II: Big Sea
The widespread publicity resulting from the Vachel Lindsay incident was certainly good for my poetic career, but it was not good for my job, because from then on, very often the head waiter would call me to come and stand before some table whose curious guests wished to see what a Negro bus boy poet looked like. I felt self-conscious and embarrassed, so when pay day came, I quit.
I went home, went to bed, and stayed in bed ten days. I was not sick, just tired of working. My mother said she was tired of working, too, and I could either get up from there and go back to work, or I would not eat! But I was really tired, so I stayed right on in bed and rested and read—and got hungry. My mother refused to feed me on the food she prepared for my little brother when she got home from work. And I didn’t blame her, if she didn’t want to feed me.
One day a young Howard student named Edward Lovette came by the house to show me something that he had written. I had never met him before, but I told him that I was hungry, so he invited me to come with him to a restaurant and have lunch. Every day for several days the same student came by and bought me a meal, although he didn’t have much money. I will never forget him, because I needed those meals.
While in Washington I won my first poetry prize. Opportunity magazine, the official publication of the National Urban League, held its first literary contest. In succeeding years, two others were held with funds given by Casper Holstein, a wealthy West Indian numbers banker who did good things with his money, such as educating boys and girls at colleges in the South, building decent apartment houses in Harlem, and backing literary contests to encourage colored writers. Mr. Holstein, no doubt, would have been snubbed in polite Washington society, Negro or white, but there he was doing decent and helpful things that it hadn’t occurred to lots of others to do. Certainly he was a great help to poor poets.
I sent several poems to the first contest. And then, as an afterthought, I sent “The Weary Blues,” the poem I had written three winters before up the Hudson and whose ending I had never been able to get quite right. But I thought perhaps it was as right now as it would ever be. It was a poem about a working man who sang the blues all night and then went to bed and slept like a rock. That was all. And it included the first blues verse I’d ever heard way back in Lawrence, Kansas, when I was a kid.
I got de weary blues
And I can’t be satisfied.
Got de weary blues
And can’t be satisfied.
I ain’t happy no mo’
And I wish that I had died.
That was my lucky poem—because it won the first prize.
The prizes were to be awarded at a banquet in New York. The poetry prize was forty dollars. I spent it going after it. But it was a good banquet, where I met Clement Wood and again saw James Weldon Johnson, who, with Witter Bynner and John Farrar, were the poetry judges. Also I met Zora Hurston and Eric Walrond, who were among the prize winners in other fields.
James Weldon Johnson read my poem aloud to the assemblage in awarding me the prize. And after the banquet was over, Carl Van Vechten came up to congratulate me. It was the first time I had seen him since being introduced to him at the N.A.A.C.P. benefit party in Harlem, but he remembered me, and asked if I had enough poems by now to make a book. I told him I thought I had, so he asked me to send them to him to read.
When I got back to Washington, I promptly sent Mr. Van Vechten my poems. He wrote saying that he liked them, and asked permission to submit my manuscript to his publishers, Alfred A. Knopf. And shortly there came a letter from Blanche Knopf, saying my poems were to be accepted for publication. I called the book The Weary Blues.
When I was tired of resting after the Wardman Park, I got a job at a fish and oyster house in downtown Washington. (I always liked jobs in places where you eat.) I wore a tall white cap like Bruce’s, and I stood behind a counter twelve hours a day, making oyster stews and oyster cocktails to order. My first week there I ate so many oysters myself that I broke out all over in an oyster rash. Now that I had won a prize, I began to meet all the other young colored poets in Washington. Georgia Douglas Johnson, a charming woman poet, who had two sons in college, turned her house into a salon for us on Saturday nights. Marietta Bonner, Button Ferguson, Esther Popel, Richard Bruce Nugent, Mae Miller, Lewis Alexander, John P. Davis, Willis Richardson, Hallie Queen, and Clarissa Scott used to come there to eat Mrs. Johnson’s cake and drink her wine and talk poetry and books and plays. Sometimes Alain Locke would drop in, too. And that year I met Angelina Grimke.
My two years in Washington were unhappy years, except for poetry and the friends I made through poetry. I wrote many poems. I always put them away new for several weeks in a bottom drawer. Then I would take them out and re-read them. If they seemed bad, I would throw them away. They would all seem good when I wrote them and, usually, bad when I would look at them again. So most of them were thrown away.
The blues poems I would often make up in my head and sing on the way to work. (Except that I could never carry a tune. But when I sing to myself, I think I am singing.) One evening, I was crossing Rock Creek Bridge, singing a blues I was trying to get right before I put it down on paper. A man passing on the opposite side of the bridge stopped, looked at me, then turned around and cut across the roadway.
He said: “Son, what’s the matter? Are you ill?”
“No,” I said. “Just singing.”
“I thought you were groaning,” he commented. “Sorry!” And went his way.
So after that I never sang my verses aloud in the street any more.
It seems that Carl Van Vechten had spoken to Margaret Case about my work, so Vanity Fair bought some of my poems, the first I sold. And paid well for them. Next I believe the New Republic and the Bookman bought my work, sending checks that were small, but encouraging. I was particularly glad that Ridgeley Torrence at the New Republic had liked my poems.
Then I won another literary prize, one of the Amy Spingarn prizes offered by the Crisis. In New York I met Mrs. Spingarn, and was invited to her home for tea. She lived then in West 73rd Street in a tall house with an elevator. I had never seen a private house with an elevator before, so I was much intrigued by it. Mrs. Spingarn had a studio at the top of the house, where she made some sketches of me that later developed into a portrait in oils. As she sketched, the maid brought tea and cinnamon toast, and Mrs. Spingarn recited Wordsworth and Shelley in a deep voice.
During that same trip to New York, Winold Reiss made a portrait of me in colored crayons, and at Eric Walrond’s place in Harlem, I met a young Mexican artist named Miguel Covarrubias, who was fascinated by Harlem and made wonderful caricatures in rhythm of dancers and blues singers. About that time I met Aaron Douglas, too, and Augusta Savage, the sculptress, and Gwendolyn Bennett, who was both an artist and a poet. I began to form my first literary and artistic friendships.
In those days, Charles S. Johnson, writer, speaker, and social scientist, was the editor of Opportunity. Mr. Johnson, I believe, did more to encourage and develop Negro writers during the 1920’s than anyone else in America. He wrote them sympathetic letters, pointing out the merits of their work. He brought them together to meet and know each other. He made the Opportunity contests sources of discovery and help.
Jessie Fauset at the Crisis, Charles Johnson at Opportunity, and Alain Locke in Washington, were the three people who midwifed the so-called New Negro literature into being. Kind and critical—but not too critical for the young—they nursed us along until our books were born. Countee Cullen, Zora Neale Hurston, Arna Bontemps, Rudolph Fisher, Wallace Thurman, Jean Toomer, Nella Larsen, all of us came along about the same time. Most of us are quite grown up now. Some are silent. Some are dead.
One day on a street car in Washington, I first met Waring Cuney. He had a Chicago Defender, oldest American Negro newspaper, in his hand, and my picture was in the Defender with the announcement of the forthcoming publication of The Weary Blues. Cuney looked from the picture to me, then asked if I were one and the same. I said yes. Then he said he wrote poetry, too. I said I’d like to see it, so later he brought some of his poems to show me.
Cuney was a student at Lincoln University, near Philadelphia. He told me it was a fine college, because you had plenty of time there to read and write. He said the tuition was cheaper than at Howard. So I sent for a catalogue of the college courses at Lincoln, since it seemed I would never be able to enter Howard, anyway.
One afternoon I had had tea with a woman in New York to whom I mentioned that I was trying to find a way to go back to college. I said I wanted to find out what makes the world the kind of world it is. She had one son in college herself, and so was very sympathetic. The next time I saw her, I told her about Lincoln. She listened and at Christmas, the Christmas of 1925, there came a letter from her, offering me a scholarship at Lincoln. It was the happiest holiday gift I’ve ever received. My poems had caused me to meet her. My poems—through the kindness of this woman who liked poetry—sent me to college. So at the mid-year I entered Lincoln, and remained there until I received my degree.