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Frank Horne was a significant voice of the Harlem Renaissance, whose reputation rests primarily upon a group of award-winning poems he published in the Crisis in 1925. His success during this period links him to New Negro Renaissance poets, but his poems are generally more personal and traditional in concern than many of those of the other young writers of the 1920s. A northerner who went against the pattern of migration by going to live in the South, Horne wrote poetry early in his life before becoming a physician and an administrator with the United States Housing Authority in Washington, D.C., and later in New York.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
A Doctor and a Poet
Horne was born in Brooklyn, New York, and grew up in that area. He attended undergraduate program at the City College of New York, where he received his bachelor’s degree in 1921. He was an outstanding track star at City College, and he gained experience that would serve him well during his teaching career in the late 1920s. He earned a master’s degree from the University of Southern California and a Doctor of Optometry degree from Northern Illinois College of Ophthalmology and Otology in 1923. While he was able to practice ophthalmology in Chicago and New York for a few years, his medical profession was cut short by what he called a ”mean illness,” which forced him to seek a warmer climate. Although information about Horne’s life is incomplete, it may be assumed that the illness resulted in some loss of the use of his legs. Many of his later poems use images of failing to walk, of the legs being strapped into cumbersome contraptions, and of the pain associated with ”reluctant” legs.
Though he developed an early interest in writing, Horne acknowledged that Charles S. Johnson, editor of Opportunity, and Gwendolyn Bennett, a poet, urged him to publish his work. His first prose was published while he was still working as an ophthalmologist; ”Black Verse,” a review of Anthology of Verse by American Negroes, edited by Newman Ivey White and Walter Clinton Jackson, appeared in the November 1924 issue of Opportunity. Horne praised the editors for their effort to mark the achievements of African-American poets but criticized them for their stereotypical expectations of poetry purely of a racial bent. He singled out the inclusion of work by Countee Cullen for special praise and encouraged other young poets to sound distinct notes in their creativity.
Although Horne wanted to write good prose, he was more successful as a poet. He reached his height of success in 1925, when he received second prize in the poetry category in the Amy Spingarn Contest in Literature and Art sponsored by the magazine Crisis. He submitted his winning entry, ”Letters Found near a Suicide,” under the pseudonym of Xavier I; the poems were published in the November 1925 issue of the journal. There were eleven ”letters” in the prize-winning version of the poem; by 1930 Horne had added an additional seven poems to ”Letters,” all of which would be published as the first section of Haverstraw, his collection brought out by Breman in 1963.
A Change of Climate
In 1927 illness forced Horne to move from New York to Georgia, where he began a teaching and administrative career at Fort Valley High and Industrial School (later Fort Valley State College). Although he was light-skinned enough to pass for white, he did not choose to do so. He was especially sensitive to the changes in accommodation and treatment as he journeyed into the South. In ”I Am Initiated into the Negro Race,” published in Opportunity in 1928, he described the transition from privilege and comfort to the deprivation of these luxuries, and he connected them to actual travel from points north to those in the South. His initial negative impressions, however, did not prevent him from doing useful work or from supporting the industrial school concept.
He continued his creative efforts in 1928 by publishing ”Harlem,” a poem, and ”The Man Who Wanted to be Red,” a short story, in the Crisis. ”Harlem” most approximates the work of other young writers of the period, especially Langston Hughes. Horne uses the background of a saxophonist’s performance to conjure up images of what Harlem means. In its experimental form and its attempt to imitate jazz rhythms, it is reminiscent of many of the folk-based poems Hughes wrote.
As trainer of the track team at Fort Valley High, Horne led his runners to several championships in the late 1920s and early 1930s. In ”Running Fools: Athletics in a Colored School,” published in the Crisis in 1930, he discusses the exploits of some of his famous stars both male and female, and introduces the larger world to life in an industrial school. He extends this introduction in ”The Industrial School of the South,” the two-part series published in Opportunity in 1935. In it, it becomes clear that he shared the philosophy of training espoused by Booker T. Washington at Tuskegee and was greatly inspired by his example.
During the nine years he worked at Fort Valley High and Industrial School, Horne moved from teaching to serving as dean and acting president. He also occasionally completed prose pieces for journals. In 1930 he wrote an essay for Crisis in which Henry A. Hunt, the former principal of Fort Valley High and Industrial School, was recognized for receiving the Spingarn medal. In 1936 he moved out of education and into work with various housing agencies. By 1940 he was acting special assistant to the administrator of the U.S. Housing Authority, and he had turned his attention to writing about problems connected with public housing; his article ”Providing New Housing for Negroes” appeared in the October 1940 issue of Opportunity. His life of public service eclipsed his poetry writing, and it was not until 1963, when the Englishman Paul Breman brought out Haverstraw, a collection of his poems, that Horne’s poetry became readily accessible to a larger audience.
After the publication of Haverstraw, Horne published poems occasionally in the Crisis. Haverstraw and Horne’s sporadically published poems are a testament to the fact that, in spite of the pressures of illness and public service, he cared enough about creativity to leave a monument for posterity. When he died in 1974, he was far from being a famous poet, but those who had consistently anthologized his work over the years recognized that his poems were worthy of continued reading and discussion.
Works in Literary Context
Death as a Theme
”Letters Found near a Suicide” is characteristic of the variety of somber issues Horne treats. He describes a man’s preparation for death, in which the subject writes several short poems to individuals who have had significant roles in his life. ”To All of You,” the first letter in the series, sets the stage for the poetic flirting with suicide; the subject is curious about ”the bosom of this deep, dark pool / Of oblivion” and is destined to explore ”those far shores / That knew me not.” ”To Mother,” the third letter in the series, bemoans the fact that living is a painful existence beyond man’s control. The speaker wonders how anybody—particularly his mother, whom he has caused much agony— can care, but he knows the power of a black mother’s love. If he dies she will grieve and want him back, because to her, suicide is not the answer.
Lessons on Race
”The Man Who Wanted to be Red” is called ”a fairy tale for children of the earth.” The story is an allegory of the slave trade and the animosity between blacks and whites in the United States. Horne depicts the Reds,” a predatory race who enslave the ”Greens,” bringing them to the Kingdom of Ur to work for them. Eventually, some of the Red men notice the beautiful Green women and have children by them. These children become the ”Whites,” a degraded outcast group. Juda, the protagonist of the story, is a ”White.” From experiments initially begun by his Red father, he perfects a technique for turning Greens into Reds. He abandons his plan, however, when he witnesses a group of Reds abusing a Green; he does not want the people with whom he identifies through his mother to turn into such brutes. As a story for children, the piece is engaging; its fanciful use of skin colors shows how absurd racial prejudices can be.
In Nigger, A Chant for Children,” Horne teaches history by listing names of such famous black people as Hannibal, Othello, and Crispus Attucks. He feels that the world should know these Niggers,” and black children should not be hurt by name-calling but should be proud of the great members of their own race. The use of nigger” in the title is a deliberate effort to transcend the negative connotations of that word. It is also a declamation against injustice. In this seven-stanza poem, Horne repeats “nigger” for dramatic emphasis and creates ironic contrasts through the juxtaposition of children’s songs and the shouts of the bigot. Despite persecution and prejudice, he was able to say to African-American children that blacks have a great deal to be proud of, and that no race-baiting epithets should cause them to lose sight of that fact.
Works in Critical Context
James Weldon Johnson, in his introduction to Horne in The Book of American Negro Poetry, noted that Horne ”is in every sense modern.” Johnson adds, ”He is ironical and skeptical, and his philosophy is often gathered up into a keen thrust. He possesses the authentic gift of poetry.” Although Horne’s poetry was more traditional than that of many other young blacks of his generation, ”Harlem” utilized jazz rhythms and experimental forms that were more typical of the day. Many of Horne’s poems were reprinted in anthologies and two were translated for inclusion in a 1929 German anthology.
“Nigger: A Chant for Children”
Critic Ronald Primeau divided Horne’s poems into three types. Some poems described a quest, such as athletics or planning a suicide. Other poems honored black heritage, including ”Nigger, A Chant for Children:” ”Little Black boy / Chased down the street—/ ‘Nigger, nigger never die / Black face an’ shiny eye, / Nigger… nigger… nigger.”’ Subsequent stanzas praised black heroes. The final stanza is identical to the first except that the little black boy is no longer chased. The third category of Horne’s poetry relied on Christian images to connect black religion and spirituality with black militancy, as in the often reprinted ”Kid Stuff (December, 1942).”
- Brown, Sterling. Negro Poetry and Drama. Washington, D.C.: Associates in Negro Folk Education, 1937.
- Chapman, Abraham, ed. Black Voices. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1968, pp. 401-03.
- ”Frank S. Horne.” Contemporary Black Biography. Vol.44. Detroit: Gale, 2004.
- Johnson, James Weldon, The Book of American Negro Poetry. Fort Washington, Pa.: Harvest Books, 1969.
- Kerlin, Robert T. The New Forms of Poetry: Frank Horne,” in Negro Poets and Their Poems, rev. ed. New York: Associated Publisher, 1947, pp. 206-208.
- Primeau, Ronald. Frank Horne and the Second Echelon Poets of the Harlem Renaissance,” in The Harlem Renaissance Remembered, ed. Arna Bontemps. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1972, pp. 247-267.
- Witalec, Janet, ed. Harlem Renaissance: A Gale Critical Companion, Vol. 2. Detroit: Gale, 2003, pp. 587-594.
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