Frank Horne examines memory and despair: “Letters Found Near a Suicide”

Frank S. Horne ca. 1946 (from Prints and Photographs Collection, Moorland-Sprinarn Research Center, Howard University.)

The day after Frank Smith Horne died, his obituary in the New York Times (September 8, 1974, First Section, p 57) concentrated almost exclusively on his public appointments. The headline identified him as the “First Director Of City Rights Panel.” The Article traced his career as Assistant Director of the Division of Negro Affairs of the National Youth Administration (1935-38), his appointment to the staff of Robert Wagner, Director of the Office of Race Relations of the United States Housing Authority (1938-40), his succeeding Wagner as director, his position as assistant to the Administrator of Housing and Home Finance Agency (in 1946), his appointment as director of the new New York City Commission on Intergroup Relations and finally to the staff of the New York City Housing Redevelopment Board. It listed his survivors, including niece Lena Horne. It only briefly mentioned his poetry, and that inaccurately. The Times said his poetry was included in Alain Locke’s The New Negro (1925); it was not. And it mentioned nothing of his “militantism.” Yet it was this that drove him from his federal job. It was also the reason for his poetry. Frank Horne wrote angry, pointed poetry about racial injustice in the 1920s and the 1960s, the two periods of black “awakenings.” In between he worked to end discrimination against blacks. The Times missed this for the same reason that it failed to adequately cover lynchings, Jim Crow, the race riots of 1919, the Harlem Renaissance, segregation, the Black Power movement—it has never been particularly interested.

Carnegie Library in Atlanta, Georgia, from a 1908 postcard. See note *, below. This building was torn down in 1977 and replaced by 1980 with a nearly windowless library in “brutalist” style.

Frank Horne was born in New York City in 1899. His father, Edwin Fletcher Horne, was a building contractor; his mother, Cora Calhoun, came from Atlanta.* When Lena Horne died in 2010, there was much talk about her having descended from the family of the great Nullifier and defender of slave-state rights. I could not track down a reliable source for the assertion; perhaps it was family gossip or invented to satisfy the universal love of irony. If it is true, however, the relationship would have been through Cora Calhoun Horne, her paternal grandmother, Frank’s mother. Both sides of his family evidently had mixed racial backgrounds, such that he could “pass as white” (according to that quaint usage), even in the South.

Frank Horne had 3 brothers, one of which was younger than him. The family was evidently securely middle class. Frank Horne went to City College and was graduated in 1921. He was a track star while at school—something he attached great importance to as his later writing would show.  In 1922 he obtained a degree in Optometry from Northern Illinois College of Ophthalmology. (He would later—in 1932—earn a Masters degree at University of Southern California.) For the next four years he practiced optometry first in Chicago, then New York. While in New York he took courses at Columbia. It was during this period that he was swept up in the Harlem Renaissance.

There were of course many things that led up to the awakening that took place in the early 1920s. Maybe the most important was the African-American influx into the area above 96th Street in Manhattan. Harlem had undergone a large and upscale building spree from the beginning of the Gilded Age when single-family row houses, tenements, and luxury apartment houses arose together with a spate of cultural institutions like churches, schools and entertainment venues (like the Opera House). With the advent of the subway, more residential construction followed until the collapse of prices took place in the early twentieth century. Black entrepreneur Philip Payton began a career of renting out, brokering, managing and owning buildings in Harlem and promoting them to the black middle class. This immediately improved the lot of a vast population of the middle class and concentrated the black business, intellectual and entertainment elite in the high-class section, called Sugar Hill. (When the Ellington Band’s singer sang “Take the A Train,” the first of its lyrics was “You must take the A Train / To go to Sugar Hill way up in Harlem.”) An article in Ebony in the 40s said that a “legend, only slightly exaggerated, says bombing 409 [Edgecombe Avenue in Sugar Hill] would wipe out Negro leadership for the next 20 years.” (By that time W.E.B. Du Bois, Harry G. Bragg, William Stanley Braithwaite, Luckey Roberts, Walter White, Clarence Cameron White, Jimmy Lunceford and Dr. May Edward Chinn lived in that apartment building.)

There had been widespread acceptance of black performing artists. The mob-owned and segregated Cotton Club featured Fletcher Henderson’s band and others when it opened (and would in 1927 become a long-term venue for Duke Ellington). Even more successful from a “legitimate theater” point of view was the vaudeville duo of Eubie Blake and Noble Sissle who wrote the music and lyrics for the highly successful Broadway revue, Shuffle Along, which opened at the 63rd Street Music Hall in 1921 and played there for over a year before setting out on a touring schedule. During the course of the production Adelaide Hall, Florence Mills and Josephine Baker performed in it.

Eubie Blake (at the piano) and Noble Sissle in 1926. (Frank Driggs collection.)

All of this undoubtedly contributed greatly to a sense of the fulfillment of long denied aspirations, but it took a spark to ignite the literary awakening. Two sparks came from two unlikely sources—a high school student, Countee Cullen, and a recent high school graduate, Langston Hughes. The poem “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” by Langston Hughes (dedicated to W.E.B. Du Bois), written after he left high school in Cleveland and before he ever saw New York, was published in the June 1921 Crisis. It speaks of the soul “grown deep” like the Euphrates, Nile, Congo and Mississippi.

Countee Cullen. (Date of photograph unknown.)

It was Cullen’s poem “I Have a Rendezvous With Life (with apologies to Alan Seeger),” six months before, however, that made the bigger spark. It was published in Magpie, the school literary magazine of DeWitt Clinton High School (then in Hell’s Kitchen), without his knowledge by a teacher trying to prove high school students could write competent poetry. This account is according to Cullen twenty years later in an interview by DeWitt High School senior James Baldwin in the Winter 1942 issue of Magpie. The poem was an affirmation of life to come in contradistinction to Seeger’s gallant wartime pledge. According to poet Arna Bontemps:

“Here was a brown boy from the depths of black Harlem giving an affirmative answer to the melancholy acceptance of death by a disenchanted American expatriate fighting in a French regiment. The irony of Seeger’s being killed in action was no greater than the irony of Cullen’s optimism, everything considered, and the latter caught the daily newspapers as the former had done earlier. People began quoting Cullen’s poem. Teachers read it to their classes. Ministers read it to fashionable congregations. Indeed, everybody except Countee Cullen himself seemed moved by the thought of a black boy, less than prepossessing in personal appearance perhaps, insisting that putting meaning into his life, such as it was, was more urgent than contemplating death.” Arna Bontemps, The Harlem Renaissance Remembered (NY: Dodd, Mead & Co: c1972), p 2.

As a result of this early exposure, Cullen would achieve remarkable success at a very immature age for a poet. In 1923 he placed second in the Undergraduate Poetry Contest of the Poetry Society of America. Harper’s published 12 of his poems between November 1924 and February 1925, while he was attending New York University. He was also published in the New York Times, Crisis, Opportunity, Telling Tales Magazine and Bookman.

Cullen’s poetry seems to have been what attracted Horne himself to poetry.  Horne’s very first published piece was a review of Newman Ivey White’s Anthology of Verse by American Negroes (Durham: Trinity College Press: c1924), which appeared in the November 1924 issue of Opportunity. Although the book contained selections from Paul Lawrence Dunbar, William Stanley Braithwaite, James Weldon Johnson, Jessie Fauset (her Oriflamme was included), Georgia Douglas Johnson, Claude McKay and many others, it was 20-year-old Cullen on whom Horne heaped praise. Cullen’s one entry, “The Touch,” was neither a polemic nor in any respect about the Negro condition: “I am no longer lame since Spring / Came, daisey-decked, my way, / And charmed with flute and silver lute, / My laggard limbs to play …” Yet Horne said that it was this poet who assured that black verse was alive and assured of a future. In fact, he criticized the anthology for selecting poetry which dwelled on racial subjects. Horne believed that black poetry should celebrate all of the human experience:

“So set to, makers of black verse. We have already shown that we can write their music, given them their dance, make their money, and play their games. Your task is definitive, grand, and fine. You are to sing the attributes of a soul. Be superbly conscious of the many tributaries to our pulsing steam of life. You must articulate what the hidden sting of the slaver’s lash leaves reverberating in its train,—the subtle hates, the burnt desires, sudden hopes, and dark despairs; you must show that the sigh is the mother of the laugh they know so well. Sing, so that they might know the eyes of black babes—eyes that so sadly laugh; that they might know that we, too, like Shylock cry when we are hurt, but with a cry distinctive, and subtly pregnant with overtones, and fraught with hidden associations. Sing, O black poets, for song is all we have!”

Horne’s attraction to Cullen seems somewhat odd in retrospect—at least in light of Horne’s own output. Cullen saw his craft as concerned with the essentially lyrical. His singing was more important than the song. Horne, on the other hand, only used poetry to deliver a message. Moreover, the message in Horne’s case always had something to do with the injustice of prejudice or the conditions under which the American black was kept. On the other hand, Cullen chafed under the confines of writing racially informed poetry. He told the Brooklyn Eagle (February 10, 1924): “If I am going to be a poet at all, I am going to be POET and not NEGRO POET. This is what has hindered the development of artists among us. Their one note has been the concern with their race. That is all very well, none of us can get away from it. I cannot at times. You will see it in my verse. The consciousness of this is too poignant at times. I cannot escape it. But what I mean is this: I shall not write of negro subjects for the purpose of propaganda. That is not what a poet is concerned with. Of course, when the emotion rising out of the fact that I am a negro is strong, I express it. But that is another matter.”

May Miller over the years would become the most published of all the Harlem Renaissance women authors. (Photo by Brian Parry.)

For Horne that emotion was everything in his poetry and a very substantial part of his public life. Horne evidently traveled in the circles of the literary luminaries of the New Negro movement in Harlem. He said that it was Charles Johnson and Gwendolyn Bennett who urged him to publish the writing he must have circulated among friends. He probably met some writers at Columbia, perhaps May Miller, like Horne not afraid to tackle the hard issues like lynchings and other historical crimes. He might also have attended Georgia Douglas Johnson’s Saturday evening salons. However they met, Horne acted with Miller in Georgia Douglas Johnson’s one-act play Blue Blood, produced by the Krigwa Players. The play was a post-Civil War comedy in which two light-skinned Negroes had to call off a wedding when they discovered they had the same father (a white man who raped both their mothers).

In November 1924, The Crisis announced a series of literary prizes for short-stories, poems, essays and plays. Although plays had to have some connection with Negro history or experience, poetry could be on any subject. Various cash prizes were offered (for poetry they were $50, $30, $10 for the top three selected). The money was given by Amy Springarn, wife of wealthy NAACP trustee and philanthropist Joel Springarn. The writing was to be submitted pseudonymously. The Crisis promised to publish essays giving hints on effective writing (although the one on verse never materialized). The judges turned out to be heavyweights from the literary world, white and black, including: H.G. Wells, Sinclair Lewis, Charles W. Chesnutt, Edward W. Bok, Eugene O’Neill, William Stanley Braithwaite and Leslie Pinckney Hill.

Horne’s entry was a series of short poems addressed to various persons in the narrator’s life left at the scene of his suicide. He called it “Letters Found Near a Suicide,” and it would become his best known work. The narrator’s reasons for ending his life are unstated but he blames no one he addresses, not even the bigot. The addressees of the letters are both people he felt affection for and people he no longer cared for. The knowledge of death imparts a pathetic and final quality to his addresses, which are farewells.

Death poems were quite common among black poets at the time. Dunbar’s “A Death Song” recites the last requests of an uneducated Southern share-cropper; to him death is a rest from his labors. As recently as the May 1924 issue of Crisis Langston Hughes had a poem entitled “Suicide Song,” where he catalogues the methods and concludes “But they all bring rest / In a deep, long sleep / For which the tired soul yearns— / They all bring rest in a nothingness / From where no road returns.”  The tradition would continue over time such that Etheridge Knight felt the need to write a poem in 1972 entitled “For Black Poets Who Think of Suicide,” which said “Black poets should live—not leap.”

“Dr. Frank Horne” in the November 1925 issue of The Crisis.

Horne’s poem became instantly acclaimed. It won second prize in the Amy Springarn contest. Horne lost to a group of poems by Countee Cullen but beat a set of poems by Langston Hughes. The poem would be included in all the major anthologies beginning with Countee Cullen’s acclaimed Caroling Dusk in 1927. This would lead to a burst of literary activity for the next several years during which he wrote (sometimes award-winning) poems and essays for The Crisis and the National Urban League’s Opportunity: A Journal of Negro Life. He even wrote a short story, “The Man Who Wanted to be Red,” an allegorical science fiction tale of race for children, in Crisis (July 1928). (He called it “A Fairy Tale for Children of the Earth.”) He added “More Letters Found Near a Suicide” in the December 1929 issue of Crisis. During this period, however, the most prestigious forum for his verse was Charles S. Johnson’s Ebony and Topaz: A Collectanea, published by the National Urban League in 1927.

Ebony and Topaz edited by Charles S. Johnson. Cover illustration by Charles Cullen. Click to enlarge.

Ebony and Topaz was a daring and stylish anthology of writing and art work both new and old and by black and white writers. Great care was taken to produce a product of the highest bookmaking art. The prominent black intellectuals were all represented in essays, stories, poems or pays. It was not splashy and self-consciously modern like Locke’s The New Negro. Instead, its understated and cool manner made its subversiveness all the more effective. Particularly interesting were the illustrations. Aaron Douglas supplied angular black and white abstractions. Richard Bruce provided pen drawings. But it was Charles Cullen’s androgynous portrayals of slaves and Africans that were the most arresting. Long stylized figures blurred male and female, agony and ecstasy as well as modern and ancient.

Horne had two contributions to the volume, both poems—Arabesque and Youth. The first tells of a black and white child playing together under a “danglin’ nigger / hangin’ in a tree …” (The poem suffers from a typographical mistake in the title: “Arabesqse.”) The other is a celebration of the strength and the confidence of youth: “I shall outlast the sun / and the moon / and the stars. . . .”

In 1927 his daily association with the intellectuals of the Harlem Renaissance would come to an end. It’s said that something he called a “mean illness” required him to move to a warmer climate. He himself wrote ** that he went “to discover a Lost Race; to dig down amidst the roots from whence I sprang to see black people in the land that had risen from the labor of their hands; to see the streets my mother knew; to see Negroes that were Negroes.” For whatever reason he went, he became the dean and later acting president of Fort Valley Normal and Industrial School in Fort Valley, Georgia from 1927 to 1936. He was also the track coach. (It was during this period, 1927-1929, that Frank’s sister left her daughter, Lena Horne, with him.) In a powerful essay for Opportunity in 1928, Horne described how the travel from New York to Georgia was not just geographical. He would discover the countless large and small ways by which blacks were subject to constant humiliation, degradation and subjugation. He sees how it begins when he witnesses a class of white children with their teacher visiting the Confederate Memorial carved into Stone Mountain:

“She is telling them of the great soldiers to whom this mountain is dedicated, of the glory of southern manhood, of the honor of these heroes who defended what was theirs …… their wives, their children, their homes, their property, their slaves ……. and standing there, I seem to see the shadow of this great mountain already falling upon these little white minds, a shadow that makes them feel that they are of the blood of the greatest and noblest beings on earth, that the South was theirs to own, that they were the masters of the land, that the blacks were ever slaves and theirs to hold . . and I looked down the valley and saw the mountain shadow lengthen and reach into far away Atlanta, and clutch with inky fingers the hearts and souls of those fine dark people I had come to know. As I looked again, I could see the great shadow flow throughout the South, and settle like a shroud about my heart as I realized that this great darkness pervades and tinges the very existence of these people of my blood. My soul seems to tremble at the thought that living here would make me not only bitter but less a man.”††

He nonetheless believed at the beginning that the work of the technical school would enrich the lives of the Southern black, giving them useful vocations and skills. This would be the first step of a great journey. But by 1935 Horne had grown disillusioned with the Booker T. Washington approach: “As factors in training Negro youth to earn a livelihood in industrial America of today, the industrial schools of the South, except in a few rare instances, could practically all be scrapped without appreciable loss to any one.” As he explained in a two-part article in Opportunity, ‡‡ it would take more than learning a skill. In fact, it would take political action to right the wrongs of a long history of exclusion from properly funded schools, labor unions, apprenticeship programs, and especially voting.

Even so, it took a great deal of persuasion on the part of  Mary McLeod Bethune to persuade Horne to leave the school and join the FDR administration: “There is a big job to be done,” she urged in a July 20, 1936 letter, “There are twelve million Negroes in America depending upon the kind of program we shall send out. … Your service to the race and the nation will be greatly enlarged.” Horne eventually agreed to become her principal assistant at the National Youth Administration. See Nancy Joan Weiss, Farewell to the Party of Lincoln: Black Politics in the Age of FDR (Princeton: Princeton University Press: c1983), p 151.

Horne would go from this role in an advisory program to one that actually had administrative responsibilities in the U.S. Housing Authority. In the latter role he came to believe that political solutions were key to the advancement of blacks in America. He also became more partisan. In “Providing New Housing for Negroes,” Opportunity (October 1940), pp 305-08, he made the case that blacks should consider switching their allegiance from the Republican Party to the Democratic one, because the New Deal was actually delivering for blacks. After the war, Horne became an outspoken advocate for public housing. He attended the National Negro Conference in Detroit in the spring of 1946 and forcefully argued for public housing despite the opposition of white real estate interests:

“Too many people with too little money crowded into too few houses on too little land is the present problem of housing for urban Negroes. The Detroit City Council has just rejected a site for public housing for Negroes because of the protests of white property owners. Such resistance tends to tie the growing Negro population into tight pockets that produce slums, social degeneration and racial tensions and conflict.”

While he would win the short-term goal of passage of the Wagner-Ellender-Taft Housing Bill (even as Republicans took over the Senate), his lack of caution would expose him to accusations that would eventually hound him out of the federal government. The New York Times noted that communists had taken control of the Congress at the meeting Horne attended. There was talk of death to Jim Crow and ominously (for the virulent anti-communists) prediction that a new Negro proletariat was about to rise who was “rough, tough, angry and well organized” for “a struggle against a common enemy and a common oppressor—world fascism.” See “Federal Aide Hits Negro Housing Lag,” New York Times, June 1, 1946, p 30. In the hysteria that would build over the next decade, this kind of association was generally enough to ruin careers. Twice (1948 and 1954) he was investigated by the Civil Service Loyalty Board for his work with certain activist organizations. Both times he was cleared. But Republicans learned that charges of political disloyalty were good politics for them. (It was, for example, the driving factor behind Richard Nixon’s rise.) Horne was not deterred. He would go to bat for friends he thought were unfairly targeted, such as Edward Rutledge, a Public Housing Administration Racial Relations Advisor, who was suspended from his job and investigated for past activities with “leftist” organizations. Leon Condol, a disabled World War I veteran, was another target that Horne attempted to help.

When the White House was turned over to Republicans, wholesale political housecleaning was the order of the day. Horne was at first demoted, but even this did not quiet him. By 1955 the conservatives finally succeded in “eliminating” his position. Horne attempted to appeal based on civil service protections, but eventually left to take a position with the New York City civil rights commission, at the appointment of his former boss, Robert Wagner, mayor of New York. His career settled into a fairly non-controversial phase.

In 1960 he had a stroke. The damage it caused to his ability to walk (he was left partially paralyzed on his right side) deeply troubled the former track star and coach. He would later allude to this in his poem “Mamma!” While recovering he put together his only volume of verse: Haverstraw, which was published in London in an edition of 300 as part of the Heritage series. The book contains “Notes Found Near a Suicide,” combining both the original “Letters” and “More Letters” in a slightly rearranged manner. Other poems related to his doctors and caregivers. He wrote several poems for The Crisis in the 1960s.

In his last years he and the organizations he was involved in became increasingly opposed to the racial policies of the Nixon Administration. Nixon was steering the Republican Party towards its Southern Strategy. This involved racially tinged code words like “forced integration”—which Nixon was, naturally enough, against. Horne said: “The combination of opposition to ‘forced integration’ of the suburbs and to the busing of pupils to implement Supreme Court decisions are the hallmarks of the racism that rends the fabric of our society. … The fifty years I have wrestled directly with racism in housing and schools prompt me to suggest to the President the burial of the concept of ‘forced integration’ beside ‘benign neglect.’ Otherwise the new revolution he calls for will be vitiated as it has been since Appomattox.” Letter, New York Times, February 16, 1971.

Horne died on September 7, 1974 at 75. He lived long enough to see Nixon resign in disgrace.

Letters Found Near a Suicide

from The Crisis (November 1925)

by Frank Horne

To All of You

My little stone
Sinks quickly
Into the bosom of this deep, dark pool
Of oblivion . . .
I have troubled its breast but little.
Yet those far shores
That knew me not
Will feel the fleeting, furtive kiss
Of my tiny concentric ripples . . . . .

* * *

To Lewellyn

You have borne full well
The burden of my friendship—
I have drunk deep
At your crystal pool,
And in return
I have polluted its waters
With the bile of my hatred,
I have flooded your soul
With tortuous thoughts,
I have played Iscariot
To your Pythias . . . . .

* * *

To Mother

I came
In the blinding sweep
Of ecstatic pain,
I go
In the throbbing pulse
Of Aching Space,
In the eons between
I piled upon you
Pain on pain
Ache on ache
And yet as I go
I shall know
That you will grieve
And want me back . . . . .

* * *

To Bennetti
You have freed me—
In opening wide the doors
Of flesh—
You have freed me
Of the binding leash.
I have climbed the heights
Of white disaster.
My body screaming
In the silver crash of passion . . . . .
Before you gave yourself
To him
I had chained myself
For you.
But when at last
You lowered your proud flag
In surrender complete
You gave me too, as hostage—
And I have swept my joy
At the dawn-tipped shrine
Of many breasts.

* * *

To Jean
When you poured your love
Like molten flame
Into the trobbing mold
Of her pulsing veins
Leaving her blood a river of fire
And her arteries channels of light,
I hated you . . .
Hated with that primal hate
That has its wells
In the flesh of me
And the flesh of you
And the flesh of her
I hated you—
Hated with envy
Your mastery of her being . .
With one fleshy gesture
You pricked the irridescent bubble
Of my dreams
And so to make
Your conquest more sweet
I tell you now
That I hated you.

* * *

To Catalina
Love thy piano, Oh girl,
It will give you back
Note for note
The harmonies of your soul.
It will sing back to you
The high songs of your heart.
It will give
As well as take . . .

* * *

To Mariette
I sought consolation
In the sorrow of your eyes.
You sought reguerdon
In the crying of my heart . .
We found that shattered dreamers
Can be bitter hosts . . . . .

* * *

To ______________
You call it
Death of the Spirit
And I call it Life . . .
The vigor of vibration,
The muffled knocks,
The silver sheen of passion’s flood,
The ecstacy of pain . . .
You call it
Death of the Spirit
And I call it Life.

* * *

To Telie
You have made my voice
A rippling laugh
But my heart
A crying thing . . .
’Tis better thus,
A fleeting kiss
And then,
The dark . . .

* * *

To “Chick”
Oh Achilles of the moleskins
And the gridiron
Do not wonder
Nor doubt that this is I
That lie so calmly here—-
This is the same exultant beast
That so joyously
Ran the ball with you
In those far flung days of abandon.
You remember how recklessly
We revelled in the heat and the dust
And the swirl of conflict?
You remember they called us
The Terrible Two?
And you remember
After we had battered our heads
And our bodies
Against the stonewall of their defense,—
You remember the signal I would call
And how you would look at me
In faith and admiration
And say “Let’s go,” . . .
How the lines would cash
And strain,
And how I would find an opening,
A wee small space,
Amidst tangling arms and torsos,
And how I would slip through
Fighting and squirming
Over the line
To victory.
You remember, Chick? . . .
When you gaze at me here
Let that same light
Of faith and admiration
Shine in your eyes
For I have battered the stark stonewall
Before me. . . .
I have kept faith with you
And now
I have called my signal,
Found my opening
And sipped through
Fighting and squirming
Over the line
To victory. . . .

* * *

To Wanda
To you, so far away
So cold and aloof,
To you, who knew me so well,
This is my last Grand Gesture
This is my last Great Effect
And as I go winging
Through the black doors of eternity
Is that thin sound I hear
Your applause? . . .

* * *

More “Letters Found Near a Suicide”

from The Crisis (December 1929)

by Frank Horne

To the Poets:
Why do poets
Like to die
And sing raptures to the grave?

They seem to think
That bitter dirt
Turns sweet between the teeth.

I have lived
And yelled hozannas
At the climbing stars
I have lived
And drunk deep
The deceptive wine of life. . . .

And now, tipsy and reeling
From its dregs
I die . . .

Oh, let the poets sing
Raptures to the grave.

To Henry:
I do not know
How I shall look
When I lie down here
But I really should be smiling
Mischievously . . .
You and I have studied
Together
The knowledge of the ages
And lived the life of Science
Matching discovery for discovery—-
And yet
In a trice
With a small explosion
Of this little machine
In my hand
I shall know
All
That Aristotle, Newton, Lavoisier, and Galileo
Could not determine
In their entire
Lifetimes . . .
And the joke of it is,
Henry,
That I have
Beat you to it . . .

To One Who Called Me “NIGGER”:
You are Power
And send steel ships hurtling
From shore to shore . . .

You are Vision
And cast your sight thru eons of space
From world to world . . .
You are Brain
And throw your voice endlessly
From ear to ear . . .

You are Soul
And falter at the yawning chasm
From White to Black . . .

To Caroline:
Your piano
Is the better instrument . . .
Yesterday
Your fingers
So precisely
Touched the cold keys—-
A nice string
Of orderly sounds,
A proper melody . . .
Tonight
Your hands
So wantonly
Caressed my tingling skin—-
A mad whirl
Of cacophony,
A wild chanting . . .
Your piano
Is the better instrument.

To Alfred:
I have grown tired of you
And your wife
Sitting there
With your children,
Little bits of you
Running about your feet
And you two so calm
And cold together . . .
It is really better
to lie here
Insensate
Than to see new life
Creep upon you
Calm and cold
Sitting there . . .

To You:
All my life
They have told me
That You
Would save my Soul
That only
By kneeling in Your House
And eating of Your Body
And drinking of Your Blood
Could I be born again . . .
And yet
One night
In the tall black shadow
Of a windy pine
I offered up
The Sacrifice of Body
Upon the altar
Of her breast . . .
You
Who were conceived
Without ecstasy
Or pain
Can you understand
That I knelt last night
In Your House
And at of Your Body
And drank of Your Blood.
. . . and thought only of her?

To James:
Do you remember
How you won
That last race . . . ?
How you flung your body
At the start . . .
How your spikes
Ripped the cinders
In the stretch . . .
How you catapulted
Thru the tape . . .
Do you remember . . . ?
Don’t you think
I lurched with you
Out of those starting holes . . .?
Don’t you think
My sinews tightened
At those first
Few strides . . .
And when you flew into the stretch
Was not all my thrill
Of a thousand races
In your blood . . .
At your final drive
Thru the finish line
Did not my shout
Tell of the
Triumphant ecstasy
Of victory . . . ?
Live
As I have taught you
To run, Boy –-
It’s a short dash
Dig your starting holes
Deep and firm
Lurch out of them
Into the straightaway
With all the power
That is in you
Look straight ahead
To the finish line
Think only of the goal
Run straight
Run high
Run hard
Save nothing
And finish
With an ecstatic burst
That carries you
Hurtling
Thru the tape
To victory . . .

Horne has been ill-served by anthologists in general, but in these two poems in particular. You will not find two sets of these poems the same. Anthologist evidently felt at liberty to change punctuation, spelling and even words. But that was not the worst that happened to these poems. The last “Letter” “To James” has been used in the most inapposite way—as an inspirational “verse” for school children. It is shorn from the rest of the poem. You might even see “educational” packets including discussion questions to improve the poetic literacy of young children. Of course these kids don’t find out it is part of the musings of a man about to commit suicide—that would defeat the purpose of using it for “public education.” Educators for the masses often see the untidiness of literature as something they are duty bound to undo.

One last poem of Horne’s also suffered abuse. But in a very odd way. In 1929 there appeared in Vienna a collection of African American (mostly Harlem Renaissance) poetry translated into German, entitled Afrika singt: Eine Auslese neuer Afro-Amerikanischer Lyrik. It was edited by Anna Nussbaum with several translators, and it had poems by 18 different poets including James Weldon Johnson, W.E.B. DuBois, Georgia Douglas Johnson, Claude McKay, Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, Jean Toomer, Jessie Fauset and Arna Bontemps. A brief biography taken (and translated) from Caroling Dusk was included. Horne was represented by two poems, the ones in Ebony and Topaz: “Arabesque” and “Youth,” translated as “Arabeske” and “Jugend.” The publication of the poems evidently electrified Vienna—a city that had been since the turn of the Century the home of the avant-garde in art, music, design, architecture and even psychology. Vienna was of course historically the home of the classical lieder and the musicians at the time immediately began setting the German lyrics of the African-American poets to music. Twenty seven different pieces of music were written to the pieces contained in this volume. Zemlinsky, Schoenberg’s father-in-law and musical teacher, set five pieces into orchestral songs: Symphonische Gesänge (Gedichte) für eine mittlere Stimme und Orchester nach Negergedichten (Afrika singt), op 20. The music employs all the techniques (except serialism) of the Schoenberg Vienna avant-garde: rapid metric changes, tonal ambiguity, wide vocal intervals, and so forth. It was performed only once during the composer’s life: on April 8, 1935 on Berlin Radio. The Jewish modernist composer’s settings of American blacks’ poetry was actually broadcast by German state radio two years after Hitler had become chancellor!

Zemlinsky belonged to the older generation, but the remaining composers that set the poems to music were young (the same age as the Harlem Renaissance poets themselves) and had been influenced by jazz and folk music (even though they all had significant classical training—this was Vienna after all).  Two other composers set the Horne poem to music, Erich Zeisl and Wilhelm Grosz. Zeisl (who was the first to use Horne’s poem) set the Horne poem alone in three different forms: (1) for tenor, male choir, orchestra; (2) piano and male choir and (3) soprano solo with mixed choir and piano or orchestra. The Grosz piece (like Zemlinsky’s) was a piece that included several of the poems (for one or two singers and piano).

The problem with all the settings was that beginning with Grosz’s piece the entire character of the poem was missed. Anna Siemsen translated the poem using the German schaukeln for the English “danglin'”. Grosz took this to mean “rocking” and thought the piece was an idyll of the white and black child playing beneath a content Negro in a hammock. He wrote the music accordingly and gave the direction that it was to be played “Allegretto, mit Humor.” The other two composers followed suit: Zeisl—”Lustig”; Zemlinsky—”Lebhaft, nicht zu schnell.” In 1949 Grosz translated the German texts into English and sent it to Horne. Horne replied on March 9 with the corrections. When Grosz discovered his mistake, he withdrew the compositions in embarrassment.

Arabesque

from Ebony and Topaz: A Collectanea (1927)

by Frank Horne

Down in Georgia
a danglin’ nigger
hangin’ in a tree
. . . kicks holes in the laughing sunlight—
A little red haired
Irish girl . . . grey eyes
and a blue dress—
A little black babe
in a lacy white cap . . .
The soft red lips of the little red head kiss so tenderly
the little black head—
grey eyes smile
into black eyes
and the gay sunlight
laughs joyously
in a bust of gold . . .
Down in Georgia
a danglin’ nigger
hangin’ in a tree
. . . kicks holes in the laughing sunlight—”

* In his essay “I am Initiated into the Negro Race,” Opportunity (May 1928), pp 1360-37, Horne mentions his relatives in Atlanta. He says that his mother studied at Atlanta University. The “old home of my own people, the Calhouns” stood on a spot that the Carnegie Library then stood on Auburn Avenue. That building was torn down in 1977 and Central Library was built in its place. [Return to text.]

† Countee Cullen’s Caroling Dusk: An Anthology of Verse by Negro Poets (NY: Harper: 1927) contained Horne’s “On Seeing Two Brown Boys in a Catholic Church,” “To a Persistent Phantom,” and “Letters Found Near a Suicide”; Langston Hughes & Arna Bontemps, The Poetry of the Negro 1746-1949 (Garden City: Anchor / Doubleday: 1949) contained his “On Seeing Two Brown Boys in a Catholic Church,” “Kid Stuff,” “Toast,” and “Letters Found Near a Suicide”; Arna Bontemps, American Negro Poetry (NY: Hill & Wang: 1963) had his “Kid Stuff,” “Notes Found Near a Suicide,” “To a Persistent Phantom,” and “Symphony”; Arnold Adoff, The Poetry of Black America: Anthology of the 20th Century (NY: Harper & Row: c1973) included his “Notes Found Near a Suicide,” “On Seeing Two Brown Boys in a Catholic Church,” “Kid Stuff” and “Resurrection.” James Weldon Johnson’s 1931 edition of Book of American Negro Poetry (NY: Harcourt, Brace: c1931) contains Horne’s “More Letters Found Near a Suicide” but not the original. It also has “Nigger—A Chant for Children,” “On Seeing Two Brown Boys in a Catholic Church,” “Toast,” “To a Persistent Phantom” and “Immortality.” [Return to text.]

‡ Sarah M. Washington, “Frank S. Horne,” 51 Dictionary of Literary Biography, vol 51: Afro-American Writers from the Harem Renaissance to 1940 ed. Trudier Harris (Gale Research Co c1987), 106-111 at 107. This article (and the DLB generally) cannot be relied upon with complete confidence. It makes demonstrable factual errors and makes assumptions about Horne’s biography based on his poetry. [Return to text.]

** “I am Initiated into the Negro Race,” Opportunity (May 1928), pp 136-37 at 136. [Return to text.]

†† Id. at 137. [Return to text.]

‡‡ “The Industrial School of the South,” Opportunity (May 1935): 136-139; (June 1935): 178-181. The quote is from page 136. The encyclopedia edited by Henry Louis Gates and Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, Harlem Renaissances Lives from the African American National Biography (NY: Oxford Press: c2009) has an entry on “Horne, Frank,” which says that this two-part article “is a testament to his emulation of BOOKER T. WASHINGTON’s educational model …” The only explanation of this statement is that Hugh Davis, who is credited with the entry, did not read the piece. [Return to text.]

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    • MCCmomof3
    • October 23rd, 2014

    This was a fascinating and informative essay — thank you. I was looking for more information about Frank Horne and found much more than I had hoped for. However, I’m not sure I agree with you about the misrepresentation of Horne’s “To James” when it’s presented in anthologies. It seems to me that all of the “Letters Found Near a Suicide” and “Notes Found Near a Suicide” can be read separately; what is important to understand is that the person writing them is at the end of life. I don’t see why the poem “To James” isn’t partly inspirational. What would you suggest as the actual meaning? By the way, I found the poem in an anthology meant for public education….

    • Thank you for your comment, MCCmomof3.

      It is certainly true that the poem “To James” taken alone could be considered inspirational (I’m not sure what “partly inspirational” means in this context), and obviously that’s why it’s selected for public high school reading.

      I would be curious if the public school anthology you found it in disclosed that it was part of a large work, where the (fictional) narrator had written the poems to a variety of people before he committed suicide. If not (and most anthologies I have seen failed to disclose that fact), then the reader is being denied a fundamental reference for his interpretation of the poem.

      It is much the way the proverbs of Polonius were presented as a stand-alone poem. His various pieces of advice like “Neither a borrower nor lender be ….” could be presented (and they usually are in public school texts) as good advice for living directly from William Shakespeare. When you know, however, that these pieces of advice are like confetti in a hurricane in the midst of a play (Hamlet) dealing with existential doubt and duty in the face of overwhelming corruption, then you see that they were designed to show that Polonius was an out-of-touch buffoonish character whose sayings were as absurd as the madness going on about him.

      You say that it’s enough to know that the narrator is at the end of his life. I am not sure that is right. There is a difference between a suicide saying something and someone who having lived a full and happy life is kindly advising his audience how they can achieve the same bliss.

      At very least a reader, knowing the narrator killed himself, would want to know what “victory” meant in this context. If you read the other poems, you find out that virulent racism had blocked him and those he knew in every way. There was no “victory” in his letters to the others. And since the “To James” letter appears to be the very last, we are entitled, I think, to assume that this was the last bright thought, but it clearly was not enough, as the final ellipsis suggests in the balance between going on or ending it all. It hardly seems to me “inspirational” if the memory was not enough to prevent the narrator from killing himself. And even if the advice itself is not totally negated by the suicide, the reader must be entitled to wonder in order to fully understand what Horne intended to convey.

      If it was intended to be a poem designed to encourage high school athletes (and Horne himself was a track star and later coach and clearly could have written on the value of athletics in youth), he probably would have done so in a poem not connected with racism, despair and death.

      To me (and I admit this is purely a subjective thought and I ordinarily don’t even convey these much less suggest they are definitive), the “final” memory of the suicide is the memory he uses to see him through his final effort (namely, taking his life). He is not looking at the “victory” through adversity in sport as a guide to life, but as the spur he needs to take his own life (something that despite his trouble is still difficult). If I am right in this, then this letter is the exact opposite of inspirational (at least not inspirational in the sense that high school English teachers would approve of). There are undoubtedly other ways of thinking of it, but to do so without changing the intention of Horne, you must take into account that after this letter the narrator killed himself.

  1. Glad to have had the chance to read this. Interesting to read the link between Horne and Vienna and in general learn more about Horne. Thanks!

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