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On "To the Negro People"

Nancy Berke

In 1942, Genevieve Taggard published Long View. Like Calling Western Union, this book contained poems of social urgency. Yet Taggard had also begun an interest in writing for music, and in undertaking this interest in musical forms, explored the social and public relevance of both poetry and song. At the end of Long View Taggard provides a brief essay, "Notes on Writing for Music." She informs readers that a disparate but largely popular tradition has influenced the poems she has drafted for musical settings:

My own experience, my learning process acknowledges Robert Burns and the Negroes, who have made up words for Spirituals and Blues, many of them nameless people. Leadbelly is a clear case of a person who knows [how to write for music] and does. Blitzstein. Gershwin. Shakespeare. Woodie Guthrie. Earl Robinson. Cole Porter. Certain hymn writers. The writers of songs you hear in the middle of the night on the air. This is my song book. . . (103).

In "Notes on Writing for Music" Taggard enjoins her readers to consider the communal possibilities of writing for music by including a list of suggestions that might be useful for those interested in putting words to musical settings. These suggestions still bear the marks of the mid-Depression conviction of Calling Western Union: "Song is collective. (Poetry should be.)"

Taggard perhaps best realizes her advice that poetry should engage in the "collective" in a series of poems from Long View that she wrote "To the Negro People." Through these particular poems Taggard reads African American cultural tropes, such as music, as examples of a people's struggle for "truth" and social justice. In the series "To The Negro People," Taggard's social vision, along with her interest in the collectivity of song, presents African- Americans as cultural innovators whose voices have been denied and whose "collective" contributions have been buried.

Three of the four poems from this series, "Spirituals," "City of the Blues," and "Proud Day," explore the distinct "voice" of African American music. Taggard had great difficulty publishing these poems. She sent three to Richard Wright, asking if he could recommend a place for her to send them. In her communication with Wright, she put forth her idea to send the poems to black publications. She requested no pay in return for a community of readers that would find value in the poems. Thanks to Wright's efforts, two poems, "Spirituals" and "Proud Day" appeared in the October 1940 issue of the NAACP journal, The Crisis.

It is not surprising that established "white" literary journals rejected Taggard's tributes to African American culture when the musical legacy of black Americans was similarly rejected by the eurocentric attitudes of classical music communities in the United States. In "Spirituals" Taggard reminds us of the unsung poet(s) of the South whose "bones / Sleep in the dust of song." While evoking the spiritual song form--"My way's cloudy, I cry out, / Cloudy Lord"--Taggard names the South as a "burying ground" for neglected African-American spiritual art. "Spirituals," as it laments a collective past, a musical and aesthetic practice whose cultural importance has been overlooked, also implicates the poet's own sense of neglect. Just as much of the writing (including her own) of radicals of her generation has been forgotten or marginalized, the classical focus of a eurocentric American musical canon has ignored the musical contributions of the black South. Most literary history written under the influence of the New Criticism has disregarded Taggard's contributions to American poetry in the twentieth century; it has buried her along with the popular traditions of working-class poetry and the African American lyric traditions.

Celebrating African-American cultural tropes against the mainstream canon Taggard hoped to subvert the mainstream art world's exclusive practices. "Proud Day" conflates both popular and "high" traditions as it honors a black artist whose work and person embraced both aesthetic spheres. "Proud Day" is an especially moving tribute to contralto Marian Anderson. Anderson, who was denied a voice in Jim Crow America in both the literal and figurative senses, became the toast of Europe where she sang to sold-out audiences. [Ed. Note: At the bottom of this page are two links to background information on Marian Anderson, including audio and video clips of her 1939 concert at the Lincoln Memorial]. Constructed like a gospel hymn, "Proud Day" celebrates Anderson's famous 1939 performance on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Anderson had returned to the United States from Europe in 1935. She was by then an international star and sang her spiritual and classical repertoire to a sold-out crowd at New York's Town Hall. In the following year impresario Sol Hurok tried to secure a performance for Anderson at Washington D.C.'s Constitution Hall, which the Daughters of the American Revolution had founded. A clause in the hall's contracts, however, stated that no blacks could perform there. When Eleanor Roosevelt learned of this blatant act of discrimination, she resigned from the D.A.R. Finally, with a little help from his friends, Hurok secured the Lincoln Memorial:

The voice presented in "Proud Day" appears intentionally ambiguous. A black audience is represented as mesmerized with awe and pride as it experiences Anderson's moving performance; yet there is also the white audience of the poet and other progressive whites who support black artists and engage in anti-racist activities. Yet the demarcation between a black audience, black performer, white poet, and white audience is blurred. The poet historicizes the conflict surrounding Anderson's appearance in Washington by deliberately integrating the audience within the poem. "Our sister," whom Taggard addresses in the opening lines, suggests her making a gift of the poem to a black audience that would value it. Yet there is also the gratitude of the white audience suggested by the lines, "never forget how the dark people rewarded us." It is "their want" and "their little freedom" that have produced and given this gift.

Taggard's emphasis is on the heroic; she juxtaposes the great black singer as she performs "Ave Maria" and "My Country Tis of Thee" with the stone face of Abraham Lincoln looking on. Though Lincoln was responsible for granting "limited" suffrage to black men, and allowing "the Republic to be born again," Taggard wants readers to acknowledge the neglect and burial of African American voice as she symbolically renders it through Anderson's performance: "Voice out of depth, poise with memory / What goodness, what splendor lay long under foot!" The underlying theme of this poem's celebration is the fact that racism and legislative injustice have denied blacks creative integrity, as well as denied whites the possibility of ever knowing this integrity.

Taggard constructs the poem to suggest the Spiritual musical genre refigured by African Americans in the ante-bellum South. It shows Anderson's role as interpreter and keeper of tradition as well as re-interpreter of the European canon of Schubert and Mahler.

Taggard repeats the phrase "Proud day," like a gospel refrain, in six end-lines of this twelve-line poem. Her final line shifts the attention from "our sister," spoken at the beginning of the poem, to "[s]omething spoke in my patriot heart." She reinforces the ambiguity of the voice and punctuates this final line with a final "Proud day." Taggard leaves us with a powerful image of Anderson and her diverse audience standing in front of the symbolic Lincoln. The image itself signifies the poet's renewed sense of patriotism.

Sometime in 1939 Taggard corresponded with Langston Hughes, sending him "City of the Blues," also from the "Negro" series. She had admired Hughes's work since the 1920s when she solicited poems from him for her journal The Measure. She admitted to Hughes that "City of the Blues" was her favorite of the series and lamented the fact that every magazine to which she sent it rejected the poem. In 1941, the journal The Clipper published it. The Clipper was a small Los Angeles literary review put out by the California chapter of the League of American Writers, a Popular Front organization in which Taggard was active.

In "City of the Blues," Taggard also explores the collectivity of song. Rather than representing pride and dignity, however, as "Proud Day" does, "City of Blues" offers lamentations, following another rich African-American innovation, blues music. Whereas "Proud Day" describes a musical tribute in the heroic sense, "City of Blues" pays its tribute in the discordant strains of a "river-whistle turned harsh." Taggard takes St. Louis, a city romanticized because of its rich musical traditions, and presents it through the vantage point of an unemployed black worker, "[i]n the chicken yard, listlessly, beside the piles, waiting for / nothing." (One should note the homage to William Carlos Williams's "Red Wheel Barrow.") The heteroglossic landscape that Taggard creates of St. Louis, that city on the river, with its "river-side, piles rotted with river," suggests an ugly desolation, and thus a Depression inspired mood that was all too familiar to her 1930s audience. Taggard represents a socially and economically ravaged St. Louis through a staccato placement of words, which suggest several competing scenarios. A slaughterhouse "[w]ith its droppings and molted feathers[,] [f]ence, coop, mash- / pans, wire," can also be interpreted as home, a shantytown of "slums and slime" with "frame houses, [d]ark, wet, cold." There is also a teasing possibility of industry, "[t]ug going by, puff puff," about to proceed to the "St. Louis dock / [s]tacked high" where there is "[c]oal smoke, winches, shovels, --crash of freight." St. Louis music is also a distant music that expresses itself through the "[y]'hoo's" of trains and boats. The black body that gets to comprehend "silence" is juxtaposed against this industrial movement. The silence "[b]lows clean through your bones."

Whatever is fiercest about St. Louis's riverbeds as they symbolize Depression poverty, Taggard reinforces the misery that variously visits African American communities. Those who know the place know that "(When they kill, they kill / Here, and dump the body here)." The ambiguity of these parenthetical lines evokes more than the mundane suggestions of a slaughtered animal's carcass. It intimates both the criminal nature of social and economic deprivation as well as a community continually victimized by the ubiquitous lynch mob. Taggard steeps her poem with bleak images of filth, stench, lethargy, and decay. She comments upon blues as a social condition born of these metaphors of lack, and to blues as a musical cultural formation that can only develop out of such despair. The blues then is a metaphor for the literal rottenness of place, both social and economic; if the Depression aggravated the already unjust working and living conditions of African-Americans, the cultural expressions they explored at this time were not only accurate responses, but necessary tropes with which to create resistance.

The last poem in the series, "Chant for the Negro Poet of America Not Yet Born" (1941), informs us that a rich, anonymous past will produce a talent "[b]orn, awake, with the urgent rising of his people," an unprecedented new talent from a future world finally ready for him. Like "Spirituals," "Chant for the Great Negro Poet of America Not Yet Born" acknowledges the modernist's transformation of the musical god Orpheus into a poet, and refigures the African American experience with song into a poetic contribution. "Chant for the Great Negro Poet. . . " asserts that from this rich, unsung tradition will come, in the spirit of "Blake" and "Whitman," a great poet of his people. Taggard's "Negro poet" is both social poet and black Christ: "Kin - Blake, Whitman, and the honest preachers of his / people." "[H]e is heir," she also informs us, to [t]he Hebrew poets." He will produce a new poetry born from the spaces where social oppression and art meet. She insists that he will understand not only just "the powerful mass of his people," but he will share the radical poet's concerns. "He will be our poet when he comes, he will wear / Scars." These scars also reveal a hope, a "universal singing." Taggard's black poet of the future will keep his own cultural traditions. He will also continue the important tradition of political poetry created through mass social movements and other forms of resistance.

from Nancy Berke, Women Poets on the Left: Lola Ridge, Genevieve Taggard, Margaret Walker. University Press of Florida, 2001

Links to Information about Marian Anderson

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