The Herald Bulletin

Morning Update

Columns

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.

1
Text Only
Columns
  • Jim Bailey: Figuring out how to have the good in life without the bad Most of us have had those faith-shaking episodes in our lives. The tragic episodes that leave us wondering what life is all about.

    April 24, 2014

  • OPN - Mootry column mug [Duplicate] [Duplicate] Primus Mootry: There is a poet in each of us April is National Poetry Month. Throughout the country, colleges and universities, elementary and secondary schools, libraries and various publications have hosted poetry readings or featured unpublished poets.

    April 23, 2014 1 Photo

  • underwood mug [Duplicate] Scott Underwood: Nightmares from high school proms past I wore a salmon-colored tuxedo with a cummerbund and tails to my senior prom. I was 6-foot-6 and 175 pounds. A beanpole.

    April 21, 2014 1 Photo

  • Hayden, Maureen mug Maureen Hayden: Judge in gay marriage decision no activist

    When U.S. District Judge Richard Young recently ruled in favor of a lesbian couple seeking recognition of their out-of-state marriage, opponents of same-sex unions called him an activist judge who was unilaterally trampling the law. The label didn’t resonate with those who know Young well.

    April 20, 2014 1 Photo

  • Charo Boyd mug [Duplicate] Charo Boyd: Social Security goes green on Earth Day and every day For years, Social Security has been at the forefront of offering convenient, easy-to-use, and secure online services. We, along with those we serve, have saved a lot of paper, shipping costs, and fuel — and cut back on a lot of carbon exhaust and pollution — by going online instead of doing things the old-fashioned, less efficient way.

    April 20, 2014 1 Photo

  • Tim Kean: Can we have a 'A New State of Mind?' I have recently read some great articles about people coming together to make a difference in the lives of children facing food insecurity. The collective effort of a group can provide some much-needed food to kids who may not have a meal when they return home from school or during the weekend.

    April 19, 2014

  • SPL - PT041014 - Ken de la Bastide column - Ken sig Ken de la Bastide: County may eliminate Data Processing Board

    Action two weeks ago by the Madison County commissioners to close Data Processing Board meetings to the public might run afoul of the Indiana Open Door law, and a local resident is considering filing a complaint with the Public Access Counselor’s office for a determination.

    April 19, 2014 1 Photo

  • Timmons, Theresa mug Theresa Timmons: Dinosaurs run amok at mamaw's house I love my new job as a grandparent. It includes playing imaginary tennis with imaginary tennis rackets, making elaborate tents in the living room, and hair-pulling.

    April 19, 2014 1 Photo

  • Stringer, Maleah mug Maleah Stringer: Volunteers needed to spend time with shelter animals Shelters can be extremely stressful places for many animals, particularly those who have been in a loving home. This is why we want people to come into the shelter and spend time with our animals — to help keep them adoptable so that when the right person comes along they are ready.

    April 19, 2014 1 Photo

  • Bailey, Jim mug Jim Bailey: Wages were much less back then, but so were prices If you have any questions about what economists mean by inflation, just look at yesterday’s buying power. Those old western movies talked about wages of $1 a day. That wouldn’t even buy a burger at a fast food joint today by the time sales tax is added in.

    April 19, 2014 1 Photo

Featured Ads
More Resources from The Herald Bulletin
AP Video
SKorea Ferry Toll Hits 156, Search Gets Tougher Video Shows Possible Syrian Gas Attack Cubs Superfans Celebrate Wrigley's 100th Raw: Cattle Truck Overturns in Texas Admirers Flock to Dole During Kansas Homecoming Raw: Erupting Volcanoes in Guatemala and Peru Alibaba IPO Could Be Largest Ever for Tech Firm FBI Joining Probe of Suburban NY 'Swatting' Call U.S. Paratroopers in Poland, Amid Ukraine Crisis US Reviews Clemency for Certain Inmates Raw: Violence Erupts in Rio Near Olympic Venue Raw: Deadly Bombing in Egypt Raw: What's Inside a Commercial Jet Wheel Well Raw: Obama Arrives in Japan for State Visit Raw: Anti-Obama Activists Fight Manila Police Motels Near Disney Fighting Homeless Problem Michigan Man Sees Thanks to 'bionic Eye' S.C. Man Apologizes for Naked Walk in Wal-Mart Chief Mate: Crew Told to Escape After Passengers
Parade
Magazine

Click HERE to read all your Parade favorites including Hollywood Wire, Celebrity interviews and photo galleries, Food recipes and cooking tips, Games and lots more.
Hyperlocal Search
Premier Guide
Find a business

Walking Fingers
Maps, Menus, Store hours, Coupons, and more...
Premier Guide
Helium debate
Helium
Front page
Poll

Will you vote in the primary election on May 6?

Yes, on May 6
Yes, will vote early
No
     View Results