Samuel Allen was born in Columbus, Ohio in 1917. He attended Fisk University where he studied with James Weldon Johnson. Allen went on to study law at Harvard, and had an extensive law career that followed, serving as Deputy Assistant District Attorney in New York City, a civilian attorney with the armed forces in Europe, working his own private practice, and then later working as a law professor at Texas Southern University.
Samuel Allen would often write under the pen name Paul Vesey in order to keep his law career and writing career separate. Allen underwent a career shift in 1968 to dedicate more time to his writing and study of literature. He was named the Avalon Professor of Humanities at the Tuskegee Institute later that year, and in 1971 he became a professor of English at Boston University.
Like many blacks during the post-World War II Civil Rights Era, Allen spent much of his time in Paris. There he joined the likes of James Baldwin, Richard Wright, and Langston Hughes. Allen's poems were first published by Richard Wright in the French journal Presence Africaine in 1949, an influential journal in the Pan-Africanist and Negritude movements.
Because Allen's poems were first published in Paris, he was largely unknown in the United States for much of his writing career. He began to gain wider recognition by the mid-1960s as his poems were included in numerous anthologies, including those compiled by Langston Hughes and Arna Bontemps. Allen's poems have now appeared in more than 200 anthologies. Some of Allen's books of poems include Elfenbeinzahne: Gedichte eines Afroamerikaners, Ivory Tusks and other Poems, Paul Vesey's Ledger, and Every Round and Other Poems. Additionally, Allen completed many French translations of others' works, such as Jean-Paul Sartre's "Orphee Noir" and Leopold Senghor's Anthologie de la Nouvelle Poesie Negre, making these important works available to non-French-speaking readers.
Allen has been praised by critics for his ability to merge African and African American culture in his poetry, drawing on oral tradition, African survivals, and the Southern Black Church.
To read short selections of Samuel Allen's poetry, click here and here.
***Official Press Release***
Memorial Celebration in Boston to Honor African American Literary Figure Samuel Allen
A public memorial celebration will be held Saturday, October 10th, at 2:00 pm ET. at the Museum of African American History, 46 Joy Street, Beacon Hill, Boston, MA to celebrate the life and legacy of Samuel Washington Allen – who also wrote under the pen name of Paul Vesey. The noted poet, professor, lawyer and translator passed away peacefully surrounded by family and friends at the age of 97 on June 27, 2015 in Norwood, MA.
The memorial celebration will feature contributions from family members as well as fellow board member and Museum of African American History Executive Director Beverly Morgan-Welch; Whirlwind Magazine publisher, poet and protégé Lamont Steptoe; Boston University Professor of African Studies Laurence Breiner, PhD and Langston Hughes Award recipient Everett Hoagland.
Samuel Washington Allen – 1917-2015 Poet, Translator, Professor, Attorney
Attendees are encouraged to RSVP by email – Samuel.Allen.Memorial@gmail.com – or phone / text - (617) 294-9889.
Samuel Allen’s collections of poetry consist of the bilingual Elfenbeinzähne (Heidelberg, 1956); Ivory Tusks (New York, 1968); Paul Vesey’s Ledger (London, 1975) and Every Round (Detroit, 1987). He translated Sartre’s “Orphée noir” essay in 1951 while in Paris and was the editor and one of the translators of Poems from Africa (Crowell, 1973).
While majoring in sociology at Nashville's Fisk University, Allen studied writing with Harlem Renaissance poet, novelist and critic James Weldon Johnson. He graduated with high honors in 1938.
Allen then attended Harvard Law School where he earned his Doctor of Jurisprudence in 1941 – later becoming deputy assistant in the New York district attorney’s office.
Samuel Allen then relocated to Paris on a GI Bill to study at the Sorbonne. There, he joined other African American ex-patriots – including Richard Wright, Langston Hughes and James Baldwin. Wright introduced Allen into the Présence Africaine circle – where his first published poems appeared in 1949.
After returning to the United States, Samuel Allen served as an attorney with the federal government in Washington under the administrations of presidents Kennedy and Johnson.
In 1968, Allen committed himself fully to literature – teaching at Tuskegee Institute, Wesleyan and Boston University. He gave readings throughout the United States – including before the Library of Congress. He received numerous fellowships, residencies and lifetime achievement awards. On April 2nd, 2010 Samuel Washington Allen was inducted into the International Literary Hall of Fame for Writers of African Descent at the Gwendolyn Brooks Center for Black Literature and Creative Writing at Chicago State University.
“While many African-American writers have sought to incorporate African elements into their works, few have realized that goal as elegantly and powerfully as Samuel W. Allen,” stated James Manheim in Contemporary Black Biography, 2003.
A legacy giving opportunity will be announced at the memorial to benefit Fisk University.