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Race Criticism of "The Congo"

Initial charges, rebuttal, and countercharges over racial representation in Lindsay's poetry, featuring W. E. B. Du Bois, Lindsay, and NAACP chair Joel Spingarn. Subsequent criticism focusing on "The Congo": e.g. Aldon Nielsen, Rachel Blau DuPlessis, and Susan Gubar.

Racial representation in "The Congo" and in Lindsay's work generally, far from being settled issues, remain matters for critical controversy and debate. This I have argued, in brief, under the heading LINDSAY AND RACISM. Included below are documents from the initial exchanges between Lindsay and The Crisis--wherein the controversy involves other poems by Lindsay in addition to "The Congo"--and a range of current critical approaches to racial representation in "The Congo."

Comment by W. E. B. Du Bois, from "The Looking Glass: Literature," The Crisis 12.4 (Aug. 1916): 182:

Mr. Vachel Lindsay knows two things, and two things only, about Negroes: The beautiful rhythm of their music and the ugly side of their drunkards and outcasts. From this poverty of material he tries now and then to make a contribution to Negro literature. It goes without saying that he only partly succeeds. His "Booker Washington Trilogy," published in Poetry, shows his defects as well as his genius. The first part is a Negro sermon on "Simon Legree," ending:

They are playing poker and taking naps,

And old Legree is fat and fine;

He eats the fire, he drinks the wine--

Blood and burning turpentine--

Down, down with the Devil.

The second part is "John Brown":

I've been to Palestine.

What did you see in Palestine?

Old John Brown,

Old John Brown.

And there he sits

To judge the world.

His hunting-dogs

At his feet are curled.

His eyes half-closed,

But John Brown sees

The ends of the earth,

The Day of Doom.

And his shotgun lies

Across his knees--

Old John Brown,

Old John Brown.

The last of the Trilogy, "King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba," rises to a weird beauty:

King Solomon he kept the Sabbath holy,

And spoke with tongues in prophet-words so mighty--

We stamped and whirled and wept and shouted, "Glory!"

We were his people.

Mr. Lindsay explains:

Ideas are raging through the brains of even the duskiest of the Negro leaders, and one can handle for such an audience almost any large thought he thinks he understands. He can put it into Negro poetry, I maintain, if he is man enough, and still have it Negro poetry. But he must keep his manner bright-colored, full-throated, relaxed and tropical. By manner I do not mean dialect. There are innumerable Pullman porters who speak English in a close approach to the white man's way. But their thoughts and fancies are straight from the jungle.

All of which is well meant, but some of it is nonsense. Mr. Lindsay knows little of the Negro, and that little is dangerous.

Letter from Lindsay to Joel Spingarn, chairman of the board of directors of the NAACP; "Editorial: A Letter and an Answer," The Crisis 13.3 (Jan. 1917): 113-14:

Springfield, Ill., Nov. 2, 1916.

My Dear Mr. Spingarn:

Last August when I was away and my mail was being dammed up here in Springfield your invitation to the Amenia conference arrived. [The Amenia conference, held in August 1916, was organized by the N.A.A.C.P. to discuss matters of importance to the black civil rights movement; about 200 invitations were issued to black and white leaders in the movement.] Since then I have let everything go for a new book. Pardon me. My mail gets heavier every day and I can not yet afford a stenographer.

I send my belated thanks, being at last able to get into my mail again. Be sure I am with you in spirit. My "Congo" and "Booker T. Washington Trilogy" have both been denounced by the Colored people for reasons that I cannot fathom. As far as I can see, they have not taken the trouble to read them through. The third section of "The Congo" is certainly as hopeful as any human being dare to be in regard to any race, and the "John Brown" is certainly not an unsympathetic poem; and "King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba" is a prophesy of a colored Utopia. Yet The Crisis took the trouble to skin me not long ago. This in the face of the fact that they had published with great approval my story of the Golden-Faced People in The Crisis, November 1914. That is the index to all subsequent work.

I presume some of the men in your movement who have an intelligent angle on my intentions are responsible for my invitation to the Amenia Conference. When two or three of them get together sometime, I wish they would re-read "The Congo" (see volume of that name), "The Booker T. Washington Trilogy," in Poetry, A Magazine of Verse (543 Cass Street, Chicago), June, 1916, and also "The Crisis" article aforesaid. I would like to draw your attention also to pages 47 and 48 in the "Art of the Moving Picture," where I hae discussed the Reverend Thomas Dixon [whose novels celebrating the Ku Klux Klan provided the story for D. W. Griffith's infamous film The Birth of a Nation].

And after you have read this letter I would appreciate it if you will send it to the editor of the Crisis to be printed, if he cares to do so. Personally, Mr. Dubois has been most courteous, but I cannot understand his editorial attitude. Add a word to this letter if you care to do so.

Very sincerely


From Joel Spingarn to Lindsay, appearing immediately thereafter in "Editorial: A Letter and an Answer," The Crisis 13.3 (Jan. 1917): 114:

Amenia, N. Y., Nov. 6, 1916.

My dear Mr. Lindsay:

I wish you had been able to attend the Amenia Conference, and perhaps then you would have understood the difference between a poet's pageantry and a people's despair.

No colored man doubts your good intentions, but many of them doubt your understanding of their hopes. You look about you and see a black world full of a strange beauty different from that of the white world; they look about them and see other men with exactly the same feelings and desires who refuse to recognize the resemblance. You look forward to a colored Utopia separate and different from the hope of the white man; they have only one overwhelming desire, and that is to share in a common civilization in which all distinctions of race are blurred (or forgotten) by common aspiration and common labors.

Your poetry is wonderfully beautiful, and the poems on black men and women are no less beautiful than the rest. How can we fail to be grateful for all this beauty? But somehow we feel (and I say "we" because in this I share the feelings of the colored race), somehow we feel that you do not write about colored humanity as you write about white humanity. We remember your poem on "John Altgeld" (to mention only one), and realize that your heart goes out to--"the widow bereft of her crust, and the boy without youth, / The mocked and the scorned and the wounded, the lame and the poor"[--]but somehow we feel that for you, black men and women are not like others who have been mocked and scorned and wounded, but beings a little different from other sufferers who do not share the same ancestry and the same color of skin.

Faithfully yours,

J. E. Spingarn.

Aldon Nielsen, Reading Race: White American Poets and the Racial Discourse in the Twentieth Century, 30-32:

Vachel Lindsay had the experience common to many white Americans of his era of hearing several sides of America's racial controversy expounded at home from his earliest years. His father put forward the view that Lincoln was a reprobate and that Harriet Beecher Stowe's book appealed only to infidels, while his mother, though possessed of "many Southern ideas was all for Lincoln." Looking back upon this experience in "An Autobiographical Foreword" to his Collected Poems, Lindsay observes that "Mason and Dixon's line runs straight through our house in Springfield still, and straight through my heart" (23). Though it is true that Lindsay's early life brought him into contact with a greater variety of black people than did Gertrude Stein's, it is especially significant for this inquiry that when asked by "elegant ladies" how he had acquired his knowledge of the Negro, he begins his response with a purely literary source. He remembers clearly that his father used to read to the children from Uncle Remus, and so, even before Lindsay began to have significant contacts with blacks, he was internalizing a primarily linguistic structure of thought about them. All his future experiences would be filtered through a metaphorical veil, and the nonwhite could speak to him only through the concocted idioms of Joel Chandler Harris.

Paul H. Gray, "Performance and the Bardic Ambition of Vachel Lindsay," 222:

Part of the difficulty with "The Congo" lies in such descriptions of blacks as "Fat black bucks," "Barrel-house kings," and "The cake-walk royalty." These terms and a good many others now taken as signs of bigotry came, at the time "The Congo" was being written (1913), not from racists, but from brilliant and sophisticated black artists, as the following lyrics from Scott Joplin's "The Rag Time Dance" illustrate:

I attended a ball last Thursday night

Given by the dark town swells.

Every coon came out in full dress alright

and the girls were society belles.

The hall was illuminated by electric lights

It certainly was a sight to see.

So many colored folks there without a razor fight

'Twas a great surprise to me.

T. R. Hummer, "Laughed Off: Canon, Kharakter, and the Dismissal of Vachel Lindsay," 66-67:

"The Congo" is surely well-intentioned, meant as a compliment to what Lindsay, and America, would have perceived as the "primitive" energy of African culture. Still, it is poetry in blackface. At the heart of the Higher Vaudeville one can discern the Romantic minstrel as a literary clone of Mr. Bones . . . .

"The Congo" obviously must be read not as about Africa but as a projection of America--just as a dream says everything about the dreamer and nothing about the subject of the dream. If Lindsay's projections of Africans and African-Americans--and of Asians, and of women--remain cartoons, this fact speaks to the limitation of his underlying psycho-sprititual theory about the nature of poetry and of America. All this could be written off, as Elizabeth Hardwick writes it off, as provincialism, the "innocence" of a local and limited point of view, symptomatic of Lindsay's allegiance to what he called the "New Localism," linked to his "Gospel of Beauty." But it may also be an effect of the arrogance of the American sovereign self, and Lindsay's unquestioning championing thereof. At root, Lindsay's impetus is religious, however much it pretends here and there to be purely aesthetic, merely a show. And his religion is, of course, the typically American, Emersonian religion of the divine self and its sacred imagination, whose visions--when they present themselves as its purest products and not as overtly appropriative political gestures--must be, ipso facto, powerful, authoritative, true.

Rachel Blau DuPlessis, "'HOO, HOO, HOO': Some Episodes in the Construction of Modern Whiteness," 674-75:

However much Lindsay insisted that "the third section of the Congo is certainly as hopeful as any human being dare to be in regard to any race," the poem reads differently. Through its repetitious chant and its hypermelodramatic final lines (with their final "boo"), the poem subverts its stated argument and "intellectual" claim. The argument says Africa and its "jungles" will be transfigured and civilized with messianic imperialism. But the rhythm says that the menace and luring evil of Africa can never be extirpated. Blacks embody the primitive forces of sexuality and violence. Whether viewed as joyous sensual expressivity, the menace of evil powers, or both, these forces are uneradicable, essentialized, in the black body: "A Negro at the North Pole is Congo to the marrow of his bones, and believe me more luxurious than Assurbanipal and more fun than a goat" (Letters, 188). In Linday the very rhythms and rhetorics of poetry have been harnessed to uphold the formation of whiteness.

According to Lindsay, "the refrain stands for the ill fate and sinister power of Africa from the beginning" (Letters, 90). The popular appeal of the poem may well lie in its reduction of blacks to a repetitive beat, its judgmental participation in primitivist behavior that entertains whites by arousing them with the rhythms to which they feel superior. Lindsay argues that Africans and blacks are permanently and essentially the hoo-doo of the family of man, bringing the curse of primitive menace to everything.

Susan Gubar, Racechanges: White Skin, Black Face in American Culture, 139, 140-42:

Throughout the twentieth century, American, expatriate, and British poets used standard English inflected by rhythms marked as African in works overtly complicitous with brutal domination while others exploited African-American dialect to deplore such domination. Though they vary in their ideological designs and in their linguistic experimentation, early and later deployments of African rhythms, on the one hand, signal nostalgia for the oral, the originatory, the primordial, the real, the genuine; on the other hand, they denote white writers' consciousness that they are using not an undiluted but a minstrel-speak version of black talk that melds the genuine to the ersatz, generating a spurious speech to which the white imagination will perpetually be condemned. Among practitioners of what I am calling the Boomlay BOOM (ersatz African rhythms produced with standard English lexicons), Vachel Lindsay, Edith Sitwell, and T. S. Eliot illuminate the dynamics of imperialist nostalgia and amnesia even as they demonstrate the major role racial ventriloquism played in poetic experimentation. Despite their assaults on the culture and identity of black people, the reader's attention is deflected onto the taboo racechanges with which these racial ventriloquists flirt.

* * * *

The text of "The Congo"--with its stereotypically black rhythms glossed by directorial reading instructions in the prose marginalia--recalls Bakhtin's description of the clash between representing discourses that demolish represented languages in "parodic stylization." From this perspective, the onomatopoetic and phatic words, syncopation, repetition, and percussive delivery of "The Congo" effectively ridicule and condemn the religious traditions and aesthetic styles identified as African and African-American. But the listeners who laughed at Lindsay's first performance were probably not tickled so much by its racism as by his flamboyantly weird delivery, just as those who made it his signature act were less enthralled by its message, more by the frenzied rolling of his eyes, the shooting of his hands, the rising of his voice to a whoop or a yelp and its falling to a whisper. Written accounts of Lindsay's impassioned performances as well as extant recordings make him sound like a versifying Al Jolson. Curiously, too, the enormous popularity of the poem seemed to punish Lindsy for his cross-racial impersonation by forcing him repeatedly to stand in the place of the Other: Determined not to accede to the public's demands, he explained, "I will not be a slave to my yesterdays'" (Ruggles 412).

"People destroy their environment, and then they worship nature": If we apply the logic of [Renato] Rosald's thinking about imperialist nostalgia to modernist heteroglossia, it becomes clear that Lindsay demonizes African Americans and then reveres their animated vitality (which he himself stages), for the effect of "The Congo" depends less on its genocidal plot and more on the verbal exuberance of its "high density of 'sound effects'" derived from African and African-American folk conventions. Pounding and singing, laughing and beating, preaching and prancing are the activities attributed within the poem to blacks but actually undertaken by the white performer. . . .

It does seem as if the topic of the poem gave Lindsay and his audience permission to engage with verbal intensity not just in "romantic racism" or "slumming in slang" but also in the mimetic rivalry of an incantory chanting, singing, hymning, humming, slapping, drumming. All of "The Congo"'s lines aspire to the insistent, nonsensical condition of "Boomlay, boomlay, boomlay, BOOM." That is, the sense of the language is drained away by the repetition of sounds and words, by the alliteration, rhyme, and especially the preeminence of a rhythm so insistent it taps, claps, or drums through words. Phonetic similarity replaces semantic significance, as the ethnocentric effort to dethrone the African spiritual rituals of Mumbo Jumbo boomerangs to jettison the Western poet into his own mumbo jumbo of gibberish. Understandably, then, the strong beat and syncopation of Linday's Higher Vaudeville" led Edgar Lee Masters to refer to "The Congo" as "Beethoven jazz" (324). Its prose gloss turns the text into a score, explaining to actor-chanters the speed, intonation, pitch, pausing, accents, emphasis, tone, emotion, and song tunes advisable for an effective performance. "With a touch of negro dialect and as rapidly as possible toward the end," one such stage direction reads.

Yet a "touch of negro dialect" that can be turned on, then turned off proves how consciously Lindsay wrote as a white for whites. That Linday understood himself to be involved in a less than authentic "Study of the Negro Race"--his subtitle to the poem and purported purpose in composing it--finds evidence throughout. First "Their" savagery, "Their" spirits, and "Their" religion: The pronoun of the section titles illustrates his acknowledged distance from the race he attempts to delineate. Second, the drunken barrel-house kings with their silk umbrellas and the cake-walking royalty would be instantly recognizable types of the minstrel dandy. Third, Lindsay concedes that he and other whites have manipulated black representation: Ancient African voo-doo becomes "A roaring, epic, rag-time tune," a product of the contemporary Western imagination; the "negro fairyland" inhabited by the cake-walkers apears by "A minstrel river." Finally, it is possible to read the end of the poem as an admission that white efforts to control black representation will be doomed to failure. Although the conclusion of "The Congo" emphatically sttates that the god of Africa is dead, a far-away vulture speaks the last lines of the poem: "Mumbo-Jumbo will hoo-doo you. / Mumbo . . . Jumbo . . . will . . . hoo-doo . . . you." To be recited in a "penetrating, terrified whisper," these broken phrases bespeak the author's admission that his curse poem will fail to extirpate the alien powers of Otherness that haunt his imagination and shape his artistry.

Lindsay is often ignored in histories of twentieth-century poetry because judged to be exceptionally reactionary in his racism. However, he was much more liberal than many of his poetic contemporaries and he first performed "The Congo" at a Lincoln Day banquet held in Springfield. When Lindsay justified his pacifism during World War I, he said he would rather have died "of his own will mount[ing] a blazing pyre . . . by the side or in place of some black who had not trial by jury" than in the trenches (Ruggles, 250). "By the side or in the place of some black": Lindsay's self-sacrificial fantasy of racechange informed the poet's conviction that "the only way to end lynching would be to thrust yourself into the thick of such a mob and make the men slay you instead of the Negro. 'When they realized what they had done,'" Lindsay was supposed to have said, "'their hearts would be touched, their consicences shocked'" (Ruggles, 138; emphasis mine). Even in the midst of describing the destructive ferocity of African savag[e]ry, Lindsay's "Congo" contains lines blaming black violence on white imperialism, including a grisly injunction that we "listen to the yell of Leopold's ghost"; the Belgian King's exploitation of the Congo earns him "demons . . . / Cutting his hands off, down in Hell." Although the booming drumbeats of "black bucks" and "barrel-house kings" lead Lindsay to explain, "THEN I had religion, THEN I had a vision. / I could not turn from their revel in derision," he feels nothing but derision for the well-earned sufferings of King Leopold II punished in hell.

Rachel Blau Duplessis

Johnson has described a black person doing blackface minstrelsy. The main practice -- widespread in American society -- involved whites in blackface minstrelsy: troupes in all the major cities, traveling shows, amateur performances, and finally the absorption of practices of minstrelsy into performance materials and styles in vaudeville, early cinema, and musical comedy in the early twentieth century. Minstrelsy was a central cultural form in the construction of whiteness and the uses of blackness; indeed Lindsay’s "The Congo: a Study of the Negro Race" (1914) is arguably a one-man minstrel show. The poem is an overdetermined work showing the formation of whiteness.

During his career, Vachel Lindsay wrote a number of performance poems to be read "in your own variety of negro dialect." It is clear from heart-felt statements throughout his career that Lindsay wanted "love and good-will and witty conversation" between the races, that he believed strongly in and argued openly for the extirpation of race prejudice, and that he even thought his "negro" poems would help. "The Congo" was first performed publicly on February 12, 1914, the anniversary of Lincoln’s birthday in Springfield, Illinois; it was read at a private gathering in March sponsored by Poetry in the presence of W. B. Yeats. The US. invasion (1915) and occupation (until 1934) of Haiti added to the excitement of Lindsay’s early audiences and then interest in the poem, in which whiteness is affirmed as bringing order, rule, and correct government to sinister black chaos, evil, and "hoodoo."

Lindsay claimed that the poem tries to synthesize "vaudeville form back towards the old Greek precedent of the half-chanted lyric" and also spoke of it as "a rag-tune epic." This marked desire to fuse ancient poetic culture with more recent Euro- and African-American performance materials is part of Lindsay’s yearning to do something helpful to extirpate racial prejudice (in the aftermath of the Springfield anti-black riots in 1908), a yearning which is totally swamped by the poem’s raucous, sinister primitivisms. These occur under the rubric (in the subtitle) of a "study of the Negro race," which harnesses a social scientific word to the poems observations, as if they were authorized by, and part of, academic studies in an ethnographic mode. A free white gaze upon blacks is part of the power of whiteness. From the first, this poem was taken, by certain readers, as an indication of the failure of white liberalism; it is a bombastic response to the history of white misrule over blacks in the first half of the twentieth century. Confronting the 1908, or 1919, racist riots and lynchings, Lindsay changes the subject to "Africa" and its alleged traits.

"The Congo" is a six page poem in three sections. In "Their Basic Savagery," the "Fat black bucks" are like the "Negroes [who] seemed eight feet high" whom Lindsay had seen in the saloons he visited on behalf of the Women’s Christian Temperance Association, men who left him with "a jungle impression." The prurient desire to appropriate and devour such a source of potency is a rich motivator for "whiteness." Lindsay’s black drinkers inspire in his observer an atemporal Africanist "vision" of the Congo River "CREEPING THROUGH THE BLACK, / CUTTING THROUGH THE FOREST WITH A GOLDEN TRACK," with attendant "cannibals" and "sorcerers." The poem maintains a hint of just revenge for the Belgian atrocities in the Congo, but essentially it creates the fear of demonic, unmotivated cannibalism. Terror of blacks seems to be a central element in this construction of whiteness, terror combined with a brave fascination at seeing the "truth" of Africa displayed, even if it threatens to eat one alive. Or, as Lindsay explained: "’Congo, Congo, Congo, Congo, Congo, Congo,’ I said to myself. The word began to haunt. It echoed with the war drums and cannibal yells of Africa" (1915).

The address from the "witch-doctors" is directed past the other characters inside the poem to the reader or listener "HOO, HOO, HOO" is the sound that at once warns and threatens. "Be careful what you do, / Or … / Mumbo-Jumbo will hoo-doo you" (Lindsay 1984, 175). Mumbo-Jumbo is a spooky god of demonic power and reach. Lindsay is calling upon the meaning "an object or fetish believed to have supernatural power," but his use also evokes other senses of the word — "gibberish," "nonsense," or "confused and meaningless activity, unintelligible incantation."

Lindsay fantasizes a free-floating black menace in the first section, and a free-floating black pleasure in the second. Called "Their Irrepressible High Spirits," the second section pastiches "juba" (West African group dance), "cakewalk" (black dance performances for racially mixed audiences), minstrel (white blackface lampoons performed mainly for whites), ragtime or jazz ("the well-known tunes of the parrot band," for jazz is often visualized during this period, by Euro-Americans, as behaviors raucous animals), and popular music -- a song of racial self-mockery written by the African-American vaudeville star Bert Williams (Cooley 1982, 52). The revelry is set in an exotic never-never land like a movie set, but given the poem’s tripartite construction and the political allegory (of hell-earth-heaven) loosely underlying it, the second section becomes worldly purgatory of garish sumptuousness and profligacy. Lindsay was an enthusiastic consumer of African-American forms and persons in theater. "Then there was a song ‘My Zulu Babe,’ where [Bert] Williams as the buck and [George] Walker as the lady used to appear in black tights and brief ostrich-feathered skirts and go prancing in and out of the stage jungle in a mock wooing. They magically conveyed the voodoo power of Africa. The whole white audience turned into jungle savages and yelled with a sort of gorilla delight" (Lindsay 1915, 18). The construction of whiteness involves a positioning of blacks as the perpetually carnivalesque, authorizers of white libido -- from "woo" to "voodoo" -- under whose auspices whites could experience the Africanist pleasures of being "savages" and "gorillas." It was important to the making of whiteness that license be incited by, and blamable on, African materials.

As Gail Bederman has proposed, white "manhood" power accrued in monopolizing both the discourse of "manly and civilized" and of "masculine and savage" (1995, 42). In her pointed exposition of the symbolic stakes in the Jack Johnson-Jim Jeffries boxing match in 1910, during which the African-American boxer trounced the white man, and in her discussion of the racist arrangements of the World’s Columbian Exposition (1892), that excluded "Colored Americans" while exhibiting "the Negro as a repulsive savage" in the Dahomey village (39, citing a pamphlet written by Frederick Douglass and Ida B. Wells ), she opens a nuanced discussion of the formation of white manhood in the early period of modernism. White manhood depended on the assertion of racial dominance of whites over blacks by appropriation of the imagined potency of the so-called "primitive" to enhance the potency of the white and civilized. This is very like what Lindsay is offering both in the above description of "voodoo power," in his performance of this poem, and in his comments on musicals featuring blacks: "American men [playing] at being masculine barbarians themselves, savoring the visual pleasures of semiclad exotic dancers while simultaneously and inconsistently relishing their sense of superior, civilized, white manliness" (40).

Into this scene of revelry, the "sinister" witch-doctors interject their threat. But here, the lines about ‘Mumbo-Jumbo" are not apparently directed to the audience but to the black "scalawags prancing there." They are warned against their own attractive playfulness. The multiple allusions to African-American performance in this section suggest that the witch-doctors are acting for Lindsay in proposing the containment and control of African-American popular culture at the same time that Lindsay is both mimicking it in the poem and appropriating it in his exaggerated Africanist performance style (Gubar 1997, 141). He wants black mannerisms and voices for himself and also wants Mumbo-Jumbo to punish their real cultural owners. As Eric Lott argues, this "theft," absorption, or borrowing of African-American materials caused in whites great cultural anxiety that intermingled with their envious desire (Lott 1993, 57).

In the final section of "The Congo," Lindsay proposes "The Hope of their Religion" to extirpate this menacing and joyous-erotic black culture and society with Christianity:

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."

The work overtly proposes the clearing of the jungle and the cleansing of African "temples" through the efforts of "pioneer angels," who preside over the triumph of a blue-silver, sunny whiteness that brings "light" to Africa. The trope of African inferiority, depicting a whole continent and its diasporic peoples as indolent, sinful, lascivious, and retarded without the aid and help of imperial intervention is evident in the words "stupor" and "wrong," yet the exciting but inappropriate use of religious books as percussion instruments ("BOOM") makes the wrong persist even as it is apparently ended (Mudimbe 1988, 13). To argue that Christian imperialism jump starts perpetually stalled African evolution is consistent with colonialist assumptions throughout this period. Interpreting Africa as the lowest stage of human, political, and spiritual development feeds the neo-Darwianian nativist hauteur of American whiteness (Michaels 1994, 40-41). One might also view this fierce disparaging of Africa as a collective ideology still attempting to justify the practices of slavery.

The transfiguration of the African landscape into a "Congo paradise" through Christian imperialism is shadowed by the same menacing, vibrant "Congo tune" that repeats throughout the poem (Lindsay 1984, 177, 178). Whispering vultures continue the hoodoo refrain at the very end, despite the poetic polemic which twice insists "Mumbo-Jumbo is dead in the jungle, / Never again will he hoo-doo you." The repetition of this formula presents not the death of "Mumbo-Jumbo" but his persistence.

Despite Lindsay’s protestations, this atavistic structure is related to the arguments of racist "science" and polemic in such contemporaneous work as R. W. Shufeldt’s America’s Greatest Problem: the Negro (1915). The terms Negro, savagery, and cannibalism are essentially interchangeable in this work, and the words displace sexual desire and guilt engendered by fantasies of devouring made possible by the political realities of enslavement and imperialism (Shufeldt 1915, 276). Shufeldt moves into a hysterical polemic against miscegenation as racial pollution, by asking "are we now to take up into our blood a race of human flesh-eaters, who would consume human flesh again with relish were they returned to the country from whence they came?" (139). This atavistic argument emerges only slightly mellowed in Lindsay’s configuration of the ideology of whiteness.

However much Lindsay insisted that "the third section of the Congo is certainly as hopeful as any human being dare to he in regard to any race," the poem reads differently (Lindsay 1979, 134. Nov 2, 1915). Through its repetitious chant and its hyper-melodramatic scare lines, the poem subverts its stated argument and "intellectual" claim. The argument says "Africa" will be transfigured and civilized with messianic imperialism. But the rhythm says that the menace and lurking evil of "Africa" can never be extirpated. Blacks embody the primitive forces of sexuality and violence; these forces are uneradicable, essentialized, in the black body. "A Negro at the North Pole is Congo to the marrow of his bones, and believe me more luxurious than Assurbanipal and more fun than a goat" (Lindsay 1979, ‘88, October 13, 1919). A social philology shows how the mystery phoneme, exaggerated rhythms, and repetitious rhetorics of this poetry have been harnessed to uphold the ideological formation "white manhood."

According to Lindsay, "the refrain stands for the ill fate and sinister power of Africa from the beginning" (90, February 17, 1914, soon after its first performance). The popular appeal of the poem is based on us judgmental participation in primitivist behavior that entertains whites by arousing them with the rhythms to which they feel superior. Lindsay argues that Africans and blacks are permanently and essentially the hoo-doo of the family of man, bringing the curse of primitive menace to everything. In her review of Lindsay’s work (1923), Marianne Moore slates that Lindsay’s intention, his claimed familiarity with black dialect, and his general humanitarian urges "cannot absolve such Aryan doggerel" (Moore 1986, 89).

Though the poem is superficial, it anneals two competing ideas about racial origins, ideas developed in the nineteenth century but still active within the racial discourses of the early twentieth century. To think of one overarching humanness, one root from which separate racial stems branched off --monogenesis — is to think of the potential (if far future) unity of all humankind, in spite of contemporary racisms and reductiveness. Monogenesis deemphasizes difference in favor of one striving human family. Lindsay claimed this was his opinion on racial matters. Polygenesis conceives of the races as separate species, separately evolved, with differential abilities (Fredrickson 1971, Chaps. 2—3). To speak of one race in its infancy and another as highly developed and to suggest the condescending uplift of one race by another was to stand on the seam between these positions, the social promise of monogenesis ("we" are all one humanity) abutted by the immediate polemical satisfactions of polygenesis ("they" are inferior to "us"). The self-congratulatory resolution inherent in this contradictory position ("we" help "them") helped construct whiteness. "The Congo" claims to think of us all as one big human family, but its garish emphasis on extremes of menace and joy; both "irresponsible" or under the sway of a capricious, vengeful god, and its zoological fascination with the Other invoke a shadowy sense of polygenesis, in which Africans are permanently different, tainted, and, of course, very powerful in their inferiority. Far from being "hopeful" about those it claims to anatomize, "The Congo" goes far toward marking and blighting the "Negro Race" as a whole.

Because Lindsay believed his poems could he socially effective against racial prejudice, he was stunned to find that "My ‘Congo’ and ‘Booker T. Washington Trilogy’ have both been denounced by the colored people for reasons that I cannot fathom" (Lindsay 1979, 134-35, Nov. 2, 1916). His correspondent, Joel Spingarn, one of the white founders of the NAACP, a noted editor at Harcourt Brace, and a strong supporter of black writers, tried to wise him up: "No colored man doubts your good intentions, but many of them doubt your understanding of their hopes. You look about you and see a black world full of a strange beauty different from that of the white world; they look about them and see other men with exactly the same feelings and desires who refuse to recognize the resemblance" (Wintz 1988, 159; Spingarn, 1917, 113-14). Lindsay must have his exotic, his primitive, his Other, based in different social histories and cultural outcomes, polygenesis sweetened by self-delusion. Spingarn speaks from a liberal monogenetic racial theory and from the idealistic center of a progressive integrationist ethos that wants to see "colored humanity" and "white humanity" as sharing in "a common civilization in which all distinctions of race are blurred (or forgotten) by common aspiration and common labors" (1917, 114).

In his numerous, even obsessive, discussions of what inspired "The Congo," the poet’s explanations exceed the poem and reveal a rich collection of demonizing attitudes. He begins with the "Dahomey War-Drums" and "Cannibal war dance" that he saw at the 1892 Chicago World Columbian Exposition, an exhibit analyzed by Gail Bederman as presenting an architecturally sustained ideological split between "the civilized grandeur of the manly White City contrasted with the rough savagery of the Dahomey Village" (Lindsay 1979, 88—89 [Feb. 6 and 17, 1914]; 95 [April 14, 1914]; Bederman 1995, 37). The eclectic list of Lindsay’s sources for "The Congo" run the gamut from romantic racialism (Stephen Forster, "Stanley’s Darkest Africa", his interpretation of "Joseph Conrad’s haunting African sketches full of fever and voodoo and marsh"), to appreciation of monuments in the struggles against slavery (the Emancipation Proclamation, Stowe’s novel), to the work of black intellectuals (Du Bois), to politically masturbatory and personally salacious evocations of cannibals, savage power, the jungle, and the like (Lindsay 1979, 88-89). It is a cornucopia of conflicting Africanist materials. Despite certain noble sentiments, a crisis about race was being solved by stigmatizing African-Americans as always part animal, part jungle, part predator -- a great black spot in the white imagination onto which negative, guilt -ridden, exciting emotions could he projected.

Lindsay includes among the incidents that provoked his poem "the Burnings alive of negroes in the South" (95; April 14, 1914). In her analysis of lynching as a ritual of exorcism, Trudier Harris reports that between 1882 and 1927, about 4,951 persons were lynched in the United States, of whom 3,513 were black (the vast majority were black men) (Hariss 1984, 7). The Crisis kept a grim running report on these crimes throughout this period; indeed, certain horrors were investigated by the NAACP, for example, the Waco, Texas, public torture and burning of a Negro in 1915, a report on which formed a special supplement to the July 1916 issue of The Crisis. Lindsay was deeply affected by the Springfiled anti-Negro riots of 1908, which ended in carnage and destruction.

But in an elaboration of these remarks to Harriet Monroe on the sources of "The Congo" he glosses the effects of the "ill fate and sinister power of Africa from the beginning" — the power of hoodoo, in his terms. He continues: "I do not say so [in the poem] but the Civil War was a case of Mumbo jumbo hoodooing in America. Any lynching is a yielding to the power of the Hoodoo. Any Burning alive, or hand-cutting depredations by Leopold, is a case of Mumbo-Jumbo Hoodooing Civilization" (Lindsay 1979, 90; Feb.17, 1914). The negative and sinister evil out of Africa infected or affected ("hoodooed") "Civilization." This formulation blames blacks for white violence directed against them.

White political terrorism occurs because white civilization has been spooked and cursed by hoodoo. Indeed, the ritual repetitions of the poem "The Congo" might be credited with proposing sub rosa the wish for such an exorcism of "black savagery" and "Mumbo Jumbo." Whites are coterminus with "Civilization"; Euro-Americans’ falls from grace in fratricidal conflict and racial terrorism are due to their having black African witchcraft exercised upon them. The poem is thus as much a veiled justification for lynching as a criticism of it.

"The Congo" was an influential poem. Louis Untermeyer remembers, "Perhaps the most memorable occasion [on a trip to England] was when, prompted by one of my remarks about recent American poetry, James Stephens declaimed most of ‘The Congo.’ Nothing like it was ever heard in that setting: a drum-banging poem by an American poet on a Negro theme chanted in an English restaurant by an Irish mystic with an accumulating brogue" [and heard by a Jewish anthologist] (Untermeyer 1939. 339-40).

From Genders, Races, and Religious Cultures in Modern American Poetry, 1908-1934. ã 2001 Cambridge University Press.

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