Joseph Seamon Cotter
Biography of Joseph Seamon Cotter
On the Bardstown, Kentucky plantation where Stephen Collins Foster composed "My Old Kentucky Home", lived a young slave girl in whose soul were interesting melodies of her own. Strong in spirit and dramatic flair, Martha Vaughn faithfully served as the personal maid to Mrs. Rebecca Rowan, mistress of the Old Kentucky Home. Yet her vivid accounts of visions and dramatic recitations of her original stories and plays while she worked, forced plantation owners to send her away concerned that she would disrupt discipline among the other slaves. It's been said that of such mothers are seers and poets born. And so in this instance it proved to be.
Joseph Seamon Cotter was born February 2, 1861 in Nelson County, Kentucky. His father was a prominent citizen of Louisville who was married to Martha by common law. It is claimed that Martha named her son for Joseph, the dreamer of biblical stories in the hope of his becoming great in the service of his people like the Hebrew Joseph. She lived to see her hope fulfilled.
Joseph S. Cotter's formal education was very scant. He attended grammar school through the third grade, but then was forced to leave to help support his mother. He worked at a variety of jobs as a day laborer. He was a teamster, ragpicker, tobacco stemmer, prize fighter, whiskey distiller, and brick hand. Because he was small he was often harassed by the other workers. He was not big or strong enough to fight to gain his dignity, but he won his fellow workers' respect in another way -- by telling them stories.
When he was twenty-two his desire for knowledge became so great that he enrolled in a Louisville night school at the primary level. At the end of just two sessions, because of his hard work, he was evidently deemed ready to teach. This was to be the beginning of a long career in education, including serving as the principal of S. Coleridge-Taylor School for nearly 50 years.
Cotter also played an active role in the business and social life of Louisville, serving as the director of the Louisville Colored Orphan's Home Society; belonged to the Negro Educational Association, the NAACP, the Story Tellers League, and the Author's League of America.
Cotter's major fame lies in his accomplishments as a writer. He was a storyteller, a dramatist, and a poet of many moods and styles. His early poems were published in the local newspaper, The Courier-Journal, and one poem, The Tragedy of Pete, won first place in an Opportunity prize contest. Among his many published books included, A Rhyming (1895), Links of Friendship, (1899), the play, Caleb, the Degenerate (1903), A White Song and a Black One (1909),/ Negro Tales/(1912), and finally Collected Poems (1938).
For an author of such limited schooling, critics suggest that Cotter's writing shows tremendous variety. His poetry could be philosophical speculation, racial protest, cultural tales, moral lessons, or simple reflections on people or places. Sterling A. Brown has divided the poetry during the period in which Cotter wrote into three concerns or styles -- the dialect tradition to which Dunbar belongs, protest poetry where we find W. E. B. Du Bois, and "literary" because it expressed higher sentiments in a more academic and lyrical voice. While Cotter shows evidence of each style, he is primarily known as one of the first poets of racial concern.
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Joseph Seamon Cotter Poems
A thousand years of darkness in her face, She turns at last from out the centurys' blight Of labored moan and dull oppression's might, To slowly mount the rugged path and trace
Is It Because I Am Black?
Why do men smile when I speak, And call my speech The whimperings of a babe That cries but knows not what it wants?
There is naught in the pathless reach Of the pale, blue sky above, There is naught that the stars tell, each to each, As over the heavens they rove;
An April Day
On such a day as this I think, On such a day as this, When earth and sky and nature's whole Are clad in April's bliss;
A Woman at Her Husband's Grave
Peace to his ashes! I cannot for the soul of me Sorrowing bow, Tho I search through the heart of me
The slender moon in its silvery sheen, The golden stars with the blue between Of a dreamy, summer sky; And still the night winds sigh.
And Thou Art One
And Thou art One--One with th' eternal hills, And with the flaming stars, and with the moon, Translucent, cold. The sentinel of noon That clothes the sky in robes of light and fills
I Sometimes Wonder If the Mighty God
I sometimes wonder if the mighty God Cares aught about the little deeds of men; And if their day and time can reach his ken Or raise their breath above the hungry sod.
As I lie in bed, Flat on my back; There passes across my ceiling An endless panaroma of things--
And What Shall You Say?
Brother, come! And let us go unto our God. And when we stand before Him I shall say--
I would not tarry if I could be gone
I would not tarry if I could be gone Adown the path where calls my eager mind. That fate which knows naught but to grip and bind Holds me within its grasp, a helpless pawn,
Day passeth day in sunshine or shadow, Night unto night each cycle is told; Sun, moon and stars in whirling and glamour, All unto all the creation unfold.
From your life's blood to coin a trenchant word--
The past, the present and the future's ken
To hold--and weave it to a ringing chord
That sounds within the changing hearts of men.