Wednesday, April 18, 2018

ARTSPEAK! Harlem Renaissance poem "My John Henry"

Welcome to day #18 of 2018 ARTSPEAK!, in which I am focusing on art and artists from the Harlem Renaissance. Today I am enjoying events with Charles Waters in New York City!

Before we get to today's poem, please be sure and visit Christie and Wondering and Wandering to see how our Progressive Poem is progressing!

Today I'm continuing my Harlem Renaissance poetry project with a final piece Palmer Hayden. Tomorrow I'll introduce sculptor Meta Warrick Fuller.

Here are the poems in the series so far:

"Night Music" after Untitled by Palmer Hayden
"A (Sub)way of Looking" after The Subway, 1930 by Palmer Hayden
"Girl to Mama" after Madonna at the Stoop by Palmer Hayden
"For Love of the Game" after Checkers Game by Palmer Hayden
"The Birthday Birds of Bonaventure Island" after Birds of Isle de Bonaventure by Palmer Hayden
"Boat Dock, Early Evening" after Boats at the Dock by Palmer Hayden
"Prayer for the Berry Pickers" after Berry Pickers by Palmer Hayden
"Sometimes Books Are the Only Playground I Need" after Among Them is a Girl Reading by Palmer Hayden
"Measurements" after Octoroon Girl by Archibald Motley
"Barbeque" after Barbecue by Archibald Motley
"American Idyll, 1934" after An Idyll of the Deep South by Aaron Douglas
"The Toiler" after The Toiler by Aaron Douglas
"Let There Be Poetry" after The Creation by Aaron Douglas
"Boy with Plane" after Boy with Plane by Aaron Douglas
"To a Dancer" after Sahdji (Tribal Women) by Aaron Douglas
"For the Builders" after Building More Stately Mansions by Aaron Douglas
"This Poem is a Dream" after Aspiration by Aaron Douglas

I learned in the book HARLEM STOMP! that Hayden was a janitor and then came to prominence as the first winner of the Harmon Foundation art competition in 1926 (an art contest created to recognize African American artists). Much of Hayden's work centered on black American life, legends and folk heroes. He was criticized for lapsing into a portrayal of blacks that seemed rooted in cultural stereotypes, a reminder that “blacks were performing for a white audience.” I also love the information about Palmer's life and work found here.

And I love this quote: "I decided to paint to support my love of art, rather than have art support me." — Palmer Hayden quoted in Nora Holt, "Painter Palmer Hayden Symbolizes John Henry," New York Times, 1 Feb. 1947. 

Today's piece is called When John Henry Was a Baby. Remember the legend of John Henry? Palmer Hayden did a number of pieces about John Henry. Like me, you probably remember the song. As I approached this piece, I knew that I didn't want to repeat the story; I wanted to bring something new in my poem. So I started thinking about John Henry's mother, and his relationship with her. What might he tell him? How did she influence the man he later became? Is this how she might remember him after his death?

My John Henry

A wiggler and a wanderer,

he sure did love that little hammer!

And each time a train whistle shattered
the sky, how he'd pull toward it.

I knew that boy was going places.
I knew he'd do great things.

But, oh, how I long
to hold him in my lap again!

What I'd give to hear his chattering,
sweeter than any chickensong.

My John Henry may have driven steel,
but he had sunflowers in his eyes.

- Irene Latham


  1. I love that you put in that "little hammer", Irene, and the "sunflowers in his eyes". This makes me wonder how many children today know his story? And I love the painting, the setting and the mother and John Henry!

  2. Oh, that painting! It's so beautiful! I love the poem, too.


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