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George Moses Horton, 1798?-ca. 1880
Life of George M. Horton. The Colored Bard of North Carolina from "The Poetical Works of George M. Horton, the Colored Bard of North Carolina, to which is Prefixed the Life of the Author, written by himself."
Hillsborough: Heartt, 1845.

Summary

George Moses Horton was born in Northampton County, North Carolina, around 1798. Born into slavery, Horton was originally enslaved to William Horton, later inherited by William's son, James Horton, and eventually bequeathed to William's grandson, Hall Horton. In his youth, George Moses Horton was moved to Chatham County, North Carolina, to work as a farm hand. Here he taught himself how to read and began to compose his own poetry. At age 20, Horton began delivering crops from the farm to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, which was located less than 10 miles away. Students and faculty members quickly realized how intelligent Horton was, and some donated books for his education and bought poems from him. Horton was not able to write, so he would recite the poems, often acrostics for students' romantic interests. One wife of a professor, Caroline Lee Hentz, took a particular interest in Horton and privately tutored him in grammar. In 1829, Hentz sent pieces of Horton's poetry to be published in a Massachusetts newspaper, the Lancaster Gazette. In the same year, Horton became the first black man to publish a book in the American South with a collection of poems titled The Hope of Liberty. In time, Horton gained the support and admiration of many powerful figures, and he went on to publish two more books: The Poetical Works of George M. Horton, The Colored Bard of North Carolina (1845) and Naked Genius (1865). After the Civil War, Horton married Franklin Snipes and became a father of two, Free and Rhody. He lived the remainder of his life in Philadelphia, writing Sunday school stories and working for old friends.

Horton's first book, The Hope of Liberty, was published in 1829 by a liberal journalist named Joseph Gales in Raleigh, North Carolina. In 1845, Dennis Heartt of the Hillsborough Recorder published Horton's second book, The Poetical Works of George M. Horton, The Colored Bard of North Carolina. Horton's third and final book, Naked Genius, was published by William B. Smith in Raleigh with the sponsorship of Captain Will H.S. Banks. In 1997, the University of North Carolina Press released The Black Bard of North Carolina: George Moses Horton and His Poetry, which was edited by Joan Sherman, a professor of English at Rutgers University. Horton had originally edited his works himself.

The Life of George M. Horton, an extract from The Poetical Works, includes Horton's autobiography and a few of Horton's short poems. Horton begins by admitting that he is unable to describe all events of his life in "tedious and prolix detail," but will proceed to depict the significant events with no exaggeration (p. iii). As a young slave in Chatham County, Horton overhears people reading and wants desperately to learn himself. However, resources for education are not available to a slave; therefore, Horton relies on the white school children he is exposed to and manages to memorize the alphabet by listening to their recitations.

Soon after, Horton does manage to find a few old spelling books and proceeds to teach himself to read and spell. On Saturday nights, Horton sneaks off to the forest where he can learn to read by firelight. His favorite book is the Bible. Horton becomes very fond of poetry and begins to compose his own poems, mostly on religion. These poems Horton keeps in his head, since he is not able to write. Horton composes poems about setting the soul free, the power of the Lord, and even the Israelites' crossing of the Red Sea. He finds inspiration in the horrible events that occur in his life, the death and misfortune that befall slaves. With sadness, Horton recounts that in this difficult time, many people are losing religion and turning to alcohol for an escape, which leads to much destruction.

During this time, Horton is transferred to the son of his first slave owner, and receives the task of delivering fruit to the University of North Carolina. Here, students quickly notice his intelligence, referring to him as a "genius," and are both astonished and entertained by his poems (p. xiv). Horton begins selling personal poems, mostly acrostics, to students for a quarter or two. Due to his inability to write, Horton dictates the poem and the buyer works as the scribe. Many become interested in Horton and help him improve by providing him with more books. Horton recalls the few that try to persuade him that drinking alcohol will help expand his creativity and ideas. Although he had observed the negative effects of drinking in his childhood, he does not learn from others' experiences; soon, he realizes his mistake and becomes sober.

One interested party, however, has particularly good intentions for Horton. Caroline Lee Hentz, the wife of a UNC professor, is intrigued by Horton's poems but recognizes his need for grammatical education. Therefore, she works with him to improve his writing. The two become very close, and Horton composes a poem for Hentz about her first child, who had passed away. Hentz decides it is important to share Horton's talent with others outside of the university, and she sends a few of his poems to her hometown in Massachusetts to be published in the local newspaper. Horton mentions his appreciation for all who helped with his education, especially Mrs. Hentz. Horton concludes by stressing the importance of grammar for a writer. Without it, he maintains, creativity and "genius" cannot be communicated well or poetically.

Works Cited: Larson, Jennifer, "George Moses Horton: Slave Poet from North Carolina," Documenting the American South, accessed 14 March 2012; Sherman, Joan R., The Black Bard of North Carolina: George Moses Horton and His Poetry, Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997; Walser, Richard, "George Moses Horton, 1798?-ca.1880," Dictionary of North Carolina Biography, ed. William S. Powell, accessed via Documenting the American South 14 March 2012.

Brooke McKenna

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