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Friday, November 14, 2014

African American Poetry of the 1800s

This is a picture of the First African Church drawn by W.L. Sheppard (Courtesy of New South Books).

This is a picture of the First African Church drawn by W.L. Sheppard. (Courtesy of NewSouth Books)

The 19th century was a vibrant period for poetry in the United States. But few know that African-Americans were an essential part of that.

Slaves, former slaves and free African-Americans wrote verses that were published in black-owned newspapers, not only in the more liberal North, but also in the South and center of the country.

The poetry explores oppression, freedom, religion and humor.

Erika DeSimone, co-editor of “Voices Beyond Bondage” tells Here & Now‘s Peter O’Dowd about this little-known literary movement.

Below is an image of the newspaper “Freedom’s Journal,” the first African-American newspaper in the United States. Published in N.Y.C 1827.

A selection of poems from ‘Voices Beyond Bondage’

‘The Tears of a Slave’
By Africus-Freedom’s Journal, March 14, 1828

Adieu, to my dear native shore,

To toss on the boisterous wave;

To enjoy my kindred no more,

But to weep—the tears of a SLAVE!

By the sons of freemen I’m borne,

To the land of the free and the brave;

From my wife and children I’m torn,

To weep—the sad tears of a SLAVE!

When, I think on mother and friends,

And the joy their countenance gave;

Ah! how my sad bosom it rends,

While weeping—the tears of a SLAVE!

Ah! now, I must labour for gold,

To pamper the pride of the knave;

Ah! now, I am shackled and sold

To weep—the sad tears of a SLAVE!

Keen sorrow so presses my heart,

That often I sigh for my grave;

While feeling the lash-cruel smart!

And weeping—the tears of a SLAVE!

Ye sons, of the free and the wise,

Your tender compassions I crave;

Alas! can your bosoms despise

The pitiful tears of a SLAVE!

Can a land of Christians so pure!

Let demons of slavery rave!

Can the angel of mercy endure,

The pitiless—tears of a SLAVE!

Just Heaven, to thee I appeal;

Hast thou not the power to save?

In mercy thy power reveal,

And dry—the sad tears of a SLAVE.

 

‘The Ebon Venus’

By Lewis Howard Latimer-The New York Age, September 27, 1890

Let others boast of maidens fair,

Of eyes of blue and golden hair;

My heart like a needle ever true

Turns to the maid of ebon hue.

Photograph of "Am I Not a Man." This woodcut image of a slave in chains appeared in th 1837 publication of John Greenleaf Whittier’s antislavery poem “Our Countrymen in Chains.” (Courtesy of NewSouth Books)

Photograph of “Am I Not a Man.” This woodcut image of a slave in chains appeared in the 1837 publication of John Greenleaf Whittier’s antislavery poem “Our Countrymen in Chains.” (Courtesy of NewSouth Books)

I love her form of matchless grace,

The dark brown beauty of her face,

Her lips that speak of love’s delight,

Her eyes that gleam as stars at night.

O’er marble Venus let them rage

Who set the fashions of the age;

Each to his taste; but as for me,

My Venus shall be ebony.

 

‘Address to Slavery’

By Samuel Wright-The Weekly Anglo-African, February 18, 1860

Slavery, O Slavery! I cannot conceive

Why judges and magistrates do not relieve

My down-trodden people from under thy hand,

Restore them their freedom, and give them their land.

The loud voice of reason incessantly cries,

Ye lovers of Mammon, when will ye be wise?

How long will misanthropy reign in your hearts?

Behold the poor slaves, and consider their smarts.

Upon the plantation they labor and toil,

Exert all their strength to enrichen the soil,

While the sun pours upon them its hot scorching ray,

Without intermission the whole livelong day.

Hope God by His power will save them at last,

And bring them as Israel in ages that’s past,

Out of the reach of proud slavery’s chain,

To enjoy the sweet comfort of freedom again.

Guest

  • Erika DeSimone, co-editor of “Voices Beyond Bondage – An Anthology of Verse by African-Americans of the 19th Century.”

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Robin Young and Jeremy Hobson host Here & Now, a live two-hour production of NPR and WBUR Boston.

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