Image from Earl K. Long Library, University of New Orleans
African American, Federal Writers’ Project, Literature
Marcus Bruce Christian
Marcus Bruce Christian directed the Negro Unit of the Louisiana Writer’s Project during the Federal Writer’s Project. Under his leadership, he and his team documented African American ex-slave expressive culture in Louisiana.
Born in Terrebonne Parish, Louisiana in 1900, Marcus Christian acquired his early education from his father and grandfather, both of whom were teachers. His grandfather was a former African captive. His mother, Rebecca Harris Christian, died when he was three years old, and at age thirteen, his father, Emanuel Banks Christian, died. As a result, Christian became caregiver of his five siblings. Christian relocated to New Orleans, established a dry-cleaning business, enrolled in night school to finish high school, and developed his literary craft in his late teens, but was unable to attend college.
Christian’s early poems appeared chiefly in African American publications such as Opportunity, The Crisis, and the Louisiana Weekly, a venue for the publication of many African American poems in the 1930s and 1940s. After becoming editor of the Louisiana Weekly, Christian used it to advertise the work of fellow New Orleanians. With publication of his poem, “McDonough Day in New Orleans,” in the New York Herald Tribune in 1934, his writing garnered national visibility. Like his counterparts in the Harlem Renaissance, Hughes and Bontemps, Christian’s poems addressed the systematic oppressive violence against African Americans in the United States.
In 1936, Christian succeeded Lawrence Reddick as Director of the Negro Writers Project at Dillard University, an “affiliate” of the Louisiana Writers Project (LWP). Leading the talented writers whose research he edited, and working closely with Lyle Saxon, director of LWP, Christian sought “to recover” the rich cultural expressions of African Americans in Louisiana. The project first produced an unpublished manuscript entitled, “A History of Black Louisiana.” The project members also added their research about African American culture and history in Louisiana on such topics as the Creole language, family genealogy, belief systems, and African captives’ cultural practices, to the manuscript. Segments of their research were also published in the 1938 LWP publications the New Orleans City Guide, Louisiana: A Guide to the State (1941), and Gumbo Ya-Ya (1945).
In 1944, Christian became assistant librarian at Dillard University, remaining for seven years after the LWP. With Saxon’s assistance, Christian secured a Rosenwald Grant that allowed him to focus on historical projects. His lack of a college education forced Christian’s departure from Dillard in 1950 and left him nearly destitute for several years. In 1968, the University of New Orleans offered Christian a position as history instructor and poet-in- residence, where he taught until his death.
Beyond his work for the Louisiana Writers’ Project, Christian published more than 2000 published poems, including “I Am New Orleans,” which explores the lived experiences of New Orleanians.