ChickenBones: A Journal
for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes
Edited by Rudolph Lewis & Amin Sharif
I AM NEW ORLEANS & OTHER POEMS (online)
Marcus Bruce Christian, Writer and Historian
Getting the Bio-Bibliographical Record Straight
Compiled by Rudolph Lewis
Fifteen years have passed since I first began to promote Marcus Bruce Christian (1900-1976) as a writer and historian worthy of a second look. My study of Christian began in the early 80s at the University of New Orleans (UNO), where I taught writing and literature to freshmen and sophomores, and where Christians papers are stored. I was an outsider in a strange and different world from that of northern Carolina, southern Virginia, Baltimore, Maryland, which is the region I call home. Less than a decade before I arrived in New Orleans Christian was also in the classrooms of UNO teaching — history and poetry. This period of his professorship at UNO was a great turn around in his life, a bit of saving grace after decades of living in near poverty and disaster.
Before this UNO experience, my familiarity with Christian was brief at best — a poem or two in one of Arna Bontemps poetry anthologies, which provided a brief sketch of Christians life. My work and sojourn in New Orleans and at UNO, however provided the opportunity and means to know more about the life of Christian than I had initially desired or wanted to know. His letters and diary notes in his archives at UNO opened up his inner world and his personal and public struggles as a poet sincerely trying to contribute to the uplift of the race and at the same time tend to the individual necessity to keep his head above water, above poverty so that he could continue his work. In the process of reviewing hundreds of documents in his archive, I began to identify with him as a man and as an artist. In a manner, his life, I concluded, was emblematic of many struggling intellectuals who desired to make meaningful and worthwhile achievements that would add much to the greater whole, yet have been excluded from serious consideration — from the literary canon.
During this sojourn in New Orleans, I was also privileged to acquaint myself and make friends with numerous writers and artists of and living in New Orleans. These included Yusef Komunyaka, Lee Grue, Tom Dent, Kalamu ya Salaam, Ahmose Zu-Bolton, James Borders, Mona Lisa Saloy, and others not so well-known. Most were exceedingly familiar with Christian on a personal basis as a result of his tenure at UNO. Few of them, however, found a mentor in him, either as a fellow poet or on the human of his personal struggles against the odds. My personal distance from the writer and his individual quirks may have allowed me to go farther than others in pursuing the Christian beyond the facade.
My discussions were especially extensive with Yusef Komunyaka, with whom I spent weeks in the archives going through Christians recordspoems, diary notes, letters–and months of reflection on Christian’s life as an estranged writer. With my few resources I got the Louisiana Weekly and a New Orleans magazine weekly to print a few of Christians pieces. I thought I might stimulate a Christian revival. I wanted to encourage a new consideration of him, though dead, as a cultural resource that should be given more critical attention. I created a poetry journal Cricket (which had a short life, only three issues) to promote Christian and to place him in the company of younger writers, black and white. I waged a two-year campaign in New Orleans with my meager resources from teaching at UNO. The response was slight and has picked up only gradually in the last fifteen years. Though the response desired has fallen short of expectation, Christian research advanced.
My question then and now remains: Is there a place for such a man, such a prolific writer as Marcus Bruce Christian of New Orleans in the canon of African-American letters? As fellow black writers, scholars, intellectuals, educators, do we have a responsibility to present to our community and to others the fullest possible picture of ourselves and the manner in which we have struggled to give expression to ourselves and what we find dear? My answer to these two propositions, of course, is a ringing Yes. And, I believe, most progressive African-American intellectuals would agree.
Just on the basis of the massive historical material in his archive at UNO, Marcus Bruce Christian deserves a fuller and broader intellectual attention. His connection to and writings produced for the Federal Writers Project make it imperative that his archive be explored. Not merely to glorify Christian, his archive is useful in order to review the strategies of the black elite who believed that a government agency could be used to alter social perceptions and energize the black masses. For scholars interested in Langston Hughes, Sterling Brown, and Arna Bontemps, Christian’s archive can make a contribution in rounding out their character and provide a worthy contrast to their ideas and perspectives.
For me, Christians literary value is self-evident. This conclusion is more than subjective. Anyone who takes a cursory look at his literary production would arrive at the same conclusion. Some in New Orleans are indeed doing things to honor Christian. Mackie Blanton at UNO has helped to establish a community service award in Christians name. Professor Violet Harrington Bryan has considered the writing of a biography on Christian. But still Christian is beyond the purview of much of the black academic world. Obviously, there are other factors, it seems, that determine what is read and what is studied and passed on within our communities and our academies.
These negating factors have little to do with the intrinsic value of Christians literary productions. The crucial factors that retard Christians consideration seem outside of the work itself (extra-literary). At best these factors are sociological and at their worst political and economic. Such factors as geographical isolation, class and religion, social themes, race, ideology, education, fads and style have affected, I believe, an academic consideration of Christian as an African-American intellectual worthy of continual study. I do not have the space here to discuss all these factors. But I will touch upon a few of them.
Unlike his contemporaries, Christian did not gravitate to the urban centers of New York and Chicago. Nor did he travel far and wide, like Langston Hughes and Claude McKay. He never left New Orleans, though possessing a cosmopolitan air, was in many ways a backwater Southern town, with all the limitations of such out of the way places — a curiosity yes, but not enough to make taken seriously in the determinations of now.
Moreover, in New Orleans, a town where family background and associates, surname, religion, and education, residence are important factors, Christian was in a manner more restricted than he would have been in such places as New York or Chicago or any great Northern urban center. Christian was not a New Orleans person by birth and training. Raised as a country boy and with an agrarian temperament, New Orleans suited him just fine. With him he had family and friends and he possessed a sense of responsibility and commitment to them.
Though he loved the idea and the potential of New Orleans, Christian was at once trapped and held up by his agrarian origins, with all of its aristocratic pretensions, poor yet resourceful, humble in manners yet exceedingly proud. He was raised in or near Mechanicsville, a rural town seventy to eighty miles south of New Orleans. Born in the post-slavery period, his was the second generation outside of that horrid past. Christian was among that throng of blacks who moved to the great urban centers during and after World War I in search of a better life. Having lost both parents early in life, Christian came to New Orleans as the head of a family–his siblings. Both parents were dead by the time Christian was thirteen.
Though he was a researcher and promoter of New Orleans, and lived most of his life in the city, Christian, in a manner, remained an outsider. He did not really fit into New Orleans upper crust black society nor in its bourgeois professional classes; nor, I believe, did he want to, at least, not on their terms. For Christian, New Orleans was more than an idea; it was an ideal, realizable but yet unrealized, as we can see in his long poem, I AM ORLEANS. That is, Christian was fascinated by the notion of different cultures coming together to make something larger, greater than any of its components.
Christian was Du Boisean in his view of the social and intellectual world of the Negro. Of course, he was not quite as pristine as Du Bois in his personal life. Christian, however, viewed New Orleans through a certain racial prism. In its actuality New Orleans was shameless and much of this shamelessness had to do with how blacks themselves conceived themselves. Christian adopted the Du Boisean idea that the arts, developing a high culture based on folk achievements, could elevate the lives of blacks in America. Christian believed as did Carter G. Woodson that a knowledge and appreciation of our history from our point of view would enlightened the Negro masses so that the stereotypic image of ignorance, backwardness, and superstition could no longer be used as tools in white propaganda. In that cultural struggle, with its economic, political, and moral implications, Christian strove to be a leader in the New Orleans community with a fairly wide audience based on his poetry column in The Louisiana Weekly and his participation in varied literary societies, which lasted from the mid 30s to the early 50s.
Though derived from a rural aristocratic tradition, Christian began his life in New Orleans basically as a working class stiff, as a chauffeur. Though lacking much classroom training, Christian was highly literate, even by the time he came to New Orleans at nineteen. By age twenty-three he had put together a book of poems, in which he unsuccessfully attempted to publish. Having dropped out of school to help take care of his siblings, Christian completed his formal education in night school. Though he taught poetry and history at UNO for ten years, Christian never earned a college degree. In his diaries, he engages in a bit of mockery at the expense of Sterling Brown and his Phi Beta Kappa key. The lore is that Christian was forced to resign as a librarian at Dillard because he was without degree. From the 50s until rediscovered in the late 60s by UNO, Christian scraped out a living by various self-printing projects and delivering papers for the Times Picayune.
Christian was a survivor. In the 20s he had saved enough money to open a cleaners, a business in which he was responsible for most of the work, though some family members seems to have helped him irregularly. Though blue collar, this work gave him a measure of independence to write and do research in black life and culture. With the coming of the Depression in the early 30s, independent and prideful, Christian refused to go on relief. With the aid of his patron Lyle Saxon, a well-known, white regional writer, and with a deal cut in Washington, Christian obtained a position in the newly created Dillard Project, set up especially to hire blacks and write a black history of Louisiana. He then had a steady salary slightly more than $80 a month. But that came to an end in the mid-40s, though he continued on at Dillard for five or six years. In his article on Christian, Tom Dent provides an excellent portrait of the horrors of poverty that Christian suffered in the 60s. His street and house flooded, he lost manuscripts and other historical documents; and worse, he was arrested as a looter in his efforts to salvage his own property.
Christian was a great collector of folktales and seemingly received a great deal of pleasure reciting them. Its harsh realism and self-mockery, its critical poetic, were the elements he most admired. These elements can also be found in his own poetry. The majority of his poems, however, were published in the Crisis and Opportunity magazines (then the major national organs for black writers). These tend to be formal rhymed verselove poems, protest poems, anti-war poems. His blues, humorous, and free verse poems were never published independently, including his long poem I AM NEW ORLEANS.
Until recently, Christian was anthologized. Bontemps and Hughes saw to that. Since the 1980s, however, Christian has been left out of the major anthologies. We can only find him now in Jerry Wards anthology TROUBLE THE WATER (1997). I spoke with two of the editors of THE NEW CAVALCADE (1991), before publication. Arthur P. Davis was familiar with Christian, but not the UNO archive. I made Joyce Joyce familiar with a number of Christian poems. Neither Joyce nor Davis followed up on my suggestions and Christian was not included in the anthology.
Henry Louis Gates also excluded Christian from his Norton anthology (1997), which I believe, resulted from ignorance and laziness and conceptual flaws. These large anthologies, however, determine who is studied and who is not in schools and colleges. Those editors who have pushed Christian aside have made a critical error, if our interest is to know the full story of black writers in the 30s and 40s, a period in which he made great contributions in poetry and prose, in research and creativity.
In the last decade, my efforts have gone toward putting together a coherent view of Christian. As far as I know, other than Tom Dent, I am the only scholar who has looked at Christian in conjunction with his poetry. I am the only writer who has tied his letters and diary notes and his poetry so as to sketch out Christians character and private life. My writings, however, have not had a broad reading. Surely, they are not known as well as Dents article, which is a reminiscence and only secondarily about Christians poetry. Dent, however, believed that Christians poems and History of Black Louisiana should be published.
As an independent scholar, I have appeared at several conferences, the CLA and the Zora Neale Hurston Society, to encourage academics to take up Christians banner. There is a need for much more critical readings of his letters and diary notes. I want professors to include him in their courses and teachings about black writers of the 30s and 40s, to encourage the publication of his writings. Those black professor who work at universities with presses could be influential.
Christian writings contain portraits of Hughes, Bontemps, Sterling Brown, and other major figures of the period. Black academics have greater resources and means than I to encourage other writers to take a fresh look at Christian. I greatly encourage others to write about Christian. At the university, a new generation can be introduced to what was going on in other places besides New York and Chicago. Outside of these arenas, Christian is a major literary figure, in which Sterling Brown and others depended on greatly for a view of New Orleans and Louisiana.
To aid academics in this promotion of the work and life of Marcus Bruce Christian. I have pulled together a bio-bibliographical list to facilitate a reconsideration of Christian and his work. (See the attached below.) This document substantiates, I believe, the regard in which many editors of magazines and journals held Christian. This regard has waned in the last two decades. To reenergize an interest in Christian, an extraordinary black scholar, this material can be freely reproduced.
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A Bio Chronology of
Marcus Bruce Christian
· Born Mechanicsville (Houma), LA, March 8, 1900; son Emanuel and Rebecca (Harris) Christian, Sr.
· Education Houma Academy, 1906-1913
· Moved with family to New Orleans, 1919
· Founded Bluebird Cleaners, 1926
· Louisiana Weekly, New Orleans, poetry editor and special featurewriter, 1932-1976;
· Received complimentary letter from Langston Hughes, February 15, 1932
· McDonogh Day in New Orleans reprinted in the New York Herald Tribune, Sunday, June 17, 1934
· Lyle Saxon attempted to persuade Houghton Mifflin to publish Christians autobiographical poem, The Clothes Doctor and Other Poems, February 18, 1936
· Appointed to Federal Writers Project, Dillard University, New Orleans, at a rate of $82.50 a month, April 6, 1936
· Elmer Anderson of Opportunity magazine sent Men on Horseback to W.C. Handy for it to be put to music, August 5, 1936
· Christian corresponded with George Schulyer, author of Black No More, March 26, 1937
· Received letter from Mrs. Roosevelt, April 2, 1937
· Sterling Brown requested scholarly help from Christian, for his The Portrait of the Negro as American September 15, 1937
· Appointed unit supervisor, 1939; Became an authority on the folklore and history of the Black man in Louisiana; he began collecting material during the depression when working on the Federal Writers project
· Received love letter from Irene Douglas, dated January 19, 1942
· Christian proposed a university press at Dillard, letter to A.W. Dent, December 26, 1942
· Arna Bontemps advised Christian on Rosenwald, December 29, 1942
· Lyle Saxon, in letter to A.W. Saxon, agrees to leave Negro material at Dillard, December 31, 1942
· Employed by Dillard to organize and supervise War Information Center, January 15, 1943-May 31, 1943
· Married Ruth Morand of New Orleans, LA, March 15, 1943
· Rosenwald Fellow to continue work on The History of the Negro in Louisiana, 1943-1944
· Dillard University, New Orleans, assistant librarian, 1944-1950
· Christians estranged wife Ruth writes letters of her experience in Chicago, 1945
· Member Les Cenelles Society of Arts and Letters
· Arthur Spingarn Crisis Outstanding Book Award, 1948, for The Common Peoples Manifesto
· Bruce Printing and Publishing Company, New Orleans, founder, June 1950
· High Ground (1958), a book of poems Christian printed on his own press.
· Participated in Deep South Human Relations Seminar, Xavier University, April 1963
· Received Sesquicentennial Commission of the Battle of New Orleans bronze medal, 1965
· Writer-in-residence, instructor of Louisiana Negro History and director of poetry workshop, 1969-1976
· Negro Ironworkers of Louisiana
(1972) published locally.
· Collapsed in a UNO classroom and died days later at Charity Hospital, 1976
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Biographical Dictionaries & WEB Sources
Living Black American Authors: A Biographical Dictionary, edited by Ann Allen Shockley and Sue P. Chandler. R.R. Bowker Company. New York & London, 1973. A Xerox Education Company
WHOS WHO IN COLORED AMERICA, edited by G. James Fleming and Christian E. Burckel Seventh Edition, 1950 Publishers Christian E. Burckel & Associates
Contemporary Authors, edited by Frances Carol Locher, Volumes 73-76 Gale Research Company Book Tower, Detroit, Michigan 48226
Black American Writers Past and Present: A Biographical and Bibliographical Dictionary, V.1; edited by Theresa Gurnels Rush, Carol F. and Myers, Ester Spring Arata; The Scarecrow Press, Inc., Metuchen, NJ 1975
Christian (Marcus) Collection (1900-1976) ArchivesUSA, http://archives.chadwwyck.com
Bontemps, Arna Wendell, 1902-1973, Papers, 1927-1968, http://lcweb.loc.gov
Murphy, Beatrice M. Ebony Rhythm. Exposition Press, 1948.
Bontemps, Arna. American Negro Poetry. New York Hill & Wang, 1963
Bontemps, Arna and Langston Hughes. The Poetry of the Negro: 1746-1970. New York: Doubleday, 1970.
Bontemps Arna. Golden Slippers.
Vojaka, Knihovna. Cernosska Poesie. Praha: Nase Vojski, 1958.
Ward Jr., Jerry W. Trouble the Water. New York: Penguin Books, 1997.
Authors that cite Christian in their footnotes
Jacobs, C.F. Spirit Guides and Possession in the New Orleans Black Spiritual Churches. Journal of American Folklore, 1989, Volume 102, Issue 403, pp. 45-67. (25 cited references)
Dent, Tom. Marcus B. Christian: A Reminiscence and an Appreciation. Black American Literature Forum, 1984, Volume 18, Issue 1, pp. 22-26. (3 cited references)
Carter, P.M. Negro in Periodical Literature, 1970-1972. Journal of Negro History, 1978, Volume 63, Issue 2, pp. 161-189. (326 cited references) Journal available at Prairie View A &M University, Prairie View, TX 77445, USA
Coleman, F. and Richardson, J.A. Black Continuities in the Art of the Harlem Renaissance. Papers on Language and Literature, 1976, Volume 12, Issue 4, pp. 402-421. (33 cited references) Journal available at Illinois University, Carbondale, Illinois 62901, USA
–from Arts & Humanities Citation Index (January 1975-December 1994)
Patton, S. Antebellum Louisiana Artisans: The Black Furniture Makers. International Review of African American Art, 1995, Volume 12, Issue 3, pp. 15+. (40 cited references) Journal available at University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI 48109
–from Arts & Humanities Citation Index (January 1995-December 1995)
Poems By Marcus Bruce Christian Published in Various Journals
Keep the Flame of Freedom Burning, November 1974, p. 313
Toussaint: A Poem
, April 1933, p. 79
Poems (includes Langston Hughes and Wendel P. Layton), February 1933, p. 31
Negro History Bulletin
Southern Share-Cropper, October/December 1984; November 1971
Birth of a Communist, October/December 1984; November 1971
Wing Shadows, August/September 1974
Spirit of Revolt, January 1973
Men on Horseback, December 1972
Revolt in the South, March 1972
Dark Heritage, October 1971
Dark Heritage, July/September 1946
Enigma of Democracy, December 1941
At the Crossroads
, November 1941
The Lost Generation, September 1941
Mahatma, February 1941
Selassie at Geneva, July 1938
Carnival Torch Bearer, February 1938
The Slave, September 1937
Levee Scratchers, August 1937
Southern Share Cropper, July 1937
Men on Horseback, May 1937
Susi and Chuma, February 1937
The Last War, September 1934
Spring in the South, July 1934
McDonogh Day in New Orleans, June 1934
Martyrs of the Rope Brigade, May 1934
Clown and King
, December 1933
Beauty and Beasts, June 1933
Prose By Marcus Bruce Christian Published in Journals
Negro History Journal
The Liberty Monument et al August/September 1974, p. 276
Demand by Men of Color for Rights in Orleans Territory March 1973
Men of Worth in Louisiana: Oscar J. Dunn, Charles E. Nash, P.B.S. Pinchback, James Lewis March 1972
Phylon: The Atlanta University Review of Race & Culture
“The Theory of the Poisoning of Oscar J. Dunn” Volume 6, issue 3 (1945)
Other Writings on Marcus Bruce Christian
Bryan, Violet Harrington. The Myth of New Orleans in Literature. Knoxville: University of
Clayton, Ronnie W. The Federal Writers Project for Blacks in Louisiana. Louisiana History 19
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):
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,
Lewis, Rudolph. Marcus Bruce Christian and a Theory of a Black Aesthetic. Paper presented at
the Zora Neale Hurston Society Conference held June1999 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
© 2001 Baltimore (revised 2002; 2004)
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update 29 June 2008