Poem #9: To the White People of America by Joshua McCarter Simpson

Estimated Reading Time:  4.5 minutes
Book cover to African American Poetry - An Anthology, 1773-1927, Dover Edition.

TitleTo the White People of America

Author: Joshua McCarter Simpson

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.


O'er this wide extended country,
Hear the solemn echoes roll,
For a long and weary century,
Those cries have gone from pole to pole;
See the white man sway his sceptre,
In one hand he holds the rod—
In the other hand the Scripture,
And says that he's a man of God.

Hear ye that mourning?
'Tis your brothers' cry!
O! ye wicked men take warning,
The day will come when you must die.

Lo! Ten thousand steeples shining
Through this mighty Christian land,
While four million slaves all pining
And dying 'neath the Tyrant's hand.
See the "blood-stained" Christian banner
Followed by a host of saints
While they loudly sing Hosannah,
We hear the dying slave's complaints:

Hear ye that mourning?
Anglo-sons of God,
O! ye Hypocrites take warning,
And shun your sable brothers' blood.

In our Legislative members,
Few there are with humane souls,
Though they speak in tones of thunder
'Gainst sins which they cannot control,
Women's rights and annexation,
Is the topic by the way,
While poor Africa's sable nation
For mercy, cry both by night and day.

Hear ye that mourning?
'Tis a solemn sound,
O! ye wicked men take warning,
For God will send his judgment down.

Tell us not of distant Island —
Never will we colonize:
Send us not to British Highlands,
For this is neither just nor wise,
Give us equal rights and chances,
All the rights of citizens —
And as light and truth advances,
We'll show you that we all are men.

Hear ye that mourning?
Tis your brothers sigh,
O! ye wicked men take warning,
The judgment day will come by


McCarter Simpson's poem captures some of the political and spiritual tension around slavery, racism, and sexism that makes the 19th century in the US such a quagmire.  So let's take a look.  The strongest vein here is McCarter Simpson's invocation of white men (specifically) to rethink their relationship with enslaved Black men if they have any belief in God.  As slave-holders invoked Christianity to justify slavery, McCarter Simpson is also using it to warn white men of their fate if they do not free their enslaved Black "brothers".   

McCarter Simpson uses some language here that is clearly meant to challenge the concept of the US.  Terms like "his sceptre", and "Tyrant's hand" evoke images of King George III and the American Revolution's purpose to shun tyranny and empower all (white) men. The provocations are equally interesting--calling white men out as "wicked" and "hypocrites" and the rejections to mass deportation of Black Americans to other lands (e.g. Liberia). Instead, McCarter Simpson is demanding "equal rights and chances, all the rights of citizens".  What's fascinating about this is how little this idea comes out in history or rather the discussion of this time. Emancipation was not just about freeing Black people from slavery but achieving equal status under the law.  That gets lost in the discussion, often, but Black people of the time were fully aware of it. It wasn't just escaping slavery but achieving equality ("rights") and fairness ("chances").

Yet, McCarter-Simpson's poem plays one marginalized group (Black men) against another (women--or more likely white women). The fifth stanza draws out this tension, discarding the "women's rights" as something out of their control but not rallying for Black men.  Now, that stanza can be read as "cannot control" in the sense that if all Black people are enslaved, giving white women the right to vote gives them no power (and potentially dilutes the value of their own vote if the assumption is white women will vote in tandem as white men--that's unclear).  But given McCarter Simpson's clear invocation of "white people" in the title and his fair consistency of clearly addressing which group of people he is discussing ("Anglo-sons of God", "sable brothers'"), the general "women's rights" seems to be a rejection of all women for the prioritization of Black men gaining equality under the law.  

Despite this pitting of marginalized groups against each other, I still appreciate much of the rest of the poem for McCarter Simpsons' argument within this poem and can see a piece like this is definitely meant to be read aloud for full effect.

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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