James Weldon Johnson’s 1922 Preface to The Book of American Negro Poetry, Dario, and McKay

In following the course of study crafted by Brenda Marie Osbey, I admittedly am following out of time.  There were a few books that I had to request through the SMC library system, which required me to refashion the course so that I might start at a different time.

Let me start first with my notes on James Weldon Johnson’s 1922 “Preface to The Book of American Negro Poetry”.  I am first intrigued by the case that he makes for the presence and status of Black people as creators within literature and art.  He writes of the Uncle Remus stories (folk stories), spirituals (folk song), the art of dance (buck and wing and stop-time, ragtime and the cakewalk, the eagle rock and the shimmy), and the art of music (song, ragtime, the blues, gospel).  He writes of how whatever it is that the people like being forgotten and pushed aside, that Black art has been popular art.  He writes, at length, in particular about the contours of music and musical composition, the predominance of rhythm in ragtime as opposed to the melody within the spiritual.  He also writes about the metaphorical reaches that the spiritual makes, going beyond the Biblical association into a larger revelation and invocation set within the societal and historical moment.

“This power of the Negro to suck up the national spirit from the soil and create something artistic and original, which, at the same time, possesses the note of universal appeal, is due to a remarkable racial gift of adaptability; it is more than adaptability, it is a transfusive quality,” Johnson wrote (p. 6).

He later writes of the distinctive qualities of the few Black people to have lived in countries such as France, Russia, and England and their contributions to art and literature, noting that in the U.S. the artistic and intellectual energy of the Black people has been focused on “this grueling race-struggle” (p. 7).  That said, he also notes that there are many Black writers who have made their stamp on literature and yet have been denied their rightful place, such as Phillis Wheatley, who was only the second American poet to have published a volume of poetry, the first being Anne Bradstreet.

Johnson, in this preface, offers criticism of the poetry of Black people but also notes that they should be considered in relationship to the time.  For example, George M. Horton was born a slave in North Carolina and, while he composed poetry, was not able to write it down.  Eventually, he published a volume of poems, The Hope of Liberty in 1829 after receiving some instruction from UNC professors to whom he was exposed through his work there as a janitor.  Johnson gives such a detailed accounting of the names and resources around Black literary arts, including the names of a number of artists who I have never read.

In this recounting of the authors, he focuses in on three and their work in relationship to race:  Wheatley and her allusions to the classics, Latin poetry, English authors, American patriotism, patronage to Horton and his complaint about slavery to Harper and her condemnation of injustice to Whitman (Alberry) and his resilience and resistance.  Johnson ends his criticism with a focus on Paul Laurence Dunbar as the first Black poet who writes with a distinctive voice and mastery of poetic technique.

I am also really interested in the fact that Johnson also speaks of afrodescendiente poets in other countries:  Plácido and Manzano (Cuba); Vieuz and Durand (Haiti); and Machado de Assis (Brazil).  He writes that the great afrodescendiente poets up until his time have come from Latin-American countries because “The colord poet in the United States labors within limitations which he cannot easily pass over.  He is always on the defensive or the offensive.  The pressure upon him to be pragandic is well nigh irresistible.  These conditions are suffucating to breadth and to real art in poetry … On the other hand, the colored poet in Latin America can voice the national spirit without any reservations.  And he will be rewarded without any reservations, whether it be to place him among the great or declare him the greatest” (p. 16).

I am also really interested in his predictions for what the Black poet who achieves world-renown will do:  “find a form that will express the racial spirit by symbols from within rather than by symbols from withought”; use a form that is not dependent on dialect but that will still be aligned with race and culture; express through imagery; explore humor and pathos; explore a wide range of emotions and aspirations.  I find this interesting, because this seems to run counter to what was, at one point, the trend of centering a book on a unifying concept, theme, topic rather than interconnected poems that reveal the interrelated through the tangential.

Finally, Johnson ends with listing the poets within the collections, of which, one that I will focus on, Claude McKay, is included.

I’ll finish this post by talking about Darío and McKay as inspirations for the work I am writing.

Following the guide of Brenda Marie Osbey, she outlined 6 poems by Claude McKay to be read:  “If we must die”, “The Harlem Dancer”, “Harlem Shadows”, “To the White Friends”, “White House”, and “The Tropics of New York.”

In the work that I am writing right now, there are a number of characters:  Iset (called a god by her people for being a product of a mysterious joining of her body with the entire mass of her massacred people); Asmeret (the older sister of Iset, who serves as point of logic), Enu (the warrior and executioner for the people; she is the deliverer of justice); Hulda (who serves as prophetess, elder with the wonder of a child, and guardian of the fount from which all of their power as a people flows); Mae (the eunuch, two-spirit child of Iset, who shares a soul with his sister, Maat, who was killed when she was still a child); Maat (the child spirit who remains bound to the earth and has the power to manipulate her bones and to possess her brother); Persephone (the youngest child of Iset, known as the jewel of the people for her gentleness and for their hope that she will one day lead); Risad (the human father of Mae and Maat who sacrificed himself and Maat so that Iset and Mae might live through a drought); Elisha (second husband of Iset and former American slave); Dr. Peter Decker (therapist of Perse, who engages in gaslighting her to obtain access to create the apocalypse). “To the White Friends” is the most pressing of the poems that most connects to Iset.  She does not take the belief that she is a light.  She would take the lines that McKay writes and make them true:

“Think you I could not arm me with a gun/ And shoot down ten of you for every one / Of my black brothers murdered, burnt by you? / Be not deceived, for every deed you do / I could math — out match: am I not Africa’s son, / Black of that black land where black deeds are done?”

While she differs in her view of Africa – in her origin story, she looks about her African origins as a time and space that defy time and space, in which the natural, spiritual, and corporeal worlds intermingle, and the practice of gathering myrrh is a meditative and transcendent mystery of her and her matriarchal clan – she does believe in her own cruelty after the violation of all that she holds sacred.  Iset, in one of the poems that I have written, is described as “perfect-cruel” in comparison to the world that merely attempts.  Considering that Iset is several millennia in age, such a description is frightening.  Yet, she has some tenderness, particularly when it comes to her time as a young girl, her first love, and the infancy of her first two children.  This is when “The Tropics of New York” most allows me to consider how to bring that into her story and into the poems without telling too much.  Still, for Iset, these are moments in an otherwise life as a stone-facade of the divine walking among human beings.

Rubén Darío most connects to Persephone, I think, within the work that I am exploring.  The poems chosen by Osbey were “Á Roosevelt”, “I seek a form”, “Tarde Del Trópico/Tropic Afternoon”, “Walt Whitman”, and “Nocturne/Nocturno”.

Darío wrote in “Á Roosevelt”:  “And it is the daughter of the Sun.  Be careful”.  This was in response to the imperialist expansion of the United States, claiming that while the United States of America claimed such dominance, there was another America.  This is something that I believe could also be said of Perse, though she is a victim in one instance, she comes from a powerful background from which she can summon power.  I’m still trying to figure out everything about her, though.  “Tropic Afternoon” interests me greatly in that, I imagine Perse first as a goth punk youth who, for her perceived disconnectedness from reality, is hospitalized and put through forced therapy.  She’s a human being who grew up surrounded by insatiable and aged beings with their own rules and yet she’s growing up in Cali, going to high school, learning an entirely different rule book and history than those she reads in the old books of her mother or on the whip-marked back of her father.  “Tropic Afternoon” conjures the natural world and its sadness and also the tension between the harmonious and the clear trumpet blast that shakes the world to vibration.

Tarde Del Trópico / Tropic Afternoon (another translation)
The afternoon is gray and sad
The sea is dressed in velvet
and the wide sky dressed
in pained grief.
From the abyss, rises
a sonorous and bitter complaint,
The wave, when the wind sings,
cries,
The fog violins
greet the dying sun.
The white foam chants psalms:
Miserere!
Harmony floods the sky,
and the breeze carries
the sad and mournful song
of the sea.
From the clarion horizon
blare a strange symphony,
as if the voice of the mount
vibrated.

As if it were invisible …
as it it were a hard són
tossed to the wind by a terrible
lion.

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