African American Poetry (1870-1928): A Digital Anthology

Fenton Johnson, "Ethiopia" (1915)


O minstrel lyre of ancient Ethiop,
Whose flaming song awoke the Orient,
O long forgotten harp, whose mouldering strings
Hath once enthralled the hearts of warriors,
I pray thee let my burning fingers press
Thee once again that I may sing my song
Ere from my veins the warmth of life hath flown.
O minstrel lyre, no longer do the kings
On couch of leopard skins await thy hour;
The Gods are dead, our ancient glory dust,
Our altars broken, and our people gone, —
Gone whence men quaff the wine of melting pot.
O, Libya, for thee the Prophet longs,
O Egypt, born of Sphinx and shadow forms,
O Ethiop, the flame of desert sands,
Thy hour! Thy hour! Oh, when shall come thy hour?
I touch the ancient lyre, and burning sing
The song of Ethiopia the Queen,
The song of her who sits among the gates,
Her eye upon the dawn of liberty and hope.


The groves of Libya with perfume droop,
The dancing maidens, born of dusk and dew,
Before the flame their wierdest chants have raised,
The moon that lives for love and love alone
From the vale within the sky beholds the earth;
On throne of cedar, ophyr, and of gold
The jewelled monarch sits, a man of dusk,
Too opulent of war and cruelty,
Too drunk with power, too weak for noble deeds,
His star the strength that lives in mighty arms,
That sweeps before it all the tribes of earth
He is the morning of the human race,
The first sweet cup of wine existence drinks,
And on the altar luxury he falls,
A broken goblet in the hands of Time.
(Of such has been the human chronicle,
The Caesars, Ptolemies, Alexanders fall,
Great Pompey is the dust of long ago,
And star swept Bonaparte hath met his doom.)
Behind a Northern Chariot the king
With chains of gold around his ebon neck
Must grace the triumph of his enemy,
His people must in slavery bend low, —
The moon of love hath died within the East.
A stranger walks within the grove enow;
But in the years to come that stranger falls
Before another. — So the will of God
Removes the nations, races, and the tribes,
Lest man should be the peer of God Himself.


I hear the martial beat of long ago,
The clash of steel, the tread of Persian hordes.
O Ethiop, how desolate thy shores!
How deep into oblivion thy star!
Thy children's children shall forget thy name,
Forget thy altars, and thy sacred fires,
For from the parching sands of Araby,
Mohammed rides with death or Allah's law.
The wandering tribes of Abyssinia, —
From whence the Sheban queen her journey made, —
Alone survive the glory of the past,
But not the mandates of our ancient gods.
The haughty race that built the pyramids,
That chained the lion and the leopard cub,
With bleeding wounds are prostrate to the West;
In bondage to the priest of Christ and love
Exiled the men of dusk must dwell a day.
The pale and yellow haired from distant shores
Rob Ghana of her bronze and Congo land
Yields tortured slaves to grace a Christian age.
O, World Anew, from splendours barbaric,
From fields of cocoa and of drooping date,
From houses built of sunkist bamboo straw
Thou bringest fathers of a newer race,
Their wrists engyved, their souls in bitterness.
O Mighty Universal Diety,
Upon these exiles pour thy wond'rous love,
For sorrow shall be theirs and loneliness
Among a people who forget the name
Of star-crowned Ethiop and Nubia


The chains that man hath forged the heavens break,
Divine is liberty the slaves achieve;
And Hayti smoulders with the flames of dusk,
Her saviour loving Toussaint, prince of men.
The years may glide beyond the tide of time,
The stars may dim with age, and life grow faint,
But all the sons of men shall not forget
The Western Nazarene who died with love
For those whose treachery caused his death.
O Toussaint, may thy grave be ever green
With wreaths from all oppressed throughout the world,
May fifty thousand drums reveille roll,
A tribute to thy precious memory.
With thee the renaissance of Ethiop
Achieved, like other fires, was quenched awhile;
The cruel splendour Christophe embraced,
The anarchy that followed Citadels
Was not of thee, or thine, great Star of Dusk.
Thy message came to old Virginia's woods,
"Ah! Freemen shall we be", gaunt Turner cries
And with the courage of the patriot
He fought a day to give our land the glow
Of liberty, fraternity, and love.
He fought a day, and died a traitor's death,
But bright his halo, green his laurel crown.
Each blow for freedom struck is freedom's gain,
And Ethiop shall yet stretch forth her hand.


When Night surrounds the slave, and hope lies cold,
The daytime breaks and Frederic is borne
On Fortune's tide to plead the cause of right.
Men marvel that a lowly son of dusk
Could move to tears the hardened soul of greed,
And crown his massive brow with laurel wreath.
His heart rejoiced when war destroyed the chains
That kept to earth his brothers of the dusk,
And when the sun of Freedom shone awhile
He marched abreast with Toil to save his race
Ah! hear the bells a-ringing through the world,
"The slave is free! Grim bondage dies to-night!"
O blessed war, that saved humanity,
That gave the men of dusk the freemen's right,
How many sons of Ethiop were thine!
How many fell with Shaw ere peace returned!
Their graves unknown, who strews for them sweet flowers?
Who keeps their memory with incense fresh?
How many when young Cuba, lashed by Spain,
A greater country saved, were lost at war!
No truer soldiers live than men of dusk,
No better lovers of the starry flag.
No hope is theirs but welfare of the world,
No honours for the fighters of the dusk,
Are these rewards, O great America?
Obscurity, oppression, bitter scorn,
The right to serve, but never right to share.
Give us our liberty or give us death!


And now that Freedom's orb so brightly burns
From crimson clay in old Virginia soil
Sweet Nature moulds another Washington;
Upon his brow she sets a flaming star,
Upon his lips the fire that never dies,
And smiles when men before his gospel bow, —
"The hand of toil alone will rule the world."
O Washington, may day upon us break!
May great America at last be free,
And true democracy where work is law
A common gift to all humanity.
Tuskegee's glory through the ages lives
The light that makes Columbia a queen
Among the toiling nations of the earth,
Tuskegee stands a stone in Jaeob's dream,
A ladder leading to the Gates of Pearl, —
Washington alone hath laid the stone.


There sits aloft among the jaspar gates
Far famed the brooding spirit of his race,
A gentle soul by grim injustice wracked
He looks in vain for hope, though he is hope.
O Ethiopia, in him thy King,
Thy weaver of the vision glorious,
Thy lover begging for thy liberty.
When Nature moulded him she chose a clay
So fine it could not bear a cruel storm;
But shaped his ponderous brow for laurel wreath.
In ages yet unborn the child of dusk
In reverence shall bow to Burghardt's name,
And all the world shall love a patriot.


O sons of Libya, thy name will live
The bearers of the Cross on Calvary;
Around thee wrapt the mantle of the dusk,
In thee the world will find another dawn,
Around thee shall the hour of twilight glow,
When day upon thee breaks a golden throne
Awaits thee in the land of rising sun,
Thy faith, thy deeds, thy love for fellow men
Shall be thy sceptre and thy coronet,
Before thee shall the vaunting nations bow
In reverence to crowned humility.
And thus I sing the song of Ethiop
Though I am dwelling in a stranger's land,
A lonely minstrel, born to serve and love
Throughout the world his fellows of the dusk.

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