Behind the bars

4 minutes

The African-American poet who travelled 1,200 miles to Harvard, only to be thrown in jail

I am a pilgrim far from home,
A wanderer like Mars,
And thought my wanderings ne’er should come,
So fixed behind the bars!

In 1910, after a 1,200-mile journey on foot and on freight trains from Indianapolis to pursue his dream of attending Harvard University, Edward Smyth Jones was arrested for vagrancy in Boston, Massachusetts. Born in 1881 in Mississippi to former slaves, Jones honed his writing skills while studying and working, and had a book of poems published by the time he arrived in Boston. After his release from jail, Jones found support from the African-American lawyer Clement Morgan and William Henry Holtzclaw, who founded the all-black Utica Institute in Mississippi. Working as a janitor at Harvard allowed Jones to attend the Boston Latin School for a time, but his funds were insufficient to continue, and he had to abandon his hopes of attending Harvard. He moved on to New York and then Chicago, working first as a waiter and then as a labourer until his death in 1968. This striking collage-style animation from the Canadian filmmaker and artist Neely Goniodsky brings new life to Jones’s little-known poem Behind the Bars – eight sharply rendered quatrains on prejudice, institutional oppression and his quest for a better, nobler life. Read the poem in its entirety here.

Director: Neely Goniodsky

Producer: Max Rothman

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