January 9, 2012

Campbell: beneath the sun's eclipse

The death of African-American poet and author Alfred Gibbs Campbell was recorded as January 9, 1884. During his life, he was an advocate of temperance, religious individualism, as well as civil rights for both blacks and women. His most famous role was as editor of The Alarm Bell, the newspaper he founded which lasted only about 15 months from 1851 to 1852. The newspaper was published in Paterson, New Jersey; Campbell's three decades later was in Newark. His poems were collected into a complete edition just a few months before his death — including his powerful Independence Day poem, "Lines" (1855):

Wake not again the cannon's thundrous voice,
Nor to the breeze throw out the stars and stripes;
'Tis not the time to revel and rejoice
Beneath the shadow of our nation's types —
Types of her ancient glory, present shame.
The stars have faded of her old renown,
For Liberty is but an empty name,
While Slavery wields the sceptre, wears the crown.

In verse, Campbell echoes sentiments which Frederick Douglass had expressed only a few years earlier:  America is a lie so long as it does not practice the freedom it preaches. Slavery, Campbell says, is a "sterner tyrant" than the king who was overthrown. Man was created in God's image, but some are transformed "into merchandise" which is denied "God-given liberties." He continues:

We are not free! In every Southern State
Speech and the Press are fettered; — and for him
Who dares speak out, the martyr-fires await,
Or hangman's rope from tallest pine-tree's limb.
We are not free! One man in every seven,
Throughout our false Republic, groans beneath
The vilest despotism under heaven,
Which leaves no hope of freedom but in death.

Nearly four million in our land in chains!
One-half our country slave-land! and the whole
Man-hunting ground! And Kansas' virgin plains,
(Once pledged to Freedom,) under the control
Of the Slave Power! Say, Boaster, are we free?
See if the huge lie blister not your lips:
Where Slavery reigns, there Freedom cannot be!
Light vanishes beneath the sun's eclipse.

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