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Black Poetry and the Abolitionist Movement

Matt Sandler begins his text on Black abolitionist poets with the story of Sara Lucy Bagby, a slave who escaped from slavery in Virginia and made her way to Cleveland, Ohio. Bagby was the last fugitive slave to be returned to bondage under the aegis of the Fugitive Slave Law then in effect in the United States. The Union was heading towards civil war; indeed, four southern states had already seceded from the nation. Bagby’s case was a classic compromise by white Ohioans who hoped to avoid war by sending her back to those who claimed to own her. Sandler mentions this case in order to introduce the poet Francis Ellen Watkins Harper, an abolitionist activist and poet whose poem “To the Union Savers of Cleveland: An Appeal From One of the Fugitive’s Own Race” highlighted the case while calling out the timidity of those who sent Bagby back into slavery. The poem also pointed out the racism of the decision and warned of a “storm (about) to break.” That storm would be the Civil War.

Sandler finishes up his study with a chapter that looks at the United States in the latter half of the twentieth century up to now. His discussion mentions WEB DuBois, June Jordan, revolutionary Fred Hampton, poet Robert Hayden, and hip-hop artist Meek Mill, among others. The words of these individuals are not only quoted to remind the reader of just how incomplete the transition from slavery to full and equal standing for Black Americans is, but to also draw a historical line from the Black Romantics to modern wordsmiths writing, organizing and speaking in Black America. It is a line that disputes the myth that all US residents are equal before the law and their fellow citizens. Indeed, it is a line that leans dramatically towards denying that myth in ways that most white-skinned residents of the United States fail (or refuse) to see.

Between the beginning and end of the book, which is titled The Black Romantic Revolution: Abolitionist Poets at the End of Slavery, the author highlights the lives and works of various Black poets from the period. Focusing primarily on three of these poets, he provides a history of the antebellum period in US history through the eyes of men and women whose existence is determined by the color of their skin. Even though at least two of the major poets discussed in the text were not slaves, it is clear that the poets aligned themselves with their sisters and brothers in bondage. Furthermore, it becomes clear via the text that these and many other Black abolitionists aspired to a more universal freedom than the white abolitionist movement was willing to fight for. After all, as history makes quite clear, what use is freedom if one has no money, no land and no education, especially in a nation like the United States where money is more than a utility and approaches a faith. In addition, what good is a freedom that exists in name only when white supremacists like the Ku Klux Klan rides, spreading terror and death without legal challenge?

Sandler contends that the British poet Lord Byron served as an inspiration to the early poets in the Black Romantic movement. It was his championing of freedom and opposition to slavery that appealed to them, along with his desire for action. Although Byron’s attitudes toward women and his sexual mores were frowned upon by the women poets and the Black church, his public persona as a freedom fighter inspired many. However, Byron’s behavior in regards to sexual morality would diminish his place as an inspiration. In large part, explains the author, this was because of the demand by white abolitionists that US Blacks be morally upright in order that they could gain support from Christians opposed to slavery but afraid of the majority of Black people.

It is this duplicity that defines the life of the poet George Moses Horton, a slave who wrote and sold love poems to college students at the University of North Carolina hoping to gain his freedom. Despite his friendship with several white men, including two successive presidents of the university, Horton was refused an end his bondage. Even though the students who used his services knew he was smarter than many of them, those men who could have freed him refused to, unwilling to upset the social order and denying Horton his basic humanity. In response, Horton’s poetry drifted towards symbolism, mixing metaphors of freedom and bondage into the poetry he wrote for lovesick undergraduates and that which he published in abolitionist journals across the land. When he finally achieved his freedom after the South’s defeat in the war, Horton moved north and celebrated the life of the street and the Black community. In doing so, he rejected the sanctimony of the liberals, refusing to give up alcohol and live a certain type of moral life as a “good Black.”

Meanwhile around the same time, the poet Francis Ellen Watkins Harper worked with others on a project known as the Free Produce movement. The intention of this project was similar to the Fair Trade movement of the last couple decades. It encouraged consumers to purchase goods made by slaves and free Blacks instead of the fancier clothing and goods sold by slavers and the northern companies and industries that profited from slavery. Like the modern day fair trade movement, the Free Produce movement focused on forward thinking consumers hoping to assuage some of their guilt by purchasing goods outside of the traditional system benefitting slavery and superexploitation. At the same time, Harper’s poetry urged emancipation not just for Black people, but for women, too. Her feminism ran into greater opposition from white female suffragists than from male Black leaders. Another poet highlighted in Sandler’s work is Albery Allison Whitman, whose poems challenged American exceptionalism while linking the fate and struggle of indigenous Americans with that of Black Americans. He decried the so-called freedom millions of emancipated slaves experienced in the post-Reconstruction South, ending his epic poem Not a Man, And Yet a Man with a challenge regarding the application of these much-heralded (but hesitantly applied) freedoms in the United States:

Free schools, free press, free speech and equal laws,

A common country and a common cause,

Are only worthy of a freeman’s boasts—

Are Freedom’s real and intrinsic costs.

Without these, Freedom is an empty name…

The Black Romantic Revolution is an important text. It brings a somewhat unknown element of US literature further into the public consciousness. Sandler’s prose illuminates some of the genre’s important texts, placing the works and their creators in the political and literary moment they were composed. Simultaneously, he provides the reader with an understanding of the meaning these poets and their works hold for today, when the ongoing struggle for a genuine and lasting Black liberation from a legacy of US white supremacy remains disturbingly elusive.

Ron Jacobs is the author of Daydream Sunset: Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies published by CounterPunch Books. His latest offering is a pamphlet titled Capitalism: Is the Problem.  He lives in Vermont. He can be reached at: ronj1955@gmail.com.

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