Sunday, August 20, 2006

Vachel Lindsay Defended

Repeat Performance
Back in June, thegrowlingwolf wrote a post in which he was wondering if some of his white poetic heroes were racists. One of the examples he gave--he was just posing the question as to whether by their works ye shall know them--was Vachel Lindsay. Here's that comment:

Vachel Lindsay, for instance, is a very wonderful early American white poet, a troubadour of the ilk I love and imitate, a tragic entertainer who would act out his poems on stages and he would emote them with the thunderous virtuosity of Franz Liszt playing his own B-mol Sonata. But his most famous poem is his interpretation of the black man's race and how it's only hope is the black interpretation of the white man's "saving" religion--and I can see how a black man wouldn't really be interested in it; it's so wrongly white yet it's a good poem as far as I'm concerned, though I can hear a black poet tearing it to shreds. Was Vachel Lindsay a racist?

Here's the final section of Lindsay's The Congo: a Study of the Negro Race. The first two sections delve into what makes blacks "savages" and he finds that's due to the echoes of the Congo still ravaging their blood with its ancient rhythms and voodoo ululations and the devil drums that talk that talk from out of their aboriginal past. The second section describes the "negro's" "high spirits" and this Congo mysticism flooding into them from out of their pasts and how that is interpreted in America in dice shooting, wild juba dancing, and the calling in of witch doctors and ancient potions and chants to put a hoodoo on us all. But then comes Vachel's salvation for the black man: his new American religion; how he turned his jungle voodoo into the Holy Spirit of the white man's religion, his only hope:


A good old negro in the slums of the town
Heavy bass. With a literal imitation of camp-meeting racket, and trance.
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 steel 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: --
"Mumbo-Jumbo will die in the jungle;
Sung to the tune of "Hark, ten thousand harps and voices."
Never again will he hoo-doo you,
Never again will he hoo-doo you."

Then along that river, a thousand miles
With growing deliberation and joy.
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.
There, where the wild ghost-gods had wailed
In a rather high key -- as delicately as possible.
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: --
"Mumbo-Jumbo is dead in the jungle.
To the tune of "Hark, ten thousand harps and voices."
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: --
"Mumbo-Jumbo will hoo-doo you,
Dying down into a penetrating, terrified whisper.
"Mumbo-Jumbo will hoo-doo you.
Mumbo ... Jumbo ... will ... hoo-doo ... you."

Sounds like Vachel wants to send all these new-born blacks back to the Congo (and Old Honest Abe "Ship 'Em Back to Africa" Lincoln was one of Vachel's heroes) now that they all turned their voodoo savagery into the purety and whiteness of Christian worship, except for those damn vultures who keep the old ways alive from under the pure white veil of the new black hymns you can still hear their ancestry chanting, "Mumbo-jumbo will hoo-doo you./Mumbo...Jumbo...will...hoo-doo... you."

The Reply

We just recently got a comment on the above post from Larry Stevens of the Vachel Lindsay Association; it's pretty interesting:

Was Vachel Lindsay a racist? If The Congo was our only source, it would be nearly inescapable. But I'm happy to report that Vachel was a tireless champion for civil rights from about 1908 on.

Please see here. It's contains a reference to a perfomance of the The Congo by an African-American poet and professor of literature at the Lindsay Home last year.

Lindsay witnessed the shocking 1908 race riot in Springfield, Illinois and because of it spent the rest of his career lecturing , writing and performing in favor of equality and against bigotry and discrimination. The Congo was a disaster for him in the long run, though, and he grew to detest it as he realized more of his audiences had only a racist appreciation for it.

Perhaps you are familiar with Lindsay's early encounter with Langston Hughes? Lindsay was staying in a hotel in D.C. and, while eating in the restaurant, Langston Hughes, a busboy in the restaurant, left some of his poetry on the famous poet's table.

Lindsay recited the poems at an event he was doing that night and declared that he discovered the new black poet. Thus, Lindsay is credited for discovering Hughes.

Larry Stevens
The Vachel Lindsay Association

thegrowlingwolf Replies
Thanks, Larry; very interesting. I didn't mean to imply that I thought Vachel Lindsay was a racist, I was simply pondering over the possibilities that some of the white writers, poets, musicians, etc., whose works I relished in my learning years--and Vachel Lindsay was one of those poets--an amazing man to me--were racists. I mentioned Carl Sandburg in the same post and I later found out he was a card carrying Socialist. Racism, however, is a white thing, so that's what I wondered about men like Lindsay who now it seems, thanks to Larry's evidence, was moved by the race riots in Springfield to the point it woke him up to the fact he may have been a racist and that his most famous poem could have been interpreted as racist. A lot of white folks are racists just by being born into a white culture. In those days, associating with blacks was not possible in most white situations. If a white associated with blacks it was usually in a master/servant role.

This is one of the reasons I love this blogging--when you're throwing challenges out at the wide-open world, you get introduced to so many different vistas of life you never knew existed.

For instance, I wasn't aware there was a Vachel Lindsay Association; I am now, and I think it's a hoot. Beat the drum for old Vachel--and check out his poetry from 1908 on and see if you think he saw the light like Larry says he did.

So, here's a Daily Growler raising of a growler of ale to Larry Stevens and The Vachel Lindsay Association.

and thestaff
for The Daily Growler

HAVE A NICE SUNDAY. It's is the Sun's only day of recognition.

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