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Excerpts From James Weldon Johnson

’s Preface To The 1931 Edition Of The Book Of American Negro Poetry Essay, Research Paper The statement made in the original preface regarding the limitations of Negro dialect as a poetic medium has, it may be said, come to be regarded

’s Preface To The 1931 Edition Of The Book Of
American Negro Poetry Essay, Research Paper

The statement made in the original preface regarding the

limitations of Negro dialect as a poetic medium has, it may be said, come to be regarded

as more or less canonical. It is as sound today as when it was written ten years ago; and

its implications are more apparent. It calls for no modifications, but it can well be

amplified here. The passing of traditional dialect as a medium for Negro poets is

complete. The passing of traditional dialect as poetry is almost complete. Today even the

reader is conscious that almost all poetry in the conventionalized dialect is either based

upon the minstrel traditions of Negro life, traditions that had but slight relation–often

no relation at all–to actual Negro life, or is permeated with artificial sentiment. It is

now realized both by the poets and by their public that as an instrument for poetry the

dialect has only two main stops, humor and pathos.

That this is not a shortcoming inherent in the dialect as dialect is demonstrated by

the wide compass it displays in its use in the folk creations. The limitation is due to

conventions that have been fixed upon the dialect and the conformity to them by individual

writers. Negro dialect poetry had its origin in the minstrel traditions, and a persisting

pattern was set. When the individual writer attempted to get away from that pattern, the

fixed conventions allowed him only to slip over into a slough of sentimentality. These

conventions were not broken for the simple reason that the individual writers wrote

chiefly to entertain an outside audience, and in concord with its stereotyped ideas about

the Negro. And herein lies the vital distinction between them and the folk creators, who

wrote solely to please and express themselves.

Several of the poets of the younger group, notably Langston Hughes and Sterling A.

Brown, do use a dialect; but it is not the dialect of the comic minstrel tradition

or of the sentimental plantation tradition; it is the common, racy, living, authentic

speech of the Negro in certain phases of real life.

It is not out of place to say that it is more than regrettable that the traditional

dialect was forced into the narrow and unnatural literary mold it occupies. If Negro

poets, writing sincerely to express their race and for their race, had been the first to

develop and fix it, they might have been able to make of it something comparable to the

literary medium that Burns made of the Scottish dialect. If he addressed himself to the

task, the Aframerican poet might in time break the old conventional mold; but I don’t

think he will do it, because I don’t think he considers it now worth the effort. . . .

Several of the group have dug down into the genuine folk stuff—I mention genuine

folk stuff in contradistinction to the artifical folk stuff of the dialect school–to get

their material; for example, Langston Hughes has gone to such folk sources as the blues

and the work songs; Sterling A. Brown has gone to Negro folk epics and ballads like

"Stagolee," "John Henry," "Casey Jones" and "Long Gone

John." These are unfailing sources of material for authentic poetry. I myself did a

similar thing in writing God’s Trombones. I went back to the genuine folk

stuff that clings around the old-time Negro preacher, material which had many times been

worked into something both artificial and false.

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