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Samuel W. Allen

(b. 1917)

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(b. 1917), poet, educator, translator, and lawyer.

Born in Columbus, Ohio, Samuel Allen (also known as Paul Vesey) studied creative writing under James Weldon Johnson at Fisk where he graduated magna cum laude in 1938. He received his JD from Harvard in 1941. Until 1968 when he formally left law for literature, he was active in both fields.

He was drafted into the U.S. Armed Services in 1942 and served as an officer, though under the constraints of the segregated system, until 1946. From 1946 to 1947 he was deputy assistant district attorney in New York City. The following year he studied humanities at the New School for Social Research. In 1948 he went to Paris on the GI Bill, and after studying French, studied at the Sorbonne. He was employed variously with the U.S. Armed Forces from 1951 to 1955, as historian, claims officer, and civilian attorney in Wiesbaden, Germany, and in France. After a brief private law practice in Brooklyn, Allen taught law at Texas Southern University from 1958 to 1960. During the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, he served in Washington, D.C., as assistant general counsel in the U.S. Information Agency from 1961 to 1964, and as chief counsel in the U.S. Community Relations Service from 1965 to 1968.

Aided by Richard Wright in Paris, Allen first published poetry in 1949 in Présence Africaine. Upon leaving France to film Native Son, Wright asked Allen to take over his role of editing the journal's English materials. Thus Allen became acquainted with that journal's circle of writers and thinkers with whom he shared an enduring commitment to African culture. Allen's interest in francophone African poetry prompted his translating Sartre's Orphée noir for Présence Africaine. In the early 1950s, more than a decade ahead of American receptivity for such ideas, Allen tried in vain to interest American editors in the writers and ideas represented by Présence Africaine (Ellen Conroy Kennedy, The Negritude Poets, 1975; 1989). Among other works Allen published in Présence Africaine was the influential and frequently reprinted “Negritude and Its Relevance to the American Negro Writer” (1959), which he delivered that same year at the New York Black Writers’ Conference. Georg Dickenberger early pointed out that Allen's own poetry reflects the dual consciousness of Africa and America and called him “the first of a new generation” (“Paul Vesey,” Black Orpheus, Oct. 1958). In 1956 in Germany, Allen's first book of poetry appeared under the pen name Paul Vesey, the name by which many already knew his poetry. The book, Elfenbein Zähne (Ivory Tusks), consists of twenty poems that appear in both English and German and an afterword by Janheinz Jahn, one of the foremost European Africanists of his day. Many of these poems still rank among his finest. Ezekiel Mphahlele, celebrated South African novelist and critic, quotes Allen as having once said of “The Staircase,” “Upon it… I would rest my case… and that of the Negro in this land” (Voices in the Whirlwind, 1972).

After being published mostly in Europe where he was living from 1948 to the mid-1950s, Allen's poetry was not widely known in the United States until the 1960s when his poems began appearing in anthologies by Arna Bontemps (1963) and Langston Hughes (1964). In 1962 he coedited, introduced, and contributed to Pan-Africanism Reconsidered. In 1968 his second book of poetry, Ivory Tusks and Other Poems, was published, though in a limited edition. Even though it shares the title and the title poem with Allen's first book, most of the poems are new.


Subjects: Literature

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