Folk Poetry and Other African American Poetry of the Early 19th Century
Besides providing us with insights into the lives and feelings of early African American people, this poetry gives pupils a glimpse at the roots of later African American poetry. Especially when we are studying the period of time which takes us through slavery and the Civil War, these pieces provide us with a picture of lifewhich is not found in traditional text books. Many later poets, especially Dunbar, Hughes, and above all Hurston, studied folk material as sources for their own poems.
In addition to being rich with images that depict the life and feelings of those early times, folk poems also often have a surface humor which most children of this age should enjoy. They usually rhyme and have a beat similar to some popular rap creations. It might be interesting to have children present some of these folk poems in this manner.
Raise a Ruckus To-Night
Two liddle Negroes all dressed in white,
Went to Heaben on de tail of a kite.
De kite string broke; dem Negroes fell;
Where dem Negroes go, I hain’t gwineter tell.
As an extension, pupils could both adapt original folk material to hand games or jump rope routines and create their own rhymes to go with similar routines. These could then be demonstrated and taught to children in other classrooms. There are also many established jump rope rhymes and hand game songs which come from both rural and urban settings. A number of interesting possibilities are found in “Talk That Talk”.
In other folk poetry the picture presented is not a pleasant one. Here children will be helped to recognize the anger and resentment which exists beneath the seemingly light-hearted surface in many of these poems. In “Promises of Freedom”, a slave discusses the failure of “Mistiss” and “Mosser” to fulfill a long awaited promise of freedom and tells of the revenge the slave may have inflicted.
. . . Yes, my ole Mosser promise me;
But “his papers” didn’t leave me free.
A dose of pizin he’ped ‘em along,
May the Devil preach ‘is funer’l song.
In “We Raise de Wheat”, there is no pretense of humor.
We raise de wheat,
Dey gib us de corn:. . .
We skim de pot,
Dey gib us de liquor,
And say dat’s good enough for nigger.
The white population is not always the target of early African American poems. Folk poetry also presents some of the universal character flaws that African Americans recognized in themselves as well as in others. Apart from the fun to be had while reading them, these poems should help to humanize the African American people of this time, helping today’s children see them and thus their lives as real, something history books often fail to do. Pupils are all familiar with hypocrites, know-it-alls, and flirts.
. . . He talk about me, an’ he talk about you;
An’ dat’s da way dat hypocrite do . . .
Old Man Know-All
. . . Ole man Know-All’s tongue, it run;
He jus know’d ev’rything under de sun . . .
She Hugged Me and She Kissed Me
Den I axed her w’en she’d have me,
An she jes say “Go long!”
The more formalized poetry of later poets will sharpen the pupil’s image of both the everyday struggles endured and the joys salvaged by African American slaves. In “The Slave Auction”, Frances E. Harper’s words vividly depict the humiliation occurring when African Americans were displayed for public sale. On a lighter note, in dialect, Paul Laurence Dunbar gives us the turkey’s view of the upcoming Christmas holiday in his poem, “Soliloquy of a Turkey”.
In her poem “Bar Fight”, Lucy Terry, a slave living in Massachusetts during King George’s War, vividly tells us of an Indian raid on the settlers of the town in 1746.
Though he was a slave from his birth in 1797 until the War ended in 1865, George Moses Horton’s life, like that of Phillis Wheatley, provided him with an education, which is readily reflected in his poem “On Liberty and Slavery” where he expresses the anguish of slavery and his longing for freedom.
In “To The Right Honorable William, Earl of Dartmouth”, Wheatley eloquently pleads for an end to slavery, speaking of the “pangs excruciating” that must have been experienced by her parents when she was stolen into slavery.
Besides the intrinsic value of their poems, these poets, especially Harper, Horton, and Wheatley, provide pupils with an interesting contrast to the less formal folk poetry they have read and should provide fertile ground for discussion. A brief study of their lives will help to show the varied routes a slave could travel and illustrate the influence and importance of education.
The legendary John Henry is the topic of both folk poetry and more modern poets. Although parts of some versions are not appropriate for children of this age, it is a story they should readily enjoy. There are also a number of musical versions that could be used.