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Excerpts from Johnson's Preface to the 1931 Edition of The Book of American Negro Poetry


The statement made in the original preface regarding the limitations of Negro dialect as a poetic medium has, it may be said, come to be regarded as more or less canonical. It is as sound today as when it was written ten years ago; and its implications are more apparent. It calls for no modifications, but it can well be amplified here. The passing of traditional dialect as a medium for Negro poets is complete. The passing of traditional dialect as poetry is almost complete. Today even the reader is conscious that almost all poetry in the conventionalized dialect is either based upon the minstrel traditions of Negro life, traditions that had but slight relation--often no relation at all--to actual Negro life, or is permeated with artificial sentiment. It is now realized both by the poets and by their public that as an instrument for poetry the dialect has only two main stops, humor and pathos.

That this is not a shortcoming inherent in the dialect as dialect is demonstrated by the wide compass it displays in its use in the folk creations. The limitation is due to conventions that have been fixed upon the dialect and the conformity to them by individual writers. Negro dialect poetry had its origin in the minstrel traditions, and a persisting pattern was set. When the individual writer attempted to get away from that pattern, the fixed conventions allowed him only to slip over into a slough of sentimentality. These conventions were not broken for the simple reason that the individual writers wrote chiefly to entertain an outside audience, and in concord with its stereotyped ideas about the Negro. And herein lies the vital distinction between them and the folk creators, who wrote solely to please and express themselves.

Several of the poets of the younger group, notably Langston Hughes and Sterling A. Brown, do use a dialect; but it is not the dialect of the comic minstrel tradition or of the sentimental plantation tradition; it is the common, racy, living, authentic speech of the Negro in certain phases of real life.

It is not out of place to say that it is more than regrettable that the traditional dialect was forced into the narrow and unnatural literary mold it occupies. If Negro poets, writing sincerely to express their race and for their race, had been the first to develop and fix it, they might have been able to make of it something comparable to the literary medium that Burns made of the Scottish dialect. If he addressed himself to the task, the Aframerican poet might in time break the old conventional mold; but I don't think he will do it, because I don't think he considers it now worth the effort. . . .

Several of the group have dug down into the genuine folk stuff—I mention genuine folk stuff in contradistinction to the artifical folk stuff of the dialect school--to get their material; for example, Langston Hughes has gone to such folk sources as the blues and the work songs; Sterling A. Brown has gone to Negro folk epics and ballads like "Stagolee," "John Henry," "Casey Jones" and "Long Gone John." These are unfailing sources of material for authentic poetry. I myself did a similar thing in writing God’s Trombones. I went back to the genuine folk stuff that clings around the old-time Negro preacher, material which had many times been worked into something both artificial and false.

Copyright 1931 by Harcourt, Brace, & World, Inc.


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