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. . . my little walnut-hued mother . . . was a descendant from antebellum fugitives

who hid themselves on the islands in the Mark Twain country and in

the glooms of the Ozarks, from which they raided at midnight the slave

plantations along the Missouri and the Mississippi. Out of the melting-pot

of this clan came gun-toting preachers and hallelujahing badmen

whose legends grew whiskers in the dead yellow hills.



Books by Melvin B. Tolson

Rendezvous with America   /  A Gallery of Harlem Portraits  / Libretto for the Republic of Liberia  / Harlem Gallery: Book I, The Curator

"Harlem Gallery" and Other Poems


Melvin B. Tolson Chronology


Tolson was more than an instructor at Wiley: he was a part of Wiley College. . . . There is no forgetting his "Voice in the Wilderness." Nor is there any forgetting his love for dramatics and his dream of a "little Log Cabin Theatre" on Wiley's campus. . . . It would be a fitting tribute to finish this Little Log Cabin Theatre and dedicate it to him.

Monuments are only for the great, and after tracing thru [sic] the records of Wiley's history, we find few men of greater stature than the radical little man who brought undying fame to Wiley as a debate coach, lecturer, author, instructor, and personality. Thousands went thru [sic] Wiley during his time: they have not forgotten. Nor have the countless others who saw his plays and players, heard his debate teams, and read his works. Numerous cities will accept with open arms any group having sincere loyalty to him. This is a worthy cause. let's build a monument to it.Wiley Reporter (ca. 1947) in Joy Flasch. Melvin B. Tolson. New York: Twayne Publishers, Inc., 1972, p. 34

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Melvin Beaunorus Tolson born February 6 in Moberly, Missouri, to the Reverend  Mr. Alonso Tolson and Lera Hurt

  Lived in Moberly, New Franklin, Rolla, DeSota, and Slater Missouri
1912 Lived in Oskaloosa, Iowa. First poem published in the "Poet's Corner" of the Oskaloosa newspaper
1913 Lived in Mason City, Iowa; Independence Kansas; Kansas City, Missouri
1915 Class poet; director and actor in Greek Club's Little Theatre; captain of football team, Lincoln High School, Kansas City,
1918 Graduated from Lincoln High School; worked in a packinghouse
1919 Enrolled in Fisk University, Nashville, Tennessee.
1920 Enrolled in Lincoln University, Oxford, Pennsylvania; won awards in speech, debate, dramatics, and Classical literatures;
  captain of the football team.
1922 Married Ruth Southall of Virginia on January 29.
1923 Graduated from Lincoln University with honors in June.
1924 Accepted position as instructor of English and speech at Wiley College, Marshall, Texas; continued writing poetry; wrote
  novel (unpublished), "Beyond the Zaretto."
1929 Coached Wiley College debate teams, which established ten-year winning streak; wrote poems, plays, short stories, novels
1930 Worked on master's degree in Department of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University; met V.F.
  Calverton, editor of Modern Quarterly; wrote "Cabbages and Caviar" column for Washington Tribune; organized
  sharecroppers in South Texas
1932 Completed 340-page book of poetry, "A Gallery of Harlem Portraits"; book rejected by publishers; did not write for several
1935 Wiley College debate team coached by Tolson defeated national champions, University of Southern California, before
  eleven hundred people
1939 Completed novel (unpublished), "The Lion and the Jackal. Poem "Dark Symphony won first place in National Poetry
  Contest sponsored by American Negro Exposition in Chicago. V.F Calverton, best friend, died of leukemia
1940 Earned a master's degree from Columbia University.
1941 "Dark Symphony" published in Atlantic Monthly.
1944 Rendevous with America, book of collected poems, published by Dodd, Mead and Company, Inc.
1945 Won Omega Psi Phi Award for Creative Literature
1947 Appointed poet laureate of Liberia by President V.S. Tubman in January; left Wiley College to become professor of
  English and drama at Langston University, Langston, Oklahoma
1951 Received Poetry magazine's bess Hokim Awrd for long psychological poem, "E. & O.E."
1952 Langston University Dust Bowl Players, directed by Tolson, staged adaptation of Walter White's The Fire in the Flint in
  Oklahoma City for National Association for the Advancement of colored People meeting; completed novel (unpublished),
  "All Aboard"; dramatized George Schuyler's Black No More.
1953 Libretto for the Republic of Liberia published by Twayne Publishers, Inc.
1954 Awarded honorary degree, Doctor of Letters, by Lincoln University, Oxford, Pennsylvania; honored at literary tea, Liberian
  Embassy, Washington, D.C,; admitted to Knighthood of the Order of the Star of Africa, an honored conferred by
  Ambassador Simpson of Liberia, elected mayor of Langston (elected three times; 1954 to 1960); became permanent
  Bread loaf Fellow in poetry and drama.
1956 Attended inauguration of President Tubman in Liberia.
1964 Underwent major surgery for abdominal cancer in April and December
1965 Received national and international attention as result of Karl Shapiro's prepublication review of Harlem Gallery: Book I,
  The Curator, published by Twayne Publishers, Inc.; presented copy of book to presidential party in White House; retired
  as professor of English and drama at Langston University; awarded honorary degree, Doctor of Humane Letters, Lincoln
  University, Oxford, Pennsylvania; elected to new York Herald Tribune book review board; given District of Columbia
  Citation and Award for Cultural Advancement in Fine Arts; became first appointee to the Avalon Chair in Humanities at
  Tuskegee Institute; spoke at Library of Congress under auspices of Gertrude Clarke Whittall Poetry and Literature Fund;
  underwent third operation for cancer in October.
1966 Received annual poetry award of American Academy of Arts and letters, a grant ($2,500) on May 25; entered St. Paul's
  Hospital, Dallas, Texas, in June, where three operations were performed in a three-month period; died August 29; buried in
  Summit View Cemetery, Guthrie, Oklahoma, September 3.

Source: Joy Flasch. Melvin B. Tolson. New York: Twayne Publishers, Inc., 1972.

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The Curator is of Afroirishjewish ancestry. He is an octoroon, who is a Negro in New York and a white man in Mississippi. Like Walter White, the late executive of the N.A.A.C.P., and the author of A Man Called White, the Curator is a "voluntary" Negro. Hundreds of thousands of octoroons like him have vanished into the caucasian racenever to return. This is a great joke among Negroes. So Negroes ask the rhetorical question, "What white man is white?" We never know the real name of the Curator. The Curator is both physiologically and psychologically "The Invisible Man." He, as well as his darker brothers, think in Negro. Book One is his autobiographically. He is a cosmopolite, a humanist, a connoisseur of the fine arts, with catholicity of taste and interest. he knows intimately lowbrows and middlebrows and highbrows.Tolson quoted in Joy Flasch. Melvin B. Tolson. New York: Twayne Publishers, Inc., 1972,  p. 100.

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Now the time has come for a New Negro Poetry for the New Negro. The most difficult thing to do today is tow write modern poetry. Why? It is the acme of the intellectual. Longfellow, Whitman, Milton, Tennsyon, and Poe are no longer the poets held in high repute. The standard of poetry has changed completely. Negroes must become aware of this. This is the age of T.S. Eliot who just won the Nobel Prize in Literature. If you know Shakespeare from A to Z, it does not mean you you can read one line of T.S. Eliot! . . . Imitation must be in technique only. We have a rich heritage of folk lore and history. We are a part of America. We are a part of the world. Our native symbols must be lifted into the universal. Yes, we must study the techniques of Robert Lowell, Dylan Thomas, Carlos Williams, Ezra Pound, Karl Shapiro, W.H. Auden. The greatest revolution has not been in science but in poetry. We must study such magazines as Partisan Review, the Sewanee Review, Accent, and the Virginia Quarterly. We must read such critics as Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate, Stephen Spender, George Dillon and Kenneth Burke.Tolson quoted in Joy Flasch. Melvin B. Tolson. New York: Twayne Publishers, Inc., 1972,  p. 70.

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Genesis of Harlem Gallery: Book I, The Curator (1965)

In 1930 I was a student, on a Rockefeller Fellowship, at Columbia University. I met there a dreamer from the University of Iowa, who was trying to put together a Proustian novel. The thesis for my degree was called "The Harlem Group of Negro writers." As you know the Twenties gave birth not only to the Lost generation but to the Harlem Renaissance and the New negro. Jazz became a fad--ancient African art, a novelty of the intelligentsia. I was in the middle of this literary revolution before the panic of 1929.  One day I showed my young white friend a sonnet that I had written. It was titled "Harlem." He read it two or three times, and then said fretfully, "Melvin, Harlem is too big for a sonnet." That was the genesis of the Harlem Gallery. . . .

I know it seems like an age. The first finished manuscript of the Harlem gallery was written in free verse. That was the fashion introduced by the Imagists. It contained 340 pages. The Spoon River Anthology of Edgar Lee Masters was my model. Browning's psychology in characterization stimulated me. I had deserted the great Romantics and Victorians. Walt Whitman's exuberance was in the marrow of my bones. I peddled the manuscript in the New York market. Nobody wanted it. The publishers and critics said for commercial reasons. A few of the poems appeared in V.F. Calverton's Modern Quarterly. Then I stashed the manuscript in my trunk for twenty years. At the end of that time I had read and absorbed the techniques of Eliot, Pound, Yeats, Baudelaire, Pasternak and, I believe, all the great Moderns. God only knows how many "little magazines" I studied, and how much textual analysis [sic] of the New Critics. To make a long story short, the new Harlem Gallery was completed, and now it is published."Melvin B. Tolson: An Interview" in Herbert Hill, ed. Anger and Beyond: The Negro Writer in the United States. New York: Harper & Row, 1966, pp. 194-195

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Degrees and titles have fabulous status value. Nobody wants to be a nobody; everybody wants to be Somebody! So a title makes the possessor and the Race Somebody in the Great White World. Professor, Doctor, the Honorable, Reverend, Grand Basileus, President, Grand Polemarch, Judge, etc. So white folk can't call these "Boy" and "Uncle." Degrees and titles in the Negro world have individual and ethnic survival value. When a Negro achieves in the Arts or Sports, his Great I Am runs through the Race like electricity along a wire. If he messes up, the same thing occurs. So Negroes who never go to the Harlem Gallery get a kick out of the title The Curator. It's a new title and shows that the race is going places.Tolson quoted in Joy Flasch. Melvin B. Tolson. New York: Twayne Publishers, Inc., 1972,  p. 108-109.

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Other Views of Melvin B. Tolson

Melvin Tolson and the 1935 debate team

Tolson was born in 1898 in Moberly, Mo., to a Methodist Episcopal pastor and his wife. His father served churches in Missouri and Iowa.

A graduate of historically black Lincoln (Pa.) University, Tolson was hired by Wiley College in 1924 to teach English and speech. He also coached junior varsity football, directed the theater club and organized the Wiley Forensic Society.

Tolson was a mentor and teacher to civil rights activist James Farmer Jr. and Herman Sweat, an African American who was refused admission into the University of Texas Law School. Action by the law school resulted in a Supreme Court decision that challenged the "separate but equal" doctrine of racial segregation, a policy established by the 1896 case of Plessey vs. Ferguson.

He left Wiley in 1947 to teach at historically black Langston (Okla.) University. That same year, Liberia declared him its poet laureate. Beginning in 1952, he served two terms as mayor of all-black Langston. He died in 1966.

Source: A UMNS Report By Linda Green Oct. 19, 2007

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The Film—On Dec. 25, The Great Debaters will appear in theaters with Denzel Washington as its director and star, and Oprah Winfrey as producer. The film depicts Wiley’s most glorious chapter: 1935, when the black poet and professor Melvin B. Tolson coached his debating team to a national championship. . . . There are hopes to revive the debate program, and in a movie tie-in, Wal-Mart is to endow a Melvin B. Tolson Scholarship Fund with $100,000. . . .

By the time Mr. Tolson arrived in 1923, Wiley had emerged as an elite institution for the black middle class. The son of a Missouri preacher, Mr. Tolson had a soul fed by the Harlem Renaissance. He was both feared and loved, inspiring, as one biographer wrote, “devotion bordering on adulation in many who knew him well.” He remained at Wiley 24 years, publishing his most heralded work of poetry a year before his death in 1966.

Wiley’s 1935 victory over the University of Southern California (the opponents in the film are from Harvard) inspired people long denied dignity in white society. But the film omits one reality: even though they beat the reigning champions, the Great Debaters were not allowed to call themselves victors because they did not belong to the debate society, which did not allow blacks until after World War II. . . .  There are plans to establish the campus’s first endowed chair, named after Mr. Tolson. The poet’s home, next to campus, now sports a sign in the yard advertising its place in history. NYTimes

*   *   *   *   *

Denzel Washington Gives $1M to Wiley College—December 19, 2007—Denzel Washington is donating $1 million to Wiley College to re-establish its debate team. The gift was announced Tuesday by school officials. Washington was in Marshall last week to screen "The Great Debaters," the story of Wiley's 1930s debate team. He stars as educator and poet Melvin Tolson, who led the all-black college's elite debate squad. During his appearance, the 52-year-old actor-director said he would like to see the team get going again. The Associated Press

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 The Poet

By Melvin B. Tolson

The poet cheats us with humility

Ignored by Who's Who among his peers

And Job's News also, yet this lapidary

Endures the wormwood of anonymous years:

He shapes and polishes chaos without a fee,

The bones of silence fat no pedigree.


His ego is not vain,

Stuffs not on caviar of smile and phrase.

He comes of nobler strain,

Is marrowed with racier ways:

The beggar Vanity feeds on the crumbs of praise.


He stands before the bar of pride,

Gives not a tinker's dam

For those who flatter or deride

His epic or epigram:

The potboy, not the connoisseur, toadies for a dram.

Peep through his judas-hole

And see the dogma of self at work,

The nerve and verve of soul

That in the sky-born lurk:

The eagle's heart abides not in the mole,

The poppy thrives not at the artic pole.


A freebooter of lands and seas,

He plunders the dialects of the marketplace,

Thieves lexicons of Crown jewel discoveries,

Pillages the symbols and meccas of the race:

Of thefts the poet's leaves no trace.


An Ishmaelite,

He breaks the icons of the Old and the New,

Devours your privacy like a parasite,

Parades the skeletons closeted with God and You:

The poet's lien exempts the Many nor the Few.

An anchoret,

He feeds on the raven's bread,

Candies worlds whose suns have set,

Leads Nature to the nuptial bed,

Bathes in pools that never mortals wet:

The poet unlocks the wilderness with an epithet.


The Champion of the people versus Kings

His only martyrdom is poetry:

A hater of the hierarchy of things


Freedom's need is his necessity.

The poet flings upon the winds blueprints of Springs:

A bright new world where he alone

     will know work's menancings!

*   *   *   *   *

Check out former Oklahomans, Drs Nathan and Julia Hare, in this week's JET magazine hitting the stands today, January 8th; the one with Turks and Caicos Islands First Lady Lisa Raye on the cover and, inside, considerable  411 on the Golden Globe nominated  film, The Great Debater" (Denzel Washington, Forest Whittaker—produced by Oprah Winfrey).

The Hares, who were both former students of the film's hero when he taught at Langston University, are the subjects of a page-length sidebar, "The Real Great Debater 'Aimed at Broadway and Hit Hollywood.'"  An interesting aside: Nathan later taught black power advocate Stokely Carmichael and Claude Brown, author of Manchild in the Promised Land during a six-year stint on the faculty of Howard University. Black Think Tank

*   *   *   *   *

The Hares and Melvin Tolson

Drs. Julia and Nathan Hare were both students of poet Melvin Tolson, the teacher portrayed by Denzil Washington in the Great Debaters. If there one negative criticism of The Great Debaters, it is that we do not see Melvin Tolson as the great poet he was. There is little mention of him as poet. The film opens with him reciting a Langston Hughes poem, but never do we see him rapping from his own great body of work. Both Hares were taught by Tolson at Langston University in Oklahoma. Nathan was originally an English major under Tolson.

Tolson was a difficult, detailed, intricate poet whose book Libretto for the Republic of Liberia is a poetic classic. Before the film, he was not well known except in literary circles and academia. The film should spark interest in his body of work and the students he mentored such as James Farmer, Julia and Nathan Hare.Marvin X

*   *   *   *   *

Ralph Ellison on Melvin B. Tolson

I knew Tolson first when I was in high school and he was teaching in Texas at Wiley College. He was the coach of the Wiley debating team, and I became aware of him when they came to Oklahoma City, to debate the team from Langston University. This serves to highlight one of the crazy aspects of segregation in the United States: Tolson’s team wasn’t allowed to debate the teams of white colleges in Oklahoma, but the English team from Oxford University used to come out to Oklahoma on tour and were known to be defeated by the debaters of Tolson’s segregated college. This gave us a tremendous sense of affirmation. Ishmael Reed here has taken potshots at the art of rhetoric, but, man, rhetorical skill is a vital part of Afro-American cultural heritage. Tolson was skilled rhetorician, as was true of Frederick Douglass and many other 19th century leaders.

I got to know Tolson personally during the Forties, when he was in New York for an extended period. We had many long discussions and one of the subjects we fought over was my admiration for the work of Pound and Eliot. At the time, being dedicated to earlier poetic styles, Tolson saw nothing in Eliot, who had inspired my half-conscious attempts to write poetry at Tuskegee. But, later, in ’53, when I was given a reception at the old Paul Laurence Dunbar Library in Oklahoma City, Tolson gave a talk which he castigated the teachers for not encouraging our kids to go into creative writing. After pointing to me as an example of what could happen, he shocked hell out of me by complaining that segregation was preventing [mimicking Tolson’s voice] “our young Black boys and girls from becoming acquainted with the works of Teee Ssssssss Ellllliot and Ezzzzzra Pound!” He was very precise in his diction.)

This was so different from his position back in New York that it both shocked and please me. But then, Tolson was a very complex man. I don’t quite understand the combination of forces that led to his later poetry, but, perhaps our arguments had something to do with it—but for god’s sake don’t interpret this as meaning that I “influenced” him! He was very knowledgeable, and I know that he was shaped in his earlier life by those eddying currents of New England education which brought into Negro schools with Emancipation—

Source: The Essential Ellison (Interview)—Ishmael Reed, Quincy Troupe, Steve Cannon. Ishmael Reed’s and Al Young’s Y’Bird • Copyright © 1977, 1978 Y’Bird Magazine

posted 21 December 2007

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Allah, Liberty, and Love

The Courage to Reconcile Faith and Freedom

By Irshad Manji

In Allah, Liberty and Love, Irshad Manji paves a path for Muslims and non-Muslims to transcend the fears that stop so many of us from living with honest-to-God integrity: the fear of offending others in a multicultural world as well as the fear of questioning our own communities. Since publishing her international bestseller, The Trouble with Islam Today, Manji has moved from anger to aspiration. She shows how any of us can reconcile faith with freedom and thus discover the Allah of liberty and love—the universal God that loves us enough to give us choices and the capacity to make them. Among the most visible Muslim reformers of our era, Manji draws on her experience in the trenches to share stories that are deeply poignant, frequently funny and always revealing about these morally confused times. What prevents young Muslims, even in the West, from expressing their need for religious reinterpretation? What scares non-Muslims about openly supporting liberal voices within Islam?

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What Orwell Didn't Know

Propaganda and the New Face of American Politics

By Andras Szanto

Propaganda. Manipulation. Spin. Control. It has ever been thus—or has it? On the eve of the 60th anniversary of George Orwell's classic essay on propaganda (Politics and the English Language), writers have been invited to explore what Orwell didn't—or couldn't—know. Their responses, framed in pithy, focused essays, range far and wide: from the effect of television and computing, to the vast expansion of knowledge about how our brains respond to symbolic messages, to the merger of journalism and entertainment, to lessons learned during and after a half-century of totalitarianism. Together, they paint a portrait of a political culture in which propaganda and mind control are alive and well (albeit in forms and places that would have surprised Orwell). The pieces in this anthology sound alarm bells about the manipulation and misinformation in today's politics, and offer guideposts for a journalism attuned to Orwellian tendencies in the 21st century.

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The White Masters of the World

From The World and Africa, 1965

By W. E. B. Du Bois

W. E. B. Du Bois’ Arraignment and Indictment of White Civilization (Fletcher)

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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 Slavery / George Jackson  / Hurricane Carter

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