Fenton Johnson’s A Wild Plaint offers new perspectives on Johnson’s early creative writing and “post-bellum, pre-Harlem” literature more generally. The fictional work, submitted as nonfiction to publisher Doubleday, Page & Co. in 1909, engages with The Souls of Black Folk and in its intentional subversion of genre offers a compelling precursor to The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man.
In 1909, New York publisher Doubleday, Page & Co. received an envelope containing a handwritten manuscript in two bound notebooks.1 The typed note accompanying the manuscript read thus:
To the Publishers:
I found this mss. among the effects of Mr. Gray. Thinking that he may have intended it for publication, I send it to your esteemed house with my compliments.
A. K. White.
The manuscript, A Wild Plaint, consists of journal entries from the last months in the life of Aubrey Gray, a twenty-year-old African American living in Chicago who identifies himself as “a Poet,” “sensitive,” and “a satirist” (Fig. 1). The tone of the entries ranges from contemplative to angry to despondent. The journal concludes with Gray’s suicide by pistol. The Doubleday, Page reader’s report did not recommend A Wild Plaint for publication. The reader’s “chief query” about the manuscript was whether it was true: “Did the author really commit suicide & scrawl the last lines with his dying hand”?
A Wild Plaint is, in fact, a work of fiction written by Fenton Johnson (1888-1958). Either Johnson or his proxy submitted the manuscript to Doubleday, Page under the guise of “A. K. White,” but Johnson’s identity is not completely obscured. On the first page of the second notebook a title and name have been crossed out in ink, but are still quite legible: “School Fruits By J. Fenton Johnson” (Fig. 2).2 Although Johnson left this clue to his authorship, his decision to submit A Wild Plaint as a “found” manuscript rather than as a work of fiction suggests that he believed it would be more compelling to the publisher and to readers as a true story. The narrator, Aubrey Gray, clearly anticipates the publication of his journal, giving it a title and dedication and addressing his imagined readers directly. Within the work itself, Gray labels it as a “novel without plot or action, this character sketch from the heart of him that wrote it,” adding, “I have lived all this” (59). Johnson’s intent to present A Wild Plaint as a work of nonfiction is made clear in the erratic handwriting of the final passage, ostensibly written after Gray has shot himself (Fig. 3). Johnson’s efforts to persuade the publisher of the work’s authenticity mark A Wild Plaint as an intentional subversion of genre, appearing three years before James Weldon Johnson’s The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man, published anonymously in 1912.3
A Wild Plaint supplements the relatively small archive of materials from Johnson’s early career, helping scholars “understand the aesthetic and cultural distance between texts,” that James C. Hall has identified as a challenge of interpreting Johnson’s work (227). Fenton Johnson, whom James Weldon Johnson labeled “one of the first Negro revolutionary poets,” is best known today for his free verse poetry, most notably the poem “Tired.” In 1913 he self-published the first of three volumes of poetry, A Little Dreaming, “a motley of decorous Victorian lyrics, a long biblical allegory, and dialect poems” (Bone and Courage 76). Johnson continued writing poetry as he edited two magazines, The Champion (1916-17) and The Favorite Magazine (1918-21). [End Page 1]
[End Page 2]
By 1918 Johnson was experimenting with free verse. The resulting poems are among Johnson’s most acclaimed writing.4 With the identification of A Wild Plaint, these free-verse poems, which critics often portray as a break with or aberration within Johnson’s œuvre,5 now appear firmly rooted there. The language, themes, and scope of these later poems are represented in A Wild Plaint. The despair of “Tired” has a clear antecedent here—one that may challenge those critics who have cautioned against reading the poem too literally. There are hints of the themes of “The Scarlet Woman” and “The Minister” in A Wild Plaint as well. Certainly Johnson’s free verse poems are the work of a more practiced writer and show the influence of the New Poetry. Yet they no longer feel like a break from his previous work, but the fruition of a project that Johnson began as early as 1909.
Even as A Wild Plaint offers a link between Johnson’s later poetry and his early work, it provides an instructive counterpoint to much of Johnson’s published fiction and nonfiction in which he tempers despair with ultimately optimistic narratives of racial uplift and racial reconciliation. Johnson’s first-known published short story, “The Servant,” which appeared in the August 1912 issue of Crisis, is a compelling inversion of A Wild Plaint. “The Servant” depicts the intellectual awakening of a recent Southern migrant, Eliza Jane, who after observing a meeting of the “Friday Evening Culture Club” in the home where she works for an established African American family, breaks down and cries repeatedly, “Ah wants tuh luhn!” (190). Johnson transformed the account of the educated Aubrey Gray’s angst and isolation into a story in which an uneducated character feels alienated and the value of education is reinforced to fit squarely within the philosophy of racial uplift espoused by Crisis and its editor, W. E. B. Du Bois.
A Wild Plaint also offers a strikingly different conclusion to an episode that Johnson later revisited in “The Sorrows of George Morgan,” in his self-published collection Tales of Darkest America (1920). In both, the protagonist describes a similar moment of recognition of racial difference as a child. Gray’s narrative, of course, ends in suicide. A young George Morgan considers suicide, but after a vision from God ultimately becomes determined to “demonstrate to the scoffers what a ‘common darky’ could do”: graduate from university, teach at “one of the small Southern schools founded for one portion of the American people,” become president of the school, and ultimately deliver a speech on a platform shared with the president of the United States (22). This shift speaks both to the expectations of the literary marketplace and Johnson’s role as an emergent race leader. A Wild Plaint, submitted anonymously and written primarily for non-African American readers,6 stands apart from these later published works and allows a comparison of Johnson’s emergent racial and political philosophies with those he developed as he matured and edited The Champion and The Favorite Magazine.
A Wild Plaint also contributes to ongoing discussions of the depth and complexity of the literature of the “post-bellum, pre-Harlem” era. Had it been accepted for publication, Johnson’s book would have occupied a unique position in early twentieth-century African American literary history. It represents a significant break with the conventions of the most popular African American fiction of the period, including the novels of Charles Chesnutt, Frances E. W. Harper, and Pauline Hopkins.7 Although there is certainly an argument for studying A Wild Plaint in the company of these works, as an ostensible work of nonfiction it can also be fruitfully examined in relation to Booker T. Washington’s Up From Slavery (1900-01), W. E. B. Du Bois’s The Souls of Black Folk (1903), and the subsequent Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man.
Du Bois’s text is clearly a point of reference for Fenton Johnson and for his narrator, who not only assumes Du Bois’s task but also uses Du Bois’s language. In the “Forethought” of The Souls of Black Folk, Du Bois expresses his hope that the essays collected therein might “show the strange meaning of being black here at the [End Page 3] dawning of the Twentieth Century” (vii). Aubrey Gray describes his effort similarly in A Wild Plaint’s opening sentence, “I, poor Aubrey Gray, have resolved to paint the Inner Self so that the world may know what it means to be a Negro” (1). Gray uses Du Bois’s language explicitly a few entries later when he arrives at the grim conclusion: “To be black in this twentieth century means to be in a world of hopelessness” (11). Reading A Wild Plaint with and against The Souls of Black Folk emphasizes how both anonymity and genre allow Johnson and his narrator to respond to the daily horrors, tragedies, and injustices of racism in a more consistently personal and overtly emotional way. This is not to suggest that The Souls of Black Folk is devoid of emotion, but to acknowledge that Gray does not have to “reduce the boiling to a simmer” within the confines of A Wild Plaint. He demands “the opportunity to be a man” (13) and freely describes his anger at injustice and discrimination. In his journal, Gray has the opportunity to express this anger, an emotion he must suppress when he goes “in and out among the pink and white” (15). Although Gray writes with potential readers in mind, the conceit of the journal affords him the latitude to express his unfiltered emotion. By writing in this genre and attempting to present A Wild Plaint as nonfiction, Johnson created a work in dialogue with one of the classic texts of its moment, and yet notable among extant African American writing of the period in its unrestrained first-person expression of anger, despair, alienation, and frustration.8
This essay is a prelude to the significant, multidisciplinary work that A Wild Plaint will support. There are many aspects of A Wild Plaint that merit further study, including Johnson’s constructions of race, color, and nationality, his use of an epistolary format, the repetition of both language and symbols, his articulation of the struggles of African American artists in advance of the Harlem Renaissance, the vivid depiction of discrimination in an early twentieth-century Northern metropolis, and particularly in this last instance, the deeper influence of the city of Chicago—its geography, culture, and emergent literary scene.9 In addition to Johnson’s engagement with The Souls of Black Folk, there are compelling intersections with an early Carl Sandburg prose poem entitled Plaint of a Rose (1908).10 To facilitate additional interpretive work, portions of the manuscript are transcribed below.11 In the interest of fostering the full range of scholarship on A Wild Plaint as well as classroom use, the Harry Ransom Center has digitized the manuscript and, shortly after its publication herein, will make it accessible on its website (hrc.utexas.edu/wildplaint).
To those people, the Black clay, for whom I have written this volume, this vessel of my heart’s blood I dedicate the first fruits of my pen.
A Wild Plaint
April the Fourth—
I, poor Aubrey Gray, have resolved to paint the Inner Self so that the world may know what it means to be a Negro. There are three things which you must know about me before you can understand this Inner Self and what it means to be a Negro. They are
1. I am a Poet
2. I am sensitive
3. I am a satirist.
Twenty years ago the warm sunlight gave me life, the warm sunlight which is from God. The dew kissed my lips, the honey of the blood-red rose was poured into my soul. And from that day my Soul and I went down the starless path provided me by a Far-seeing Providence. We drank of sorrow and we drank of pleasure; we ate the sour grapes and we ate the sweet snow apples, but it was always together. The soul and the flesh, no matter how far apart they may be, are always together. The soul and the flesh are life.
I, Aubrey Gray, was born here in Chicago. Twenty years, save when I was in Canada and in Duluth in Minnesota, I have spent grovelling in the dust of this new metropolis. I have seen within the walls of the high school and the University; I have tasted of the sweet viands the Muse of Learning offers you. Though I was black, I have walked in the vineyard and had on my lips the sugar of Shakespeare and the majesty of Cicero. I was not the most brilliant student, but what I took within me remained with me.
In earlier days the skies opened and revealed to me a blue that one sees only in some lovely passage of poetry. The grass took on a heavenly green, and often when the struggle of being a Negro was upon me, I have longed to rest upon the sweet, cool down and listen to the birds as they sang me to sleep. There is rest in the grass when the sorrow-song is in you heart.
Sorrow-song? Have I a sorrow-song? Yes, for I was born black, in an age when it is advantageous to be white. I was born with a colorless future—a little work, a little struggling, a little battle, then Death. There is no rest if you are black and have twenty years of world experience.
And I, who have seen inside the high-school and the University, am all alone with thousands round me. I am all alone, for none cares for me, and I care for none, save my parents and the Little Rose-Girl. And why? The others are not a part of me; they do not share my longings and my triumphs. They are putty from my point of view, and I am putty from theirs. They love to dance; I do not. [End Page 6]
I love the University, I love my books; I love my pen. I want to come to the Highest, and I hope the world will lead me there.
Because I am a Negro and have twenty years of world experience
. . . . . .
April the Twenty Second－
Dear little Rose Girl;
The weight of the problemn has been upon me, and it is still upon me. Your Aubrey Gray is being driven mad by the awful, awful problemn of the races. You are white, and yet you are black; but you do not feel the problemn like I do.
All I can see before me is pink and white clay side by side with black clay. Can the sculptors mould this different clay into one blended mass? You whom I love, you whom I worship, can you mould this pink and white clay and this black clay into one clay?
You have wavy brown hair and gray eyes and rosy cheeks, while I have coarse, black hair and brown eyes and brown cheeks. You are from my race, and I am from your race; you have the blood of Puritans and the Cavaliers in your veins and so have I. But you cannot go into the pink and white world, and neither can I.
Every day, every night I walk in the darkness, and all I see before me is pink and white clay and black clay. Soothe me, little girl, soothe me; for I am growing mad
Mad! Mad! Mad!
From the Depths
Others have been driven mad by sin, but I am driven mad by no sin, but by the weight of the problemn. World, kind, world, hear me in my madness.
April the Thirtieth－
. . . . . .
And in May I will forget that in some room, two by four, black human beings are trying to live on a little bread and a little water. I will forget that the children of the men for whom their fathers worked fourteen hours a day and slept on bare log floors at night are enjoying the comforts of mansion and fields of corn and cotton and a nip of Bourbon or green mint-julep. I will forget that the lash of starvation is being wielded by the representatives of selfish gain. In other words, I will forget that I am black.
But is it possible? When I go out tomorrow to get a shave, I will pass by a luxurious tonsorial parlor with its eight chairs and its eight barbers, but I will not dare to enter. All the money in the world would not entice one of those white skinned, pink cheeked barbers to remove my beard. Why? Because I am black.
I am in the meshes of the problemn.
And every day I must pass that barber shop. Every day its pole of running red and white must mock me and tell me that I am black. And yet I live.
I live for the Rose Girl and the May.
. . . . . .
May the Seventh－
When Mohammedans cease to kill Christians,When Christians cease to massacre Jews, [End Page 7] When white men cease to murder black men,When the Irish cease to starve,When Tom Dixon ceases to write novels,When Ben Tillman’s oratory is silenced,When Christianity is practised,When democracy becomes cosmopolitan,When the separate car law becomes a dead letter,When the Indian comes into his own,When Russia sees the light of freedom,When the Negro is given work according to his ability,Then is the world growing better!
. . . . . .
May the Fourteenth－
The blacks and the pink-and-whites have come together from distant ages and dwell side by side in the Land of Freedom. The pink-and-whites, mighty in achievements and a glory in arms and letters, looks down upon the black with an air of superiority, and says, “You are come among us, but you are not welcome.” And the black with an ironical grin answers, “We are unwilling guests in this land.” Warfare of ideals and prejudices are constantly waged between them. The disgrace of Atlanta is ever present in the black man’s mind; the shame of Springfield will never die as long as there is memory among the Ethiopians. Every utterance a Caucasian makes stirs up resentment in the bosoms of a people that have never seen the light of full freedom.
Who is this black? Who is this Ethiopian? A descendant of bondage, a serf in freedom, a living paradox. He is free, because he is neither bought nor sold; he is a serf, because he has no rights and is forced to be the white man’s tool. His property has no protection; the State drives him to the Government, the Government drives him back to the State. His life is at the disposal of any man; the courts seldom convict the white murderer of a black man. The Negro occupies the same position to-day that the Jew occupied in the England of Richard the Lion-Hearted. Disfranchised he is merely the footstool of that footstool loving people, the free Anglo-Saxons.
The Afro-American is to you, blue eyed son of the Cavaliers, an opportunity to show your contempt for the underdog. You chained him and brought him to Jamestown many, many years ago; you beat the intelligence out of him; you defiled his women; and yet you claim that he is the inferior race. You are the inferior race, son of the Cavaliers! You who would treat a human being in such a fashion as that have no right to claim superiority. You, who profaned the name of Christianity, have no right to call anyone your inferior until you have atoned for your cruelty.
Forgive me if I speak too plainly. The trouble with this age is that it and its people are praised too highly; good, honest criticism outside of a few magazines is rare. You criticise my people; have I not a right to criticise you?
The dawn of freedom has brought little, and yet has brought much to the Negro. He has left his dungeon and entered the chain gang; he has been freed from enforced ignorance and drunk deeply of the essence of a slip-shop education. He has looked upon the light and obtained a few rays; he is now beating at your door, asking that you draw aside those curtains and let him see more of the blessed sunshine. You, who a short while ago, celebrated the birthday and the centennial of Lincoln, can yourselves become Lincolns and Garrisons by making yourselves the champions of the Afro-Americans in the second stage of their history. We have our Washingtons and our Du Boises, but we have no John Brown, no Wendell Phillips, no Charles Sumner to fight for us among the whites. [End Page 8]
. . . . . .
May the Twentieth－
Am I ashamed of two generations ago? Am I blushing at the condition of my forefathers, I, whose grandfather’s early life was spent in the slave dungeons of Kentucky? Ah! I can see nothing to reject as lack of manhood in that age. My grandfather was not to blame because he was born into the African race and the servitude of the South; we have no choice at birth. Neither was my great-great grandmother to blame, because she followed the lump of red gold into the land of bondage and sorrow, because she gave up the Ethiopian Eden for the prison walls of a New World Egypt. Instead of feeling scarlet shame, I feel pride; we have gone through greater tribulations and trials than any other people and still survive.
I look back on the slaves as the greatest heroes the world has ever known. A people in a strange land, a free people in a strange land, a people that was forced to lay all ideals upon the altar of Slavery and followed the God of the Lash and the Scorpion
My ancestors gave up many things.
They gave up the wild, open jungles with its rich banana trees and its tall, tall grass.
They gave up the gods that they had worshipped for thirty centuries or more. How would you like to give up Jehovah?
They gave up the ideals of thirty centuries, the love for the open air, the disregard for sham, pretense, conventionality.
They gave up every human bond of sympathy, every child and every mother, every wife and every husband that had ever clung to them.
They gave up their folk-songs, for who can sing a song of Africa in a strange land?
They gave up their liberty and their freedom, they gave up everything that the human heart cherishes.
And what did my pink-and-white ancestors give them in return?
A little log cabin, a banjo, a God that kept them in slavery, a system of prostitution, a darkness in which there was not even hope.
And worst of all they took away from them their souls and gave them in return chains.
And to day, forty years after the death of Abraham Lincoln, my people and I have given up these things—these things which we have never had since we have been in America.
The right to vote in the South.
The right to work.
The right to breathe unmolested.
The right to worship God, the God of the Ethiopians
The right to see the world with our own eyes.
The right of a fair, impartial trial.
The right to love beyond our own little world.
The right to call ourselves unpolluted Africans.
And in return the pink-and-whites have given us a stone
. . . . . .
May the Twenty-Seventh－
What would you do, Aubrey Gray, if you were the leader of your race? What would you do if it were in your power to change the surface of things? [End Page 9]
I would establish an endless chain of social settlements: I would merge the University and the industrial school into one. I would try to preserve the quaint, nature-loving character of the Negro; and yet instill in him those ideas the pink-and-whites shaped during their Western supremacy.
I would make him mad.
The cultured Negro has within himself a war of two ideals, Africa and Europe, for in truth there is no America. He is drivened mad by them, and I would like to see my people mad.
For I alas! I am mad
. . . . . .
June the First－
When did you first discover that you were different from the whites, Aubrey Gray?
It was in childhood; and it was a bitter hour. I had played with white and black children in the dusty streets of Chicago. I had given valentines to little pink-and-white girl friends, and had liked them, because they had such lovely, long, yellow hair. But one day I pulled a girl’s braid, and was severely punished—not on account of the morality of the act, but because I was a Negro.
O, the tears that I shed! They thought that my little heart would break; I had discovered the fallacy in my existence. I was doomed to a life of struggle and despair.
The teachers never tried to soften my horrible discovery. They merely emphasized it by their kindliness. One day a white boy called a colored boy “nigger,” the most odious appelation America ever invented. The teacher in charge gave a lecture on the good qualities of Negroes, and pointed out me and a few other boys and girls as examples of well behaved and well dressed colored children. But strange to say she said nothing of the octoroon girl, sitting in front of me. Did she think that she was white? And does the skin count for all, or is there really a fundamental different between black and white?
. . . . . .
June the Fifth－
I heard a white Bishop dedicate a colored church to-day. He had an overflowing strain of the Celtic in him. He wore the black frock and the snowy white linen of a clergyman; his hair was white, and his face smooth shavened. His eyes were blue, and had an honest twinkle.
“I am very fond of you people,” he said. “I bring you good tidings. You have made wonderful progress. At the close of the civil war you could not find two thousand of your people, who were intelligent, clean, honest individuals.
“The same feelings in my breast are in your breast. Last year I lost my beloved daughter, a golden haired, blue eyed girl, and I wept great warm tears for her; you have lost daughters whose hair was not golden and whose eyes were not blue, but you mourned for them the same as I did for mine.
“Yes, I admire you people very much.”
O when will the white man cease to speak of us as “you people?” When will he learn that we are not children, but men; men who must bear and suffer the weight of the Problemn? [End Page 10]
We Northern Negroes are intellectual and sensitive. We want—nay we demand—that we be regarded as men, capable of reasoning a matter with the other race. We have grown up with this state, this cornland and wheatland of Illinois; and her triumphs and her defeats are ours.
It is customary for white politicians—and preachers are merely politicians—to stand up before a colored audience and tell it how well they like “you people.” Ah! They have an ax to grind—those politicians!
I always writhe when I hear “you people.” McKinley used that term when he filled the South with white Democratic officials; Roosevelt used that term when he discharged the soldiers of Brownsville. “You people” stands side by side with that most odious of appelations—“nigger.”
When I hear it slave whips crack, Klu-Klux-Klan rides over the South, negroes swing to the trees of Georgia and the Carolinas, blood flows at Atlanta and Springfield, doors are shut in the black aspirant’s face, all the darkness and all the misery of my existence is summed up in that term,
. . . . . .
June the Fifteenth－
There is no spot in all the world that holds such a mass of human joy as Thirty-First and State Streets on a Saturday night. You have doubtlessly heard of, or have trod upon the happy stones of Broadway in New York, but Broadway does not hold the charms for me that Thirty-First and State Streets does on a warm summer’s evening when the world is in its pleasure hour.
There are no so many pink-and-whites with their look of contempt on Thirty-First and States Streets save in the doors of the dime theatres. And it is to these dime theaters with their gay revelry that the black human mass is wending its way; it is there that some painted soubrette or some blackface, the most unnatural Negro that was ever created, will make merry for a paltry sum of twenty pieces of silver. And the chain of cheap amusement houses is bound on each end by colored theatres, the Pekin Theatre, boasting of a faded glory, and the Byron Temple of Music splendid in the glare of electric light. The blacks weary with the problemn, attempt to drown all in laughter caused by the “stars” of these concert halls.
And what do we see in this black human mass? A whole army of characters that would grace well the pages of some great novel. Well dressed young men, who grind out their existence by toil in the lowest places of employment, saunter along with beautiful brown girls and striking octoroons. Men who earn their money as porters on a railroad, stand on the corner with nice fat cigars in the mouths, watching the smoke as it ascends, and laughing and joking as ordinary mortals do.
The editor of a colored weekly passes or the pastor of a large colored church, both burdened with the shaping of the Negro race. Among the young people an athlete, one who has achieved a perishable fame in school circles comes along, boasting of the mighty things that he has done. An old woman, shivering with the iciness of fourscore years, slowly makes her way through the throng weary after a hard day’s washing
And she is well worth speculation; for it was she who in years that have passed into history was sold on the blocks of Georgia, a mere piece of black flesh. It was she who when thirty years old was handed over to the auctioneer to be disposed of at the highest figure possible, to be separated from her children, the oldest just passed ten, and her husband, a man who adored her next to his God. No pen can describe the heart-rending anguish she suffered as she looked upon her loved ones for apparently the last time. It was the proclamation written by the hand of Abraham Lincoln that saved her from what would have been an eternal sorrow. [End Page 11]
And now in the forty six years that have faded away since the breaking of bond and fetter her husband and her children have entered the other world, and she, a lonely old woman, struggles up here in Chicago to earn an honest living.
Such a person should be pensioned as a recompense for the injustice inflicted upon her by American citizens.
But what part do I play in this black human mass? What part do I, Aubrey Gray, Negro, poet, satirist, sensitive, the drinker of culture play in this black human mass and the revelries of a Saturday night?
I am the only one apart from all the rest. I am the only one that moves in and out among the Afro-Americans that feels the keenness of the awful conflict of races.
I merely play the part of an observer, an observer who feels that the scenes bring a spirit of relief to him.
. . . . . .
June the Twenty-Third－
Hero-worship is a part of my composition. If a man is once impressed upon me as remarkable for certain qualities, I close my eyes and picture him with a halo; I place him on a lofty elevation and bend the knee to him. His faults become weaknesses, and his weaknesses something to smile at, not criticise.
Last Sunday morning I went to church with my mother. I do not go to church very often; church is too much a sham; but there was some inducement for my attendance that time. The hypocrisy of those who wear the cloth would be as music to my ears. The desert air of June would be as cool and refreshing as a night breeze. The idol of my boyhood was to preach what may be the last sermon I will ever hear from his lips.
This hero of mine is pastor of a large colored church in New York. He was at one time the leading black clergyman of Chicago; he matched himself beside such men as Frank Gunsaulus and Jenkin Lloyd Jones. He hurled stones and torches of fire into the camps of the pink-and-whites; some praised him, while others criticised him, but he with the strength of a giant withstood all this.
Nevertheless he recognized that agitation alone does not benefit a people. It is in building human character that the race can survive. It is in shaping those good characteristics into a consistent whole that the Negro will merge forth the greatest American of them all. This preacher, this prophet of Negro liberalism established the Dearborn Center, an institution that is to the Negro what Hull House is to the foreigner over on Halsted Street. Many a hot night the poor black man, after working himself to death in some sweat-shop for ten dollars a week, came home, and finding his baby’s milk in danger of souring went to Dearborn Center and obtained free ice. Many a day the hardworked colored washer-woman left her dear little prattling children at the Dearborn Center, where the good matrons fed them, amused them, and kept them clean. Many a time the young black aspirant, seeing nothing but dark clouds and starvation before him, visited the Dearborn Center, and was fed and comforted by the stouthearted preacher. “Young man,” he would say, “Before the stars shine, the darkness comes.”
And the young man would look up, and would see shining in the distance the brightest star of all, the great Diamond Star that will never pass from the world, the Star of Hope. And he takes up his burden and goes forth again to conquer or die.
This Dearborn Center is not the only achievement accredited to my hero. When the country was enraged at Spain, when patriotism was the cry he came forward and organized the first black regiment that ever boasted of colored officers. How proud I was to see the Negro boys marching forth under the stars and stripes to draw swords in defence of a people’s liberty. I was only ten years old then, but my love for liberty was very keen. The Stars and Stripes were to me a symbol of liberty and freedom. And years later I did not forget the scene of black defenders on their way [End Page 12] to Cuba, but felt a sensation of bitterness and resentment when Roosevelt arbitrarily discharged the soldiers at Brownsville.
When this new regiment returned from the cocoa fields and the palm groves of Cuba, proudly carrying the stars and stripes, and marching to the tune of “Hail Columbia” there was no happier man than the founder of Dearborn Center. Joy danced in his eyes, and he, too, seemed to be shouldering a musket and stepping side by side with Uncle Sam’s dusky heroes. The Governor, who passed away a few years later in the hour of his defeat at Springfield, rode in the same carriage with him and said,
“Your people are heroes.”
“No,” said the enthusiast. “They are gods!”
And I believe Mars envied both him and them.
So to-day he was to preach. Time has changed him greatly. His bushy head has turned to a mossy gray, his mustache is mixed with white hairs, his eyes are large and wild as if they had drunk too deeply of the world’s mysteries, and his long, lank figure seems as if the storm of race trouble had bent it often. He sits in the chair of honour side by side with the pastor, and his heart seems troubled.
Sympathy, unspoken sympathy, comes forth from me.
Is he downcast because he was unable to make Dearborn Center reach the goal to which he aspired it should reach? Is he downcast because his regiment has forgotten the man to whom it owes its glory? Is he downcast because his dreams fade away?
I have had many dreams, but they have all faded away. They were such glorious fantasies, they were like the moon in the heart of June; but like the moon when the morning comes, they faded away. I tried to put several in force, but the world cares little for another’s dreams. And the worst enemy that a dreamer has is another dreamer.
It is his dreams, his poor, hopeless, faded dreams that create that feeling of hero worship in me.
. . . . . .
July the Fifth－
To-day the whole country celebrates the anniversary of its birth. On the farmland of New England, on the dusty streets of New York, in the wheatlands of Illinois, and the orchard fields of California, young America sends forth in noisy jubilation its appreciation of the freedom its fathers and my fathers gave it over one hundred years ago.
The children’s faces beam with the light of happiness; but mine is dark with its eternal sadness. This Independence Day brings little joy to me. The independence the Continental Congress gave the patriots prolonged slavery and sowed the first seeds from which germinated the greatest of race problemns. It was an outburst of egotism as amusing as the religious freedom of the Puritan.
“Liberty for the whites! Freedom for the Caucasians! Slavery and inequality for the blacks.”
That is the cry I hear as an echo resounding from Faneuil Hall in the age of political revolution; that is the cry that comes forth from the brass cannons and the giant crackers; the star tipped rockets and the fiery flower pots. I have little cause to celebrate Independence Day.
I love the American flag because my fathers died for it, but not because the great Washington who held slaves, created it. I admire Washington for his genius, and dislike him because he was a slave to the monstrous evil of his day—African bondage. I admire Franklin for both his genius and his independence.
O will this conflict of the races ever end? [End Page 13]
[beginning of the second notebook]
July the Sixth－
I have noticed that this complex civilization that America boasts is slow to recognise genius. It wants genius, but it wants it to come washed in a stream of pink-and-white. Many a black youth has perished or has given up his dreams; the world cares nothing for his songs, his paintings, his musical compositions. The black genius that it recognises must be willing to daub his race with the mud of ridiculous ignorance. He must sink his appreciation of the higher qualities of his race, and draw caricatures that vilify his people and sickens both him and them.
“The Negro is something to laugh at,” says the pink-and-whites.
Some say that I have genius. All I know is that I have had since the age of nine and a half an insatiable desire to write and have worked very hard to acquire the gift of language. I have always lived as close to nature as Chicago with her back streets and her narrow, filthy alleys will permit. I have gone in the summertime to the dream haunts of Glencoe, where I have ever communed with unseen spirits and dancing sprites. And in my reading—for I have always devoured books with a wild passion—I was so fascinated by the miracles of the Christ and the sorceries of the Mohammedans in “The Arabian Nights” that I had the effrontery to create miracles of my own for the Messiah to perform and enchantments that would baffle any Eastern astrologers. And in my youth I have worshipped the gods of Hellas and Rome. I loved the strange and the romantic.
Several have tried to persuade me to lay aside my pen; but Literature is my goddess. Place me on the Isle of Patmos, and I will scribble away as contented as Scott in his castle at Abbotsford. My pen is my life. It is to me what the pipe of coals was to Feathertop. And why not let me have it, for this conflict of races is heartrending?
And yet what would be my life if I were to take up literature as a profession? I would be forced to starve in a little, empty garret, and die a premature death like Thomas Chatterton did in the glorious days of Grub Street. My reward would be the cold misery poor Bobby Burns suffered. My grave would be a pauper’s hole like that accorded Edgar Poe, the lily poet. The world wants nothing from me, because I am black.
And it is all due to this awful conflict of the races.
. . . . . .
O, will I ever be able to strangle this serpent that consumes me?
Over yonder the barber’s pole of running red-and-white still mocks me. The pink-and-white world still looks on me with eyes of scorn. The children run from me. Even the trees and flowers begin to shrink when I pass by.
The pistol must end it all!
My mother looked at the previous page and said, tears in her eyes,
“You don’t mean to commit suicide, do you, Aubrey?”
I turned my face away. I could not bear to look at the woman, who had borne such a sensitive creature.
“Yes. It is the law.” [End Page 14]
She said nothing, but went up into her room. Methinks she cried. At least I hope that she did. Tears bring such comfort to the heartbrokened.
The little Rose Girl came by the house.
“It’s not true, is it, Aubrey? she said, and I could see a sad, plaintive look in her face.
“Yes, my dear; it is the law,”
“And you’re going to shoot yourself?”
“Yes; the bullet will end it all.”
She commenced to cry. It was the first time I had ever seen the Rose Girl cry.
“Then you don’t love me, as you say you do.”
I took her hand in mine.
“Beloved.” I always call her that. “Beloved, it is because of you, I am drivened to this deed. I cannot see you suffer with me the privations of an artistic one in the black world. Beloved, the conflict of the races is terrible.”
She looked up at me, and I saw love written on her face in large capital letters.
“It is for me you make this sacrifice. Dear,” she said, “I will die with you.”
“No,” I answered; “You shall not die with me. You must live. You must let the world know what poor Aubrey Gray has suffered.”
“But it is so hard, dear,” she said. “It is so hard to live with you in the cold, cold ground. The sorrow will kill me.”
I pitied my poor child sweetheart.
“Go travel, Beloved; where the Alps rear their snowy heads, forget your love for Aubrey Gray. And when you return, strew flowers on my grave; for I always loved the flowers. Will you promise me this, Beloved?”
“Yes; I promise it.” A sad smile played on her lips and for the first, and the last time, I kissed her.
Good bye, little Rose Girl, good bye!
This is the last day of my life. Twenty years have I suffered here, in Chicago the awful conflict of races. I have drunk the bitter waters, and found nothing in life to be sweet but the flowers. And the Rose Girl will strew those over my grave.
It is due to this color-prejudice, this running red-and-white that I do what I am doing.
I take up my father’s pistol
I am dying! I am dying!
All grows dark!
If you read this, remember poor Aubrey Gray.
* This date, though incorrect in terms of the sequence, is as it appears in the manuscript. [End Page 15]
Danielle Brune Sigler is associate director for Scholarly Programs at the Harry Ransom Center at The University of Texas at Austin. She is co-editor (with Edward E. Curtis IV) of The New Black Gods: Arthur Huff Fauset and the Study of African American Religions (Indiana UP, 2009).
I would like to express my gratitude to Walton Muyumba, Coleman Hutchison, and my colleagues at the Harry Ransom Center.
I would like to express my gratitude to Walton Muyumba, Coleman Hutchison, and my colleagues at the Harry Ransom Center.
1. The manuscript of A Wild Plaint resides in the Christopher Morley Collection at the Harry Ransom Center at The University of Texas at Austin. Although the manuscript predates Morley’s tenure at Doubleday, Page, his work as an editor there likely accounts for its presence in the collection. I am grateful to my former colleague Molly Schwartzburg for bringing this manuscript to my attention.
2. Beyond the appearance of Johnson’s name in the notebook, extant samples of his handwriting, including correspondence and manuscripts from the Poetry magazine archive at the University of Chicago, clearly match A Wild Plaint’s distinctive script. Themes, language, tone, and specific incidents are consistent with Johnson’s published fiction and poetry. The “J” preceding “Fenton Johnson” is consistent with Johnson’s 1910 federal census record that lists his name as “J Fenton Johnson.”
3. Andrade labels The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man the “first ‘fictional’ text written by an African American that deliberately masks its genre” (257).
4. Hall identifies the poems of this period (1919-27) as “the legitimate basis of an ongoing poetic reputation and are regularly anthologized as exemplary of the best of non-Harlem-based black writing from the 1920s” (225).
5. For example, Thomas suggests that Johnson’s third volume of poetry, Songs of the Soil (1916), “can be understood as a necessary clearing of the throat, a last glance at dialect verse that allows Johnson to proceed with the experiments that would yield his best poetry” (26). [End Page 4]
6. Gray explains that he has written A Wild Plaint for “the Black clay” in his dedication. He often characterizes his potential readers as white, as in the entry for May 14 when he addresses his reader directly as “you, blue eyed son of the Cavaliers.”
7. For a discussion of the “fundamental similarity” of the plots of the novels Iola Leroy (1892), House behind the Cedars (1900), The Marrow of Tradition (1901), Contending Forces (1901) and others see, Carla L. Peterson, “Commemorative Ceremonies and Invented Traditions: History, Memory, and Modernity in the ‘New Negro’ Novel of the Nadir,” in Post-Bellum, Pre-Harlem: African American Literature and Culture, 1877-1919, Barbara McCaskill and Caroline Gebhard, eds. (New York: New York UP, 2006), 38.
8. The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man, of course, adopts a similar approach, but as a memoir reflecting back on a life lived, lacks the immediacy and youthful intensity of A Wild Plaint.
9. An unattributed editorial in Johnson’s The Champion, likely penned by Johnson himself, recognized Chicago’s role in shaping its writers: “Chicago could no more produce Robert Frost than Boston could Carl Sandburg or Vachel Lindsay” (“Colored Chicago” 333).
10. Plaint of a Rose was written by Carl Sandburg when he was still publishing as “Charles Sandburg.” It was published by Asgard Press (Galesburg, IL), most likely in an edition of 500. Despite this small print run, Sandburg’s lectures in Chicago and his interest in having his work sold in Chicago bookshops suggest an increased likelihood of Johnson’s encounter with the work. Sandburg’s Plaint of a Rose is a contemplation on class inequality. Sandburg uses a “pale, half-withered flower” that has been growing in the shade of a grander bloom to speak for the lower classes. In A Wild Plaint, Johnson employs a rhetorical strategy similar to Sandburg’s, creating a conversation among his narrator, lilacs, and lilies to suggest the pervasiveness and innate character of race prejudice.
11. I have consulted with Fenton Johnson scholars and literary agents, but have been unable to locate an estate or copyright holder for Fenton Johnson. The following excerpts are reprinted in adherence with best practices for the fair use of orphan works. Spelling and punctuation errors and inconsistencies have been retained and transcribed as they appear in the original manuscript.