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Voix éthniques, ethnic voices. Volume 1

Jean-Paul Regis

John F. Matheus, a Forgotten Ethnic Voice of the Harlem Renaissance

Michel Fabre

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1Born in West Virginia in 1887 to a working-class family and educated in Ohio, John Frederick Matheus graduated in Romance languages and German, and obtained a diploma to teach French in 1911. He was an eager traveller. He had already visited Cuba when he enrolled in Summer courses at the Sorbonne in 1925, also visiting Switzerland and Italy. From 1927 to the mid-1940s, he sojourned and taught in Haiti; in 1930, he travelled to Sierra Leone and Liberia, where he spent six months as secretary to Charles S. Johnson, who had been sent on a mission from the League of Nations to investigate charges of forced labor.. Professionally, he taught Romance languages, mostly at Florida A & Τ and West Virginia State College.

  • 1 All quotations from short stories followed by pages numbers only are from A Collection of Short St (...)

2Although his style is far from modernistic and sometimes insufficiently polished he ought to be revaluated as a writer. Indeed his literary career was distinguished in terms of the recognition granted to black achievement during the Harlem Renaissance. His story "Fog"1 won the first prize in the 1924 Opportunity contest and anthologized in Alain Locke's New Negro... "Swamp Mocassin" also was awarded a first-prize in the 1931 Crisis contest; and "Cruiter" received the prize for one-act plays before being included in Plays of Negro Life. His essay, "Sand" won first-prize for personal experience sketch in the 1929 Opportunity competition. Four more of his poems and pieces won prizes or honorable mentions.

3Matheus was not prolific but he tried his talent at different genres. Starting in May 1925, he published over a dozen short stories, half a dozen plays; a pageant celebrating the 25th anniversary of the NAACP, a full-length opera, and literary and social essays. Matheus also wrote rhymed poetry. He was an able translator of Valéry's "Le Cimetière marin" and of Haitian poet Jean-F. Brièrre. A competent editor of textbooks in French, he brought out an annotated edition of Georges, the only "race novel" ever signed by Alexandre Dumas.

4Occasionally, the poet Matheus seems indebted to Countee Cullen. Or does he simply respond to him? He adopts the rhythm and meter of "Heritage" in order to celebrate black beauty. In "Belle Mam'zelle of Martinique," Cullen's evocations of exotic Africa in "What is Africa to me" are thus echoed by such lines as:

Where the sea is white with foam,
Laves the tropic, foliaged shores
Where the torrid sun restores
Color to the Nordic cheek.

Colored nymphs, whose eyes are dew,
Colored faces, copper, bronze,
Mango, olive, almond, orange.

5A teacher of French like Cullen, Matheus was brought up not on romantic or symbolist poetry, but on the realists: Flaubert, Zola, Alphonse Daudet, Anatole France, and Guy de Maupassant, his favorite. His talent was versatile like that of Langston Hughes with whom he shared the rare privilege of having visited Europe, Central America, the Caribbean, and sub-Saharan Africa at the time. In theme and structure, his Haitian opera is not very different from Hughes's Troubled Island. Also like Hughes, he translated French-and Spanish-speaking black authors and was the friend of such progressive writers as Jacques Roumain.

6Less prolific than Arna Bontemps', his topics and approach are akin to his in several ways. Both were mostly short story writers but, whereas Bontemps also produced poetry and two novels, Matheus engaged in playwrighting. He thus can be considered as quite representative of the New Negro academic-cum-creative writer. He offers, in a minor key, a paradigm of the well-rounded Harlem Renaissance author who can tackle several genres and comprehend the many dimensions of his African American heritage in a diasporic context. Less salient but no less original than the stars of the Harlem Renaissance, he can serve as a reliable index of the movement's main perspectives.

7This paper focuses on Matheus' exploration of his ethnic heritage, exclusive of an important dimension in his fiction, i. e. his treatment of non-black, mostly Euro-American ethnic groups and immigrants, a topic I have dealt with elsewhere. Among his themes of Negro life are a qualified assessment of black and white relations, a recurrent celebration of the South as a cradle of his race, and a discerning exploration of his African background. Dealing with color prejudice and oppression, "Mr Bradford Teaches Sunday School" explores the inability of a white preacher to live up to his faith by denouncing the scandal of the lynching of a young black. "New Years's Revel" ironically evokes the difficulties of a black college student employed as a substitute nurse in a hospital. He is accused by a wealthy patient of stealing her ring, which is found in a baby's crib at the moment she dies, leaving ample time for color prejudice to be exposed.

8Not all stories about blacks and whites are in this vein. For instance, "La Brutta," takes place at the Milan opera house: when an African American singer competes with a white diva, the Italian crowd recognize her superiority and cheer "la brutta e bella" - making her success a racial one. "Uncle Tom Plays His Part" is an all-black story: a small-town actor allows himself to be whipped to death by Simon Legree on the stage because the woman he loves has refused to elope with him. It is seen through the eyes of a young boy, who acts as a go-between between the lovers in order to get a free ticket for the performance.

9With the exception of "Fog," most of Matheus' stories set in the United States have Georgia or Alabama as a locale; and when they are set elsewhere, like "Cold," the South still plays a vital role. It is invariably seen as "home" both by the older generation born in slavery who remain distrustful of the ways of the Yankees and by the younger generation whom poverty incite to take advantage of new opportunities.

10The rural South is evoked, like in Jean Toomer's Cane, as a place of beauty and one of untold suffering; a land of magnolias and chain gangs, of sweet, pine-scented nights and acrid lynchings. The story "Clay" enacts scenes of racial hatred in a small town. In African American literature, clay generally is the God-fashioned vessel of the Spirit as well as the rich soil of Georgia, celebrated, for instance, by Langston Hughes in "Red Clay Blues" Here it is a mud-like icon of the black condition seen not only as rootedness but as bondage: a Negro, accused of stealing a cow by his white neighbor, stabs him to avoid being shot and is immediately destroyed. The planter who acts like God and controls the destinies of sharecroppers, also finally meets his death during a hurricane.

11The theme of man's insignificance is reiterated through the images of ants trudging in the dust and of clay - the mud man is made of.

Less drawn than the whites in their broad features, more like the maroon ox, the Negroes bore, nevertheless, the indelible mark of the clayey land.
Clay was the symbol of their livelihood, stamped on their gnarled, plowman fingers, ground in the splaying toes of their ebon women, wide-hipped and shaking-bosomed, with band and turban and snuff between their teeth, clay-colored snuff; the soil seemed to reach up like some giant octopus and suck them into itself. The very children, unkempt and unlettered, cansyrup caked and smeared on their winsome faces, seemed too but an inseparable part of that mud monster.
The emaciated, narrow-chested hillbillies, with no power in their lungs to cut off the interminable drawl of their talking, their women flat-breasted and hungry-eyed, their children puny and spindle-shanked, lounged and relaxed from the fierce struggle of a meaningless existence. Puppets they were all, marionettes of clay, pulled by the strings of chance in the hand of destiny.(63)

12The pastoral motif is inverted here. No sense of the far-off African heritage combines with the force of the soil in order to create a link between blacks. The oppressed are not conscious of the bonds that link black and white while they fetter them to the land of the "patrician" landowner who fosters conflict between them.

13If black folks are painted unattractively, poor whites are treated no better. Such "marionettes of clay" are victims of history while they struggle for sustenance. They are close to nature but primitivism is not a boon under such circumstances. Here one finds a hint of the social realist perspective evoked in more poetic terms by James Agee in Let Us Now Praise famous Men and by Richard Wright in Twelve Million Black Voices a decade later.

14Yet one also encounters in "Cold" the poetic vision of the South later contained in Wright's Uncle Tom's Children. The story takes place in Cleveland and retraces the odds encountered by black migrants from Alabama: their agonizing search for jobs, their uneasy coming to terms with the ways of the city, their struggle against destitution. When unemployment comes and his wife falls ill, Jake panics, and is tempted to conclude: "Better life in Dixie than death in the North"(151) as he recalls tantalizing memories of rural life:

The birds that sang, the wild creatures that were hunted by the soft light of the moon. The growing plants, the stubby cotton, the waving corn, the bristling, bending cane. Black earth hiding under green yam vines, peeping through tangle of watermelon fields, luscious juicy gifts of the land, dew silver in the morning mists, whitish green where they lay on the soil like the bellies of frogs. The long, winding yellow roads, the trees, sweet gum, water oak, pine and magnolia. The oxen and the mules, the lowing cattle, the clucking hens and bugling rooster. And in the evening the pond chorus of frogs.
All that he had abandoned for dismal autumnal days of falling leaves whirled along hard paved streets by mournful winds, for stony-face people, hurrying through the gloom, for clanging cars and hooting horns, for dread of idleness with its train of hunger and agony, for the cold, white snow and the cold, colorless wind from the lake, for disease and its sinister shadow.(153)

15Jake chooses his wife's survival against a possibly brighter future. He writes his former Southern boss to get their fare back home. But his wife's determination leads him to return the money. The story also records adaptation as the Odom children prosper in the city:

Brownell School was not more than ten minutes'walk away. With the supple mentality of children, the young migrants had quickly adjusted themselves to the new environment of the efficient public school system.
... they forget ahead, absorbing new habits and knowledge like little sponges. Even their pronunciation changed and their vocabulary sprouted words unfamiliar to their parents.(147)

16Matheus' view of migration is eventually positive although he carefully balances conflicting responses to it. In his stories, several viewpoints are juxtaposed to show that each individual holds only some degree of truth. Exploring the generational gap, the play "Cruiter" makes clear why younger blacks follow the call of the Northerner who comes to hire them for factory work. Yet this view is balanced through the portrayal of Granny who remains in the South because she can't take her old dog with her and prefers to wait on the farm for her own 'Cruiter'.

17"Swamp Moccasin" foregrounds a theme later used in Paul Green's Hymn to the Rising Sun, the helplessness of the convict in chaingang life. It also celebrates tragic black resistance frequent in "bad nigger" tales. At gun-point, a sadistic white Captain forces a big convict to catch a deadly snake. The descendant of Africans is attuned to the earth forces and he manages to grab the snake and throw it around the boss's neck, achieving a last minute revenge while being shot by the treacherous white...

18Here, more than glorification of the "bad nigger" one encounters celebration of the folk. "Cruiter" is subtitled "a folk drama" and the play "Tambour" is called "a folk comedy". Many stories indeed treat of poor rural blacks, even though a few, like "Fog" and "Anthropoi," deal with opposed working-and middle-class ethnic groups, or Louisiana Creoles or with the conflict between leaders and common citizens in Haitian and African settings. This liking for the folk may be accounted for because the ethnic heritage is more apparent among the folk. Matheus records many extensions of African culture in body gestures or in spontaneous behavior construed as part of the racial character. For instance in "General Drums," Malissy is evoked as "giving vent to the demonstrative quality of her African blood"(29) The convict in "Swamp Moccasin" seems "possessed by some jungle ancestor... his muscles alert, responding with fine precision to his will, quicker than the serpent he pounced upon;"(17) clearly, as with Claude McKay, the primitive is valued; and one reads in "Swamp Mocassin" that the "black race responds readily to vibration, perhaps because it is closer to Nature"(16)

19Among the African stories, "Sallicoco," "Liberia," and "Nomah" all take place in Monrovia, and "No Siesta" is set in Bassa Town on an afternoon when a capital execution interrupts the customary postprandial nap.

20Interestingly, those stories, far from glorifying an idealized, mythical mother-continent, are realistic sketches of colonialism. For instance, "Sallicoco" documents a modern form of servitude inflicted upon the black natives by the ruling tribe:

brown and ebon bodies, every muscles taut, broke into sweat under baskets filled with dirt, laboriously substituting for the steam shovels of civilization, piling dirt in low places, scooping earth in high places, levelling the cut in the forest into a semblance of a road, rushing in endless procession like [...] big black ants... darting with definite sureness to accomplish a purpose which only death could stop. (75)

21Just like in "Swamp Moccasin" the oppressed seek vengeance by bringing about the death of the brutal soldiers by poison, but others will keep enslaving them. Matheus' perspective on the black situation in Africa, Haiti and the American South thus extends to the social-economic plight of the nations of the black diaspora; this accounts for their common fate more surely than any instinctual, "primitive" African heritage.

22Matheus did not fail to stress the importance of beliefs and ethnic religion in black life. The Christian faith is embodied in the spirituals sung by Granny - the typical "Mammy" - in "Cruiter" Her religiousness contrasts with the secular bend of her grandson who is not "studying to be a Christian" when religion means submission. Yet one finds in Matheus a worthwhile effort to achieve balance: a comparison between this stereotypical Granny and Mrs Thomas in Native Son reveals that there is less opposition between Sonny and Granny than between Bigger and his mother.

23Obviously, Matheus is more attracted by the uncanny rites of voodoo and by the role of drums, the one notorious "African" instrument forbidden in slavery times. "General Drums" only peripherally makes use of that instrument: as Charles Springle remembers war in France and the death of his friend Jimmie Spiles, he hears the drums in a setting reminiscent of Toomer's Cane:

The drums were beating incantation over the tops of the pines through the witching moss festoons of oily-leaved magnolias. The throbbing tones hugged the low earth, too, like the sultry heat beneath the Southern moon, beguiling men from normal ways of thinking.(29)

24The arrival of Jimmie's grandfather elucidates another meaning of the title as the old man explains "Ah was a gen'ral in de Union Army, fit in de battle of Vicksburg, beatin' drums, - calling up speerits to hep us - beatin' drums"(31)

25For the first celebration of Armistice day, the colored soldiers have been asked to march, but they remain segregated in the rear of the parade. When old man Spiles appears in Union blue, beating his drum, some Southerners protest at the view of a Yankee uniform worn by a Negro but lawyer Chester, a respected white figure, placates them. In fact, the black grandfather is an ambivalent character. His harmless appearance and his claim that he is a general make him something of a jester. Yet, his person and behavior carry a different message for the blacks. His claim that he was "bo'n wif a caul"(32) makes him an avatar of High John the Conqueror, the mythical folk hero. Matheus' criticism of segregation is incidental, however. The narrative soon focuses on the love rivalry between two blacks. Charlie is jealous of Malissy's musing over the heroic death of Jimmie (whom, he claims, he could not rescue) and, in the night he hears the beating of drums, re-lives through the terror of "going over the top" and the death of his friend whom, in fact, he shot in the back. The villain is definitely black, not white, and when he betrays himself he is compelled to leave town by lawyer Chester, clearly an embodiment of justice. (Ebony and Topaz, 29-34)

26"General Drums" evokes a tragedy after the Great War. "Tambour," "a one-act folk play of Haiti" also is a "comedy with music" Its action occurs in July 1911 in the village of Ouanamintha. Zabette, a comely peasant girl and an excellent dancer is in love with Mougalou whose passion for drumming leads him to spend days in the mountains, with Gros Jean, another drummer.

27Two full pages of stage directions are provided at this point with a wealth of ethnographic detail which recalls Zora Neale Hurston's Tell My Horse. The tambour is described as one "made by stretching a goatskin over part of a tree trunk, varying from six to twelve inches in diameter, from two and one half to three feet tall, hollowed out and left open at the bottom"(p. 3). It is beaten with the bare hand, alternating the heel of the palm with outstretched, flexible fingers. Another, larger drum, a gourd filled with pebbles, and two heavy pieces of iron comprise the rest of the band's instruments. Mougalou claims that when he makes the drums talk, "they whisper the long lost secrets of the Congo. They tell the story of black warriors crashing through the African jungles"(5)

28Zabette is jealous of Mougalou's passion for his drum and she tries to arouse his jealousy by dancing with Coisac, a richer, older peasant who is mean enough to pick up a cane knife to fight his rival. Their brawl is interrupted by the arrival of troops looking for Cacos. Those rebels may sometimes plunder the peasants but they are less brutal than the soldiers who take the drummers away on Coisac's accusation. In Scene Two, Coisac courts Zabette; he intimidates her into agreeing that the outcome of a cockfight will carry her acceptance of him. When a snake, (a coulèv' endormie, another story makes clear) falls ominously from a tree and grabs Coisac's champion bird, an old man exclaims that the spirits would not let Zabette fail. But Coisac, unafraid of mamaloi and papaloi, shoots the snake. The old peasant then beats the drum and calls upon the spirits of the former leaders for help: "Ah Haiti, you have fallen from the days of our great founders.... Let the shades of Louverture and Dessalines and Christophe and Petion draw nigh and lead us out of that darkness"(p. 23). In Scene III, on the village square where vendors of kola and fruits ply their trade, the Cacos guerrillas arrive suddenly, singing their hymn "Négresse" They have routed the presidential troops and freed Mougalou who was their underground chief. Now everyone can celebrate by dancing the meringué.

29While close to a musical comedy, this play is a patriotic, folk-oriented, ethnic celebration: ancestral practices like drumming and cockfights are staged; voodoo beliefs are revered; national heroes are conjured; Creole patois is spoken; and a whole stanza of the humorous song of the Cacos, "Dark-skinned girl" (la négresse), is quoted in Creole, not to mention street-cries which create local color. African-like proverbs are quoted "Before the hen, the cockroach is always wrong"(p. 16) an old man says; while Zabette quotes "The monkey always takes care that the dogs have gone before he begins to caper"(17) In fact, this play was the outcome of several months spent in Haiti in 1928, where Matheus found material and inspiration for several works about black folk beliefs of African origin.

30Superstition and Haitian national history are also closely linked in "Ouanga" where they dominate the sentimental plot. In "Tambour" one could learn that a ouanga is a charm, often a love charm. From the start, the title of the opera makes this clear.

31The plot of Ouanga has been defined by Matheus as Emperor Dessalines's attempt to purge the newly-founded nation of voodoo and his assassination by means of ouanga. Although the melodramatic love affair between Défilée and Dessalines is foregrounded, the historical argument of the play rests upon the latter's attempt, with the aim of modernizing the kingdom and possibly under the influence of the Catholic clergy, to curb the power of so-called paganism, thus bringing upon himself the hatred of the populace. Dessalines' ambitions have been interpreted diversely by local and American historians; here Matheus refuses to take sides; he simply chronicles the dire results of the Emperor's opposition to ouanga. The prediction made by the ghost of Toussaint Louverture in Dessalines' dream seems to condemn his policy; yet this is only a dream, even though the ghost vindicates fidelity to tradition for the benefit of the folk.

32Allow me to quote the finale at some length from a summary of the libretto provided by Matheus:

The church bells ring in distant Port-au-Prince. Défilée departs in a frantic effort to use her influence with the soldiers to save Dessalines.
Alone, the abandoned Dessalines sings of Haiti, of his love for his beautiful land, and mingled feelings of apprehension for her and his own fate.

33In the meantime Gérin and his soldiers creep over the bridge and surround the Emperor who is repeatedly stabbed. Défilée, rushing back, is seized and prevented from reaching Dessalines.

She invokes the curse with the cry of Ouanga. 'At this word, Gérin and the superstitious soldiers rush back in awe, disclosing the dying Dessalines.
Dessalines, recognizing Défilée, begs her forgiveness and pleads again for the'Songs of Africa'as he expires. Défilée falls sobbing across his body. The sound of drums beating in the mountains sends forth the message of Dessalines' death.
In the distance, as the curtain descends, is heard again the African chant ending in a great cry, Ouanga, Ouanga' and, through all, the incessant beating of the drums, signaling the message to all Haiti:
Ό drums, beat me a tattoo,
Go tell the dread voodoo
His dauntless soul has fled. '(Italics: mine)

34Rather than the melodramatic ending, one should consider here the role of superstition and patriotic celebration.

35The second outstanding feature of the opera is the pervasive use of the oral tradition, of folk songs and ethnic dances like the meringue, and of "voodoo drumming" all accurately adapted by Clarence Cameron White who, upon Matheus' suggestion, spent several months in Haiti the better to imbibe its expressive culture before writing the musical score. Indeed when White and Matheus decided to collaborate on an opera based on the story of the first emperor of Haiti, they visited the country to study its history and beliefs on a Julius Rosenwald grant. The opera was performed in concert in Chicago in 1939 and staged very successfully in South Bend, Indiana, ten years later.

36An important remark must be made here. Although this paper concentrates on the treatment of the African-based ethnic culture of black Americans, and by extension of the diaspora, an original element balances this "racial" perspective. Matheus may have accepted for a while the tenets of "the New Negro" movement but it does not entail that his views were primarily Afrocentric. On the contrary, largely because he was well-travelled, he came closer to the multiracial and multiethnic conception of America sketched in Jean Toomer's "Blue Meridian" As late as the 1970s, Matheus would make non-nationalistic choices.

37Indeed many works by Matheus (mostly "Black Damp," "Anthropoi" and "Fog") are remarkable for their treatment of ethnic differences, cooperation and conflict within the American mosaic. He also explored the black and white conflict in terms of the "twoness" of the African American soul stressed by W. E. B DuBois, i. e. within the soul of the Negro himself. In that respect, a most revealing play is certainly "Ti Yette," in which a New Orleans Creole of color starts hating his sister when she dates a white man during the Mardi Gras season.

38It thus appears that, in terms of themes and perspectives, John F. Matheus was very close to many of his contemporaries of the Harlem Renaissance, notably Arna Bontemps and Langston Hughes. Among the more original aspects of his writings are his interest in African cultural extensions coupled with a reluctance to idealize this heritage. Not all blacks are positive characters in his fiction. True, when blacks are pitted against whites, the latter emerge as villains. But this often occurs only in the characters' eyes. The author's own approach is widely humanistic and leads him to transcend racial categories, to adopt a multi-ethnic perspective recognizing the differences between various European minorities as well as between social classes. Contrary to the "melting pot" ideology, the acceptance of ethnic variety helps in establishing democracy and equality. Matheus admittedly advocated integration, meaning acceptance on equal terms, social and cultural, not assimilation via the "melting pot" As a result, his works take on a special resonance today and deserve to be remembered and studied.


1 All quotations from short stories followed by pages numbers only are from A Collection of Short Stories by Professor John F. Matheus, edited by Leonard A. Slade, Jr. (privately printed, copyright 1974).

© Presses universitaires François-Rabelais, 1992

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