Negro Poetry in America

Lena Beatrice Morton



I shall be happy if at the close of this discussion, the reader has a greater knowledge and deeper appreciation of the literary genius of the Negro. In a sense Negro poetry is in its incipiency. In a larger sense it was begun two hundred and fifty years ago when the black, bandanna slave sang of the ‘Glory Land’ as he picked the white cotton from his master’s plantation. This ante-bellum folk rhyme served its time and did credit to its makers. From the same race that contributed the Negro Folk Rhymes there has evolved a group of black men and women who are producing literary work of excellent value. Some of them have sung so sweetly that time is automatically fitting them into the little category of men we call poets. Their artistic successes are perhaps more picturesque because they are mounted on cardboards of black.

This little book attempts to give a general view of the trend and promise of


Negro Poetry in America. Some writers of good verse have been omitted either because they had not come into great prominence before this manuscript was prepared, or because their spirit has been exemplified in the works of some mentioned poet. The author is ardently championing the rise of Negro Poetry. She believes that the black bards have made a worthy beginning. There are others who have a passion for the idealistic, and who are universal lovers of song and verse; these are daring to hope that the Negro of literary talent will look upon the production of poetry as a goal worthy of abundant strivings.

In the preparation of these pages the writer has studied most carefully Professor Talley’s “Negro Folk Rhymes” and Mr. Kerlin’s “Negro Poets and Their Poems.” To these authors I am most obligated and thankful.


Cincinnati, Ohio.

Negro Poetry in America

Recent investigations show that the Negro has always expressed his most emotional states in some form of rhythmic language. The African forefather sang his war songs to the accompaniment of crude drums; the ante‑bellum Negro expressed both his joy and sorrow in rhythmic folklore; and the modern Negro lets loose his soaring imagination in all the forms of rhythmic language. Indeed this race of black men and women seems especially favored with the gift of song. Years of enslavement brought from the soul of the Negro songs of faith in a better land, and of hope for a better day. These melodious expressions of the faith and the longings of a people have come down to us in the form of Negro Jubilee songs, which songs, representing as they do, a certain type of American people, and a certain period of American history, have given to America a distinctive recognition in the musical



BRAWLEY, BENJAMIN, The Negro in Literature and Art, Duffield & Company, New York, 1921.

JOHNSON, JAMES W., The Book of American Negro Poetry, Harcourt, Brace & Company, New York, 1922.

KERLIN, ROBERT T., Negro Poets and Their Poems, Associated Publishers, Inc., Washington, D. C., 1923.

TALLEY, THOMAS W., Negro Folk Rhymes, The Macmillan Company, New York, 1922.


The Tragedy

He who attempts discussing the Tragedy and who examines a vast lot of material on the subject finds an appalling question confronting him: “Where shall I begin and where shall I end?” Indeed the prospective writer finds himself in a most tragic condition. Three hundred years before Christ the Greek Philosopher, Aristotle, defined tragedy as “An imitation of an action, serious, complete, and of a certain magnitude; in language embellished with each kind of ornament; the several kinds being found in separate parts of the play; in the form of action, not of narrative; through pity and fear effecting the proper katharsis, or purgation of these emotions.”

This definition does not fully suffice for the modern tragic theorist. He asks that more provision be made for characterization, conflict, and a greater number of the emotions in any adequate explanation of the tragedy. Today’s theatre goers admire


actors with distinct individualities, not mere puppets of fate; they sit with the keenest interest during a clash of wills; and they enjoy the summoning forth of all their emotions. However, the main tenets of Aristotle are of value in the present conception of tragedy. (1) The performance must be an imitation of action; a vivid suggestion of the laws of life working them­selves out in man and nature. The staging of real life is not so pleasing as the depict­ing of life tinted with the imagination of an enchanting genius. (2) The action must be serious. For the Greeks and for those writers of tragedy through the period of Shakespeare the tragic drama must bring disastrous results. The essentiality of a disastrous end, of deaths and murders has been denied by modern tragic writers. All playwrights agree with the philosopher that the action must be complete. The mere crisis is not given, but the beginning, middle, and end of action are presented. A play may begin at a certain part of a story as in “Medea,” “The Spanish Tragedy”


and Shakespeare’s historical plays, but the portion that is told is complete within itself. The tragedy must have magnitude. The theme must have a certain largeness and sweep, while the characters must be of the higher classes, magnificent and significant. The classical writers dealt with gods and goddesses, kings and queens; modern European writers dealt with kings, queens, and noblemen; recent writers have more or less used the persons of middle life, discarding the old standard for royal lineage. Aristotle stressed the emotions of pity and fear. Pity that a character so magnificent and endowed with such fine abilities should fail; fear that if this able one is subject to failure then all are. Modern and recent playwrights have added other emotions in the tragedy to Aristotle’s list of pity and fear.

Since Aristotle treated the tragedy, Hegel has been the only other philosopher to theorize on this branch of the drama. For him tragedy consists of a collision or conflict. It may be taken for granted that


a tragedy is a story of unhappiness and sufferings and excites such feelings as pity and fear. But to Hegel the essential part is not the suffering, but its cause; namely, the action or conflict. The conflict is a struggle between the powers that rule the world of man’s will and action,—between his ethical substance. The family and the state, parent and child with the obligations and feelings appropriate to these bonds; the powers of personal love and honor, devotion to a great cause or an ideal inter­est are forces exhibited in tragic action. As these forces are common to all men and are acknowledged as powers rightfully claiming human allegiance their presentation in tragedy has that interest at once deep and universal which is essential to a great work of art. In some works of art such powers are shown in harmonious co-operation. Tragedy shows them in collision. The essentially tragic fact is the self­-division, the intestinal warfare of the eth­ical substance. The struggle is not so much a war of good with evil as the war of good


with good. Two of these isolated powers face each other making incompatible demands: the family claims what the state refuses, love requires what honor forbids. The competing forces are both in themselves rightful, and so far the claim of each is equally justified; but the right of each is pushed into a wrong because it ignores the right of the other, and demands that absolute sway which belongs to neither alone, but to the whole of which each is a part. This fault lies in the nature of the character through whom these claims are made. However varied and rich the inner life of the character may be, in conflict it is all concentrated in one point. Romeo is not a son or a citizen as well as a lover; he is a lover, pure and simple, and his love is the whole of him.

Only in a meagre degree does Hegel’s assertion, that tragic struggle is a conflict of good with good, hold true. The application in the “Medea” and “Macbeth” would certainly have to be strained. In these two tragedies, what are the conflicting


forces of good with good? If it be allowed that Medea has cause for revenge, thee cause has certainly been preceded by a gross wrong—the murder of her brother. Thus an apparently rightful revenge has been tinted by a gigantic wrong, and when set upon this bloody background cannot be called a struggling force of good. Moreover, this struggle is against a wild and ultimately fiendish nature. Added to this we have Medea seeking revenge for herself alone. In this instance the direct converse of Hegel’s theory becomes true. Revenge in itself is wrong; a fiendish nature in itself is wrong. In Macbeth we have a perverted ambition struggling against a fine nature. Hegel might contend that both forces were right in themselves. Ambition is a noble trait; so is a valiant and kind nature. But the tragic struggle does not begin as long as the ambition is in a wholesome and normal state; the struggle begins only when the ambition becomes corrupted. The perverted ambition becomes the bad force.


The theme basis of both classical and modern writers is similar in kind. We learn from Mr. Courtney that “For the ancient as well as for the modern artist the problem was the same—so to carve out and fashion a story from the great quarry of legendary tales, that it should be a complete work within itself, with definite plot, definite characterizations and definite incidents leading up to the characterization.”* Subjects chosen for treatment by the tragic poets gradually became restricted to critical events in the traditional histories of a few great houses. The poet is free to select from different versions of the same fable and to modify particular incidents. For example in one version of the story of Lear, Cordelia, survives and triumphs, but in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s version she was hanged. Monmouth’s version is adapted with modifications by Shakespeare. In regard to the legendary basis of tragic drama Mr. Campbell observes, (1) that in

* Campbell, Lewis, Tragic Drama in Aeschylus, Sophocles and Shakespeare, p. 20.


by the valor of a woman’s tongue does he commit the first murder. He plans the other murders without the urge of woman, he accepts them as his doom. The ambitious murderer moves on to each in turn with the force and precision of a machine, but, none the less, his soul is poisoned and his peace is departed from him. His doom closes around him and he dies at last like “a bear tied to the stake” fighting with desperate courage against a world in arms.

The direct opposite to Macbeth is found in the character of King Lear. At the opening of the play Lear is rash and choleric, swept by gusts of ungovernable fury. But trouble, the direct consequence of his own rashness, falls upon him, hurls him from his throne and from his former self. He is purified through suffering. In his own sorrows he learns to feel the sorrows of others. He bows himself in passionate repentance to seek forgiveness of those he has wronged and who yet love him. The old world, the old self have fallen from him.



BRADLEY, A. C., Hegel's Theory of Tragedy.

CAMPBELL, LEWIS, Tragic Drama in Aeschylus, Sophocles and Shakespeare.

VAUGHN, C. E., Types of Tragic Drama.

THORNDIKE, A. H., The Tragedy.


SOURCE: Morton, Lena Beatrice. Negro Poetry in America. Boston: The Stratford Company, 1925. [2], 71 pp.

Summary by Ralph Dumain

Morton continues her discussion of Negro poetry with analysis of the rhyme schemes of African-derived call and response pattern of the work songs, with copious examples, and in a couple of instances with a few bars of musical notation. She classifies slave songs (11) and highlights the importance of animals, didactic nursery rhymes, and self-control (12-16).

Note that there is a tone of religiosity, optimism, and taking the high road, downplaying resentment and hostility in reaction to oppression.

Morton mentions Arturo Schomburg's enumeration of greater than 100 volumes of poetry published by Negro authors between Phyllis Wheatley and Paul Laurence Dunbar (18). Morton notes that poets are now moving away from dialect (20). She takes note of racial defensiveness, but emphasizes lyricism (26).

Poets discussed include Frances Harper, Albery Allson Whitman, Dunbar, J. Mord Allen, George M. Horton, Lucian B. Watkins, Fenton Johnson, George McClellan, Mrs. George Johnson, Leland Fisher, Joseph S. Cotter, Claude McKay, William S. Braithwaite, Angelina Weld Grimké, W.E.B. Du Bois, Kelly Miller, Charles Connor, William Bailey, R. Nathaniel Dett, and Jessie Fauset.

The section on tragedy has no relationship to the foregoing section on Negro poetry. Morton, after considering the usefulness of Aristotle's and Hegel's conceptions of tragedy, moves on to Lewis Campbell's ideas as applied to Shakespeare. Morton argues that in contrast to the ancient Greeks, in Shakespeare character takes precedence over situation and action (49). Seneca was influential in the development of tragedy (50ff). Morton discusses Elizabethan era revenge plays, and the influence of Machiavelli. Thomas Kyd and Marlowe are landmark figures. (57ff) Morton analyzes the unique qualities of Shakespeare at length.

The Book of American Negro Poetry, James Weldon Johnson, ed.: Contents: 1922 & 1931

Anthology of American Negro Literature, ed. by V. F. Calverton
[Preface & Contents]

Black Studies, Music, America vs Europe

See also section on Black literature in Esperanto


Morton, Lena B. Notable Kentucky African Americans Database

‘For the Record’, Jet Magazine, Jan 12, 1961

‘For the Record’, Jet Magazine, March 8, 1962

‘People’, Jet Magazine, Jun 8, 1967

Black Women in White Institutions: A Study of Ten Narratives” [Abstract]
by Elizabeth L. Ihle

Review of Evans, Stephanie Y., Black Women in the Ivory Tower, 1850-1954: An Intellectual History
by Audrey McCluskey

Finding aid for the Afro-American Studies Department, Oral History Project, Black Cincinnatians in the 20th Century, 1975-1976

The Black Poet as Canon-Maker by Elizabeth Alexander

The Poetry Of The Negro 1746-1949
edited by Langston Hughes & Arna Bontemps

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