ArtsATL > Books > Q&A: Editors reveal trove of 19th-century African American poetry in “Voices Beyond Bondage”

Q&A: Editors reveal trove of 19th-century African American poetry in “Voices Beyond Bondage”

298-VBB fcover 300dpiVoices Beyond Bondage (NewSouth Books), brings to light 150 poems that originally appeared in black-owned newspapers or pamphlets between 1827 and 1899. Where authorship is verifiable, the poems were written by ordinary African Americans wishing to express themselves through verse. Edited by Erika DeSimone and Fidel Louis, the anthology spans a complex, dynamic and painful era in American history, including slavery, slave revolts, abolitionism, the Civil War, Reconstruction and segregation.

Along with an introduction, the editors preface this fascinating collection with an essay that surveys the history of a burgeoning 19th-century black-owned press and the heroic and determined publishers who funded and edited these periodicals.

Voices Beyond Bondage is divided into five thematic sections: “Bondage & Calls for Freedom,” “Dedications & Remembrances,” “Moral & Civic Perspectives,” “Reminiscence & Humor,” and “Spirit & the Natural World.” The work represents a wide range of African American perspectives and experiences, depicting not only the hardships of slavery and racism but also the stuff of everyday life, including love poems and elegies.

The poems are written mostly in the rhyming and metrical verse typical of the era, although the writers employ a variety of stanza lengths and rhyme schemes. They also write in traditional forms such as the heroic couplet and the sonnet. The diverse array of subject matter and the emotional range of the poems, however, are anything but conventional and point to the rich cultural, political and inner lives both of those who suffered under the bonds of slavery and those who won their freedom.

Especially touching and instructive is a poem written by Frank Addison Mowig Philom, published in 1852 in Frederick Douglass’ Paper. Entitled “My Pen,” the poem celebrates the power of writing and literacy to give voice to the suffering and the accomplishments of African Americans. Philom calls his pen a “gem which adversity giveth to me,” and proclaims that it “shall speak of the shackles, the bond and the free.”

ArtsATL interviewed the editors by email; DiSimone and Louis collaborated on the responses.

ArtsATL: Why did you make the editorial choice to organize Voices Beyond Bondage thematically rather than in, say, chronological order?

Erika DeSimone, co-author of Voices Beyond Bondage.
Erika DeSimone, coauthor of Voices Beyond Bondage.

Erika DeSimone and Fidel Louis: The book is structured in both chronological order and thematic order — that is, each of our section themes begins with poems dated in the late 1820s and continues through to the end of the century or midcentury. We chose to structure the book in this way for a number of reasons, chief among them being that we wanted to show a breadth and scope of the African American experience/identity that is not represented by popular history.

Popular history portrays African Americans of this era mainly as illiterate slaves, or at best as uneducated poor peoples with little interest in or aptitude for literature and creative expression. Slavery was very unfortunately a defining part of the African American experience, but not the sole definer of that identity. So while we felt it was right and fair to devote a section to slavery and abolitionism, we also wanted to stress to our readers that this anthology seeks to push beyond slavery-as-identity and showcase other integral parts of African American life.

These poets speak of love, honor, citizenship, upright living, humor, aging, childhood experiences, God, fundamental dignity, political topics and so much more. It is great a disservice to both the people of the era and to ourselves today that we do not remember and honor African American existence as anything more than a life of illiterate bondage. From the very inception of this book, we wanted to challenge these mischaracterizations — hence the title Voices Beyond Bondage.

However, we also wanted our readers to have the option of easily compiling a snapshot of any given moment of the century. By structuring the content within each theme chronologically, readers of this anthology can do just that, simply by flipping though the themes and selecting poems with in a chosen timeframe. It’s worth noting, too, that the themes are not hard-and-fast categories, but rather reader guides.

For example, we have a passionate poem by Charlotte Piles in the section Spirit & the Natural World, in which Piles asserts that working to manumit slaves is Christlike. We could have put this poem in Bondage & Calls to Freedom, but felt that the central theme — emulating Christ — was more spiritually based than morally abolitionist. There are a number of poems in this anthology that could have easily been placed into two or more themes, and we certainly invite our readers to explore how different poems in the various themes cross-relate.

ArtsATL: You say in a Huffington Post article that “most major newspapers featured poetry.” How did these fledgling, often financially strapped black-owned periodicals come to include poetry written and submitted by readers? Was the open-call poetry column a popular feature in white periodicals of the time? Do you have any idea how many poetry submissions these papers received, compared with how many poems they printed?

Fidel Louis, co author of Voices Beyond Bondage.
Fidel Louis, coauthor of Voices Beyond Bondage.

DeSimone and Louis: Versification was a popular form of creative expression in the 19th century, and poetry itself is a unique medium in that a whole world of experiences or emotions can be contained within a few short lines — something which can’t be done with a novel or short story. This makes poetry both immediately accessible to writers and ideal for publication in newspapers, where space is at a premium.

Many mainstream newspapers carried a poetry column in which the poems of named poets would be reprinted, and a number of these papers also accepted open submissions. These columns were popular and helped increase circulation. But you have to remember that these papers were owned and edited by Anglo Americans, created for and marketed to their respective audiences.

In the case of black-owned newspapers, the open-call poetry column was far more than a feature just to sell papers. For example, the editors of Freedom’s Journal (the groundbreaking first black-owned paper in the nation, 1827–1829), purposefully included poetry in their four-page weekly, despite having no shortage of other topics to cover, so that African Americans would have their own creative outlet in the media, something which literally did not exist anywhere else in the nation.

Before Freedom’s Journal there was no true media outlet for African American literary creativity, no media space in which a person of color could see one’s fundamental humanity reflected and welcomed — and [editor] Samuel E. Cornish in particular vehemently encouraged his readership to submit their poems. From there, almost every successful black-owned newspaper of the century followed Freedom’s Journal’s lead and incorporated open-call African American–authored poetry as a central component.

We can’t know how many poems were submitted to these newspapers, but we do know that African Americans responded to open-call columns in droves, with some newspapers receiving more poems than they could print. An excellent example of this is shown in the October 20, 1854, issue of Frederick Douglass’ Paper, which republished the Independent’s recent “Hints to Poets” editorial; “Hints to Poets” began with this eloquent plea to its readership:

“We are overwhelmed with poetry . . . Much of the poetry that comes into our hands is written upon such delicate paper, and with much elegant penmanship, and it is accompanied with such modest notes from virgin authors, that we are at our wits’ end to know what to do with it. How can we decline publishing what has been prepared with so much pains, and is proffered with such delicate consideration? In order to recover our judgment sufficiently to decide upon the quires of elegant rhyme-paper before us, we beg that the Muses will be more sparing of their favors for at least two months to come.”

Created around 1780, this image was widely used in abolitionist broadsides, newspapers and other publications. Reprinted with permission, NewSouth Books
Created around 1780, this image was widely used in abolitionist broadsides, newspapers and other publications.
Reprinted with permission, NewSouth Books.

ArtsATL: In your introduction you state, “There was little intellectual and literary interaction between African Americans and the dominant Anglo American society.” Would increasingly literate African Americans have had access to the work of popular Anglo American poets such as Henry Wadsworth Longfellow or William Cullen Bryant? Would they have read poetry published in Anglo American newspapers?

DeSimone and Louis: Newspapers in the 19th and even 20th centuries played a far greater role than the still-significant role that they play today; newspapers heralded news, of course, but also structured and shaped communities in ways that ceased to exist after radio and especially television became common.

Before mass media, newspapers, pamphlets and church publications were really the best and only source of reliable daily information. Many African Americans, despite not being “included” in the intended audience of mainstream newspapers, would have read such publications as part of the everyday, as a way of staying informed. And of course some Anglo-owned newspapers catered to liberal/abolitionist audiences with little regard to race.

So yes, literate African Americans, especially in the cities of the Northeast, would have had access to a variety of publications, and would have read the poetry contained therein. (In fact, before the advent of the public school system as we know it today, reading newspapers was considered fundamental to being well read and well informed.)

The significance of the 19th century’s black-owned press is that it created the first media spaces through which African American perspectives on any range of topics could be examined and shared, and the happenings of African American communities (news which mainstream papers patently ignored) were spotlighted, even celebrated. Just as importantly, these newspapers treated African American readers with a fundamental respect and pride that the Anglo-owned press so often lacked.

Black-owned newspapers of the era did not, for example, use “colored” or “Negro” (common terms of the day) in a denigrative manner, and they did not carry editorials or advertisements that were socially demeaning to people of color. The readership of black-owned papers could see their inherent dignity reflected in these publications; part of that dignity was having a space where African Americans’ creative works were welcomed and published.

The first African church, Richmond, Virginia,"  a wood engraving published in Harper's Weekly  in 1874. Reprinted with permission, NewSouth Books.
The First African Church, Richmond, Virginia, a wood engraving published in Harper’s Weekly in 1874. Reprinted with permission, NewSouth Books.

ArtsATL: You also say that most of the poets in the volume “had no formal training in the craft of writing.” And yet these writers were composing in traditional verse forms, using an impressive variety of rhyme schemes and meters, line and stanza lengths. What formal models were these poets using, traditional and/or contemporary? Were they influenced by published African American poetry, protest songs, hymns, spirituals, Bible verse?

DeSimone and Louis: The poetry of the 19th century was a structured poetry. While today it is common to see poems in blank verse and nonstandard layouts, poetic structures (from simple quatrains to more complex forms like sonnets) were by and large considered endemic to poetic expression. Formally schooled African Americans (such as ministers) who had had opportunity to read and study published poets would have shaped their verse into poetic forms by way of example, but even self-taught African Americans would have looked at verse as an expression requiring form, the simplest form being rhymed couplets, with those couplets being expanded into more complete poems.

We also must remember, too, that poetry is not just words read on a page, but is also recited aloud — and reading poems aloud was a popular leisure activity in this era. African Americans writers, self educated or otherwise, would have written poetry with an aural awareness — which is to say that poems should be pleasing to the ear.

Thus whether or not these writers knew the technical names for sonic devices (pentameter, assonance, cacophony, etc.) they employed these devices in their works. Songs and hymns, passionate sermons, the works of other poets and even nursery rhymes all served as excellent examples of rhetorical devices and informed the verse of both educated writers and those with little to no formal education.

 

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