September 28, 2012

Birth of James Edwin Campbell

James Edwin Campbell was born in Pomeroy, Ohio on September 28, 1867. In his adult years, he went back and forth between journalist and educator, moving to West Virginia and Illinois at different times to pursue work. For a short period in the 1890s, he was the founding president of the West Virginia Colored Institute (now the historically black West Virginia State University).

He met fellow Ohioan poet Paul Laurence Dunbar in Chicago in 1893 and, like Dunbar, published two types of poems: dialect and more traditional poetry. His first book of poems, Driftings and Gleanings, was published in 1887 and used only standard English. His second collection, Echoes from the Cabin and Elsewhere in 1895, gained attention from critics, who praised the poems for their realistic depiction of the speech and spirit of African Americans. That book included many poems using "Gullah" (a dialect known in the coastal area of South Carolina and Georgia). Though comparison with Dunbar is inevitable, some declare Campbell the more authentic dialect poet.

His poem "The Mobile-Buck" was meant to capture "the shuffling, jerky rhythm of the famous negro dance," Campbell wrote. As the poet described, dancers "buck" against each other in a "roustabout" shuffle. Each dancer attempts to outdo the other while "their rude but picturesque audience" cheers and laughs:

   O, come erlong, come erlong,
      Wut's de use er hol'in back;
   O' hit it strong, er hit it strong,
      Mek de ol' flo' ben' an' crack.
O, hoop tee doo, uh, hoop tee doo!
Dat's de way ter knock it froo.
               Right erlong, right erlong,
            Slide de lef' foot right erlong.
               Hoop te doo, O hoop tee doo,
            See, my lub, I dawnce ter you.
                  Ho, boy! Ho, boy!
            Well done, meh lady!

   O, slide erlong, slide erlong—
      Fas'ah wid dat pattin', Sam!
   Dar's music in dis lef' heel's song,
      Mis'ah right foot, doan' you sham!
O, hoop tee doo, oh, hoop tee doo!
Straight erlong I dawnce ter you.
               Slide erlong, slide erlong,
            Mek dat right foot hit it strong.
               Hoop tee do, O, hoop tee doo,
            See, my lub, I dawnce ter you.
               Ho, boy! Ho, boy!
            Well done, meh lady!

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