“The Slave Mother” by Frances Ellen Watkins Harper (1825 – 1911)


“The Slave Mother”

Heard you that shriek? It rose
   So wildly on the air,
It seem’d as if a burden’d heart
   Was breaking in despair.
Saw you those hands so sadly clasped—
   The bowed and feeble head—
The shuddering of that fragile form—
   That look of grief and dread?
Saw you the sad, imploring eye?
   Its every glance was pain,
As if a storm of agony
   Were sweeping through the brain.
She is a mother pale with fear,
   Her boy clings to her side,
And in her kyrtle vainly tries
   His trembling form to hide.
He is not hers, although she bore
   For him a mother’s pains;
He is not hers, although her blood
   Is coursing through his veins!
He is not hers, for cruel hands
   May rudely tear apart
The only wreath of household love
   That binds her breaking heart.
His love has been a joyous light
   That o’er her pathway smiled,
A fountain gushing ever new,
   Amid life’s desert wild.
His lightest word has been a tone
   Of music round her heart,
Their lives a streamlet blent in one—
   Oh, Father! must they part?
They tear him from her circling arms,
   Her last and fond embrace.
Oh! never more may her sad eyes
   Gaze on his mournful face.
No marvel, then, these bitter shrieks
   Disturb the listening air:
She is a mother, and her heart
   Is breaking in despair.

“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)

“The Measure” by Georgia Douglas Johnson (1880 – 1966)


“The Measure”

Fierce is the conflict—the battle of eyes,
Sure and unerring, the wordless replies,
Challenges flash from their ambushing caves—
Men, by their glances, are masters or slaves.
Source: The Heart of a Woman and Other Poems (The Cornhill Company, 1918)

“Common Dust” by Georgia Douglas Johnson (1880 – 1966)


Common Dust

And who shall separate the dust
What later we shall be:
Whose keen discerning eye will scan
And solve the mystery?
The high, the low, the rich, the poor,
The black, the white, the red,
And all the chromatique between,
Of whom shall it be said:
Here lies the dust of Africa;
Here are the sons of Rome;
Here lies the one unlabelled,
The world at large his home!
Can one then separate the dust?
Will mankind lie apart,
When life has settled back again
The same as from the start?

“Black Woman” by Georgia Douglas Johnson (1880 – 1966)


“Black Woman”

Georgia Douglas Johnson1880 – 1966

Don’t knock at the door, little child,
     I cannot let you in,
You know not what a world this is
     Of cruelty and sin.
Wait in the still eternity
     Until I come to you,
The world is cruel, cruel, child,
     I cannot let you in!

Don’t knock at my heart, little one,
     I cannot bear the pain
Of turning deaf-ear to your call
     Time and time again!
You do not know the monster men
     Inhabiting the earth,
Be still, be still, my precious child,
     I must not give you birth!

“Foredoom” by Georgia Douglas Johnson (1880 – 1966)


“Foredoom”

Her life was dwarfed, and wed to blight,
Her very days were shades of night,
Her every dream was born entombed,
Her soul, a bud,—that never bloomed.
Source: The Heart of a Woman and Other Poems (The Cornhill Company, 1918)

“Eurydice” by Hilda “H.D. ” Doolittle (1886 – 1961)


“Eurydice”

I
So you have swept me back,
I who could have walked with the live souls
above the earth,
I who could have slept among the live flowers
at last;
so for your arrogance
and your ruthlessness
I am swept back
where dead lichens drip
dead cinders upon moss of ash;
so for your arrogance
I am broken at last,
I who had lived unconscious,
who was almost forgot;
if you had let me wait
I had grown from listlessness
into peace,
if you had let me rest with the dead,
I had forgot you
and the past.
                               II
Here only flame upon flame
and black among the red sparks,
streaks of black and light
grown colourless;
why did you turn back,
that hell should be reinhabited
of myself thus
swept into nothingness?
why did you glance back?
why did you hesitate for that moment?
why did you bend your face
caught with the flame of the upper earth,
above my face?
what was it that crossed my face
with the light from yours
and your glance?
what was it you saw in my face?
the light of your own face,
the fire of your own presence?
What had my face to offer
but reflex of the earth,
hyacinth colour
caught from the raw fissure in the rock
where the light struck,
and the colour of azure crocuses
and the bright surface of gold crocuses
and of the wind-flower,
swift in its veins as lightning
and as white.
                               III
Saffron from the fringe of the earth,
wild saffron that has bent
over the sharp edge of earth,
all the flowers that cut through the earth,
all, all the flowers are lost;
everything is lost,
everything is crossed with black,
black upon black
and worse than black,
this colourless light.
                               IV
Fringe upon fringe
of blue crocuses,
crocuses, walled against blue of themselves,
blue of that upper earth,
blue of the depth upon depth of flowers,
lost;
flowers,
if I could have taken once my breath of them,
enough of them,
more than earth,
even than of the upper earth,
had passed with me
beneath the earth;
if I could have caught up from the earth,
the whole of the flowers of the earth,
if once I could have breathed into myself
the very golden crocuses
and the red,
and the very golden hearts of the first saffron,
the whole of the golden mass,
the whole of the great fragrance,
I could have dared the loss.
                              V
So for your arrogance
and your ruthlessness
I have lost the earth
and the flowers of the earth,
and the live souls above the earth,
and you who passed across the light
and reached
ruthless;
you who have your own light,
who are to yourself a presence,
who need no presence;
yet for all your arrogance
and your glance,
I tell you this:
such loss is no loss,
such terror, such coils and strands and pitfalls
of blackness,
such terror
is no loss;
hell is no worse than your earth
above the earth,
hell is no worse,
no, nor your flowers
nor your veins of light
nor your presence,
a loss;
my hell is no worse than yours
though you pass among the flowers and speak
with the spirits above earth.
                               VI
Against the black
I have more fervour
than you in all the splendour of that place,
against the blackness
and the stark grey
I have more light;
and the flowers,
if I should tell you,
you would turn from your own fit paths
toward hell,
turn again and glance back
and I would sink into a place
even more terrible than this.
                              VII
At least I have the flowers of myself,
and my thoughts, no god
can take that;
I have the fervour of myself for a presence
and my own spirit for light;
and my spirit with its loss
knows this;
though small against the black,
small against the formless rocks,
hell must break before I am lost;
before I am lost,
hell must open like a red rose
for the dead to pass.