The Charlotte News

SUNDAY, APRIL 11, 1937


The Negro And His Poetry

By W. J. Cash

Site ed. note: For an article, published a few months earlier, giving Cash's view of the state of African-American literature generally in 1936, see "Literature of the Negro", July 26, 1936.

To read other poetry by Jean Toomer, Langston Hughes, Claude McKay, and other poets of the Harlem Renaissance, go to

For online examples of extraordinary lyrical poetry written by a North Carolina manumitted freedman in the early 1800's, a sort of 19th century American Cyrano de Bergerac (at least, the Cyrano of Rostand's 1897 play), see George Moses Horton Exhibit, Manuscripts Department, UNC-CH in the Southern Historical Collection of the University of North Carolina.

For Cash's own early poetry written while at Wake Forest, see Poetry and Fiction, accessible from the homepage.


Turning through the pages of an anthology of recent Negro poetry, last Tuesday, I was reminded that there is precious little support left in in the world for the view, still often and complacently mouthed in these parts, that the Negro is incapable of any independent intellectual or creative achievement--that at his best, he is essentially only a mimic, a sort of trained monkey, capable of imitating the achievements of the white man with almost uncanny precision, but of nothing beyond that. Look at this picture of "Georgia Dusk," by Jean Toomer, for instance:

"The sky, lazily disdaining to pursue
The setting sun, too indolent to hold
A lengthened tournament for flashing gold;
Passively darkens for night's barbecue.

A feast of moon, and men and barking hounds,
An orgy for some genius of the South
With blood-hot eyes and cane-lipped scented mouth
Surprised in making folk-songs from soul sounds.

The sawmill blows its whistle, buzz-saws stop.
And silence breaks the bud of knoll and hill.
Soft settling pollen where plow lands fulfill
Their early promise of bumper crop.

Smoke from the pyramided sawdust pile
Curls up, blue ghosts of trees tarrying low
Where only chips and stumps are left to show
The solid proof of former domicile.

Meanwhile, the men, with vestiges of pomp,
Race memories of king and caravan.
High priests, an ostrich, and a juju-man,
Go singing through the footpaths of the swamp.

Their voices rise... the pine trees are guitars,
Strumming, pine-needles fall like sheets of rain...
Their voices rise... the chorus of the cane
Or caroling a vesper to the stars...

O singers, resinous and soft your songs
Above the sacred whisper of the pines,
Give virgin lips to cornfield concubines,
Bring dreams of Christ to dusky cane-lipped throngs."

That, I think, is not only very fine poetry. It is also very distinctively Negro poetry. No white man could have done it.


There was something else I noticed in glancing through the anthology, too. I mean that an increasing portion of the new Negro is filled with bitterness--and not the old covert and vague bitterness of Countee Cullen, but bold, uncompromising, direct, and explicit bitterness.

Here is Langston Hughes' "Song for a Black Girl," by way of example:

"Way down South in Dixie
(Break the heart of me)
They hung my black young love,
To a cross roads tree.

Way down South in Dixie
(Bruised body high in air)
I asked the white Lord Jesus
What was the use of prayer.

Way down South in Dixie
(Break the heart of me)
Love is a naked shadow
All on a gnarled and naked tree."

And here, again, is Claude McKay's "Lynching:"

"His spirit in smoke ascended to high heaven.
His father, by the cruelest way of pain,
Had bidden him to his bosom once again;
The awful sin remained still unforgiven.
All night a bright and solitary star
(Perchance the one that ever guided him
Yet gave him up at last to Fate's wild whim),
Hung pitifully o'er the swinging char.
Day dawned, and soon the mixed crowds came to view
The ghostly body swaying in the sun:
Though women thronged to look, but never a one
Showed sorrow in her eyes of steely blue:
And little lads, lynchers that were to be,
Danced round the dreadful thing in fiendish glee."

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