and longing vision
        Then be blessed with light, more light.

“Smothered Fires” by Georgia Douglas Johnson (1880 – 1966)


"Smothered Fires"
A woman with a burning flame
   Deep covered through the years
With ashes.  Ah! she hid it deep,
   And smothered it with tears.
Sometimes a baleful light would rise
   From out the dusky bed,
And then the woman hushed it quick
   To slumber on, as dead.
At last the weary war was done
   The tapers were alight,
And with a sigh of victory
   She breathed a soft—good-night!
Source: The Heart of a Woman and Other Poems (The Cornhill Company, 1918)