44. The Congo: Vachel Lindsay

I know this poem from “Dead Poets Society”, which you might love or hate. I, too, have a love/hate relationship with the movie, but my love side teaches it often because Peter Weir did so many great things with cameras and the symbolism is priceless. But, I suggest Wikipedia as the best source about Lindsay and this poem, which you can find here. The following is a bit about this poem and possible racism.

“The Congo”, Lindsay’s best-known poem, became controversial both for its groundbreaking use of sound and for the issues of racism it raises.

Novel use of sound

Whirl ye the deadly voo-doo rattle,
Harry the uplands,
Steal all the cattle,
Rattle-rattle, rattle-rattle,
Boomlay, boomlay, boomlay, Boom…

“The Congo” expressed a revolutionary aesthetic of sound for sound’s sake. It imitates the pounding of the drums in the rhythms and the exemplification of drumming onomatopoeia. At parts, the poem ceases to use conventional words when representing the chants of Congo’s indigenous people, relying just on sound alone.

The measured mix of sounds and rhythm laid the foundations for sound poetry later in the century.[citation needed]

Alleged racist themes

Lindsay’s view of the Congo can potentially upset modern sensibilities. Many of Lindsay’s contemporaries, such as W. E. B. Du Bois among others, criticized “The Congo” for the stereotypes it raised. However, after reading Lindsay’s story “The Golden-Faced People” which had been published in an earlier issue of The Crisis Du Bois himself hailed Lindsay for his insight into the injustice of racism.

It is ignorant to connect the poem The Congo to the racism prevalent in the United States of America 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'”, College Literature 12 (1985): 233-45).

Lindsay considered himself the “discoverer” of Langston Hughes after Hughes — then a busboy in Washington, D.C. — gave Lindsay copies of his poems when Lindsay ate at the restaurant where Hughes worked. Additionally, Lindsay wrote the 1918 poem “The Jazz Birds”, praising the war efforts of African-Americans during World War I, an issue to which the vast majority of white America seemed blind.

Enough said. Enjoy the poem, and read it loud!

The Congo
Vachel Lindsay

A Study of the Negro Race

I. Their Basic Savagery

Fat black bucks in a wine-barrel room,
Barrel-house kings, with feet unstable,
# A deep rolling bass. #

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,
Boomlay, boomlay, boomlay, BOOM.

THEN I had religion, THEN I had a vision.
I could not turn from their revel in derision.
# More deliberate. Solemnly chanted. #


Then along that riverbank
A thousand miles
Tattooed cannibals danced in files;
Then I heard the boom of the blood-lust song
# A rapidly piling climax of speed and racket. #

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,
Boomlay, boomlay, boomlay, BOOM,”
# With a philosophic pause. #

A roaring, epic, rag-time tune
From the mouth of the Congo
To the Mountains of the Moon.
Death is an Elephant,
# Shrilly and with a heavily accented metre. #

Torch-eyed and horrible,
Foam-flanked and terrible.
BOOM, steal the pygmies,
BOOM, kill the Arabs,
BOOM, kill the white men,
# Like the wind in the chimney. #

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’ hill of clay,
Blown past the marsh where the butterflies play: —
“Be careful what you do,
# All the o sounds very golden. Heavy accents very heavy.
Light accents very light. Last line whispered. #

Or Mumbo-Jumbo, God of the Congo,
And all of the other
Gods of the Congo,
Mumbo-Jumbo will hoo-doo you,
Mumbo-Jumbo will hoo-doo you,
Mumbo-Jumbo will hoo-doo you.”

II. Their Irrepressible High Spirits

# Rather shrill and high. #

Wild crap-shooters with a whoop and a call
Danced the juba in their gambling-hall
And laughed fit to kill, and shook the town,
And guyed the policemen and laughed them down
With a boomlay, boomlay, boomlay, BOOM.
# Read exactly as in first section. #

# Lay emphasis on the delicate ideas.
Keep as light-footed as possible. #

A negro fairyland swung into view,
A minstrel river
Where dreams come true.
The ebony palace soared on high
Through the blossoming trees to the evening sky.
The inlaid porches and casements shone
With gold and ivory and elephant-bone.
And the black crowd laughed till their sides were sore
At the baboon butler in the agate door,
And the well-known tunes of the parrot band
That trilled on the bushes of that magic land.
# With pomposity. #

A troupe of skull-faced witch-men came
Through the agate doorway in suits of flame,
Yea, long-tailed coats with a gold-leaf crust
And hats that were covered with diamond-dust.
And the crowd in the court gave a whoop and a call
And danced the juba from wall to wall.
# With a great deliberation and ghostliness. #

But the witch-men suddenly stilled the throng
With a stern cold glare, and a stern old song: —
“Mumbo-Jumbo will hoo-doo you.” . . .
# With overwhelming assurance, good cheer, and pomp. #

Just then from the doorway, as fat as shotes,
Came the cake-walk princes in their long red coats,
Canes with a brilliant lacquer shine,
And tall silk hats that were red as wine.
# With growing speed and sharply marked dance-rhythm. #

And they pranced with their butterfly partners there,
Coal-black maidens with pearls in their hair,
Knee-skirts trimmed with the jassamine sweet,
And bells on their ankles and little black feet.
And the couples railed at the chant and the frown
Of the witch-men lean, and laughed them down.
(O rare was the revel, and well worth while
That made those glowering witch-men smile.)
The cake-walk royalty then began
To walk for a cake that was tall as a man
To the tune of “Boomlay, boomlay, BOOM,”
# With a touch of negro dialect,
and as rapidly as possible toward the end. #

While the witch-men laughed, with a sinister air,
And sang with the scalawags prancing there: —
“Walk with care, walk with care,
Or Mumbo-Jumbo, God of the Congo,
And all of the other
Gods of the Congo,
Mumbo-Jumbo will hoo-doo you.
Beware, beware, walk with care,
Boomlay, boomlay, boomlay, boom.
Boomlay, boomlay, boomlay, boom,
Boomlay, boomlay, boomlay, boom,
Boomlay, boomlay, boomlay,
# Slow philosophic calm. #

Oh rare was the revel, and well worth while
That made those glowering witch-men smile.

III. The Hope of their Religion

# Heavy bass. With a literal imitation
of camp-meeting racket, and trance. #

A good old negro in the slums of the town
Preached at a sister for her velvet gown.
Howled at a brother for his low-down ways,
His prowling, guzzling, sneak-thief days.
Beat on the Bible till he wore it out
Starting the jubilee revival shout.
And some had visions, as they stood on chairs,
And sang of Jacob, and the golden stairs,
And they all repented, a thousand strong
From their stupor and savagery and sin and wrong
And slammed with their hymn books till they shook the room
With “glory, glory, glory,”
And “Boom, boom, BOOM.”
# Exactly as in the first section.
Begin with terror and power, end with joy. #


And the gray sky opened like a new-rent veil
And showed the apostles with their coats of mail.
In bright white steele they were seated round
And their fire-eyes watched where the Congo wound.
And the twelve Apostles, from their thrones on high
Thrilled all the forest with their heavenly cry: —
# Sung to the tune of “Hark, ten thousand
harps and voices”. #

“Mumbo-Jumbo will die in the jungle;
Never again will he hoo-doo you,
Never again will he hoo-doo you.”
# With growing deliberation and joy. #

Then along that river, a thousand miles
The vine-snared trees fell down in files.
Pioneer angels cleared the way
For a Congo paradise, for babes at play,
For sacred capitals, for temples clean.
Gone were the skull-faced witch-men lean.
# In a rather high key — as delicately as possible. #

There, where the wild ghost-gods had wailed
A million boats of the angels sailed
With oars of silver, and prows of blue
And silken pennants that the sun shone through.
‘Twas a land transfigured, ’twas a new creation.
Oh, a singing wind swept the negro nation
And on through the backwoods clearing flew: —
# To the tune of “Hark, ten thousand harps and voices”. #

“Mumbo-Jumbo is dead in the jungle.
Never again will he hoo-doo you.
Never again will he hoo-doo you.”
Redeemed were the forests, the beasts and the men,
And only the vulture dared again
By the far, lone mountains of the moon
To cry, in the silence, the Congo tune: —
# Dying down into a penetrating, terrified whisper. #

“Mumbo-Jumbo will hoo-doo you,
Mumbo-Jumbo will hoo-doo you.
Mumbo . . . Jumbo . . . will . . . hoo-doo . . . you.”


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