The first ever African-American to have a book of poetry published was Phillis Wheatley. Her master submitted the manuscript to the publisher along with a letter that explained:
PHILLIS was brought from Africa to America, in the Year 1761, between seven and eight Years of Age. Without any Assistance from School Education, and by only what she was taught in the Family, she, in sixteen Months Time from her Arrival, attained the English language, to which she was an utter Stranger before, to such a degree, as to read any, the most difficult Parts of the Sacred Writings, to the great Astonishment of all who heard her.
The book’s preface states:
THE following POEMS were written originally for the Amusement of the Author, as they were the Products of her leisure Moments. She had no Intention ever to have published them; nor would they now have made their Appearance, but at the Importunity of many of her best, and most generous Friends; to whom she considers herself, as under the greatest Obligations.
Here is one of the poems from her book:
O N V I R T U E.
O Thou bright jewel in my aim I strive
To comprehend thee. Thine own words declare
Wisdom is higher than a fool can reach.
I cease to wonder, and no more attempt
Thine height t’ explore, or fathom thy profound.
But, O my soul, sink not into despair,
Virtue is near thee, and with gentle hand
Would now embrace thee, hovers o’er thine head.
Fain would the heav’n-born soul with her converse,
Then seek, then court her for her promis’d bliss.
Auspicious queen, thine heav’nly pinions spread,
And lead celestial Chastity along;
Lo! now her sacred retinue descends,
Array’d in glory from the orbs above.
Attend me, Virtue, thro’ my youthful years!
O leave me not to the false joys of time!
But guide my steps to endless life and bliss.
Greatness, or Goodness, say what I shall call thee,
To give me an higher appellation still,
Teach me a better strain, a nobler lay,
O thou, enthron’d with Cherubs in the realms of day.
After publication of her book, Phillis Wheatley’s masters emancipated her. She married, and bore three children, all of whom died in childhood. She herself died in poverty at the age of 31.
Alice Ruth Moore Dunbar Nelson was a teacher, author, and social activist. The following poem is from her first book, Violets and Other Tales, published in 1895:
Dear God, 'tis hard, so awful hard to lose
The one we love, and see him go afar,
With scarce one thought of aching hearts behind,
Nor wistful eyes, nor outstretched yearning hands.
Chide not, dear God, if surging thoughts arise.
And bitter questionings of love and fate,
But rather give my weary heart thy rest,
And turn the sad, dark memories into sweet.
Dear God, I fain my loved one were anear,
But since thou will'st that happy thence he'll be,
I send him forth, and back I'll choke the grief
Rebellious rises in my lonely heart.
I pray thee, God, my loved one joy to bring;
I dare not hope that joy will be with me,
But ah, dear God, one boon I crave of thee,
That he shall ne'er forget his hours with me.
A Cowboy’s Prayer
(Written for Mother)
Oh Lord, I’ve never lived where churches grow.
I love creation better as it stood
That day You finished it so long ago
And looked upon Your work and called it good.
I know that others find You in the light
That’s sifted down through tinted window panes,
And yet I seem to feel You near tonight
In this dim, quiet starlight on the plains.
I thank You, Lord, that I am placed so well,
That You have made my freedom so complete;
That I’m no slave of whistle, clock or bell,
Nor weak-eyed prisoner of wall and street.
Just let me live my life as I’ve begun
And give me work that’s open to the sky;
Make me a pardner of the wind and sun,
And I won’t ask a life that’s soft or high.
Let me be easy on the man that’s down;
Let me be square and generous with all.
I’m careless sometimes, Lord, when I’m in town,
But never let ‘em say I’m mean or small!
Make me as big and open as the plains,
As honest as the hawse between my knees,
Clean as the wind that blows behind the rains,
Free as the hawk that circles down the breeze!
Forgive me, Lord, if sometimes I forget.
You know about the reasons that are hid.
You understand the things that gall and fret;
You know me better than my mother did.
Just keep an eye on all that’s done and said
And right me, sometimes, when I turn aside,
And guide me on the long, dim, trail ahead
That stretches upward toward the Great Divide.
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Train ride to Flemington
when the kids were little
we didn’t have much money
I remember one summer outing
I drove the oldest three kids to Ringoes
and we took the train to Flemington
I think it was their very first train ride
now, Flemington had once been
a recreation of a colonial town
with costumed weavers and glassblowers
and the Stangl pottery factory
but by then it was only a quaint village with shops
I remember we rode in an open air car
we chugged along fields of goldenrod and Queen Anne’s lace
and our allergies kicked in
we didn’t have much money
but I gave each kid a dollar
I don’t remember what the girls bought
but Matt, age 6, got 10 monster finger puppets with wiggly arms
he called them the Boogie Brothers
they were hilarious
when we got home
Greg admired Matt’s puppets and gave them all silly names
Matt calmly told him he was wrong
Greg held up each puppet one by one
and said, “What’s this one’s name?”
and for each one Matt answered in all seriousness “Matt”
while I laughed until tears rolled down my cheeks