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Lindsay and Racism

Comment on the critical dismissal of Lindsay as a racist author. Includes republication of Lindsay's enigmatic salute to black American soldiers in World War I, "The Jazz Bird," and comparison of Lindsay's "The Congo" to James Weldon Johnson's "O Black and Unknown Bards" and Countee Cullen's "Heritage."

It is a commonplace assumption among readers of modern poetry that "The Congo" is a fundamentally racist poem, and Lindsay a racist author. These are the conclusions of book reviewer Elizabeth Hardwick, for example, who notes a number of the poem's overtly racist statements in support of the conclusion that "'The Congo' is the supreme folly of Lindsay's foolhardy career" (10). That Lindsay was naive about race relations is certain; that he knew little of African-American life, let alone the African scenes supposedly depicted in "The Congo," is equally so; that he viewed people of color in terms of white projections of otherness is also not to be doubted. But for a variety of reasons we need to consider the racial representation in "The Congo," and Lindsay's race politics, with care rather than dismissal. When "The Congo" and other poems by Lindsay that treated black themes were first published in the 1910s, Lindsay was seen even by his critics to be an ally of blacks. His poetry may seem to veer awkwardly between the notion of racial improvement Bois and a celebration of black culture, but these contradictory impulses informed not only white attitudes toward blacks but also black attitudes toward themselves, as W. E. B. Du Bois and Langston Hughes, for example, debated whether the purpose of black literature be "racial uplift" or artistic expression. Lindsay's entry into this debate was fraught with risk, necessarily, as is any white poet's before or since his time, or any white critic's before or since. But the conversation thus begun is necessary, not least for the way shifting perceptions of Lindsay's racial attitudes shed light on the way that racism, like racial categories themselves, are historically conditioned and historically variable.

W. E. B. Du Bois strongly criticized "The Congo"; but Lindsay's story "The Golden-Faced People" had been published in an earlier issue of The Crisis and was hailed by Du Bois himself for its insight into the injustice of racism, so Lindsay does not appear to have been irremediably racist in outlook (Engler 101). Lindsay was in fact widely regarded as a person of liberal and antiracist sympathies (Ward 237), evident not least in Lindsay's famous "discovery" of Langston Hughes as a busboy poet in a Washington, DC, hotel restaurant. The event was misconstrued by Lindsay as an instance of genuine patronage--that, but for Lindsay's intervention, Hughes would have forever languished as a menial laborer--when actually, by the time of the incident in 1925, Hughes had already been published in The Crisis, would win the poetry prize in the Opportunity literary competition of that year, and had had his first book, The Weary Blues, already accepted by Alfred A. Knopf (Hummer 66). It was Hughes himself, not Lindsay, who was the prime mover of his career, right down to the moment in the hotel restaurant when Hughes took the initiative, dropping a sheaf of his poems on Lindsay's table. Yet Lindsay was the right poet for Hughes to seek out, open-minded enough to appreciate the poems: he recited all three of them at his poetry reading that evening and thereupon announced the discovery of a "bona fide poet" (Rampersad 117). And Hughes was happy enough to make use of the publicity served up by Lindsay's naive claim of discovery. The next day he played up the role of the dazzled prodigy for the reporters who hounded him, and upon his return to New York he arranged for an Underwood and Underwood representative to photograph him posing as a busboy (Hummer 66). In turn, the literati associated with Opportunity, always tending to be more open and flexible in their conceptions of artistic expression than their peers at The Crisis, do not appear to have been overly chagrined by Lindsay's rhetoric or purportedly racist poetry, as in 1926 they made Lindsay one of the judges for the magazine's second literary contest and even mentioned The Congo and Other Poems among the accomplishments qualifying him for the role ("Judges").

Furthermore, Lindsay does not appear to have lacked all self-consciousness about the problems of racial representation that "The Congo" raised, as he attempted in the 1920s to distance himself from his famous poem, uncomfortable with the ways that his audience was responding to it and refusing to include it in some of his poetry readings (Ward 238). A poem Lindsay wrote in the spring of 1918 to celebrate the contributions of black Americans to the war effort, initially titled "The Jazz Bird," again reveals Lindsay's idiosyncratic mix of sympathy and seemingly irremediable denseness on matters of racial signification. In extolling the "Jazz Bird" called to arms by the "eagle," Lindsay adopts a lynching metaphor to describe how African Americans will deal with the Kaiser and his host:


The Jazz Bird sings a barnyard song,

A cock-a-doodle bray,

A jingle-bells, a boiler works,

A he-man's roundelay.


The eagle said: "Son Jazz Bird,

I send you out to fight.

And the Jazz Bird spread out his sunflower wings,

And roared with all his might,


And they woke to it in Oregon,

In Florida and Maine

And the land was dark with airships

In the darting Jazz Bird's train.


Crossing the roaring ocean

His bell-mouth shook the sky,

And the Yankees in the trenches

Gave back the hue and cry.


And Europe had not heard the like,

And Germany went down.

The Jazz Bird with the headlight eyes

Tore off the Kaiser's crown


At midnight on a haunted road

A star bends low and sees

The Kaiser and his row of sons

Marching at their ease.


Their necks are broken by the hemp,

They goose-step in a line,

Their stripped bones strutting in the wind

Swinging as a sign


That Jazz Birds come on sunflower wings

When loathsome tyrants rise. . .

The Jazz Bird guards the gallows,

He lights it with his eyes.

Behind the ghosts of the Kaiser and his sons there stands the spectre of lynchings of blacks on the homefront.  This is an awkward conjunction of images, but it is certainly debatable for whom it is awkward: for black readers, who might well be outraged that their participation in the European war should have any parallel whatsoever with the homefront atrocity of lynching; or for white readers, who ought, perhaps, to have misgivings about a national "war for democracy" overseas that seems so ominously similar to the most antidemocratic tendencies of American life at home, or who might have good reason to fear if, indeed, "The Jazz Birds come on sunflower wings when loathsome tyrants rise. . . ." To be sure, other lines of the poem contain the kinds of stereotyped and demeaning images--the opening evocations of the barnyard, for example--that rightly draw critical attention in "The Congo" and elsewhere. As for the final three stanzas, however, which were removed when the poem reappeared as "The Modest Jazzbird" first in Poetry magazine and then in Lindsay's collection The Golden Whales of California and Other Rhymes in the American Language, the lynching imagery seems calculated both to make black readers uneasy with their willingness to participate in the war, and to make white readers uncomfortable with homefront racial politics as well as their vindictive was aims. This poem, raising doubts about the righteousness of the Allied effort and, at the same time, evoking the underappreciated contributions of African-Americans to the war effort, may even have been written as a kind of prank on the patriotic syndicate, The Vigilantes, for which it was written. A group numbering 200-300 writers who sent patriotic poems and editorials to newspapers across the country, gratis, throughout the war, the Vigilantes were after Lindsay's active support soon after the U.S. war declaration. "The Jazz Bird" is certainly a singular and idiosyncratic offering for a syndicate whose writers were often intolerant of racial and ethnic diversity in the United States, and Lindsay was not otherwise cooperative with the group, as is evident in a letter he wrote to Katherine Lee Bates when she wrote to encourage his greater involvement (Letters 166).

In reading "The Congo," we should further note that some of the stereotypical imagery and cultural presuppositions in Lindsay's poem that critics are fastest to label racist have clear counterparts in poetry by black Americans from the same period, including poems and poets that have seldom, if ever, been considered complicit with white racism. The Christianizing of blacks in section III of "The Congo," excoriated repeatedly by critics as a rejection of black cultural integrity, finds a close parallel in the closing lines of James Weldon Johnson's "O Black and Unknown Bards," which is almost ubiquitous in anthologies of American literature (including the Oxford Anthology of Modern American Poetry):

You sang far better than you knew; the songs

That for your listeners' hungry hearts sufficed

Still live,--but more than this to you belongs:

You sang a race from wood and stone to Christ.

The African scenes of raucous, sensuous, pagan dancing, merrymaking, conjuring, etc. that fill sections I and II of Lindsay's poem find a close equivalent in the passages of Countee Cullen's still more widely known "Heritage," which exhibit the speaker's sensual, primal attraction to a very similarly stereotyped view of Africa:

So I lie, who find no peace

Night or day, no slight release

From the unremittent beat

Made by cruel padded feet

Walking through my body's street.

Up and down they go, and back,

Treading out a jungle track.

. . . .

Like a soul gone mad with pain

I must match its weird refrain;

Ever must I twist and squirm,

Writhing like a baited worm,

While its primal measures drip

Through my body, crying, "Strip!

Doff this new exuberance.

Come and dance the Lover's Dance!"

In an old remembered way

Rain works on me night and day.

Cullen's poem marks clearly, and self-consciously, the fictiveness of this version of Africa, in ways that Lindsay never does; yet the seductiveness of the fiction grips the speaker nonetheless, and the poem does not offer an alternative version of African, or even of African-American, experience, so that the closing of the poem offers up an attitude not altogether different from "Their Basic Savagery," Lindsay's starting point in "The Congo": "Not yet has my heart or head / In the least way realized / They and I are civilized." The enigma of Cullen's ending offers, obviously, a critical and ironic distance not easily gained in Lindsay's poem. Yet in trying to locate an affirmative vision of a distinctively black experience, Cullen, like Lindsay, finds himself at an impasse.

In "Heritage" Cullen was, in fact, standing very near the fault line that separated two very different ways of thinking about literary creation in the African-American community. On the one hand, black poets working in traditional forms and considering non-racial themes (Cullen among them, in much of his poetry) were championed by W. E. B. Du Bois and an older generation of writers as being--incredibly, to our later reading--more constructively political than poets working in non-traditional forms, experimenting with jazz and blues poetry, employing black dialects, and writing on specifically black subjects. For Du Bois, poetry of this latter kind meant Paul Laurence Dunbar's dialect verse, and all the risks of white stereotyping that had come with it; the path of progress lay in race "improvement," and in art this demanded writing in ways that would enable both blacks and white to see the similarity of black aspirations and achievements to white ones. In the 1920s, at least, Du Bois's political assumptions fundamentally shaped the debate; the exponents of the more experimental, black writing like Claude McKay and Langston Hughes did not assert its superior cultural politics, as we might today, but its superior artistry--the wider range of expression possible, the greater possibilities of form and language. When Carl Van Vechten, a major promoter of black writers, published his novel Nigger Heaven in 1926, his portrayal of black Harlem was immediately attacked by political critics in the black community as a racist white performance in blackface; it was just as swiftly defended by the literary avant garde in the community as a feat of literary imagination. In this context--and among writers of the avant garde like Hughes--Vachel Lindsay's poetry on black subject matter and appropriating black voices did not appear so far out of place. Lindsay did not thus appear an inappropriate choice to be one of the judges for the 1926 Opportunity contest. Likewise, the inclusion of "The Congo" in Langston Hughes and Arna Bontemps's landmark anthology, The Poetry of the Negro, 1746-1949, makes sense, even if it may now be jarring. Long after there was any mileage to be made of his "discovery" by Lindsay, Hughes chose to include him in the section of "Tributary Poems by Non-Negroes." "The Congo" appears, as well, in the revised edition appearing in 1970, so Bontemps, who lived to supervise the publication of this edition, apparently concurred with Hughes's choice.

The problem of racist representation that vexes Lindsay's "The Congo" is, in some measure, a more general cultural problem that bedevils black poets as well as whites. So while we can--and must, given our later historical context--call "The Congo" racist, we cannot readily dismiss the problems of black representation that the poem so pointedly raises. Racial representation in "The Congo" and in Lindsay's work generally, far from being settled issues, remain matters of critical controversy and debate. For documents from the initial exchanges between Lindsay and The Crisis, as well as a wider range of current critical approaches, see the selection of excerpts under RACE CRITICISM OF "THE CONGO."

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