When I read the poem below, I think the jump from Gil Scott-Heron, who wrote "Whitey on the Moon," after all, to James Baldwin, is not so great a leap. Feeling the need for James Baldwin, I went to the poetry foundation for some examples, and before that hadn’t realized that he lived to see most of the 1980s (1924-1987). And that explains some of the references here, which are wide-ranging*. And get a load of how the relevance of such references has not dimmed in 30+ years! The allusions begin with his title, by the way, lifted from a well-known traditional blues song. Although Baldwin wrote poetry throughout his life, almost all of his published verse comes from a single volume, Jimmy’s Blues (1983).
This poem reminds us that, while Monday’s Verse is not a political forum, it will never be a site of appeasement.
One more plug for the Poetry Foundation’s website. When searching for some Baldwin poems, I came across a short essay by New Yorker writer Jia Tolentino, who says a lot about her relationship with poetry that hit personally for me. Stressing the importance of her non-expertise, for one thing, and how maybe it’s precisely her amateur openness that lets her love poems. You might enjoy it. It’s only about a page long, and the paragraph beginning "Not that I ever talk to anyone about poetry" is the one that sold it for me.
Have a great week,
*Know what would be really fun? If we went around taking turns unpacking those references… just everyone who feels so inclined pull out a single line that struck you, and say, hey, when he says "Uncas," he’s talking about a leader of the Mohegans in the pre-revolution colonies, who made treaties with the colonists, even sometimes against other tribes.
I always wonder
what they think the niggers are doing
while they, the pink and alabaster pragmatists,
and defining and re-defining and re-aligning
nobly restraining themselves, meanwhile,
from blowing up that earth
which they have already
blasphemed into dung:
the gentle, wide-eyed, cheerful
ladies, and their men,
nostalgic for the noble cause of Vietnam,
nostalgic for noble causes,
aching, nobly, to wade through the blood of savages—
Uncas shall never leave the reservation,
except to purchase whisky at the State Liquor Store.
The Panama Canal shall remain forever locked:
there is a way around every treaty.
We will turn the tides of the restless
the sun will rise, and set
on our hotel balconies as we see fit.
The natives will have nothing to complain about,
indeed, they will begin to be grateful,
will be better off than ever before.
They will learn to defer gratification
and save up for things, like we do.
Oh, yes. They will.
We have only to make an offer
they cannot refuse.
This flag has been planted on the moon:
it will be interesting to see
what steps the moon will take to be revenged
for this quite breathtaking presumption.
masturbate in winding sheets.
They have hacked their children to pieces.
They have never honoured a single treaty
made with anyone, anywhere.
The walls of their cities
are as foul as their children.
No wonder their children come at them with knives.
Mad Charlie man’s son was one of their children,
had got his shit together
by the time he left kindergarten,
and, as for Patty, heiress of all the ages,
she had the greatest vacation
of any heiress, anywhere:
Golly-gee, whillikens, Mom, real guns!
and they come with a real big, black funky stud, too:
oh, Ma! he’s making eyes at me!
Oh, noble Duke Wayne,
be careful in them happy hunting grounds.
They say the only good Indian
is a dead Indian,
by what I say is,
you can’t be too careful, you hear?
Oh, towering Ronnie Reagan,
wise and resigned lover of redwoods,
deeply beloved, winning man-child of the yearning Republic
from diaper to football field to Warner Brothers sound-stages,
be thou our grinning, gently phallic, Big Boy of all the ages!
Salt peanuts, salt peanuts,
for dear hearts and gentle people,
and cheerful, shining, simple Uncle Sam!
Nigger, read this and run!
Now, if you can’t read,
From Manifest Destiny
(Cortez, and all his men
silent upon a peak in Darien)
to A Decent Interval,
and the chopper rises above Saigon,
abandoning the noble cause
and the people we have made ignoble
and whom we leave there, now, to die,
one moves, With All Deliberate Speed,
to the South China Sea, and beyond,
where millions of new niggers
await glad tidings!
No, said the Great Man’s Lady,
I’m against abortion,
I always feel that’s killing somebody.
Well, what about capital punishment?
I think the death penalty helps.
Up to our ass in niggers
on Death Row.
don’t you cry for me!
Well, I guess what the niggers
is supposed to be doing
is putting themselves in the path
of that old sweet chariot
and have it swing down and carry us home.
That would help, as they say,
and they got ways
of sort of nudging the chariot.
They still got influence
with Wind and Water,
though they in for some surprises
with Cloud and Fire.
My days are not their days.
My ways are not their ways.
I would not think of them,
one way or the other,
did not they so grotesquely
block the view
between me and my brother.
And, so, I always wonder:
can blindness be desired?
Then, what must the blinded eyes have seen
to wish to see no more!
For, I have seen,
in the eyes regarding me,
or regarding my brother,
have seen, deep in the farthest valley
of the eye, have seen
a flame leap up, then flicker and go out,
have seen a veil come down,
leaving myself, and the other,
alone in that cave
which every soul remembers, and
out of which, desperately afraid,
I turn, turn, stagger, stumble out,
into the healing air,
fall flat on the healing ground,
singing praises, counselling
my heart, my soul, to praise.
What is it that this people
Surely, they cannot be deluded
as to imagine that their crimes
There is nothing in the least original
about the fiery tongs to the eyeballs,
the sex torn from the socket,
the infant ripped from the womb,
the brains dashed out against rock,
nothing original about Judas,
or Peter, or you or me: nothing:
we are liars and cowards all,
or nearly all, or nearly all the time:
for we also ride the lightning,
answer the thunder, penetrate whirlwinds,
curl up on the floor of the sun,
and pick our teeth with thunderbolts.
Then, perhaps they imagine
that their crimes are not crimes?
Perhaps that is why they cannot repent,
why there is no possibility of repentance.
Manifest Destiny is a hymn to madness,
feeding on itself, ending
(when it ends) in madness:
the action is blindness and pain,
pain bringing a torpor so deep
that every act is willed,
is desperately forced,
is willed to be a blow:
the hand becomes a fist,
the prick becomes a club,
the womb a dangerous swamp,
the hope, and fear, of love
is acid in the marrow of the bone.
No, their fire is not quenched,
nor can be: the oil feeding the flames
being the unadmitted terror of the wrath of God.
Yes. But let us put it in another,
less theological way:
though theology has absolutely nothing to do
with what I am trying to say.
But the moment God is mentioned
theology is summoned
to buttress or demolish belief:
an exercise which renders belief irrelevant
and adds to the despair of Fifth Avenue
on any afternoon,
the people moving, homeless, through the city,
praying to find sanctuary before the sky
and the towers come tumbling down,
before the earth opens, as it does in Superman.
They know that no one will appear
to turn back time,
they know it, just as they know
that the earth has opened before
and will open again, just as they know
that their empire is falling, is doomed,
nothing can hold it up, nothing.
We are not talking about belief.
I wonder how they think
the niggers made, make it,
how come the niggers are still here.
But, then, again, I don’t think they dare
to think of that: no:
I’m fairly certain they don’t think of that at all.
I with the alabaster lady of the house,
Beulah about sixty, built in four-square,
biceps like Mohammed Ali,
she at the stove, fixing biscuits,
scrambling eggs and bacon, fixing coffee,
pouring juice, and the lady of the house,
she say, she don’t know how
she’d get along without Beulah
and Beulah just silently grunts,
I reckon you don’t,
and keeps on keeping on
and the lady of the house say
She’s just like one of the family,
and Beulah turns, gives me a look,
sucks her teeth and rolls her eyes
in the direction of the lady’s back, and
keeps on keeping on.
While they are containing
and entering onto the quicksand of
the Caribbean plunder, and
the South China Sea booty,
the niggers are aware that no one has discussed
anything at all with the niggers.
Well. Niggers don’t own nothing,
got no flag, even our names
and you don’t change that
by calling yourself X:
sometimes that just makes it worse,
like obliterating the path that leads back
to whence you came, and
to where you can begin.
And, anyway, none of this changes the reality,
which is, for example, that I do not want my son
to die in Guantanamo,
or anywhere else, for that matter,
serving the Stars and Stripes.
(I’ve seen some stars.
I got some stripes.)
has anyone discussed the Bomb with the niggers:
the incoherent feeling is, the less
the nigger knows about the Bomb, the better:
the lady of the house
smiles nervously in your direction
as though she had just been overheard
discussing family, or sexual secrets,
and changes the subject to Education,
or Full Employment, or the Welfare rolls,
the smile saying, Don’t be dismayed.
We know how you feel. You can trust us.
Yeah. I would like to believe you.
But we are not talking about belief.
The sons of greed, the heirs of plunder,
are approaching the end of their journey:
it is amazing that they approach without wonder,
as though they have, themselves, become
that scorched and blasphemed earth,
the stricken buffalo, the slaughtered tribes,
the endless, virgin, bloodsoaked plain,
the famine, the silence, the children’s eyes,
murder masquerading as salvation, seducing
every democratic eye,
the mouths of truth and anguish choked with cotton,
rape delirious with the fragrance of magnolia,
the hacking of the fruit of their loins to pieces,
hey! the tar-baby sons and nephews, the high-yaller
andTom’s black prick hacked off
to rustle in crinoline,
to hang, heaviest of heirlooms,
between the pink and alabaster breasts
of the Great Man’s Lady,
or worked into the sash at the waist
of the high-yaller Creole bitch, or niece,
a chunk of shining brown-black satin,
staring, staring, like the single eye of God:
creation yearns to re-create a time
when we were able to recognize a crime.
my stricken kinsmen,
the party is over:
there have never been any white people,
anywhere: the trick was accomplished with mirrors—
look: where is your image now?
where your inheritance,
on what rock stands this pride?
I counsel you,
leave History alone.
She is exhausted,
sitting, staring into her dressing-room mirror,
and wondering what rabbit, now,
to pull out of what hat,
and seriously considering retirement,
even though she knows her public
dare not let her go.
She must change.
Yes. History must change.
A slow, syncopated
relentless music begins
suggesting her re-entry,
transformed, virginal as she was,
in the Beginning, untouched,
as the Word was spoken,
before the rape which debased her
to be the whore of multitudes, or,
as one might say, before she became the Star,
whose name, above our title,
carries the Show, making History the patsy,
responsible for every flubbed line,
every missed cue, responsible for the life
and death, of all bright illusions
and dark delusions,
Lord, History is weary
of her unspeakable liaison with Time,
for Time and History
have never seen eye to eye:
Time laughs at History
and time and time and time again
Time traps History in a lie.
But we always, somehow, managed
to roar History back onstage
to take another bow,
to justify, to sanctify
the journey until now.
Time warned us to ask for our money back,
and disagreed with History
as concerns colours white and black.
Not only do we come from further back,
but the light of the Sun
marries all colours as one.
I have seen you betray your Saviour
(it is you who call Him Saviour)
so many times, and
I have spoken to Him about you,
behind your back.
Quite a lot has been going on
behind your back, and,
if your phone has not yet been disconnected,
it will soon begin to ring:
informing you, for example, that a whole generation,
in Africa, is about to die,
and a new generation is about to rise,
and will not need your bribes,
or your persuasions, any more:
not your morality. No plundered gold—
Ah! Kinsmen, if I could make you see
the crime is not what you have done to me!
It is you who are blind,
you, bowed down with chains,
you, whose children mock you, and seek another
you, who cannot look man or woman or child in the
whose sleep is blank with terror,
for whom love died long ago,
somewhere between the airport and the safe-deposit
the buying and selling of rising or falling stocks,
you, who miss Zanzibar and Madagascar and Kilimanjaro
and lions and tigers and elephants and zebras
and flying fish and crocodiles and alligators and
and crashing waterfalls and endless rivers,
flowers fresher than Eden, silence sweeter than the
grace of God,
passion at every turning, throbbing in the bush,
thicker, oh, than honey in the hive,
opening, welcoming, aching from toe to bottom
sweet heaven on the line
to last forever, yes,
rejoicing ends, man, a price remains to pay,
your innocence costs too much
and we can’t carry you on our books
or our backs, any longer: baby,
find another Eden, another apple tree,
somewhere, if you can,
and find some other natives, somewhere else,
to listen to you bellow
till you come, just like a man,
but we don’t need you,
are sick of being a fantasy to feed you,
and of being the principal accomplice to your
for, it is your crime, now, the cross to which you
your Alpha and Omega for everything.
Well (others have told you)
your clown’s grown weary, the puppet master
is bored speechless with this monotonous disaster,
and is long gone, does not belong to you,
any more than my woman, or my child,
ever belonged to you.
During this long travail
our ancestors spoke to us, and we listened,
and we tried to make you hear life in our song
but now it matters not at all to me
whether you know what I am talking about—or not:
I know why we are not blinded
by your brightness, are able to see you,
who cannot see us. I know
why we are still here.
The niggers are calculating,
from day to day, life everlasting,
and wish you well:
but decline to imitate the Son of the Morning,
and rule in Hell.