Scholarly Editing

The Annual of the Association for Documentary Editing

2013, Volume 34

"Will not these days be by thy poets sung": Poems of the Anglo-African and National Anti-Slavery Standard, 1863–1864

Edited by Elizabeth Lorang and R. J. Weir
page 1 page 2 page 3 page 4
Complete Issue: The Anglo-African (4 July 1863)
Wm. J. Wilson, "Our Dark-Brown Mother" The Anglo-African (4 July 1863): [4]View Poem Image
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OUR DARK-BROWN MOTHER.

      The following poem, written by Prof. WM. J. WILSON,[1] Princi-
pal
of Colored Public School No. 1, Brooklyn, was read by its
author at the musical and literary entertainment, given on
Monday evening, [two words illegible], at the [about four words illegible]
the benefit of the Sabbath School of St. Phillip's Church.
     
Far down in the South sits an ancient dark-brown Mother,[2] With shrivel'd hands and wrinkled brow and snow-white
     hair;
Sits there rocking herself to and fro with grief and sorrow; Sits there 'neath a willow in the grave-yard. Nor whispering winds, nor song of birds console her. Sits there, not like Rachel—though sorrowing sadly For her children.[3] Her eyes are tearless and past weeping; For long, long hath dried up all the fountains, All the sources of her weeping. She sits there and looketh out upon a boundless vista, Blank and bleak, and black with sorrow; Sorrow for her children of which they robbed her, Of which the cruel spoiler, one by one hath robbed her; Robbed and gone—she knows not whither. She sits there, with her long and [one word illegible] fingers Numbering, numbering up her absent children. Her old white hair in the South-wind fluttering, All the while she sits there, gazing on that boundless
     vista.
By her lays a worn and tattered scrap of Bible, Which though loved and cherished never read. The laws forbade that dark-brown Mother reading.— Reading that worn and tattered scrap of Bible, And so it lay there, veiled in sorrow, With that ancient Mother's sorrow for her children. Scattered dust!—like scattered seed upon the fallow! Scattered dust!—scattered through a mighty nation![4] And so far down in the South sits that dark-brown Mother, With shriveled hands and wrinkled brow, and snow-white
     hair;
Sits there rocking herself to and fro with grief and
     sorrow.
Sits there 'neath the willow in the grave-yard, Crushed and beat and broken-hearted. A word, Old crushed and broken Mother. The heirs you mourn for are not dead; Though toiled and scourged e'en unto death, your children Are not in the grave. They are risen! And clothed with other clay they come forth: With new life, new vigor,—new action come they, To be the giant men of the new time coming. Though bronzed and dark, the giant men of a mighty
     nation.
Rouse ye sons of that ancient dark-brown Mother! And come forth with your new and fresh blood, bringing Another mould;—the mould of stout and sturdy freemen. Come with this image, your manly forehead's bearing, And your strong arms the noble image sharing. Come, and make her old heart gladden! And if a tear into her dim old eye starting, T' will turn to joy, though e'en a tear of sorrow. What manner of men ye are, come forth and show her; Come forth strong and bold; come forth true men, And your ancient Mother, now sadly sorrowing Broken, shrunken,—will the new life beget her; Beget the new and fresh blood, and abide among you. Revered and cherished, loved and loving. Ye hardy sons; ye toiling brown-faced children, Now free from every earthly shackle, Free from every groveling feeling, Free to do whate'er of right it pleases you; By your manhood call your olden Mother; From her ancient sorrow call her. Call her by your axe, the forest ringing; By your strokes so strong and sturdy, With hands well used and proud to labor; By the smoke of your thousand, thousand hamlets, In the blue sky lightly, gently curling, All the pleasant landscape dotting, Throughout the broad expansive country. Call her by your ploughs, the turf upturning, And your green fields with cattle lowring, And hills and mounts and sloping woodlands, And your barns with full and plenty bounding By your mingling with this great nation,— Equals;—peers of any men. By your share within her counclls, In her arts and in her commerce; By all the powers within you stirring, Ye sons of life and light, and freedom, Call her from her thousand years of sorrow,— Lo! from her seat beneath the willow In the gray and grizzly grave-yard, In the ancient pine grove hath she risen,— Hath she heard the manly calling,— Hark! hear ye along the distant pathway, The rapid feet of woman coming? Hear her footsteps in the pine groves, in the forest? Hear her footsteps, ringing with the woodland echoes, Ringing, louder ringing as she nearer 'proaches; Daughters rise! your ancient Mother bids you! She hath come. Her sons have called her; Hath come to see their green and waving corn fields; To see the mower's, reaper's, scythe and sickle, The new-mown hay and yellow harvest; To see your neat and pretty hamlets, Filled with little laughing children, With bright eyes in the sun-light sparkling; Or with tripping feet and merry faces Romping o'er your polished door-sills, Romping o'er the turfy greensward, Romping 'neath the leafy locusts; And too, all ye pretty dimple maidens, Come with your merry smiles and glances, Come with your arts and pretty graces, Come with light hearts and gentle footsteps; With wine and song, and friends and lovers, Come and greet your ancient Mother. And too, ye mothers! Mothers of our new strength; Strength in the path of progress plodding; Strength that's grappling in the nations struggle, With noble pride uprise and greet her. Come with all your gifts and treasures, Come bringing all your little children, Each with song and banner bearing. Come with open arms and beating bosoms, With flowers and oaken leaves and laurels, And let your children weave a chaplet, And with that chaplet proudly crown her; For she sits no longer in the ancient pine-grove, No longer sits in her ancient sorrow; But a Queen is our ancient dark-brown Mother, Amidst her noble new-born children, A part of a great and mighty nation, A Queen is our ancient dark-brown Mother.

Notes

  1. William J. Wilson (1820–?), antebellum journalist and teacher. In the 1840s and 1850s, Wilson contributed letters and articles to Frederick Douglass' Paper, the Weekly Anglo-African and the Anglo-African Magazine—many of them under the pen name "Ethiop." Carla L. Peterson has argued that "In naming himself Ethiop, [Wilson] drew attention to his undiluted black blood and proudly identified himself with Africa" (Black Gotham: A Family History of African Americans in Nineteenth-Century New York City [New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2011], 218). Wilson taught in Brooklyn and was one of the community leaders who established the New York Society for the Promotion of Education Among Colored Children in 1847. John W. Blassingame notes that Wilson also aided fugitive slaves as a member of the "Committee of Thirteen" (John W. Blassingame, ed., The Frederick Douglass Papers, Series 1: Speeches, Debates, and Interviews [New Haven: Yale University Press, 1982], 2:511).
     
    Halfway through the Civil War, Wilson left his position as principal of Brooklyn's Colored Public School No. 1 and went south to establish a school for freedpeople in Washington, DC, under the auspices of the American Missionary Association. He taught in Washington until the end of the war, along with his wife, Mary, and daughter, Annie. The family remained in Washington; Wilson worked as a cashier in the Washington branch of the Freedmen's Savings Bank, as did his son-in-law, Thomas Boston.
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  2. Wilson's ancestor figure occupies a position similar to that of "Africa" in Maria Lowell's 1849 poem (reprinted in the Anglo-African of September 5, 1863 and in the National Anti-Slavery Standard of September 12, 1863). Lowell's continent mourns for her lost African children in a desert waste; Wilson's "dark-brown mother" mourns her children as she sits "and looketh out upon a boundless vista, / Blank and bleak, and black with sorrow" (lines 10–11). Each figure is represented as the mother of a race. Wilson offered a post-emancipation response to the argument in Lowell's poem, if not to the poem itself. "I was sole Queen the broad earth through," Lowell's Africa laments before retreating into silence at the end of the poem, to wait for "fate" to "lift" her from "sunken state." By contrast, Wilson's African Mother, situated "Far down in the South" of the United States, is roused from her grief by the post-emancipation achievements of her African American children and declared "a Queen" in America. The poem can be read as an indication of the war's influence on Wilson's black nationalism.Go back
  3. Rachel, wife of Jacob and mother of Joseph. "A voice is heard in Ramah, / lamentation and bitter weeping. / Rachel is weeping for her children, / because they are not" (Jeremiah 31:15). The mother figure in Wilson's poem can no longer weep for her children because the "fountains" of her eyes have run dry.Go back
  4. Repetition here and elsewhere shows the influence of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's bestselling epic poem, The Song of Hiawatha (1855). This repetition does more than suggest a literary man's stylistic homage or an experienced orator's shrewd choice; it identifies "Our Dark-Brown Mother" as a foundational narrative of race and nation.Go back