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Tom Chaney: At the Dusk of Dawn

Of Writers And Their Books: At the Dusk of Dawn. Tom discusses the Poetry and Prose of Albery Allson Whitman, born a slave in Hart County. This column first appeared 20 September 2009.
The next earlier Tom Chaney column: The Lighted Torch of the 'Secesh' or Civil War Days in Reality

By Tom Chaney

At the Dusk of Dawn

These columns began more than four years ago [20 February 2005] with a discussion of A. A. Whitman -- black poet of the nineteenth century; born in slavery as he put it in a preface to an 1873 narrative poem "in the Green River country, near Munfordville, Hart county, Kentucky, May the 30th, 1851; born a slave, and serving as such until the Proclamation of Emancipation."

I was preparing to teach a course in black literature during my teaching days in Arkansas in 1969 when I first encountered a mention of Whitman. Pole axed by his reference to Hart County, I tried to find out more about him.

What I mainly learned is that he was largely forgotten, and his works were out of print. I tracked some of his poetry to ground in the Fisk University library in Nashville.

There has not been much improvement in availability until now, although the Hart County Historical Society published a brief paper on him in the 1970's, and the state erected an historical marker with information about him on the grounds of the Hart county library. A street near the library now bears his name.

That scarcity is now corrected!

This week I received a copy of a new book that is a joy to hold and to read and to know it exists. At the Dusk of Dawn: Selected Poetry and Prose of Albery Allson Whitman. Edited by Ivy G. Wilson, Northeastern University Press, Boston, it is a title in the distinguished Northeastern Library of Black Literature under the editor ship of Richard Yarborough.

Such a collection is about a century overdue since next year is the centennial of Whitman's death.

Not only does Professor Wilson bring us a generous selection of Whitman's poetry. He places the poet nicely in the history of black poetry between the end of reconstruction and the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920's.

One reviewer has aptly noted that "At the Dusk of Dawn should renew interest not only in Whitman's literary accomplishments, but also in those of an African American generation struggling to define its intellectual, cultural, and political identity" during the last half of the nineteenth century.

I scanned several of the poems that I had not seen since the late 1960's and reread several of the more familiar ones. Several observations come to mind.

His 1893 poem for the World's Fair -- "The Freedman's Triumphant Song" is a celebration of the black man's role in the history of the nation and in achieving his own freedom. It ends with a call for the black man to take his place in the march of American progress. The eight syllable iambic lines with an obvious rhyme scheme make it still a rather stirring song.

In an excellent introductory chapter, Wilson makes the point that Whitman had a rather keen ear for the music of poetry. He attempted many forms from the long narrative to the lyric poem. "The Rape of Florida" and "Leelah Misled" are narratives. "The Lute of Afric's Tribe" and "Sonnet. -- The Montenegrin" are good examples of the lyric.

One might expect more poems on religious themes of a Methodist minister. Not only was Whitman not inclined to deal much with religion, Wilson observes that his knowledge of the Old Testament was not terribly sound when he did attempt to use biblical matters.

All in all, At the Dusk of Dawn is a most welcome addition to the library of black poetry and, incidentally, to the poetry of Hart County.

Tom Chaney can be found telling stories, planning his next meal, and occasionally selling books at
Box 73 / 111 Water Street
Horse Cave, Kentucky 42749
Email: Tom Chaney

This story was posted on 2014-09-21 05:42:54
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