I didn’t really look into the poetry and other writings of Esther Popel Shaw while working on Goodbye Christ?, but digging around for the ways the Harlem Renaissance may connect to the City of Harrisburg for a presentation I’m doing at St. Stephen’s Cathedral, I discovered her biographical connection to the region. Born in Harrisburg and the first African American to attend Dickinson, she left the area to attend Howard University after not being allowed to live on Campus. She eventually worked on various literary and political journals in Harlem for a while and was a teacher for much of her life. I hesitate to say these poems are representative since I don’t know enough about all her writing, but a nice collection can be found at The Beltway Poetry Quarterly. I reproduce one of them here. The ironic juxtaposition of American (and/or Christian) ideals with the realities of racial violence was a common trope of literature of the period
“I pledge allegiance to the flag”
They dragged him naked
Through the muddy streets,
A feeble-minded black boy!
And the charge? Supposed assault
Upon an aged woman!
“Of the United States of America”
One mile they dragged him
Like a sack of meal,
A rope around his neck,
A bloody ear
Left dangling by the patriotic hand
Of Nordic youth! (A boy of seventeen!)
“And to the Republic for which it stands”
And then they hanged his body to a tree,
Below the window of the county judge
Whose pleadings for that battered human flesh
Were stifled by the brutish, raucous howls
Of men, and boys, and women with their babes,
Brought out to see the bloody spectacle
Of murder in the style of ’33!
“(Three thousand strong, they were!)
“One Nation, Indivisible”
To make the tale complete
They built a fire
What matters that the stuff they burned
Was fleshand boneand hair
And reeking gasoline!
“With Libertyand Justice”
They cut the rope in bits
And passed them out,
For souvenirs, among the men and boys!
The teeth no doubt, on golden chains
About the favored necks of sweethearts, wives,
And daughters, mothers, sisters, babies, too!
–Esther Popel Shaw
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