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  • Black Classical Ruins and American Memory in the Poetry of H. Cordelia Ray
  • Heidi Morse

In 1894, readers of The Woman's Era—a newspaper written by and for African American women—and of Gertrude Bustill Mossell's The Work of the Afro-American Woman became familiar with the New York poet Henrietta Cordelia Ray (1849–1916). That is, if they had not already read her verses in the pages of the A.M.E. Church Review or recalled her famous "Lincoln" ode, written in 1876 for the dedication of the Freedmen's Monument (known today as the Emancipation Memorial) in Washington, dc. In her Woman's Era editorial, Victoria Earle Matthews called Ray "our sweet-voiced poetess" and listed her prominently among future contributors (3); likewise, Mossell asserted that Ray had "won for herself a place in the front rank of our literary workers" and reprinted three of her poems alongside those of Phillis Wheatley, Frances E. W. Harper, Charlotte Forten Grimké, and Josephine Delphine Henderson Heard (79). Following the publication of her first volume, Sonnets (1893), praise from these two luminaries of African American women's activist and literary circles put Ray's poetry on the map. A similar flurry of reviews, among them one by Jessie Redmon Fauset in the Crisis in 1912, followed the publication of Ray's second and final volume, Poems (1910).1 But despite Ray's popularity among African American readers during her lifetime, her verses have since slipped into obscurity. Beyond reintroducing her work to contemporary audiences, this essay argues that Ray's post-Reconstruction poetic excavations into American history and the classical past reveal trajectories of black historical consciousness that are not yet encoded in literary history.

While poetry figured prominently in fin de siècle African American literary production, especially in black-owned periodicals, few poems written during this period have migrated into the canon of African American literature. Yet the "post-bellum, pre-Harlem" era, to borrow a phrase from Charles Chesnutt [End Page 53] (which Barbara McCaskill and Caroline Gebhard recently repurposed as the title of their 2006 edited collection), was a critical historical juncture for negotiations of black citizenship, community, and literary consciousness. The poetry of this period—much of which was written by women—engages in these conversations just as vehemently as the better-known prose of Chesnutt, Sutton E. Griggs, W. E. B. Du Bois, and Booker T. Washington. For H. Cordelia Ray, commemorative odes and elegies to individuals such as Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglass, Paul Laurence Dunbar, and her abolitionist father, Rev. Charles Bennett Ray, were especially meaningful points of contact between her poetry and black community consciousness. Other poems in Ray's oeuvre, including sonnets and ballads, range from musings on the natural world to retellings of classical Greco-Roman history and mythology.2 Whereas most critics have characterized the content of Ray's verses as divorced from contemporaneous racial struggles such as Jim Crow or the lynching epidemic, I read her commemorative and classical verses as purposefully engaging in a community-based poetics of retrospection that mourns the failures of Radical Reconstruction. Considered as companions to elegies such as "To My Father" and "In Memoriam (Frederick Douglass)," Ray's ekphrastic meditations on classical and neoclassical sculptures such as the Venus de Milo (c. 100 bce) and Randolph Rogers's Nydia, the Blind Flower Girl of Pompeii (1855), as well as Thomas Ball's Freedmen's Monument (1876), draw on classical history as a versatile metaphor for nineteenth-century American race relations.3

Some critics have balked at the genteel or mannered style of Ray's poetry. Studies of late-nineteenth-century African American poetry typically champion Harper's Reconstruction verses and Dunbar's dialect poetry, promoting poems that feature southern black speakers like Harper's "Aunt Chloe" over and above those that do not. Among Ray's contemporaries, women who incorporated dialect into their verses, such as Lizelia Augusta Jenkins Moorer, Maggie Pogue Johnson, Priscilla Jane Thompson, and Clara Thompson, have all received more critical attention.4 Ray's poems diverge from this aesthetic. Joan R. Sherman, Ray's modern editor, dismissively suggests that Ray's "fondness for antique diction and syntax...


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