Monday, April 9, 2018

ARTSPEAK! Harlem Renaissance poem "Measurements"

Welcome to day #9 of 2018 ARTSPEAK!, in which I am focusing on art and artists from the Harlem Renaissance.

Before we get to today's poem, please be sure and visit Ramona at Pleasures from the Page to see how our Progressive Poem is progressing!

Today I'm continuing my Harlem Renaissance poetry project with another piece by artist John Archibald Motley, Jr -- who went by "Archibald Motley." He was popular in the early days of the Harlem Renaissance (1920's) and is called a "modernist." Many of his pieces feature lively music and dancing scenes. I've selected two of them to write on for this project. One of the things I learned about Motley is that her grew up in a white neighborhood in Chicago, and that often there is a sense of humor or irony in his paintings. The perspective he uses is that of observer or outsider-looking-in (which I think all of us can relate to at one time in our lives or another!). And he shows African American people with a wide variety of skin tones and physical characteristics, which helped bucked the stereotypes.

Here are the poems in the series so far:

"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

Today's piece is called "Octoroon Girl," and it's a portrait of a woman who is 1/8th white. Apparently that was the language of the day, along with "mulatto." These days we might say "mixed race" or "biracial." Oh we humans and our need to name things... here is my poem.

Measurements (for an Octoroon Girl)

I'm no good
at fractions

but I can tell you
a person's worth

has more to do
with deeds than words,

and nothing to do
with money,

                  or fame:

So throw away
your scales and rulers,

your raisin eyes
and peach-pit lips.

I am not 1/8th anything.
I am one whole


- Irene Latham


  1. "a person's worth
    has more to do
    with deeds than words."
    Her defiant gaze matches the tone of your poem.

  2. I agree with Ramona, and with your frustration at our human need to label and categorize. She's strong and beautiful. End of story.

  3. Hi, Irene--

    Just jaunting back to catch up some of your fine choices of art and fine responses. Love this:
    So throw away
    your scales and rulers,

    your raisin eyes
    and peach-pit lips.

    Just want to mention that my American Studies memory is correct, in that "octoroon" means 1/8 black, which I believe in some cases had a legal ramification--just as much as being "mulatto."


Your thoughts?