James Monroe Whitfield worked as a barber all his life, and the bitter militancy of his writings reflects his abortive attempts to secure racial justice and become a man of letters. He was born in New Hampshire, and little is known about his youth or later private life. Whitfield was a barber in Buffalo, New York (1854–1859), and in California (1861–1871), with brief sojourns in his later years in Oregon, Idaho, and Nevada. His public support for colonization began in 1854 when he wrote the call for the National Emigration Convention (Cleveland) and a series of letters to the North Star; from 1859 to 1861 he probably traveled in Central America seeking land for an African American colony. From 1849 until his death, Whitfield's forceful protest poetry and letters appeared often in the North Star, Frederick Douglass's Paper, the San Francisco Elevator, and other African American periodicals, and he read several of his commemorative odes in public. The majority of his writings remain uncollected; his only published volume is America and Other Poems (1853). Whitfield died of heart disease and was buried in the Masonic Cemetery of San Francisco.
Whitfield's verse is outstanding for its metrical control, breadth of classical imagery, commanding historical sense, and convincing anger. With biting cynicism, he denounces oppression worldwide and scourges America's morally corrupt church and state in two long antislavery jeremiads, “America” and “How Long?” “America” begins: “America, it is to thee / Thou boasted land of liberty,-/ It is to thee I raise my song, / Thou land of blood, and crime, and wrong.” “How Long?” moves from Europe's “princely pomp, and priestly pride” that tramples people's rights, hopes, and spirits to the insidious plague of moral corruption, slavery, infecting America “with foul pestiferous breath.” Whitfield's most compelling poems are dark imprecations against a world “disjoint and out of frame” where men, women, religion, love, and nature are tainted and meaningless. With anguished pessimism, particularly in “Yes, Strike Again That Sounding String” and “The Misanthropist,” the poet dramatizes the estrangement and defeat of an African American artist. In 1867 Whitfield delivered his robust four-hundred-line Poem, which surveys American history, the sowing of freedom in New England and slavery in the South, the Civil War, and now, “Such fiendish murders as of late / Occur in every rebel State.” Once again, the nation must be purged of poisonous bigotry; only “equal laws,” the poet says, will re-create a “country of the free.” No poet of his time combined anger and artistry as forcefully as Whitfield; he was a major propagandist for black separatism and racial retributive justice through his impassioned poetry and prose.
Doris Lucas Larye, “James Monroe Whitfield” in DLB, vol. 50, Afro-American Writers before the Harlem Renaissance, ed. Trudier Harris, 1986, pp. 260–263. Joan R. Sherman, Invisible Poets: Afro-Americans of the Nineteenth Century, 2d ed., 1989.
Joan R. Sherman