Vachel Lindsay’s The Congo

a rare moment of poetry with Renzie Baluyut.

A brief exchange with some old high school buddies on Facebook made me remember this one particular poem.

Nicholas Vachel Lindsay.  Image courtesy of Wikipedia.
Nicholas Vachel Lindsay. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

It was a piece our old freshmen class performed- and while the details of that interpretative performance seems rather blurry at this point (which was almost some 20 years ago), the surprising thing is that the words to the poem are still so deeply etched in my skull, I can still recite it (at least most parts) from memory.

It’s a little piece called “The Congo”, a rather well-known work attributed to the American Poet Nicholas Vachel Lindsay, and known for his use of the singing poetry/lyrical poetry style.

“The Congo” was written in 1914, and was considered groundbreaking for its time with its use of sound, rhythm and onomatopoeia.

Rereading it now, for the first time in several years, I can’t help but think it sort of stereotypes a particular race of people.  However, according to an entry on Wikipedia, this just isn’t the case.

It is ignorant to connect the poem The Congo to the racism prevalent in the United States of America College Literature at the turn of the 20th century, a racism pervasive even among those who — at least by the standards of the time — saw themselves as opposed to racism. “The Congo” was inspired by a sermon preached in October 1913 that detailed the drowning of a missionary in the Congo river, an event that captured world wide criticism. The poem addresses the Congo’s understandable tension of social transition wherein a relatively isolated and pastoral society is suddenly confronted by the industrialized world. That said, most contemporaries viewed Lindsay as an advocate for African-Americans (See John Chapman Ward: “Vachel Lindsay Is ‘Lying Low'”, 12 (1985): 233-45).

I also just realized that our old freshmen class’ interpretative performance of “The Congo” only made use of one act (Part I. Their Basic Savagery), when there are actually three acts in total.  It was quite interesting to read the entire work in its entirety.

So without further ado, here is Lindsay’s “The Congo”.

Enjoy!

=================================

The Congo: A Study of the Negro Race
by Vachel Lindsay

I. THEIR BASIC SAVAGERY

Fat black bucks in a wine-barrel room
Barrel house kings with feet unstable
Sagged and reeled and pounded on the table
Pounded on the table
Beat an empty barrel with the handle of a broom
Hard as they were able
Boom Boom Boom
With a silk umbrella and the handle of a broom
Boomalay Boomalay Boomalay Boom
Then I had religion; then I had a vision
I could not turn from their revel in derision
Then I saw the Congo, creeping through the black
Cutting through the forest with a golden track
Then along that riverbank
A thousand miles
Tattooed cannibals danced in files
Then I heard the boom of the blood lust song
And a thigh bone beating on a tin pan gong
And “Blood!” screamed the whistles and the fifes of the warriors
“Blood!” screamed the skull-faced lean witch doctors
Whirl ye the deadly voo-doo rattle
Harry the uplands
Steal all the cattle
Rattle-rattle rattle-rattle
Bing.
Boomalay, boomalay, boomalay boom
A roaring, epic, rag-time tune
From the mouth of the Congo
To the mountains of the Moon
Death is an elephant
Torch-eyed and horrible
Foam-flanked and terrible
Boom! Steal the pygmies!
Boom! Kill the Arabs!
Boom! Kill the white men!
Boom! Boom! Boom!
Listen to the yell of Leopold’s ghost
Burning in hell for his hand maimed host
Hear how the demons chuckle and yell
Cutting his hands off down in hell
Listen to the creepy proclamation
Blown through the lairs of the forest nation
Blown past the white ants’ kill of clay
Blown past the marsh where the butterflies play
Be careful what you do!
Or Mumbo-jumbo, god of the Congo
And all the other
Gods of the Congo
Mumbo Jumbo will hoo-doo you
Mumbo Jumbo will hoo-doo you
Mumbo Jumbo will hoo-doo you

Continue reading “Vachel Lindsay’s The Congo”

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