Patricia Horn O'Brien

Troubled with the Itch and Rubbing with Sulphur

November 29, 2018



’Tis bitter, yet ’tis sweet;

        Scratching effects but transient ease;

Pleasure and pain together meet

        And vanish as they please.


My nails, the only balm,

        To every bump are oft applied,

And thus the rage will sweetly calm

        Which aggravates my hide.


It soon returns again:

        A frown succeeds to every smile;

Grinning I scratch and curse the pain

        But grieve to be so vile.


In fine, I know not which

        Can play the most deceitful game:

The devil, sulphur, or the itch.

        The three are but the same.


The devil sows the itch,

        And sulphur has a loathsome smell,

And with my clothes as black as pitch

        I stink where’er I dwell.


Excoriated deep,

        By friction played on every part,

It oft deprives me of my sleep

        And plagues me to my heart.


George Moses Horton was born into slavery on a North Carolina tobacco plantation in 1798. He spent his childhood as a slave on a farm in Chatham County, where he taught himself to read and began composing poetry.


In 1815 Horton was transferred to a new master, who sent him on trips to Chapel Hill. There, Horton met students from the University of North Carolina. These students encouraged him to pursue poetry, donated books for his education, and occasionally commissioned poems from him. Although Horton could not write, he composed poems in his head while plowing fields and later dictated them.


Horton worked closely with a professor’s wife, Caroline Lee Hentz, who tutored him in grammar and helped him secure publication in small newspapers. In 1829 Horton published his first book, The Hope of Liberty, which he hoped would earn him enough income to purchase his freedom.


While this was not the case, with this collection Horton became the first black author in the South to publish a book, as well as the only American to publish a book while living in slavery.


Horton went on to publish two more volumes of poetry, Poetical Works (1845) and Naked Genius (1865), which he composed after leaving his master’s farm and joining the Union army in 1865. After the Civil War, Horton moved to Philadelphia, where he continued writing. The details of his death are unknown. Horton was posthumously declared “Historic Poet Laureate” of Chatham County in 1997. In 1999 North Carolina placed a historic marker, the first in the state for an African American, near the farm where Horton lived.


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