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

H.T. Johnson, "Man Burning" (1904)

Man Burning.

Like hungry tigers for the prey
They raged and rent the air,
Then with a wild and maddened rush
Sent terror everywhere.
What cared the mob for law's decree,
Or honor's plaintive cry,
'Twas out for blood, and each man swore
The prisoner must die.
In mad stampede the Court they awed
With pistol fire and yell,
The Judge and Sheriff, tip-staves all
Soon caught a glimpse of—
The Judge was hustled from the bench
The Sheriff seized and bound,
While cruel hands the pris'ner gagged
And hauled him like a hound.
In noontide's glare they bore the wretch
In full view of the crowd,
And piled the wood and poured the oil
That shaped his tragic shroud.
"Stand back the crowd!" the leader bawled,
With weapon cocked in hand;
"Make room for ladies and young folks!"
Rang out the stern command.
"Come ladies, girls and boys," he said,
"Gaze on the helpless dog;
We've got him fast, although he squirms,
We'll roast him like a hog.
Before we start the deadly blaze
We'll give the wretch a chance,
To own his crimes and say his prayers,
While ye around him dance.
Say culprit, your last time has come,
Have you a word to say,
So own your guilt and make your peace
Or sing, or preach or pray."
The prisoner upward glanced his eyes,
Then scanned the heartless crowd,
And dealt a blow of deep surprise
In answer clear and loud.
"I have no fears to meet my God,
The crime you charge to me
Was done by him who led this mob
To hide his infamy.
I saw this red-faced bully here,
As he struck the blow and ran;
I heard the struggling woman cry,
0 save me, if you can!
No woman's cries e'er reach my ears
Unless I answer make;
If I must die for aiding her,
1 die for honor's sake.
Soon as I saw that she was dead
I gave chase to her slayer,
Who chased the wind in lightning speed
Spurred on by guilt and fear.
He met a crowd of roadside men
And to them told a tale,
When all at once they turned on me
And shouted, 'Give him hail.'
They opened fire, but missed the mark;
Then I began to shoot
In self-defense and got my man,
But not the guilty brute.
Now if for these brave deeds of mine
You mean my flesh to burn,
I have but this last word to say,
To-day, it is your turn.
But he who marks the sparrow's fall,
And numbers every strand,
Will pour his wrath in judgment dread
On all who round me stand."
They lit the fire and burnt his flesh,
And kicked his quivering frame
Until all left of mortal life
Had slumbered in the flame.
They scrambled mid the ashes pale
Before the heat had left,
And fought for bits of relics rare
Like curs of wits bereft.
The ladies laughed and children cheered
In joyous, ghoulish glee,
No circus train had brought such sport
For folks to hear or see.
But nature settles not like men;
She takes her own good time,
And turns the vial when 'tis full
On heads of blood-guilt crime.
Marked from that day with vengeance pen
Was each foul lyncher's head,
And God's true archers drew the arm
Which reckoned for the dead.
Within the space of one twelvemonth
From that man-burning day,
Each lyncher's soul was summoned hence
In some unnatural way.
As each lost spirit sped the bounds
Of the infernal gate,
God's vengeful demons waiting stood
To sink him to his fate.
The sure results of what he sowed
The lyncher now doth reap,
The fires he built for man on earth
For him will devils keep.
A genuine sheet of raging fire
Shall be the lyncher's bed,
And he who burnt his brother's flesh
Shall with hell-fire be fed.
So lynchers take a fool's advice,
And henceforth from this day
Let reason curb thy passion wild,
And justice have its sway.

Published in Wings of Ebony, 1904

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