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Book of the Week — Caroling Dusk: An Anthology of Verse by Negro Poets

“What is Africa to me…/Not yet has my heart or head/in the least way realized/They and I are civilized.” — Countee Cullen, “Heritage”

Caroling Dusk: An Anthology of Verse by Negro Poets
Countee Cullen (1903-1946), editor
New York: Harper & Brothers, 1927
First edition
PS591 N4 C37 1927

Black poet Countee Cullen, the son of a Methodist preacher, was a mild and gentle voice of protest. He was conservative in his taste in poetry and in his writing of it.

For this anthology, Cullen selected the work of thirty-eight poets to, as he put it, “bring together a miscellany of deeply appreciated but scattered verse.” The collection includes Paul Laurence Dunbar, often credited as the first Black poet to make a deep and lasting impression on the literary world; James Weldon Johnson, the author of what is referred to now as the Black National Anthem; W. E. B. Du Bois; Jessie Faucet; Sterling A. Brown; Arna Bontemps; Langston Hughes and Cullen’s own work. The poets were all known within the literary world and widely published. Each poem is accompanied by autobiographical notes, with the exception of three. The decorations in this book are by African American painter and graphic artist, Aaron Douglas.

In his introduction to the anthology, Cullen wrote, “This country’s Negro writers may here and there turn some singular facet toward the literary sun, but in the main, since there is also the heritage of the English language, their work will not present any serious aberration from the poetic tendencies of the times.”

For Cullen, the color of his skin and the subjugated status it brought him nearly one hundred years after the end of the institution of slavery in the United States, was secondary. He was criticized at the time for this and is today. Still, the themes in his poetry reflect struggles with racism. He expresses bewilderment, if not indignity, at racial oppression, as his poem “Yet Do I Marvel” strikes at so eloquently.

Yet Do I Marvel

I doubt not that God is good, well-meaning, kind
And did he stoop to quibble could tell why
The little buried mole continues blind,
Why flesh that mirrors him must some day die,
Make plain the reason tortured Tantalus
Is baited with the fickle fruit, declare
If merely brute caprice dooms Sisyphus
To struggle up a never-ending stair.

Inscrutable His ways are and immune
To catechism by a mind too strewn
With petty cares to slightly understand
What awful brain compels His awful hand;
Yet do I marvel at this curious thing:
To make a poet black, and bid him sing!

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