’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.