Georgia Douglas Johnson, "Bronze" (Full Text) (1922)
Foreword by W.E.B. Du BOIS
Those who know what it means to be a colored woman in 1922 — and know it not so much in fact as in feeling, apprehension, unrest and delicate yet stern thought — must read Georgia Douglas Johnson’s Bronze. Much of it will not touch this reader and that, and some of it will mystify and puzzle them as a sort of reiteration and over-emphasis. But none can fail to be caught here and there by a word — a phrase — a period that tells a life history or even paints the history of a generation. Can you not see that marching of the mantled with
"Voices strange to ecstasy?"
Have you ever looked on the “twilight faces” of their throngs, or seen the black mother with her son when
"Her heart is sandaling his feet?"
Or can you not conceive that infinite sorrow of a dark child wandering the world:
"Seeking the breast of an unknown face!"
I hope Mrs. Johnson will have wide reading. Her word is simple, sometimes trite, but it is singularly sincere and true, and as a revelation of the soul struggle of the women of a race it is invaluable.
W. E. B. Du BOIS. New York, August 4, 1922.
* * *
Sonnet to the Mantled
And they shall rise and cast their mantles by,
Erect and strong and visioned, in the day
That rings the knell of Curfew o'er the sway
Of prejudice — who reels with mortal cry
To lift no more her leprous, blinded eye.
Reft of the fetters, far more cursed than they
Which held dominion o'er human clay.
The spirit soars aloft where rainbows lie.
Like joyful exiles swift returning home —
The rhythmic chanson of their eager feet.
While voices strange to ecstasy, long dumb.
Break forth in major rhapsodies, full sweet.
Into the very star-shine, lo! they come
Wearing the bays of victory complete!
Sonnet to Those Who See But Darkly
Their gaze uplifting from shoals of despair
Like phantoms groping enswathed from the light
Up from miasmic depths, children of night,
Surge to the piping of Hope's dulcet lay,
Souled like the lily, whose splendors declare
God's mazèd paradox — purged of all blight.
Out from the quagmire, unsullied and fair.
Life holds her arms o'er the festering way,
Smiles, as their faith-sandalled rushes prevail,
Slowly the sun rides the marge of the day.
Wine to the lips sorely anguished and pale;
On, ever on, do the serried ranks sway
Charging the ultimate, rending the veil.
Come, brothers all!
Shall we not wend
The blind-way of our prison-world
By sympathy entwined?
Shall we not make
The bleak way for each other's sake
Less rugged and unkind?
O let each throbbing heart repeat
The faint note of another's beat
To lift a chanson for the feet
That stumble down life's checkered street.
Let Me Not Lose My Dream
Let me not lose my dream, e’en though I scan the veil
with eyes unseeing through their glaze of tears,
Let me not falter, though the rungs of fortune perish
as I fare above the tumult, praying purer air,
Let me not lose the vision, gird me. Powers that toss
the worlds, I pray!
Hold me, and guard, lest anguish tear my dreams
Let Me Not Hate
Let me not hate, although the bruising world decries my peace,
Gives me no quarter, hounds me while I sleep;
Would snuff the candles of my soul and sear my inmost dreamings.
Let me not hate, though girt by vipers, green and hissing through the dark;
I fain must love. God help me keep the altar-gleams that flicker wearily, anon,
On down the world’s grim night!
The right to make my dreams come true
I ask, nay, I demand of life,
Nor shall fate’s deadly contraband
Impede my steps, nor countermand.
Too long my heart against the ground
Has beat the dusty years around,
And now, at length, I rise, I wake!
And stride into the morning-break !
Ope! ye everlasting doors, unto my soul’s demand,
I would go forward, fare beyond these dusty boulevards,
Faint lights and fair allure me all insistently
And I must stand within the halls resplendent, of my dreams.
Hear their viol-voices ringing
Down the corridor of years,
As they lift their twilight faces
Through a mist of falling tears!
All day the world’s mad mocking strife,
The venomed prick of probing knife,
The baleful, subtle leer of scorn
That rims the world from morn to morn,
While reptile-visions writhe and creep
Into the very arms of sleep
To quench the fitful burnished gleams:
A crucifixion in my dreams!
These fell miasmic rings of mist, with ghoulish menace bound,
Like noose-horizons tightening my little world around,
They still the soaring will to wing, to dance, to speed away.
And fling the soul insurgent back into its shell of clay:
Beneath incrusted silences, a seething Etna lies.
The fire of whose furnaces may sleep — but never dies!
This spirit-choking atmosphere
With deadly serpent-coil
Entwines my soaring-upwardness
And chains me to the soil,
Where’er I seek with eager stride
To gain yon gleaming height,
These noisesome fetters coil aloft
And snare my buoyant flight.
O, why these aspirations bold,
These rigours of desire.
That surge within so ceaselessly
Like living tongues of fire?
And why these glowing forms of hope
That scintillate and shine,
If naught of all that burnished dream
Can evermore be mine?
It cannot be, fate does not mock,
And man’s untoward decree
Shall not forever thus confine
My life’s entirety,
My every fibre fierce rebels
Against this servile role,
And all my being broods to break
This death-grip from my soul!
My heart is pregnant with a great despair
With much beholding of my people’s care,
‘Mid blinded prejudice and nurtured wrong,
Exhaling wantonly the days along:
I mark Faith’s fragile craft of cheering light
Tossing imperiled on the sea of night,
And then, enanguished, comes my heart’s low cry,
“God, God! I crave to learn the reason why!”
Again, in spirit loftily I soar
With winged vision through earth’s outer door.
In such an hour, it is mine to see,
In frowning fortune smiling destiny!
Oh, black man, why do you northward roam, and leave
all the farm lands bare?
Is your house not warm, tightly thatched from storm,
and a larder replete your share?
And have you not schools, fit with books and tools the
steps of your young to guide?
Then what do you seek, in the north cold and bleak,
‘mid the whirl of its teeming tide?
I have toiled in your cornfields, and parched in the sun,
I have bowed ‘neath your load of care,
I have patiently garnered your bright golden grain, in
season of storm and fair.
With a smile I have answered your glowering gloom,
while my wounded heart quivering bled.
Trailing mute in your wake, as your rosy dawn breaks,
while I curtain the mound of my dead.
Though my children are taught in the schools you have
wrought, they are blind to the sheen of the sky,
For the brand of your hand, casts a pall o’er the land,
that enshadows the gleam of the eye.
My sons, deftly sapped of the brawn-hood of man, self-
rejected and impotent stand,
My daughters, unhaloed, unhonored, undone, feed the
lust of a dominant land.
I would not remember, yet could not forget, how the
hearts beating true to your own.
You’ve tortured, and wounded, and filtered their blood
‘till a budding Hegira has blown.
Unstrange is the pathway to Calvary’s hill, which I
wend in my dumb agony,
Up its perilous height, in the pale morning light, to
dissever my own from the tree.
And so I’m away, where the sky-line of day sets the
arch of its rainbow afar,
To the land of the north, where the symbol of worth
sets the broad gates of combat ajar!
The Passing of the Ex-Slave
Swift melting into yesterday,
The tortured hordes of ebon-clay;
No more is heard the plaintive strain,
The rhythmic chaunting of their pain.
Their mounded bodies dimly rise
To fill the gulf of sacrifice,
And o’er their silent hearts below
The mantled millions softly go.
Some few remaining still abide.
Gnarled sentinels of time and tide.
Now mellowed by a chastened glow
Which lighter hearts will never know.
Winding into the silent way,
Spent with the travail of the day,
So royal in their humble might
These uncrowned Pilgrims of the Night!
One drop of midnight in the dawn of life’s pulsating stream
Marks her an alien from her kind, a shade amid its gleam;
Forevermore her step she bends insular, strange, apart —
And none can read the riddle of her wildly warring heart.
The stormy current of her blood beats like a mighty sea
Against the man-wrought iron bars of her captivity.
For refuge, succor, peace and rest, she seeks that humble fold
Whose every breath is kindliness, whose hearts are purest gold.
(To You — Everywhere! Dedicated)
They seem to smile as others smile, the masquerader’s art
Conceals them, while, in verity, they’re eating out their heart.
Betwixt the two contending stones of crass humanity
They lie, the fretted fabric of a dual dynasty.
A single drop, a sable strain debars them from their own,-—
The others — fold them furtively, but God! they are alone.
Blown by the fickle winds of fate far from the traveled mart
To die, when they have quite consumed the morsel of their heart.
When man shall lift his lowered eyes to meet the moon of truth,
Shall break the shallow shell of pride and wax in ways of ruth,
He cannot hate, for love shall reign untrammelled in the soul,
While peace shall spread a rainbow o’er the earth from pole to pole.
Nor shall I in sorrow repine,
But offer a paean of praise
To the infinite God of my days
Who marshals the pivoting spheres
Through the intricate maze of the years,
Who loosens the luminous flood
That lightens the purlieus of men,
I shall not in sorrow repine
To break the eternal Amen!
The mother soothes her mantled child
With incantation sad and wild;
A deep compassion brims her eye
And stills upon her lips, the sigh.
Her thoughts are leaping down the years,
O’er branding bars, through seething tears,
Her heart is sandaling his feet
Adown the world’s corroding street.
Then, with a start she dons a smile
His tender yearnings to beguile.
And only God will ever know
The wordless measure of her woe.
Perhaps— and yet
I cannot say with surety
That I am happy thus to be
Responsible for this young life’s embarking.
Is he not thrall to prevalent conditions?
Does not the day loom dark apace
To weave its cordon of disgrace
Around his lifted throat?
Is not this mezzotint enough and surfeit
For such prescience?
Ah, did I dare
Recall the pulsing life I gave,
And fold him in the kindly grave!
Perhaps — could I but ever so faintly scan
The broad horizon of a man
Swept fair for his dominion —
So hesitant and half-afraid
I view this babe of sorrow!
Don’t knock at my door, little child,
I cannot let you in.
You know not what a world this is
Of cruelty and sin.
Wait in the still eternity
Until I come to you,
The world is cruel, cruel, child,
I cannot let you in!
Don’t knock at my heart, little one,
I cannot bear the pain
Of turning deaf-ear to your call
Time and time again!
You do not know the monster men
Inhabiting the earth.
Be still, be still, my precious child,
I must not give you birth!
"One of the Least of These, My Little One"
The infant eyes look out amazed upon the frowning earth,
A stranger, in a land now strange, child of the mantled-birth;
Waxing, he wonders more and more; the scowling grows apace;
A world, behind its barring doors, reviles his ebon face:
Yet from this maelstrom issues forth a God-like entity.
That loves a world all loveless, and smiles on Calvary!
Shall I Say, "My Son, You're Branded?"
Shall I say, “My son, you’re branded in this country’s pageantry,
By strange subtleties you’re tethered, and no forum sets you free?”
Shall I mark the young lights fading through your soul-enchannelled eye,
As the dusky pall of shadows screen the highway of your sky?
Or shall I, with love prophetic, bid you dauntlessly arise.
Spurn the handicap that clogs you, taking what the world denies,
Bid you storm the sullen fortress wrought by prejudice and wrong
With a faith that shall not falter, in your heart and on your tongue!
I hear you singing happily,
My boy of tarnished mien,
Lifting your limpid, trustful gaze
In innocence serene.
A thousand javelins of pain
Assault my heaving breast
When I behold the storm of years
That beat without your nest.
O sing, my lark, your matin song
Of joyous rhapsody,
Distil the sweetness of the hours
In gladsome ecstasy.
For time awaits your buoyant flight
Across the bar of years.
Sing, sing your song, my bonny lark,
Before it melts in tears!
That dusky child upon your knee
Is breath of God’s eternity;
Direct his vision to the height —
Let naught obscure his royal right.
Although the highways to renown
Are iron-barred by fortune’s frown,
‘Tis his to forge the master-key
That wields the locks of destiny!
God grant you wider vision, clearer skies, my son,
With morning’s rosy kisses on your brow;
May your wild yearnings know repose,
And storm-clouds break to smiles
As you sweep on with spreading wings
Unto a waiting sunset!
The very acme of my woe,
The pivot of my pride,
My consolation, and my hope
Deferred, but not denied.
The substance of my every dream,
The riddle of my plight,
The very world epitomized
In turmoil and delight.
Go forth, my son,
Winged by my heart’s desire!
Great reaches, yet unknown,
For your possession.
I may not, if I would.
Retrace the way with you,
My pilgrimage is through,
But life is calling you!
Fare high and far, my son,
A new day has begun.
Thy star-ways must be won!
I believe in the ultimate justice of Fate;
That the races of men front the sun in their turn;
That each soul holds the title to infinite wealth
In fee to the will as it masters itself;
That the heart of humanity sounds the same tone
In impious jungle, or sky-kneeling fane.
I believe that the key to the life-mystery
Lies deeper than reason and further than death.
I believe that the rhythmical conscience within
Is guidance enough for the conduct of men.
Through the moil and the gloom they have issued
To the steps of the upwinding hill,
Where the sweet, dulcet pipes of tomorrow
In their preluding rhapsodies trill.
With a thud comes a stir in the bosom,
As there steals on the sight from afar,
Through a break of a cloud’s coiling shadow
The gleam of a bright morning star!
Long have I beat with timid hands upon life’s leaden door,
Praying the patient, futile prayer my fathers prayed before,
Yet I remain without the close, unheeded and unheard,
And never to my listening ear is borne the waited word.
Soft o’er the threshold of the years there comes this counsel cool:
The strong demand, contend, prevail; the beggar is a fool!
Frail children of sorrow, dethroned by a hue,
The shadows are flecked by the rose sifting through,
The world has its motion, all things pass away.
No night is omnipotent, there must be day.
The oak tarries long in the depth of the seed,
But swift is the season of nettle and weed.
Abide yet awhile in the mellowing shade.
And rise with the hour for which you were made.
The cycle of seasons, the tidals of man
Revolve in the orb of an infinite plan.
We move to the rhythm of ages long done,
And each has his hour — to dwell in the sun!
Not wholly this or that,
Of alien bloods am I,
A product of the interplay
Of traveled hearts.
Estranged, yet not estranged, I stand
From my estate
I view earth’s frail dilemma;
Scion of fused strength am I,
Nor this nor that
How deftly does the gardener blend
This rose and that
To bud a new creation,
More gorgeous and more beautiful
Than any parent portion,
I trace within my warring blood
The tributary sources,
They potently commingle
With new-born forces!
I shall be glad that it was mine to be
A dark fore-runner of a race burgeoning;
I then shall know
The secret of life’s Calvary,
And bless the thorns
That wound me!
When I Rise Up
When I rise above the earth,
And look down on the things that fetter me,
I beat my wings upon the air.
Or tranquil lie,
Surge after surge of potent strength
Like incense comes to me
When I rise up above the earth
And look down upon the things that fetter me.
The faint lose faith
When in the tomb their all is laid,
And there returns
No echoing of weal or woe.
The strong hope on,
They see the clods close over head,
The grass grow green.
No word is said.
And yet —
A little world within the world
Daily our hearts’ high yearnings fade,
New ones are made, —
And yet —
We Face the Future
The hour is big with sooth and sign, with errant men at war,
While blood of alien, friend, and foe imbues the land afar,
And we, with sable faces pent, move with the vanguard line.
Shod with a faith that Springtime keeps, and all the stars opine.
Though I should weep until the judgment,
How would it serve —
Brave men are fighting, women speed them,
‘Tis a day
Of crucial conflict!
My son, sometimes it seems I’d rather hold
You safe beneath my heart
Than send you forth!
But lo! The sun is red and weaker children go!
Though I should weep until the judgment.
How would it serve!
I’ll close my eyes and smile, O Son of Mine,
Your cause is kingly!
Step proud and confident, worthy your mother;
Be firm and brave, O Son of Mine, be strong.
For terror waxeth,
Speed swift away.
Though I should weep until the judgment . . .
There’s music in the measured tread
Of those returning from the dead
Like scattered flowers from a plain
So lately crimson, with the slain.
No more the sound of shuffled feet
Shall mark the poltroon on the street,
Nor shifting, sodden, downcast eye
Reveal the man afraid to die.
They shall have paid full, utterly
The price of peace across the sea,
When, with uplifted glance, they come
To claim a kindly welcome home.
Nor shall the old-time daedal sting
Of prejudice, their manhood wing.
Nor heights, nor depths, nor living streams
Stand in the pathway of their dreams!
They are embosomed in the sod,
In still and tranquil leisure,
Their lives they’ve cast like trifles down,
To serve their country’s pleasure.
Nor bugle call, nor mother’s voice.
Nor moody mob’s unreason,
Shall break their solace and repose
Through swiftly changing season.
O graves of men who lived and died
Afar from life’s high pleasures,
Fold them in tenderly and warm
With manifold fond measures.
Peace on a thousand hills and dales,
Peace in the hearts of men
While kindliness reclaims the soil
Where bitterness has been.
The night of strife is drifting past,
The storm of shell has ceased.
Disrupted is the cordon fell,
Sweet charity released.
Forth from the shadow, swift we come
Wrought in the flame together.
All men as one beneath the sun
In brotherhood forever.