Tom Weatherly in 'Dictionary of Literary Biography'
Editorial note: Evelyn Hoard Roberts’s entry on Tom Weatherly, written in the 1980s, originally appeared in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 41: Afro-Americans Poets Since 1955, edited by Trudier Harris and Thadious M. Davis(Detroit: Gale, 1985), 338–42, and is reproduced here in slightly edited form. — Julia Bloch
Tom Weatherly (3 November 1942–)
Evelyn Hoard Roberts
St. Louis Community College at Meramec
Books: Maumau American Cantos (New York: Corinth Books, 1970);
Thumbprint (Philadelphia: Telegraph Books, 1971);
Climate, published with Stream, by Ken Bluford (Philadelphia: Middle Earth Books, 1972).
Other: Natural Process: An Anthology of New Black Poetry, edited by Weatherly and Ted Wilentz (New York: Hill and Wang, 1971);
Arnold Adoff, ed., The Poetry of Black America: An Anthology of the 20th Century, includes poems by Weatherly (New York: Harper and Row, 1973);
George Quasha and Jerome Rothenberg, eds., America, a Prophecy: A New Reading of American Poetry from Pre-Columbian Times to the Present, includes poems by Weatherly (New York: Vintage Books, 1973).
Thomas Elias Weatherly Jr., forged and purified by the white heat of nonconformity, has responded to the external, fragmented reality of the black-white world that he has engaged and sought to conquer through mythmaking. Although his poetry has not commanded wide critical acclaim, his diverse roles as poet-in-residence, teacher of poetry in elementary and secondary schools, and conductor of workshops have helped him reach a wide range of audiences. Seeking to interpret the human condition by particularizing the black experience, he has recognized African culture as the heritage of American blacks who have been brought to the Western world via the indentured servants and slaves who struggled through emancipation, reconstruction, and the American industrial revolution, and who are now engaged in a social revolution. Weatherly, like poets Countee Cullen, Langston Hughes, and Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones), has made a dynamic contribution to Afro-American literature.
Weatherly was born on 3 November 1942 in Scottsboro, Alabama, where his father, Thomas Elias Weatherly Sr., was born in 1917. His mother, Lucy Belle Golson Weatherly, was born in Huntsville in 1918. His sister, Yvonne Dolores Weatherly, born in 1944, teaches mathematics in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Scottsboro gained nationwide attention in the 1930s for a contrived race conflict involving nine black youths and two white girls (the Scottsboro Boys case). Tom (as he prefers to be called) grew up heavily influenced by the strong black Southern culture that has been dominated for centuries by the white majority. It is doubtful that any black youth could develop in such a racist atmosphere and escape the negative impact of sociopolitical and economic injustices. Later Weatherly would compose several poems addressing the theme of black subservience: “first Monday Scottsboro Alabama,” “southern accent,” and “to old elm, in cemetery for confederate dead.”
Weatherly’s intellectual, political, and ethical development was nurtured, primarily, by his parents, schoolteachers, and other contacts at the George Washington Carver High School, where he completed the eleventh grade. He admits that his early country school gave him a general education, but he says his true education derived from a warm, loving home environment that emphasized “learning and, sometimes, openness to new ideas.” He remarks that he and his mother argued “loudly.” Mary Emily Hunter, his paternal grandmother, required him to memorize poems (two of her favorite poets were Langston Hughes and Alfred Lord Tennyson). Others who influenced his thinking and nurtured his spirit by listening to his fantasies were Alfred Morris, a high-school teacher; James Vinson, a college English teacher who encouraged him to major in English; and Muriel Michal Hollander, a continuing source of encouragement and inspiration, who became his third wife.
As a child, Weatherly collected stamps, coins, matchbooks, and facts, storing in his mind the data that would provide the basis for his later fiction. Being a “nosy child,” he vowed that he would know the universe. He comments: “Probably the motions of the heavenly bodies and basketballs occurred to me at the same period.” He bought a telescope — perceived and pondered everything. He says that when he realized that he was too young to be a philosopher, he knew that he must become a poet. At an early age he had a vision, a “call,” which he believed came from God: “feel that i was called … years ago at eight” to make poems. The call took the form of a dream about Homer in which the ancient poet gave Weatherly his advice to become a “wekwom teks”: a weaver of words. Written when he was eight years old, his first poem chronicles his dream: “Homer spoke / I awoke / Into dream / That I’d try / Poetry. / It did seem / That he said / Sing until dead.” Throughout his life, Weatherly has responded to this call. He does not remember the title of his first published poem, but he recalls that it appeared in the Carver High School newspaper. His first poem published outside high school was a koan (a nonsense question, asked of a student of Zen, to force him to a greater awareness of reality) in the Buddhist World Philosophy Magazine.
Weatherly attended Morehouse College from 1958 to 1961. He originally enrolled as a psychology major, but switched to English, and while at Morehouse, he wrote for the Maroon Tiger. He also attended Alabama A&M College (now University) in 1961, in Normal, Alabama, but was suspended for having published The Saint, an unauthorised periodical featuring poetry, satire, humor, and essays. In 1974, having relocated to New York, he registered at the City College of New York as a special student. That same year he enrolled in the Master of Fine Arts program at Columbia University but subsequently withdrew, “because of boredom,” he said.
A prolific reader, Weatherly says he has been influenced by John Dos Passos, Edgar Rice Burroughs, E. E. “Doc” Smith, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Cordwainer Smith, Saki, E. B. White, Ezra Pound, William Butler Yeats, Wilfred Owen, Emily Dickinson, Samuel Coleridge, Perce Bysshe Shelley, Ogden Nash, John Donne, Jerry Leiber, Mike Stoller, H.D., and Marianne Moore, among others. Not surprisingly, Weatherly calls himself a poet from an “eclectic tradition,” and he has blended the tradition of formalists and nonformalists in his own poetry.
A different call in the mid-1960s led Weatherly to enter the African Methodist Episcopal ministry, and he was appointed assistant pastor of Saint Paul’s in Scottsboro, where he served as an associate of the Reverend J. C. Coleman. In the second year of Weatherly’s ministry, Bishop I. H. Bonner, respecting tradition, assigned Weatherly to be pastor of the church that his paternal ancestor (his great-grandfather Elias Donegan) had pastored. Like Ralph Waldo Emerson, whose ministry imposed so many restrictions that he resigned his pastorate, Weatherly withdrew from his ministry in Alabama and returned to his vocation as poet; and, along with other black Americans, he participated in the second great migration from the South to the North.
Weatherly moved to New York and lived in both Harlem and Greenwich Village, charting a nomadic trail, oddjobbing as a dishwasher at a Happy Bagel restaurant, a waiter in the mountains, a cook at Lion’s Head, a bellhop, a camp counsellor, a proofreader, and a copyeditor. These varied experiences enlarged his mind and stimulated his imagination and sensitized him to a world plagued with racism, civil discrimination, economic injustices, international distrusts, and conflicting ideologies.
Carolyn Weatherly’s portrait of Tom Weatherly in Maumau American Cantos.
Weatherly’s diverse professional pursuits and art engagements in formal and informal settings have appealed to both youth and adults. He conducted the Afro-Hispanic Poets’ Workshop in East Harlem, at Our Lady of Esperanza in Washington Heights, from 1967 to 1968. With the New York Parks Department, under a grant from the State Council on Arts and the National Endowment for the Arts (1968 to 1969), he advanced the Natural Process Workshop, East Harlem, for Teachers’ and Writers’ Collaborative. The name was chosen because it reflected Weatherly’s desire for “something not racist, but racial.” As his audience grew and changed, his ethnic and human perspectives were modified.
In 1970, Weatherly became adjunct instructor in the art department at Rutgers University. From 1970 to 1971 he was poet-in-residence at Bishop College, and he conducted a seminar, Criticism of Black Poetry, at Grand Valley State College, where the National Poetry Festival was held in 1971. In Climate (1972), Weatherly’s poem “#18,” for Bishop College, reflects this experience.
From 1971 to 1972 he assumed several professional commitments. He merged the Natural Process Workshop with the Saint Mark’s Poetry Project at Saint Mark’s Church-on-the-Bowery in New York City, and he became poet-in-residence at Morgan State College. That spring he taught poetry at the Web School in Westchester, New York. He directed the Natural Process Poetry Workshop from 1973 to 1974 at the Brooklyn Poetry Project. At the same time he taught in a Poetry in the Schools program in the Richmond School District in Richmond, Virginia, and at the Sampson G. Smith Intermediate School in Somerset, New Jersey.
From 1975 to 1977, Weatherly conducted a workshop, Poetry Teacher for Free Space in the Women’s House of Detention, at the New York Department of Corrections on Rikers Island. He effectively demonstrated that the natural process could stimulate the creativity of those separate from the community. He concedes that in departing the South he had pursued a course leading to vastly changed religious, philosophical, and political views. Guided by the religion of his AME ministry and from his playful, political position as “oxymoric conservative,” Weatherly came to embrace the practice of Taoism and the politics of libertarianism. He now advocates simplicity and selflessness in his occupational pursuits, human relationships, and art.
Weatherly’s art theory is complex. He affirms that he creates because of his inner forces. Like many black writers before him, he has drawn from oral tradition as a foundation for his art. Weatherly perceives mythmaking as a justification for the act of creating; he grants the poet power to achieve unity and to interpret the past for the young. For Weatherly, poetry is an art whose rhythms, sounds, pitch, and images aid the young to comprehend their culture and to gain an identity. The poet himself has pursued these identical goals: ways of knowing the self and of appreciating the dignity of all men.
Covers for Weatherly’s 1970 poetry volume, which compares the uprisings of the African mau maus with the conflicts of modern American life.
Maumau American Cantos (1970), his first published volume of poetry, and Thumbprint (1971), his second, constitute a mosaic of ancestral, historical, environmental, and communal forces (noticeably paradoxical and ambiguous) that disclose Weatherly’s profuse, sometimes profane and unorthodox, nevertheless genuine and profound viewpoints. His vehement protest against the dehumanization of blacks represents his determined defiance of authority and the needless constraints of society.
Through the title, Maumau American Cantos, Weatherly invokes a comparison between the African mau mau movement associated with the Kenyan insurrections of the 1950s and the turbulent sociopolitical movements of the 1960s in the United States, when blacks demonstrated against racism throughout the nation. Mau mau insurrectionists, on the one hand, sought to achieve land reforms that would alleviate African hunger and would secure effective African participation in the British-ruled Kenyan government. Blacks in the United States, on the other hand, pressed for full voting rights and for equality in employment, housing, and education to attain justice. The poet addresses other concerns in the volume, for example, in “southern accent,” where he examines the controversy between environmentalists and the government regarding the use and condition of the Tennessee Valley. In the central poem, “imperial thumbprint,” Weatherly presents the white/black dichotomy, but proclaims that relationships are ever changing and, thus, “outside where there is white / tomorrow is today the black.”
The remainder of the poems in Maumau and the poems in Thumbprint center around the idea of “natural process.” The eleven cantos titled “Maumau American Cantos” are a kaleidoscope of microcosmic portraits and scenes which blend history and fantasy with local and universal events and ideas to create a song of the American black experience. Weatherly shifts from describing Malcolm X as a wootem (a Harlem cat) to creating a time capsule protesting the human condition by describing the decadent environment. “Canto 7” characterizes the misery, hopelessness, and despair that contributed to the inconsolable grief blacks experienced when “m. l. k., jr.” was assassinated.
Front cover for Weatherly’s 1971 book of poems about women, which is dedicated “to the souls & flesh / these mamas, real & fancy.”
In Thumpbrint, Weatherly affirms the roles of woman, as the dedication page indicates: “to the souls & flesh / these mamas, real & fancy.” He then lists ninety-four names of women he has loved, respected, admired, and revered in numerous ways. With such an inclusive dedication, Weatherly acknowledges that each and all have become a part of his world and that he, in turn, has imposed a stamp upon them. He uses the ancient Sumerian symbol for woman and the symbol for man to express mutual allegiance.
In some pieces, Weatherly becomes the scribe, recording events for posterity. In one poem, young demonstrators clashing with “law and order” agents scream, “we’ll teach lil tomcat / the magic we learn / burning our soul flesh.” Elsewhere, the poet evokes vivid images of sexual urgency and social unrest that vivify the explosive 1960s when he writes: “her shoulders rust / in the sun where mine / bursts fire / run. the molotov cocktail / red explode.”
In the introduction to Arnold Adoff’s anthology of black poetry (1973), Gwendolyn Brooks writes: “Black poets can write hauntingly out of the wellsprings of their despair, despondency, and troubled indignities — such provide an inspired authoritative tone of protest.” Through his unique style, Weatherly voices such a protest. In poetry pregnant with vigorous rhythms, subtle Afro-American slang, numerous foreign phrases, and various mythological allusions, Weatherly underscores a new commitment to the wholeness of blackness which mirrors significant social change and heralds a great future. He has become an ally to black poets who have aided in shaping a new value structure and enhanced political awareness. Weatherly’s message to his readers is: through art the human spirit and mind can achieve self-esteem and freedom.
Lerone Bennett Jr., The Shaping of Black America (Chicago: Johnson Publishing Company, 1975)
Stephen H. Bronz, Roots of Negro Racial Consciousness: The 1920s, Three Harlem Renaissance Authors (New York: Libra Publishers, 1964)
Gwendolyn Brooks, introduction to The Poetry of Black America, edited by Arnold Adoff (New York: Harper and Row, 1973)
Harold Cruse, The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual: From Its Origins to the Present (New York: Morrow, 1967)
J. D. Fage, A History of Africa (New York: Knopf, 1978)
William M. Gibson and George Arms, eds., Twelve American Writers (New York: Macmillan, 1962)
Stephen Henderson, Understanding the New Black Poetry: Black Speech and Black Music as Poetic References (New York: Morrow, 1973)
Mildred A. Hill-Lubin, “And the Beat Goes On …: A Continuation of the African Heritage in African- American Literature,” CLA Journal 23 (December 1979): 172–187
Langston Hughes, I Wonder as I Wander: An Autobiographical Journey (New York: Rhinehart, 1956)
Arnold Rampersad, “The Universal and the Particular in Afro-American Poetry,” CLA Journal 25 (September 1981): 1–17