STRAY LEAVES: A Tomb for Marcus Christian


Room 220 is pleased to present the first installment of “Stray Leaves,” a monthly(ish) series of articles written by Michael Allen Zell that illuminate oddities and rarities from New Orleans’ literary history.  “Stray Leaves,” in Zell’s words, is “a lifting up of stones and crowing about that found underneath, led by the guiding notion that we are standing on the shoulders of writers and books that deserve their names and faces returned to the public.”

The best way to keep a secret is out in the open, and so it nearly is for a particular author/historian/folklorist largely unknown to even the literary-minded in New Orleans. He wrote thousands of poems, plays, short stories, articles, and historic pieces until his death in 1976, provided content on street vendors and slaves for Gumbo Ya Ya, corresponded with luminaries such as Eleanor Roosevelt and Langston Hughes, compiled a 1,000 plus-page history of black Louisiana, and saw his poem “I Am New Orleans” printed on the front page of the Times-Picayune’s 1968 sesquicentennial edition. One might think I am writing about an imaginary man, for how otherwise could this mountain of material be almost entirely unfamiliar and out-of-print (if ever available)? But this man is no John Henry and certainly not a Darger-esque outsider artist. Instead, meet Marcus B. Christian (a man who, by the way, spent more than two years researching John Henry’s existence beyond folklore).

Christian’s Negro Ironworkers of Louisiana, 1718-1900, his only in-print title, and the other thin scarce books—what Lawrence Durrell might call concertina pieces—do not go so far as hint at what sits tombed, well-catalogued, and mostly undisturbed in the University of New Orleans’ Special Collections. His general biographical framework, available via the KnowLa online encyclopedia, takes us from his Terrebone Parish birth to a lifetime in New Orleans, and from his supervising the Negro History Unit of the Louisiana Writer’s Project at Dillard University to an undue dismissal there, and the eventual ending of his career at the University of New Orleans. What concerned me as I read through and skimmed an afternoon’s worth of manuscripts, broadsides and handbills, correspondence, and diary pages from the Christian collection—a scant introduction to the estimated 146 linear feet worth in the archive—is that this mountain has not seen itself avalanched to interested readers and historians. Was Christian a man mismatched for his time? Is his ongoing obscurity due to standard literary neglect, the quality of his work, lack of marketability, or bigotry due to his race? These accumulating questions can only be answered with the bold but frank rejoinder: What does it matter?

I’m not trying to be glib—this is a serious response. What does it matter? Historical archives throughout New Orleans are stuffed with interesting and quality documents. Most writers attempt to take necessary steps to inch head above shoulders only to find their eyes met by countless others. Christian had his day, some might say, but now the glow’s worn off.

Poet and scholar Dr. Jerry Ward, Jr.—whose The Katrina Papers is, in my view, the strongest micro-view book on its subject—has this to assert: “Reasons for exploring Marcus B. Christian’s poetry, diaries, and historical writings are very well explained in Tom Dent’s essay ‘Marcus B. Christian: A Reminiscence and Appreciation.’ Christian’s influence on Dent and Arthur Pfister draws attention to tradition. We speak endlessly about music in New Orleans and far less about the city’s literary traditions which incorporate a special sense of Louisiana history. Christian’s work is a model of what needs to be done from twenty-first century angles.”

It is with intention that I attempt to shed light on Marcus Christian’s work in the first of my monthly columns. Here’s a laundry list why he matters:

1) Alternately known as A Black History Of Louisiana, A History Of The Negro In Louisiana, and The Negro In Louisiana, Christian’s tome on black Louisiana is no lesser in achievement, significance, and necessity than Howard Zinn’s A People’s History Of The United States. Its creation lies in the WPA period, and in 1943 Christian received a Rosenwald Award for its completion. Never in print, this major work is available digitally via UNO’s Special Collections and Louisiana Digital Library.

2) Marcus Christian’s involvement with From The Deep South (FTDS) is key. FTDS was a poetry chapbook organized by Louisiana Weekly editor Mayme Osby Brown for an award ceremony and tea on June 13, 1937. The occasion was to be the launching pad for an organization of black poets state-wide, but it instead led to Louisiana Weekly’s “Poet’s Corner.”  FTDS is described by Christian in the preface as “the only such collection of poetry written by Louisiana Negroes since the Civil War.”

3) In Stephen Henderson’s influential Understanding The New Black Poetry, the category of “saturation” is offered as a means to describe and evaluate. He defines this term as “a) the communication of Blackness in a given situation, b) a sense of fidelity to the observed and intuited truth of the Black experience.” Marcus Christian’s work is heavily but also uniquely saturated. This was a man who not only published High Ground in 1958 to commemorate the abolishing of racial segregation in public schools, but was also raised on English lyric poetry, and whose record collection upon his passing consisted entirely of Frederick Douglass and classical music albums.

4) The multiple-paged poem “I Am New Orleans” should be taught to every child in New Orleans, made available as a broadside, and featured prominently during the upcoming tricentennial celebration in 2018. In his notes, Christian regarded well G.H. Palmer’s three desirable qualities of speech—“accuracy, audacity, and range”—and this poem not only contains all three but also can be read, understood, and appreciated by the non-literary and the well-read.

5) As Dr. Ward mentioned, the multi-headed reach of quality work modeled by Marcus Christian is a guide for any writer. Who better to emulate than one who wrote poetry to elevate, history to inform, and articles to sway, all while consistently educating and coordinating in the same fields publically?

To me, the work of this “small man with a big voice,” as he was described in a 1970 Times-Picayune piece, wears very well with the test of time. It is always heady, gritty as necessary, and resonates with life. We could do far worse than to resurrect the Lazarus called Marcus Christian, whether laypeople by general awareness, readers/writers by reading and learning more about him, and publishers by making his work available. Christian began Escape At Thirty-Five with, “I’m tired of fighting back – I long for peace; I wish to draw unto itself my soul.”  I encourage you to take a little time on behalf of an author who, though tired of fighting, continued to fight on while hand-cupping his soul like a candle and holding it high.*

*a paraphrasing of two lines from Marcus B. Christian’s Hieroglyphs on Granite