Categories
African-American American American Poetry Black History Poetry Uncategorized

from “The Octoroon” by Alberry Alston Whitman (1851 – 1901)


from “The Octoroon”

BY ALBERY ALLSON WHITMAN

                                    18

These creatures of the languid Orient,—

      Rare pearls of caste, in their voluptuous swoon

And gilded ease, by Eunuchs watched and pent,

      And doomed to hear the lute’s perpetual tune,

Were passion’s toys—to lust an ornament;

      But not such was our thrush-voiced Octoroon,—

The Southland beauty who was wont to hear

Faith’s tender secrets whispered in her ear.

                                    19

“An honest man’s the noblest work of”—No!

      That threadbare old mistake I’ll not repeat.

A lovely woman—do you not think so?—

      Is God’s best work. That she is man’s helpmeet,

The Bible says, and I will let it go;

      And yet she crowns and makes his life complete.

Who would not shrive himself in her dear face,

And find his sinless Heaven in her embrace!

                                    20

Young Maury loved his slave—she was his own;

      A gift, for all he questioned, from the skies.

Not other fortune had he ever known,

      Like that which sparkled in her wild blue eyes.

Her seal-brown locks and cheeks like roses blown,

      Were wealth to him that e’en the gods might prize.

And when her slender waist to him he drew,

The sum of every earthly bliss he knew.

                                    21

They had grown up together,—he and she—

      A world unto themselves. All else was bare,—

A desert to them and an unknown sea.

      Their lives were like the birds’ lives—free and fair,

And flowed together like a melody.

      They could not live apart, Ah! silly pair!

But since she was his slave, what need to say,

A swarm of troubles soon beset their way?

                                    22

Just in the dawn of blushing womanhood;

      Her swan-neck glimpsed through shocks of wavy hair;

A hint of olives in her gentle blood,

      Suggesting passion in a rosy lair;

This shapely Venus of the cabins stood,

      In all but birth a princess, tall and fair;

And is it any wonder that this brave

And proud young master came to love his slave?

                                    28

If it be shame to love a pretty woman,

      Then shameful loving is a pretty thing.

And of all things the most divinely human

      Is this:—Love purifies life’s Fountain Spring;

And he who has not quaffed that fount is no man—

      I’d rather be a lover than a king.

And then, preach as we will or may, we’ll find

That Cupid, dear young god, is sometimes blind.

                                    55

Before the world, I hold that none of these:

      The Shushan slave, the Oreb shepherdess,

Nor Moab’s gleaner, ever had the ease

      Of carriage, grace of speech, the stateliness

Of step and pose, nor had the art to please

      And charm with symphonies of form and dress,

Nor had such wond’rous eyes, such lovely mouth,

As had this blue-eyed daughter [Lena] of the South!

                                    56

Had priest or prophet ever heard her singing,

      Or seen her, where the clover was in bloom,

Wading knee-deep, while larks were upward springing,

      And winds could scarcely breathe for want of room—

Thus seen her from the dappled hillsides bringing

      The cows home, in the sunset’s golden gloom,

Our good old Bible would have had much more

Of love and romance mixed with sacred lore.

                                    57

What man is there who would not dare defend

      A life like this? Is doing so a sin?

Or who should blush to be known as her friend?

      White wonder of creation, fashioned in

The moulds of loveliness; kings might contend

      On martial fields a prize like her to win,

And yet, the cabin’s hate and mansion’s scorn,—

She suffered both, betwixt them being born.

                                    59

When genial Spring first hears the mating thrush,

      Where waters gossip and the wild flowers throng,

Love rears her altar in the leafy bush,

      And Nature chants the sweetest bridal-song.

When love is free, with madness in its rush,

      Its very strength defends the heart from wrong.

Love, when untutored, walks a harmless way,

With feet, though bare, that never go astray.

                                    153

Mind knows no death. Life is the “first and last.”

      The falling leaf leaves its source living still;

The flower which withers in the autumn blast

      Dies not, but thus escapes the winter’s chill,

And will return, through changes strange and vast,

      When summoned forth to range o’er vale and hill.

Shall mind which thus perceives Life’s changes die?

Hath only matter immortality?

                                    156

But, “if a man die, shall he live again?”

      This baffling question comes from long ago.

Shall ashes only of Life’s torch remain?

      The mind cries out, and Nature answers, “No!”

Ye who have heard the prophesying rain,

      And seen the flowery Resurrection glow:

Ye know of better things than eye hath seen;

Ye know sere Earth is Mother of the green.

                                    157

The wild moose shivers in the north land’s breath,

      Where Huron’s wave upbraids the fretful shore;

The marsh fowl far to southward wandereth

      And calls her tribes to milder climes explore;

All Nature seems to sigh: “Remember death,

      For all the living soon shall be no more.”

But mark how Faith sweeps on with tireless wing,

To find for e’en the fowl an endless spring.

                                    159

Let scoffers mock, let unbelief deny—

      Agnosticism stolidly ignore;

Let worldly wisdom proudly ask us, “Why?”

      And still the soul cries out for something more—

For something better than philosophy—

      Still longs for higher joys and looks before;

And cannot rest—will ne’er contented be,

Till triumph over matter leaves mind free.

                                    160

Then hail we all the spirits of the just,

      With Lena we shall join them all. The mind

Now risen looks down on Life’s unmeaning dust,

      And soars to higher spheres—all unconfined;

To spheres of love and duty, hope and trust;

      And leaves the sordid and corrupt behind.

The Virgin is the sign of vanquished night,

Her child is born—born of the soul—the Light.

                                    161

Farewell! In grandeur sinks the closing day,

      And on our vision slowly fades the light;

And bygone scenes, like shadows fall away,

      To settle in the blank of coming night.

The Octoroon has passed, but not for aye;

      To those who have the gift of inner sight,

The spirit of all nature prophesies

A home for love and beauty in the skies.

Categories
19th century 20th century African-American America American American Poetry E.W. Harper Ellen Watkins Harper Frances E. W. Harper General poet Poetry Uncategorized United States Victorian Era Victorian Period

Songs for the People


by Ellen Watkins Harper

Photograph of Frances Ellen Watkins Harper in 1893 as featured in the publication “Women of Distinction: Remarkable in Works and Invincible in Character by Lawson Andrew Scruggs (Raleigh) / State Library of North Carolina, Government & Heritage Library
Listen to “Songs for the People” by Frances Ellen Watkins Harper / Read by Teyuna Darris (on YouTube)

Let me make the songs for the people,
Songs for the old and young;
Songs to stir like a battle-cry
Wherever they are sung.
Not for the clashing of sabres,
For carnage nor for strife;
But songs to thrill the hearts of men
With more abundant life.
Let me make the songs for the weary,
Amid life’s fever and fret,
Till hearts shall relax their tension,
And careworn brows forget.
Let me sing for little children,
Before their footsteps stray,
Sweet anthems of love and duty,
To float o’er life’s highway.
I would sing for the poor and aged,
When shadows dim their sight;
Of the bright and restful mansions,
Where there shall be no night.
Our world, so worn and weary,
Needs music, pure and strong,
To hush the jangle and discords
Of sorrow, pain, and wrong.
Music to soothe all its sorrow,
Till war and crime shall cease;
And the hearts of men grown tender
Girdle the world with peace.

Categories
African-American America American American Poetry Black History General Harlem Renaissance Jean Toomer Poetry United States

“Beehive”


by Jean Toomer

Jean Toomer circa 1920 – 1930

Within this black hive to-night
There swarm a million bees;
Bees passing in and out the moon,
Bees escaping out the moon,
Bees returning through the moon,
Silver bees intently buzzing,
Silver honey dripping from the swarm of bees
Earth is a waxen cell of the world comb,
And I, a drone,
Lying on my back,
Lipping honey,
Getting drunk with that silver honey,
Wish that I might fly out past the moon
And curl forever in some far-off farmyard flower.

Categories
20th century African-American America American American Poetry Black History Melvin B. Tolson poet Poetry United States

A Song for Myself


by Melvin B. Tolson

Melvin Beaunorus Tolson February 6, 1898 – August 29, 1966 // Public Domain

I judge

                                            My soul

                                            Eagle

                                            Nor mole:

                                            A man

                                            Is what

                                            He saves

                                            From rot.

                                            The corn

                                            Will fat

                                            A hog

                                            Or rat:

                                            Are these

                                            Dry bones

                                            A hut’s

                                            Or throne’s?

                                            Who filled

                                            The moat

                                            ’Twixt sheep

                                            And goat?

                                            Let Death,

                                            The twin

                                            of Life,

                                            Slip in?

                                            Prophets

                                            Arise,

                                            Mask-hid,

                                            Unwise,

                                            Divide

                                            The earth

                                            By class

                                            and birth.

                                            Caesars

                                            Without,

                                            The People

                                            Shall rout;

                                            Caesars

                                            Within,

                                            Crush flat

                                            As tin.

                                            Who makes

                                            A noose

                                            Envies

                                            The goose.

                                            Who digs

                                            A pit

                                            Dices

                                            For it.

                                            Shall tears

                                            Be shed

                                            For those

                                            Whose bread

                                            Is thieved

                                            Headlong?

                                            Tears right

                                            No wrong.

                                            Prophets

                                            Shall teach

                                            The meek

                                            To reach.

                                            Leave not

                                            To God

                                            The boot

                                            And rod.

                                            The straight

                                            Lines curve?

                                            Failure

                                            Of nerve?

                                            Blind-spots

                                            Assail?

                                            Times have

                                            Their Braille.

                                            If hue

                                            Of skin

                                            Trademark

                                            A sin,

                                            Blame not

                                            The make

                                            For God’s

                                            Mistake.

                                            Since flesh

                                            And bone

                                            Turn dust

                                            And stone,

                                            With life

                                            So brief,

                                            Why add

                                            To grief?

                                            I sift

                                            The chaff

                                            From wheat

                                            and laugh.

                                            No curse

                                            Can stop

                                            The tick

                                            Of clock.

                                            Those who

                                            Wall in

                                            Themselves

                                            And grin

                                            Commit

                                            Incest

                                            And spawn

                                            A pest.

                                            What’s writ

                                            In vice

                                            Is writ

                                            In ice.

                                            The truth

                                            Is not

                                            Of fruits

                                            That rot.

                                            A sponge,

                                            The mind

                                            Soaks in

                                            The kind

                                            Of stuff

                                            That fate’s

                                            Milieu

                                            Dictates.

                                            Jesus,

                                            Mozart,

                                            Shakespeare,

                                            Descartes,

                                            Lenin,

                                            Chladni,

                                            Have lodged

                                            With me.

                                            I snatch

                                            From hooks

                                            The meat

                                            Of books.

                                            I seek

                                            Frontiers,

                                            Not worlds

                                            On biers.

                                            The snake

                                            Entoils

                                            The pig

                                            With coils.

                                            The pig’s

                                            Skewed wail

                                            Does not

                                            Prevail.

                                            Old men

                                            Grow worse

                                            With prayer

                                            Or curse:

                                            Their staffs

                                            Thwack youth

                                            Starved thin

                                            For truth.

                                            Today

                                            The Few

                                            Yield poets

                                            Their due;

                                            Tomorrow

                                            The Mass

                                            Judgment

                                            Shall pass.

                                            I harbor

                                            One fear

                                            If death

                                            Crouch near:

                                            Does my

                                            Creed span

                                            The Gulf

                                            Of Man?

                                            And when

                                            I go

                                            In calm

                                            Or blow

                                            From mice

                                            And men,

                                            Selah!

                                            What . . . then?

 

Melvin Tolson, “A Song for Myself” from Harlem Gallery and Other Poems of Melvin B. Tolson (Charlottesville: The University Press of Virginia, 1999)

Source: “Harlem Gallery” and Other Poems of Melvin B. Tolson (University Press of Virginia, 1999)

Categories
18th Century African-American American American Poetry Black History Poetry Uncategorized

From “An Anniversary Poem, Entitled, ‘The Progress of Liberty” by James Madison Bell (1826 – 1902)


 

BY James Madison Bell

Bondsman’s gloomy night has passed; The
The slavery of this land is dead;
No tyrant’s power, however vast,
Can wake it from its gory bed.
For in the order of events,
And after an ignoble reign,
It died. None mourned its going hence,
Nor followed in its funeral train;
Ignoble birth, ignoble life,
Ignoble death, ignoble doom!
Conceived by fiends in deadly strife,
And cast into a nameless tomb.

Though slavery’s dead, yet there remains
A work for those from whom the chains
Today are falling one by one;
Nor should they deem their labor done,
Nor shrink the task, however hard,
While it insures a great reward,
And bids them on its might depend
For perfect freedom in the end.

Commend yourselves through self-respect;
Let self-respect become your guide:
Then will consistency reflect
Your rightful claims to manhood’s pride.
But while you cringe and basely cower,
And while you ostracise your class,
Heaven will ne’er assume the power
To elevate you as a mass.

In this yourselves must take the lead;
You must yourselves first elevate;
Till then the world will ne’er concede
Your claims to manhood’s high estate.
Respect yourself ; this forms the base
Of manhood’s claim to man’s regard.
Next to yourself, respect your race,
Whose care should be your constant ward;
Remember that you are a class
Distinct and separate in this land,
And all the wealth you may amass,
Or skill, or learning, won’t command
That high respect you vainly seek,
Until you practice what you claim —
Until the acts and words you speak
Shall, in the concrete, be the same.

Screen not behind a pallid brow;
Paint lends no virtue to the face;
Until the Black’s respected, thou,
With all the branches of his race,
Must bow beneath the cruel ban
And often feel the wrinkled brow
Bent on you by a fellow-man
Not half so worthy, oft, as thou.

Away with caste, and let us fight
As men, the battles of the free,
And Heaven will arm you with the might
And power of man’s divinity.
There may be causes for distrust,
And many an act that seems unjust;
But who, when taking all in all,
And summing up our present state,
Would find no objects to extol,
No worthy deeds to emulate?

Categories
American American Poetry Black History General History Phillis Wheatley poet Poetry Religion and Spirituality Uncategorized United States women women poets

On Being Brought from Africa to America


by Phillis Wheatley

May 8, 1753 – December 5th, 1784
Listen to “On Being Brought from Africa to America” by Phillis Wheatley

‘Twas mercy brought me from my Pagan land,
Taught my benighted soul to understand
That there’s a God, that there’s a Saviour too:
Once I redemption neither sought nor knew.
Some view our sable race with scornful eye,
“Their colour is a diabolic die.”
Remember, Christians, Negros, black as Cain,
May be refin’d, and join th’ angelic train.

This poem is in the public domain.

Reprinted in “The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano or Gustavus Vassa, the African”
Categories
19th century 20th century American Poetry Black History Celebration modern poetry United States William Braithwaite

“Rhapsody”


by William Braithwaite

William Braithwaite (1911)

I am glad daylong for the gift of song,
For time and change and sorrow;
For the sunset wings and the world-end things
Which hang on the edge of to-morrow.
I am glad for my heart whose gates apart
Are the entrance-place of wonders,
Where dreams come in from the rush and din
Like sheep from the rains and thunders.

Categories
American American Poetry Martin Luther King, Jr. poet Poetry United States

The Streetsweeper


by Martin Luther King, Jr.

(Original Caption) 4/3/1968-Memphis, TN: One of the last pictures to be taken of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. — speaking to a mass rally April 3 in Memphis — when he said he would not halt his plans for a massive demonstration scheduled for April 8 in spite of a federal injunction. The Nobel Peace Prize Winner was felled by a sniper’s bullet, April 4.

If it falls your lot to be a street sweeper,
sweep streets like Michelangelo painted pictures,
sweep streets like Beethoven composed music,
sweep streets like Leontyne Price sings before the Metropolitan Opera.

Sweep streets like Shakespeare wrote poetry.
Sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will have to pause and say:
Here lived a great street sweeper who swept his job well.

If you can’t be a pine at the top of the hill,
be a shrub in the valley.
Be the best little shrub on the side of the hill.

Be a bush if you can’t be a tree.
If you can’t be a highway, just be a trail.
If you can’t be a sun, be a star.
For it isn’t by size that you win or fail.
Be the best of whatever you are.

Categories
20th century African-American American American Poetry Langston Hughes Literature Poetry

“Song”


by Langston Hughes

Langston Hughes in 1936 photo by Carl Van Vechten
Listen to / “Song” by Langston Hughes, Read by Teyuna Darris

Lovely, dark, and lonely one,
Bare your bosom to the sun,
Do not be afraid of light
You who are a child of night.
Open wide your arms to life,
Whirl in the wind of pain and strife,
Face the wall with the dark closed gate,
Beat with bare, brown fists
And wait.

This poem is in the public domain.

Categories
American American Poetry Edgar Alrbert Guest Uncategorized United States

On Quitting


by Edgar Albert Guest

Edgar Albert Guest (August 20th, 1881 – August 5th, 1959) on his NBC radio program in 1935 // Public Domain
Listen to “On Quitting” by Edgar Albert Guest

How much grit do you think you’ve got?
Can you quit a thing that you like a lot?
You may talk of pluck; it’s an easy word,
And where’er you go it is often heard;
But can you tell to a jot or guess
Just how much courage you now possess?

You may stand to trouble and keep your grin,
But have you tackled self-discipline?
Have you ever issued commands to you
To quit the things that you like to do,
And then, when tempted and sorely swayed,
Those rigid orders have you obeyed?

Don’t boast of your grit till you’ve tried it out,
Nor prate to men of your courage stout,
For it’s easy enough to retain a grin
In the face of a fight there’s a chance to win,
But the sort of grit that is good to own
Is the stuff you need when you’re all alone.

How much grit do you think you’ve got?
Can you turn from joys that you like a lot?
Have you ever tested yourself to know
How far with yourself your will can go?
If you want to know if you have grit,
Just pick out a joy that you like, and quit.

It’s bully sport and it’s open fight;
It will keep you busy both day and night;
For the toughest kind of a game you’ll find
Is to make your body obey your mind.
And you never will know what is meant by grit
Unless there’s something you’ve tried to quit.

This poem is in the public domain.