Black History in Literature, Part 1: Poetry

“I don’t recognize any white culture. I recognize no American Culture which is not the partial creation of black people. I recognize in American style in literature, in dance, in music, even in assembly-line processes, which does not bear the mark of the American Negro” – Ralph Ellison

It’s black history month here in the states. You know, that month we have dedicated to talk about a piece of the history of our nation separately from the rest of our history. God forbid we talk about black people in May or October. Even our history is segregated. If you didn’t gather, I am not a fan of black history month. What happens in most schools I’ve been to is this: we talk about Martin Luther King Jr., Jackie Robinson, and Rosa Parks. We talk about the history of black people in the states in the frame of a couple people who fought for our rights and gave us so much – but we ignore everyone else. Malcolm X is a side-bar paragraph (if I could call it a paragraph) in the textbooks and we don’t even look outside of our country. We are led to believe that slavery was American, and that it’s horrors were mild. We are led to believe that King almost single-handedly gave us rights. That the civil rights movement ended in the the late sixties and everything was just fine after that. We never get the full story. We get the manufactured vanilla take on the history of a peoples. So what I say is this: if you feel the need to dedicate a month just to ‘black history’ (which as actually also American History, World History even) then don’t insult us further. Tell us the truth. Because without it no one will know how far this country has come or how far we still have to go.

What it comes down to is this: the experience of a black man in this country was and still is (to some degree) vastly difference than the experience of an Italian man, an Irish man, a Chinese man, and Mexican man and so on. The true experience of a black American is unique, just like the experience of all Americans throughout history. If we want to talk about black history, we cannot do so without considering the experience of blacks. And there are few better ways to do this than to examine literature. This is the start of my series examining ‘black literature’ to give a better idea of the experience of the black American. We’re going to begin with poetry.

Hope is a huge part of African American literature, hugely prevalent in spirituals and speeches of leaders throughout the years it was the force that kept us going in times of hate and inequality. This hope, beautiful and powerful, always reveals a sort of deeper pain, expressed heavily in more modern works. Both of these connect to the journey referenced heavily throughout all things connected to black culture. Finally, the point that everyone seems to miss when discussing black history, is the issue of identity. What does it mean to be black in America? What does it mean to be black in the world?

I, Too by Langston Hughes (1902-1967)

I, too, sing America.

I am the darker brother.
They send me to eat in the Kitchen
When Company comes,
But I laugh,
And eat well,
And grow strong.

Tomorrow,
I’ll be at the table
When company comes.
Nobody’ll dare
Say to me,
“Eat in the kitchen,”
Then

Besides,
They’ll see how beautiful I am
And be ashamed –

I, too, am America.

This poem is about hope. Hope, freedom, and equality. We get that sense from the very opening line, as the narrator says he’ sings America’. In the African American community, ever since slavery singing has always been connected more than anything else to hope. Their songs were always about looking forward, going home, and finding peace. He has hope for America. He will not let the oppression bring him down. Because tomorrow, in the future, he will be their equal. And they will look back on these times and be ashamed that they treated the blacks so poorly for such a ridiculous reason. Blacks are as much a part of this country as every one else, they had a hand in building it, protecting it, and loving it. It was this attitude, these sorts of writings, that appeared in the center of the civil rights moment.

Lift Every Voice and Sing by James Weldon Johnson (1871-1938)

Lift every voice and sing
Till earth and heaven ring
Ring with the harmonies of Liberty;
Let our rejoicing rise,
High as the list’ning skies, let it resound loud as the rolling sea
Sing a song full of faith that the dark past has tought us,
Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us;
Facing the rising sun of our new day begun,
Let us march on till victory is won.

Stony the road we trod,
Bitter the chast’ning rod,
Felt in the day that hope unborn had died;
Yet with a steady beat,
Have not our weary feet,
Come to the place on witch our fathers sighed?
We have come over a way that with tears has been watered,
We have come, treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered,
Out from the gloomy past, till now we stand at last
Where the white gleam of our star is cast.

God of our weary years,
God of our silent tears,
Thou who has brought us thus far on the way;
Thou who has by thy might,
Led us into the light,
Keep us forever in the path, we pray
Lest our feet stray from the places, our God, where we met thee,
Least our hearts, drunk with the wine of the world, we forget thee,
Shadowed beneath the hand,
May we forever stand,
True to our God,
True to our native land.

This song is highly regarded as the Negro National Hymn, filled with messages of hope and references to this journey that the black people have taken so far and the journey that lies ahead. This came post slavery to rejoice in the abolishing of slavery. When you get down to it, this is a powerful piece. Simply reading it is explanation enough. What is perhaps most powerful is the final line. ‘True to our native land.’ Native land, meaning the USA. Written in 1900, this came during a time where blacks had few rights afforded to much of the rest of the country. The wound of slavery was fresh, and people were still living in fear. But they rejoiced, and they were still somehow proud to be American. And they were marching on, walking to the victory of the future.

The Negro Speaks of Rivers by Langston Hughes (1902-1967)

I’ve known rivers:
I’ve known rivers ancient as the world and older than the flow of human blood
in human veins.

My soul has grown deep like the rivers.

I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young.
I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep.
I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it.
I heard the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln went down to New
Orleans, and I’ve seen its muddy bosom turn all golden in the sunset.

I’ve known rivers:
Ancient, dusky rivers.

My soul has grown deep like the rivers.

This poem speaks to the journey of the black people. Each line of the body stanza references a great river. The Euphrates river is the longest and most important river of Western Asia. In the Bible, it was one of the four rivers that split off from the main river flowing out of the Garden of Eden. The Congo river is the deepest river in the world. The Nile, of course, is the longest river in the world and it flows north. The Mississippi river flows from one end of the US to the other, and the Union army gaining control of this river was a big part of their victory in the civil war. His soul is the shared experiences of the black people and the ancestors of the black people. His people have seen so much and like the river, he knows that while it may flow slowly it will eventually end up all in one place with other rivers. His people are connected to each other and to the other people of America and of the world. These connections and these shared experiences give him insight and hope. He knows where he’s been, and he he has hope about where his people will end up.

jasper texas 1998 by Lucille Clifton (1936-2010)

for j. byrd

i am a man’ head hunched in the road.
i was chosen to speak by the members
of my body. the arm as it pulled away
pointed toward me, the hand opened once
and was gone.

why and why and why
should i call a white man brother?
who is the human in this place,
the thing that is dragged or the dragger?
What does my daughter say?

the sun is a blister overhead.
if i were alive i could not bear it.
the townsfolk sing we shall overcome
while hope bleeds slowly from my mouth
into the dirt that covers us all.
i am done with this dust.    i am done.

This poem is utterly without hope. It has given up. Because in 1998, in Jasper, Texas, James Byrd Jr., a black man, was dragged behind a pick up truck to his death. The people are still singing of hope and brotherhood and through the image of this man’s head, Clifton asks why. Why should I call a white man by brother? Why do these sorts of things still happen. This is the pain of a writer, of a man dragged behind a pick-up truck, of a black community pushed back into hopeless fear. If I were alive I could not bear it – it has all become too much. The final line is giving up as surely as it is standing up. He’s done with life, he has given up. But the writer is done with the dust, the evil and senseless acts. She sees these terrible things and she’s doing what she can do – she’s writing about it. she’s making people see it and question it. This is Clifton speaking out with pain to bring the world to a higher standard.

Passing by Tori Derricotte (b. 1941)

A professor invites me to his “Black Lit” class; they’re
reading Larson’s Passing. One of the black
students says, “Sometimes light-skinned blacks
think they can fool other blacks,
but I can always tell,” looking
right through me.
After I tell them I am black,
I ask the class, “Was I passing
when I was just sitting here,
before I told you?” A white woman
shakes her head desperately, as if
I had deliberately deceived her.
She keeps examining my face,
then turning away
as if she hopes I’ll disappear. Why presume
“passing” is based on what I leave out
and now what she fills in?
In one scene in the book, in a restaurant,
she’s “passing,”
though no one checked her at the door –
“Hey, you black?”
My father, who looked white,
told me this story: every year
when he’d go to get his driver’s license,
the man at the window filling
out the form would ask,
“White or black?” pencil poised, without looking up.
My father wouldn’t pass, but he might
use silence to trap a devil.
When he didn’t speak, the man
would look up at my father’s face.
“What sis he write?”
my father quizzed me.

Larson’s Passing is about two women who are childhood friends. One of them starts to “pass” for white, and marries a racist, who eventually discovers and kills her. This brings about the idea that denying one’s race may only accomplish killing you in some way, whether it be literally or figuratively. My favorite line in this poem comes in the middle ‘Why presume “passing” is based on what I leave out and not what she fills in?” Race is more than skin deep. It’s a complex identity built through shared culture and ancestry. Someone with light skin might be black as surely as someone with dark skin might not. Any white person (say, one of purely European descent) can say they are black as surely as an Italian cannot one day decide to be Dutch. They can identify with and respect, even adopt the culture, but the blood that beats through their veins will always be a part of who they are.

Rwanda: Where Tears Have No Power by Haki Madhubuti (b. 1942)

Who has the moral high ground?

Fifteen blocks from the whitehouse
on small corners in northwest, d.c.
boys disguised as me rip each other’s hearts out
with weapons made in china. they fight for territory.

across the planet in a land where civilization was born
the boys of d.c. know nothing about their distant relatives
in Rwanda. they have never heard of the hutu or tutsi people.
their eyes draw blanks at the mention of kigali, byumba
or butare. all they know are the streets of d.c., and do not
cry at funerals anymore. numbers and frequency have a way
of making murder commonplace and not news
unless it spreads outside of our house, block, territory.

modern massacres are intraethnic. bosnia, sri lanka, burundi,
nagorno-karabakh, iraq, laos, angola, liberia, and rwanda are
small foreign names on a map made in europe. when bodies
by the tens of thousands float down a river turning the water
the color of blood, as a quarter of a million people flee barefoot
into tanzania and zaire, somehow we notice. we do not smile,
we have no more tears. we hold our thoughts. In deeply
muted silence looking south and thinking that today
nelson mandela seems much larger
than he is.

I’d like to leave you with this piece. I have been considering it for some time now, mostly identifying with the idea of being black, not African. I’m sure there is much more to this poem, and I would like to know what you think of it. Or any of the poems, for that matter. Leave your thoughts in the comments below, and have a nice day.