James Weldon Johnson - Wikipedia
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" 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 s, 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.
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.
James Weldon Johnson
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 Lindsay was in fact widely regarded as a person of liberal and antiracist sympathies Ward , 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 , 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 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 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 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 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".
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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 s 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 A poem Lindsay wrote in the spring of 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:.
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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.
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M ember ship is by invitation only. Matted, black and white pictures of intellectuals and artists from the Harlem Renaissance graced the columns of the ballroom, and period silhouettes surrounded centerpiece globes lit with candles.
The mood was festive and memorable. Giving a special salute to Langston Hughes, tap dancer Terrance J. Bennett performed while State Sen. I dream a world…. Where love will bless the earth….
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Where greed no longer saps the soul…. Where wretchedness will hang its head. And joy, like pearl,. Attends the needs of all mankind…. Langston Hughes.