Jessie Redmon Fauset is an early 20th century Black poet and author who helped to launch the careers of Harlem Renaissance writers, such as Langston Hughes and Gwendolyn Bennett, in her role as literary editor of the NAACP’s magazine, The Crisis, by publishing their first poems. Her poem Dead Fires was published in The Book of American Negro Poetry by editor James Weldon Johnson in 1922 along with 4 of her other poems. About her poetry, Johnson said “Jessie Fauset shows that she possesses the lyric gift, and she works with care and finish.”
In Fauset’s Dead Fires, which is in the public domain, I see parallels between the reasons behind why the protests for Black lives and against police brutality erupted in June 2020 and the state of racism in the early 1920s. The lines, “Better the wound forever seeking balm / Than this gray calm!”, encapsulates the need to continually seek healing amid unrest. As a White person, I’m choosing to set her poem to highlight the unfortunate ongoing, systemic nature of racism and the separate but equal status that Black individuals have experienced in the US since the Emancipation Proclamation. The opening lines, “If this is peace, this dead and leaden thing, / Then better far the hateful fret, the sting.” provides a stark image to that idea. Between the stanzas, I am using microtonality, intervals smaller than a half step, to help explore the discomfort that racism can bring out in White individuals working to be antiracist.
In talking with Carolyn, who I wrote the piece for, she thought Dead Fires “really encapsulated all of [her] feelings of disappointment, personal shortcomings, the overwhelming feeling of slipping silently into an abyss of apathy and dead dreams, and yet – remembering to lean in to the pain and grief: to continue to fight towards hope and some sort of tangible future – whatever that might look like.” She noted how the last two lines, “Better the choking sigh, the sobbing breath / Than passion’s death!”, captures the idea of leaning into the pain of this world instead of being apathetic. In her words, “it was an immediate reminder when everything begins to build up and the evils of this world and the monotony and mundanity of this world seems utterly insurmountable, that it is better to languish and continue to feel than to be choked into apathetic ‘non’-existence.” In both of our interpretations we are talking about the idea of fighting against the gray. In Carolyn’s case, she is speaking to the depression of the crushing predictability and oppressive nature of the world people have resigned to. For me, those lines help to illustrate why it’s important as a White person to speak out and acknowledge the ways that we perpetuate racism and why Black Live Matter.
If this is peace, this dead and leaden thing,
Then better far the hateful fret, the sting.
Better the wound forever seeking balm Than this gray calm!
Is this pain’s surcease? Better far the ache,
The long-drawn dreary day, the night’s white wake,
Better the choking sigh, the sobbing breath Than passion’s death!
– Jessie Redmon Fauset (1922)