O Black and Unknown Bards
O black and unknown bards of long ago, How came your lips to touch the sacred fire? How, in your darkness, did you come to know The power and beauty of the minstrel's lyre? Who first from midst his bonds lifted his eyes? Who first from out the still watch, lone and long, Feeling the ancient faith of prophets rise Within his dark-kept soul, burst into song? Heart of what slave poured out such melody As "Steal away to Jesus"? On its strains His spirit must have nightly floated free, Though still about his hands he felt his chains. Who heard great "Jordan roll"? Whose starward eye Saw chariot "swing low"? And who was he That breathed that comforting, melodic sigh, "Nobody knows de trouble I see"? What merely living clod, what captive thing, Could up toward God through all its darkness grope, And find within its deadened heart to sing These songs of sorrow, love and faith, and hope? How did it catch that subtle undertone, That note in music heard not with the ears? How sound the elusive reed so seldom blown, Which stirs the soul or melts the heart to tears. Not that great German master in his dream Of harmonies that thundered amongst the stars At the creation, ever heard a theme Nobler than "Go down, Moses." Mark its bars How like a mighty trumpet-call they stir The blood. Such are the notes that men have sung Going to valorous deeds; such tones there were That helped make history when Time was young. There is a wide, wide wonder in it all, That from degraded rest and servile toil The fiery spirit of the seer should call These simple children of the sun and soil. O black slave singers, gone, forgot, unfamed, You—you alone, of all the long, long line Of those who've sung untaught, unknown, unnamed, Have stretched out upward, seeking the divine. You sang not deeds of heroes or of kings; No chant of bloody war, no exulting pean Of arms-won triumphs; but your humble strings You touched in chord with music empyrean. You sang far better than you knew; the songs That for your listeners' hungry hearts sufficed Still live,—but more than this to you belongs: You sang a race from wood and stone to Christ.
From The Book of American Negro Poetry, edited by James Weldon Johnson, published in 1922.
James Weldon Johnson
James Weldon Johnson, born in Florida in 1871, was a national organizer for the NAACP and an author of poetry and nonfiction. Perhaps best known for the song "Lift Every Voice and SIng," he also wrote several poetry collections and novels, often exploring racial identity and the African American folk tradition.
Date Published: 1922-01-01
Source URL: https://poets.org/poem/o-black-and-unknown-bards