Effie Lee Newsome's Nature Poetry for Children Revisited

Effie Lee Newsome (1885-1979) is often considered to be the first African American poet to write poetry exclusively, or primarily, for children.   

Her career as a poet is closely tied to The Crisis and its editor, scholar and civil rights leader W.E.B. DuBois. According to Wikipedia Effie Lee Newsome began working with DuBois on The Crisis as early as 1917. She contributed to DuBois’ The Brownies’ Book, his short lived monthly magazine for children (1920-1921), for which poet and novelist Jessie Redmon Fauset wrote the dedicatory poem: “To children, who with eager look/ Scanned vainly library shelf and nook,/ For History or Song or Story/ That told of Colored Peoples’ glory,/ We dedicate The Brownies’ Book.” And from 1925 to 1929 she was given her own Crisis-column for children, The Little Page.      

For The Little Page Effie Lee Newsome wrote poems and prose sketches, frequently with her own illustrations, and published contributions from Harlem Renaissance writers like a young Langston Hughes, not yet thirty. And in 1940 she collected 163 of her poems from the 1920s and 1930s, most from The Crisis, in her only volume of poetry, Magnolia Garden, published by The Associated Publishers founded by renowned historian Carter G. Woodson, with 77 elegant pen-and-ink drawings by Lois Mailou Jones (1905-1988), a major African American artist of the 20th century.

Nature poetry for children. In 1999 Wordsong/Boyds Mills Press published Wonders: The Best Children’s Poems of Effie Lee Newsome, compiled by professor Rudine Sims Bishop, a recognized expert on African American children's literature. And just last year we got a reprint of the whole of the original Gladiola Garden (Living Book Press, 2020), with its front page (only) in color.    

Gladiola Garden is divided into thirteen sections: Insects and Spiders; We, the Children; At the Creek; Vegetables and Fruit; The Birds; Puppets and Cookies; The Flowers; Squirrel Folk and Others; The Trees; Lights; The Skies; The Snow, the Rain, and the Wind; and Christmas Time.

There are no racial markers in these poems about the natural world, except perhaps in the poem “Spirituals”: “I like to think of David’s harp/ With strings of shining gold,/ Playing a tinkling little tune/ Back in the days of old. // I know a song that tells of this,/ And one of chariots./ I’d like to see them swinging low/ Like weeping willows when they bow.” Referring us to two well known Negro Spirituals, Little David, Play on Your Harp, and Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.

As Rudine Sims Bishop, selecting just 24 of Lee Newsome’s poems, writes in her introduction: “The poems that feature children, however, are not about cultural experiences particular to African Americans, but reflect experiences or emotions common to children across ethnic groups.”    

No clear racial markers in the text of the poems themselves. But then there are Lois Mailou Jones’ pen-and-ink drawings. Rudine Sims Bishop: “All children who are pictured in the illustrations are African American.” By using Mailou Jones' drawings to illustrate her poems, Effie Lee Newsome changed the way we read them, an illustration becoming an integral part of the poem, text and drawing becoming intertwined. Like, says, text and melody in the Spirituals, and other songs.

And reading Effie Lee Newsome’s children’s poetry in the context of The Crises, the official political organ of NAACP, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, one of the country’s oldest civil rights organizations, founded in 1909, readers young and old would not have doubted that they were reading poems about African American children.   

Perhaps there is even a message here: When children are left to themselves they will react emotionally to the “wonders” of the natural world pretty much the same “across ethnic groups.”

The Snow and Writing. A foreword to the original 1940 edition has this to say about Effie Lee Newsome’s volume of poetry: “She has written it especially for children, but it will have charm and significance for grown-ups.” Let us take a look at two of the poems, The Snow and Writing:

The Snow: “The snow’s a courteous visitor./ It brings its blankets as it comes,/ And goes to bed right on the ground./  It never snores or makes a sound.” 

Writing: “Bare boughs look like black pencil marks/ On great white books of snow./ But what the writing really is,/ No one on earth would know,/ With X’s, V’s and W’s,/ And loops and curves and curlicues.” With Lois Mailou Jones’ black-and-white drawing is looks almost like a graphic poem on the page. (The paper/print quality is best in Wonders).

If you are not charmed, perhaps these poems for children – Gladiola Garden is subtitled Poems of Outdoors and Indoors for Second Grade Readers – then perhaps these poems are not for you.

Political poems for grown-ups. Occasionally Effie Lee Newsome would write a political poem for grown-ups (or children). Two of the most often anthologized are Morning Light (The Dew-drier), first published in The Crisis in 1918, and The Bronze Legacy (To a Brown Boy) from 1922.

The Bronze Legacy begins like this: “’Tis a noble gift to be brown, all brown,/ Like the strongest things that make up this earth,/ Like the mountains grave and grand,/ Even like the very land,/ Even like the trunks of trees – / Even oaks, to be like these!/ God builds His strength in bronze.”

Morning Light (The Dew-drier) begins with a setting of the scene: “It is a custom in some parts of Africa for travelers into the jungles to send before them in the early morning little African boys called “Dew-driers” to brush with their bodies the dew from the high grasses – and be, perchance, the first to meet the leopard’s or hyena’s challenge – and so open the road. “Human Brooms,” Dan Crawford (a Scottish missionary to Africa – UFI) calls them.”    

The poem was reprinted in The Poetry of the Negro, 1746-1970, edited by Langston Hughes and Arna Bontemps, who print only the first part of the poem “by permission of the author.” It runs like this: “Brother to the firefly –/ For as the firefly lights the night/ So lights he the morning –/ Bathed in the dank dews as he goes forth/ Through heavy menace and mystery/ Of half-waking tropic dawns,/ Behold a little black boy, a naked black boy,/ Sweeping aside with his slight frame/ Night’s pregnant tears,/ And making a morning path to the light/ For the tropic traveler!”