Some past Parlando Project pieces relating to Black History Month

This project has gone on so long and produced so many pieces, so before February ends I thought I’d highlight five of the most popular pieces we’ve presented in past years that deal with Afro-American experience or history. The bold-faced start of each listing is a link to take you to the original Parlando Project post that presented this poem if you want to read my first reactions to it back then.

Lines to a Nasturtium by Anne Spencer. Another Afro-American poet who published before 1925’s The New Negro  anthology, but who was not published much during the later half of her life. This poem may be her extant masterpiece. It still defeats me from extracting a simple prose “meaning” from it, but it’s just breath-takingly gorgeous in sound and a diffuse emotional impact remains even in its mystery.

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The Witnesses by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. What, a poem by a white guy? Well, white supremacy is — what, how does that term start? — a white problem. Here’s a 1841 poem about the notorious Middle Passage of African captives taken across the Atlantic written within the lifetime of those that would have chartered, manned, and benefited from that trade.

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The Banjo Player by Fenton Johnson. Like Anne Spencer, Johnson published before 1925 and sometimes gets linked with the Harlem Renaissance — which is spiritually correct, but geographically misleading. He’s from, and spent a good deal of his life, in Chicago. He predates Langston Hughes in wanting to present ordinary Afro-Americans in the whole of their expression and experience without so much emphasis on the Talented Tenth. He’s also sometimes presented as an Afro-American radical-poet predating McKay and Hughes, though I still don’t know much about his actual political beliefs. This poem brings some humor to Black History Month, while coincidentally linking us to an historical reminder: the banjo is an Afro-American instrument first constructed by people that remembered African home fires and instruments.

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Zalka Peetruza by Roy G. Dandridge. Another Midwesterner, this time from Cleveland Ohio, but as far as I’ve seen he’s not linked often to the Harlem Renaissance. If fact this piece is one of the Parlando Project pieces that has garnered outsized listenership without being a well-known poem or being written by a well-known poet. Perhaps folks liked the music I wrote for it, or maybe they just recognized it as a fine short poem that implies some good questions within its short character study. In my original write-up I thought it might stand being as well-known and discussed as Paul Lawrence Dunbar’s We Wear the Mask.”

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Jean Toomer by Winold Reiss from The New Negro

Portrait of Jean Toomer included in the 1925 “The New Negro” anthology that launched the Harlem Renaissance.

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Her Lips Are Copper Wire by Jean Toomer. I’ll maintain this is one of the best short poems of love and desire ever written in English, and it would stand well with anything written in any other language too. Yes, I love me some Paul Eluard. Folks have rushed to read my pair of translations and accompanying thoughts on the young Pablo Neruda’s Twenty Love Poems.  Kenneth Patchen can paint love in an unseeing world and break my heart. Yet. Yet. Toomer’s poem is as effective a surrealist work as any of that. It’s beautiful, mysterious, and charged — everything poetry should be.

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Just want to play the audio pieces for these poem. but don’t see the player gadget with your blog reader app that you’d see in a full web-browser. Well, here are highlighted hyper-links to Her Lips are Copper WireZalka PeetruzaThe Banjo Player, The Witnesses, and Lines to a Nasturtium.

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Before the Feast of Shushan

Choosing to make even one arbitrary choice can be a great aid to creativity. After all, though many of us are driven by various and powerful urges to create art, the choice to do that is arbitrary itself.

Today’s piece comes from several, singular, arbitrary decisions.

Coming upon the author of today’s words was a two-step process that has no A and B to it. First, knowing that the change from the 19th to the 20th Century impacted everyone, I wanted to see how African-American writers moved across this change. I was already somewhat familiar with how they moved musically in this era, a momentous cultural act that made American music, to an impressively disproportionate degree, Afro-American music. I was less familiar with the early 20th Century Afro-American poets. I started with Wheatley and Dunbar, as many did then. As our copyright laws effectively forbid me to utter on the Internet most any work written past 1922, I was heartened to find James Weldon Johnson had published a collection of Afro-American poetry just before that.

I read it, and Anne Spencer’s contributions included there didn’t grab me.

That too is arbitrary isn’t it? The poetry (or music, or anything) that can impress you on first encounter is only one element of how it might work.

Then a few weeks later I read a small piece online highlighting a long life of service and art that Anne Spencer had lived across part of the 19th Century and ¾ of the 20th. That moved me immediately. I re-read her poetry.

Did I appreciate her poetry more because she seems to have been such an admirable person? I tell myself, no, that by the time I combine it with music and place it on the Internet, few listeners will have any inkling of that. But I’ve just told you how I encountered her, and yes, that has arbitrary elements.

How did Spencer decide to write “Before the Feast of Shushan?”  Were there arbitrary choices? If you’ve followed me so far, you’d suspect there were. The subject is taken from the Hebrew scriptures, and she could have encountered it in any Bible at the start of the book of Esther.  In the sum of cultural appropriation, those ancient Semites have been borrowed from an impressively disproportionate amount, haven’t they?

As I finished the audio piece around sundown last night, it was the beginning of Purim, the Jewish holiday based on the events in Esther.  For a large portion of my life I lived in what could arbitrarily have been called a Jewish household; but family and religious traditions are varied, and I never took part in celebrating Purim. From what I gather that might include elements like unto a Jewish Halloween, with costumes, food, parties, and burlesquing of evil. My wife once summed Purim up as “They wanted to kill all of us. They failed. Let’s eat!”

But Spencer took her story from the beginning of Esther,  a part I’d forgotten, and shouldn’t have. The book of Esther  is a woman-centered book, but before the heroine comes on stage, the first woman we meet is Vashti. Go ahead, and read Vashti’s story if you’d like, but here’s the summary. Xerxes/ Ahasuerus (the former is his Greek name) is ruler of a great world-spanning empire. He’s throwing a multi-day party to surpass all before or since. All his princes, bros and vassals are enjoying the week-long open bar at his palace in Shushan full of absolutely top-line, first-rate stuff his power has obtained. At some point in this sausage-fest, Xerxes (rhymes with jerk-sees) figures what this party needs is for his queen to show up wearing the crown he’s bestowed on her, so everyone can see what a fox he has for a Queen, as she’s a certain 10, if the Persians had been using a base-ten system back then. Some commentary even suggests that his command is to be understood for her to show up wearing only the crown.

Vashti refuses the emperor’s command. Xerxes, a stable genius type, modestly agrees to ask his advisors what to do, no doubt so that he can blame them if anything goes wrong, and they tell him that this is a huge  deal. Not only has the Emperor been disobeyed—it’s like someone didn’t clap at his speech, only worse—because if this gets out, every wife will feel that she can disobey her husband.

O Banquete de Assuero (c. 1490)

In the archway, Xerxes ponders what’s up with Vashti not wanting to show everyone how hot she is

 

Clearly, this won’t do. Vashti is cast off, and that arbitrary action sets in motion the rest of the story of the book of Esther  that results in the celebration of Purim.

The Bible itself offers no commentary on this. The book of Esther  is also unusual in that there is not even one mention of God in it. You are asked to decide yourself.

Anne Spencer doesn’t want us to forget Esther’s  opening, and in “Before the Fest of Shushan”  she writes a very Robert Browning-like monolog for Xerxes to speak. As Xerxes would want it, no one else gets a word in edgewise. Browning was one of the eminent Victorians that Spencer had read in her 19th Century dominated youth, and because it hews so closely to Browning as an influence, it’s considered one of Spencer’s first poems.

Spencer’s prequel scene (it’s “Before the Feast…”) has Xerxes in an explicitly randy mood and he’s somewhat puzzled that Vashti seems to want something more. Spencer’s is a more intimate scene that the coldly political world of the book of Esther.  Likely written before 1920, it shows that Anne Spencer had a clear feminist eye. At that time, if Spencer had overcome the hindrances widely used to deny Afro-Americans the right to vote, granted on paper in 1870, she still would have been prevented from voting—because, she was a woman.

Anne Spencer Wedding Picture

Anne Spencer’s wedding portrait, at the beginning of the 20th Century, 1901.

 

Arbitrary choices—useful sometimes in art. Likewise, they might help people to create businesses or new testable scientific propositions. In art we might own up to them, examine them. Can we do the same in life?

I made an arbitrary choice to lay off the string parts for today’s audio piece—organ, piano and acoustic guitar instead. To hear “Before the Feast of Shushan”  use the player.

 

Lines to a Nasturtium

As I’ve all but promised, here’s a piece using another poem by the deserving-greater-notice early 20th Century poet Anne Spencer. It may even be appropriate for Valentine’s Day—though if so, it’s a somewhat complicated valentine. If we think of Spencer’s poem as a valentine, “Lines to a Nasturtium”  is a fancy one, but the doily lace on this valentine has strange knots in it.

I was going to present it first, before “Dunbar,”  but I felt I didn’t understand it well enough, and after living with it for a couple of weeks, I’m still not sure I’ve found its bottom. It’s beautiful and more than a bit mysterious. My son caught me laughing today as I read an account of James Weldon Johnson, who helped bring Spencer’s poems to publication in the 1920s, sharing a selection of them with the acerbic critic H. L. Mencken. Mencken’s reply? “Tell that woman to put beginnings and ends to her poems. I can’t make head or tails of them, but they’re good.” Yes, I had to laugh, but that’s sort of how I feel right now in regards to this set of words. It’s as gorgeous as the flowers it uses as images, but there’s a puzzling pair of lines “But I know one other to whom you are in beauty/Born in vain;” I feel I should be able to suss out who the “one other” and the “you” are, and I just can’t be sure.

A sensual but philosophical ode to beauty? An early claim to the beauty of women of color against Euro-centric ideals? A Robert Browning-like soliloquy regarding a potential love rival? For awhile this morning, trying to follow the antecedents to that “one” and “you” in the text, I was leaning on that later, but then I was reminded that Spencer thought the entire last part of her poem, under it’s published sub-title “A Lover Muses,” was decorative enough to have it painted on a cabinet door in her kitchen.

A Lover Muses on her kitchen door

Come on, in my kitchen—Spencer’s poem on the door

 

I don’t want mysteries of meaning to get in the way of enjoying Spencer’s work any longer, so let’s just listen to it today. Use the player below.

 

Dunbar

Here’s a piece using an outwardly modest poem by a modest poet, Anne Spencer. It spoke so quietly to me, that at first I overlooked it when I was reading James Weldon Johnson’s seminal “The Book of American Negro Poetry”  anthology, which included it. Just a few weeks later I saw a small story online about her exemplary life as a behind-the-scenes civil-rights activist, which mentioned that she was also a poet.

From it’s title we know she is following one of the Parlando Project mottos: “Other Peoples’ Stories.” When the poem utters its refrain “Chatterton, Shelley, Keats, and I…” that “I” is to be understood as Paul Laurence Dunbar, who was at that time a decade dead at the age of 33, but who was still the most famous Afro-American poet.

Long-time readers here have already met up with Dunbar, and Shelley and Keats require little introduction to those acquainted with English verse. That first name, Chatterton may draw a blank however.

Thomas Chatterton was the most famous failure in 19th Century English literature. A poor boy with pluck he had tricked his way into a modicum of fame by pretending to be the discoverer of a tranche of medieval poetry by a Thomas Rowley. To keep the pot boiling and to engage in the roiling politics of the day, he wrote journalism and opinion pieces under more than one pseudonym, as well as further literary works. The gig economy of his time was not kind to Chatterton. At the height of his career, he would earn about $9 in current dollars for his longer articles. In contrast, writers of our last post’s Burma Shave’s jiggles were paid over $800 in today’s money.

So how does Chatterton make it onto Anne Spencer’s words for Dunbar?

Chatterton was doing all this as a teenager. Fatherless, broke, starving, seemingly at the end of his resources, he took a fatal dose of arsenic and died in his garret. He wasn’t yet 18.

Death of Chatterton by Henry Wallis

Morbid it might be, but “The Death of Chatterton” was a popular and often reproduced 19th Century painting
Given its time, social media was not blamed for his death, but political and class prejudice was.

 

A few decades later, the British Romantics grab on to Chatterton’s case as the perfect example of rejection of the beautiful by the unperceiving. Keats, who was himself tagged as a low-born pretender writing “Cockney poetry” in “uncouth language,” wrote a sonnet to Chatterton. The too-little-appreciated-in-his-short-life Percy Bysshe Shelley, exiled from his culture for radical political and social views, writes “Adonais,”  the now famous ode on the death of Keats at age 25. In it, Chatterton is met on a heavenly throne “Rose pale, his solemn agony had not yet faded from him” as he greets the now dead Keats/Adonais.

Note here the unperceiving in each case has something to do with politics and class prejudice.

And now we return to Anne Spencer. At age 11, the legend has it she was barely literate, six years later she was the valedictorian of her graduating class. Two years later she married and settled in Lynchburg Virginia. Eventually she wrote while raising children and working as a school librarian. In 1918, she helped found the local chapter of the NAACP. Her home became a waystop for numerous notable Afro-Americans traveling in Virginia (“Jim Crow” laws would have segregated public accommodations). James Weldon Johnson (one of the founders of the NAACP) was one of those visitors, and finding that Anne wrote poetry, he helped her work get first published in 1920.

whites only smaller

Two “Whites Only” signs from the Diane and Alan Page collection.
Homes like Spencer’s were important facilitators for Black American travel.

 

Spencer was nearly 40 years old before that first publication. Clearly not the live fast/die young sort. In 1922 when Johnson published the first ever anthology of Afro-American verse, Spencer was included, along with the obvious choice of Dunbar himself. Concluding his introduction to that collection, Johnson said of Spencer’s verse that she was “The most modern and least obvious in her methods.”

“Dunbar”  demonstrates that. Shelley’s “Adonais”  is hundreds of lines. Spencer’s “Dunbar”  is five. Shelley will tell it, repeating and restating his theme in stanza by stanza of glorious English Romantic verse. Spencer’s “Dunbar”  sits quietly, in the midst of this history of poets who died young, whose voices were muffled by prejudice before they were stilled by death. It’s just one chorus. She groups them, tells us Paul Laurence Dunbar found himself with them, a statement of quiet, powerful, assertion.

Perhaps you need to know this history to appreciate the power of that, that “Chatterton, Shelley, Keats, and I” isn’t some arbitrary listing, a line that happens in a small poem talking about a poet—but it’s good to know history, it’s good to have a Black History month, it’s good to know that Keats and Shelley, who now are hallowed in our textbooks, weren’t greeted as worthy poets by their times. It’s good to know that one woman around a hundred years ago in segregated Virginia, quietly but eloquently wrote, and steadfastly worked, to assert a different world.

To hear my performance of Anne Spencer’s “Dunbar,”  use the player below.