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Vachel Lindsay (1879-1931)

The Congo: A Study of the Negro Race


I. THEIR BASIC SAVAGERY
              1Fat black bucks in a wine-barrel room,
              2Barrel-house kings, with feet unstable,
              3Sagged and reeled and pounded on the table,
               A deep rolling bass.
              4Pounded on the table,
              5Beat an empty barrel with the handle of a broom,
              6Hard as they were able,
              7Boom, boom, BOOM,
              8With a silk umbrella and the handle of a broom,
              9Boomlay, boomlay, boomlay, BOOM.
            10THEN I had religion, THEN I had a vision.
            11I could not turn from their revel in derision.
            12THEN I SAW THE CONGO, CREEPING THROUGH THE BLACK,
               More deliberate. Solemnly chanted.
            13CUTTING THROUGH THE FOREST WITH A GOLDEN TRACK.
            14Then along that riverbank
            15A thousand miles
            16Tattooed cannibals danced in files;
            17Then I heard the boom of the blood-lust song
            18And a thigh-bone beating on a tin-pan gong.
               A rapidly piling climax of speed & racket.
            19And "BLOOD" screamed the whistles and the fifes of the warriors,
            20"BLOOD" screamed the skull-faced, lean witch-doctors,
            21"Whirl ye the deadly voo-doo rattle,
            22Harry the uplands,
            23Steal all the cattle,
            24Rattle-rattle, rattle-rattle,
            25Bing.
            26Boomlay, boomlay, boomlay, BOOM,"
            27A roaring, epic, rag-time tune
               With a philosophic pause.
            28From the mouth of the Congo
            29To the Mountains of the Moon.
            30Death is an Elephant,
            31Torch-eyed and horrible,
               Shrilly and with a heavily accented metre.
            32Foam-flanked and terrible.
            33BOOM, steal the pygmies,
            34BOOM, kill the Arabs,
            35BOOM, kill the white men,
            36HOO, HOO, HOO.
            37Listen to the yell of Leopold's ghost
               Like the wind in the chimney.
            38Burning in Hell for his hand-maimed host.
            39Hear how the demons chuckle and yell
            40Cutting his hands off, down in Hell.
            41Listen to the creepy proclamation,
            42Blown through the lairs of the forest-nation,
            43Blown past the white-ants' hill of clay,
            44Blown past the marsh where the butterflies play: --
            45"Be careful what you do,
            46Or Mumbo-Jumbo, God of the Congo,
               All the "O" sounds very golden. Heavy accents very heavy. Light accents very light. Last line whispered.
            47And all of the other
            48Gods of the Congo,
            49Mumbo-Jumbo will hoo-doo you,
            50Mumbo-Jumbo will hoo-doo you,
            51Mumbo-Jumbo will hoo-doo you."

II. THEIR IRREPRESSIBLE HIGH SPIRITS
            52Wild crap-shooters with a whoop and a call
               Rather shrill and high.
            53Danced the juba in their gambling-hall
            54And laughed fit to kill, and shook the town,
            55And guyed the policemen and laughed them down
            56With a boomlay, boomlay, boomlay, BOOM.
            57THEN I SAW THE CONGO, CREEPING THROUGH THE BLACK,
               Read exactly as in first section.
            58CUTTING THROUGH THE FOREST WITH A GOLDEN TRACK.
            59A negro fairyland swung into view,
               Lay emphasis on the delicate ideas. Keep as light-footed as possible.
            60A minstrel river
            61Where dreams come true.
            62The ebony palace soared on high
            63Through the blossoming trees to the evening sky.
            64The inlaid porches and casements shone
            65With gold and ivory and elephant-bone.
            66And the black crowd laughed till their sides were sore
            67At the baboon butler in the agate door,
            68And the well-known tunes of the parrot band
            69That trilled on the bushes of that magic land.

            70A troupe of skull-faced witch-men came
               With pomposity.
            71Through the agate doorway in suits of flame,
            72Yea, long-tailed coats with a gold-leaf crust
            73And hats that were covered with diamond-dust.
            74And the crowd in the court gave a whoop and a call
            75And danced the juba from wall to wall.
            76But the witch-men suddenly stilled the throng
               With a great deliberation & ghostliness.
            77With a stern cold glare, and a stern old song: --
            78"Mumbo-Jumbo will hoo-doo you." ...
            79Just then from the doorway, as fat as shotes,
               With overwhelming assurance, good cheer, and pomp.
            80Came the cake-walk princes in their long red coats,
            81Canes with a brilliant lacquer shine,
            82And tall silk hats that were red as wine.
            83And they pranced with their butterfly partners there,
               With growing speed and sharply marked dance-rhythm
            84Coal-black maidens with pearls in their hair,
            85Knee-skirts trimmed with the jassamine sweet,
            86And bells on their ankles and little black-feet.
            87And the couples railed at the chant and the frown
            88Of the witch-men lean, and laughed them down.
            89(O rare was the revel, and well worth while
            90That made those glowering witch-men smile.)

            91The cake-walk royalty then began
            92To walk for a cake that was tall as a man
            93To the tune of "Boomlay, boomlay, BOOM,"
            94While the witch-men laughed, with a sinister air,
               With a touch of negro dialect, and as rapidly as possible toward the end.
            95And sang with the scalawags prancing there: --
            96"Walk with care, walk with care,
            97Or Mumbo-Jumbo, God of the Congo,
            98And all the other
            99Gods of the Congo,
          100Mumbo-Jumbo will hoo-doo you.
          101Beware, beware, walk with care,
          102Boomlay, boomlay, boomlay, boom.
          103Boomlay, boomlay, boomlay, boom.
          104Boomlay, boomlay, boomlay, boom.
          105Boomlay, boomlay, boomlay,
          106BOOM."
          107Oh rare was the revel, and well worth while
               Slow philosophic calm.
          108That made those glowering witch-men smile.

III. THE HOPE OF THEIR RELIGION
          109A good old negro in the slums of the town
               Heavy bass. With a literal imitation of camp-meeting racket, and trance.
          110Preached at a sister for her velvet gown.
          111Howled at a brother for his low-down ways,
          112His prowling, guzzling, sneak-thief days.
          113Beat on the Bible till he wore it out
          114Starting the jubilee revival shout.
          115And some had visions, as they stood on chairs,
          116And sang of Jacob, and the golden stairs,
          117And they all repented, a thousand strong
          118From their stupor and savagery and sin and wrong
          119And slammed with their hymn books till they shook the room
          120With "glory, glory, glory,"
          121And "Boom, boom, BOOM."
          122THEN I SAW THE CONGO, CREEPING THROUGH THE BLACK,
               Exactly as in the first section. Begin with terror and power, end with joy.
          123CUTTING THROUGH THE FOREST WITH A GOLDEN TRACK.
          124And the gray sky opened like a new-rent veil
          125And showed the Apostles with their coats of mail.
          126In bright white steel they were seated round
          127And their fire-eyes watched where the Congo wound.
          128And the twelve Apostles, from their thrones on high
          129Thrilled all the forest with their heavenly cry: --
          130"Mumbo-Jumbo will die in the jungle;
               Sung to the tune of "Hark, ten thousand harps and voices."
          131Never again will he hoo-doo you,
          132Never again will he hoo-doo you."

          133Then along that river, a thousand miles
               With growing deliberation and joy.
          134The vine-snared trees fell down in files.
          135Pioneer angels cleared the way
          136For a Congo paradise, for babes at play,
          137For sacred capitals, for temples clean.
          138Gone were the skull-faced witch-men lean.
          139There, where the wild ghost-gods had wailed
               In a rather high key -- as delicately as possible.
          140A million boats of the angels sailed
          141With oars of silver, and prows of blue
          142And silken pennants that the sun shone through.
          143'Twas a land transfigured, 'twas a new creation.
          144Oh, a singing wind swept the negro nation
          145And on through the backwoods clearing flew: --
          146"Mumbo-Jumbo is dead in the jungle.
               To the tune of "Hark, ten thousand harps and voices."
          147Never again will he hoo-doo you.
          148Never again will he hoo-doo you.

          149Redeemed were the forests, the beasts and the men,
          150And only the vulture dared again
          151By the far, lone mountains of the moon
          152To cry, in the silence, the Congo tune: --
          153"Mumbo-Jumbo will hoo-doo you,
               Dying down into a penetrating, terrified whisper.
          154"Mumbo-Jumbo will hoo-doo you.
          155Mumbo ... Jumbo ... will ... hoo-doo ... you."

Notes

1] The 1923 collection adds below the title, "(Being a memorial to Ray Eldred, a Disciple missionary of the Congo River)," and concludes with this note by Lindsay: "This poem, particularly the third section, was suggested by an allusion in a sermon by my pastor, F. W. Burnham, to the heroic life and death of Ray Eldred. Eldred was a missionary of the Disciples of Christ who perished while swimming a treacherous branch of the Congo. See A Master Builderon the Congo, by Andrew F. Henesey, published by Fleming H. Revell." (p. 184). See The Dial, 57 (Oct. 16, 1914): 281-83, for an account of this poem.

37] Leopold's ghost: Leopold II, king of Belgium, died in 1909 after decades of ruthless exploitation of the Congo.

53] juba: Afro-American dance with much clapping and stamping.

55] guyed: mocked.

79] shotes: shoats, young hogs.

80] cake-walk: an Afro-American competitionin walking fancily, strutting and prancing, rewarded with a cake as a prize.

116] Jacob, and the golden stairs: Jacob's dreamed-of ladder at Bethel, on which angels came down and ascended (Gen. 28.12).


Online text copyright © 2003, Ian Lancashire for the Department of English, University of Toronto.
Published by the Web Development Group, Information Technology Services, University of Toronto Libraries.

Original text: Vachel Lindsay, The Daniel Jazz and Other Poems (London: G. Bell, 1920): 41-49. PS 3523 I58D3 Robarts Library. Collected Poems (New York: Macmillan, 1923): 178-84.
First publication date: 1917
Publication date note: The New Poetry: An Anthology, ed. Harriet Monroe and Alice Corbin Henderson (New York: Macmillan, 1917)
RPO poem editor: Ian Lancashire
RP edition: RPO 1998.
Recent editing: 2:2002/3/21

Composition date: 1913
Form note: irregular couplets, quatrains, etc.


Other poems by Vachel Lindsay