The Book of American Negro Poetry – James Weldon Johnson

One of my favourite poets, James Weldon Johnson, edited this anthology of African-American poetry, which was published in 1922. I was impressed by this collection and the vision that James Weldon Johnson had in compiling it; he desired African-Americans to be proud of their heritage, and he realized that one way for this to happen is to introduce the world to their poetry. Here are some excerpts from James Weldon Johnson’s preface to the anthology:

“There is, perhaps, a better excuse for giving in Anthology of American Negro Poetry to the public than can be offered for many of the anthologies that have recently been issued. The public, generally speaking, does not know that there are American Negro poets–to supply this lack of information is, alone, a work worthy of somebody’s effort.”

“A people may become great through many means, but there is only one measure by which its greatness is recognized and acknowledged. The final measure of the greatness of all peoples is the amount and standard of the literature and art they have produced. The world does not know that a people is great until that people produces great literature and art. No people that has produced great literature and art has ever been looked upon by the world as distinctly inferior.”

I was introduced to an array of poets and a diversity of writing styles and topics. However, it was hard for me to really appreciate the poems written in the “Negro” dialect (I believe this is the proper expression used, it does not seem to be a racial epithet).

Below is one of my favourite poems from the collection.

It Was Not Fate – William H. A. Moore

It was not fate which overtook me,
Rather a wayward, wilful wind
That blew hot for awhile
And then, as the even shadows came, blew cold.
What pity it is that a man grown old in life’s dreaming
Should stop, e’en for a moment, to look into a woman’s eyes.
And I forgot!
Forgot that one’s heart must be steeled against the east wind.
Life and death alike come out of the East:
Life as tender as young grass,
Death as dreadful as the sight of clotted blood.
I shall go back into the darkness,
Not to dream but to seek the light again.
I shall go by paths, mayhap,
On roads that wind around the foothills
Where the plains are bare and wild
And the passers-by come few and far between.
I want the night to be long, the moon blind,
The hills thick with moving memories,
And my heart beating a breathless requiem
For all the dead days I have lived.
When the Dawn comes — Dawn, deathless, dreaming —
I shall will that my soul must be cleansed of hate,
I shall pray for strength to hold children close to my heart,
I shall desire to build houses where the poor will know shelter, comfort, beauty.
And then may I look into a woman’s eyes
And find holiness, love and the peace which passeth understanding
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