W. S. Braithwaite's Southern Exposure: Rescue and Revelation

Article excerpt

Harlem's Countee Cullen, with three volumes of poetry and an anthology to his credit, could be sure the readers of his literary page shared the sentiments he expressed after a trip to what he regarded as a hostile region.

   We journeyed late last month for the first time to the far South, passing
   with some slight tremors of the heart through Virginia, the Carolinas,
   Georgia and a bit of Alabama to Talledega, [sic] a fair college brimming
   with eager young Negroes intent on drinking at the Pierian well despite the
   indifference of their native states. We had our Pullman reservation from
   New York, and so were not made to change at Washington, although in the
   wash room next morning a young Georgian returning home from West Point
   without benefit of sheepskin informed us casually and somewhat proudly that
   he didn't think we could get a reservation on our way back. We thanked him.

      As our train whirled deeper and deeper into what we could not help
   considering the fastnesses of a benighted country, we felt that the hand of
   the rioter had dug its nails deep into the soil of this land leaving it red
   and raw with welts of oppression. We thought of the neat orderly precision
   of the New England landscapes we had seen; we were far from these now, not
   so much in distance counted in miles as in distance of spirit and feeling;
   we were far from the genial, even if less carefully groomed, atmosphere of
   New York. We were in an untutored land among a proud folk who would not be
   taught. Strange incredible stories stirred to remembrance within us, and we
   shuddered at the sight of a charred bit of stick stretched like a
   slumbering snake along the road; we knew not of what insane rites it might
   have been part, what human torches it once might have served to light. (1)

Sensitive Northern blacks who found it necessary forty or fifty years ago to travel in the South, or to move there for work or study, looked on the prospect with a trepidation suggestive of the terror their ancestors might have felt on being sold down the river. At best the Southern exposure was enlightening; sometimes it was traumatic. Almost certainly it led to a strengthened sense of racial identity. For William Stanley Braithwaite ten years of teaching in the South intensified a "black awareness" unknown to, or ignored by, detractors who chose to judge him by their notion that a poet has an obligation to make his race the subject of his verse.

Braithwaite was at the apogee of his career as a man of letters--not just a poet--in 1918, when he first visited the South. At Atlanta University, where he gave the commencement address, he received an honorary Master of Arts degree. In that same year Talladega College bestowed on him, in absentia, an honorary Doctor of Literature. Early in May the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People awarded him the Spingarn Medal as "the American citizen of African descent who made last year the highest achievement in any field of elevated or honorable human endeavor." Crisis, edited by W. E. B. DuBois, printed his full-page portrait in the June issue and called him "the most prominent critic of poetry in America."

In support of what otherwise might have seemed extravagant praise, the journal cited Braithwaite's two volumes of original verse, three anthologies of English poetry, and five annual collections of American magazine verse. Perhaps for lack of space it omitted from the list one critical anthology, The Poetic Year for 1916, and it did not mention The Golden Treasury of Magazine Verse that was scheduled to appear in August. It said nothing of his being one of the eminent judges for The Lyric Year and editor of small but significant poetry magazines between 1912 and 1917. For about a dozen years Braithwaite had been a regular contributor to the prestigious Boston Evening Transcript, whose readers, T. S. …