19th century African-American poet Poetry United States


by James Monroe Whitfield

(1822 – 1871)

America, it is to thee,
Thou boasted land of liberty,—
It is to thee I raise my song,
Thou land of blood, and crime, and wrong.
It is to thee, my native land,
From whence has issued many a band
To tear the black man from his soil,
And force him here to delve and toil;
Chained on your blood-bemoistened sod,
Cringing beneath a tyrant’s rod,
Stripped of those rights which Nature’s God
Bequeathed to all the human race,
Bound to a petty tyrant’s nod,
Because he wears a paler face.
Was it for this, that freedom’s fires
Were kindled by your patriot sires?
Was it for this, they shed their blood,
On hill and plain, on field and flood?
Was it for this, that wealth and life
Were staked upon that desperate strife,
Which drenched this land for seven long years
With blood of men, and women’s tears?
When black and white fought side by side,
Upon the well-contested field,—
Turned back the fierce opposing tide,
And made the proud invader yield—
When, wounded, side by side they lay,
And heard with joy the proud hurrah
From their victorious comrades say
That they had waged successful war,
The thought ne’er entered in their brains
That they endured those toils and pains,
To forge fresh fetters, heavier chains
For their own children, in whose veins
Should flow that patriotic blood,
So freely shed on field and flood.
Oh no; they fought, as they believed,
For the inherent rights of man;
But mark, how they have been deceived
By slavery’s accursed plan.
They never thought, when thus they shed
Their heart’s best blood, in freedom’s cause
That their own sons would live in dread,
Under unjust, oppressive laws:
That those who quietly enjoyed
The rights for which they fought and fell,
Could be the framers of a code,
That would disgrace the fiends of hell!
Could they have looked, with prophet’s ken,
Down to the present evil time,
Seen free-born men, uncharged with crime,
Consigned unto a slaver’s pen,—
Or thrust into a prison cell,
With thieves and murderers to dwell—
While that same flag whose stripes and stars
Had been their guide through freedom’s wars
As proudly waved above the pen
Of dealers in the souls of men!
Or could the shades of all the dead,
Who fell beneath that starry flag,
Visit the scenes where they once bled,
On hill and plain, on vale and crag,
By peaceful brook, or ocean’s strand,
By inland lake, or dark green wood,
Where’er the soil of this wide land
Was moistened by their patriot blood,—
And then survey the country o’er,
From north to south, from east to west,
And hear the agonizing cry
Ascending up to God on high,
From western wilds to ocean’s shore,
The fervent prayer of the oppressed;
The cry of helpless infancy
Torn from the parent’s fond caress
By some base tool of tyranny,
And doomed to woe and wretchedness;
The indignant wail of fiery youth,
Its noble aspirations crushed,
Its generous zeal, its love of truth,
Trampled by tyrants in the dust;
The aerial piles which fancy reared,
And hopes too bright to be enjoyed,
Have passed and left his young heart seared,
And all its dreams of bliss destroyed.
The shriek of virgin purity,
Doomed to some libertine’s embrace,
Should rouse the strongest sympathy
Of each one of the human race;
And weak old age, oppressed with care,
As he reviews the scene of strife,
Puts up to God a fervent prayer,
To close his dark and troubled life.
The cry of fathers, mothers, wives,
Severed from all their hearts hold dear,
And doomed to spend their wretched lives
In gloom, and doubt, and hate, and fear;
And manhood, too, with soul of fire,
And arm of strength, and smothered ire,
Stands pondering with brow of gloom,
Upon his dark unhappy doom,
Whether to plunge in battle’s strife,
And buy his freedom with his life,
And with stout heart and weapon strong,
Pay back the tyrant wrong for wrong,
Or wait the promised time of God,
When his Almighty ire shall wake,
And smite the oppressor in his wrath,
And hurl red ruin in his path,
And with the terrors of his rod,
Cause adamantine hearts to quake.
Here Christian writhes in bondage still,
Beneath his brother Christian’s rod,
And pastors trample down at will,
The image of the living God.
While prayers go up in lofty strains,
And pealing hymns ascend to heaven,
The captive, toiling in his chains,
With tortured limbs and bosom riven,
Raises his fettered hand on high,
And in the accents of despair,
To him who rules both earth and sky,
Puts up a sad, a fervent prayer,
To free him from the awful blast
Of slavery’s bitter galling shame—
Although his portion should be cast
With demons in eternal flame!
Almighty God! Ât is this they call
The land of liberty and law;
Part of its sons in baser thrall
Than Babylon or Egypt saw—
Worse scenes of rapine, lust and shame,
Than Babylonian ever knew,
Are perpetrated in the name
Of God, the holy, just, and true;
And darker doom than Egypt felt,
May yet repay this nation’s guilt.
Almighty God! thy aid impart,
And fire anew each faltering heart,
And strengthen every patriot’s hand,
Who aims to save our native land.
We do not come before thy throne,
With carnal weapons drenched in gore,
Although our blood has freely flown,
In adding to the tyrant’s store.
Father! before thy throne we come,
Not in the panoply of war,
With pealing trump, and rolling drum,
And cannon booming loud and far;
Striving in blood to wash out blood,
Through wrong to seek redress for wrong;
For while thou ‘rt holy, just and good,
The battle is not to the strong;
But in the sacred name of peace,
Of justice, virtue, love and truth,
We pray, and never mean to cease,
Till weak old age and fiery youth
In freedom’s cause their voices raise,
And burst the bonds of every slave;
Till, north and south, and east and west,
The wrongs we bear shall be redressed.

This poem is in the public domain.

19th century African-American American Poetry Poetry Uncategorized

“How Long?”by James Monroe Whitfield (1822 – 1871)

“How Long?”


How long, oh gracious God! how long
Shall power lord it over right?
The feeble, trampled by the strong,
Remain in slavery’s gloomy night.
In every region of the earth,
Oppression rules with iron power,
And every man of sterling worth,
Whose soul disdains to cringe, or cower
Beneath a haughty tyrant’s nod,
And, supplicating, kiss the rod,
That, wielded by oppression’s might,
Smites to the earth his dearest right,
The right to speak, and think, and feel,
And spread his uttered thoughts abroad,
To labor for the common weal,
Responsible to none but God –
Is threatened with the dungeon’s gloom,
The felon’s cell, the traitor’s doom;
And treacherous politicians league
With hireling priests, to crush and ban
All who expose their vile intrigue,
And vindicate the rights of man.
How long shall Afric raise to thee
Her fettered hand, oh Lord, in vain?
And plead in fearful agony,
For vengeance for her children slain.
I see the Gambia’s swelling flood,
And Niger’s darkly rolling wave,
Bear on their bosoms stained with blood,
The bound and lacerated slave;
While numerous tribes spread near and far,
Fierce, devastating, barbarous war –
Earth’s fairest scenes in ruin laid
To furnish victims for that trade,
Which breeds on earth such deeds of shame
As fiends might blush to hear or name.
I see where Danube’s waters roll,
And where the Magyar vainly strove,
With valiant arm, and faithful soul,
In battle for the land he loved –
A perjured tyrant’s legions tread
The ground where Freedom’s heroes bled,
And still the voice of those who feel
Their country’s wrongs, with Austrian steel.
I see the ‘Rugged Russian Bear’
Lead forth his slavish hordes, to War
Upon the right of every State
Its own affairs to regulate:
To help each Despot bind the chain
Upon the people’s rights again,
And crush beneath his ponderous paw
All Constitutions, rights and law.
I see in France, oh, burning shame!
The shadow of a mighty name,
Wielding the power her patriot bands
Had boldly wrenched from kingly hands,
With more despotic pride of sway
Than ever monarch dared display.
The Fisher, too, whose world-wide nets
Are spread to snare the souls of men,
By foreign tyrant’s bayonets
Established on his throne again,
Blesses the swords still reeking red
With the best blood his country bore,
And prays for blessings on the head
Of him who wades through Roman gore.
The same unholy sacrifice,
Where’er I turn, bursts on mine eyes,
Of princely pomp, and priestly pride.
The people trampled in the dust,
Their dearest, holiest rights denied,
Their hopes destroyed, their spirit crushed;
But when I turn the land to view,
Which claims, par excellence, to be
The refuge of the brave and true,
The strongest bulwark of the free,
The grand asylum for the poor
And trodden-down of every land,
Where they may rest in peace secure,
Nor fear th’ oppressor’s iron hand –
Worse scenes of rapine, lust and shame,
Than e’er disgraced the Russian name,
Worse than the Austrian ever saw,
Are sanctioned here as righteous law.
Here might the Austrian Butcher make
Progress in shameful cruelty,
Where women-whippers proudly take
The meed and praise of chivalry.
Here might the cunning Jesuit learn –
Though skilled in subtle sophistry,
And trained to persevere in stern,
Unsympathizing cruelty,
And call that good, which, right or wrong,
Will tend to make his order strong –
He here might learn from those who stand
High in the gospel ministry,
The very magnates of the land
In evangelic piety,
That conscience must not only bend
To every thing the Church decrees,
But it must also condescend,
When drunken politicians please
To place their own inhuman acts
Above the ‘higher law’ of God,
And on the hunted victim’s tracks
Cheer the malignant fiends of blood;
To help the man-thief bind the chain
Upon his Christian brother’s limb,
And bear to Slavery’s hell again
The bound and suffering child of Him
Who died upon the cross, to save
Alike, the master and the slave.
While all th’ oppressed from every land
Are welcomed here with open hand,
And fulsome praises rend the heaven
For those who have the fetters riven
Of European tyranny,
And bravely struck for liberty;
And while from thirty thousand fanes
Mock prayers go up, and hymns are sung,
Three millions drag their clanking chains,
‘Unwept, unhonored and unsung;’
Doomed to a state of slavery
Compared with which the darkest night
Of European tyranny,
Seems brilliant as the noonday light;
While politicians, void of shame,
Cry, this is law and liberty,
The clergy lend the awful name
And sanction of the Deity,
To help sustain the monstrous wrong,
And crush the weak beneath the strong.
Lord! thou hast said, the tyrant’s ear
Shall not be always closed to thee,
But that thou wilt in wrath appear,
And set the trembling captive free;
And even now dark omens rise
To those who either see or hear,
And gather o’er the darkening skies
The threatening signs of fate and fear.
Not like the plagues which Egypt saw,
When rising in an evil hour,
A rebel ‘gainst the ‘higher law,’
And glorying in her mighty power –
Saw blasting fire, and blighting hail,
Sweep o’er her rich and fertile vale,
And heard on every rising gale,
Ascend the bitter, mourning wail;
And blighted herd, and blasted plain,
Through all the land the first-born slain,
Her priests and magi made to cower
In witness of a higher power,
And darkness, like a sable pall,
Shrouding the land in deepest gloom,
Sent sadly through the minds of all
Forebodings of approaching doom.
What though no real shower of fire
Spreads o’er this land its withering blight,
Denouncing wide Jehovah’s ire
Like that which palsied Egypt’s might;
And though no literal darkness spreads
Upon the land its sable gloom,
And seems to fling around our heads
The awful terrors of the tomb:
Yet to the eye of him who reads
The fate of nations past and gone,
And marks with care the wrongful deeds
By which their power was overthrown,
Worse plagues than Egypt ever felt
Are seen wide-spreading through the land,
Announcing that the heinous guilt
On which the nation proudly stands,
Has risen to Jehovah’s throne
And kindled his avenging ire,
And broad-cast through the land has sown
The seeds of a devouring fire.
Tainting with foul, pestiferous breath
The fountain-springs of moral life,
And planting deep the seeds of death,
And future germs of deadly strife;
And moral darkness spreads its gloom
Over the land in every part
And buries in a living tomb
Each generous prompting of the heart.
Vice in its darkest, deadliest stains,
Here walks with brazen front abroad,
And foul corruption proudly reigns
Triumphant in the Church of God;
And sinks so low the Christian name,
In foul, degrading vice, and shame,
That Moslem, Heathen, Atheist, Jew,
And men of every faith and creed,
To their professions far more true,
More liberal both in word and deed,
May well reject, with loathing scorn,
The doctrines taught by those who sell
Their brethren in the Saviour born,
Down into slavery’s hateful hell;
And with the price of Christian blood
Build temples to the Christian’s God;
And offer up as sacrifice,
And incense to the God of heaven,
The mourning wail, and bitter cries,
Of mothers from their children riven;
Of virgin purity profaned
To sate some brutal ruffian’s lust,
Millions of Godlike minds ordained
To grovel ever in the dust;
Shut out by Christian power and might,
From every ray of Christian light.
How long, oh Lord! shall such vile deeds
Be acted in thy holy name,
And senseless bigots, o’er their creeds,
Fill the whole earth with war and flame?
How long shall ruthless tyrants claim
Thy sanction to their bloody laws,
And throw the mantle of thy name,
Around their foul, unhallowed cause?
How long shall all the people bow
As vassals of the favored few,
And shame the pride of manhood’s brow,
Give what to God alone is due –
Homage, to wealth, and rank, and power
Vain shadows of a passing hour?
Oh for a pen of living fire,
A tongue of flame, an arm of steel,
To rouse the people’s slumbering ire,
And teach the tyrant’s heart to feel.
Oh Lord! in vengeance now appear,
And guide the battles for the right,
The spirits of the fainting cheer,
And nerve the patriot’s arm with might;
Till slavery banished from the world,
And tyrants from their powers hurled,
And all mankind from bondage free,
Exult in glorious liberty.

19th century African-American American Poetry Black History Poetry Uncategorized

“The Misanthropist” by James Monroe Whitfield (1822 – 1871)

The Misanthropist

In vain thou bid’st me strike the lyre,
And sing a song of mirth and glee,
Or, kindling with poetic fire,
Attempt some higher minstrelsy;
In vain, in vain! for every thought
That issues from this throbbing brain,
Is from its first conception fraught
With gloom and darkness, woe and pain.
From earliest youth my path has been
Cast in life’s darkest, deepest shade,
Where no bright ray did intervene,
Nor e’er a passing sunbeam strayed;
But all was dark and cheerless night,
Without one ray of hopeful light.
From childhood, then, through many a shock,
I’ve battled with the ills of life,
Till, like a rude and rugged rock,
My heart grew callous in the strife.
When other children passed the hours
In mirth, and play, and childish glee,
Or gathering the summer flowers
By gentle brook, or flowery lea,
I sought the wild and rugged glen
Where Nature, in her sternest mood,
Far from the busy haunts of men,
Frowned in the darksome solitude.
There have I mused till gloomy night,
Like the death-angel’s brooding wing,
Would shut out every thing from sight,
And o’er the scene her mantle fling;
And seeking then my lonely bed
To pass the night in sweet repose,
Around my fevered, burning head,
Dark visions of the night arose;
And the stern scenes which day had viewed
In sterner aspect rose before me,
And specters of still sterner mood
Waved their menacing fingers o’er me.
When the dark storm-fiend soared abroad,
And swept to earth the waving grain,
On whirlwind through the forest rode,
And stirred to foam the heaving main,
I loved to mark the lightning’s flash,
And listen to the ocean’s roar,
Or hear the pealing thunder’s crash,
And see the mountain torrents pour
Down precipices dark and steep,
Still bearing, in their headlong course
To meet th’ embrace of ocean deep,
Mementoes of the tempest’s force;
For fire and tempest, flood and storm,
Wakened deep echoes in my soul,
And made the quickening life-blood warm
With impulse that knew no control;
And the fierce lightning’s lurid flash
Rending the somber clouds asunder,
Followed by the terrific crash
Which marks the hoarsely rattling thunder,
Seemed like the gleams of lurid light
Which flashed across my seething brain,
Succeeded by a darker night,
With wilder horrors in its train.
And I have stood on ocean’s shore,
And viewed its dreary waters roll,
Till the dull music of its roar
Called forth responses in my soul;
And I have felt that there was traced
An image of my inmost soul,
In that dark, dreary, boundless waste,
Whose sluggish waters aimless roll—
Save when aroused by storms’ wild force
It lifts on high its angry wave,
And thousands driven from their course
Find in its depths a nameless grave.
Whene’er I turned in gentler mood
To scan the old historic page,
It was not where the wise and good,
The Bard, the Statesman, or the Sage,
Had drawn in lines of living light,
Lessons of virtue, truth and right;
But that which told of secret league,
Where deep conspiracies were rife,
And where, through foul and dark intrigue,
Were sowed the seeds of deadly strife.
Where hostile armies met to seal
Their country’s doom, for woe or weal;
Where the grim-visaged death-fiend drank
His full supply of human gore,
And poured through every hostile rank
The tide of battle’s awful roar;
For then my spirit seemed to soar
Away to where such scenes were rife,
And high above the battle’s roar
Sit as spectator of the strife—
And in those scenes of war and woe,
A fierce and fitful pleasure know.
There was a time when I possessed
High notions of Religion’s claim,
Nor deemed its practice, at the best,
Was but a false and empty name;
But when I saw the graceless deeds
Which marked its strongest votaries’ path,
How senseless bigots, o’er their creeds,
Blazing with wild fanatic wrath,
Let loose the deadly tide of war,
Spread devastation near and far,
Through scenes of rapine, blood and shame,
Of cities sacked, and towns on flame,
Caused unbelievers’ hearts to feel
The arguments of fire and steel
By which they sought t’ enforce the word,
And make rebellious hearts approve
Those arguments of fire and sword
As mandates of the God of love—
How could I think that such a faith,
Whose path was marked by fire and blood,
That sowed the seeds of war and death,
Had issued from a holy God?
There was a time when I did love,
Such love as those alone can know,
Whose blood like burning lava moves,
Whose passions like the lightning glow;
And when that ardent, truthful love,
Was blighted in its opening bloom,
And all around, below, above,
Seemed like the darkness of the tomb,
’Twas then my stern and callous heart,
Riven in its most vital part,
Seemed like some gnarled and knotted oak,
That, shivered by the lightning’s stroke,
Stands in the lonely wanderer’s path,
A ghastly monument of wrath.
Then how can I attune the lyre
To strains of love, or joyous glee?
Break forth in patriotic fire,
Or soar on higher minstrelsy,
To sing the praise of virtue bright,
Condemn the wrong, and laud the right;
When neither vice nor guilt can fling
A darker shadow o’er my breast,
Not even Virtue’s self can bring,
Unto my moody spirit, rest.
It may not be, it cannot be!
Let others strike the sounding string,
And in rich strains of harmony,
Songs of poetic beauty sing;
But mine must still the portion be,
However dark and drear the doom,
To live estranged from sympathy,
Buried in doubt, despair and gloom;
To bare my breast to every blow,
To know no friend, and fear no foe,
Each generous impulse trod to dust,
Each noble aspiration crushed,
Each feeling struck with withering blight,
With no regard for wrong or right,
No fear of hell, no hope of heaven,
Die all unwept and unforgiven,
Content to know and dare the worst
Which mankind’s hate, and heaven’s curse,
Can heap upon my living head,
Or cast around my memory dead;
And let them on my tombstone trace,
Here lies the Pariah of his race.