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Tolson’s Weekly Columns

Tolson’s remarkable weekly columns in the Washington (D.C.) Tribune display the extent to which his work as a poet emerges from his engagements as a teacher and an intellectual. Tolson works to make complex ideas comprehensible to the newspaper reader. He uses elements of repetition and refrain, and he freely draws on a range of folk material, including references to the Bible. These particular columns have been selected to emphasize some of the notions that were taken up and developed in his Libretto, including the concept of the "merry-go-round" of history, the belief in the universality of humankind, and the need for an Africa that is decolonized and self-governed.

"Drama: The Tragedy of Ethiopia"
May 28, 1938

White Civilization Goes Downhill

The Unholy Three, England and France and Italy, sold out the League of Nations for thirty pieces of filthy silver. This caused the breakdown of international law that required centuries and centuries to build.

The world cried out in disgust and anger when Germany made a scrap of paper out of the neutrality of Belgium. Of course, people forgot that little Belgium had cut off the hands of black natives in the Congo because they could not bring enough rubber for the white capitalists. My mother used to sing after father had preached in his little church on Sunday morning: "You will reap just what you sow."

England and France and Italy now exploit 500,000,000 colored peoples. For what? For dollars. For profits in gold and oil and rubber and agricultural products. But at home the masses of the population in these countries tear out their lives against economic injustices. That’s the cancer that will eat away these dishonorable governments.

White civilization is sliding downhill. International law today is a scarp of paper. Therefore, Mexico slaps England in the face and gives a belly laugh. The Japanese take a shot at the British ambassador.

Perhaps René Maran, winner of the Goncourt Prize, was right when he declared, in his introduction to his novel Batouala, that civilization was a scourge, a conflagration. The white man – I mean the big white man – has messed up the world. He’s had two thousand years to make good. He’s had the best soil of the earth at his command. Nature and fortune have smiled upon him. But he started out wrong. Because he started out to exploit. He has always believed that might made right. For a while, he walked the earth like a god. For a while, the blacks and yellows and browns thought he was a god. Even today some mediocre Negro A.Ms and Ph.Ds think he’s a god.

I have read many books and newspapers and magazines put out by big white men. They make me laugh. They make me want to cry. Yes, the white man is lost in the wilderness of capitalism. Franklin Roosevelt tells him that when he talks about the sixty families that control ninety per cent of the national wealth.

From Melvin B. Tolson, Caviar and Cabbage: Selected Columns by Melvin B. Tolson from the Washington Tribune, 1937-1944, ed. Robert M. Farnsworth (Columbia: U Missouri P, 1982), 106.

Excerpts from
"Black Slavery and White Slavery in America – or
a Great White Scholar Lets the Cat Out of the Bag"

[a commentary-review of V. F. Calverton’s The Awakening of America]

November 25, 1939

Were First Slaves at Jamestown

In fact, the first slaves sold at Jamestown were not black men – but white women? They were sold for tobacco.

The Indians did not have jails. Justice among the Indians was impartial. Just the opposite was true among white men. The Indian was not treacherous and cruel in the beginning. He learned that from the white men. At Plymouth, in 1620, the Rev. Mr. Cushman pleaded with the white "Christians" to be as kind and sincere as the red men.

Mr. Calverton does not pull his punches when he summarizes the history of Indian habits: "It was not the Indians but the Europeans who were the betrayers. The disrupters, the destroyers of the friendship which had spriung up between the two peoples."

Now the Founders of America were hard on women. A man could have his wife publicly whipped. In case of an illegitimate child the man had only to confess his sin: but the church elders thought the woman should have a "public lashing."

The attitude toward white women, then, was similar to the attitude toward Negroes in the present day South: woman was viewed as "a more evil creature than man …definitely inferior in economic, social and psychological status."

Maryland was so full of bigamy, sodomy and bastardy that an English minister called that state: "A Sodom of uncleanness, and a pest house of iniquity."

And, too, the Good Baptists in that State did not permit "women to pray in public." Negro women were forbidden to marry, but they were "seduced by their masters. Such seduction had already become an old Southern custom." A fine comment indeed on white chivalry.

From Melvin B. Tolson, Caviar and Cabbage: Selected Columns by Melvin B. Tolson from the Washington Tribune, 1937-1944, ed. Robert M. Farnsworth (Columbia: U Missouri P, 1982), 211-12.

Excerpts from
"Candid Camera Shots of Negro Intellectuals
June 29, 1940

A Negro Poet and a Taxicab in the Rain – 1932

It is an elegant parlor on Sugar Hill in Harlem. I am talking with an elderly gentleman. His fashionable wife is talking with the Poet. I do not hear the gentleman. The Poet is explaining to the lady his proposed lecture tour through the South. The lady is telling the Poet the kind of attire he must wear before the distinguished audiences. They expect celebrities to be just so! The Poet listens like a child whose mother is telling him where to find the cookies.

Suddenly the Poet grows serious. He’s almost forgot something. He names a prominent Harlem church. Yes, there is to be a huge rally to collect money for the Scottsboro boys. The lady insists that it is raining too hard. He’ll get soaking wet!

There is a tenseness, an agony, in the Poet’s face. It seems that his life depends on getting to that meeting on time. We hasten downstairs and catch a taxicab. The rain is now torrential. The Poet leans forward, tells the driver to put on speed. The Poet talks passionately about the Scottsboro boys. They are innocent. They must go free. It’ll take money.

The car stops. It skids. Before us looms the great, aristocratic church. It is dark. In front of the church is a milling multitude. We learn that the church would not let the rally be held in the house of God. People said it was just Communist propaganda. The Poet asks me to come with him. I tell him I have a previous engagement.

Langston Hughes looks at me with a sad half-smile. He says good night. I see him pushing through the crowd in the rain. His face looks tired and old and pain-ridden. I start to get out. Then I tell the driver to step on the gas. But I’m to feel a hundred times that I double-crossed the Scottsboro boys!

From Melvin B. Tolson, Caviar and Cabbage: Selected Columns by Melvin B. Tolson from the Washington Tribune, 1937-1944, ed. Robert M. Farnsworth (Columbia: U Missouri P, 1982), 255-256.

Excerpts from
"How Can You Tell an Intelligent Man?"

September 28, 1940

The Faculty of Seeing the Whole

… Kipling, the poet, speaks of walking with crowds and keeping your virtue; of dining with kings without losing the common touch. He should’ve added – getting a big position without getting a big head. Sambo can understand that. Especially in Washington among the Big Negroes!

Life consists of caviar and cabbage. Plenty of cabbage. Somebody called Washington the City Beautiful. In spite of the Negro tenements where the rats jitterbug all day and all night, and the lice do the lindy hop!

Yes, the intelligent mind places opposite ideas in juxtaposition. Therefore, it is good at epigram and irony. And above all, it easily detects sham, fraud and hypocrisy. The intelligent mind cares little for conventions, traditions, precedents, authority, titles and fads. It is not overawed by pandemic psychosis. (Skip it, Sambo.)

The Underlying Identity of Things

… Biological evolution is nothing more than the theory of the underlying identity of animals. A prejudiced white man thinks he is different from the Negro. The bedbug has more sense than that. Therefore, he sticks close to man; he identifies himself with man. And lives. The white Southerner does not identify himself with his Negro brother. Therefore, the white Southerner dies economically, culturally and spiritually.

… Dr. Hibben, the logician, once said that the great mind discovers the unity of things beneath a diversity of phenomena. Okay. The black Zulu and the blond Anglo-Saxon have a oneness, an identity of I-ness. Human beings differ quantitatively but not qualitatively. Most men die without discovering that fundamental of life.

So the intelligent mind thinks in contrasts; then it sees the underlying identity in contrasts. Shakespeare and Al Capone are different in many ways. They are also identical in many ways. In every man there is the saint and the sinner, the rattlesnake and the monkey, God and the devil. Accidents of environment bring out these identical and contrasted elements. Murder, rape, and suicide live in each one of us. The intelligent mind sees homogeneity in heterogeneity. Caviar and cabbage differ only in the arrangement of electrons.

From Melvin B. Tolson, Caviar and Cabbage: Selected Columns by Melvin B. Tolson from the Washington Tribune, 1937-1944, ed. Robert M. Farnsworth (Columbia: U Missouri P, 1982), 187-189.

Excerpts from
"The Merry-Go-Round and the Ferris Wheel of History"

(October 19, 1940)

The history of man heretofore has been the history of the rise and fall of nations. I presume to call this the Ferris Wheel Theory of History …

Have you ever looked philosophically at a Ferris wheel? The car-riders go up – and come down. No particular car stays at the top. Why? Because the giant-powered wheel is always turning. Now, follow me. The Ferris Wheel of History may turn on the axis of Time. Rome was at the top 2,000 years ago; today Germany occupies the top seat in Europe. Tomorrow – another conqueror, of course.

… Now, here is something that’s an eye-opener. Every nation at the top got there by force – and force caused its downfall. Every nation at the top invented a theory that proved to itself its own superiority. Each top-nation scorned all other nations. The ancient Greeks called all other peoples "barbarians." I shall never forget Sandburg’s poem describing a "Dago," the descendant of Aristotle, laying a roadbed for the Anglo-Saxons of today! In Aristotle’s time, the Anglo-Saxon was a savage, and today we’re all wondering what Hitler will do to the Anglo-Saxons in England. The Ferris Wheel of History!

… A fascist is either a capitalist with capital or a capitalist without capital. A Communist is a man with an empty belly knocking at the door of a capitalist. Until the Big Boys see through these two definitions, they’ll continue to put nails in their own coffins. In the meantime, the Ferris Wheel of History will continue to turn on the axis of Time. Nobody can stop that. But as I said in the beginning, rulers never learn anything from the downfall of other rulers. Power blinds all rulers.

There can be no democracy without economic equality. Thomas Jefferson said that when he wrote the Declaration of Independence. There can be no brotherhood of man without a brotherhood of dollars. I have another theory. It is based on economic and racial brotherhood. I presume to call this the Merry-Go-Round of History. On the merry-go-round all the seats are on the same level. Nobody goes up; therefore, nobody has to come down. That is democracy, as I see it. In a brotherhood, all the members are equal.

Racial superiority and class superiority produced the hellish contraption called the Ferris Wheel of History. Democracy will produce the Merry-Go-Round of History.

… If Jesus tried to bring a real democracy to America in the year of our Lord 1940, Jesus would not die on the Cross a second time. No, the capitalist with capital and the capitalist without capital would lynch Jesus before He could get to the Cross.

As long as there are upper classes and superior races, there will be wars and revolutions. The class or race that is up today will go down tomorrow. I shall stay on the merry-go-round of history ‘till the day I die. I am a democrat in theory and in practice. I do not ask for myself what I shall not give to others.

From Melvin B. Tolson, Caviar and Cabbage: Selected Columns by Melvin B. Tolson from the Washington Tribune, 1937-1944, ed. Robert M. Farnsworth (Columbia: U Missouri P, 1982), 90-92.

Excerpts from
"Sights and Sounds – En Route to Tuskegee: ‘When the Choo Choo Leaves for Alabam’"

May 10, 1941

A Negro Sailor at Mobile

He’d just returned from Japan. He was a graduate of a famous State College. We had a long chat. He’d been in England, Germany and France. He named mysterious islands. I asked him many questions about foreign lands and he answered intelligently.

He said the whole world was in a hell of a fix. Everywhere he’d gone the Big Boys were fleecing the little ones. He was on the first American boat to leave England after the declaration of war. He told me about his experiences with a German submarine, which stopped and searched his ship.

He liked the sea. But a Negro didn’t have a chance to go up in the navy. So he’d quit. He’d got tired of waiting on white folk.

He didn’t understand how the German people had become such persecutors of weaker peoples. Perhaps Hitler had shot them the dope of racial prejudice, and they’d gone mad. He though racial prejudice was the worst thing in the world. It made the human inhuman.

He liked the Chinese. He disliked the Japanese and the English. He thought them snobs when it came to dark people. He said a cracker is a cracker whether in Mobile or Paris. He said he’d received far better treatment as a man in foreign countries.

He thought the war would last a long time. He wanted to see Africa – a free Africa, with no Englishmen and Italians and Germans and Frenchmen exploiting the natives. Wherever he went, dark people were talking about the freedom of Africa and India. He didn’t think he’d live to see democracy in Alabama.

From Melvin B. Tolson, Caviar and Cabbage: Selected Columns by Melvin B. Tolson from the Washington Tribune, 1937-1944, ed. Robert M. Farnsworth (Columbia: U Missouri P, 1982), 267-268.

Excerpts from
"Remember Africa at the Peace Table"

November 21, 1942

Africa: The Bloody Question Mark of Centuries

I once heard Dr. Aggrey, the black South African, call Africa the question mark of the centuries. This bloody question mark has faced every civilized nation. No white nation has been moral enough to answer the Africans with justice and democracy.

Every world conqueror has tried to conquer Africa. But in time Africa has swallowed them all. If I were a Shakespeare, I would write a tragedy greater than Hamlet, greater than King Lear, greater than Macbeth. It would be called The Tragedy of Africa.

Out of Greece came Alexander the Great. He took the phalanx, developed by his father, and ran through the famous Persian Empire like Joe Louis’s fist going through tissue paper. He built Alexandria, in Egypt, as a monument to his power. It is said that Alexander wept because he couldn’t find any more worlds to conquer. Then he went to the foot of Mt. Olympus, where the gods of the Greeks lived, and told the gods to march forth and he’d take "heaven" by storm. But Africa swallowed the armies of the Greeks.

Napoleon, master of strategists, invaded Africa. He stood in front of the pyramids and said to his soldiers: "Twenty centuries look down upon you." But the African sands swallowed Napoleon’s army.

And now the armies of Hitler and Mussolini are being swallowed in the African sands. Yes, Black Boy, Africa will swallow many a white army after we are dead and gone.

The African Charter

… Every nation should rule itself. As old Abe Lincoln said: "No man is good enough to be master of another."

We want an Africa Charter. I see now that the Atlantic Charter doesn’t cover everything. I see why the Chinese and the Hindus are doubting Thomases. In this World War II we must clean the Germans and Italians out of Africa. Then at the peace table the English and French must be told to take their little suitcases and leave. We want Africa for the Africans. Come on with the African Charter.

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