Ironically, American poet Vachel Lindsay, also wrote one of his most famous, and widely-criticized poems, “The Congo: A Study of the Negro Race,” in “a rhythmic structure based on African-American speech rhythms and jazz” (web). Lindsay considered by many to be the founding father of performance art, was considered a liberal during his time and was described as a “benevolent spirit.” In “The Congo” he elaborately and theatrically describes the broadly defined “Negro Race” in stereotypically savage, animalistic and violent terms. The first stanza describes “their basic savagery” opening the passage with “Fat black bucks in a wine-barrel room,” as the poem progresses to detailing images of religious practices being performed as “cannibals danced in files;” all the while he warns the white man to “be careful what you do, or mumbo-jumbo, God of the Congo. . . will hoo-doo you.” In section II, Lindsay describes the negroes’ “Irrepressible High Spirits” and paints a circus-like scene of “wild crap shooters” who “danced the juba in their gambling-hall.” This vision transitions into a fantasized “negro fairyland” and “a minstrel river” featuring laughing blacks and a “baboon butler.” By the time the reader gets to his mention of the “Coal-black maidens with pearls in their hair” Vachel Lindsay has force-fed his audience more than their share of eco-racial porn. Written between 1914 and 1915, approximately a half a century after the abolition of slavery, “The Congo” portrays the black race as nothing more than primitive. Meanwhile, in the very same state of Illinois where Lindsay lived, there was a thriving community of black coal miners, who worked in the same trade with white miners, a far cry from the mythical, men of the Congo that he describes in his poem. Perhaps the influx of blacks to the northern part of the United States due to the availability of jobs in the coal industry during this era accounted for the fear and distinction of blacks as “foreign” and “other” in “The Congo” (Lestra, 26).
Perhaps Lindsay’s vision of the black race as less than human, and other, is not unlike the stereotyping and denial of institutionalized racism that pervades current social injustices and inequities the coal-mining industry. In 1920, around the same time that Lindsay wrote “The Congo,” “96 percent of blacks living in Central Appalachia resided in the 16 coal counties” (Lewis, 6). The history of race in the West Virginia coal mining industry was clearly alluded to in Good’s poem. An inclusion of race matters in the discussion of the coal mining industry, one that has such a historically rich relationship with race, class and the history of colonialism, is of utmost importance. Ultimately a re-reading of the past, through the acknowledgement of the history of racial oppression specific to the United States, will lead to an improvement in current and future race and labor relations.
Edwards, David. “West Virginia Official Tries to Censor Poem on ‘industrial Homicide’ of Coal Miners.” West Virginia Official Tries to Censor Poem on ‘industrial Homicide’ of Coal Miners. The Raw Story, 9 Mar. 2014. Web. 02 May 2014.
Good, Crystal. “Black Diamonds.” Crystal Good. Crystal Good, n.d. Web. 02 May 2014.
Hendryx, Michael. “Mortality Rates in Appalachian Coal Mining Counties: 24 Years Behind the Nation.” Environmental Justice 1.1 (2008): 5-11. Print.
Lenstra, Noah. “The African-American Mining Experience in Illinois from 1800 to 1920.” IDEALS @ Illinois:. University of Illinois, 2 Feb. 2009. Web. 02 May 2014. .
Lewis, Ronald L. “From Peasant to Proletarian: The Migration of Southern Blacks to the Central Appalachian Coalfields.” The Journal of Southern History 55.1 (1989): 77-102. JSTOR. Web. 02 May 2014.
Lindsay, Vachel. “The Congo: A Study of the Negro Race.” Poetry Foundation. Poetry Foundation, n.d. Web. 09 May 2014.
“Vachel Lindsay.” Poetry Foundation. Poetry Foundation, n.d. Web. 02 May 2014.