US man to track graves of black po­ets in South


A for­mer teacher who trav­els the coun­try to doc­u­ment the fi­nal rest­ing places of po­ets is look­ing for­ward to call­ing at­ten­tion to African-Amer­i­can po­ets on a tour of the South and else­where.

Black po­ets have been writ­ing about injustice and hard­ship since the days of slav­ery, and the theme rings true to­day, given the re­cent un­rest sur­round­ing po­lice killings of black men, Wal­ter Skold said.

“African-Amer­i­can po­ets have been go­ing through the same tur­moil. They’ve been right there. They’ve chron­i­cled the great sor­rows and suc­cesses that AfricanAmer­i­cans have had,” he said.

Skold, who is the founder of the Dead Po­ets So­ci­ety of Amer­ica, in­tends to reach a mile­stone of the 500th grave dur­ing the 16-state, 10-week pil­grim­age, which kicks off Satur­day in Bal­ti­more at the grave of Edgar Al­lan Poe be­fore mov­ing into the South. For the trip, he’s vis­it­ing 90 graves, in­clud­ing those of 47 state po­ets lau­re­ate across the re­gion.

Fif­teen African-Amer­i­can po­ets in­clude Al­bery Whit­man, who was born a slave, spoke out against the treat­ment of the Semi­noles in Florida and was dubbed the “poet lau­re­ate of the Ne­gro race.” He’s buried in At­lanta.

Oth­ers in­clude Arna Bontemps, a Louisiana-born poet who was part of the Har­lem Re­nais­sance and is buried in Nashville, Ten­nessee; Robert Charles Benjamin, who’s buried in Lex­ing­ton, Ken­tucky, where he was shot in 1900 while try­ing to get blacks to reg­is­ter to vote; and Melvin Tol­son, Liberia’s poet lau­re­ate, buried in Guthrie, Ok­la­homa.

One of the more off­beat po­ets is Sun Ra, who’s bet­ter known as a mu­si­cal com­poser and per­former who es­poused a “cos­mic phi­los­o­phy” and claimed to be from Saturn. He’s buried in his home state in Birm­ing­ham, Alabama.

Jeri­cho Brown, who leads po­etry work­shops at Emory Uni­ver­sity in At­lanta, said there’s a di­ver­sity of view­points and ex­pe­ri­ences among black po­ets that de­fies any sin­gle nar­ra­tive. But there are cul­tural in­flu­ences, like Mis­souri-born Langston Hughes’ use of the rhythms of jazz and blues in his po­etry, he said.

“Be­ing black af­fords you the op­por­tu­nity to see things that oth­ers might be able to see, to give you ex­pe­ri­ences that oth­ers may not have,” Brown said.

Skold, 54, of Freeport, is a poet him­self. He trav­els in a soupedup box van dubbed “Dedgar the Poe­mo­bile,” with a whim­si­cal por­trait of Poe on the side, so­lar pan­els on the roof and a sin­gle bed in­side. When he’s done with this trip, he plans to fin­ish a doc­u­men­tary, “Find­ing Frost: Po­ets and The Graves.”

He some­times sleeps in grave­yards to get the best light for pho­to­graphs and video that he uses to doc­u­ment the graves. But he says he has never com­muned with the ghosts or spir­its of bards.

“I feel a con­nec­tion to the po­ets, but it’s a his­tor­i­cal one,” he said. “The whole na­ture of my project has be­come cel­e­bra­tory. It’s not some­thing that I see as mor­bid at all.”

His ad­ven­tures were nearly cut short in 2010, when he suf­fered a heart attack in New Jer­sey af­ter vis­it­ing Walt Whit­man’s grave.

Af­ter a hos­pi­tal stay in Prince­ton, he trav­eled to the nearby grave of Henry van Dyke, au­thor of the poem that be­gins, “Joy­ful, joy­ful, we adore thee,” to play his har­mon­ica and of­fer a prayer of thanks that he’s not yet a dead poet.

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