In 1922, amazing Afro-American polymath James Weldon Johnson* published an audacious anthology titled The Book of American Negro Poetry. Not only did it claim that there was a tradition worth an anthology at that early date; in his preface Johnson made the observation that Afro-American music was disproportionately important in American musical culture, and furthermore that he saw no reason that Afro-American’s literary impact shouldn’t also arise to that level.
A century later Johnson the prophet could be charged with underestimating Black American’s musical impact, but we are entering an era when his predictions about Afro-American poets are no longer considered exceptional cases, and not even a “why not” situation — but instead an “of course” predilection.
One has to give Johnson credit for declaring this back then, with what poets had managed to be published or otherwise eked out a career at a time when the ex-enslaved were still living. A few of the poets he put in his anthology would soon be known as the vanguard of the “Harlem Renaissance” and yet others would remain little-known afterward. Only one, Paul Laurence Dunbar, really had made writing a career at that point, and a large part of that career’s viability was on the back of a 19th century fashion for dialect writing, with rough printed approximation of regional and ethnic speech being put forward as evidence of America’s diversity or oddness. Reading Dunbar’s dialect poems today is rough going, a lot of context and translation cultural and phonetic is required.** But Dunbar also wrote fluent poetry in the rhymed metrical styles of the day, and those are the poems he’s remembered for now.
And what about those “deep cuts” in Johnson’s anthology, those poets and poems that aren’t required in a modern summary anthology of American poetry? One of those is Anne Spencer. It’s an imperfect analogy, but you could roughly think of Spencer as a sepia Emily Dickinson. The two poets even shared a passion for gardening. Except there wasn’t a preserved and handed-down pack of good copies of poems in Spencer’s case. Imagine what we’d know of Emily Dickinson if the tiny number of poems that were published in Dickinson’s lifetime were all we had?
It’s plausible the proximate reason that Spencer’s poem praising Dunbar was included in Johnson’s anthology was that Spencer’s home was a waystation and salon frequented by Black artists and civil rights activists in the Jim Crow era, which would have included Johnson. But let’s just be grateful, it’s a lovely short lyric making in a handful of words, the case that Dunbar, and by extension Afro-American poets yet to come, can stand with and extend the tradition of British poets then considered “canon.” And by linking Dunbar with the struggling working-class poets Chatterton and Keats, and the exiled radical Shelley, Spencer may have been making a subtle point about where poetry could, or should, come from. And like Johnson, she predicted with her poem’s linkage that by our present time we’d remember Dunbar as a supple lyrical poet unlinked from the fashion of dialect poetry.
The lyric video includes a poster for a Dunbar performance and some photos of Spencer. Spencer wrote poetry throughout her life, but didn’t focus on publishing.
Three ways to hear my setting and performance of Spencer’s “Dunbar” today. You can use a players that will be shown below in some ways this blog is read, or this highlighted link if you don’t see the player. And, as we’re doing this April, there’s the lyric video above.
*Polymath? Well, let’s see: key early civil rights leader, helped found NAACP, poetry, novels, wrote the lyrics to “Lift Every Voice and Sing” (aka “the Negro National Anthem”), diplomat, teacher.
**Dunbar made a go of it touring and reading his poetry, the sort of thing that was the YouTuber or podcaster route for extra-literary revenue and publicity then. His dialect poems were often touted on the billings, and so may have been the crowd draw. I don’t know how integrated his audiences were, or indeed how the dialect stuff was presented. I’m unaware that any recordings of Dunbar exist, and I don’t know that we even have secondary recordings such as exist of folks who knew Twain, imitating him on early records from direct memory of performances.