“‘Air of Freedom’: Poetry and National Security”

Lorenzo Thomas

The original idea [for this panel] was modernist poetic radicalism.  The question came to my mind whether that referred to poetic form or to the consciousness that went into the poems.  In our subsequent conversations, after September 11, the issue of just exactly what is the value of our precious lessons came to my mind, and I insisted there must be some value to what we teach and research.  So I went back to thinking about 1912—the launching of Harriet Monroe’s Poetry, one of our landmarks for the birthdate of modernism—to look at what the country’s intellectual atmosphere might have been at that moment.  This is before F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “Jazz Age,” before Jean Toomer’s Cane, which in 1923 heralded the dawning of the Harlem Renaissance.  In 1916, for example, there weren’t any jazz records yet, and it would be a year before the Texas folklorist John A. Lomax introduced readers of the Nation to a form of music called blues, which he usefully described as “Negro songs of self-pity.” 

So who or what did Americans think black people were?  In 1915, David Wark Griffith’s blockbuster movie “Birth of a Nation” hit the public like a thunderbolt, and President Woodrow Wilson, who had a screening of it in the White House (it was the first movie to be shown in the White House) described it as “history written in lightning.”  The White House did not disclose that Rev. Thomas Dixon, who was the author of The Clansman, a 1905 novel that the movie was based on, happened to be Woodrow Wilson’s grad school chum.  But most people, black people, anyway, understood where the Wilson administration’s racial ideas came from.  Not only did “The Birth of a Nation” make lots and lots of money at the box office, it also revitalized the revived Atlanta-based Ku Klux Klan.  In fact, at the movie’s premiere in Atlanta, while people stood on line, Klansmen rode down the street on horseback handing out membership applications to the moviegoers.

But that was 1915. 

1917 proved that poetry could be hazardous to your health, your bank account, and your mental stability.  In fact, a poem in 1917 could get you indicted, tried, and perhaps imprisoned.  And the Federal Government in 1917 could prevent the distribution of magazines and newspapers in which the offending poem appeared.  The Espionage Act passed in 1917, followed by the Sedition Act passed in 1918, prepared the United States to enter as a combatant in World War I.  Albert Burleson, the Postmaster General, was able to use the Espionage Act and the Sedition Act to deny mailing privileges to any publication that published material critical of the government’s war effort.  That act was invoked in 1917 to prevent distribution of the Masses, a radical, socialist literary journal edited by Max Eastman.  His associates and contributors included Floyd Dell, foreign correspondent John Reed, Mabel Dodge, and Dorothy Day.  Indicted with Eastman and six other editorial members for conspiring to obstruct recruitment was the poet Josephine Bell.  Her crime was having written this poem:

A Tribute
Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman
Are in prison.
Although the night is tremblingly beautiful
And the sound of water climbs down the rocks
And the breath of the night air moves through multitudes and multitudes of leaves
That love to waste themselves for the sake of the summer.
Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman
Are in prison tonight,
But they have made themselves elemental forces,
Like the water that climbs down the rocks:
Like the wind in the leaves:
Like the gentle night that holds us:
They are working on our destinies:
They are forging the love of the nations:
Tonight they lie in prison.

Now, that poem was supposed to appear in the August 1917 issue of the Masses.  Postmaster General Burleson seized the issue and refused to have it mailed.  Eastman and company were indicted and tried for obstructing recruitment.  The judge dismissed charges against Josephine Bell when he discovered that she really couldn’t be much of a conspirator, inasmuch as like most of the rest of us, I suppose she had simply sent in her poem with a stamped, self-addressed envelope, and Max Eastman and the rest decided to print it. 

But the readers of the Masses knew Emma Goldman as a trained nurse who campaigned vigorously for birth control.  In April 1916, Goldman was arrested for giving a birth control lecture.  She decided, like Marcus Garvey and other people that don’t have too much sense, to defend herself.  She was convicted, of course, and sentenced to 15 days in jail.  But the Masses, in its June 1916 issue, published her courtroom speech.  Partly it said, “Your Honor, if giving one’s life for the purpose of awakening race consciousness in the masses, a consciousness that will impel them to bring quality and not quantity into society, if that be a crime, I’m glad to be such a criminal.” 

“After all,” she went on, “the question of birth control is largely a working man’s question.  Above all, a working woman’s question.  She it is who risks her health, her youth, her very life, in giving out of herself the units of the race.  She it is who ought to have the means and the knowledge to say how many children she shall give, and to what purpose she shall give them, and under what conditions she shall bring forth life.”

I suppose that that’s the Emma Goldman that Josephine Bell was thinking of when she wrote the poem. 

Alexander Berkman is a somewhat different story.  He was an anarchist who attempted to assassinate Carnegie Steel executive Henry Clay Frick during the Homestead Strike.  He spent fourteen years in prison, but he went on giving his political speeches once he got out.  The cause célèbre of 1917 is that both Goldman and Berkman were arrested for obstructing the draft.  And that has something to do with  the Post Office citing Josephine Bell’s poem.

Of course, in 1919, both Berkman and Goldman were eventually deported, along with 247 other undesirable aliens and anarchists.  But regarding the Masses trial, Margaret Jones—in Heretics and Hell-Raisers: Woman Contributors to The Masses—points out:

The charge was a serious one.  The labor activist and Masses contributor Rose Pastor Stokes was later to receive a ten-year sentence under the Espionage Act for writing to a Kansas newspaper, “I am for the people and the government is for the profiteers.” 

Another Masses contributor, graphic artist Henry J. Glintencamp was indicted for a drawing depicting a skeleton measuring a draftee for a uniform.  The post office saw it as an offense under the Espionage Act—not as another homage to the traditional art motif of “Death-in-Life.”  But then maybe the readers didn’t see it that way, either. 

Max Eastman and his associates had a lot of financial backing.  And they went through two trials and won.  But, of course, the Masses magazine went defunct in the interim, and he replaced it with a magazine called Liberator

Besides birth control and the draft, race was a particularly sensitive issue to the government, partly because these years—before the Jazz Age and the Harlem Renaissance and America’s involvement in World War I—provided a great deal of material for those people who wanted to point out that democracy, in some parts of this country anyway, was quite as unsafe as it was anyplace else in the world.  In September 1916, the Masses ran an eyewitness report on conditions in Waco, Texas, the day after a 17-year-old black youth named Jesse Washington was dragged out of the courtroom where he was being tried, and roasted over a bonfire in the courthouse square.  Photographs taken from the vantage point of City Hall were later sold as postcards, souvenirs of that incident.  The NAACP journal, the Crisis, devoted a whole issue—I believe it was in September 1916—to that Waco atrocity.

Fenton Johnson’s Chicago magazine the Champion pointedly compared Waco to the casualties incurred by a black cavalry unit on duty in Mexico.  They were on a mission to arrest Pancho Villa, but they blundered into the Mexican Civil War and were taken prisoners, resulting in President Wilson calling up National Guardsmen and massing fifty thousand in Texas troops at the border–threatening war with Mexico. 

The African-American press, like the Masses, was also subject to the intimidation of government readers, so to speak; and, unlike the Masses and other wealthy liberals, did not have the resources to fight against it.  During 1918, the Justice Department under Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer conducted extensive research and surveillance with a newly-established task force.  And that group, headed by a young man named J. Edgar Hoover—on his first job—explored and researched what Hoover called “radicalism and sedition among Negroes as reflected in their publications.”  They published a wonderful report in the documents of the 66th Congress, issued by the Government Printing Office, which essentially is quite an interesting anthology of African-American writing in 1915, 1916, 1917, 1918, and 1919. 

Newspaper and magazine editors also might get a visit from Maj. Walter Loving, who was a black Army officer.  He earned his commission in the Spanish-American War.  There were very few black officers in the United States Army then; none in the United States Navy.  But Walter Loving was attached to the Military Intelligence Branch  (MIB) and worked in plainclothes, attending political and intellectual meetings in Harlem, Chicago and elsewhere.  Of course everyone knew who he was.  When he showed up to have an appointment with Robert Abbott at the Chicago Defender, Mr. Abbott knew that the message was that some of his editorials had annoyed someone in Washington, D.C.

Here in Houston, in September 1917, what is now Memorial Park was called Camp Logan.  And the same 9th and 10th Cavalry, and the 25th Infantry—the “Buffalo soldiers”—that had gotten in the scrape in Mexico in 1916, were stationed here as security guards for the building of Camp Logan. The facility was intended to be a training base for those soldiers going to Europe—“over there” where the Yanks were coming.  After a month or so of insults and racist abuse from the Houston Police Department and the public, an incident took place on San Felipe Street.  The soldiers were outraged and marched on the town from their base.  That’s described as the Houston Riot.  The upshot is several people were killed.  Most were black soldiers, also white policemen and citizens who armed themselves to attack the soldiers or perhaps to defend them. 

Thirteen of the soldiers were court-martialed and hanged.  Forty-one were court-martialed and given life imprisonment.  All of these trials went on within a bewilderingly short period of time, much before the press knew anything about the incident.  When Archibald Grimké, who was a well-known lawyer in Washington, D.C., wrote a poem called “Her Thirteen Black Soldiers,” it was rejected by the Atlantic Monthly.  It went from there to the Crisis, which was edited by W.E.B. Du Bois, and according to Jervis Anderson in his biography of A. Philip Randolph, Du Bois admitted to Archibald Grimké that—even though Grimké was head of the Washington D.C. NAACP chapter—because of Justice Department scrutiny and the fact that the Justice Department had found some of Du Bois’s Crisis editorials disloyal, he dared not print this poem. A. Philip Randolph’s Messenger did eventually print the poem “Her Thirteen Black Soldiers,” along with an editorial note pointing out that both  the Atlantic Monthly and the Crisis had not dared to print the poem.

That editorial note was typical of Randolph’s style at the time.  J. Edgar Hoover’s investigative report to Congress described the Messenger magazine, a socialist journal, as the “most dangerous of the Negro publications”—a quotation which Randolph and his co-editor Chandler Owen promptly used as an advertising blurb.  But in 1919 the Messenger still had the national resources of the Socialist Party to support it; when that went away in a few years, they no longer used that line as an advertising blurb

Before I finish, I want to mention two other poets who turn up in Hoover’s A-list.  One was Walter Everett Hawkins, a poet frequently included in the Messenger.  His poem “Where Air of Freedom Is” is among those that you can find in the government publications as evidence of “radicalism and sedition among Negroes as reflected in their publications.” Investigators cited this poem as particularly offensive:

Where Air of Freedom Is
Where air of freedom is,
I will not yield to men,—
To narrow caste of men
Whose hearts are steeped in sin.
I’d rather sell the king
And let his goods be stole,
Than yield to base control
Of vile and godless men. 
Where air of freedom is,
I will not yield to men.
I’d rather choose to die
Than be a living lie,—
A lie in all I teach,
A lie in all I preach,
While truth within my heart
Its burning fires dart
To burn my mask of sin. 
I’d rather victory win
Thru martyr’s death than grin
At wrongs of godless men.
Where air of freedom is,
I will not yield to men. 
I spurn the alms of men,
The livery of kings,
I own far nobler things. 
I’d rather choose to own
The pauper’s garb and bone,
The eagle’s eye of truth,
The lion’s strength of youth,
The liberty of thought,
A free man’s right, unbought,
A conscience and a soul
Beyond the king’s control
Than be the lord of slaves
Of quaking, aching slaves,
Of senseless, soulless knaves,
Or seek to revel in
His ill-got wealth and fame,
His world-wide name of shame,
His liberty to sin,—
I will not yield to men!

Another poet was Fenton Johnson in Chicago, whose work I describe in my book Extraordinary Measures.  Johnson was a very interesting poet—avant-garde in style.  He started publishing poems around 1913 in the dialect poetry style of Paul Laurence Dunbar, which was enormously popular at the time.  But then he progressed into a kind of prose poetry.  Johnson, was, in fact, silenced by the attention of J. Edgar Hoover and his agents.  Because Johnson had simply a little magazine, he had no one to “watch his back.” He did not have the hundred thousand NAACP members behind him.  He did not have the funding of the Socialist Party behind him.  And, after 1921, this most promising African-American poet, a pioneer of modernist technique, is not heard from again until he turns up in the 1930s—glum and aging—on the Federal Writers’ Project in Chicago where he worked briefly with Richard Wright, Margaret Walker,  and others.

One of the poems that brought Fenton Johnson under the scrutiny of the special unit that eventually became the FBI was his parody of the Psalms printed in his Favorite Magazine, in the Autumn 1920 issue, called “Prayer for our Enemies”:

A Prayer for Our Enemies
ALMIGHTY FATHER  I am praying for my enemies!
Almighty father lift up my enemies. 
Almighty father be as a honeycomb to my enemies.
Almighty father be to my enemies as the moon to the young lovers
in the June of life.
Almighty father be to my enemies as the voice of Gabriel laughing
in the Heavens.
Almighty father be to my enemies as the smiling face of God.
ALMIGHTY FATHER be to my enemies as the Song of Israel when
the hosts assembled for  the evening.
Almighty father be to my enemies as the breath of the Holy One.
Almighty father be to my enemies as the Day is to the soul of
the wayward child.
Almighty father be to my enemies as the Light is in the night of despair.
Almighty father be to my enemies as the love of a Christian for
the Church of God.
Almighty father deal with the white South as I would have you
deal those who hate me for they know not what they do.

Bio: Lorenzo Thomas is Professor of English at University of Houston-Downtown. He is author of several collections of poems and the critical study Extraordinary Measures: Afrocentric Modernism and Twentieth-Century American Poetry (University of Alabama Press) which has been named an Outstanding Academic Book for 2001 by Choice magazine.

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