The difference between a toast and a poem was clear to Horace “Spoons” Williams, who readily shared this with in the mid-1980s with Glenn Hinson, Associate Professor of Folklore and Anthropology in the American Studies Department. Hinson, an Institute for the Arts and Humanities Faculty Fellow, later learns that this conversation was a “very humbling moment” that “transformed the path” of in his scholarly work of African-American and working-class culture.
Before his conversation with Williams, who would go on to become a National Endowment for the Arts Heritage Fellow, Hinson understood toasts as working-class poetry “long narratives … told traditionally by men in male company. Most celebrated by the white academy. That was the area of poetic creativity that outside the arena of more formal academic poetry that was written about for African Americans.”
Horace Williams composed “A Black Man Talks to God” in the 1930s, lamenting the violence of racism in the American South, some excerpts of the recording are included in the podcast below. But when Williams first recites it to Hinson, he could not catalog what he was hearing. “This was … not a toast,” recalls Hinson.
“There are poems and there are toasts,” Williams told Hinson. “That [‘A Black Man Talks to God’] is a poem. Poems are serious. Poems are one person’s experience captured in verse. Toasts belong to everybody. It’s like 10,000 can put a toast together. But a poem is yours.”
“A Black Man Talks to God” had gone decades without being printed, as was the tradition of many poems composed by the African-American community that discuss racial politics at that time.
History is defined by evidence which is usually found in documents, buildings and monuments, and more recently oral histories being captured with the latest technology.
Hinson went on to work with Williams for many years, including recording performances and studying “this world of oral narrative, not written down… They weren’t really passed down but they were frequently performed.”
“I was reminded rather starkly of my whiteness and my outsider-ness to this [African American] community,” says Hinson about how his first hearing Williams’ poem. “I was reminded of that which I don’t know, and what I purposefully don’t know, that which was not meant for me to know, as it were. And to be invited into this moment, it forced a kind of reckoning that is always with me.”