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

Poems by Fenton Johnson in "The Book of American Negro Poetry" (1922)

Fenton Johnson


We are children of the sun,
  Rising sun!
Weaving Southern destiny,
Waiting for the mighty hour
When our Shiloh shall appear
With the flaming sword of right,
With the steel of brotherhood,
And emboss in crimson die
Liberty! Fraternity!

We are the star-dust folk,
  Striving folk!
Sorrow songs have lulled to rest;
Seething passions wrought through wrongs,
Led us where the moon rays dip
In the night of dull despair,
Showed us where the star gleams shine,
And the mystic symbols glow--
Liberty! Fraternity!

We have come through cloud and mist,
  Mighty men!
Dusk has kissed our sleep-born eyes,
Reared for us a mystic throne
In the splendor of the skies,
That shall always be for us,
Children of the Nazarene,
Children who shall ever sing
Liberty! Fraternity!


From a vision red with war I awoke and saw the Prince
    of Peace hovering over No Man's Land.
Loud the whistles blew and the thunder of cannon was
    drowned by the happy shouting of the people.
From the Sinai that faces Armageddon I heard this chant
    from the throats of white-robed angels:

  Blow your trumpets, little children!
  From the East and from the West,
  From the cities in the valley,
  From God's dwelling on the mountain,
  Blow your blast that Peace might know
  She is Queen of God's great army.
  With the crying blood of millions
  We have written deep her name
  In the Book of all the Ages;
  With the lilies in the valley,
  With the roses by the Mersey,
  With the golden flower of Jersey
  We have crowned her smooth young temples.
  Where her footsteps cease to falter
  Golden grain will greet the morning,
  Where her chariot descends
  Shall be broken down the altars
  Of the gods of dark disturbance.
  Nevermore shall men know suffering,
  Nevermore shall women wailing
  Shake to grief the God of Heaven.
  From the East and from the West,
  From the cities in the valley,
  From God's dwelling on the mountain,
  Little children, blow your trumpets!

From Ethiopia, groaning 'neath her heavy burdens, I
    heard the music of the old slave songs.
I heard the wail of warriors, dusk brown, who grimly
    fought the fight of others in the trenches of Mars.
I heard the plea of blood-stained men of dusk and the
    crimson in my veins leapt furiously.

  Forget not, O my brothers, how we fought
  In No Man's Land that peace might come again!
  Forget not, O my brothers, how we gave
  Red blood to save the freedom of the world!
  We were not free, our tawny hands were tied;
  But Belgium's plight and Serbia's woes we shared
  Each rise of sun or setting of the moon.
  So when the bugle blast had called us forth
  We went not like the surly brute of yore
  But, as the Spartan, proud to give the world
  The freedom that we never knew nor shared.
  These chains, O brothers mine, have weighed us down
  As Samson in the temple of the gods;
  Unloosen them and let us breathe the air
  That makes the goldenrod the flower of Christ.
  For we have been with thee in No Man's Land,
  Through lake of fire and down to Hell itself;
  And now we ask of thee our liberty,
  Our freedom in the land of Stars and Stripes.

I am glad that the Prince of Peace is hovering over No Man's Land.


I am tired of work; I am tired of building up somebody else's civilization.

Let us take a rest, M'Lissy Jane.

I will go down to the Last Chance Saloon, drink a gallon or two of gin,
shoot a game or two of dice and sleep the rest of the night on one of
Mike's barrels.

You will let the old shanty go to rot, the white people's clothes turn to
dust, and the Calvary Baptist Church sink to the bottomless pit.

You will spend your days forgetting you married me and your nights hunting
the warm gin Mike serves the ladies in the rear of the Last Chance Saloon.

Throw the children into the river; civilization has given us too many. It
is better to die than it is to grow up and find out that you are colored.

Pluck the stars out of the heavens. The stars mark our destiny. The stars
marked my destiny.

I am tired of civilization.


There is music in me, the music of a peasant people.
I wander through the levee, picking my banjo and singing
    my songs of the cabin and the field. At the
    Last Chance Saloon I am as welcome as the violets
    in March; there is always food and drink for me
    there, and the dimes of those who love honest music.
    Behind the railroad tracks the little children clap
    their hands and love me as they love Kris Kringle.

But I fear that I am a failure. Last night a woman
called me a troubadour. What is a troubadour?


Once I was good like the Virgin Mary and the Minister's wife.

My father worked for Mr. Pullman and white people's tips; but he died two
days after his insurance expired.

I had nothing, so I had to go to work.

All the stock I had was a white girl's education and a face that enchanted
the men of both races.

Starvation danced with me.

So when Big Lizzie, who kept a house for white men, came to me with tales
of fortune that I could reap from the sale of my virtue I bowed my head to Vice.

Now I can drink more gin than any man for miles around.

Gin is better than all the water in Lethe.

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