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James Weldon Johnson, ed. (1871–1938). The Book of American Negro Poetry. 1922.

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 sting 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.