Books by Lorenzo Thomas
Dancing on Main Street /
Sing the Sun Up /
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"Air of Freedom": Poetry
and National Security
By Lorenzo Thomas
The original idea [for this panel] was
modernist poetic radicalism. The question came to my mind
whether that referred to poetic form or to the consciousness
that went into the poems. In our subsequent conversations,
after September 11, the issue of just exactly what is the value
of our precious lessons came to my mind, and I insisted there
must be some value to what we teach and research. So I
went back to thinking about 1912—the launching of Harriet
Monroe’s Poetry, one of our landmarks for the birth
date of modernism—to look at what the country’s intellectual
atmosphere might have been at that moment.
This is before F. Scott Fitzgerald’s
“Jazz Age,” before Jean Toomer’s Cane, which in
1923 heralded the dawning of the Harlem Renaissance. In
1916, for example, there weren’t any jazz records yet, and it
would be a year before the Texas folklorist John A. Lomax
introduced readers of the Nation to a form of music
called blues, which he usefully described as “Negro songs of
So who or what did Americans think black
people were? In 1915, David Wark Griffith’s blockbuster
movie Birth of a Nation hit the public like a
thunderbolt, and President Woodrow Wilson, who had a screening
of it in the White House (it was the first movie to be shown in
the White House) described it as “history written in
lightning.” The White House did not disclose that Rev.
Thomas Dixon, who was the author of The Clansman, a 1905
novel that the movie was based on, happened to be Woodrow
Wilson’s grad school chum.
But most people, black people, anyway,
understood where the Wilson administration’s racial ideas came
from. Not only did Birth of a Nation make lots and
lots of money at the box office, it also revitalized the revived
Atlanta-based Ku Klux Klan. In fact, at the movie’s
premiere in Atlanta, while people stood on line, Klansmen rode
down the street on horseback handing out membership applications
to the moviegoers.
But that was 1915.
1917 proved that poetry could be hazardous to
your health, your bank account, and your mental stability.
In fact, a poem in 1917 could get you indicted, tried, and
perhaps imprisoned. And the Federal Government in 1917
could prevent the distribution of magazines and newspapers in
which the offending poem appeared. The Espionage Act
passed in 1917, followed by the Sedition Act passed in 1918,
prepared the United States to enter as a combatant in World War
I. Albert Burleson, the Postmaster General, was able to use
the Espionage Act and the Sedition Act to deny mailing
privileges to any publication that published material critical
of the government’s war effort.
That act was invoked in 1917 to prevent
distribution of the Masses, a radical, socialist literary
journal edited by Max Eastman. His associates and
contributors included Floyd Dell, foreign correspondent John
Reed, Mabel Dodge, and Dorothy Day.
Indicted with Eastman and six other editorial
members for conspiring to obstruct recruitment was the poet
Josephine Bell. Her crime was having written this poem:
Emma Goldman and
Are in prison.
Although the night is tremblingly beautiful
And the sound of water climbs down the rocks
And the breath of the night air moves through
and multitudes of leaves
That love to waste themselves for the sake of the
Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman
Are in prison tonight,
But they have made themselves elemental forces,
Like the water that climbs down the rocks:
Like the wind in the leaves:
Like the gentle night that holds us:
They are working on our destinies:
They are forging the love of the nations:
Tonight they lie in prison.
Now, that poem was supposed to appear in the
August 1917 issue of the Masses. Postmaster General
Burleson seized the issue and refused to have it mailed.
Eastman and company were indicted and tried for obstructing
recruitment. The judge dismissed charges against Josephine
Bell when he discovered that she really couldn’t be much of a
conspirator, inasmuch as like most of the rest of us, I suppose
she had simply sent in her poem with a stamped, self-addressed
envelope, and Max Eastman and the rest decided to print it.
But the readers of the Masses knew
Emma Goldman as a trained nurse who campaigned vigorously for
birth control. In April 1916, Goldman was arrested for
giving a birth control lecture. She decided, like Marcus
Garvey and other people that don’t have too much sense, to
defend herself. She was convicted, of course, and
sentenced to 15 days in jail. But the Masses, in
its June 1916 issue, published her courtroom speech.
Partly it said, “Your Honor, if giving one’s life for the
purpose of awakening race consciousness in the masses, a
consciousness that will impel them to bring quality and not
quantity into society, if that be a crime, I’m glad to be such
“After all,” she went on, “the question
of birth control is largely a working man’s question.
Above all, a working woman’s question. She it is who
risks her health, her youth, her very life, in giving out of
herself the units of the race. She it is who ought to have
the means and the knowledge to say how many children she shall
give, and to what purpose she shall give them, and under what
conditions she shall bring forth life.”
I suppose that that’s the Emma Goldman that
Josephine Bell was thinking of when she wrote the poem.
Alexander Berkman is a somewhat different
story. He was an anarchist who attempted to assassinate
Carnegie Steel executive Henry Clay Frick during the Homestead
Strike. He spent fourteen years in prison, but he went on
giving his political speeches once he got out. The cause
célčbre of 1917 is that both Goldman and Berkman were
arrested for obstructing the draft. And that has something
to do with the Post Office citing Josephine Bell’s poem.
Of course, in 1919, both Berkman and Goldman
were eventually deported, along with 247 other undesirable
aliens and anarchists. But regarding the Masses trial,
Margaret Jones—in Heretics and Hell-Raisers: Woman
Contributors to The Masses—points out:
The charge was a
serious one. The labor activist and Masses
contributor Rose Pastor Stokes was later to receive a ten-year
sentence under the Espionage Act for writing to a Kansas
newspaper, “I am for the people and the government is for the
Another Masses contributor, graphic
artist Henry J. Glintencamp was indicted for a drawing depicting
a skeleton measuring a draftee for a uniform. The post
office saw it as an offense under the Espionage Act—not as
another homage to the traditional art motif of
“Death-in-Life.” But then maybe the readers didn’t
see it that way, either.
Max Eastman and his associates had a lot of
financial backing. And they went through two trials and
won. But, of course, the Masses magazine went
defunct in the interim, and he replaced it with a magazine
Besides birth control and the draft, race was
a particularly sensitive issue to the government, partly because
these years—before the Jazz Age and the Harlem Renaissance and
America’s involvement in World War I—provided a great deal
of material for those people who wanted to point out that
democracy, in some parts of this country anyway, was quite as
unsafe as it was anyplace else in the world.
In September 1916, the Masses ran an
eyewitness report on conditions in Waco, Texas, the day after a
17-year-old black youth named Jesse Washington was dragged out
of the courtroom where he was being tried, and roasted over a
bonfire in the courthouse square. Photographs taken from
the vantage point of City Hall were later sold as postcards,
souvenirs of that incident. The NAACP journal, the Crisis,
devoted a whole issue—I believe it was in September 1916—to
that Waco atrocity.
Fenton Johnson’s Chicago magazine the Champion
pointedly compared Waco to the casualties incurred by a black
cavalry unit on duty in Mexico. They were on a mission to
arrest Pancho Villa, but they blundered into the Mexican Civil
War and were taken prisoners, resulting in President Wilson
calling up National Guardsmen and massing fifty thousand in
Texas troops at the border–threatening war with Mexico.
The African-American press, like the Masses,
was also subject to the intimidation of government readers, so
to speak; and, unlike the Masses and other wealthy
liberals, did not have the resources to fight against it.
During 1918, the Justice Department under Attorney General A.
Mitchell Palmer conducted extensive research and surveillance
with a newly-established task force. And that group,
headed by a young man named J. Edgar Hoover—on his first
job—explored and researched what Hoover called “radicalism
and sedition among Negroes as reflected in their
publications.” They published a wonderful report in the
documents of the 66th Congress, issued by the Government
Printing Office, which essentially is quite an interesting
anthology of African-American writing in 1915, 1916, 1917, 1918,
Newspaper and magazine editors also might get
a visit from Maj. Walter Loving, who was a black Army officer.
He earned his commission in the Spanish-American War.
There were very few black officers in the United States Army
then; none in the United States Navy. But Walter Loving
was attached to the Military Intelligence Branch (MIB) and
worked in plainclothes, attending political and intellectual
meetings in Harlem, Chicago and elsewhere. Of course
everyone knew who he was.
When he showed up to have an appointment with
Robert Abbott at the Chicago Defender, Mr. Abbott knew
that the message was that some of his editorials had annoyed
someone in Washington, D.C.
Here in Houston, in September 1917, what is
now Memorial Park was called Camp Logan. And the same 9th
and 10th Cavalry, and the 25th Infantry—the
“Buffalo soldiers”—that had gotten in the scrape in Mexico
in 1916, were stationed here as security guards for the building
of Camp Logan. The facility was intended to be a training base
for those soldiers going to Europe—“over there” where the
Yanks were coming.
After a month or so of insults and racist
abuse from the Houston Police Department and the public, an
incident took place on San Felipe Street. The soldiers
were outraged and marched on the town from their base.
That’s described as the Houston Riot. The upshot is
several people were killed. Most were black soldiers, also
white policemen and citizens who armed themselves to attack the
soldiers or perhaps to defend them.
Thirteen of the soldiers were court-martialed
and hanged. Forty-one were court-martialed and given life
imprisonment. All of these trials went on within a
bewilderingly short period of time, much before the press knew
anything about the incident. When Archibald Grimké, who
was a well-known lawyer in Washington, D.C., wrote a poem called
“Her Thirteen Black Soldiers,” it was rejected by the Atlantic
Monthly. It went from there to the Crisis,
which was edited by W.E.B. Du Bois, and according to Jervis
Anderson in his biography of A. Philip Randolph, Du Bois
admitted to Archibald Grimké that—even though Grimké was
head of the Washington D.C. NAACP chapter—because of Justice
Department scrutiny and the fact that the Justice Department had
found some of Du Bois’s Crisis editorials disloyal, he
dared not print this poem.
A. Philip Randolph’s Messenger did
eventually print the poem “Her Thirteen Black Soldiers,”
along with an editorial note pointing out that both the Atlantic
Monthly and the Crisis had not dared to print the
That editorial note was typical of
Randolph’s style at the time. J. Edgar Hoover’s
investigative report to Congress described the Messenger
magazine, a socialist journal, as the “most dangerous of the
Negro publications”—a quotation which Randolph and his
co-editor Chandler Owen promptly used as an advertising blurb.
But in 1919 the Messenger still had
the national resources of the Socialist Party to support it;
when that went away in a few years, they no longer used that
line as an advertising blurb.
Before I finish, I want to mention two other
poets who turn up in Hoover’s A-list. One was Walter
Everett Hawkins, a poet frequently included in the Messenger.
His poem “Where Air of Freedom Is” is among those that you
can find in the government publications as evidence of
“radicalism and sedition among Negroes as reflected in their
publications.” Investigators cited this poem as particularly
Air of Freedom Is
Where air of freedom is,
I will not yield to men,—
To narrow caste of men
Whose hearts are steeped in sin.
I’d rather sell the king
And let his goods be stole,
Than yield to base control
Of vile and godless men.
Where air of freedom is,
I will not yield to men.
I’d rather choose to die
Than be a living lie,—
A lie in all I teach,
A lie in all I preach,
While truth within my heart
Its burning fires dart
To burn my mask of sin.
I’d rather victory win
Thru martyr’s death than grin
At wrongs of godless men.
Where air of freedom is,
I will not yield to men.
I spurn the alms of men,
The livery of kings,
I own far nobler things.
I’d rather choose to own
The pauper’s garb and bone,
The eagle’s eye of truth,
The lion’s strength of youth,
The liberty of thought,
A free man’s right, unbought,
A conscience and a soul
Beyond the king’s control
Than be the lord of slaves
Of quaking, aching slaves,
Of senseless, soulless knaves,
Or seek to revel in
His ill-got wealth and fame,
His world-wide name of shame,
His liberty to sin,—
I will not yield to men!
Another poet was Fenton Johnson in Chicago,
whose work I describe in my book Extraordinary Measures.
Johnson was a very interesting poet—avant-garde in style.
He started publishing poems around 1913 in the dialect poetry
style of Paul Laurence Dunbar, which was enormously popular at
the time. But then he progressed into a kind of prose
Johnson, was, in fact, silenced by the
attention of J. Edgar Hoover and his agents. Because
Johnson had simply a little magazine, he had no one to “watch
his back.” He did not have the hundred thousand NAACP members
behind him. He did not have the funding of the Socialist
Party behind him. And, after 1921, this most promising
African-American poet, a pioneer of modernist technique, is not
heard from again until he turns up in the 1930s—glum and
aging—on the Federal Writers’ Project in Chicago where he
worked briefly with Richard Wright, Margaret Walker, and
One of the poems that brought Fenton Johnson
under the scrutiny of the special unit that eventually became
the FBI was his parody of the Psalms printed in his Favorite
Magazine, in the Autumn 1920 issue, called “Prayer for our
for Our Enemies
ALMIGHTY FATHER I am
praying for my enemies!
Almighty father lift up my enemies.
Almighty father be as a honeycomb to my enemies.
Almighty father be to my enemies as the moon to the
in the June of life.
Almighty father be to my enemies as the voice of Gabriel
in the Heavens.
Almighty father be to my enemies as the smiling face of
ALMIGHTY FATHER be to my enemies as the Song of Israel
the hosts assembled for the evening.
Almighty father be to my enemies as the breath of the
Almighty father be to my enemies as the Day is to the
the wayward child.
Almighty father be to my enemies as the Light is in the
night of despair.
Almighty father be to my enemies as the love of a
the Church of God.
Almighty father deal with the white South as I would
deal those who hate me for they know not what they do.
Thomas was born in Panama in 1944. Four years later the
family immigrated to New York City, where Thomas grew up.
Spanish was his first language, and he strove to master English.
During his years at Queens College, Thomas joined the Umbra
Workshop, a collective that met on the Lower East Side and
served as a crucible for emerging black poets, among them
Ishmael Reed, David Henderson, and Calvin Hernton. The workshop
was one of the currents that fed the Black Arts Movement of the
'60s and '70s.
graduating from college Thomas joined the Navy, serving as a
military adviser in Vietnam in 1971. In 1973 he moved to Houston
as writer-in-residence at Texas Southern University. At TSU he
helped edit the journal Roots. Later he conducted writing
workshops at the newly formed Black Arts Center. He joined
UH-Downtown in 1984.
poetry collections include Chances Are Few (1979,
expanded in 2003), The Bathers (1981), Sound Science
(1992), and Dancing on Main Street (2004). About
the last, the Houston Chronicle wrote: "Taken
together, the poems in this collection exhibit that equipoise
that comes with age and experience. Sorrow and joy find their
balance." Poetry, Thomas once wrote, "attempts to
knock the mind out of the rut of commonplace thinking."
For more than two decades a professor of English at the
University of Houston-Downtown,
Thomas also made important contributions to the study of
African-American literature. In 2000, the University of Alabama
Press published Extraordinary Measures: Afrocentric Modernism
and 20th-Century American Poetry, his overview of the work
of James Fenton, Amiri Baraka and other important black writers.
It was named a Choice Outstanding Academic Book for the year.
His works have appeared in many journals
including African American Review, Arrowsmith, Blues
Unlimited (England), Living Blues, Partisan Review,
Ploughshares, and Popular Music and Society, among
others. A regular book reviewer for the Houston
Chronicle, he has also contributed scholarly articles to the
African American Encyclopedia, American Literary
Scholarship, Gulliver (Germany) and the Dictionary
Of Literary Biography.
posted 28 March 2008
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* * *
1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus
By Charles C. Mann
a big fan of Charles Mann’s previous
New Revelations of the Americas Before
Columbus, in which he
provides a sweeping and provocative
examination of North and South America
prior to the arrival of Christopher
Columbus. It’s exhaustively researched
but so wonderfully written that it’s
anything but exhausting to read. With
1493, Mann has taken it to a
new, truly global level. Building on the
groundbreaking work of Alfred Crosby
The Columbian Exchange and, I’m
proud to say, a fellow Nantucketer),
Mann has written nothing less than the
story of our world: how a planet of what
were once several autonomous continents
is quickly becoming a single,
Mann not only talked to countless
scientists and researchers; he visited
the places he writes about, and as a
consequence, the book has a marvelously
wide-ranging yet personal feel as we
follow Mann from one far-flung corner of
the world to the next. And always, the
prose is masterful. In telling the
improbable story of how Spanish and
Chinese cultures collided in the
Philippines in the sixteenth century, he
takes us to the island of Mindoro whose
“southern coast consists of a number of
small bays, one next to another like
tooth marks in an apple.” We learn how
the spread of malaria, the potato,
tobacco, guano, rubber plants, and sugar
cane have disrupted and convulsed the
planet and will continue to do so until
we are finally living on one integrated
or at least close-to-integrated Earth.
Whether or not the human instigators of
all this remarkable change will survive
the process they helped to initiate more
than five hundred years ago remains,
Mann suggests in this monumental and
revelatory book, an open question.
* * * *
Faces At The Bottom of the Well: The
Permanence of Racism
By Derrick Bell
In nine grim metaphorical sketches,
Bell, the black former Harvard law
professor who made headlines
recently for his one-man protest
against the school's hiring
policies, hammers home his
controversial theme that white
racism is a permanent,
indestructible component of our
society. Bell's fantasies are often
dire and apocalyptic: a new Atlantis
rises from the ocean depths,
sparking a mass emigration of
blacks; white resistance to
affirmative action softens following
an explosion that kills Harvard's
president and all of the school's
black professors; intergalactic
space invaders promise the U.S.
President that they will clean up
the environment and deliver tons of
gold, but in exchange, the bartering
aliens take all African Americans
back to their planet. Other pieces
deal with black-white romance, a
taxi ride through Harlem and job
discrimination. Civil rights lawyer
Geneva Crenshaw, the heroine of
And We Are Not Saved (1987),
is back in some of these ominous
allegories, which speak from the
depths of anger and despair. Bell
now teaches at New York University
* * *
(Books, DVDs, Music, and more)
update 22 March 2012