It’s February and in America it’s Black History Month.* In the past few years of this Project I’ve picked a publication that has entered into public domain status to examine.** This February I’m going to feature work from a singular 1926 publication, the first issue of what was to be a literary quarterly called Fire!! The cover advertised it would be “Devoted to younger Negro Artists.”
Want to read this issue of Fire!! in part or all? Here’s a link to a high-resolution scan of it.
It’s worth stopping and noticing that “younger” again. It’s easy to fall into a trap when considering a time so long ago to many who will be reading this in 2023 — but its contributors and instigators were in their younger 20s though some had been writing and publishing since they were teenagers. They may seem old to you by strange definition, but they were certainly young to themselves and their contemporaries.
I find that remarkable. While a range of Black American artists were coming to the fore in the last decade called “The Twenties,” I can’t think it was in any way a time friendly to them. Even artistic Modernism, which sought new sources of inspiration and often delighted in mocking old prejudices, was a mixed bag. Racism and ethnic stereotyping remained present in Modernism. Perhaps sociologists could tell us if it was greater or lesser in the world of art than in society at large then, but I’m certain it was no small factor. And yet here were these young writers who at this point thought it was time for them to unleash a record of their experiences.
It’s not so wild a theory to say that they were so audacious because they didn’t know any better. I’m not going to knock that — for this white elderly composer and amateur sorta-scholar to think I have anything to bring to their efforts is not how the smart money would bet either. And you? You’re reading a blog with poetry and a variety of non-commercial music. So clearly, we all don’t know any better.
In the previous year’s Black History Month series here we’ve noted that some forms of new expression that would be featured in Fire!! were not without opposition even from the existing Black Intelligentsia. Jazz and Blues musics were considered problematic. Literary examinations of the sequalae of poverty rather than stories of uplift were controversial. Even if the 1920s were the decade that free verse became more widespread, some of these young poets looked more to Shelley and Keats than Carl Sandburg or Langston Hughes.
Here’s Cullen’s sonnet as it appeared handsomely set in Fire!! It’s also the first poem in the poetry section of this issue, a section titled “Flame From the Dark Tower.”
Our lead-off poet is one such example. Countee Cullen was not a Modernist poet. Unlike other metrical/rhyming poets like Frost, and sometimes Yeats or Millay, he’s not even Modernist in outlook. While he’s 23 years old when this was published, he writes as if he was looking back to his last decade to be called the 20s, which would be the 1820s. None the less, “From the Dark Tower” is an impassioned account of the harms of white supremacy — and it is very well written within that style. If the premiere Afro-American poet Phyllis Wheatley was out to prove that she could write 18th century poetry as well as any white poet, Cullen demonstrates that he could do the same for the 19th century. Sure, there’s the matter that he was writing in the 20th century, and we are reading him in the 21st, but that’s likely a lesser sin now when there’s no fresh battle to be joined over free verse, Jazz rhythms, or Blues speech. It’s not unlikely that we read other older poems written in this poem’s style, and Cullen is in 2023 one of those old poets.
And then there’s this — this huge thing. I was trying to quickly get down an acceptable take of my simple acoustic guitar version of my song-setting of Cullen’s poem from Fire!! yesterday. Across my country, at the same time, in a city famed for its American music, so significantly Afro-American music, there was a funeral for yet another Black person killed by our official representatives in a manner that seems clearly to be an affront to civilization. Should we, musicians who’ve inherited that tradition, merely “beguile…with mellow flute?” To sing Cullen’s line, couched in careful rhyme and meter: “We were not made eternally to weep” — can I wish that situation would seem old-fashioned, out of date, a curiosity of the obsolete?
To hear that performance you can use a player gadget that should appear below. No player? This highlighted link is an alternative.
*Not to cast shade on this worthy endeavor, but Black History Month has been in my observation largely an Afro-American History month. There’s nothing inherently wrong with concentrating on that subject. I’ll just acknowledge that in the past century or so there’s been a counter-colonialist reassessment of African continental history — and while it has not risen to the level that this American has been aware of it (beyond some UK and other former English-speaking Commonwealth country reading) there may be worthwhile study and information coming forth on the wider African story.
**Because reusing, adapting, even performing, work not in the public domain is a legal gray area, this project shies away from using more modern work. Luckily as this nearing 7-year-long project has continued, more and more “Harlem Renaissance” work has entered PD status. Specific thanks is due to the Yale University Library for making Fire!! available digitally.