Spectral color

poetry of a free man of color from the 1800s

SHREVEPORT, La. (AP) — Centenary College of Louisiana has published the first comprehensive collection of poetry by a free man of color who wrote in French for the nation’s first black daily newspaper in the mid-1800s.

Adolph Duhart was “among the many colored Creoles in New Orleans who dared to speak truth to power,” said Dana Kress, editor of Centenary’s heritage-language press, which recently published a collection of poems by Duhart.

He said their works “never received the attention they deserved because, although it was American literature, it was inaccessible to English-speaking scholars”.

Duhart wrote for several newspapers and magazines, including La Tribune de la Nouvelle Orléans/The New Orleans Tribune, the nation’s first black daily, Kress said.

Previous scholars have included some of Duhart’s poems in their collections, but the new book, “Storms and Lightning,” is the first to make them all available, according to a press release.

There are about 60 poems in the book published by Les Éditions Tintamarre, said Kress, who is also a French teacher at Centenary.

“All of Duhart’s poetry was intended to inspire, uplift and humanize those for whom he wrote,” Kress said in the press release. “Some of his poems are about family, and sometimes his audience had never seen families like his celebrated in written verse. Others are powerful social commentary.”

Kress said about a third of the poems could be considered political, including one about the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. It was published in New Orleans, a Confederate city, on April 25, 1865 – 10 days after the President’s death and 19 after General Robert E. Lee surrendered the Army of Virginia.

However, Kress said in emailed comments, “The very act of a person of color writing and publishing poetry on any subject during this time period should be considered political. It was a statement that “we are here and we are your equals”.

All are in French, without translation.

“Many of the crown jewels of 19th century African-American literature are here in Louisiana, and they are in French!” Kress said.

Many of Duhart’s poems were found by an undergraduate student from Austin, Texas who asked Kress for a research project during his freshman year at Centenary. He told Audrey Gibson, now a graduate student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, about Duhart.

Gibson graduated in 2021 and did most of his research on Duhart in his last two and a half years. She searched newspaper archives, microfilmed copies of libraries, special collections of New Orleans universities, and books that had collected poems by Afro-Creole New Orleans poets.

“It seemed very urgent and important to find these documents so that Duhart’s work could live on and continue to be read today,” she said in the press release.

The COVID-19 pandemic has made it difficult to access the archives, but people at the University of New Orleans and Tulane University have helped find poems. Many were on microfilmed copies of the newspapers that originally printed Duhart’s work. Some were in online databases of digitized newspapers.

Gibson also reviewed published and archived biographical information about Duhart’s life and work.

Among other things, she reported, the birth certificate shows that her pseudonym “Lélia” was her sister’s name rather than that of a daughter, as many scholars have said.