Within ‘Bartow Black’ Fortune tells the story of a recently freed slave and the world he has to navigate in order to make a life for himself. The poem speaks on themes of slavery, injustice, bravery, and endurance.
The poem begins with the speaker introducing the reader to Bartow Black. He was just freed and renamed himself. He started on a journey that took him into politics and onto a platform from which he was able to advocate for the rights of all black men and women in the North and South. His luck was impressive for a time, but it didn’t last forever. Eventually, with the formation of the Klan, danger, death, and disaster entered into his world.
Read more poetry by Timothy Thomas Fortune.
‘Bartow Black’ by Timothy Thomas Fortune is a twenty stanza poem that’s separated into sets of four lines, known as quatrains. These quatrains follow a simple rhyme scheme of ABAB CDCD, and so on, changing end sounds as the poet saw fit. Additionally, there are moments of half-rhyme within the poem. These are seen through the repetition of assonance or consonance. This means that either a vowel or consonant sound is reused within one line or multiple lines of verse. For example, the vowel sound in “greater” and “slave” in stanza six and or “plainly” and “trace” in stanza fifteen.
Fortune makes use of several poetic techniques in ‘Bartow Black’. These include alliteration, enjambment, and anaphora. The first, alliteration, occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same letter. For example, “Contending,” “come,” and “colours” in stanza eleven. Fortune also makes use of anaphora, or the repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of multiple lines, usually in succession. This technique can be seen in action at the beginning of lines three and four of the second stanza with the word “To” as well as in the fifteenth stanza with “And” at the beginning of lines two and three.
Another important technique commonly used in poetry is enjambment. It occurs when a line is cut off before its natural stopping point. Enjambment forces a reader down to the next line, and the next, quickly. One has to move forward in order to comfortably resolve a phrase or sentence. There are examples throughout the poem, such as the transition between lines three and four of the first stanza.
Analysis of Bartow Black
’Twas when the Proclamation came,—
Far in the sixties back,—
He left his lord, and changed his name
To “Mister Bartow Black.”
In the first stanza of ‘Bartow Black,’ the speaker begins by referencing the “Proclamation” that came “in the sixties”. It was because of this that a man, by the name of “Mister Bartow Black” was freed. He was able to take on this name, claim a life for himself, and as the second stanza adds, “think himself a man”.
The proclamation the speaker is talking about is the Emancipation Proclamation issued by President Abraham Lincoln in September of 1862. It stated that he would order the freeing of all slaves in any state that didn’t end its rebellion against the Union in a matter of months.
He learned to think himself a man,
And privileged, you know,
To adopt a new and different plan,—
To lay aside the hoe.
The next lines lay out some of the plans that this man puts into action in order to create a life for himself. He’s going to “think himself a man” and be able to “lay aside the hoe,” which he was forced to use under the whip of slavery and make a “different plan”. For the first time, he was given options.
He took the lead in politics,
And handled all the “notes,”—
For he was up to all the tricks
That gather in the votes;
The third stanza alludes to the man’s choice to go into politics. Here, he easily succeeds. Bartow Black knew all the “tricks / That gather in the votes”. He knew what to do and say in order to garner support for a particular cause.
For when the war came to a close
And negroes “took a stand,”
Young Bartow with the current rose,
The foremost in command.
Time passes and in the fourth stanza of ‘Bartow Black,’ the speaker describes how finally the “war,” meaning the American Civil War, ended. Then, the “negroes ‘took a stand’”. Bartow was able, due to the work he’d been doing before the end of the war, to take command. He has some power in this situation and the ability to speak, becoming “foremost” among those leading a new movement to further the rights of the formerly enslaved Africans and their descendants who had been brought to America against their will.
His voice upon the “stump” was heard;
He “Yankeedom” did prate;
The “carpet-bagger” he revered;
The Southerner did hate.
The command Bartow Black had at this point was clear. His “voice” was heard loud and clear as he advocated for the rights of those around him. The man’s beliefs are made very clear as well. He hated the Southerners who fought a war in order to keep his people in chains but he “revered” or loved and appreciated the “carpet-bagger”.
This is a reference to a person from the Northern states, the Union, who went to the South in order to profit from the efforts of Reconstruction.
He now was greater than the lord
Who used to call him slave,
For he was on the “County Board,”
With every right to rave.
Bartow Black rose and rose until he was more important and powerful than those who had enslaved him. He was “on the ‘County Board’” and now had “every right to rave”. The use of alliteration in this line emphasizes the oratory Bartow is now able to participate in. He can speak his mind, promote his rights and the rights of those around him. Through these lines, the poet makes sure to address the power Bartow gained and the position he was allowed to rise to. These features of his new life are juxtaposed with the pain and terror of his previous life as an enslaved man.
But this amazing run of luck
Was far too good to stand;
And soon the chivalrous “Ku-Klux”
Rose in the Southern land.
Unfortunately, but not unsurprisingly, the “run of luck” came to an end. It was all due to the, sarcastically named, “ chivalrous Ku-Klux”. This is, of course, a reference to the Klan, formed in 1865 with the single purpose of reversing the government’s efforts at Reconstruction. It evolved quickly into a group of white supremacists intent on terrorizing and murdering black men, women, and children, as well as those who sought to help them.
Then Bartow got a little note,—
’Twas very queerly signed,—
It simply told him not to vote,
Or be to death resigned.
The terror began immediately and the Klan threatened Bartow Black with death if he chose to “vote”. If he continued to assert himself, his rights, and those of all African Americans, then he’d be faced with violence and possibly death. These lines make use of anastrophe, a technique in which the natural syntax of a line is altered in order to create a specific emphasis or conform to a metrical pattern.
Young Bartow thought this little game
Was very fine and nice
To bring his courage rare to shame
And knowledge of justice.
Bartow decided not to give in to the threat he was issued. He’d come too far and done too much, and still had much to do, to think about standing down. He saw it as “fine and nice”. This line is meant to be patronizing, making fun of the meager and petty efforts of the Klan to frighten him. He was not going to give up his rare courage or the knowledge he had that justice was due.
“What right have they to think I fear?”
He to himself did say.
“Dare they presume that I do care
How loudly they do bray?
Bartow Black speaks out in stanza ten. He asks the Klan, and more directly those around him, and himself, what “right” the Klan has to try to play with his fear. He professes to care nothing about their harassment and threats. Their words, compared to the braying of a horse, are meaningless to him.
“This is my home, and here I die,
Contending for my right!
Then let them come! My colors fly!
I’m ready now to fight!
With passion, Bartow Black exclaims that this land is his home and he has a right to live there. He intends to die there as well. He’s ready to fight and face whoever or whatever comes.
“Let those who think that Bartow Black,—
An office-holder, too!—
Will to the cowards show his back,
Their vain presumption rue!”
He calls on all those who might oppose him to come forward and have their presumptions about him proven wrong. He wants them to “rue” the day they ever thought he’d “show his back” and run from the threat.
Bartow pursued his office game,
And made the money, too,
But home at nights he wisely came
And played the husband true.
He tries to go back to his life, pursuing his political office, making money. But, “wisely,” the speaker says, he always came back home and stepped into his role as a husband. This is the life he wants to continue, and for now, everything is okay.
When they had got their subject tame,
And well-matured their plan,
They at the hour of midnight came,
And armed was every man!
The Klan waited until their “subject,” Bartow Black, was “tame” and no longer on the lookout for danger. Then, with their “well-matured” and thought out plan, they came at the “hour of midnight”. All the men were armed.
They numbered fifty Southern sons,
And masked was every face;
And Winfield rifles were their guns,—
You could that plainly trace.
There were fifty of them, all “Southern sons,” a reference to the fact that the founders of the Klan were ex-members of the Confederate Army. They wore masks, in order to hide their faces, and carried “Winfield rifles”. There was no way to miss them.
One Southern brave did have a key,
An entrance quick to make;
They entered all; but meek, you see,
Their victim not to wake!
One man, unfortunately for Bartow Black, had a key and they quickly got int his house. They were quiet, waking no one. The lines of this stanza, and those which follow move quickly. The use of exclamation points and em-dashes adds to the drama, encouraging the reader to move to the next line in order to find out what happens next.
They reached his room! He was in bed,—
His wife was by his side!
They struck a match above his head,—
His eyes he opened wide!
Without delay, they located Bartow Black. He was in his room, in his bed. There, by his side, was his wife. Once there, they “struck a match above his head” and he immediately woke up.
Poor Bartow could not reach his gun,
Though quick his arm did stretch,
For twenty bullets through him spun,
That stiffly laid the wretch.
Bartow Black did not have time to reach for his gun before “twenty bullets through him spun”. There was no way for him to even fight back. They “laid” him with this action. He was dead, but they weren’t done with him yet.
And then they rolled his carcass o’er,
Filled both sides with lead;
And then they turned it on the floor,
And shot away his head!
They rolled Bartow Black’s body over and “filled both sides with lead.” Finally, as a topper to all the violence they’d already inflicted, they “shot away his head”.
Ere Black his bloody end did meet
His wife had swooned away;
The Southern braves did now retreat,—
There was no need to stay!
‘Bartow Black’ ends with stanza twenty, a reference, perhaps, back to the twenty initial bullets that killed Bartow. The speaker concludes by saying that the “wife had swooned away,” Bartow was dead, and the men did not need to stay. Like soldiers, they “retreat[ed]” from the house as there was nothing left for them there. The poem ends unsatisfyingly with murderers likely getting away with their crime and the protagonist dead without having been given the ability to fight back.
Fortune intended the ending to be horrifying, shocking and maddening. One is meant to leave this poem dwelling on the overwhelming unfairness of life, the law, and the treatment of black men and women in America.