Only ten more days till the end of 2020. Let’s spend a moment with beloved Detroit poet Naomi Long Madgett who died this past November. I put her poem “Midway” on the “Transcending” sculpture on the riverfront in Hart Plaza.
by Naomi Long Madgett
I’ve come this far to freedom and I won’t turn back
I’m climbing to the highway from my old dirt track
I’m coming and I’m going
And I’m stretching and I’m growing
And I’ll reap what I’ve been sowing or my skin’s not black
I’ve prayed and slaved and waited and I’ve sung my song
You’ve bled me and you’ve starved me but I’ve still grown strong
You’ve lashed me and you’ve treed me
And you’ve everything but freed me
But in time you’ll know you need me and it won’t be long.
I’ve seen the daylight breaking high above the bough
I’ve found my destination and I’ve made my vow;
so whether you abhor me
Or deride me or ignore me
Mighty mountains loom before me and I won’t stop now.
I can’t add much to a discussion of this powerful poem. The age-old experience of the downtrodden overcoming persecution is translated into a rousing, soul-stirring anthem. It’s relentlessly musical and begs to be recited. Obviously it’s topical in a year that brought racial injustice to the forefront of our national conversation.
Instead of picking apart the poem, I’ll turn this post over to Madgett’s own words.
She wrote “Midway” as a response to Brown v. Board of Education—
Midway was first published in Freedomways in 1959, but I think I wrote it in 1958. The poem grew out of a discussion with a friend that acknowledged that the Supreme Court desegregation ruling, which legalized racial justice for the first time, led to the determination of Black people to move forward and never again accept the status quo.
(Her turn of phrase “legalized racial justice” is something to ponder.)
Long said that “Midway,” her most famous poem, was her least favorite. Still, she recognized its universality and reach—
I never thought of it as anything but a Civil Rights poem yet when I went to St. Louis for my 50th year high school reunion, one of my classmates took me to his church to meet his pastor because the pastor loves my poetry, especially “Midway.” The pastor didn’t see it as a Civil Rights poem but as the story of his life and experiences.
I did a reading of “Midway” in Oak Park High School years ago and the students interpreted it according to their own experience. A Jewish student felt the history of the Jewish people was brought out in the poem. Another student suggested I “could have been talking about truth itself.” Yet another offered “you were talking about the early persecution of Christians.” An African-American student said “You are talking about the history of black people” and of course, that’s what I was talking about. But because I was not specific in the poem, it could be interpreted in many ways.
[Call-out to Computer Guys who are actually Librarian Guys (you know who you are): I’ve read that this poem has been set to music but I’m unable to find a version on line. It might be called “I’ve Come This Far to Freedom.” If you can track down a video, post to the comment section or email me at email@example.com. I’ll post it in the new year. ]
Naomi Long Madgett was born in Norfolk, Virginia in 1923, the youngest of three children and the only girl. Her father was a preacher. He took a job as pastor of a New Jersey congregation when Madgett was a baby. East Orange was a segregated town, and there she attended a school where prejudice prevented her from receiving the academic honors she had earned. When the family moved to St. Louis, she went to an all-black high school and was finally able to soar academically and artistically.
She studied at Virginia State University. During her years there corresponded with Langston Hughes who encouraged her writing. After graduating she married, moved to Detroit, had a daughter, got divorced and took a job with Michigan Bell to support herself and her daughter. She earned her masters degree from Wayne State University and began teaching high school English in Detroit public schools. As an educator she fought for inclusion of Black writers in textbooks, offered the first course on African American literature, and taught the first accredited course in creative writing in the city. She continued her work of inclusion of Black writers in the curriculum and in textbooks when she became a professor at Eastern Michigan University. She founded and ran Lotus Press from her basement, seeing a need to get more Black writers published.
For a celebrated writer, she seems to be unusually other-centered, quietly writing her own poetry while promoting the work of others. I love this quote of hers—
It was only when I gave myself away that I found myself. Service, I have learned, is where true happiness lies. It has provided me with a compassion that I didn’t have in my youth. It has permitted me to walk in the shoes of many and feel the warmth of their feet as well as the pebbles that injured them. I have discovered that cheerfulness, kindness, and helpfulness bring as much joy to the one who extends them as to the ones who receive them — perhaps a good deal more.
She won multiple awards, was named Detroit Poet Laureate, and was the subject of a documentary, “Star by Star: Naomi Long Madgett, Poet & Publisher.” She died at age 97.