Thursday, August 27, 2009

A New Black Literary and Cultural Renaissance

This poem is one that I discovered just today. It is by the late, great poet Paul Laurence Dunbar. This poem is important for its humor, its structure, its linguistic heritage, and how it illustrates how free black and slave black used the Christian Church as a source of inspiration, but more truly, a source of organizing. When folks today wonder why the black church is so important, still, to the black community it is because it was the one place where we could gather, free of a watchful eye, where we could sing and shout our pain and anger, celebrate our small joys, and also connect through music and dance with our African heritage, which had been systemically stripped from us (for example, U.S. black slaves were the only black slaves in the Western Hemisphere to be denied the use of traditional drums...this...of course...was impetus for other musical expression and seeded the roots of country, blues, soul, hip hop, rock and roll, and jazz).

The poem also demonstrates how and why the Preacher held the role he (and she) did in slave communities. Since slaveholders proclaimed themselves to be God fearing and Christian, it was in their best interest, and supported their standing in the community, to have their slaves educated in Christian theology. As such, Black preachers enjoyed a freedom of mobility denied to common free blacks and slaves. Yet, this freedom did not come without a price. As Dunbar points out in his poem "but fu' feah some one mistakes me/I will pause right hyeah to say/Dat I'm still a-preachin' ancient/I ain't talkin' 'bout today," and when he states pithily, "Now don't run an' tell yo' mastahs/Dat I's preachin' discontent." That is to say...a preacher could and did slip in messages of freedom and liberation but those things were dangerous and could result in more strange fruit swaying in the breeze. Though, even with the fear of lynching riding high on the backs of ministers, they still travelled the pre-war South and preached messages of freedom and liberation.

This poem, though written post-Emancipation, shows also the freedom with which late 19th and early 20th century black writers wrote. Folks like Dunbar and Zora Neal Hurston were masters of the English language yet would, without apology, write in Southern black vernacular English, not as a characterization of ignorance (as was done by well meaning folks like Harriet Beecher Stowe), but as a illumination of how Southern black vernacular English (slave English) was far from ignorant and could and did transmit complicated ideas and dangerous messages in an era where a slip of the tongue or a cut of the eye could end with a black person swinging from a tree.

This is in stark juxtaposition to the debates around Ebonics in the 1990s and the characterization of Black Standard English as an expression of ignorance that needed to be stamped out with "proper" education. Indeed, all Americans should be proficient in textbook English: reading and writing. But just as a native Spanish speaker should not be discouraged from writing and expressing him or herself in Spanish even though he or she should be American born, neither should black folks distance themselves from a rich literary and linguistic tradition because the white power structure in America has characterized and still characterizes it as lacking in intellctual richness simply because it is a divergent dialect from Webster's English. That tends to happen when you snatch up entire populations of people with their own syntax and grammatical structures inherent to families of languages, force them into bondage, and then attempt to mold their languages into the boundaries of ones own.

Language was meant to grow, change, diversify, and birth new linguistic (and literary) traditions. Once upon a time, French, Spanish, and Italian were considered bastardized local offshoots of Latin. Hell, the Catholic Church didn't allow vulgar Masses until after Vatican II. Imagine...speaking to the people in a language that they understand.

In the end, this poem demonstrates the power of language and culture. Almost a hundred years after its composition, it still resonates deeply in theme, subject, content, and humor with the issues facing black communities and black culture today. Though slavery ended some 144 years ago, and black folks in the U.S. have progressed far beyond the days where preaching the wrong word could end with a short drop, the overwhelming economic, pyschic, and spiritual burdens of 300 years of slavery and a 100 years of state sponsored segregation and terrorism against black folks in United States still hangs as a heavy lodestone around the weight of the collective black psyche. Finding the strength and beauty developed and cultivated during bondage, shucking the husk of white supremacy folded around those modalities, and serving up a new black literary Renaissance that builds on our literary and linguistic traditions and opens them wide to embrace new art forms (spoken word and hip hop to name a couple), and new black communities (black Latin@s and African immigrants) could be the foundation for the next stage in the evalution of the black community in the United States.

An Ante-Bellum Sermon
by Paul Laurence Dunbar

We is gathahed hyeah, my brothahs,
In di howlin' wildaness,
Fu' to speak some words o comfo't
to each othah in distress.
An' we choose fu' ouah subjic'
Dis—-we'll 'splain it by an' by;
"An' de Lawd said, "Moses, Moses,"
An' de man said, Hyeah am I.'"

Now ole Pher'oh, down in Egypt
Was de wuss man evah bo'n,
An' he had de Hebrew chillun
Down dah wukin' in his co'n;
'Twell de Lawd got tiahed o' his foolin',
an' sez he: "I'll let him know'
Look hyeah, Moses, go tell Pher'oh
Fu' to let dem chillun go."

"An' ef he refuse do it,
I will make him rue de houah,
fu' I'll empty down on Egypt
All de vials of my powah."
Yes, he did—-an' Pher'oh's ahmy
Wasn't wurth a ha'f a dime;
Fu' de Lawd will he'p his chillum,
You kin trust him evah time.

An' you' enemies may 'sail you
In de back an' in de front;
But de Lawd is all aroun' you,
Fu' to ba' de battle's brunt.
Dey kin fo'ge yo'chains an' shackles
F'om de mountains to de sea;
But de Lawd will sen' some Moses
Fu' to set his chilun free.

An' de lan' shall hyeah his thundah,
Lak a blas' f'om Gab'el's ho'n,
Fu' de Lawd of hosts is mighty
When he girds his ahmor on.
But fu' feah some one mistakes me,
I will pause right hyeah to say,
Dat I'm still a-preachin' ancient,
I ain't talkin' bout to-day.

But I tell you, fellah christuns,
Things'll happen mighty strange;
Now, de Lawd done dis fu' Isrul,
An' his ways don't nevah change,
An' de love he showed to Isrul
Wasn't all on Isrul spent;
Now don't run an' tell yo' mastahs
Dat I's preachin' discontent.

'Cause I isn't; I'se a-judgin'
Bible people by dier ac's;
I'se a-givin' you de Scriptuah,
I'se a-handin' you de fac's.
Cose ole Pher'or b'lieved in slav'ry,
But de Lawd he let him see,
Dat de people he put bref in,
Evah mothah's son was free.

An' dah's othahs thinks lak Pher'or,
But dey calls de Scriptuah liar,
Fu' de Bible says "a servant
Is worthy of his hire,"
An' you cain't git roun' nor thoo dat,
An' you cain't git ovah it,
Fu' whatevah place you git in,
Dis hyeah Bible too'll fit.

So you see de Lawd's intention,
Evah sence de worl' began,
Was dat His almight freedom
Should belong to evah man,
But I think it would be bettah,
Ef I'd pause agin to say,
Dat I'm talkin' 'bout ouah freedom
In a Bibleistic way.

But de Moses is a-comin',
An' he's comin', suah and fas'
We kin hyeah his feet a-trompin',
We kin hyeah his trumpit blas'.
But I want to wa'n you people,
Don't you git too brigity;
An' don't you git to braggin'
"Bout dese things, you wait an' see.

But when Moses wif his powah
Comes an' sets us chillun free,
We will praise de gracious Mastah
Dat has gin us liberty;
An' we'll shout ouah halleluyahs,
On dat mighty reck'nin' day,
When we'se reco'nised ez citiz'
Huh uh! Chillun, let us pray!


  1. I love having smart, intelligent and insightful friends and I am truly blessed to have you be counted among them. Thank you for sharing this poem and all that you write with us. it's inspiring, shocking, witty, entertaining but most of all it is a true reflection of the spirit that lives within you.

    I almost cried when I read that poem. To think that WE came from that speech. That WE are allowed to speak, write, march and have self pride because of PLD and others like him. Today is a good day to be proud and black. I've been feeling all Afrocentric all day. Thanks for keeping me inspired :-)

  2. AMEN! AMEN! and again I say AMEN!!! Now, I felt like I heard a mighty sermon. If a choir would have broke out in song, I would have been "caught-up!" LOL!!! Brandon, this was a wonderful post. This really made my heart glad! :)

  3. Terra Cole: Oh yes, after reading that poem I got all Afrocentric. I wanted to get a djembe and start singing spirituals. Thank you for your kind words and all that and then some right back to you. Love you my friend.

    Tiffany Harmon: Didn't it come across that way? I mean, I could HEAR the preacher preachin'...I could hear the turn of phrase and the moments when he would have been intense and then cut it with some humor and a wise eye...I could hear the AMENS and HEY GLORIES. You know the preacher was flirting with the choir girls and smiling at the ladies in the front row. I think I would have caught the spirit my own self. Love to you too Ms. Harmon.


Thank you for sharing your thoughts, feelings, and insights. And thank you for reading!