The Brown Madonna and Other Poems. [Presentation Copy]
Scarce title by a blind African-American poet
First edition, an excellent copy.
In The Brown Madonna and Other Poems, Underhill, who was blind, writes autobiographically with the surprisingly uplifting poem “Poor Black and Blind” (p49).
A number of other poems pointedly address themes of the African-American experience: “Not in Turkey” describes a Lincoln University student who fights with a black regiment in World War I, but upon his return, events unfold, and he is brutally lynched. “The Black Artillery Men” speaks of black patriots and “Frederick Douglass” celebrates the famed orator.
One of the last poems is entitled “White Folks.” It is written in black dialectical English and was composed by one Erastus Washington Lee, a black American. Another poem in black dialect, “Dat’s De Way,” is dedicated to Underhill’s son Rev. Irvin W. Underhill, Jr. (Rev. Underhill, who grew up in Philadelphia, presumably with his parents, was the first black Presbyterian clergyman in the United States to minister to an all-white congregation.¹)
A curious item, and not a poem, is a two-page biographical sketch of the above-mentioned Erastus Washington Lee. Underhill writes that Lee “...came to Philadelphia several years ago and secured a position as butler in the home of one of our leading journalists.” (p91)
Underhill’s expression “one of our leading journalists” (emphasis added) may be a reference to the Philadelphia newspaper The Philadelphia Tribune, one of the oldest black newspapers in the United States.
Interestingly, the editor of the Tribune in 1929 (the date of the present book of poems) was E. Washington Rhodes (c.1896–1970) to whom the book is inscribed by Underhill. Rhodes later became publisher of the Tribune and was a prominent attorney in Philadelphia serving as the first black assistant U.S. Attorney there and also as president of the National Bar Association.²
Underhill was born in Port Clinton, Pennsylvania in 1868. His schooling was irregular and he spent time assisting his father, a canal boat captain. He later removed to Philadelphia and lost his sight at age 37.³
Description: The Brown Madonna and Other Poems. [Presentation Copy]
Philadelphia. 1929. 95, [1 (blank)]pp. First Edition. Privately Published. Publisher’s gilt-lettered red cloth. Presentation Copy: “E. Washington Rhodes Compliments of Author”. Mild binding soil else a near fine copy.
Note. 1. Rev Irvin Underhill (1896-1982) - Find A Grave Memorial accessed online. 2. New York Times, June 25, 1970, p45. 3. Kerlin, Negro Poets… Blockson Collection Catalogue 4929.