Because it’s February and because, apparently, I am trite, I will dedicate this month’s poetry posts to work by black writers.
Several years ago when I was fairly newly married, had a child and a full-time job, I decided I thought it made sense to get a master’s degree in English. Because I had an odd work schedule — daily newspapers have lots of those for those willing to take them — I could only take classes on Mondays. My choices were limited and because of that, I took an odd collection that, I think, was good for me.
My favorite was my first, a class on the Harlem Renaissance, a movement I’d heard of, but didn’t know much about. I learned so much about the African-American experience through literature written by black Americans that my fascination with it has continued to this day. It’s a crime so many of these gifted writers with something important to say are unknown to most Americans, and their work is rarely read outside of survey courses on African American literature.
In 1927, Countee Cullen, the 24-year-old son of a Methodist minister, wanted to celebrate “verse by Negro poets” so he collected their work in “Caroling Dusk,” which has become a touchstone of the Harlem Renaissance and black writing. He writes: “[T]he recent yearly contests conducted by Negro magazines, such as ‘Opportunity’ and ‘The Crisis,’ as well as a growing tendency on the part of white editors to give impartial consideration to the work of Negro writers, have awakened to a happy articulation many young Negro poets who had thitherto lisped only in isolated places in solitary numbers. It is primarily to give them a concerted hearing that this collection has been published.”
In his introduction to “Caroling Dusk,” Cullen differentiates between “verse by Negro poets” and “Negro verse” because any “attempt to corral the outbursts of the ebony muse into some definite mold to which all poetry by Negroes will conform seems altogether futile and aside from the facts.”
As is still — tragically, I have to say — the case with marginalized writers, there became a great debate: Should black writers address “black subjects” and tell their story or “white subjects” so they could cultivate a wider audience. That a writer can be criticized for either choice is a way of silencing authenticity of experience and talent.
Cullen said it much better in this poem, which he included in his own anthology.
Yet Do I Marvel
I doubt not God is good, well-meaning, kind,
And did he stoop to quibble could tell why
The little buried mole continues blind,
Why flesh that mirrors him must some day die,
Make plain the reason tortured Tantalus
Is baited with the fickle fruit, declare
If merely brute caprice dooms Sysyphus
To struggle up a never-ending stair.
Inscrutable His ways are and immune
to catechism by a mind too strewn
With petty cares to slightly understand
What awful brain compels His awful hand;
Yet do I marvel at this curious think:
To make a poet black, and bid him sing.