20th Century: 1922 & 1923

James Weldon Johnson (1871-1938) and Jean Toomer (1894 - 1967)

1922                                               James Weldon Johnson (1871-1938)                                                               

              The Book of American Negro Poetry


     There is, perhaps, a better excuse for giving an 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.


     Moreover, the matter of Negro poets and the production of literature by the colored people in this country involves more than supplying information that is lacking.  It is a matter which has a direct bearing on the most vital of American problems.


     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 te 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 produce great literature and art.  No people that has produced great literature and art has ever been looked upon by the world as distinctly inferior.


     The status of the Negro in the United States is more a question of national mental attitude toward the race than of actual conditions.  And nothing will do more to change that mental attitude and raise his status than a demonstration of intellectual parity by the Negro through the production of lliterature and art.


     Is there likelihood that the American Negro will be able to do this?  There is, for the good reason that he possesses the innate powers.  He has the emotional endowment, the originality and artistic conception, and, what is more important, the power of creating that which has universal appeal and influence.


     I make here what may appear to be a more startling statement by saying that the Negro has already proved the possession of these powers by being the creator of the only things artistic that have yet sprung from American soil and been universally acknowledged as distinctive American products.


     These creations by the American Negro may be summed up under four heads.  The first two are the Uncle Remus stories, which were collected by Joel Chandler Harris, and the "spirituals" or slave songs, to which the Fisk Jubilee Singers made the public and the musicians of both the United States and Europe listen.  The Uncle Remus stories constitute the greatest body of folklore that America has produced, and the "spirituals" the greatest body of folk-songs, for in them the Negro sounded the depths, if he did not scale the heights, of music.


     The other two creations are the Cakewalk and ragtime.  We do not need to go very far back to remember when cakewalking was the rage in the United States, Europe and South America.  Society in this country and royalty abroad spent time in practising the intricate steps.  Paris pronounced it the "poetry of motion."  The popularity of the cakewalk passed away but its influence remained.  The influence can beseen to-day on any American stage where there is dancing...


1923                                           Jean Toomer (1894-1967)



A spray of pine needles,

Dipped in western horizon gold,

Fell onto a path.

Dry moulds of cow-hoofs

In the forest.

Rabbits knew not of their falling,

Nor did the forest catch aflame.


                                                           Evening Song

Full moon rising on the waters of my heart,

Lakes and moon and fires,

Cloine tires,

Holding her lips apart.


Promises of slumber leaving shore to charm the moon,

Miracle made vesper-keeps,

Cloine sleeps,

And I'll be sleeping soon.


Cloine, curled like the sleepy waters where the moon-waves start,

Radiant, resplendently she gleams,

Cloine dreams,

Lips pressed against my heart.