Despite Affliction, Cincinnati Poet Raymond Dandridge Inspired Others

Although he once achieved fame, Raymond Garfield Dandridge is sadly forgotten today. His poetry fits comfortably between his predecessor Paul Laurence Dunbar and successor Langston Hughes.
Limited by paralysis to a single functioning arm, Raymond Dandridge sold coal and wrote poetry from his bed in Price Hill.

Image Courtesy Cincinnati Post, November 2, 1926 | Image extracted from microfilm by Greg Hand

Although Cincinnati has spawned a respectable number of poets and writers, the city has not commemorated many (or any) with public monuments. One recent effort to honor Price Hill poet Raymond Dandridge has fallen into ruin since it was first organized in the 1990s.

Although he once achieved fame, Raymond Garfield Dandridge is sadly forgotten today. His poetry fits comfortably between his predecessor Paul Laurence Dunbar (to whom Dandridge was often compared) and his successor, Langston Hughes, beacon of the Harlem Renaissance.

In fact, it is tantalizing to think how Dandridge might have flourished in New York, sharing ideas and inspiration with writers like Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, and Claude McKay. Dandridge was writing at the same time as they were, but he would never see Harlem. Raymond Dandridge was almost totally paralyzed by polio when he was a young man, just getting started in a career. He spent his entire writing career confined to bed.

A graduate of Hughes High School, where he distinguished himself as a student and an athlete, Dandridge initially found work as a house painter and decorator. Cincinnati Post columnist Alfred Segal wrote [2 November 1926] about the prejudice Dandridge faced in Cincinnati:

Men turned him from their doors when he went to them for work, because his skin is black. His hands were skillful for work, and his heart was willing, but men saw his skin and turned him away.

When polio paralyzed him, Dandridge lay bed-ridden in his mother’s house at 814 Chateau Avenue in Price Hill. He gradually gained the ability to use one hand and, with that accomplishment and a telephone, he found work taking orders for the Consolidation Coal Company. Influential friends, notably Roger K. Rogan, president of the LaBoiteaux paper company, solicited friends to place orders through Dandridge, helping him earn a regular commission. Rogan effused about Dandridge’s character:

When Raymond Dandridge came into my life some years ago, it was an epoch, and if you could but meet the man and talk to him you would receive the same inspiration I did, because I came in contact with a man who has a remarkable soul.

Rogan’s appeals were broadcast by The Post’s Segal, who took notice when Dandridge began to write poetry. Segal, in his routinely florid style [March 26, 1929], approved:

If his body may not walk, he sends his spirit to the stars and from these excursions it comes back golden with stardust to write poems about the beauty it has seen.

Well, yes, to a certain extent. Dandridge did write a lot about beauty. He loved to watch the birds flying outside his Price Hill window. He did write inspirational verse and also some dialect poems that are quite embarrassing today. But Dandridge did not shy away from social issues. His poem, “My Grievance,” anthologized in 1923 by Robert T. Kerlin in his book, Negro Poets And Their Poems, addresses racism in general and lynching in particular:

Yes, I am lynched. Is it that I

Must without judge or jury die?

Though innocent, am I accursed

To quench the mob’s blood-thirsty thirst?

Other poems, such as “Time to Die,” amount to calls for action:

Black Brother, think you life so sweet

That you would live at any price ?

Does mere existence balance with

The weight of your great sacrifice?

Such stridently assertive poems were rarely quoted by white allies such as Segal, who much preferred Dandridge’s meditations on universal themes like mortality and art and friendship. On one occasion [November 2, 1926], Segal did quote one poem, “Color Blind,” that championed equality and tolerance:

True I am black not by my will;

I had no choice of hue,

And none was given you.

By His decree our roles we fill.

 

Red man, Yellow man, Brown man,

You too, man of white,

What cause or right

Have we to emphasize our clan?

Eventually, Dandridge’s poetry was collected by his friends into three slim volumes and offered for sale to augment his income as a coal merchant. He purchased a small radio and one day heard a sermon by S. Parkes Cadman, among the first clergymen to incorporate radio into his ministry. Asked whether an “invalid” could be of any use to the world, Rev. Cadman cited Dandridge as an example “as close to divinity as any man may.”

Dandridge succumbed to the effects of two decades of paralysis on February 24, 1930. He is buried at Spring Grove Cemetery.

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