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

S. Miller Johnson, "Variations on a Black Theme" (1927)

Variations on a Black Theme 

By S. Miller Johnson, Illustrated by Wilbert Holloway 

I have seen my little black Nellie gal-all naked!
She was wearing a beach-robe of black and 
     gold over one-piece bathing togs of 
blue and white.
She was strolling and singing and dancing 
     'long a silver sand-clad river bank.
Trimmed with budding cane and tiny-
     leafed drooping willows.

   I saw the tilt of her plump black breast
     Beneath that robe of black and gold
   Would its young beauty stand the test
     Of flames that brown lips hold?

I'd like to take her lithe dark body in my arms 
And gently squeeze from it
Rich juices of poetry and song.
For she's a slim gay gal with a heart and a song and a smile,
With a strut and a love for jazz!

As Nellie was singing and strolling and 
     dancing 'long that silver sand-clad river bank,
She didn't see me sitting over there behind 
     those drooping willows that waved by 
the silver river.
She didn't know I was feasting on the de-
     licious rhythm of her liquid movements….
And the sweet charm of her soft slim body– 
Dark as the depths of Bantu-land
And as near the teeming earth where God is.

Nellie thought she was out there by herself
… nobody peeping.
For she looked as free as the tall slim pines
     brushing bits of white clouds from the
sky on the other side of the silver
As she skipped along that silver beach,
Her little black feet sinking up to her danc-
     ing ankles in silver sand.

Nellie threw back her head and smiled at her lover, the Sun.
She stretched her snake-like body up towards mighty heavens
She relaxed with a sigh in the arms of the sun-glow.
Ah! thought I, with a thrill and a jump.
The dance to the Sun and the Silver River!

She flung off her robe of black and gold
And danced to the Sun and the Silver River
A dance primitive as the earth, mother of 
She sang a song as she danced there in the 
     silver sand–
A song ripe with oldness and teeming with newness, 
     like the god-bearing earth,
'Neath pillared Angkor's mighty shades
     Her palm-like body sways in dance.
Now slow, now mad. The rhythm fades,
     Dissolves itself in air ... By chance

Her flowered tunic falls away,
     (The frantic dance goes on and on)
And shows her flesh in glad array
Adorned with gems from Askalon.

Nellie flung aside her suit of blue and white.
The Sun pretended to hide his face behind a
     little piece of white cloud.
But the sun was just fooling; he looked
     right through that veil of cloud at my
I got kind of jealous when the Sun looked
     at my Nellie with no clothes on.

Nellie danced on.
She shook herself,
Like a doe jumping up from good healthful
In shaded woodlands
By singing rivulets
And maiden springs–
Springs that whine like a brown gal longing
     for loving.
Nellie kept singing and dancing,
Singing a song mellow with many years,
     and new,–
Like the great god-bearing earth:

She floats in honey-tinted sighs,
     She trips about on wings of song.
Desire beckons her with cries
     Of, "Perfect happiness ere long!"

She's frankincense and myrrh, I ween.
     Her countenance is fair.
Her head the proudest ever seen
     Bedecked with silk-black hair.

Nellie's wild black hair fell loose,
Half veiling her beaming black face
Soft as finest chamois.

She lingered wantonly towards the edge of
     the silver water.
And placed her slender dark hands on her
     strong supple hips,
And gazed down upon her unclad self,
Her face aglow with mother-longing,
Like the mighty earth, mother of all the
     great gods of Black Folk.

With golden bracelets 'round her arm,
     A red rose in her hair,
Her soul is autumn-brown and warm.
     A poet's dream is living there.

Her darting, cutting, dashing eyes
     Half-closed, yet full of fire,
Ope wide, then close with mild surprise,
     To trap some some eager sire.

From side to side she swayed her comely hips,
Palm-like beneath the peeping giggling Sun.
Her step was firm, now weak, now pleading
To the Sun, her lover;
Now defiant, now ranting, now expressive of flight
Before her rival The Silver River.
The muscles of her swift black legs were taut,
Ready to run errands for her lover the Sun.

The soft curves of her neck,
The mellow outlines of her back
Flowed clearly . . . then confusedly,
As the dance got faster and faster.
I saw her dimpled knees, like smiling baby's cheeks.
I saw her tender breasts springing regularly,
Tipped with polished bronze,
Teeming with passion,
Pouting for love.

A drooping willow raised his drooping head
To feast his eyes on my Nellie dancing
     there naked on silver sand by the Silver
          River for her lover, the Sun.
I started to get kind of sore.
But I knew the old willow was too old to do any harm,
So I chanted:

     Do not disturb my very own.
     I'll let you stand afar and look
     At her whose soul is wine to me,
     A golden book, a soothing tone.

I saw her warm pert, laughing mouth.
I saw her right red lips
Magnetic, honey-clewed, half-parted,
Uncurtain the tips of her white, white teeth-
White like rice in a red-rimmed ebony bowl!
I saw her eyes smiling through her long black hair
Which hung all loose and lustrous in the Sun-glow.
I heard my Nellie say to her lover the Sun:

"Come love me now, come love me long."
And I saw the Sun run off giggling behind the clouds.
Nellie shrugged her shoulders
And thrust her fists in her cynical ribs,
And leaned slightly forward,
And sang with the voice of a low-down hag
The song of the Black Fates:

"Dark gal born
Of a dark, dark woman
Sho' bound to see dark days."

She plunged into the stream and swam against the tide,
While I gazed on, wrapt in celestial bliss, wild-eyed.

Published in The Messenger, May 1927

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