Dover Book

Text Box with description of Book

   Wow, what an impressive collection of poetry! I am not that good at reading poems, but since I began writing these book reviews ten years ago, I have done much more work at interpretation. Many of these, though profound, were still easy to understand. This was an enjoyable book to read, and represented a great variety of people dating from 1773 to 1927. Some were slaves, ex-slaves, descendants of slaves, civil rights activists, and independent people of many different professions. In fact, many of them wore numerous hats. For instance, Daniel Webster Davis (1862-1913) "was an educator, Baptist minister, popular orator, historian, poet, and a leader of Richmond, Virginia's African America community for over three decades," according to this Dover edition. James Weldon Johnson (1871-1938) has him beat, being "an educator, newspaperman, United States consular officer and secretary of the NAACP . . . a versatile man of letters: a librettist and songwriter, novelist, historian, anthologist, autobiographer and poet"! A great many of these poets were very well educated and also involved in educating others. Many published volumes of poetry, and quite a few won literary awards. Again, a very impressive collection of people represented here.
   Most of these people were well-known in their time. I recognized two of them, and I am very familiar with Paul Laurence Dunbar. Here is the Index Page he shares with two others. At the time I created the page, I didn't think I would find enough of their works available to warrant individual pages, but I am happy to say that I indeed have found quite a bit!
   All were of African descent except one, who was a native of Jamaica. But all had one thing in common: they had an excellent command of the English language. Many of the poems are spiritual in nature, and some mock the hypocrisy of church leaders! Others are humorous, and many expressed anger and pain over what they suffered, or their families had suffered. Many of the poems were written in African-American dialect, and they were often humorous. Some of the poets wrote in both dialect and also in very profound and sophisticated English. Ohio did not fare well in the opinions of some, especially Cleveland, for which I am ashamed. Joshua McCarter Simpson, in his poem Away to Canada, he writes:

Ohio’s not the place for me;
For I was much surprised,
So many of her sons to see
In garments of disguise.
Her name has gone out through the world,
Free Labor, Soil, and Men;
But slaves had better far be hurled
Into the Lion’s Den.

Farewell, Ohio!
I am not safe in thee;
I’ll travel on to Canada,
Where colored men are free.

   His poetry was set to popular tunes—this one to O Susannah, and were sung on the Underground Railroad. Here is a recording from the David Ruggles Center For Early Florence History And Underground Railroad Studies by the Shape-note Singers in Florence, Massachusetts. This poem, Song of the Aliened American, not included in the book, is sung to the tune of My Country Tis of Thee. Frances Ellen Watkins Harper wrote an even more scathing commentary entitled, To the Union Savers of Cleveland.
   Twenty-five poets were included in this collection. Some of them were represented by one or two poems, and others by as many as six. This small volume of 82 pages ends with both an alphabetical list of titles and of first lines. I will share some comments I wrote in my notes and four poems I especially liked.
   There were so many that I liked and wanted to share, so choosing four to post was a task. These represent different styles and moods. The first is a beautiful poem in praise of the poet William Wordsworth and reads as if it was written by a classic English poet. It is by Charlotte Forten Grimké, (1873-1914). She was, according to this volume, "born into the leading African-American family of Philadelphia." She is known as an anti-slavery activist and for teaching freed slaves in South Carolina. She published various works. Here is a collection of nine of her poems, which also includes the following.

Wordsworth
Poet of the serene and thoughtful lay!
In youth’s fair dawn, when the soul, still untried,
Longs for life’s conflict, and seeks restlessly
Food for its cravings in the stirring songs,
The thrilling strains of more impassioned bards;
Or, eager for fresh joys, culls with delight
The flowers that bloom in fancy’s fairy realm—
We may not prize the mild and steadfast ray
That streams from thy pure soul in tranquil song
But, in our riper years, when through the heat
And burden of the day we struggle on,
Breasting the stream upon whose shores we dreamed,
Weary of all the turmoil and the din
Which drowns the finer voices of the soul;
We turn to thee, true priest of Nature’s fane,
And find the rest our fainting spirits need,—
The calm, more ardent singers cannot give;
As in the glare intense of tropic days,
Gladly we turn from the sun’s radiant beams,
And grateful hail fair Luna’s tender light.

   The next one is quite long, but I included the entire poem because it is so good. It is written about his days of destitution. Alfred Islay Walden (1847?-1884) was a slave for eighteen years, overcame destitution and blindness, then earned a teaching degree from Howard University, and also became an ordained minister. Wow! This poem can be found on the Poetry Foundation website.

Wish for an Overcoat
Oh! had I now an overcoat,
 For I am nearly freezing;
My head and lungs are stopped with cold,
  And often I am sneezing.

And, too, while passing through the street,
 Where merchants all are greeting,
They say, young man this is the coat
 That you should wear to meeting.

Then, looking down upon my feet,
 For there my boots are bursting,
With upturned heels and grinning toes,
 With tacks which long were rusting.

Ah! how they view my doeskin pants
 With long and crooked stitches,
They say, young man would you not like
 To have some other breeches?

My head is also hatless too,
 The wind is swiftly blowing,
They say, young man will you not freeze?
 See ye not how it’s snowing?

And now they take me by the hand,
 And lead me toward the store,
And some are pulling down the coats
 Before I reach the door.

So walk I in, their goods to price,
 To quench a thirst that’s burning,
And freely would I buy a coat,
 But nothing I am earning.

They say to me, I should have known,
 That winter time was coming,
When I was roaming through the park,
 With birds around me humming.

Their logic’s true, I must confess,
 And all they say is pleasant;
But did I know that I would have
 No overcoat at present?

To satisfy these craving Jews,
 To buy I am not able,
For it is more than I can do
 To meet my wants at table.

Therefore my skin will toughly grow,
 Will grant to me this favor,
That I may learn to stand as much
 As little Jack, the sailor.

And if I live till winter’s passed,
 Though nature’s harps unstringing,
I then will fly to yon woodland
 To hear the oak trees singing.

Then I will not on hero’s fame,
 Ride swiftly on to victory,
Although my saddle may be made
 Of cotton sacks or hickory.

But if I die, farewell to all,
 Oh! who will tell the story,
That I have lived a noble life.
 And now gone home to glory?

Yes, who will chant a song of praise
 For me—who will be weeping—
When I have yielded to the grave,
 And ’mid the dead am sleeping?

But some will ask, “how did he die?
  It was without my knowing;
Was it because he caught a cold,
 Last year when it was snowing?”

The answer now comes hurling back,
 In words I cannot utter,
It was not by a cold alone,
 But partly bread and butter.

[This poem is dedicated to my own necessities and wants.]

   James Edwin Campbell (1867-1896), also an educator and journalist, "created dynamic folk verses in "Gullah" dialect that were universally praised for their originality, hard realism, authentic voice and spirit and apt musicality," according to this Dover edition. Gullah is a Creole language. The character in the poem sounds much like the "Boogie Man" that many children heard of in the days of my youth. I don't remember hearing of it in my home, though. My parents weren't like that, telling children something that would scare them. Anyways, this poem is found at poets.org. Also included in this collection is a very humorous poem mocking the hypocrisy of church leaders for "disciplining" a woman for dancing. 'Sciplinin' Sister Brown can be found at Poetry Nook.

De Cunjah Man
O chillen, run, de Cunjah man,
Him mouf ez beeg ez fryin’ pan,
Him yurs am small, him eyes am raid,
Him hab no toof een him ol’ haid,
Him hab him roots, him wu’k him trick, Him roll him eye, him mek you sick—
 De Cunjah man, de Cunjah man,
 O chillen, run, de Cunjah man!

Him hab ur ball ob raid, raid ha’r,
Him hide it un’ de kitchen sta’r,
Mam Jude huh pars urlong dat way,
An’ now huh hab ur snaik, de say.
Him wrop ur roun’ huh buddy tight,
Huh eyes pop out, ur orful sight—
 De Cunjah man, de Cunjah man,
 O chillen, run, de Cunjah man!

Miss Jane, huh dribe him f’um huh do’,
An’ now huh hens woan’ lay no mo’;
De Jussey cow huh done fall sick,
Hit all done by de Cunjah trick.
Him put ur root un’ ’Lijah’s baid,
An’ now de man he sho’ am daid—
 De Cunjah man, de Cunjah man,
 O chillen, run, de Cunjah man!

Me see him stan’ de yudder night
Right een de road een white moon-light;
Him toss him arms, him whirl him’ roun’,
Him stomp him foot urpon de groun’;
De snaiks come crawlin’, one by one.
Me hyuh um hiss, me break an’ run—
 De Cunjah man, de Cunjah man,
 O chillen, run, de Cunjah man!

James David Corrothers (1869-1919) was a newspaper man, minister and author of numerous works. He wrote in both "regular" English and dialect. This one is a darkly humorous poem about some Black folk deprived of their Christmas dinner by abusive White folk and how they "solved" the problem! And justified their solution!! This one, along with other poems by this author, can also be found at poets.org.

An Indignation Dinner
Dey was hard times jes fo’ Christmas round our neighborhood one year;
So we held a secret meetin’, whah de white folks couldn’t hear,
To ’scuss de situation, an’ to see what could be done
Towa’d a fust-class Christmas dinneh an’ a little Christmas fun.

Rufus Green, who called de meetin’, ris an’ said: “In dis here town,
An’ throughout de land, de white folks is a-tryin’ to keep us down.”
S’ ’e: “Dey bought us, sold us, beat us; now dey ’buse us ’ca’se we’s free;
But when dey tetch my stomach, dey’s done gone too fur foh me!

“Is I right?” “You sho is, Rufus!” roared a dozen hungry throats.
“Ef you’d keep a mule a-wo’kin’, don’t you tamper wid his oats.
“Dat’s sense,” continued Rufus. “But dese white folks nowadays
Has done got so close and stingy you can’t live on what dey pays.

“Here ’tis Christmas-time, an’, folkses, I’s indignant ’nough to choke.
Whah’s our Christmas dinneh comin’ when we’s ’mos’ completely broke?
I can’t hahdly ’fo’d a toothpick an’ a glass o’ water. Mad?
Say, I’m desp’ret! Dey jes better treat me nice, dese white folks had!”

Well, dey ’bused de white folks scan’lous, till old Pappy Simmons ris,
Leanin’ on his cane to s’pote him, on account his rheumatis’,
An’ s’ ’e: “Chilun, whut’s dat wintry wind a-sighin’ th’ough de street
’Bout yo’ wasted summeh wages? But, no matter, we mus’ eat.

“Now, I seed a beau’ful tuhkey on a certain gemmun’s fahm.
He’s a-growin’ fat an’ sassy, an’ a-struttin’ to a chahm.
Chickens, sheeps, hogs, sweet pertaters—all de craps is fine dis year;
All we needs is a committee foh to tote de goodies here.”

Well, we lit right in an’ voted dat it was a gran’ idee,
An’ de dinneh we had Christmas was worth trabblin’ miles to see;
An’ we eat a full an’ plenty, big an’ little, great an’ small,
Not beca’se we was dishonest, but indignant, sah. Dat’s all.

   There are so many others that I really liked, but cannot include them all! For anyone interested in poetry, or African-American history, this little book is a must-read. Search these poems online, and you will discover many more by these authors. For my other poetry reviews, click the Book Reviews link above. For other African-American literature, here is the Index Page.

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