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February 19, 2013

Primus Mootry: Black poetry rich source of history, understanding

I love poetry. It stirs the mind. It touches the heart. It feeds the soul. It says in far fewer words the things novelists and historians write whole books about. It cuts through Gordian-knot complexities like an ax. And it provides a rich source of new knowledge and deeper understanding.

In this month’s articles, I have lamented the problem of attempting to write about the black experience in America using isolated facts or anecdotal stories about black “firsts,” black inventions, black heroes, and “God-ain’t-it-awful” stuff.  

These well-meaning Black History Month staples inevitably fail to capture nuanced understandings of the complexities inherent in the “sameness” and “separateness” of black history and American history and fail to make vital connections between the African American experience and the richness of ancient African (black) history.

That said, I know Black History Month is important and, despite my inclination to fall into the same celebratory, often revisionist, pattern as others, I feel compelled to share deeper perspectives useful to its purpose. With these thoughts in mind, I offer here two poems: “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” and “I, Too, Sing America.” Both are by one of the 20th century’s greatest poets, Langston Hughes.

“I, Too ...” succinctly makes the connection between past and present — African history and the black experience in America. Here it is:

I’ve known rivers:

I’ve known rivers ancient as the world and older than the

flow of human blood in human veins.

My soul has grown deep like the rivers.

I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young.

I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep.

I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it.

I heard the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln

went down to New Orleans, and I’ve seen its muddy

bosom turn all golden in the sunset.

I’ve known rivers:

Ancient, dusky rivers.

My soul has grown deep like the rivers.


Hughes wrote this famous poem when he was a 17-year-old boy riding on a New York City bus. The young boy had the knowledge and wisdom to write a poem that illuminates the ancient African origins of the African American.

He does so with references to the Euphrates and the Nile (the cradle of human civilization), and deftly moves into the middle of the 19th Century (the Lincoln reference) with the river metaphor and its “muddy bosom” allusion — black Africans who became human gold (free labor).

The poem also cuts through the complexities of explaining slavery as the “peculiar institution” (there is a book by that title) it was. To the point, unlike any other form of slavery known to man, black slavery was meant to be intergenerational — forever.

The complexity arises in the fact that its existence was a blatant contradiction in a democratic society based on ideals such as individual liberty, justice and Christian values. Without the systematic dehumanization of African Americans, America could make no credible claim to its noblest ideals. It simply wouldn’t add up.

The second Hughes poem, “I, Too, Sing America” gives insights into the “separateness” and “sameness” that curiously binds us together:

I, too, sing America.

I am the darker brother.

They send me to eat in the kitchen

When company comes.

But I laugh,

And eat well

And grow strong.

Tomorrow,

I’ll be at the table

When company comes

Nobody’ll dare

Say to me

“Eat in the kitchen, “

Then.

Besides

They’ll see how beautiful I am

And be ashamed —

I, too, sing America


African Americans deeply love this country. They stand shoulder to shoulder with America’s greatest patriots. Yet, Hughes’ poem reminds me of something one of America’s great generals, Benjamin O. Davis Jr. (a black man) said: “I know how I feel about my country. I just don’t know how my country feels about me. “

By the way, World War I and World War II African American soldiers returned home from bloody battlefields abroad with a great determination to get respect here at home. Their struggles jump-started the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s.

I love poetry. I, too, sing America, and there is no shame or blame in it. And though I am the darker brother, the more important fact is that we are brothers and sisters all. On these shores, our yesterdays are one. And so shall be all our tomorrows.

Have a nice day.

Anderson resident Primus Mootry is a retired school teacher. His column appears Wednesdays.

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