ChickenBones: A Journal
for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes
“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.
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
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Marcus Bruce Christian & A Theory of A Black Aesthetic
By Rudolph Lewis
Marcus 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.
In 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.
Christian’s 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.
Even 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.
This 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.
During 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.”
Emmanuel 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.
Though 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.
Those 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.”
As 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.
Industrious 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).
Though 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.
In 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.
Frugal 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.
By 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:
By 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.
In 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 exchanged gifts.
Schuyler 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.”
By 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.
A 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).
On 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 successful.”
In 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 rejection.
The 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 American.”
Highly 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.
In 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.
In 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 FWP) on Maria 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.
On 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.
Brown, 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 writers.
The 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.
In “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 enjoy it.
Any 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.
In 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.”
Like 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.”
DuBois 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.
Like 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.”
In 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.
Educated 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.
Into 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.”
Christian’s 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.
For 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 moon.”
Christian 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 wore.
For 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 contemporary poetry.
Like 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.
This 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 warning:
“I 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.”
Though 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 Equal,”
Christian 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.”
In 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 soul/Forevermore.”
Though 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’.”
The 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 red?'”
Or 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.”
Christian 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.”
Christian 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.
Singular 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’.”
For 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.
The 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.
Ronnie W. Clayton, “The Federal Writers’ Project for Blacks in Louisiana,” Louisiana History (1978), Vol. XIX, no. 1, pp. 327-335.
Tom Dent, “Marcus B. Christian: A Reminiscence and an Appreciation,” Black Literature Forum (1984), Vol. 18, no. 1, pp. 22-26.
Marilyn S. Hessler, “Marcus Christian: The Man and His Collection,” Louisiana History (1987), Vol. 1, pp. 37-55.
Jerah Johnson, “Marcus B. Christian and the WPA History of Black People in Louisiana,” Louisiana History (1979), Vol. XX, no. 1, pp. 113-115.
Betsy Peterson, “Marcus Christian: Portrait of a Poet,” Dixie (January 18, 1970), pp. 18-19.
Joan Redding, “The Dillard Project: The Black Unit of the Louisiana Writers’ Project,” Louisiana History (1991), Vol. 32, no. 1, pp. 47-62.
Ian 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
Darwin T. Turner, “W.E.B. Du Bois and the Theory of a Black Aesthetic,” in The Harlem Renaissance Re-examined, edited by Victor A. Kramer, New York: Ams Press, .
Roger Whitow, 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
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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 19(1978): 327-335.
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 (1987):37-55.
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
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By Lorraine Hansberry
I can hear Rosalee See the eyes of Willie McGee My mother told me about Lynchings My mother told me about The dark nights And dirt roads And torch lights And lynch robes
The faces of men Laughing white Faces of men Dead in the night sorrow night and a sorrow night
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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 andas Life reportedits “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 organizationthe novice labor lawyer honed her civil rights . . .
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By Alex Heard
An iconic criminal casea black man sentenced to death for raping a white woman in Mississippi in 1945exposes the roiling tensions of the early civil rights era in this provocative study. McGee’s prosecution garnered international protestshe 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 himbut 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 storythat he and the victim, Willette Hawkins, were having an affairis 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 revealing.Publishers Weekly
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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!”.
Jelly Roll Morton playing and singing his composition of “Buddy Bolden’s Blues”
Buddy Boldens Blues
Lyrics by Jelly Roll Morton.
I thought I heard Buddy Bolden sayYou nasty, you dirtytake it awayYou terrible, you awfultake it awayI thought I heard him say
I thought I heard Buddy Bolden shoutOpen up that window and let that bad air outOpen up that window, and let the foul air outI thought I heard Buddy Bolden say
I thought I heard Judge Fogarty say
Thirty days in the markettake him away
Get him a good broom to sweep withtake him away
I thought I heard him say
I thought I heard Frankie Dusen shout
Gal, give me that moneyIm gonna beat it out
I mean give me that money, like I explain you, or Im gonna beat it out
I thought I heard Frankie Dusen say
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A Novel in Linocut by Stefan Rerg
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 collection.
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.
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By Donald M. Marquis
The beginnings of jazz and the story of Charles “Buddy” Bolden (18771931) are inextricably intertwined. Just after the turn of the century, New Orleanians could often hear Boldens powerful horn from the citys 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 thishis unique style, both musical and personalthat made him the first “king” of New Orleans jazz and the inspiration for such later jazz greats as King Oliver, Kid Ory, and Louis Armstrong.
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. Marquiss 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 books original publication in 1978, including a jazz funeral and a monument erected in honor of Bolden in 1996, the locating of Boldens granddaughter, the proper identification of Boldens 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.
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update 29 June 2008