Honoring the Power of Poetry

April is National Poetry Month. And Richard Durham was a poet who loved the freedom of expression this art form provided.

“I think it’s the highest form of writing,” he once told a reporter.

So in honor of this month and to see an example of Durham’s poetic voice, the following poem was published in Golden Slippers: An Anthology of Negro Poetry for Young Readers, edited by writer Arna Bontemps.

Dawn Patrol

Night creeps over the city;

Streets spangle with kilowatt pearls,

Lights splatter over seas of shadows

Damning the flood of darkness.

Drunken night,

A hobo bowed over a bar of time,

Brooding over a black bottle of stars

Blinking like beer bubbles,

Soon comes the police patrol of dawn,

Night slowly staggers away

And then the day.

—Richard Durham, 1941

Durham’s mother came from a hardscrabble family of sharecroppers.  They struggled to earn a living on the Mississippi farmlands they planted and harvested, trying to get out of the ongoing debt the family incurred. Probably inspired by the stories Durham’s mother told him about the “cropping” life, he wrote the following poem:

Cotton Croppers

A citron sun, a ghost of gold,

Pours thick heat down on the field.

Heat burst the bolls and floods the air

Where ragged croppers, like patches in a cotton cloud,

Dot the billowy acres,

Bag the bolls, swell the sacks.

Plod the rows; pick the cotton.

 

Wading through the turbid waves unable to feel

The glory of day for the hell of heat!

And to a winding road snaking besides the field

They have but to lift their eyes to see,

Unworried over the sun, the cotton,

The plight of the pickers,

Comfortable cars rolling by the road,

Touring through the heat

Plowing through the air.

—Isadore Richard Durham, undated

 

Happy National Poetry Month!


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Commemorating Paul Robeson’s Birthday

If Richard Durham were alive today, he would no doubt take time to honor the life of Paul Robeson – the gifted African American athlete, committed scholar, talented artist and inspiring activist born on April 9th.

Durham admired Robeson. PAUL ROBESON PHOTO

During his lifetime (1898-1976), the 6 foot 3 inch tall, deep-voiced Robeson attained worldwide celebrity. Yet despite his substantial achievements as a singer and star of stage and screen, Robeson was a selfless champion of the battle for global human rights. Robeson was praised and damned for his outspoken activism and dedication to social justice.

So Durham proposed dramatizing Robeson’s life in Destination Freedom, Durham’s award-winning and truly unique series about African American heroes and heroines. This half-hour long, weekly radio series aired on NBC affiliate station WMAQ in Chicago, from 1948-50. But Robeson’s progressive views and activism were too radical for the network’s taste. According to Durham:

I wasn’t as unhappy with not being allowed to put Paul Robeson on because frankly, I didn’t think that I could get it done. Some subjects have more electricity than others by virtue of the fact that people know about them or have already established a certain outlook on them.

Still, Durham found ways to portray the lives and contributions of men and women whose outspokenness mirrored Robeson’s. One such person was Denmark Vesey. A former South Carolina-based slave, Vesey masterminded a revolt that reportedly involved about nine thousand co-conspirators in 1822.

Denmark Vesey’s revolt was foiled before it gained traction. But at his trial before a South Carolina judge and angry white spectators, Durham’s Vesey character delivered a speech that was “one of the most damning critiques of racial abuse ever heard on U.S. radio,” historian J. Fred MacDonald asserted.

This episode’s judge character asked Denmark Vesey to explain his act of “treachery” against the state of South Carolina.

Durham’s Vesey replied:

My treachery began when I read the Declaration of Independence…
it said “All men are created equal.” It grew when I read that black
Crispus Attucks died to help the colonies be free. 

Did he die just to  free white men or all men?

Then I read what Ben Franklin, Tom Paine, LaFayette and Jefferson had said
and their words warmed my blood. They wanted their revolution to make all men free and equal. They stopped with some men free and some men slaves.

I took up where they left off.

(Slower.)  I found my price when I was a slave and I paid it. If my life is the price I  pay to be free… take it. I’ll pay it.

Until all men are free, the revolution goes on!


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