19th Century Black Poet Albery Whitman

Albery Whitman was born into slavery in 1851. He died in 1901. He was orphaned at 12. Freed during the Civil War. He was a handyman, a teacher, a railroad worker, a financial representative, a preacher, and a poet. His poetry was so well known during his lifetime that he was called the Poet Laureate of the Negro Race. His daughters sang and accompanied him on his evangelism circuits. At some point the oldest two girls also had developed a popular vaudeville act which their father allowed them to perform in public (under their mother’s management), although his denomination frowned on vaudeville.. At his death in 1901, the youngest of the four girls was only 1 year old. The other three, with their mother’s help and support, formed a group known as The Whitman Sisters and became the longest running and highest paid group on the Black Vaudeville circuit. The youngest girl eventually was old enough to join them. More about them here.

Before he died, Whitman had published at least three volumes of poetry. Although he was highly popular in his lifetime, he fell out of favour and has seldom been included in anthologies. You can find them online. They seem flowery to me, typical of the romantic era in style, but the topics are different. Often they include themes where black and native American people work together, or to celebrate the people of each race. But it’s hard for me to characterize the whole body of his work. Above my paygrade, for one thing. Mainly, I find thoughtful to read, but not deeply quotable.

This is one of his poems:

Stonewall Jackson

Defiant in the cannon’s mouth,
I see a hero of the South,
Serene and tall;
So like a stonewall in the fray
He stands, that wond’ring legions say:
‘He is a wall.’

He heeded not the fierce onsets
From bristling fields of bayonets;

He heeded not
The thunder-tread of warring steeds,
But holds his men of daring deeds
Right on the spot.

And is it insanity?
Nay, this is but the gravity
Of that vast mind,
That, on his Southland’s altar wrought

And forged the bolts of warrior thought
Of thunder-kind.

An eagle eye, a vulture’s fight,
A stroke leonine in might;
The man was formed
For that resolving, deep inert
Which sprang stupendously alert,
And, sometimes, stormed.

And so, his mount to the charge,
Or led the columns small or large,
The victor rode;
Till over danger’s castle moat,
And in the cannon’s silenced throat,
His charger trode.

And so, with fierce far speed, or near
To right and left and on the rear,
His fury fell
Upon the foe too much to meet.
For Jackson’s soul abhorred retreat,
Except from hell.

But comes the saddest at the last,
As sad as life’s ideal past-
And, oh! how sad!
That, in his pride, the Stonewall fell
By hands of those he loved so well-
The best he had.

How sad that dark and cruel night
Should fold her mantle on the sight
Of those tried, true
And valiant men, who followed where
Their leader went, despising fear
And darkness, too!

But sometimes triumph is subline
The most when on the brink of time,
And his was so;
A shady shore beyond he sees,
And asks for rest beneath its trees,
And it was so.

And do you ask, can he whose sweat
Hath clods of weary slave toil wet,
The praises sing
Of one who fought to forget the chain
That manacles the human brain?
Do such a thing?

I answer, yes, if he who fought,
Fought bravely and believed he ought.
If that can be;
If manhood in the mighty test
Of mankind does its manliest

Then poet songs for him shall ring
And he shall live while poets sing;
And while he lives,
And God forgives,
The great peculiar martial star,
In old Virginia’s crown of war,
Will be her Stonewall, proud and sad,
The bravest that she ever had.

Albery Allson Whitman

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