GEORGE MOSES HORTON
(c. 1798–c. 1883)
George Moses Horton is the only American to publish a book while living in slavery. In his poem “On Hearing Of The Intention Of A Gentleman To Purchase The Poet’s Freedom,” Horton summoned something grand to say about his line of work casting lines in the dirt. Perhaps Horton first spoke lines of the poem to his master’s plow or perhaps Horton asked his master’s mule to lay its bridle down & lend an ear. Presumably the master, mule, & plow called Horton “Moses.” A field of lines “To Freedom,” & lines of hallowed feeling “To Eliza” go singing above the mule & plow nearly reaching the master’s house. A field of couplets fall on the rows of couplets Horton plows. Horton works as well as a man declared “Historic Poet Laureate” of Chatham County two hundred years after his death. Perhaps there were lines Horton wrote as a black soldier deciphering Lincoln’s address for his black counterparts in the Civil War. His work casting lines in the dirt produced The Hope Of Liberty in 1829, Poetical Works in 1845, Naked Genius in 1865. Horton’s tools & weapons included a desk of celestial milk & fire, a pen filled with light & intuitive grammar, the frictions between stone & metal, factions & benefactors, fictions & benedictions, benefiting all that bends the mind in a line of work casting lines in the dirt.
Educated by a father who carried letters around Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, in a horse drawn carriage & by constituents of the Latin Scientific Curriculum, Esther Popel wrote Thoughtless Thinks By A Thinkless Thoughter before twenty. The Latin Curriculum suggests there is no way to kill a language. One of many major events include her “Flag Salutes” on the cover of the official magazine of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, following the three thousand white men women & children who came to watch the 1933 lynching of George Armwood, a young black man accused of attacking an elderly white woman in Maryland. Latin prepares you for the language or law & logic. Popel should also be remembered for her variety of government affiliations wherein each time she gathered with the kind of people entertained by bloody spectacle, her father appeared at the window holding a satchel of letters. When Popel was the National Association of College Women’s liaison to the Washington Department of the Office of Price Administration, which was established within the Office for Emergency Management after the outbreak of World War II, her father held up a letter from a Civil War solider written to the wife who’d taught him to write. As Ex-Officio Consultant to the Educational Policies Commission appointed by the National Education Association, she heard her father’s horse drawn carriage carrying letters to men who might kill him. In the Department of Superintendence of the Southeast Settlement House For African Americans at the Washington, D.C., Bureau Of War Risk Insurance she saw her father at the door. Popel was poet & high school teacher of penmanship & the Latin Scientific Curriculum until her retirement in 1952, six years before death.
WILLIAM WARING CUNEY
William Waring Cuney may have been nicknamed Willy the Warbler before his retreat to quiet. Educated at Lincoln University, the name of the man assassinated for speaking on blacks’ behalf notarizes Cuney’s degree. He decided to pursue singing in the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston & from there went to Rome, but Cuney never performed professionally. His claim to fame should behe never sang for money before his retreat. His claim to fame should be he wrote No Images at eighteen. During World War II, Cuney served in the South Pacific as a technical sergeant. His claim to fame should be he earned three bronze battle stars. His claim to fame should be his “Southern Exposure,” was set to music by Al Haig & Nina Simone. His claim to fame should be “Oh, my lord / what a morning, / oh, my lord, what a feeling.” Cuney offered word on the bricks of blacks in the Bronx, the rings of Jack Johnson, Jesus, & the small talk curbing the cross walks. Puzzles & stacks of Storefront Churches sat in the bookstore that became a storefront church every night of the month. Cuney entered a self-sequestered quarantine from poets, friends, & the general public in the year John Glenn became the first American to orbit the earth. What Cuney felt upon the death of Langston Hughes, Malcolm X, MLK, JFK, warring factions of sports teams & countries, songs & movies, etcetera could have been his claim. When John Oliver Killens insulted Cuney’s reputation in 1972, four years before his death, Cuney reemerged to respond ironically or irreverently or simply with ire. It should have been his claim to fame.
From 1968-1973, during primetime on WTTV Channel 4, Indianapolis, Mari Evans, poet, writer, activist, host with no background in television, transmitted the black experience to the 115,000 negroes of Indianapolis as well as any other local & regional interested parties. Possibly, white farmers listened to Mari Evans listen to Wes Montgomery’s guitar or to Mari Evans herself hums at her piano. Possibly the camera cut from the piano keys to the old typewriter Evans made sing & cry at the Indiana Housing Authority. We do not know if Mari Evans held hands with the man or woman holding the handheld camera, shifting between long shots & wide angles of the black experience. Mari Evans published Where Is All The Music? in 1968 & the celebrated I Am A Black Woman in 1970. Let there be close ups of the black experience basking viewers who have never seen black people in the transmissions of light & sound both produced by & emanating from Mari Evans. Evans also published Singing Black: Alternative Nursery Rhymes For Children in 1976 & Black Women Writers (1950–1980): A Critical Evaluation, in 1984. Let the black experience be seen as a cloud of smoke from the mills. Let the camera cut to a cloud coughing from the stove or chimney of blacks in a modest house. Then to a cloud about the mouths of black men on a porch. Let the camera cut from the conversation to sunlight piercing the clouds before cutting to Mari Evans, aged 97, smiling sternly at the camera & wishing black people a good night.
When Bob Kaufman dies, aged 60 in 1986, from a condition in which the liver does not live properly due to long-term trauma, the ghosts he meets traveling the road from San Francisco back to New Orleans call him “The Buddha Fly,” because he is pajamaed in a burlap robe & holds a quill made of a crow feather in his writing hand & a writhing crow in the other. A transient cloud defecting to god while lambasting the fifth commandment like Noah shipwrecked & gnawing his nails with his wisdom teeth, Kaufman was thin as a skeleton transported to the realm of symbolic meaning. It was the middle of a triple digit July. A gate swung between cafe excursions & nights of smothered rage, spontaneous revelations exploding into Birdland saxophone refrains, black rain falling on the snow, the ancient rain falling on the maternal from a distant American sky crackling with eclipses, commuted bluenesses, footpaths hidden beneath shadows, shivers impaled on slivers of wind in silver traffic, impaled on the nautical sounds of weeping & sweating. A pregnant tongue bounced up & down like a merchant marine counting vultures & stars from the deck of a sinking ship in the mouth of Bob Kaufman. He wouldn’t put the quill & crow down even when the ghosts offer him shade & drinkable rain.
The practice of a poem should be what archeology makes you feel glowing red in a darkroom. Art should encourage expenditures of beasts buried with candelabras burning elaborately underground. Rhythm need not table panic. It’s warm. Type “prototype” versus “stereotype” in a letter to Marianne Moore on her deathbed & await her reply. Every word was air when the zeitgeist was no more Mister Nice Guy. If you get to Moscow on a song you will be soaked in a rain of applause unless there is snow. There must be stretches of your own colorful moonlight operatic combustions breaking gently from the speakers of post-industrial Cleveland. Do not allow surprise agony to quiet. Rhythm need not table panic. Art, you realize, does not explain taxonomy, Antarctica, lavender. Ghosts rest in the nest. A blood of lighter fluid makes you perspire. The fear inside the lonely cloud consumed by the lake. Vainly restrict sinking, garbling or gulping garbage worth incalculable miscalculations. One transparent word rushed toward the unyielding ear. Is a window a shimmering shard of rain hung from a blue wall? Is a poem the practice of anything struck out & lifted with the fingertips? Russell Atkins awaits Marrianne’s reply.
To be Sonia Sanchez you must be born in Birmingham where your mother dies when you are one, where your grandmother dies when you are six, where four black girls die when you are twenty-nine. Your hair must stutter into the filament of your mind. To be Sonia Sanchez you must be inexplicably resilient, your pigtails must rest on your father’s shoulder on the ride to Harlem in 1944. Your hair must be ironed into bangs of decree as you become a black woman with a degree in political science in 1955. Your bangs must explode into an afro as you teach elementary school while pursuing post-graduate studies & poetry in Greenwich Village. To be Sonia Sanchez your afro must explode into inaugurations of black studies programs in universities from California to Pennsylvania, & into the lines of Homecoming in 1969, triggering a wake of minds. Your hair must be made of a fiber that makes you both mother & father to twin boys & a daughter. On the cover of Shake Loose My Skin & Homegirls & Handgrenades, your hair must be black as Malcom X’s hair upon his return from Mecca. Writing Does Your House Have Lions your hair must spiral into the locks of a mane. Writing Wounded In The House Of A Friend your locks must become the lock of an embrace. Your locks must wind into quotation marks around lines from Gwendolyn Brooks, Loise Bogan, Toni Morrison, Lucille Clifton, & into question marks around lines of fire & defense, lines in the sand, chalk lines & headlines. Your locks must lengthen like a long American sentence punctuated by the songs of black people. Exclamations of blackness must explode from the filament of your mind.
Barbara Chase-Riboud was one of the first, if not the first, seven-year-old to win a sculpture prize in the adult evening classes of the Fletcher Academy in Philadelphia. Barbara Chase-Riboud was one of the first sixteen-year-old women, if not the first, to show work in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art. Barbara Chase-Riboud was one of the first, if not the first, to sell a bronze sculpture on exhibit at the Spoleto Festival Of Two Worlds to Ben Shahn, one of her heroes. In 1978, when Barbara Chase-Riboud discovered the story of Sally Hemings & Thomas Jefferson, Toni Morrison, who was her poetry editor at Random House, said, “You have been talking about this woman for a year. Why don’t you just write it yourself?” Barbara Chase-Riboud did so. Barbara Chase-Riboud wrote a poem about the brief affair between Anna Akhmatova & Amedeo Modigliani. In 1988, Portrait Of A Nude Woman As Cleopatra won the Carl Sandburg Poetry Prize. Barbara Chase-Riboud, not Romeare Bearden, was the first artist to appear on the cover of Ebony Magazine. In 1996 Barbara Chase-Riboud received a knighthood in arts & letters in France. Barbara Chase-Riboud was one of the first, if not the first, people to argue with photographer René Burri in the Valley of the Kings about crossing the Nile on the last boat. Barbara Chase-Riboud knows Every Time A Knot Is Undone, A God Is Released. Barbara Chase-Riboud made a sculpture of a beautiful small Greek vase when she was seven years old!
Essex Hemphill, born & raised in the age of infectious hungers, communicable longing & the heartbreak of desire, died in 1995, having proclaimed in his poem “For My Protection, “We should be able to save each other.” Hemphill proposed in the poem an official organization wherein a black man could stroll Harlem, Wall Street, Hollywood, South Africa with his tongue untied without penalty of death, physical harm, or the snarls, stares, & snares of distraction & disaster. Hemphill’s life was partly my life & possibly partly more or less yours. “Are you ready for whatever whenever,” Hemphill asks, not only those sporting s-curls, dreadlocks & styles that never expire, but the guardians of the endangered & admirers of the priceless. Born & raised & run around the districts of America, Hemphill proposed in the poem an organization to help black men survive & alluded to a rich catalogue of love without fear of black men in black jackets & caskets of flowers, of the people who love them, & of dreamers on a train moving through a countryside of cattle grazing below a confederate flag painted on a barn side. Protection from underlying, undermining, fault lines & headlines. Protection from the hole of a blind bullseye, protection from the nurse’s eyes & the doctors & angels gossiping at the bedside. Strike out without fear for love every day you are alive, suggests Hemphill’s poem & existence. Strike without fear & let your mouth fall open every day you are alive.
The shepherd in Reginald Shepherd is derived from the job first assigned to a village boy who spent his days hunting the sheep he heard babbling in the woods & spent his nights giving names to the stars. Shepherd of Otherhood. Shepherd of the lantern fire, shepherd of the antique lyre of Orpheus In The Bronx. By the time he was a young man, babblers gathered around the shepherd saying words he heard as poems. If he let the sheep indoors, they broke the quiet. A wolf might rise or rain might fall if the sheep were left outside. Shepherd of Pensacola, Florida from the Bronx, shepherd of cancer, shepherd of brushes with death moving over the flock, shepherd of Some Are Drowning. Shephard of Red Clay Weather. Fata Morgana was King Arthur’s sister, a maker of trouble & mirage over bodies of frailty & water. Shepherd of Fata Morgana. The Angel, Interrupted must be durable in a downfall. The shepherd in Reginald Shepherd is derived from a job looking after the songs of creatures like the serpent curled in syntax, the ballad riding the back of the blackbird, the Hart Crane, the Adorno echo of the sheep squatting like clouds in the pasture. The look of the sheep & shepherd feeling how small all our lives appear when viewed from the stars is never sweeter than the milk the sheep offer the shepherd who then offers it to the village children who in turn share their portions with village adults & elders before the milk can spoil.