April 10, 2012

Birth of Whitfield: foul persecutions

Little is known about the early life of James Monroe Whitfield, who was born in Exeter, New Hampshire on April 10, 1822. Eventually, he moved to Buffalo, New York and became a barber by profession, and a poet by passion. His work was published in the North Star by Frederick Douglass and The Liberator by William Lloyd Garrison. Though born free, he was understandably concerned about enslaved members of his fellow race and much of his poetry is for the cause of emancipation. In fact, for a time he believed in colonization of a new country for blacks and moved to South America to consider the prospects. He later became an important member of the Freemasons and moved to Oregon, Idaho, and Nevada before settling in California, where he died in 1872.

Among his most well-known and most-anthologized poems is the 236-line "How Long," in which he demands an answer from the deity for "how long" people will be "trampled by the strong." From his 1853 book America and Other Poems, here is the shorter "Prayer of the Oppressed":

Oh great Jehovah! God of love,
  Thou monarch of the earth and sky,
Canst thou from thy great throne above
  Look down with an unpitying eye? —

See Afric’s sons and daughters toil,
  Day after day, year after year,
Upon this blood-bemoistened soil,
  And to their cries turn a deaf ear?

Canst thou the white oppressor bless
  With verdant hills and fruitful plains,
Regardless of the slave’s distress,
  Unmindful of the black man’s chains.

How long, oh Lord! ere thou wilt speak
  In thy Almighty thundering voice,
To bid the oppressor’s fetters break,
  And Ethiopia’s sons rejoice.

How long shall Slavery’s iron grip,
  And Prejudice’s guilty hand,
Send forth, like blood-hounds from the slip,
  Foul persecutions o’er the land?

How long shall puny mortals dare
   To violate thy just decree,
And force their fellow-men to wear
  The galling chain on land and sea?

Hasten, oh Lord! the glorious time
  When everywhere beneath the skies,
From every land and every clime,
  Peans to Liberty shall rise!

When the bright sun of liberty
  Shall shine o’er each despotic land,
And all mankind, from bondage free,
  Adore the wonders of thy hand.

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