July 18, 2011

Horton: because my skin is black

George Moses Horton was born enslaved in North Carolina in 1797. Living near the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, he practiced his poetry with students, who paid him for his recitations. He started publishing here and there, giving himself the nickname "the Colored Bard of North Carolina." One of his earliest published works was "Slavery," published in Freedom's Journal on July 18, 1828. It was attributed "by a Carolinian Slave named George Horton":

When first my bosom glowed with hope,
I gaz'd as from a mountain top
    On some delightful plain;
But oh! how transient was the scene—
It fled as though it had not been,
        And all my hopes were vain.

How oft this tantalizing blaze
Has led me through deception's maze;
        My friend became my foe—
Then like a plaintive dove I mourn'd,
To bitter all my sweets were turn'd,
        And tears began to flow.

Why was the dawning of my birth
Upon this vile accursed earth,
        Which is but pain to me?
Oh! that my soul had winged its flight,
When first I saw the morning light,
        To worlds of liberty!

 Come melting Pity from afar
And break this vast, enormous bar
        Between a wretch and thee;
Purchase a few short days of time,
And bid a vassal rise sublime
        On wings of liberty.

Is it because my skin is black,
That thou should'st be so dull and slack,
        And scorn to set me free?
Then let me hasten to the grave,
The only refuge for the slave,
        Who mourns for liberty.

The wicked case from trouble there;
No more I'd languish or despair—
        The weary there can rest.
Oppression's voice is heard no more,
Drudg'ry and pain, and toil ar o'er.
        Yes! there I shall be blest.

In the next year, Horton published The Hope of Liberty, making him the first black writer of the South. He is noted as the first enslaved person in the United States to protest his situation in verse. "Slavery," like all of his early works, was composed in Horton's head; he was not able to write until 1832. Apparently, Southern novelist Caroline Lee Hentz helped him write down these early verses for publication. When the President of UNC attempted to buy Horton's freedom, his enslaver would not allow it. However, Horton was allowed to keep any income he made from his poetry, averaging $3 a week in the 1830s. He was not granted his freedom until Union troops arrived on his enslaver's plantation after the Emancipation Proclamation.

*For more on Horton, see The Black Bard of North Carolina: George Moses Horton and His Poetry (1997), edited by Joan R. Sherman. No images of Horton exist; the image above shows his signature, noting himself as "poet," from the David L. Swain papers at UNC.

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