by MACKINLEY HELM
THE American consul general in Czechoslovakia advised me not to go on to Germany, which was next on my European itinerary, until the Allied Army of Occupation was withdrawn. The Pact of Locarno was still some months off; and meanwhile the German people were feeling bitter about the black colonial troops in the Rhineland. I refused to believe, however, that they would hold me, a private Negro citizen of the United States, responsible for the presence of French-speaking Africans, and so I settled down in Prague to prepare for German audiences by polishing up my studies of the Lieder.
Early in the fall of 1924 I felt ready to meet the Germans on their own terms. Some friends I had made in Pilsen helped me to cross the border inconspicuously, and I went up at once to Berlin. I wanted to get the feel of the city for a couple of days before the concert which a Russian agent by the name of Borkon had booked me to sing at the Beethovensaal. On my breakfast tray, the morning after my arrival, I found a complimentary copy of an American newspaper published in the German capital. The editorial page contained an open letter which proved that the consul in Prague had been no alarmist. Addressed to the American Ambassador, and signed by an officer of one of the many nationalistic societies which flourished in post-war Germany, it called for the prevention of a certain calamity: namely, the concert of an American Negro who had come to Berlin to defile the names of German poets and composers — a Negro, according to the writer, “who, at best, could only remind us of the cotton fields of Georgia.”
When I entered the concert chamber at the Beethovensaal, I found myself standing in a flood of light; in front of me, a blackedout audience sat unquietly. From the rear there rolled out a great volley of hisses, which seemed to me to fill the hall entirely. I was terribly apprehensive, but I took my place in the curve of the piano, closed my eyes, lifted my head into singing position, and stood still as a statue. I waited moment after moment, perhaps for five or ten minutes altogether, listening to the ebb and flow of antagonistic sound. I tried to match the determination of my adversaries with quiet invincibility, and af ter a time I seemed actually to impress them. Presently the attack upon me petered out.
When silence came, as it absolutely did at length, the hall was more still than any other I had ever sung in. It was .so quiet that the hush began to hurt. I conveyed my readiness to my accompanist with the slightest movement of my lips, without turning my head or my body, and began to sing Schubert’s “Du bist die Ruh’,” which otherwise would have occurred later in the program. The entry to that song is almost as silent as silence itself. The German text, stealing out of my mouth in sustained pianissimo, seemed to win my hostile audience over.
In the greenroom, during the first intermission, I was warned that no singer had dared to use the French language in Berlin since the war, but I was determined to face my audience out with the French songs printed in my program. I returned to the platform and sang Debussy, Henri Duparc, and Massenet. I sang the “Dream Song” five times. The audience accepted that group so gallantly that I gave them more of their own music before I went on to the spirituals.
The first person to speak to me in the artists’ room after the concert was an American boy who was studying music in Berlin. His face was as red as a beet and his eyes shone darkly.
“Put it there!” he said. “This is the first time I have seen the Germans admit that good art can come out of America.”
I crossed over to America in the early winter of 1924, after the German season, to sing the eighty concerts of my second American tour; and in April, 1925, I returned to Europe to sing with the Royal Philharmonic Society of Madrid. There, for the first time in my life, I played at something unrelated to my work. I went to parties everywhere, with the most fashionable people in the city; although I must confess that frequently I felt like an ox in a parlor amongst them.
I was in Granada in nightingale season, and lived in a little villa set into the very walls of the Alhambra. My rooms overlooked a magnolia grove where the nightingales sang. I was there in the month of May, and the birds, lately returned from Nubia and Abyssinia, sang both day and night. What a miracle of sound comes from the throats of those drab, inconspicuous creatures! It is only the cock that sings, to be sure, but he is no more elegant than his mate. He is a veritable Negro amongst birds, with his reddish-brown plumage — as anonymous in the magnolia glade as a colored boy in a field of cotton.
On my way from Spain to Russia I sang in Amsterdam, where the people liked best the florid French music and the Negro spirituals. I went through a kind of revival of religious enthusiasm there, in that Protestant country, and perhaps I sang the spirituals with new feeling. I had not been neglecting the music of my race, I was singing it faithfully everywhere, but in Catholic Europe I had doubtless given the effect of setting European music artistically above it. Now the music of my own people filled my heart and mind again. I had early appreciated the religious quality of the songs my ancestors sang, and had long since come to feel that the slave composers were moved by the same fiery Spirit that inspired Bach and Schubert. But now that I wars maturing as an artist, I began with greater conviction to present the spirituals as works of art. It is their rare combination of art and spirituality that makes great music out of songs which appear on the surface to be so artless.
At this high peak of religious inspiration I set out for the Union of Socialist Soviet Republics, where, I had been told, religion itself had been crucified. We were to be official guests of the Soviet Union, — my accompanist Percival Parham, my secretary, and I, — charged with helping to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the creation of the Red Army; but we had to wait a month in Berlin for our visas. At last, on January 28, 1928, the calendarian although not the official anniversary of the first Red Army exploit, we received the necessary passports and papers, boarded the evening train for Moscow, and spent the first night of our journey in a succession of customs examinations. We rode all the next day through the flat, white fields of Poland and arrived at the Russian frontier after dark. Polish inspectors had relieved me of every scrap of waiting in my luggage, so that nothing of interest could possibly have been left to the Russians, who nevertheless continued to inspect my possessions for the space of two hours.
We liked the Russian railway coaches which awaited us at the border. They were large and warm and comfortable — although poor Parham was distressed to discover that they were not exactly private. He found that he was expected to share a sleeping compartment with a strange woman. From the dining car the next morning, we looked out upon the snowy Russian landscape. It was studded with clumps of miniature firs and birches, with here and there a village of low huts which looked as though they had been plowed into the ground against the ravages of wind. I remember being baffled by the signs I saw in railway stations, but I consoled myself by reflecting that if I could not speak the language of the country, I should not be in danger of saying something I might regret.
We arrived in Moscow on the afternoon of the third day out of Berlin and were taken at once to the Crand Hotel, an enormous and expensive caravanserai where foreigners were evidently expected to spend as much as they could earn in the country.
I was greeted by the Muscovites with halfhearted applause. They looked bewildered and deceived, as though they had expected to see a black giant with bulging muscles and ape-like features; or perhaps, I thought, they had expected a trumpet and saw only a pitch-pipe. They heard my first group out in silence. The second group, the German songs, broke the audience down a little. Then I returned and sang the Russian group which I had laboriously prepared over a number of months — songs of Tchaikovsky, Slonimsky, Taneieff, and Gretchaninoff.
I took fifteen bows after the Russian music, each one draining my small remaining store of strength. I did not dare to give an encore lest I should be unable to finish the program with the spirituals, and after the concert, when I was greeted by people from all over the world, I was too tired to speak. I had to refuse an invitation to take tea with a plump little bearded man. The concert manager’s startled reproof to my manners lent intelligibility to the faint look of incredulity I thought I had detected on the little man’s face when I excused myself. He turned out to be the rising statesman Litvinoff.
I came upon a singular fact during an intermission in the second of my concerts in Leningrad, when a young woman visited me in the greenroom and asked me to show her the English texts of the Negro songs I had sung at my first recital. I asked her if she would mind getting permission to look at them from the commissar who went about with me everywhere. With that gentleman’s consent, I handed her a sheaf of the printed texts, which she began at once to read aloud.
“I knew it! I knew it!” she exclaimed excitedly, when she had run through a few verses.
“What did you know?” I asked.
“I knew you were singing about God.” she said, and her eyes were shining.
“But didn’t you already know that?” I asked. “Translations of the texts are printed in the program.”
“Has anyone told you what those translations say?” she inquired, and proceeded to give me a literal rendering of the “translation” of “Go Down, Moses.”
The twenty-five original verses of that spiritual recite the history of the people of Israel, beginning with their redemption from “ole Pharoh,” down in “Egypt lan’,” and continuing with a paraphrase of the Biblical account of their wanderings, up to the fall of Jericho. According to the Soviet version, I had been singing a history of the Negro’s effort to liberate himself from slavery. And “Deep River,” a song of religious aspiration if ever there was one, had become, in proletarian hands, a dreary narrative about Negroes picnicking on the banks of the Jordan River.
I determined that on the next occasion of singing the spirituals in Moscow, I should endeavor so to make God shine through them, with the faith of my mother and her kind, that the banal and coldly humanistic texts printed by some atheistic commissar should not entirely obscure their spiritual meaning. And so, with God’s help, I was able to do. After my next concert a ruling member of the Communist Party admitted to me that she had experienced a “peculiar feeling” which, as a professing atheist, she was unable to describe.
“ I am sure, however,” she quickly added, “that my feelings do not correspond to any spiritual reality, and I do not expect them to last very long.”
A young Chicago Negro named Jones, a student at the University of Moscow, tried to convert me to the new political philosophy, but everywhere I looked the effects of Communist doctrine seemed to me so bleak and so unlovely that I was not a good subject for persuasion.
The halls and chambers of our hotel in Kiev were hung with remnants of Czarist luxury. There were elegantly fitted bathrooms through whose pipes no water ran. There was an impressive staff of servants who took no orders from the guests. There were elaborate menus in the dining room, but in the kitchen there was no congruity of food. A boiled egg, a plate of bread and butter, and a pot of tea would appear at intervals, the tea two hours after the egg, the bread gray and bitter.
The automobile which came to take us to the concert hall was a shabby vehicle which had been produced in the Noachic epoch of the history of Detroit. We insinuated ourselves into its narrow seats. It did not budge. Presently it coughed, but its movement was only lateral and vertical. We held on to the back of the front seat, hoping to keep body and soul of the car together, while the chauffeur called for help. A throng of men and boys pushed us at last through the snowy streets to the hall.
It was not inspiring to sing to an audience of sniggering peasants who behaved as though they had come to inspect an African savage. I felt, that they were resentful because I neither looked nor sang like an inhabitant of the jungle. The people out front were the savages, actually, and I had to tame them. It took precisely two exhausting hours to do it, but when I had indeed made friends with them, I was scarcely permitted to leave. Crowds followed the antediluvian coach all the way to my hotel and demanded an impromptu concert in the courtyard in the morning.
At Kharkov, when I stood before my audience in the evening, in a decaying concert hall, I was made to feel like a collection of prehistoric bones on exhibition in a glass ease. I had been brought to the people by their government — issued, so to speak, like food and clothing; and their faces seemed to me to wear an appearance of stupidity and weariness, such as I had observed when I saw them in the daytime, immobilized in queues upon the street. There was something pathetic in their astonishment when they discovered that they were getting more out of my concert than their ration cards had led them to expect. I felt that I was giving them relief, for a little while, from the sordidness of their living arrangements: the closepacked sleeping; the endless cooking of two or three families sharing a single stove in a steam-filled room; tlie victualing with undernourishing commodities because everything of value had to be exported in the interest of exchange.
The Moscow manager was inclined to treat me like a music box which he could wind up and set down to sing anywhere, at any time. Wherever we had a successful concert, he promptly booked a return engagement. I was so overcome by the misery and desolation of the country, and by my own acute discomfort, that I was anxious only to fill my scheduled engagements and withdraw. Except for an event which occurred in Kharkov, I think I should not have had the heart to go on to distant Rostov.
Out of a crowd of people standing around the door of the Hotel Rouge, when we left to go to the railway station, there emerged an old man with a beaming, wrinkled face and eyes like diamonds. He plucked my cloak and said, “Are you going away, Mister? Very good, Mister. Thank you, Mister.”
I asked him if he had heard my concert.
“Ja, es war wunderschun,” he said. He had heard it by radio, through an unauthorized broadcast. “You come again? Maybe next week? ”
“Not next week, my friend,” I replied. “Perhaps next year.”
The old man’s eyes filled with tears.
“Good-bye, Mister. Thank you, Mister,” he said, and hobbled away.
When I read today of the beleaguered cities along the eastern front, south to the Sea of Azov and north to Leningrad, in mv mind I see them as they used to be. I am filled with respectful wonder when I hear how the Russian people, whose inexperience had produced nothing but disorder then, whose farms and cities were incapable of supplying goods for ordinary daily needs, have been able in this war to muster such abundantly implemented and bravely organized resistance to ordered German might.
A melancholy, impractical, and childlike race, the Russians, — or so they seemed to me then, — and yet how, in so many ways, like my own people. Blit today I see that they have grown strong, they have become giants overnight, in the preservation of their freedom. How long shall we Negroes, on our side, continue to grow weaker in imitative bondage? How long, O Lord, how long?
The idea of buying the farm where my mother was born had occurred to me in 1926. In November of that year I was received by a mixed audience of seven thousand people in the Atlanta Auditorium. The day after that long deferred debut I motored up to Calhoun, the county seat of Gordon County, picked up a boyhood friend, Allen Henson, the district attorney, and drove over to Little Row, which by that time the postal authorities called Curryville. Not a stick or splinter remained of our old cabin in the Flatwoods. Three cedar trees had survived from the grove which used to screen our house from the lane leading to Mount Zion Church, and a grapevine smothered a pecan tree which was all that remained of a tidy little orchard of nuts and fruit. But with the eyes of my mind I rebuilt the old barnyard, and my heart repeopled it.
“Do any of the Manns still live hereabouts, Mr. District Attorney?” I asked.
“Old Joe Mann who owned your mother lives up yonder in Sugar Valley, no more’ll five-six miles from here,” he replied.
Mr. Henson and I drove over to the valley and found Joe Mann’s dejected two-room shanty. It was perched precariously on a red-clay bank, overlooking a nearly impassable lane. A shabby old man came to the door. He took us in to see his pitiful sick wife, and then we went out into the yard to talk and have our picture taken.
“I have come to tell you,” I said, “that I’m going to buy up the place your family had in Curryville, and I shall fit up a house where you and your wife may spend the rest of your days together.”
I did buy the Mann plantation, with Lawyer Henson’s help, and I named it in memory of my mother: Angelmo Farm. But Mr. and Mrs. Mann were laid away in the grave before I could fit up the house which I had not thought of until I saw how they had come down in the world.
I had a house in Brookline also, but I had never lived in it. On my last trip to America I had bought General Russell’s old home on Allerton Street. I had driven past it, for old time’s sake, and noticed a “For Sale” sign on the lawn. I telegraphed to Miss Mary Russell, who had moved to California after the death of her parents, to tell her how much it would mean to me to live in a house where I had met with so much kindness and friendship. Miss Mary replied that she could think of no one in the world to whom she would rather sell her father’s place. She died not long afterwards, and I think she was happy to know, during her illness, that I was going to live in her house.
The depression did not immediately upset the plans my managers had for me, as I had at first supposed it would. They booked me, in fact, for two or three more crowded seasons. I covered the country, North, South, East, and West: and particularly the South, so that I could keep my eye on Angelmo Farm; and the North, so that I could keep track of my cousin Alzada.
Alzada had come into the greenroom after my Town Hall debut in 1923, and thereafter she was the light of my eye. She looked like a little princess. She was in a sleeveless dress with bodice and basque of pale-pink velvet. A row of black buttons ran down the back of her waist and two or three pink bands encircled the hem of her black satin skirt. She wore patent leather pumps and a black satin turban trimmed with ermine tails, which dipped and curtsied behind her ears. She was working as an expert seamstress at the Stork Infants’ and Children’s Clothing Store, and had made those wonderful clothes herself. She brought me a beautiful cake of her own baking, and a pot of raspberry jam. Before I knew it I was in love with her, and impatient for engagements that would take me back to New York.
When I went there in 1931, I found Alzada ill and lonely in a hospital ward to which she had been removed from her unquiet room in Harlem. I carried her off to Brookline and left her in my house, under a housekeeper’s care, while I went on my customary tour of the West. I came back to find the house transformed. It was a home now, for the first time — winsome and comfortable and ordered with such tact and economy that I could not bear to think of the impermanence of the arrangements. Above all, Alzada herself was well again, and happy and lovable.
I begged her to marry me and promised her that if she would put up with the necessity of my traveling, I would lay everything I had at her feet — knowing full well how much more she, who had already begun so engagingly to identify herself with my life, had to give me. I thought of the last part of Faust, which I had lately read in Vienna: “The eternal woman lifts us up.” I had leaned heavily upon women in my time. Now, uniquely since my mother’s death, I was to find myself raised up by a woman’s undistracted love.
I had to go back to California, within a few days of my proposal, to sing in the Hollywood Bowl. We went down to Angelmo and persuaded my brother Robert to drive us out to the Coast. When we reached Southern California, Alzada and I slipped away and were secretly married. That was in September, 1932. I was so delighted to have done something without any publicity that we kept our marriage secret for quite a long time.
Our daughter, Africa Franzada, who was born two years later, is a quaint little sprite of a girl. She is full of the intuitions and perceptions of her grandfather and inherits a good share of my mother’s mysticism and practical sense. She lives in a world of her own creation, in which she is entirely selfdirected and where knowledge comes to her apparently without process. Roger Quilter used to say to me, “Roland, there is no logic in your thinking. How is it that there is logic in what you do?” Africa finds the answers to her problems with the same immediacy, but we often have to let her lead us into her own world before we can see how right the answers invariably are.
There is more humor in Africa’s world than there was in mine, and I am grateful for that grace. Like my father, she has a great gift of mimicry. She spares neither kith nor kin the sharp, amusing caricature of gesture, inflection, and phrase. One Sunday morning not long ago, while I was touching up my wife’s pantry shelves with a paint brush, she came and stood in the pantry door, grinned at me bewitchingly, and sang a ditty which I had learned years ago in Sunday school: —
When you got Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday,
When you got Thursday, Friday, Saturday,
Ain’t it a shame to work on Sunday, ain’t it a shame?
Africa has a finely imaginative musical talent. By the time she was three years old, she had absorbed most of the Schumann Dichterliebe, which I sang frequently in those years. One day while I was rehearsing them with Percival Parham, she slid down the banister from the upstairs hall and into the music room. She turned a couple of cartwheels and said, “But Daddy! That piece you are singing goes like this!”
She hummed a phrase in the little voice she was possessed of, and so it did go like that. I was wrong and she was right, and her ear remains nearly infallible.
In white circles, people speak of the Negro Problem. The Negro Problem means to white people: What are we going to do with the Negroes? To us it means something else. It means: How can we advance ourselves in a social and political order of which we are the voiceless ten per cent? The white population worries about us because we are so numerous, and we worry about ourselves for the same reason, if not to the same purpose. White people are afraid we might muster too many votes. We get discouraged because there are so many of us to feed and clothe and house and educate. Some of us even worry because we think we ought to be making a greater contribution to American culture. We have, we think, the quality; but we find ourselves hindered by dependence within and reluctance without. Over the generations, we Negroes have lost our self-direction.
We were brought willy-nilly to this country, and learned to eat the bread of masters whom we did not freely serve. After the Surrender we received physical and political freedom, but our minds and souls were still enslaved.
In 1935, I was invited to sing at the dedication of the Theodore Roosevelt Memorial, to represent the Negro race. The imposing memorial was opened by President I ranklin D. Roosevelt, who called his predecessor “a great patriot and a great soul.” There were many stencils from the writings of Theodore Roosevelt on the walls of the frescoed auditorium, but perhaps of more significance to me than any of these was a sentence which the President quoted in his address of dedication: “A great democracy must be progressive or it will soon cease to be either great or democratic.” I thought of the fifteen million Americans of my color patiently waiting for democracy to come along and take them in.
Unfortunately we have not yet — considering our numbers — produced much contemporary Negro art in any field. Back in 1926 Langston Hughes said that Negroes had failed to do creative work in music, literature, and art whenever they set themselves to copy the style of white men. The trouble has been that there are so few American Negro models to follow, and we do not seem to be able to make the intellectual effort necessary for the creation of more. In the plastic arts, Africa and the islands of the Caribbean have produced an abundance of original forms, contemporary and archaic. When I saw Paul Guillaume’s collection of African arts and crafts in Paris a few years ago, I thought to myself, “Why can we not produce such things at home?”
Although I am not unsympathetic with pro-Negro lobbies, I do not expect that we shall be saved by law. I cannot believe that our most urgent need is the enactment of new laws by white legislators. At the risk of being called reactionary, I want to reiterate my faith that we shall be saved by our own work and not as wards of the government. I feel about the Negro problem the way a missionary feels about the Christian religion. In the back of every missionary’s mind, there is a dream of bringing all the world to Christ, but in practice he goes out after converts one by one. In the same way, we Negroes must reach the hearts of white folks singly. Every once in a while one of us may make a convert who, like the Emperor Constantine, will draw souls after him.
The Negro press, with whatever justification, has persisted in calling the present war a “white man’s war.” All but a few Negro soldiers continue to say, “We cannot defend America with a dust brush, a mop, and a white apron.” And in reply to this challenge to our national safety, men in high places in my state and elsewhere — not in Washington, thank God! — have replied, “Yes, this is a white man’s war. So what? ” Many a missionary has gone from the pulpit into the cauldron of the cannibal.
I have no doubt that some of my people will think I have understated my private vexations. Stones have been thrown through the windows of my house in Brookline. I have been refused a bed in a hotel in Tucson, a chair in a Seattle lobby, a meal in a restaurant in Duluth; and once, not so long ago, I was beaten and thrown into jail. My mother used to quote the verse, “The way of transgressors is hard,” and it has sometimes seemed unjust, when I was trying with all my heart to be prudent, that my soul, like the transgressors’, had so often to eat violence. Still, I can truly say that never in my whole life have I wished I were a white man, and I see no good in reciting the details of a thousand misadventures.
We Negroes are naturally a gentle and imaginative people, when you come to know us. Tragedy may stalk our houses, but Comedy lives handily around the corner. We could not be sane if we had not made his acquaintance. Some of us have got into trouble and had to pay with the grass rope and the hickory tree. Violence sometimes emerges from our teeming quarters and ranges our streets, peering with fierce confusion impartially at life and death; but give him elbowroom and he will share the sidewalk with Politeness, his neighbor. As my Angel Mother used to say, some of us are Christian folks and some are vagabonds, but all of us are people.