Melvin Tolson – Harlem Renaissance Writer Who Reaches Out to Liberia

Melvin Beaunorus Tolson is an African-American Modernist poet, educator, columnist, and playwright whose work concentrated on the experience of African- Americans and includes several poetic histories. He lived during the Harlem Renaissance and, although he was not a participant, his work reflects its influences.

Tolson’s year at Columbia University from 1931 to 1932 on a Rockefeller Foundation scholarship put him in Harlem at the end of the Harlem Renaissance thus his becoming friendly with many of the writers who were associated with it most notably Langston Hughes and got inspired to develop his poetic talent.

In many of his poems, therefore, Tolson would revisit the atmosphere of Harlem in the 1930’s. Inspired by the achievements of people like Hughes who were around him Tolson resolved to contribute to the proud legacy black writers were establishing.

His earlier collection Rendezvous and Gallery reflects the early influence of Walt Whitman, Edgar Lee Masters and Langston Hughes thus highlighting Tolson’s proletarian convictions and optimistic spirit. This later became evident in his interest in the themes of black dignity as in his elaboration of multiracial diversity in America…These must have led to the West African Republic of Liberia declaring him its poet laureate in 1947.

Born in 1900 in Moberly, Missouri, Melvin Tolson was the son of a Methodist minister and an Afro-Greek mother who was a seamstress. He was thus raised in a Methodist Episcopal household with his father a reverend who had taught himself classical languages. He moved around a circuit of small mid-western towns along with his parents between various churches in the Missouri and Iowa area until finally settling in the Kansas City area. He lived in a home of contradictions. His father who had an eighth grade education was sceptical of the value of college education, but he still instilled in his son a strong desire for knowledge.

As a boy he enjoyed painting but was forced to give it up by his mother’s disapproval of a bohemian artist who wanted to take him along with him to Paris. So turning to poetry, he found an appropriate outlet for his creativity. At the age of 14 he had his first poem “The Wreck of the Titanic” published in the local newspaper of Oskaloosa, Iowa. Next at Kansas City in 1911 he got elected senior class poet.

He graduated from Lincoln High School in Kansas City in 1919 and enrolled in Fisk University but transferred to Lincoln University that year for financial reasons. There he met Ruth Southall and married her on the 29th of January 1922. Tolson graduated with honors in 1924, then moved to Marshall, Texas, to teach speech and English at Wiley College.

While at Wiley, Tolson built up a string of epoch-making extra-curricula activities like his coaching the junior varsity football team, directing the theater club, co-founding the black inter-collegial Southern Association of Dramatic and Speech Arts as well as organizing the Wiley Forensic Society, an award-winning debating club that earned a national reputation by breaking the color bar throughout the country and meeting with unprecedented success as when during their tour in 1935, they competed against the University of Southern California upon which the Oprah Winfrey- produced film The Great Debaters, is based, released on 25 December 2007 (although in the movie, they debate Harvard, not USC). The film was directed by Denzel Washington.

Tolson mentored many students at Wiley encouraging them not only to be well-rounded but also to always stand up for their rights, even though it was quite a controversial position to take in the U.S. South in the early and mid-20th century.

From 1930 on, Tolson began writing poetry. He took a leave of absence to earn a Master’s degree in comparative literature from Columbia University in 1930-31, but didn’t complete it until 1940 with the writing of a thesis on the Harlem Renaissance and the writing of his first book of poems Gallery of Harlem Portraits, poems from which appeared in Arts Quarterly, Modern Quarterly and Modern Monthly.

In 1941, Dark Symphony, often considered his greatest work winning first place in a 1939 national poetry contest, was published in Atlantic Monthly. Dark Symphony compares and contrasts African-American and European-American history.

In 1944 Tolson published his first poetry collection, Rendezvous with America, which includes Dark Symphony produced at the request of the editor of Atlantic Monthly upon moving to Dodd Mead. The book quickly went through three editions from 1944 onwards.

The Washington Tribune hired Tolson to write a weekly column, Cabbage and Caviar, in which he attacked the class pretensions and lack of racial pride of the black middle class after he left his teaching position at Wiley in the late 1940s.

Tolson began teaching at Langston University in Langston, Oklahoma, in 1947. He also served as a dramatist and director of the Dust Bowl Theater there. One of his students there, Nathan Hare, the black studies pioneer, later became the founding publisher of The Black Scholar

Another major work of his is Libretto for the Republic of Liberia (1953). Written in the form of an epic poem, it is perhaps the poet’s most ambitious work. It was commissioned that year and completed in 1953 for the 1956 Liberian centennial.

The eight-sectioned Libretto for the Republic of Liberia marks the intersection of several disparate strands – modernist stylistics superimposed on an English pindaric ode about an African political moment by an African-American artist. Though it has a Negro subject, this poem could be said to be about the world of men as well. And this subject is not merely asserted, it is embodied in a rich and complex language and realized in terms of the poetic imagination. It gives an initial clue to its meaning by allusive indirection. But it marks Tolson’s increasing poetic ambition through such a long, complex and allusive in some places and filled with surreal dream-visions in others. However, it remains an under-read poem by a Negro

That year, Liberia declared Tolson its poet laureate who was subsequently admitted to the Liberian Knighthood of the Order of the Star of Africa. The 1950’s and 90’s brought him increasing successes. He won poetry prizes and honorary doctorates. He then got a chair at Tuskegee Institute. He won the Arts and Letters Award in literature from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. He also entered local politics and was elected mayor of the town of Langston for four consecutive terms from 1954 to 1960.

In 1965, Tolson’s final work to appear in his lifetime, the long poem Harlem Gallery, was published. This last poem consists of several sections, each beginning with a letter of the Greek alphabet and concentrates on exploring African American life. It is as a whole a drastic departure from his first works.

In 1965, Tolson was appointed to a two-year term at Tuskegee Institute, where he was Avalon Poet. But he did not live long enough to finish his term here. For, he died in the middle of his appointment after undergoing cancer surgery in Dallas Texas, on August 29, 1966. He was buried in Guthrie,Oklahoma.

The poems he wrote in New York were published posthumously in 1979 as A Gallery of Harlem Portraits in a mixture of various styles as well as free verse. The racially diverse and culturally rich community presented in A Gallery of Harlem Portraits may be based on or intended to be Marshall, Texas. His poems have been characterized by their allusive, complex, modernist style and their long poetic sequences.

Tolson a man of impressive intellect created poetry that was “funny, witty, humoristic, slapstick, rude, cruel, bitter, and hilarious,” as Karl Shapiro had said of the Harlem Gallery. Langston Hughes described him as “no highbrow. Students revere him and love him. Kids from the cotton fields like him. Cow punchers understand him … He’s a great talker.” In New York Tolson met important figures such as literary critic and editor V.F.Calverton, who described him as “A bright vivid writer who attains his best effects by understatement rather than overstatement and who captures in a line or a stanza what most of his contemporaries have failed to capture in pages or volumes.”

Tolson’s fearless attitude towards controversy and his spirited defense of his religious and social views drew not only fire, but also an invitation to publish in the Pittsburgh Courier.

Lift Every Voice and Sing (1899)
God’s Trombones: Seven (1927)
Selected Poems (1936)

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