Melvin B. Tolson | Critical Essay by Aldon L. Nielsen

This literature criticism consists of approximately 26 pages of analysis & critique of Melvin B. Tolson.
This section contains 7,531 words
(approx. 26 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Essay by Aldon L. Nielsen

Critical Essay by Aldon L. Nielsen

SOURCE: "Melvin B. Tolson and the Deterritorialization of Modernism," in African American Review, Vol. 26, No. 2, Summer, 1992, pp. 241-55.

In the following essay, Nielsen states that Tolson's works "are an assault upon Anglo-American modernism's territorial designs, but they have been little read."

"In 1932 I was a Negro poet writing Anglo-Saxon sonnets as a graduate student in an Eastern University"—these are the words that Melvin B. Tolson chose to describe himself as he had been at the outset of his odyssey as an artist, a description which, while recalling the formal beginnings of other modernist poets such as William Carlos Williams, resonates yet more profoundly with Frederick Douglass's recollections of his first interlinear strides towards freedom and a style of his own. But the interlinear tracings of both Douglass and Tolson soon began to diverge radically from their models. Not merely glosses, or even really copying, the writing between the lines of Frederick Douglass and Melvin B. Tolson is a repetition elsewhere of the model which eventually displaces the model; it is a rewriting which comes to read itself as prior to the lines of the master. Both Douglass and Tolson run the risk of being flogged for marring the highly prized lines of Master Thomas, and yet each in the end has succeeded in writing "other lines" which challenge the territorial claims of the master text of Western hegemony. Each sought an opening within the dominant text of his time, and placed into that space radical representations of African-American aesthetics whose eventual effect is to assert their own primacy over the stylings of the master class. Tolson's later style, far from being a mask adopted simply to gain entry to the master's house, is a means by which Anglo-American claims to the ground of modernism are set aside.

Certainly Tolson has been flogged for his later style, and the terms of the critical argument over his corpus seem to have been set by the authors of the prefaces to his two last books, Allen Tate and Karl Shapiro. Just as Shapiro's preface was a response as much to Tate's as to Tolson's verses, critics who have come at Tolson afterwards, Black and White alike, have raged and ranged between the Scylla and Charybdis of Shapiro's two most provocative praises of Tolson's poems: that they were "outpounding Pound," and that in them "Tolson writes and thinks in Negro." Indeed, many of Tolson's earliest reviewers and critics seem to have been as exercised, either favorably or negatively, by Shapiro as by Tolson. This is certainly the case in Sarah Webster Fabio's 1966 essay "Who Speaks Negro?" and Josephine Jacobsen, reviewing Harlem Gallery for the Baltimore Evening Sun, spends roughly half of her print space arguing with Shapiro. Just as it has proved nearly impossible to speak of Tolson's late books without speaking of their prefaces, few have found it possible to speak of the development of Tolson's style without expressing suspicion, sometimes severe, about its origins and its racial politics.

In characterizing the reactions of Langston Hughes to Tolson's belated public attention, Arnold Rampersad writes that, "suddenly, having overhauled his craft according to the most complex tenets of high modernism, and having renounced the militant pro-Marxism of his first volume, Rendezvous with America, Tolson was now sporting laurels of a quality never before conceded by white critics to a black writer" (my emphasis). The "suddenness" of Tolson's stylistic transformation is of course belied by those poems published between the appearance of Rendezvous with America and Libretto for the Republic of Liberia, as well as by the documentary evidence in the hundreds of drafts collected among Tolson's papers at the Library of Congress. But Hughes's feelings, at least as they are reported by Rampersad, also unfairly associate Tolson's alterations of poetic mode with a betrayal of his earlier politics. This conclusion demands a belief that radical politics require a certain form of poetics, a belief which, according to Rampersad, Hughes held.

Hughes wrote to his friend Arna Bontemps at the time of the publication of Tolson's Libretto, recalling that Tolson had said he would "write so many foreign words and footnotes that they would have to pay him some mind!" and attributing, as others have, the most mundane of motivations to Tolson while simultaneously failing to consider Tolson's ironic humor about his public reception. Further, though, as Rampersad represents the shape of this betrayal, Tolson, "the poet laureate of an African country[,] had written the most hyper-European, unpopulist poem ever penned by a black writer. Did it not matter that very few of the American Friends of Liberia, and even fewer Liberians themselves, could understand the poem …?" (For the remainder of this article I will follow Rampersad's usage of populist in its contemporary rather than its historical sense.) Elsewhere Rampersad refers to Tolson's poetic transformation as "gentrification."

It is the confluence of racial, political, and aesthetic questions, perhaps inevitable in America, which underscores the peculiarity of these charges against Tolson. No one seems to take Tolson to task in this fashion for his use of White models in his earlier verse. Though the influences of Sandburg and Masters are readily apparent in those early poems, few would accuse Tolson of having deliberately adopted those models to curry favor with the White literary establishment; fewer still would see in his use of Masters as a model a betrayal of potential Black audiences. And yet one might argue that Tolson sounds more like his White models in the early than in the late poems. While the Libretto and Harlem Gallery are clearly indebted to Pound, Eliot, and Tate, they sound like none of these poets, and Tolson's late poems differ substantially in form and tone from the work of the one White poet they most resemble in diction, Hart Crane. Still, the suspicion of Tolson's poetics persists.

The charge that Tolson severed himself from Black readers is made still more strange when it is made by White critics. In an early review of Harlem Gallery Laurence Lieberman reported the results of an experiment:

It may well be that my problem in reading this book is that I am not Negro. Well, I have just spent a year teaching at the college in St. Thomas. The student body here is about ninety percent Negro, and nearly every Negro land I can think of is represented, including Africa and the states. Though English is the mother tongue for nearly all of the students, there is so much variety of accent and dialect, I have to struggle to understand what they are saying in class (as indeed they must struggle to understand each other). Africa is the land of their racial heritage, quite as much as it is Tolson's. I have tried to get the students—and some of them are promising poets—to become interested in reading Tolson's book. They do not understand him. He simply does not speak their language.

The tortured progress of Lieberman's logic in this passage will be familiar to inveterate readers of White criticism of Black writings. The reviewer begins by momentarily conceding to a racialist argument, that perhaps the fact of Whiteness is in and of itself a block against his understanding of a Black poem. But then, by producing evidence of uninterested or confused Black readers, he dismisses both the racialist argument and Tolson's poem. Despite the opening concession, the White teacher retains a position of primacy over both the poem and the students. "Hey, I tried, but you just weren't Black enough," seems to be an apt paraphrase. One could easily imagine a Black professor undertaking a similar experiment, attempting to interest a class of White students in the verse of Wallace Stevens, Hart Crane, or Gertrude Stein. Perhaps such a professor would, faced with failure, assert that these poets simply do not speak the students' language. But would our imaginary professor be likely to accuse the poets in question of being less authentic, less White, or less in touch with their traditions than the students?

This is exactly what Lieberman, despite a few complimentary things he has to say about Tolson's poem, goes on to do:

The Trinidadians and British Guianese I have met in St. Thomas have a more seminal dispute with Western Culture than any American Negro I have ever read, including Tolson and Baldwin. The Negroes of Trinidad and British Guiana have had Western Culture shoveled down their throats by the United Kingdom at closer range than the American Negroes. Some of the more outspoken among them dismiss the entire civilization arising from the Greeks as barbaric, and favor an Egypt-oriented definition of our cultural heritage. However absurd their claim, they at least offer a possibility for a new major direction and tradition for the modern world. Tolson does not offer this, so far as I can see.

Lieberman is playing a game here which no Black writer can possibly win. He simultaneously berates Tolson for failing to find a Black readership in his classroom, and sets himself up to judge who among Black writers does the most to break with the traditions of Western Culture, traditions about which they make "absurd claims."

That some African-American critics played similar games with his work was something that pained Melvin Tolson. Among his papers is a telling note in which he speaks of himself in the third person, remarking that the Poet Laureate of Liberia "was warned to stop using complex words that did nothing but give delirium tremens to poetry readers of the Black Gazette or Ebony and The Negro World." On the reverse side of this note Tolson has written starkly: "Negro critics beat poets of color / Keep step in the coffle." And in a letter to Allen Tate, Tolson observes that, "if the vanguard white poet is isolated, his Negro fellow is annihilated between the walls of biracialism." It is a mark of Tolson's determination that he refused to keep step in the coffle; it is a disservice to this poet to claim that he effected his successes by cozying up to the masters.

It is understandable, however, that Tolson's readers feel that he wished to be recognized for having brought modernist techniques to African-American verse. On June 1, 1949, pretending an oversight, Tolson appends this postscript to a letter to Tate: "I forgot to mention, Mr. Tate, that I believe the LIBRETTO marks a 'fork in the road,' a change in direction, for what is called Negro Poetry. Between me and you, it's long overdue!" It is this sort of remark that has earned for Tolson some animosity from later readers. And when, in a letter dated March 15 of the following year, Tolson refers to Tate's preface to the Libretto as the Negro's "Literary emancipation proclamation," most readers will share a level of exasperation. Who, we must ask, is being freed from whom, by what means, and for what future literary sharecropping? But a reading of Tolson which sees him only as a literary chameleon trying to assimilate with all deliberate speed is achieved at the price of ignoring the full complexity of Tolson's own, often playful remarks, and at the greater cost of not sufficiently reading what Tolson has in fact written.

In the unpublished novel All Aboard! one of Tolson's characters makes a comment to a mother which might easily have been directed later to Tate and Shapiro:

"Mrs. Graves," he said mockingly, "after you've spent your hard-earned bucks on your only son, how d'you expect him to talk?" He shook his forefinger at her. "Didn't Toussaint L'Overture Graves study the same books white boys study?"

The advent of someone like Tolson should come as no surprise to American readers. But, as the name of Tolson's earnest scholar Toussaint L'Overture Graves indicates, while he studied the same books as the White boys, he studied them differently and to different ends. The outcome of his studies portends something rather different than what many of his critics have imagined. What Tolson came to attempt was a decolonizing of American letters, a task which he saw as linking him to Whitman.

In attempting to decolonize American [literature]," Tolson notes, "Whitman was compelled to emphasize and glorify the Americanism of his art." Tolson is a decolonizer after Whitman and Toussaint L'Overture; he will emphasize and glorify the African-Americanism of his art, and he does it on the plain of the master's colony, on the site of the colonized master text of modernism. Tolson even goes so far as to suggest a modern revision of Whitman, a poet of whom Tolson says in one note, "There was no other with his ethnic empathy." Tolson offers an amendment towards the updating of his precursor: "The bronze god was Paul Robeson, the All-American of all time. Yes, if old Walt Whitman, America's greatest poet, had seen that, he would have included Paul Robeson in America's greatest epic, Leaves of Grass."

Melvin Tolson's Libretto for the Republic of Liberia and Harlem Gallery are poems which, like the longer works of Pound and Eliot, have designs upon their audiences. But they are works which both constitute a considerably different audience than that addressed by those White modernists and which constitute that audience on a different ground. Efforts to portray Tolson as a poet who betrayed his populist instincts to achieve the elite readership of academic modernism require that we ignore the nature of his poetry and the breadth of Tolson's own remarks. While it is true that Tolson took some comfort from John Ciardi's New Critical distinction between "vertical" and "horizontal" audiences, looking to possible future readers for fuller vindication, and while he was able to make jokes out of his understanding of the primary book-buying public, writing in one note, "My poetry is of the proletariat, by the proletariat, and for the bourgeoisie," it is also true that Tolson's works, far from being addressed only to experts, question the territory of modernist expertise and present knowledge as a link between poet and populace, a link which the populace should strive after as strongly as the poet:

      Is it too much to ask
      of homo sapiens the sweat of Hellas
      in order to enjoy Sophocles and Aristophanes …
      Even Elvis Presley and Bojangles
      and Patanjali
      require of their devotees the rigor of four dimensions.

If the words of the modernist bard do not occupy quite the same relationship to the public as do the proverbs of folk wisdom, they might still fill a similar function:

     The value of a proverb
     the elite never know:
     it is the people
     who reap and sow
     as the words list or blow.

Marked in his notes as a "thing to remember" is the assertion that "Negro artists [are not] alienated in Aframerica like white artists"; rather, "the pessimism of the white man throws into new relief the new Demi-urge in Negro life and Africa." In Tolson's view the African-American writer had no choice but to be a race man: "Racial bias forced him into race consciousness." Though he thinks of the poet as being in a cultural vanguard, he argues against the Eliotic position on culture: "If Mr. Eliot had read Dr. Oliver Cox's 'Race, Caste and Perhaps Class,' he would not have written his 'Class and the Elite.'" Indeed, Tolson saw his work as offering a way out of what he saw as Eliot's dead end. He placed himself in a more pluralist modernism with writers such as Williams, Hughes, and Crane, contra Eliot: "'The Bridge' is a way out of the pessimism of 'The Waste Land.' The 'Libretto' is a vista out of the mysticism of the 'Four Quartets.'"

Far from being an elitist, Tolson was a tireless propagandist among the people for his brand of modernism—as a teacher, a popular public speaker, a columnist, and a poet. Michael Bérubé has recently provided an apt appraisal of the type of populist aesthetic found in Harlem Gallery:

On this count the poem is unambiguous. To do anything less than disseminate modernism to the masses is to give in to cultural forces which would patronize and condescend to "the people" by giving them the kind of art which, in Clement Greenberg's words, "predigests art for the spectator and spares him effort, provides him with a shortcut to the pleasure of art that detours what is necessarily difficult in genuine art."

In his regular columns in the Washington Tribune, which ran from 1937 through 1944, Tolson constantly suggested readings to his audience, generally couching these suggestions in the most contemporary terms: "If you want to get the lowdown on the ancient Greeks, read Sappho, the Minnie-the-Moocher of her day." He plugged Margaret Anderson's magazine Common Ground, giving the address for potential subscribers, and, in the tradition of Walt Whitman and Ezra Pound, he plugged his own poems as well:

Of course, I want you to read "Rendezvous with America."… I just received word that the Atlantic Monthly is bringing out my poem, "Babylon." Some of you read "Dark Symphony." Well, I hope you like this last piece. It has an interesting history.

It is true that Tolson quite consciously wrote more simply in his journalism than in his verse, but it is also true that he genuinely hoped that many of the people in his Washington Tribune audience would be among the readers of his verse. If some White writers and their works were alienated from their people, "The mouths of white books choke with dust," Tolson notes. Tolson sees himself much in the role of an organic intellectual, as Antonio Gramsci has defined that term.

Odd as it may at first seem, this is in part an explanation for some of the esoterism in Tolson's works. In his effort to rearticulate modernism as a populist American aesthetic with African roots, Melvin Tolson reconfigured the audience for modern art, revising and reappropriating Eliot's objective correlative. It is this movement which explains an otherwise perverse sounding note among Tolson's papers. He writes: "I have hidden my identity as a Negro poet in words … / thus am I more militantly a Negro." The eye is drawn so strongly to the word hidden in this remark that its sense seems hopelessly contradictory. How might one be more militantly Negro by in any way hiding an identity as a Negro poet? What Tolson's possibly unrescuable comment appears in the fuller context of his works to portend is a militant alignment with a history of African and African-American signifying practices, what Tolson sometimes refers to as "Deepitalki." Michael Bérubé is half-right when he describes Tolson's approach: "… Tolson saw his adoption of modernist technique as a guerilla strategy, a means of letting revolutionary discourse sound in the ears of conservative whites by masking that discourse in a no longer revolutionary poetics." The poet did see his work as a guerilla strategy, but he did not see conservative Whites as his only, or even primary, audience. Nor did he see modernist poetics as no longer revolutionary. To the contrary, he came to see modernist poetics as having been already arrived at by African aesthetics, thus rendering the African-American tradition primary rather than merely imitative.

At one point in his development, Tolson separated himself from Eliot, Tate, and other Anglo-American modernists on the grounds of content. In a speech at Kentucky State College, Tolson told his listeners:

Imitation must be in technique only. We have a rich heritage of folk lore and history. We are part of America. We are part of the world. Our native symbols must be lifted into the universal. Yes, we must study the techniques of Robert Lowell, Dylan Thomas, Carlos Williams, Ezra Pound, Karl Shapiro, W. H. Auden. The great revolution has not been in science but in poetry.

Yet, Tolson's rearticulation of modernism led him eventually to assert African progenitors in the realm of technique. Tolson could claim that his esoteric modernism made him more militantly Negro because he claimed that the aesthetic had roots in African and African-American poetics. His audience was not composed entirely of conservative Whites. He writes in one place, "I talk with old slaves / (Deepi-Talki)."

Melvin Tolson was an inveterate collector of African proverbs and African talk. Among his papers are page after page upon which he has patiently copied out proverbs unearthed in his reading. He notes of these proverbs and poems, "Sometimes the Africans go esoteric on us," and he traces the tradition of African esoterism into African-American song and speech. "Esoterica," he notes, "meanings of spirituals like symbolism today in poetry. / Exs: 'Go Down Moses' / 'Steal Away to Jesus' / I talk with old slaves." It is also the rearticulation of modernism as African which surfaces in remarks Tolson made to his audience at the Library of Congress when he was invited to read there late in his life:

You know, poets like to do a great amount of double talking. We think very often that the modernists gave us that concept of poetry, which is untrue. Because I can go back into the Negro work songs, the spirituals and jazz, and show you that double talk of poetry. And I can even [clicking his fingers for emphasis] go to Africa, as I shall do tonight, and show you that double talk of poetry, especially in metaphors and symbols. So I'm doing some double talk here.

Having found in the African proverbs a source he could cite to justify the seemingly esoteric diction of his rearticulated modernism, a source which antedates and, in his view, influences his more immediate modernist models, Tolson goes on to elaborate a theory of rhythmic signifying rooted in African-American tradition, a theory related to Frost's ideas about sentence sound, and a theory whose source Tolson suggests in an aside may already have found its roundabout way into the American canon:

Now it is said that you have to watch these poets, because with their beat they're always trying to make you suspend your intellect. And then he's got you in charge. You know how Edgar Allan Poe could do that, [clicking his fingers for emphasis] sometimes saying nothing, but that beat would get you…. I don't know, he might have got it from the old Negro preacher.

My students often come to me and say: "Well, I went to hear old Reverend So-and-so when I went home during the holidays. And you know the man didn't say anything, and everybody was just rocking,… rocking."

I said, "You need a course that you haven't got in college yet." [Steps away from the podium and stamps out a rhythm with his feet to demonstrate.] What did that old preacher do? He set up a rhythmic pattern, just like the poet.

Those who would oppose Tolson's modernism to an oral, vernacular tradition, clearly favoring the latter, make at least two mistakes. First, they neglect to consider fully the implications of the fact that the oral tradition is represented by poets in writing. Second, they present a grossly reduced vernacular for our consideration. Tolson's turning to the heritage of African proverb and the traditions of pulpit performance is part of an aesthetic that celebrates and continues the richness of verbal signifying practice among the people. In Blues People, Amiri Baraka's seminal study of African-American vernacular music, Baraka claims for Black language practice an aesthetic reminiscent of Emily Dickinson's:

In language, the African tradition aims at circumlocution rather than at exact definition. The direct statement is considered crude and unimaginative; the veiling of all contents in ever-changing paraphrase is considered the criterion of intelligence and personality. In music, the same tendency towards obliquity and ellipsis is noticeable.

Similarly, Tolson had written in his notes that "the direction of a poet is indirection. To speak in military terms, the prosifier says, 'Forward! March!' but the poet says,' Oblique! March!"

In Understanding the New Black Poetry, Stephen Henderson identifies among the features of a Black aesthetic in language virtuoso naming and enumerating, metaphysical imagery, compressed and cryptic imagery, and hyperbolic imagery. (Coincidentally, Tolson once began to make notes for a talk on "Hyperbole in Negro Poetry.") These are but a few of the "innumerable forms" of Black linguistic elegance Henderson posits in opposition to those who would reduce "Black" linguistic style to a very narrow register. For Henderson, as for Tolson and Baraka, "there is this tradition of beautiful talk," and that tradition will not be confined within any critic's closed notions of a "street" language. "Don Lee, for example, can use the word 'neoteric' without batting an eye and send us scurrying to our dictionaries. The word is not 'Black' but the casual, virtuoso way that he drops it on us—like 'Deal with that'—is an elegant Black linguistic gesture." Melvin B. Tolson finds in the vernacular of the African-American preacher and his flock the same thing he finds in the language arts of Africa, a highly allusive, hyperbolic, compressed metaphoricity, and what Houston Baker has termed "virtuoso mastery of form."

In Harlem Gallery Tolson presents this as a sustaining feature of Black life: "Metaphors and symbols in Spirituals and Blues / have been the Negro's manna in the Great White World." Speaking to his newspaper readers in Washington, D.C., Tolson said, "There is mastery in old John Milton's Paradise Lost. But no greater mastery than you'll find in one of God's old trombones. At his best, the old preacher had the poetry of word and motion—if you get what I mean." Having schooled himself in the techniques of Anglo-American modernism, Tolson proceeded in the last years of his life to reverse the roles of master and student. Having inscribed his lines, as it were, between the lines of modernism's master text, he was now suggesting that the master text had in fact copied itself out of the text of African traditions. The sea-turtle had eaten his way out of the great white shark, had eaten "his way to freedom / beyond the vomiting dark." It comes as no surprise that such audacious signifying has provoked consternation in some readers:

            We chewed this quid a second time,
                  for Black Boy often adds
               the dimension of ethnic irony
                 to Empson's classic seven.
                             II
 
            Thus, the Negro scholar in our day
                Is born to be a genealogist.

When in 1965 interviewer M. W. King asked Melvin Tolson about his having "out-pounded Pound," Tolson immediately responded, "Well, I did go to the Africans instead of the Chinese." Pound too had gone to the Africans, but he had gone with Frobenius as his guide, thus replicating some of the errors of that source, and his own biases prevented his pursuing fuller studies of the development of African civilizations. Tolson had, by the time of his interview with King, been going to the Africans for decades, partly at least to fulfil the role of genealogist: to fill in the ahistorical nothingness to which European art, philosophy, and history had consigned Africa, and to reveal the fuller genealogy of modernism, which includes African sources. In the 1965 interview he remarks that "Gertrude Stein's judgment that the Negro suffers from Nothingness revealed her profound ignorance of African cultures," then reads into the record just a few of the hundreds of African proverbs he had collected when preparing to write his Libretto for the Republic of Liberia. Having read some of the same proverbs to his audience at the Library of Congress, he challenges them: "Now you ask the modern poets to make metaphors as good, proverbs as good." Bringing his genealogy around to America, he introduces his poem to old Satchmo, Louis Armstrong, repeating Stein's notorious remark and admonishing his listeners, "Now you listen to this and see if there's any truth to that; and you've heard the African proverbs." Coming back to Stein in Harlem Gallery Tolson provides a literal genealogy:

              The Toothpick, Funky Five, and
                      Tippling Tom!
            Ma Rainey, Countess Willie V., and
                      Aunt Harriet!
             Speckled Red, Skinny Head Pete,
                  and Stormy Weather!
                   Listen, Black Boy.
            Did the High Priestess at 27 rue de
                          Fleurus
             assert, "The Negro suffers from
                        nothingness"?

This artful list Tolson terms the "real ancients of the jazz world," and it is meant as self-evident refutation for an audience that recognizes any of these names.

Throughout his career Tolson collected information about African culture, particularly information which belied the myth of an Africa without a history, or which unsettled the myths of European primacy. From Mommsen he collected the observation that "it was through Africa that [Christianity] became a world religion," and on the same sheet of paper, while reading Du Bois, Tolson is reminded that Moses married a Black woman. From Franz Boas he copied out the assertion that "any one who is familiar with the history of Africa before its subjugation by the Europeans knows the industrial skill, the artistic genius, the political ability of the Negro. In every region from West Africa through the Sudan to South Africa we have proof of it." On draft pages of the Libretto he notes, "Culture of 14th Century Africa equal to Europe's," and in the final version of the poem he transforms his historical researches into lyric genealogy:

     Solomon in all his glory had no Oxord.
     Alfred the Great no University of Sankoré:
     Footloose professors, chimney sweeps of the skull,
     From Europe and Asia; youths, souls in one skin,
     Under white scholars like El-Akit, under
     Black humanists like Bagayogo.

Of Bagayogo he had also written in "The Negro Scholar": "When Anglo-Saxons laud the Venerable Bede, / Let Africans remember Bagayogo."

The Kingdom of Benin was of special interest to Tolson. In the margin of his working drafts of the Libretto, he notes that "Professor Van Luschan considered the craftsmanship of Benin workers equal to the best ever produced by Cellini." Beyond seeing the arts of Benin as having equaled European accomplishments, he sees them as having been the source of much that is modernism: "The listening ear can hear / among the moderns, blue / tomtoms of Benin." In his working draft for the Libretto, he had already claimed for Benin an influence upon the revolutionary reconceptualizing of space by modernist artists such as Braque and Picasso: "Benin, whose ivory and / bronze statues gave lyricism and / Space reality to modernistic art…." By the time he completed the Libretto he had upped the ante, contemporizing the claim in one direction, while giving it greater specificity in another.

     The Bula Matadi, diesel-engined,
     fourfold-decked,
     swan sleek, glides like an ice-
     ballet skater out of the Bight of
     Benin, the lily lyricism of whose
     ivory and gold figurines larked
     space oneness on the shelf ice
     of avant-garde Art….

Thus Africa is "No waste land yet"—neither the dark continent portrayed by Eliot, Conrad, Stein, and Crane nor the waste land that Eliot's Europe had become—but out of Africa had come much of the most provocative aesthetics of the modern. Tolson finds:

     The ground the Negro Scholar stands upon
     Is fecund with the challenge and tradition
 
     That Ghana knew, and Melle, and Ethiopia,
     And Songhai: civilizations black men built
     Before the Cambridge wits, the Oxford dons
     Gave to the Renaissance a diadem.

Robert M. Farnsworth, in his biography of Melvin B. Tolson, argues that "Tolson clearly saw himself in the vanguard of an army of black cultural soldiers who would make the African past a centerpiece of the world's future…." This could only be accomplished, however, by displacing White hegemony not only over modernist aesthetics, but also over the idea of America and its history. In adapting African musical traditions to the Western scale and tempered instruments, African Americans forever altered both the music of Africa and the music of the West. In his plans to create a Harlem anthology which would serve a similar function to the Greek Anthology, Tolson had to look at both Harlem and the Western classical traditions differently. In writing Libretto for the Republic of Liberia, which is organized in sections following the Western musical scale, Tolson, who had already begun to rearticulate modernism as virtuoso African-American form, undertook a confrontation with American history on a transformed ground, displacing White experience from its position of centrality and refiguring both the Middle Passage and the Pilgrim story.

His earlier poem "Rendezvous with America" had begun this process by placing the experiences of the Middle Passage on an equal level with the mythic progenitors of White America: "Time unhinged the gates / Of Plymouth Rock and Jamestown and Ellis Island." "Rendezvous with America," having unhinged accepted historical primacies, adopts a questioning rhetorical strategy:

                          America?
      America is the Black Man's country,
      The Red Man's, the Yellow Man's,
      The Brown Man's, the White Man's.

In this enumeration the White Man's claim to proprietorship comes last, and thus "Rendezvous with America" sets the pattern for the Libretto in both form and rhetorical stance.

The Libretto does not stop at its allusion to the fact that Africans preceded the pilgrims in the New World ("'… the Negroes have been in this country longer, on the average, than their white neighbors; they first came to this country on a ship called the Jesus one year before the Mayflower'"), it portrays the founding of Liberia as an altered return to a site of civilization which precedes the American:

      Before Liberia was Songhai was: before
      America set the raw founding on Africa's
      Doorstep, before the Genoese diced west,
      Burnt warriors and watermen of Songhai
      Tore into bizarreries the uniforms of Portugal
      And sewed an imperial quilt of tribes.

At the opening of his Libretto Tolson recalls the form of his own earlier poem while simultaneously seeming to offer answers to Countée Cullen's questioning refrain in "Heritage," "What is Africa to me?" and distancing himself again from Eliot's "Waste Land":

                        Liberia?
               No micro-footnote in a bunioned
                             book
                      Horned by a pedant
                      With a gelded look:
                             You are
               The ladder of survival dawn men
                              saw

Liberia is not the ahistorical blank of Eliot's Africa; neither is it the impotent tribal dirge of the Eliotic modern. It is rather the fecund soil upon which African and American histories rerendezvous, the territory upon which both histories are to be reconstituted. Middle Passage and colonizing pilgrimage cross here in a reconstruction that undoes canonical versions of American heritage.

Where his earlier poem had claimed for African Americans a rendezvous with America at Plymouth Rock, in the Libretto Tolson figures forth a Black pilgrimage, one which retraces the Middle Passage to rewrite a redemptive history on the territory of a new, African-Americanized Africa. Tolson, writing to an unidentified correspondent, said this of his intentions:

In the fifth section, I picture the brig Elizabeth taking Elizah Johnson and his Black Pilgrim Fathers to West Africa. The dilemma again: the White Pilgrims sail west, but the Black Pilgrims sail east! Using a new stanzaic form—

This is the Middle Passage: here
Gehenna hatchways vomit up
The living and the dead.
 
This is the Middle Passage: here
The sharks grow fattest and the stench
Goads God to hold his nose!

I tried to pack into these lines the tragedies of thousands of blacks lost on their [way] to America. Later, I picture the Black Pilgrims landing on Providence Island. I hope I've captured the heroism of it! At least nobody has tried to do it before in verse.

One can not help but think here again of Tolson's story, in Harlem Gallery, of the sea-turtle eating its way through the devouring shark to freedom. The same waves that wash over the bones of many thousands gone during the Middle Passage now reverse the myth of English pilgrimage and carry African Americans to their Providence Island, where they will build an Africa made different by the American sojourn. The Black pilgrim fathers will establish Liberia as a city on a hill, as "A moment of the conscience of mankind!" Reversing the colonial expropriation of African resources, Liberia is to make possible the defense of freedom on African soil against racist, European adventures which threaten all the world:

     The rubber from Liberia shall arm
 
     Free peoples and her airport hinterlands
     Let loose the winging grapes of wrath upon
     The Desert Fox's cocained nietzcheans
     A goose-step from the Gateway of the East!

A new world music is to sound for a "Futurafrique" in which the "Parliament of African Peoples signets forever the Recessional of Europe."

The ethos of this new New World is summed up in Tolson's citation of the words of Jehudi Ashmun, the White pilgrim who overturned the founding mythos of America by sailing to a lost colony of freed slaves in West Africa:

     "My Negro Kinsmen,
     America is my mother,
     Liberia is my wife,
     And Africa is my brother."

No elitist betrayal of populist poetics, the Libretto draws upon many of the most ready-to-hand mythic figurations to point the way to the Futurafrique's realization of the American democratic promise in African lives on African soil:

     The Parliament of African Peoples
     plants the winged
     lex scripta of its New Order on
     Roberts Avenue, in Bunker Hill,
     Liberia …

Here will be realized the Whitmanian democratic vistas "with leaves of grass and great audiences…." If the Parliament of African Peoples also "trumpets the abolition of itself," it is more a sign of Tolson's lingering Marxism, his hope for an eventual withering away of oppressive state apparatus, than of any doubt about his, or Africa's, project. The Parliament will abolish itself eventually because, as American mythology claimed for its institutions, the "Parliament of African Peoples decrees the Zu'lhijyah of Everyman," and in eternizing "Afrika sikelel' iAfrika …," the Libretto simply sounds the notes of self-saving determination which are today a rallying cry for the liberation movements in South Africa: "Africa save Africa."

Tolson's Libretto for the Republic of Liberia, in the process of redirecting America's founding myths and redeploying the sources of modernist influences, also displaces the hegemonic view of African-American intellectual development as secondary and imitative by erecting as its own framework the trope of African-American pilgrimage to literacy and educational independence. Following in the tradition of Frederick Douglass, W. E. B. Du Bois, Mary McLeod Bethune, and other writers, Tolson was, in the Libretto, memorializing the liberatory impetus of Black educational institutions. In addition to placing in his poem allusions to the legendary centers of African learning such as Timbuktoo, which rival and precede many Anglo-American centers for the dissemination of White intellectual hegemony, Tolson has created in the Libretto a poem whose very being is a commemorative to Tolson's African-American alma mater, as well as to African learning and philosophy generally.

Tolson's status as the only American artist to have been named Poet Laureate of another nation, Liberia, is more often noted with surprise and credited to Tolson's own cleverness than reckoned for what it most immediately is—tribute to the institutions which have contributed most to the ongoing cultural cross fertilization of African and African-American life. Few White American intellectuals are at all familiar with the histories of what we have come to call Historically Black Colleges and Universities; fewer still know that two of the most important African-American poets, Melvin B. Tolson and Langston Hughes, both studied at Lincoln University; fewer yet are aware of Lincoln's place of primacy as the oldest such institution in North America; and I doubt that any of Tolson's earliest White critics knew of Lincoln's connection with the history of Liberia before learning about it from Tolson.

Writing to Dr. Horace Mann Bond, a former classmate of his at Lincoln who subsequently became president of the university, Tolson promises, "In my Notes to the poem (it requires them) I am seeing that Lincoln University shall come to the attention of the superintellectuals of the English-speaking worlds." I believe we are justified in reading more than a little irony in Tolson's reference to Anglo-American superintellectuals. Little of the history he was contending with in his Libretto was known to these "super-intellectuals," many of whom blithely assumed that Africa and its diaspora had no history to speak of.

The Libretto's notes were required at least in part to alert readers to the documentary evidence of this history; it was then up to the readers themselves to contend with the implicit ironies. In one of these notes, Tolson informs us that

Lincoln University, the oldest Negro institution of its kind in the world, was founded as Ashmun Institute. The memory of the white pilgrim survives in old Ashmun Hall and in the Greek and Latin inscriptions cut in stones sacred to Lincoln men. The annual Lincoln-Liberian dinner is traditional, and two of the graduates have been ministers to Liberia.

Both the annual dinner and the contributions of Lincoln alumni to American-Liberian diplomacy mark originary links between the school and the African nation.

The American Colonization Society, formed in 1816, was not, as its name might imply, a society for the furtherance of American imperial desire, but a society organized to work for the repatriation of Africans to their native continent. As such, it was simultaneously a colonizing and decolonizing undertaking. It was their lost colony that Jehudi Ashmun and his wife sailed to join, along with a number of freed African Americans, in 1822. Established by that same American Colonization Society for the purpose of training future Liberian leaders, Ashmun Institute was subsequently rechristened Lincoln University. (As it happens, Tolson had been a student at Lincoln High School in Kansas City and had published juvenilia in the Lincolnian in 1917 and 1918.) What Tolson found in all this was a powerfully fecund metaphorical site on which the boundaries between colonizer and colonized, primary and secondary, and original and imitation were so fluid as to become less than boundaries, undoing the traditional typology of the story of America's progress.

For Tolson, Middle Passage and Pilgrimage are terrible mirror images of one another, reflecting historical horrors and redemptive human possibility. There is a city on a hill in Africa which is both precedent and descendent to the New Canaan in America. The Atlantic becomes a profoundly signifying divider, like the "paseq" which Tolson inscribes in his Libretto, drawn from his copy of holy scripture, and which he calls the "most mysterious sign in the literature." It is an unsounded textual sign floating an oral and oracular tradition. It is an interruption that denies the boundary lines we would draw between scripture and speech, between ecriture and lecture, and unspeakable parting of the scriptural seas. Tolson places these powerful signs in play, displacing the priority of the master text between whose lines he inscribes.

This was not a symptom of arcane obfuscation, but an opening of textual possibilities that others might follow. Tolson teased his students often by telling them that the White Man put everything he didn't want Black people to know in the library. Like William Carlos Williams, Tolson's texts broke through the library walls, releasing knowledge and language from their prison house. They are an assault upon Anglo-American modernism's territorial designs, but they have been little read.

     Behind the curtain, aeon after aeon,
     he who doubts the white book's
     colophon
     is truth's, if not Laodicean, wears
     the black flower T of doomed
     Laocoon.

These lines, looking back to Hawthorne's "black flower of civilized society, a prison," though they indicate Tolson's cognizance of the difficulties his text would encounter in the Great White World, are not where he chose to end. He ends instead at the point where the scale completes its ascent to the originary note, where pilgrimage and Middle Passage join, where

     The Parliament of African peoples pinnacles Novus
       Homo in the Ashmun International House, where, free and joyful again, all mankind unites, without heralds of earth and water …

He concludes, "Honi soit qui mal y pense!" He ends, as he will end Harlem Gallery, chronicling "a people's New World odyssey."

The texts of Melvin B. Tolson have not been read much, but they have been read to great effect. They have worked their influence on both sides of that permeable but impassable paseq of American culture, the endlessly reinscribed line described by W. E. B. Du Bois as the problem of the twentieth century, the color bar. The White poet William Carlos Williams, after reading a section of Tolson's Libretto in Poetry magazine, immediately replicated Tolson's audacious act by writing Tolson's poem into book 4 of Paterson, and by inscribing his own reading between the lines of Tolson's text. And the works of Melvin B. Tolson have had incalculable effects among African and African-American thinkers, both aesthetically and politically.

There is at least one thing which two West African writers and activists had in common with Lyndon Baines Johnson. Johnson signed a note to Tolson thanking him for the autographed copy of his book which Tolson had presented to the White House library during a visit to the executive mansion. Years earlier, at the request of Horace Mann Bond, Tolson had inscribed special copies of Libretto for the Republic of Liberia for two African populists whose interest in reading his work may have been more immediate. One of these was Nnamdi Azikiwe, a former Lincoln student who went on to serve as President of Nigeria, and who authored the book Renascent Africa. The other, also a Lincoln University graduate, was the first post-colonial leader of Ghana, Kwame Nkrumah. In the years 1943–45, while he was a student at Lincoln, this young, radical African scholar held a number of important meetings with an African-Caribbean scholar, a dedicated reader of poetry, who was in the United States doing the difficult work of cultural and political organizing against capitalist hegemony, meetings for the discussion of a topic Tolson would certainly find interesting, "the value and techniques of illegal work" in decolonizing Africa and securing a modern African territory. This African-Caribbean revolutionary scholar with whom the African revolutionary scholar met on the grounds of this oldest of African-American intellectual institutions was C. L. R. James. Thus was the intellectual triangle trade which Tolson tropes in his poetry embodied and enacted. It remains to be seen how the world shall construe its reading.

(read more)

This section contains 7,531 words
(approx. 26 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Essay by Aldon L. Nielsen
Follow Us on Facebook