A Slave Poet

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

In the history of early African American literature, George Moses Horton occupies an indisputably prominent position. Like Phillis Wheatley, he was a slave poet whose verse earned him renown and respect, and while New Englander Wheatley was the first black writer to have a volume of poems published, Horton was the first southern black poet to have a volume of poems published in the United States. In addition, Horton’s was the first black poetic voice of protest against slavery. Horton was also the first black author to earn money from his writings. In fine, “the Colored Bard of North Carolina,” as he used to refer to himself occasionally, is a seminal figure in the annals of African American literature.

Horton was born a slave in 1797 on the plantation of William Horton in Northampton County, North Carolina. Of pure African parentage, a fact in which he took great pride, he was one of ten children. When Horton was three years old, his master sold his plantation and moved to a farm in Chatham County, one hundred miles away, taking young Horton and most of his other slaves with him. Horton would spend the next sixty-five years of his life on the farm, where he taught himself to read and discovered and developed his gift for writing poetry.

Growing up, Horton devoted what little spare time he had to teaching himself to read, and in doing so he acquired a deep interest in poetry. He soon recognized that he had a talent for “versifying”...

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Selling Love Poems to Students

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Before long, Horton started selling more than produce. What he started peddling were poems, “love pieces,” as he termed them. His customers, the students at the Chapel Hill campus, whom he had impressed with his talent for versifying, would eagerly commission him to compose love poems for them, poems which they would send to their ladyloves, passing off those poems as their own. Horton can thus rightly be termed the black Cyrano de Bergerac, for like Edmond Rostand’s soldier-poet Cyrano, Horton ghostwrote “love pieces” for Cupid-smitten, less-articulate youths, who took full credit for those poems. “I have composed love pieces in verse for courtiers from all parts of the state,” he relates in his autobiographical narrative, “and acrostics on the names of many of the tip-top belles of Virginia, South Carolina, and Georgia.” An acrostic poem is one in which the first letter of the first word in each line combines to spell out a word or a name when read downward. It is a particularly difficult kind of poem to write, and it is a tribute to Horton’s ingenuity that he was able to compose so many of them (hundreds) and to craft them so well. Moreover, the conditions under which he had to compose these acrostics were grueling and degrading. He reveals that “many of those acrostics I composed at the handle of the plough and retained them in my head (being unable to write) until an opportunity offered, when I dictated whilst one of the gentlemen would...

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Publishing in Hope of Liberty

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

It was an auspicious beginning, for July of the next year, 1829, saw the publication of Horton’s volume of poems entitled The Hope of Liberty. Consisting of twenty-one poems, the volume has the distinction of being the first ever published by a black southern poet and the first published in America by a black writer. (Although Jupiter Hammond had a few poems published in the United States well before Horton, he never had an entire volume published.) The book is aptly titled, for liberty is precisely what Horton hoped that the money from the sales of the volume would buy him. Sadly, the volume did not sell well enough to raise a sum sufficient to purchase Horton’s freedom from his master. (Even if enough money had been raised, Horton’s master would not likely have parted with him; Horton had become valuable “family property.”)

Horton thus labored on, working in his master’s fields, spending as much time as possible at the university, and continually writing poetry. Caroline Hentz left the university in 1830, and her departure left a void in Horton’s life. Sometime during this period, Horton got married. There are no records of his wife’s name; all that is known is that she was the slave of one of the nearby farmers. The union produced two children but was evidently a loveless one and short-lived. In 1845, Horton published a second volume of poems, The Poetical Works of George M. Horton. The volume consisted of forty-five...

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The Business of Poetry

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

As a poet, Horton was the perfect fusion of the artist and the pragmatist. He was the poet as businessman and the poet as craftsman, and nowhere can these two sides be seen more clearly than in his love poems. Fittingly enough, Horton’s love poetry can be neatly divided into two categories—those poems commissioned by the students at the Chapel Hill campus and those written for Horton’s own artistic satisfaction. Many of the commissioned love poems are clever acrostics; unfortunately, not many of these acrostics are extant. The ones that have survived, however, are remarkable for their smooth craftsmanship. Given the grueling conditions under which he composed these poems, as well as the inherently difficult form of the acrostic, Horton’s achievement in this area is nothing short of outstanding.

One of these acrostics, untitled, nicely illustrates Horton’s mastery of form and content. Like most acrostics, this one spells out a name—in this case, “Julia Shepard.”

Joy, like the morning, breaks from one divine—Unveiling streams which cannot fail to shine.Long have I strove to magnify her nameImperial, floating on the breeze of fame.Attracting beauty must delight afford,Sought of the world and of the Bards adored;

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A Voice for the Voiceless

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Horton, however, by no means confined himself to composing only love poems, for despite the financial profit and emotional satisfaction he derived from writing such poems, he never forgot what he was—a slave. Nor did he let the world forget that fact, for in much of Horton’s verse one hears for the first time in African American poetry the voice of protest against slavery. In poems such as “Slavery,” “The Slave’s Complaint,” “Liberty and Slavery,” and “On the Death of Rebecca,” Horton voices his anger and frustration—and at times his despair—at being enslaved and expresses his equally intense desire for freedom. In “Slavery,” depicting his condition as wretched and painful, Horton questions the very reason for his existence and laments ever having been born:

Why was the dawning of my birthUpon this vile, accursed earth,Which is but pain to me?Oh! that my soul had winged its flightWhen I first saw the morning light,To worlds of liberty!

The poem ends somberly, with a death wish: “Then let me hasten to the grave,/ The only refuge for the slave,/ Who mourns for liberty.” Death, Horton goes on to say in the poem, is a kind of blessing—a “sweet and favored friend,” as he calls it in another of his antislavery poems—affording peace and relief from the pain of oppression.

In “The Slave’s Complaint,” Horton again bemoans his condition....

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(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Andrews, William L., ed. The North Carolina Roots of African American Literature: An Anthology. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006. Includes a selection of Horton’s poetry, edited and introduced by Amanda Page.

Cobb, John L. “George Moses Horton’s Hope of Liberty: Thematic Unity in Early American Black Poetry.” CLA Journal 24 (June, 1981): 441-450. Contends that in Horton’s 1829 volume of poems The Hope of Liberty, the motif of flight, of escape, gives the collection a fundamental thematic unity and an artistic cohesion.

Farrison, Edward W. “George Moses Horton: Poet for Freedom.” CLA Journal 14 (March, 1971): 227-241. Highly instructive critical article chronicling Horton’s life and poetic career. Provides a splendid delineation of the people and forces that shaped Horton’s poetry.

Loggins, Vernon L. The Negro Author: His Development in America to 1900. 1931. Reprint. Port Washington, N.Y.: Kennikat, 1964. Early, classic study of African American literature. Gives a brief overview of Horton’s life and an assessment of his literary stature and poetic achievement.

Richmond, Merle A. Bid the Vassal Soar: Interpretive Essays on the Life and Poetry of Phillis Wheatley and George Moses Horton. Washington, D.C.: Howard University Press, 1974. Joint study of Horton and Phillis Wheatley, with equal emphasis given to both. Excellent biographical account of Horton, with insightful interpretations of his poetry.

Sherman, Joan R. Invisible Poets: Afro-Americans of the Nineteenth Century. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1989. Contains a chapter on Horton identifying him as one of many neglected (“invisible”) nineteenth century African American poets. Gives a capsulized but enlightening account of Horton’s life and an in-depth, perceptive analysis of his poetry.

Sherman, Joan R., ed. The Black Bard of North Carolina: George Moses Horton and his Poetry. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997. Study of Horton’s poetry and of his experience of and poetic representation of slavery.

Walser, Richard. The Black Poet: Being the Remarkable Story (Partly Told by Himself) of George Moses Horton, a North Carolina Slave. New York: Philosophical Library, 1966. Groundbreaking study of Horton’s life and times. Detailed and vastly informative, drawing heavily—and adeptly—on Horton’s brief autobiographical narrative published with The Poetical Works of George M. Horton in 1845.