Books by Marcus Bruce Christian
Song of the
Black Valiants: Marching Tempo /
High Ground: A Collection of Poems /
Negro soldiers in the Battle of New Orleans
I am New Orleans: A Poem
Negro Iron Workers of Louisiana: 1718-1900 /
The Liberty Monument
* * *
Marcus Bruce Christian & A
Theory of A Black Aesthetic
By Rudolph Lewis
Bruce Christian's life spans three quarters of the twentieth
century, from 1900 to 1976. Throughout his adulthood, he was
keenly engaged intellectually in the Negro's struggle to free
himself from the clutches of Jim Crow. This reign of terror,
this socio-political institution established throughout the
defeated South at the end of a failed federal reconstruction
policy, was both pernicious and insidious. Jim Crow was a way of
life that worked against not only the political and social
rights of the freedmen and their heirs, but the very soul and
heart of every Negro man, woman, and child, and for that matter,
every white man, woman, and child -- making all Americans less
than what they could be.
New Orleans, his adopted home, Christian lived long enough to
see the beginning of the overturn of Jim Crow laws and
attitudes. Without formal degree, in his late sixties, Christian
had been reduced to working as a deliveryman for The Times
Picayune, a local New Orleans newspaper. In 1968 the University
of New Orleans, a majority white Louisiana state university,
welcomed Christian as a fellow scholar and teacher in history
and letters. In November 1976, in the middle of a lecture,
Christian collapsed in the classroom, teaching about what he
knew the most, the humanity of black people and their
accomplishments against the odds. He died shortly afterwards at
Charity Hospital. His family donated his papers (256 cubic feet)
to the University of New Orleans.
early years (1900-1919) and his memory of the years of
post-Reconstruction in southern Louisiana are shrouded in
violence and loss. In the 32 years from 1889 to 1921, 3456 Negro
men were lynched in the United States. From 1900 until 1919,
1506 black men were lynched. And in 1919, the end of the First
World War, the one America entered to "Make the World Safe
for Democracy," 83 black men were lynched in the United
States. And as late as 1946, the holocaust still being
discovered, a year after the end of World War II, 80 black men
were lynched in the South. This poignant irony in American
sensibility, that is, freedom for Europe while terror reigns at
home, did not fail to strike Christian.
in Christian's bright youth, one senses the weariness of his
soul. In a diary note, Christian looked back on his youthful
idealism and wrote of himself as if he had been a character in a
grand drama: "He bade farewell to his friends and went away
to place his young body upon the rack as a sacrifice in a
so-called War for Democracy, that he went among his friends
collecting ideas and data in the cause of American poetry. From
house to house he went, like a man seeking truth in a great
city." In this passage, Christian, we see, shapes his own
identity as he would a character in a romantic poem or novel.
Sometime between 1917 and 1919 Christian and his siblings moved
to New Orleans.
sensitivity to his social and historical reality, and his
attempts to remake, to rewrite, to counter the racism and
oppression of American life, colors darkly his life and his
poetry. Christian, the poet/scholar, brings to life the dead
facts swept under the rug of America's guilt. This storyteller
forgets nothing. He is ever ready to expose America's hypocrisy,
ever ready to bring the black man to center stage of American
affairs. His memory of his male ancestors, for example, is both
heroic and tender.
Reconstruction his grandfather Ebel Christian directed the
LaFourche public schools, founded after the Civil War. His
father Emmanuel Christian, a village school master for thirty
years, was a teacher at the grammar school Christian attended as
a child. Recalling his childhood in a 1970 interview, Christian
told Betsy Peterson, a writer for the magazine Dixie, "I
was very fortunate to have the father I had."
Christian often read poetry to his children, especially the
romantic poems of Tennsyson and Longfellow and the abolitionist
poet Whittier. "My little twin sister and I,"
Christian told Peterson, "we'd get up there on his lap and
he'd put one of us on each knee." In some sense, one can
say Christian's father breathed the life of resistance, romance,
poetry, and storytelling into his son's receptive soul.
living in the erstwhile idyllic world of rural Mechanicsville
(now Houma), the Christians were engulfed in a great struggle
beyond race. The town's industrial problems of cane grinding had
reached a climax and conspiracy brought his father close to
death. His father Emmanuel, who also worked at the mill, was
also a member of the Knights of Labor, a multi-ethnic
organization of sugar cane workers organized against their
exploitation. The planters brought in the military, hired guns,
and strikebreakers. In turn, the union men conspired to make the
odds even by bringing in guns and ammunition by train. This
valiant effort by white and black workers was betrayed. A Judas
always appears in such dramas, it seems.
black sugarcane workers "implicated in the plot,"
Christian recalls in a diary note, "were slain and left on
the streets in the dead of night." Emmanuel, his father,
however, had a blessed angel watching over him. "My father
escaped wearing one of his stepsister's dresses." With and
edge of embarrassment Christian concludes with the remark,
"Braver men have done as much."
a child Marcus, however, experienced worse. At three his mother
died; at seven, his twin sister; at thirteen his father. His
mother's death and its importance can not be underestimated in
that Christian never achieved a long-lasting relationship with a
woman. Though married about a decade, he and his wife Ruth
remained separated much of the time. An orphan at thirteen,
living with friends and family, Marcus abandoned the school
house to work for a living.
and in New Orleans by 1919, Christian quickly landed a position
as a chauffeur and seized the leisure of such a position to
attend night school. His poem "M-O-D-O-C-S of '22"
could be viewed as his valedictorian address to his graduating
class. Unlike the major Negro Renaissance writers -- McKay,
Hughes, Cullen, Toomer, Brown, Larsen, Hurston -- Christian
never attended college, though he would later become assistant
librarian at Dillard University (1944-1950).
the country was inundated with violence and terror against
blacks, in Harlem, Negroes found a spatial freedom never before
achieved in America. In 1919, according to Roger Whitlow (Black
American Literature, 1984), the Negro Renaissance opened in
Harlem with its sister movements of the Jazz Age and the Roaring
20s. Though this dating may be accurate, the breadth and depth
of this movement is still being argued (see The Harlem
Renaissance Re-examined, edited by Victor A. Kramer). By any
reasonable measure, Dr. W.E.B. Du Bois headed that movement,
which intended to develop a black aesthetic, that is, to
reorient and reconstruct black life. Before I take this point up
more fully, allow me to continue my sketch of Christian's life
as a writer and poet.
1922 Christian attempted to self-publish his own book of poems,
entitled Ethiopia Triumphant and Other Poems. Though
never published, Christian, however, continued to hone his
skills as a writer.
and enterprising, by 1926, Christian saved enough money to start
a small dry cleaning business, called the Bluebird Cleaners.
Working for himself freed him from the mental constraints of a
job in which one was at the beck and call of others. By 1932 he
was corresponding with Langston Hughes, who had seen the
publication of the poem "Souvenir" in The Crisis and
commented favorably on several other poems; he made especial
glowing comments on blues poems Christian sent him, though
cautioned Christian to simplify his representation of black
speech. Such attention and encouragement by local and national
writers, by 1935, provided Christian opportunities to create a
stir among New Orleans Negro writers.
1937, Christian was confident enough in his skills as a poet to
challenge the opinions of George S. Schuyler, author of
"The Negro Art Hokum" (The Nation, 1926) and Black
No More (1931) and then book reviewer for the Pittsburgh
Courier. Schuyler wrote a scathing article noting the paltry
production of art by Negro artists since DuBois left Crisis,
Johnson Opportunity, and Randolph the Messenger.
Christian wrote to Schuyler:
referring to the files of the Louisiana Weekly, of March
26, 1932, you will find that there was a meeting of
persons interested in poetry, at 2500 Palmyra St. Shortly following this meeting, I was among those who, went to Mr.
C.C. Dejoie, the president, and asked that space be
allowed us in his columns. From that time onward, there
has been a POET'S CORNER in the paper,
and from this beginning some of us have made the
better newspapers and magazines of our race--as well as a few publications
among the whites.
the letter, Christian enclosed a few of his poems. And reminded
Schuyler that if "Negroes had five magazines like
OPPORTUNITY AND five editors like ELMER ANDERSON CARTER,"
the editor who replaced Charles Johnson, misunderstandings about
what is happening in black America wouldn't be so current. The
two writers wrote each other a few more cordial letters and
remained, however, unrelenting. In his June 28, 1937 letter to
Christian, he wrote: "Congratulations on the progress you
are making in stimulating the poets of your community. There is
such a wealth of literary material in and around New Orleans
that I can't see why you might not start a regular renaissance
there." From Christian's perspective Schuyler continued to
misapprehend the New Orleans situation. Christian's central view
was that the Negro Renaissance was alive and well in New
Orleans. They were seriously engaged in bringing about a New
Negro perspective. For Christian, the task of defending black
America was no passing fad. Christian called for more
communications. The problem was the lack of "a greater
cohesiveness between sectional groups."
1936 Christian's small pressing and cleaning shop no longer
could stay afloat. Those working, many earned only 50 cents a
day. Christian refused to certify for government relief;
instead, he sought a staff position with the newly formed
Louisiana Federal Writer's Project (LA-FWP). No positions were
then available. However, a few blacks challenged the racist
hiring practices. Washington responded quickly and gave Lyle
Saxon, Director of the LA-FWP, the resources to create an
all-black writer's project at Dillard University in New Orleans.
On April 6, 1936, Christian, along with Alice Ward Smith, was
assigned as research writer to the Dillard Project, paid at a
rate of $82.50 a month.
writer of some note, Lyle Saxon was a Louisiana folklorist who
wrote popular histories: Father Mississippi (1927),
Fabulous New Orleans (1928), Old Louisiana (1929), LaFitte
the Pirate (1930).
February 18, 1936, in support of Christian, Saxon wrote a letter
to Paul Brooks, who requested recommendations for
Houghton-Mifflin's 1936 Literary Fellowship. Saxon wrote:
"I regret to say that most of our workers employed on the
Federal Writer's projects are not creative writers, but among
those who applied to me for work is a Negro man, Marcus B.
Christian. . . . I do not know whether Houghton Mifflin is
interested in Literary Fellowships for poets, but I do believe
that of all the writers that I have seen since I have taken this
job, Marcus Christian is the one most likely to prove
his letter to Paul Brooks, Saxon included poems from Christian's
completed manuscript entitled The Clothes Doctor and Other
Poems (1934), including a 20-page autobiographical poem.
Unimpressed by Christian's blue collar background, Brooks
responded quickly (February 26, 1936): "As you well know,
publishers today are having a very hard time with books of
poetry and, speaking unofficially, I should say that the chance
of Mr. Christian winning a fellowship are relatively slight. I
am, therefore, returning the material to you, leaving you to do
what you think best." The work of historical research with
the Dillard Project made Christian put aside rather quickly
whatever disappointment he felt by the Boston publisher's
goal of the black state writers' projects was to write a
comprehensive history of the Negro in that locality or region.
Arna Bontemps led the Chicago effort for the publication of The
Negro in Illinois and Roscoe Lewis The Negro in Virginia.
Though completed in several versions by Reddick and Christian
"The Negro In Louisiana," however, waits still to be
published. On the national level, beginning in 1937, Christian
offered key assistance to Sterling Brown, who as Washington
Editor of Negro Affairs Division of the Federal Writers'
Project, planned an encyclopedic history of the Negro in the
United States, entitled "A Portrait of the Negro as
versed in nineteenth century Louisiana history, Christian sent
"biographical facts and incidents" of Bras Coupe and
Cecilly (the colored actress). Brown found all the work
Christian sent highly gratifying and satisfactory.
1939, Christian replaced Lawrence Reddick, a member of the
Dillard faculty, as supervisor of the black history project (see
Joan Redding's "The Dillard Project: The Black Unit of the
Louisiana Writers' Project," Louisiana History,
1991). Christian was the most likely and best candidate for the
position. The writers were required to produce a certain number
of manuscripts and words per month to guarantee their positions,
much like the dictum for professors in academe, publish or die.
From National Archives documents, we know that Christian's
production exceeded all his colleagues.
1940, conservative Republicans raised opposition against the
writer's projects. Republicans made an essay written by Sterling
Brown and published in the Washington Guide (a product of the
Syphax, alleged to be a descendant of George
Washington's stepson. This heat in Washington never allowed
Brown to complete this national history project. In 1940, the
Negro Affairs Division, which coordinated the states' black
projects, was shut down.
December 4, 1942, Roosevelt ordered the liquidation of all Works
Projects as a result of America's entry into World War II. This
order could have left Christian out in the cold. Fortune smiled
on him again. In April 1943, the FWP dead, Christian received a
one-year $1600 fellowship from the Rosenwald Fund to complete
his history manuscript.
Christian, and all the black federal writers projects, clearly
it seems, tried in their varied efforts, in the words of Ronnie
Clayton in his "The Federal Writers' Project in
Louisiana" (1978), to "correct," or in the words
of Christian, to "set the record straight." According
to Clayton, "While Gumbo Ya-Ya [a book edited by
Lyle Saxon] tended to portray blacks in a stereotype role of
buffoons, the Dillard writers intended to describe whites in a
jocular fashion." The point is that the two groups of
workers (white and black) had different perspectives on black
life and the value of black life. "In their history,"
added Clayton, "blacks outwitted whites." This feature
of social correction and cultural criticism seem central to all
the varied forms of aesthetics among blacks scholars and
black scholar who epitomizes this aspect of black writing is Dr.
W.E.B. Du Bois, who exercised this artistic freedom all his
days, in all the literary genres, including novels, poems, and
essays. In his essay "W.E.B. Du Bois and The Theory of a
Black Aesthetic," Darwin T. Turner argues that "before
the New Negro movement had been labeled, years before Langston
Hughes insisted upon the right of new artists to express their
dark-skinned selves without caring whether they pleased white or
black audiences, W.E.B. DuBois proposed a Black Aesthetic or--as
I prefer to designate it in relation to Du Bois--a theory of art
from the perspective of Black Americans" (The Harlem
Renaissance Re-examined, p. 10). We must keep in focus that with
The Souls of Black Folk (1903), the seminal essay of black
racial identity, Du Bois became the father of all black
consciousness discussions in the 20th century.
"The Social Origins of American Negro Art (Modern
Quarterly, Autumn 1925), Du Bois sketched out the source of
the black aesthetic. African-American art, he pointed out, is
built "on the sorrow and strain in American slavery, on the
difficulties that sprang from emancipation, on the feelings of
revenge, despair, aspirations, and hatred which arose as the
Negro struggled and fought his way upward." Du Bois viewed
literature, according to Darwin Turner, as a "vehicle for
enunciating and effecting social, political, and economic
ideas." Art, in effect, served a nobler and a larger social
and cultural purpose than pleasure for those with leisure to
casual reading of Christian's poetry, letters, and diary notes
will reveal the central aesthetic views of Du Bois. The writer,
the poet, the scholar must seek Beauty and Truth. In The Crisis
in a review of Alain Locke's The New Negro, Du Bois sketched out
the parameters of black writing: "Write then about things
as you know them. . . . But be true, be sincere, be thorough,
and do a beautiful job." Christian too placed great
emphasis on thoroughness and excellence, maybe to a fault.
a diary note undated, Christian asserts other categories. The
poet must be of a certain character. For him the poet must be
indifferent "to worldly matters, things mundane." The
poet, his hero, must make sacrifices. "His is the supreme
indifference to things that be, even though they rack his body
with pain, discomfiture, or hunger."
DuBois, Christian was not afraid to use his art to attack the
absurdities of Jim Crow, to use art as a social weapon. In
"Justification," Christian wrote "No poem was
ever written/that was not meant to work;/To do what his
creator/demanded without shirk." For Christian all acts are
purposeful, even those of nature. Clearly, Christian's poem
"Art for Art's Sake" is one that states a theoretical
view. Christian wrote "But if art cannot speak for toilers/
Then art is not art at all." If we give in to cries of
"slander," "Propaganda!/And sociologic
stuff" by high-minded critics, Christian argued, the black
writer just as well gather "his stuff one evening" and
burn "it in dead of the night."
and Christian would agree with Larry Neal (1968) when Neal
argued that a black aesthetic "speaks directly to the needs
and aspirations of Black America." Immersed in a Jim Crow
world, Christian, unlike Neal, was not so free to call for
"a radical reordering of the western aesthetic." And
even if he were, Christian and Du Bois were keenly aware that
western aesthetics contributed values that the American Negro
had made his own. Ideas such as the equality of men, democracy,
and human rights, romantic love and altruism. As many before
him, Christian sought to convince all Americans to live up to
those ideals, to revise their conceptions of nonwhite people.
Christian and DuBois saw this as the unique destiny of the
American Negro, a people whose consciousness and accomplishments
was also remaking Africa.
other varied black aesthetics, whether it be Asante's
Afrocentricity, or Neal's 1968 views, or Joyce Joyce's
African-centered criticism, or Gates' highly nuanced Signifying
Monkey, Christian's black aesthetic conflates the African with
blackness. In his poem "The African,' Christian writes:
"I was the lone watcher of civilization's dawn--/The power
that built high the Pyramids." In the final verse of the
poem, he concludes: "I am the pall that was Egypt's--/The
might that was Persia's--/The darkness that was Rome's--/The
powder barrel of the America's--/The wandering Jew of the
universe--/I am the African."
his In Our Father's House the African philosopher Anthony Appiah
provides apt criticism on how Africa became a fiction of the
West perpetuated by such blacks as Alexander Crummell and Du
Bois. Though his central criticism seems on the mark, Appiah
seems blind to the sufferings underwent by American Negroes
because of white fictions about Africa.
blacks may have indeed overly romanticized Africa, but that's
not the central problem. American black writers, Christian and
Du Bois among them, tried to provide a more balanced
representation of Africa's image in the American imagination.
the 1960s, the dominant view of Africa was a place that was
primitive, brutal, culturally backward, a place with nothing to
contribute to world culture besides comedy and bodies to be
commanded, ripe for slavery and second-class citizenship. Tarzan
the King of the Apes was believed by the majority of white
Americans and by many Negroes to be the only true representation
of civilization on the "Dark Continent."
romance with Africa had balance. He knew everything that the
American Negro was not African-based nor
"African-centered," by necessity. Christian lived in
one of the most culturally varied cities in the United States,
New Orleans. Christian needed only to look at the new music,
jazz, to know to cultural breadth and knowledge of the city's
most skilled musicians. And moreover, he was honest about his
own tastes and dislikes. Christian was open to other cultural
influences than Africa.
him, African-American art had no need to blacken Europe's
beauty. Du Bois had stated as much in a 1926 speech to the
NAACP, entitled "Criteria of Negro Art." Du Bois named
four scenes he found beautiful: The Cathedral at Cologne,
"a forest in stone"; a Vey village, "a little
thing of mauve and purple, quiet, lying content and shining in
the sun"; the Venus of Milo, "old and yellowing
marble, the broken curves"; "a single phrase of music
in the Southern South--utter melody, haunting and appealing,
suddenly arising out of night and eternity, beneath the
represented a black aesthetic common to his time and specific to
his locale. Too often the militant, concrete, down-to-earth
lingo of the late 1960s is seen as the limits of the black
aesthetic. Christian never intended a flipping of the coin.
Whites were not another species of being; whiteness and for that
matter blackness were fictions that were capable of goodness or
evil. The creation of an identity (black or white) was not the
heart of the problem. What one stood for and what one was
willing to sacrifice were everything, despite what skin one
Christian's generation the liberal religious morality of the
19th century spilled over into the 20th century, at least until
the late 1950s. In Christian's poetry, we find small measure,
however, of the
emotional, sentimental idealism that found in Tennyson, who did
write scourgingly against the crudities introduced into society
by industrialism and scientism. With its modern and
racial context, however, Christian's poetry has a black cutting
edge, knifing ever the absurd extremities of Jim Crow. Accused
at times of being Victorian, Christian's poetry could never have
been written in the 19th century. Christian tended, however, to
stress such values as truth, grace, justice, beauty, sacrifice,
hard work, dedication, sympathy, commitment, values whose
resonation are not often found in our postmodern world nor in
Longfellow, Christian used history and the past as themes in his
poetry. As stated above, Christian's aesthetic demanded a
correction of history and its fictions. His poems have as much
swelling militancy as any of the late 60s and early 70s, minus
the crudities and inanities. Christian did not so much desire
establishing new mythologies and new fiction of the Negro as to
de-bunk those features oppressive and dehumanizing. Christian's
poems thereby tend to have a martial spirit. How could it be
otherwise: Christian lived during an age of great generals and
great wars. Christian's general tenor is one of defiance in the
face of wrong and injustice.
aspect of Christian's aesthetic can be observed in such poems as
"Drums of Menelik," which concerns itself with the
Ethiopians' defense against fascist Italy. The poem concludes
with these lines: "Throb out, 'This is our land and here we
die/And thus with life defend it--come what may!'/Black
Drummers, scream defiance to the sky/As did Makonnen in Adowa's
day!" Or it can be sensed in a poem
like "At the Cross-Roads," in which he issues a
would be good, but in this land of ours/The road is tortuous--I,
a soul denied;/O oracles, speak out--I cannot dwell/Always
between bright heaven and black hell."
social and political protest plays an important role in the
varied black aesthetics, this feature is not an essential
element. It does not have to take on the militant and radical
tones recalled from the 1960s and the 1970s. Though he had
numerous protest poems, such as "Cossacks in Blue,"
"New Year's Resolution," and "Separate, But
wrote on themes more universal than Jim Crow and American
racism. There's, for instance, the beautiful lyric, entitled
"The Dreamer, dedicated to Arturo Toscanini," which
some may call "pure poetry." The poems concludes with
this verse: "I am the essence of all art--/Javelins of gold
from darkness hurled/Into the light--I break my heart/To set my
dream against the world."
his poetry, Christian explored the conflict between romantic
love and sacrifice to higher ideals; feminine beauty and its
temptations; the anguish of love and its awesome effects.
Christian's aesthetic view of such topics can be seen in the
lovely lyric "Charmaine." In the second and last
verse, the poet writes: "I shall lock you from my heart,
Charmaine,/Where my dreams and ideals lay;/I shall bolt the
windows--lock the doors/And throw the key away." Or there's
the lyric "Bleeding Heart," in which the poet
concludes, "I kissed a red rose once,/Lips to its red
heart's core/But the blood from the rose's/Heart has stained my
he headed the war information office stationed at Dillard, a
propagandist for the war department, Christian wrote a
considerable number of anti-war poems. Some related to the
betrayal of Ethiopia, fascism in Spain with Franco, in Italy
with Mussolini, and in Germany with Hitler. Some of the best of
these include "Advice to Killer nations," "Over
in Spain," and "Go Tell Mr. Hitler." There is
also the humorous "The Last War," which ends with
these lines: "A great ape, puzzling, sloped of brow,/Told
his mate, who gazed on the plain: 'The last man-thing has been
murdered--now/We must start all over again'."
class war and race walk hand in hand in Christian's poetry. This
feature is especially evident in poems such as "Prayer to a
Fireproof Heaven," "Striking Longshoremen," and
in songs such as "Tulane Avenue Work Gang" and "Gawd
Gonna Walk Disheah Levee." It is evident too that Christian
knew of the socialist and communist appeals turning the heads of
some black intellectuals, such as Paul Robeson. In "Black 'Ristecrats,"
the poem ends with these lines: "Owl-eyed black man,/With a
wooly head,/Asking empty benches,/'When will black turn
there's the dramatic poem "Scabs," in which Christian
explores hunger, workers' solidarity, and heroism. The poem
includes the line: "While black men ran screaming out into
the night,/Big Scotty stood towering and ready for
flight;/Defiant he stood there, his gat barking loud,/And death
flowed around us--a moving, black cloud." And the poem
closes: "Ford never made him--Cadillac wouldn't;/Nor
General Motors--the Austin folks couldn't."
has long narrative poems such as "Dark Heritage," in
which he tracks Negro contributions to the building of this
American nation. There is also the longer poem "I Am New
Orleans," a poem that gives song to the multi-cultural
contributions that went into the making of New Orleans.
Christian's Whitmanesque approach to place is rendered tour de
force; the uniqueness of New Orleans above all American cities
is emphasized; in many voices, Christian sketches out the
contradictions and the possibilities of such a place with the
Negro recognized as a vital element in making a new world of
beauty and pleasure. The poems ends with the lines: "I sing
of the Past, the Present, and the boundless Future;/I sing of
Love, Adventure, and Enchantment."
makes use of numerous forms as well as themes in his poetry. At
heart he was a tinker, an experimenter. A great number of his
poems are lyrics in meter and rhyme, for the magazines demanded
work that showed such features. In some of these, Christian
varies meter and rhyme to great effect and surprise. He also
wrote elegies and epitaphs; songs and blues poems. Many of his
poems are in free verse, which enhanced his ability to make the
music in his poetry more evident, for he was a master of rhythm
and cadence. The musical beauty of "Dark Heritage" can
bring one near tears.
among the New Negro poets, I believe, Christian explored
the loss of vitality and desire, the despair of an unfulfilled
life in this world. There's the beautiful poem, in which the
aging poet writes: "Now Morning--for William Norris
(1894-1968)," in which he writes: "I now declare my
everlasting independence/Unto things that be and powers that be
and are,/As a test of myself and of all men of
three-score-and-ten/I go it alone. . . .I sail this craft I have
named the 'Age Unlimited'."
a writer with such depth and breadth, Christian has been a much
neglected poet. Because of the vastness of his work combined
with his determination and perseverance to tell the histories
and sing the songs of black life, we would be most negligent in
our devotion if we do not put forth more effort in a rediscovery
of his unique view of humanity. Christian's poetry cannot be
separated from a life lived. Though many of his poems are
undated, one can track his development as a poet.
poem "Singing for Supper," in a sense, sketches out
his changing identity and perspective as a poet. If it can be
said of any man, we can say truly of Christian, his life is an
open book. In the archives at the University of New Orleans,
there are nearly 2,000 poems written over a 50-year career,
volumes of diary notes, hundreds of letters and cards from the
great and small. All of which provide detailed aspects of
Christian's black aesthetic. With the publication of the fifty
poems in I Am New Orleans and Other Poems by Xavier
University, 1999, the reading public will be able to live again
in a world long since passed and enjoy a poet of extraordinary
skill and vision.
W. Clayton, "The Federal Writers' Project for Blacks in
Louisiana," Louisiana History (1978), Vol. XIX, no.
1, pp. 327-335.
Dent, "Marcus B. Christian: A Reminiscence and an
Appreciation," Black Literature Forum (1984), Vol.
18, no. 1, pp. 22-26.
S. Hessler, "Marcus Christian: The Man and His
Collection," Louisiana History (1987), Vol. 1, pp.
Johnson, "Marcus B. Christian and the WPA History of Black
People in Louisiana," Louisiana History (1979), Vol.
XX, no. 1, pp. 113-115.
Peterson, "Marcus Christian: Portrait of a Poet," Dixie
(January 18, 1970), pp. 18-19.
Redding, "The Dillard Project: The Black Unit of the
Louisiana Writers' Project," Louisiana History (1991),
Vol. 32, no. 1, pp. 47-62.
Steadman, "Race, Nationalism, and African-American Theatre:
A Lecuture to Third Year Students," School of Dramatic Art,
University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa, http://www.wits.ac.za/wits/wits/fac/arts/drama/Racenat.htm
T. Turner, "W.E.B. Du Bois and the Theory of a Black
The Harlem Renaissance Re-examined,
edited by Victor A. Kramer, New York: Ams Press,
Black American Literature: A Critical History.
Totowa, New Jersey: Rowman and Allanheld, 1974.
First read as a paper at the Zora
Neale Hurston Conference, June 3, 1999
* * *
Selected Diary Notes
/ Selected Poems
* * *
Profiles on Marcus Bruce Christian and the Federal
Bryan, Violet Harrington.
The Myth of New Orleans in Literature. Knoxville:
University of Tennessee, 1993.
Clayton, Ronnie W. “The Federal Writers
Project for Blacks in Louisiana.” Louisiana History
Dent, Tom. “Marcus
B. Christian: A Reminiscence and an Appreciation.”
Black American Literature Forum, 1984, Volume 18, Issue
1, pp. 22-26.
Hessler, Marilyn S. “Marcus Christian:
The Man and His Collection.” Louisiana History 1
Johnson, Jerah. “Marcus B. Christian
and the WPA History of Black People in Louisiana.”
Louisiana History 20.1 (1979): 113-115.
Larson, Susan. “Poems in the Key of Life.” Times-Picayune (Book Section), July 4, 1999.
Lewis, Rudolph. “Introduction.”
I Am New Orleans and Other Poems by Marcus Bruce
Christian. Edited by Rudolph Lewis and Amin Sharif. New
Orleans: Xavier Review Press, 1999. Reprinted in revised
form in Dillard Today 2.3 (2000): 21-24.
Lewis, Rudolph. “Magpies,
Goddesses, & Black Male Identity in the Romantic Poetry of
Marcus Bruce Christian.” Paper presented at College
Language Association, April 2000, Baltimore, MD.
Lewis, Rudolph. “Marcus
Bruce Christian and a Theory of a Black Aesthetic.”
Paper presented at the Zora Neale Hurston Society Conference
held June 1999 at University of Maryland Eastern Shore.
Published in ZNHS FORUM (Spring 2000).
Peterson, Betsy. “Marcus Christian:
Portrait of a Poet.” Dixie 18 (January 1970).
Redding, Joan. “The Dillard Project:
The Black Unit of the Louisiana Writers’ Project.”
Louisiana History 32.1 (1991): 47-62
* * *
By Lorraine Hansberry
I can hear Rosalee
See the eyes of Willie McGee
My mother told me about
My mother told me about
The dark nights
And dirt roads
And torch lights
And lynch robes
faces of men
Faces of men
Dead in the night
* * *
Writer Lorraine Hansberry's
sober eulogy of the death of Willie McGee weighed heavy on the
hearts and minds of the American Left. On May 8, 1951, a crowd of
five hundred lingered outside the courthouse of Laurel, Mississippi,
to witness the execution of yet another black man convicted for
allegedly raping a white woman. His 1945 lightning trial resulted in
a guilty conviction delivered in less than two and a half minutes by
an all-white, male jury, setting off a heated five-year legal
struggle that drew national headlines. Despite an aggressive appeals
defense team who attempted every legal maneuver in the book, the US
Supreme Court ultimately chose not to intervene. With the legal
lynching of the Martinsville Seven in February, Ethel and Julius
Rosenberg's conviction in March, followed by the execution of McGee
in May, 1951 was a bad year for Left-leaning lawyers (Parrish 1979;
Rise 1995). Most discouraging, national news sources like the New
York Times and Life magazine red-baited the "Save Willie
McGee" campaign and—as Life reported—its "imported" lawyers (Popham
1951a; Life 1951). Few felt McGee's passing with as heavy a heart as
his chief counsel, thirty-one-year-old Bella Abzug.
Before Abzug became a representative in
Congress and a leader in the peace and women's movements, she confronted the
Southern political and legal system at the height of the early Cold War.
Retained in 1948 by the Civil Rights Congress (CRC)—a New York-headquartered
Popular Front legal defense organization—the novice labor lawyer honed her civil
rights . . .
* * *
The Eyes of Willie McGee
Tragedy of Race, Sex, and Secrets in the Jim
iconic criminal case—a black man sentenced
to death for raping a white woman in
Mississippi in 1945—exposes the roiling
tensions of the early civil rights era in
this provocative study. McGee's prosecution
garnered international protests—he was
championed by the Communist Party and
defended by a young lawyer named Bella Abzug
(later a New York City congresswoman and
cofounder of the National Women's Political
Caucus), while luminaries from William
Faulkner to Albert Einstein spoke out for
him—but journalist Heard (Apocalypse Pretty
Soon) finds the saga rife with enigmas. The
case against McGee, hinging on a possibly
coerced confession, was weak and the legal
proceedings marred by racial bias and
intimidation. (During one of his trials, his
lawyers fled for their lives without
delivering summations.) But Heard contends
that McGee's story—that he and the victim,
Willette Hawkins, were having an affair—is
equally shaky. The author's extensive
research delves into the documentation of
the case, the public debate surrounding it,
and the recollections of McGee and Hawkins's
family members. Heard finds no easy answers,
but his nuanced, evocative portrait of the
passions enveloping McGee's case is plenty
* * *
* * * *
Buddy Bolden was a lover of music
The Great Buddy Bolden—Buddy
Part of a recording of an interview of Jelly Roll Morton
by Alan Lomax in 1938. Jazz history archive material.
Jelly sings and plays Buddy Bolden Blues, and tells of
his experiences watching Buddy in New Orleans, and talks
about the great Buddy Bolden. "Buddy was the blowinest
man since Gabriel!".
Buddy Bolden Story with Wynton Marsalis
Jelly Roll Morton—Buddy Bolden's Blues
Jelly Roll Morton playing and singing his composition of
"Buddy Bolden's Blues"
Lyrics by Jelly Roll
I thought I heard Buddy
You nasty, you dirty—take
You terrible, you awful—take
I thought I heard him say
I thought I heard Buddy
Open up that window and let that bad air out
Open up that window, and let the foul air
I thought I heard Buddy Bolden say
I thought I heard Judge Fogarty say
Thirty days in the market—take
Get him a good broom to sweep with—take
I thought I heard him say
I thought I heard Frankie Dusen shout
Gal, give me that money—I’m
gonna beat it out
I mean give me that money, like I explain
you, or I’m gonna beat it out
I thought I heard
Frankie Dusen say
* * * *
Let That Bad Air Out: Buddy Bolden's Last Parade
A Novel in Linocut by
In a series of brilliantly rendered
linocut relief prints, Berg tells the story of Buddy Bolden,
a New Orleans jazz musician living from 1877 to 1931. Each
crisp image masterfully succeeds in evoking a feeling of the
fluidity of the music, the boisterousness of the community,
and the darkness of the events surrounding the musician's
demise. An introduction by Donald M. Marquis, author of In
Search of Buddy Bolden: First Man of Jazz, and an afterword
by renowned artist, George A. Walker, round out this
Fans of the graphic novel genre and
enthusiasts of linocut relief printmaking will surely be
pleased with Let That Bad Air Out: Buddy Bolden's Last
Parade. Highly recommended.
Stefan Berg revives the wordless
graphic novel in his portrait of he `first man of jazz'. Very little is
known of Buddy Bolden. His music was never recorded and there is only
one existing photograph, yet he is considered to be the first bandleader
to play the improvised music that has since become known as jazz.
* * * * *
In Search Of Buddy Bolden: First Man of Jazz
By Donald M. Marquis
The beginnings of jazz
and the story of Charles "Buddy" Bolden (1877–1931) are
inextricably intertwined. Just after the turn of the
century, New Orleanians could often hear Bolden’s powerful
horn from the city’s parks and through dance hall windows.
He had no formal training, but what he lacked in technical
finesse he made up for in style. It was this—his unique
style, both musical and personal—that made him the first
"king" of New Orleans jazz and the inspiration for such
later jazz greats as King Oliver, Kid Ory, and Louis
For years the legend of
Buddy Bolden was overshadowed by myths about his music, his
reckless lifestyle, and his mental instability. In Search of
Buddy Bolden overlays the myths with the substance of
reality. Interviews with those who knew Bolden and an
extensive array of primary sources enliven and inform Donald
M. Marquis’s absorbing portrait of the brief but brilliant
career of the first man of jazz.
For this paperback edition, Marquis
has added a new preface and appendix. He relates events and discoveries
that have occurred since the book’s original publication in 1978,
including a jazz funeral and a monument erected in honor of Bolden in
1996, the locating of Bolden’s granddaughter, the proper identification
of Bolden’s clarinet players, and the unfortunate confirmation of the
destruction of the last known Bolden recording.
Donald M. Marquis, jazz curator
emeritus of the Louisiana State Museum, lives in New Orleans. He is also
the author of Finding Buddy Bolden and A Nifty Place to Grow Up.
* * * *
Ancient African Nations
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The Death of Emmett Till by Bob Dylan
The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll
Only a Pawn in Their Game
Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson Thanks America for
* * *
The Journal of Negro History issues at Project Gutenberg
Haitian Declaration of Independence 1804
January 1, 1804 -- The Founding of
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update 29 June 2008