The Fret Of Tangled Purposes

Life

by Henrietta Cordelia Ray

Life! Ay, what is it? E’en a moment spun
From cycles of eternity. And yet,
What wrestling ’mid the fever and the fret
Of tangled purposes and hopes undone!
What affluence of love! What vict’ries won
In agonies of silence, ere trust met
A manifold fulfillment, and the wet,
Beseeching eyes saw splendors past the sun!
What struggle in the web of circumstance,
And yearning in the wingèd music! All,
One restless strife from fetters to be free;
Till, gathered to eternity’s expanse,
Is that brief moment at the Father’s call.
Life! Ay, at best, ’tis but a mystery.

 
 

Sonnet 35

 
by William Shakespeare
 
No more be grieved at that which thou hast done:
Roses have thorns, and silver fountains mud,
Clouds and eclipses stain both moon and sun,
And loathsome canker lives in sweetest bud.
All men make faults, and even I in this,
Authórizing thy trespass with compare,
Myself corrupting salving thy amiss,
Excusing thy sins more than thy sins are:
For to thy sensual fault I bring in sense—
Thy adverse party is thy advocate—
And ‘gainst myself a lawful plea commence.
Such civil war is in my love and hate,
   That I an áccessory needs must be
   To that sweet thief which sourly robs from me.
 

We Weep For Him

Frederick Douglass (1818 – 1895)

We must not be frightened nor cajoled into accepting evil as deliverance from evil. We must go on struggling to be human, though monsters of abstractions police and threaten us. Reclaim now, now renew the vision of a human world where godliness is possible and man is neither gook nigger honkey wop nor kike but man permitted to be man.

Robert Hayden

Frederick Douglass (An Excerpt)

by Paul Lawrence Dunbar (1872 – 1906)

We weep for him, but we have touched his hand,
And felt the magic of his presence nigh,
The current that he sent thro’ out the land,
The kindling spirit of his battle-cry
O’er all that holds us we shall triumph yet
And place our banner where his hopes were set!

Oh, Douglass, thou hast passed beyond the shore,
But still thy voice is ringing o’er the gale!
Thou ‘st taught thy race how high her hopes may soar
And bade her seek the heights, nor faint, nor fail.
She will not fail, she heeds thy stirring cry,
She knows thy guardian spirit will be nigh,
And rising from beneath the chast’ning rod,
She stretches out her bleeding hands to God!


Leadership eventually answers to history, not the moment.   The decisions made in the face of chaos with hardly a breath between them in the most dire of circumstances will be carefully pursed from every angle for generations of historians in the coming decades.  The luxury of hindsight and time will whittle away at the facade of pride, ego and even courage and lay bare the humbling nature of war, that not even the victorious, are free of failure.  I am not a historian, but I see no path to anything other than chaos and destruction unfolding in Ukraine.  Its why the current failure of leadership around the world, failure of governments to lead at this critical time in human history, is so distressing to those that believe that collectively we can do better than we are doing on a multitude of fronts; global warming, basic human rights, democracy, health care, equity, the list is endless.  And it is why the failure of leadership in the past, is now coming back to haunt the diplomats of today.

I am going to end where I began the month with Frederick Douglass.  Douglass met with President Lincoln several times during his presidency.  We would never know what their partnership could have yielded had Lincoln not been killed.  Both men were incredibly skilled in the art of oration, of inspiration, of ethical leadership at levels that are so profoundly beyond the levels of leadership of all political stripes today, it astounds.  Each man’s best speeches read more like poetry than political discourse.  

Frederick had been one of Lincoln’s harshest critics right up until the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, which changed everything.  The two met shortly after when the Confederacy declared that all African Americans who fought on the side of the Union would not be treated with the rights of prisoners of war, but would be executed or re-enslaved on the basis of being illegal insurgents.  Remember that all of the Confederate Generals who were to carry out this order had trained together at West Point with their Union counterparts.  The parallels to the insanity unfolding in Ukraine is only that when men scheme to control their future without a foundation of morality their failure is assured, it is only a matter of time.  Fascism never succeeds long term. The free people of Ukraine will ultimately win, but the question is at what cost? And how long will be the shadow of the scar of today remain? 

Douglass delivered his own eulogy of Lincoln several weeks after Lincoln’s death on the National Day of Mourning.  Below are several excerpts for Douglass’ eulogy that seem particularly poignant at this moment in time.  May peace yet prevail in the Ukraine, in the United States and in our own communities. 

 

Henceforth we have a new date, a new era for our great Republic: Henceforth a new account is opened,between the government and the people of the United States: Henceforth there is to be no north no south in American politics, but a common country of all for all: Henceforth the nation assumes a new position and a new relation to the nations of the Earth: Henceforth an American citizen may defend his country at the tribunal of the world’s judgement,without defending a glaring inconsistency and a scandalous crime:Henceforth there is an end to that compromising statesmanship—which has so deeply demoralized both the Government and the people:Henceforth we shall stand an acknowledged power among the great powers of Europe and exert a beneficent influence in the destiny of nations.Out of the vast and dreadful concatenation of evils which have environed us,brought upon us during these four years of treason rebellion and assassination, we shall yet be the recipients of immeasurable and priceless blessings: It is something that the crash has come and that the worst is known—that the storm cloud has burst and sent down its bolt and has left the blue sky above,calm and bright as when the morning stars sang together for joy!

Frederick Douglass – Lincoln Eulogy

A more tranquilizing thought comes to us on this occasion. That thought is the inevitability of the conflict. It was beyond the power of human will or wisdom—to have prevented just what has happened. We should never forget that this dreadful war with all its incidents was a part of—and sprung out of the fundamental elements of our national structure—and was in the nature of things unavoidable. We have but reaped where we had sown. Its hour had come, and there was nothing left but to make room for it, to accept it, and derive from it, whatever advantage it brought. We could no more evade it, than we could unmake our anticedents.

When slavery was first planted in the national soil, treason, rebellion and assassination were planted with it and their bloody fruit was bequeathed to the present generation. And if in the coming reconstruction, we shall encorporate any of the seeds of injustice, any of the remains of slavery, we shall repeat the mistake of our fathers, with the certainty that our children after us will reap a similar harvest of blood to that we have just experienced.

All the great nations of the Earth, no matter how isolated their location, no matter how iron like their ruler no matter how conservative their statesmen, no matter how carefully they exclude the light of new ideas—are fated to pass through what may be termed their historical periods—certain grand epochs, made up by the irrepressible tendencies of their inherent social forces, coming upon them whether they will or not.

Frederick Douglass – Lincoln Eulogy

In Memoriam –  Frederick Douglass (An Excerpt)

by Henrietta Cordelia Ray (1852 – 1916)

Yes! our great chief has fallen as might fall
Some veteran warrior, answering the call
Of duty. With the old serenity,
His heart still strung with tender sympathy,
He passed beyond our ken; he’ll come no more
To give us stately greeting as of yore.
We cannot fail to miss him. When we stand
In sudden helplessness, as through the land
Rings echo of some wrong he could not brook,
Then vainly for our leader will we look.

But courage! no great influence can die.
While he is doing grander work on high,
Shall not his deeds an inspiration be
To us left in life’s struggle? May not we
Do aught to emulate him whom we mourn?
We are a people now, no more forlorn
And hopeless. We must gather courage then,
Rememb’ring that he stood man among men.
So let us give, now he has journeyed hence,
To our great chieftain’s memory, reverence!

Unheard In The Transition

The Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC), April 2021

“But jazz to me is one of the inherent expressions of Negro life in America; the eternal tom-tom beating in the Negro soul—the tom-tom of revolt against weariness in a white world, a world of subway trains, and work, work, work; the tom-tom of joy and laughter, and pain swallowed in a smile.”

Langston Hughes.

Limitations

by Henrietta Cordelia Ray (1852 – 1916)
 
The subtlest strain a great musician weaves,
Cannot attain in rhythmic harmony
To music in his soul. May it not be
Celestial lyres send hints to him? He grieves
That half the sweetness of the song, he leaves
Unheard in the transition. Thus do we
Yearn to translate the wondrous majesty
Of some rare mood, when the rapt soul receives
A vision exquisite. Yet who can match
The sunset’s iridescent hues? Who sing
The skylark’s ecstasy so seraph-fine?
We struggle vainly, still we fain would catch
Such rifts amid life’s shadows, for they bring
Glimpses ineffable of things divine.
 
 

Langston Hughes, was one of the founders of the jazz poetry movement, a style of poetry in which the beat of the words flow like the syncopation of jazz.   It is a style that would be adopted by other writers, including Amiri Baraka, Marvin Bell, Sterling Brown, Hayden Carruth, Allen Ginsberg, Michael Harper, Ted Joans, Bob Kaufman, Jack Kerouac, Yusef Komunyaaka,  Mina Loy, Kenneth Rexroth, and Sonia Sanchez, just to name a few.  This February, I’ll explore some of these writers work and spend some time with jazz poetry.

An interesting question is whether today’s hip hop and rap music is directly connected to jazz poetry?  In my mind the answer is a great big YES!   Jazz poetry was written by African American writers for black audiences, using language and symbolism that grew out of a uniquely black art form – jazz.   Although white writers were attracted to the modernist aspects of jazz poetry and contributed to it’s evolution, it’s legacy, like jazz, has to remain firmly tethered to the great black poets who gave the master class in its halls.  

From an academic standpoint, The Weary Blues, by Langston Hughes, is often cited as part of the beginnings of jazz poetry.  Published in 1925, it broke free from the traditional verse that still confined most publishing of its time.  Hughes playfulness in his rhyme is a big jump from Henrietta Cordelia Ray’s sonnets, though both are dealing with a similar theme, only approaching it from opposite poles.  

Jazz poetry has gone through peaks and valleys of popularity over the years in academia and publishing, but has remained popular among black poets since its inception.   A testament to the staying power of jazz poetry is since 2002, when the Smithsonian launched Jazz Appreciation Month (JAM), they have produced a jazz poetry event every April as part of National Poetry Month. 

Do you have a favorite jazz poet, a favorite jazz poem?   To find out more, check out this link to The Power of Poetry blog series, that has a host of great stories and poems:  https://nmaahc.si.edu/explore/stories/search


The Weary Blues

 
by Langston Hughes (1901 – 1967)
 

Droning a drowsy syncopated tune,
Rocking back and forth to a mellow croon,
     I heard a Negro play.
Down on Lenox Avenue the other night
By the pale dull pallor of an old gas light
     He did a lazy sway . . .
     He did a lazy sway . . .
To the tune o’ those Weary Blues.
With his ebony hands on each ivory key
He made that poor piano moan with melody.
     O Blues!
Swaying to and fro on his rickety stool
He played that sad raggy tune like a musical fool.
     Sweet Blues!
Coming from a black man’s soul.
     O Blues!
In a deep song voice with a melancholy tone
I heard that Negro sing, that old piano moan—
     “Ain’t got nobody in all this world,
       Ain’t got nobody but ma self.
       I’s gwine to quit ma frownin’
       And put ma troubles on the shelf.”

Thump, thump, thump, went his foot on the floor.
He played a few chords then he sang some more—
     “I got the Weary Blues
       And I can’t be satisfied.
       Got the Weary Blues
       And can’t be satisfied—
       I ain’t happy no mo’
       And I wish that I had died.”
And far into the night he crooned that tune.
The stars went out and so did the moon.
The singer stopped playing and went to bed
While the Weary Blues echoed through his head.
He slept like a rock or a man that’s dead.

Give Us Comfort Through The Lonely Dark

Emancipation Memorial, Washington D. C.

The past is for most Americans, unfortunately, rather meaningless…”

Robert Hayden

Lincoln
(An Excerpt)

 
by Henrietta Cordelia Ray (1852 – 1916)
 
 
To-day, O martyred chief, beneath the sun
We would unveil thy form; to thee who won
Th’applause of nations for thy soul sincere,
A loving tribute we would offer here.
’T was thine not worlds to conquer, but men’s hearts;
To change to balm the sting of slavery’s darts;
In lowly charity thy joy to find,
And open “gates of mercy on mankind.”
And so they come, the freed, with grateful gift,
From whose sad path the shadows thou didst lift.

 


The poem, Lincoln by Ray, was read during the unveiling of the Emancipation Memorial, on the eleventh anniversary of Lincoln’s death in 1876. Frederick Douglass presided and delivered an oration worthy of the occasion. The problem with monuments, is they don’t move over time, they stand still.  Undoubtedly today, the depiction would be different, and maybe that is reason alone for why it should come down and be replaced by something else.  At the time it was a memorial largely paid for by funds from former slaves.  A monument, well crafted by Thomas Bell with good intentions, it is still the artistic vision of a white man, possibly another good reason to take it down.   It doesn’t matter that at it’s unveiling it was well received by a crowd of 25,000, with President Ulysses S. Grant in attendance, nor fine words were said by esteemed statesman of varied ethnicity, sometimes we just have to use our eyes of the present and see the awkwardness of the past and accept that possibly we need to give way to a new monument, one crafted by an artist with a different view point, one whose vision might help bring us all together, with equity, into a new future, standing side by side. The monument is still located in Lincoln Park on Capitol Hill, though it was rotated slightly east, from its original perch, to gaze upon another memorial, that of Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune,  as if that modest change would ease the disquiet of our inner voice that says, “something’s not right.”   

It is why I have chosen a different oration by Fredrick Douglas to share today, not the one he delivered at the unveiling of this memorial.  Below is an excerpt from his speech on July 4th, 1852, which he titled “What to the slave is the 4th of July?”.  Delivered nine years before the start of the Civil War, it is a remarkable dissection of the hypocrisy of America’s democracy and our tendency towards patriotism with blinders on, a blindness to only those parts of our democracy that we feel suit our own selfish interests, with well paid lobbyists and high tech gerrymandering to insure one side wins and the other side loses.  It is a remarkable speech,  as relevant today as the day it was delivered given the events of this past week on Capitol Hill.  Here is portions of Frederick Douglass’ speech in 1852. 

 

….Oppression makes a wise man mad. Your fathers were wise men, and if they did not go mad, they became restive under this treatment. They felt themselves the victims of grievous wrongs, wholly incurable in their colonial capacity. With brave men there is always a remedy for oppression. Just here, the idea of a total separation of the colonies from the crown was born! It was a startling idea, much more so, than we, at this distance of time, regard it….Their opposition to the then dangerous thought was earnest and powerful; but, amid all their terror and affrighted vociferations against it, the alarming and revolutionary idea moved on, and the country with it.

On the second of July, 1776, the old Continental Congress, to the dismay of the lovers of ease, and the worshipers of property, clothed that dreadful idea with all the authority of national sanction. They did so in the form of a resolution; and as we seldom hit upon resolutions, drawn up in our day whose transparency is at all equal to this, it may refresh your minds and help my story if I read it.

[We] solemnly publish and declare, That these United Colonies are, and of right, ought to be free and Independent States; that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown; and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain is and ought to be [totally] dissolved.

Citizens, your fathers made good that resolution. They succeeded; and to-day you reap the fruits of their success. The freedom gained is yours; and you, therefore, may properly celebrate this anniversary. The 4th of July is the first great fact in your nation’s history —the very ring—bolt in the chain of your yet undeveloped destiny.

Pride and patriotism, not less than gratitude, prompt you to celebrate and to hold it in perpetual remembrance. I have said that the Declaration of Independence is the ring-bolt to the chain of your nation’s destiny; so, indeed, I regard it. The principles contained in that instrument are saving principles. Stand by those principles, be true to them on all occasions, in all places, against all foes, and at whatever cost….

Fellow Citizens, I am not wanting in respect for the fathers of this republic. The signers of the Declaration of Independence were brave men. They were great men too—great enough to give fame to a great age. It does not often happen to a nation to raise, at one time, such a number of truly great men. The point from which I am compelled to view them is not, certainly, the most favorable; and yet I cannot contemplate their great deeds with less than admiration. They were statesmen, patriots and heroes, and for the good they did, and the principles they contended for, I will unite with you to honor their memory.

They loved their country better than their own private interests; and, though this is not the highest form of human excellence, all will concede that it is a rare virtue, and that when it is exhibited, it ought to command respect. He who will, intelligently, lay down his life for his country, is a man whom it is not in human nature to despise. Your fathers staked their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor, on the cause of their country. In their admiration of liberty, they lost sight of all other interests.

They were peace men; but they preferred revolution to peaceful submission to bondage. They were quiet men; but they did not shrink from agitating against oppression. They showed forbearance; but that they knew its limits. They believed in order; but not in the order of tyranny. With them, nothing was “settled” that was not right. With them, justice, liberty and humanity were “final;” not slavery and oppression. You may well cherish the memory of such men. They were great in their day and generation. Their solid manhood stands out the more as we contrast it with these degenerate times…..

Friends and citizens, I need not enter further into the causes which led to this anniversary. Many of you understand them better than I do. You could instruct me in regard to them. That is a branch of knowledge in which you feel, perhaps, a much deeper interest than your speaker. The causes which led to the separation of the colonies from the British crown have never lacked for a tongue. They have all been taught in your common schools, narrated at your firesides, unfolded from your pulpits, and thundered from your legislative halls, and are as familiar to you as household words. They form the staple of your national poetry and eloquence.

I remember also that as a people Americans are remarkably familiar with all facts which make in their own favor. This is esteemed by some as a national trait—perhaps a national weakness. It is a fact, that whatever makes for the wealth or for the reputation of Americans, and can be had cheap will be found by Americans. I shall not be charged with slandering Americans if I say I think the American side of any question may be safely left in American hands.

I leave, therefore, the great deeds of your fathers to other gentlemen whose claim to have been regularly descended will be less likely to be disputed than mine!

My business, if I have any here to-day, is with the present. The accepted time with God and his cause is the ever-living now.

Trust no future, however pleasant, Let the dead past bury its dead; Act, act in the living present, Heart within, and God overhead.

We have to do with the past only as we can make it useful to the present and to the future. To all inspiring motives, to noble deeds which can be gained from the past, we are welcome. But now is the time, the important time. Your fathers have lived, died, and have done their work, and have done much of it well. You live and must die, and you must do your work. You have no right to enjoy a child’s share in the labor of your fathers, unless your children are to be blest by your labors….  The righteous? Washington could not die till he had broken the chains of his slaves. Yet his monument is built up by the price of human blood, and the traders in the bodies and souls of men, shout —”We have Washington to our father.”—Alas! that it should be so; yet so it is.

The evil that men do, lives after them, The good is oft’ interred with their bones.

Fellow-citizens, pardon me, allow me to ask, why am I called upon to speak here to-day? What have I, or those I represent, to do with your national independence? Are the great principles of political freedom and of natural justice, embodied in that Declaration of Independence, extended to us? and am I, therefore, called upon to bring our humble offering to the national altar, and to confess the benefits and express devout gratitude for the blessings resulting from your independence to us?

Would to God, both for your sakes and ours, that an affirmative answer could be truthfully returned to these questions! Then would my task be light, and my burden easy and delightful. For who is there so cold, that a nation’s sympathy could not warm him?….

But, such is not the state of the case. I say it with a sad sense of the disparity between us. I am not included within the pale of this glorious anniversary! Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us. The blessings in which you, this day, rejoice, are not enjoyed in common. The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity and independence, bequeathed by your fathers, is shared by you, not by me. The sunlight that brought life and healing to you, has brought stripes and death to me. This Fourth of July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn. To drag a man in fetters into the grand illuminated temple of liberty, and call upon him to join you in joyous anthems, were inhuman mockery and sacrilegious irony. Do you mean, citizens, to mock me, by asking me to speak to-day? If so, there is a parallel to your conduct. And let me warn you that it is dangerous to copy the example of a nation whose crimes, lowering up to heaven, were thrown down by the breath of the Almighty, burying that nation in irrecoverable ruin!….

Frederick Douglas, July 4th, 1852. 


Douglass Poem

by Paul Lawrence Dunbar (1872 – 1906)

Ah, Douglass, we have fall’n on evil days,
Such days as thou, not even thou didst know,
When thee, the eyes of that harsh long ago
Saw, salient, at the cross of devious ways,
And all the country heard thee with amaze.
Not ended then, the passionate ebb and flow,
The awful tide that battled to and fro;
We ride amid a tempest of dispraise.

Now, when the waves of swift dissension swarm,
And Honour, the strong pilot, lieth stark,
Oh, for thy voice high-sounding o’er the storm,
For thy strong arm to guide the shivering bark,
The blast-defying power of thy form,
To give us comfort through the lonely dark.