Poem #19: Dr. Booker T. Washington to the National Negro Business League by Joseph Seamon Cotter, Sr.

Estimated Reading Time:  3.5 minutes
Book cover to African American Poetry - An Anthology, 1773-1927, Dover Edition.

TitleDr. Booker T. Washington to the National Negro Business League

Joseph Seamon Cotter, Sr.

Source:  African-American Poetry: An Anthology, 1773-1927. Dover Thrift Editions. Ed. Joan R. Sherman. 1997. ISBN:  978-0-486-29604-3.

Link: You can find this poem on this website.


’Tis strange indeed to hear us plead
   For selling and for buying
When yesterday we said: “Away
   With all good things but dying.”

The world’s ago, and we’re agog
   To have our first brief inning;
So let’s away through surge and fog
   However slight the winning.

What deeds have sprung from plow and pick!
   What bank-rolls from tomatoes!
No dainty crop of rhetoric 
   Can match one of potatoes.

Ye orators of point and pith,
   Who force the world to heed you,
What skeletons you’ll journey with
   Ere it is forced to feed you.

A little gold won’t mar our grace,
   A little ease our glory.
This world’s a better biding place 
   When money clinks its story. 


This poem tricked me slightly. I am somewhat familiar with Booker T. Washington, having read his Up From Slavery and various works about the debates between him and W.E.B. DuBois about how Black people should seize their future.  So as I read this, I read it as a slight rebuke of Washington on behalf of the National Negro Business League, iterating that focusing strictly on producing is important over giving speeches (something Washington was known to do).  

But, of course, that was the quick read and something made me think that I might be wrong so I went over to the ole google-machine, and did a search where I soon discovered that Booker T. Washington founded the National Negro Business League (predating the US Chamber of Commerce by 12 years). Upon learning this, it very quickly made things fall into place such as the title.  The poem works as the charge from Washington to the League as the point of their existence.  Even more so, the message, resonates strongly with Washington's argument of hard work and economic elevation as a means of social uplift that is evident in the poem ("No dainty crop of rhetoric can match one of potatoes").

The poem invokes a famous critique about those who would seek to change it and that is that money talks ("the world's a better biding place when money clinks its story").  In that way, it's a bit cynical and like Washington, limited. The argument that if Black people just worked hard, earned money and do right, they would gain respectability is the myth that's been told time and again.  We hear it today in the critiques of innocent Black people--that is they just did what they were told and obeyed the law, they wouldn't be shot. Of course, there are too many counter examples of Black people doing just that and still getting shot. 

So while I don't necessarily feel like the poem's message works effectively, I'm still fascinated by how much this poem and much of the poems that I've read thus far are tuned into the politics and tensions of the moment in which they are published.  I feel like this is part of what is lost in poetry when it is taught in education--it's so busy with breaking down all the poetic elements and often using poetry that is so removed or obtuse that it loses one's (or at least, my) interest. But poems like this are not capturing history but also opening up readers to possible debates and discussions.  

Those are my thoughts.  How do you interpret the poem?

About the reflections
This poem is part of a 365 day challenge project that focuses on a poem a day.  Similar projects have included short shorties and photo reflections. Part of the intention of this year's project is to develop a better appreciation and means of reflecting on poetry, something that has never been a strong suit for me.  These reflections therefore do not represent a definitive assessment of the work by me. They are merely an opportunity for me to have a public conversation about what they mean in order to help myself better understand them and mayhaps have a conversation with readers for further insight.  

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