Tired

I’m going to close out our investigation into the little-known early 20th Century Chicago Modernist poet Fenton Johnson with one of his most emotionally moving poems. James Weldon Johnson first included “Tired”  in his “Book of American Negro Poetry”  in 1922, and it has been anthologized several times since. “Tired”  remains the poem of Fenton Johnson’s that one finds most often shared on the Internet today.

You can see why. Only a few beats in, that powerful line is spoken: “I am tired of building up somebody else’s civilization.” It may take no more than that line alone to have some tag Fenton Johnson as the first radical Afro-American poet.

I cannot categorically disagree there. I know little about Johnson’s political views, and though the two short-lived magazines he founded before 1920 are said to have included political philosophy, I know nothing of the particular stances he took or supported. At least at the time (the first two decades of the 20th Century) “Tired”  along with a few other of Johnson’s poems caused some Black cultural critics to remark that Johnson was too pessimistic, too given over to despair. You might find that strange, but in that moment, there was a feeling that educational and cultural uplift could soon raise the Afro-Americans along with the time’s large and wide immigrant demographics into a new, more accepting America. We know now that didn’t happen, that indeed 20th Century racism and poverty had some mighty blows to land on America and American Blacks with KKK branded racism, Great Depression poverty, and world-wide Fascism—but at the time, that uplift was what many Afro-American elites were pulling for.

However, just by going on what Fenton Johnson poetry I have available to me, I’m not entirely sure Johnson was, at this time, a political radical or a thorough pessimist.

Last Chance Saloon

Somebody give me my gin.” Mike is out back serving warm gin to ladies.

After all, the speaker in “Tired”  is not Johnson himself, no more than the banjo player in our last post’s poem is Johnson, the middle-class raised, college educated man. Even the Last Chance Saloon, where the banjo player played for tips, returns in “Tired”.  Johnson didn’t live in a shanty, he wasn’t married to a laundress.

True, this is a character that Johnson wants us to hear, an important voice that maybe even the Black “Talented Tenth” wasn’t listening to then, much less White America. And though it’s free verse, this is a poem, not an incisive political analysis or program. It’s a dramatic speech with rhythm, repetition, and a rise in despair from gin-houses to the stars.

It’s not hard for me to see in “Tired”  the ancestor of August Wilson’s great play cycle, or the range of characters and voices in Walter Mosely’s detective fiction.

Musically I stepped at least as many decades into the future here, concluding this audio piece with a short burst of the kind of free jazz that allied itself with the Black Arts movement in the later part of the 20th Century. I’ll allow that this music is an acquired taste, but at its core is an ethic of allowing individual voices and modes of expression even in a group context. Free Jazz is not always as raucous as what I played for this, but it does not forbid it either. That’s consistent with what I try to do (within my limits as a musician) with the Parlando Project. When I say we combine words with various music, I mean it.

That does mean that you may not like all the writers’ words I present, or all the kinds of music I write and play to combine with those words, but it means that I’m also not going to stick with one thing and repeat it until we are both tired of it.

I’ve ordered these last four posts here on Fenton Johnson purposely, so to present the man more in full, and because, to be honest, I didn’t feel I could earn any license to speak these words without doing something more than just putting them in my mouth. To listen to Johnson’s “Tired”  as I performed it, use the player below.

Potential Graveyard

Our last episode featured words by Phillis Wheatley, whose story I first heard about in a graveyard.

I was taking a walking tour in Boston, and there was a lot for the guide to talk about as we strolled through the Granary Burying Ground near one end of Boston Common, the cemetery where many of the instigators of the American revolution are buried. That’s where I heard Phillis Wheatley’s story.

Granary Tombstone Boston

the Granary Burying Ground, Boston Massachusetts

 

There’s no tombstone for Phillis Wheatley there, and no record of where she was buried, though it could have been there. So, we don’t even know her graveyard, but we know her story.

Only a few days after wrapping up the work on the Phillis Wheatley episode, I happened to catch Viola Davis’ Oscar acceptance speech. Like David Harbour’s speech earlier this year, it compressed an artist’s calling into a few well-chosen words, and so, I set about creating today’s audio piece.

I trimmed and recast Davis’ words a little, turning it from her own pledge and testimony, to an artist’s pledge than we all can take:

There’s one place that all the people with the greatest potential are gathered – that’s the graveyard.

People ask me, what kind of stories do you want to tell?

I say exhume those bodies, exhume those stories,

the stories of the people that dream big and never saw those dreams to fruition,

people who fell

in love

and lost.
Become an artist

They are the only profession that celebrates what it is to live a life.
Here’s to August Wilson, who exhumed, and exalted, the ordinary people.

There are only a few words here, but the opening sentence announces itself strongly, while going—to my take on it—in two directions. “There’s one place that all the people with the greatest potential are gathered—and that’s the graveyard.” In that magnificent sentence, we may think of all the potential that’s totaled up short in every graveyard: potential lost due to life’s duration, lost due to injustice, lost to just bad luck, potential never reached for the many human failings. One of the most common of those human failings is to just not try, and when we fail to try, the graveyard is where that potential will end up.

This direction, where the sentence could go, is not where Davis takes us however. She reminds us: there, in those graveyard lives is that precious struggle, the part-ways reach, all the somedays that someday may see victories. We should “exhume those stories,” she says.

And then Davis’ makes a daring statement. Art “is the only profession that celebrates what it is to live a life.”

Can that be so? Certainly, historians and social scientists collect and analyze information about lives too—but perhaps they must step beyond that role to light the footlights that art does. Art is the transference of the emotions and the perceiving inner being between people.  Only at that level of communication can the celebration of what it means to live a life be reached. That’s what we do when we create art, or when we consume it actively.

Davis repeats her specific charge to artists, as she praises the creative acts of August Wilson, the writer and playwright: art’s radical empathy empowers and obligates artists to tell other people’s stories.

Writers listen to her here, listen to her evoke August Wilson: even your story is not your story. It’s your great-grandparent’s story, perhaps it will be your great-grandchild’s story. The graveyard, the grocery store and the stars are full of stories. Allow them to ask you to tell them.

 

Viola Davis delivered her words much better than I could, but today’s Parlando Project piece “Potential/Graveyards” adds the music I composed and played to go with my recasting of them., To hear this short piece, use the player below.