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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 has concentrated on the African American experience 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 brought him to Harlem at the end of the Harlem Renaissance, where he befriended many of the writers associated with it, most notably Langston Hughes, and was inspired to develop his poetics. talent.
In many of his songs, Tolson will therefore revisit the atmosphere of Harlem in the 1930s. Inspired by the achievements of people like Hughes who were around him, Tolson decided to contribute to the proud legacy of black writers.
His earlier collection Meeting and gallery reflects the early influence of Walt Whitman, Edgar Lee Masters, and Langston Hughes, thus emphasizing Tolson’s proletarian beliefs and optimistic spirit. This later became evident in his interest in themes of black dignity as well as in his elaboration of multiracial diversity in America… This must have led to the West African Republic of Liberia naming 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. So he grew up in a Methodist Episcopal family with his father, a reverend, who taught himself the classical languages. He moved around small towns in the Midwest with his parents between various churches in the Missouri and Iowa area until he finally settled in the Kansas City area. He lived in a home of contradictions. His father, who had an eighth-grade education, was skeptical of the value of a college education, but nevertheless instilled in his son a strong desire for knowledge.
As a boy he enjoyed painting, but was forced to give it up because of his mother’s disapproval of a bohemian artist who wanted to take him with her to Paris. Turning to poetry, he found a suitable outlet for his creativity. At age 14, he published his first poem, “The Wreck of the Titanic,” in a local newspaper in Oskaloosa, Iowa. Then, in Kansas City in 1911, he was chosen as the poet of the senior class.
He graduated from Lincoln High School in Kansas City in 1919 and enrolled at Fisk University, but transferred to Lincoln University that year for financial reasons. There he met Ruth Southall and married her on January 29, 1922. Tolson graduated with honors in 1924 and then moved to Marshall, Texas to teach speech and English at Wiley College.
While at Wiley, Tolson built a series of epoch-making extracurricular activities such as coaching the junior varsity football team, leading the theater club, co-founding the black intercollegiate Southern Drama and Speech Arts Association, and organizing the Wiley Forensic Society, an award-winning debate club that gained national recognition. reputation for breaking the color bar across the country and unprecedented success when, during their 1935 tour, they competed against the University of Southern California featuring Oprah Winfrey – produced film Great debaters, was based on, released on December 25, 2007 (although the film discusses 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 to always stand up for their rights, even though this was a rather controversial position in the US South in the early to mid-20th century.
From 1930, Tolson began writing poetry. He took a leave of absence to pursue a master’s degree in comparative literature at Columbia University in 1930-31, but did not complete it until 1940, writing a thesis on the Harlem Renaissance and writing his first book of poems. Harlem Portrait Gallery, songs from which they appeared in Arts Quarterly, Modern Quarterly and Modern Monthly.
In 1941 Dark Symphonywhich is often considered his greatest work winning first place in a national poetry contest in 1939, was published in Atlantic Monthly. Dark Symphony compares and contrasts African American and European American history.
In 1944, Tolson published his first collection of poetry, A meeting with Americawhich includes Dark Symphony produced at the request of the editor at Atlantic Monthly after moving to Dod Mead. The book quickly went through three editions from 1944.
Washington Tribune hired Tolson to write a weekly column, Cabbage and caviarin which he attacked the class pretensions and lack of racial pride of the black middle class after he left his professorship at Wiley in the late 1940s.
Tolson began teaching at Langston University in Langston, Oklahoma, in 1947. He also served as playwright and director of the Dust Bowl Theater there. One of his students there, Nathan Hare, a pioneer in black studies, later became a founder Black scholar
Another great 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 Liberia’s centennial in 1956.
Eight model Libretto for the Republic of Liberia marks the intersection of several different currents – modernist stylistics imposed on an English Pindarian ode to an African political moment by an African-American artist. Although it has a black theme, this song could also be said to be about a man’s world. And this theme is not only affirmed, it is embodied in rich and complex language and realized in terms of poetic imagination. It gives the initial clue to its meaning by allusive indirectness. But it marks Tolson’s growing poetic ambition throughout, so long, complex and allusive in places and filled with surreal dream visions in others. However, one black man’s poem remains under-read
That year, Liberia named Tolson its Poet Laureate who was later inducted into the Liberian Knighthood of the Order of the African Star. The fifties and nineties brought him more and more success. He is the winner of poetry awards and honorary doctorates. He then received a chair at Tuskegee Institute. He is a recipient of the American Academy of Arts and Letters Award and the Institute of Arts and Letters. He also entered local politics and was elected mayor of the city of Langston for four consecutive terms from 1954 to 1960.
In 1965 Tolson’s last work to appear during his lifetime, a long poem Harlem Gallery, was published. This last poem consists of several sections, each beginning with a letter of the Greek alphabet and concentrating on an exploration of African American life. It is altogether a drastic departure from his first works.
In 1965, Tolson was appointed to a two-year term at Tuskegee Institute, where he was the Avalon Poet. But he didn’t live long enough to finish his term here. Because 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 Harlem Portrait Gallery in a mixture of various styles as well as free verse. The racially diverse and culturally rich community represented in the Harlem Portrait Gallery may be based or intended to be Marshall, Texas. His poems are characterized by an allusive, complex, modernist style and long poetic lines.
Tolson, a man of impressive intellect, created poetry that was “funny, witty, humorous, slapstick, crude, cruel, bitter and hilarious,” as Carl Shapiro told the Harlem Gallery. Langston Hughes described him as “no pushy. The students respect and love him. The kids in the cotton fields love him. The cowbells understand him. . . . He’s a great speaker.” In New York, Tolson met important figures such as the literary critic and editor VFCalverton, who described him as “a bright colorful writer who achieves 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 to be recorded in pages or volumes”.
Tolson’s fearless attitude toward controversy and his vigorous defense of his religious and social views drew not only fire, but an invitation to publish in the journal Pittsburgh Courier.
Lift Every Voice and Sing (1899)
God’s Trombones: Seven (1927)
Selected songs (1936)
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