Vachel Lindsay - Attitudes Towards Race

Attitudes Towards Race

Most contemporaries acknowledged Lindsay's intention to be an advocate for African-Americans. This intention was particularly evident in the 1918 poem "The Jazz Birds", praising the war efforts of African-Americans during World War I, an issue to which the vast majority of the white US seemed blind. Additionally, W.E.B. Du Bois hailed Lindsay's story "The Golden-Faced People" for its insights into racism. Lindsay saw himself as anti-racist not only in his own writing but in his encouragement of a writer; he credited himself with discovering Langston Hughes, who, while working as a busboy at a Washington, D.C. restaurant where Lindsay ate, gave Lindsay copies of his poems.

However, many contemporaries and later critics have contended over whether a couple of Lindsay's poems should be seen as homages to African and African-American music, as perpetuation of the "savage African" stereotype, or as both. DuBois, before reading and praising "the Golden-Faced People," wrote in a review of Lindsay's "Booker T. Washington Trilogy" that "Lindsay knows two things, and two things only, about Negroes: The beautiful rhythm of their music and the ugly side of their drunkards and outcasts. From this poverty of material he tries now and then to make a contribution to Negro literature." DuBois also criticized "The Congo," which has been the most persistent focus of the criticisms of racial stereotyping in Lindsay's work.

Subtitled "A Study of the Negro Race" and beginning with a section titled "Their Basic Savagery", "The Congo" reflects the tensions within a relatively isolated and pastoral society suddenly confronted by the industrialized world. The poem was inspired by a sermon preached in October 1913 that detailed the drowning of a missionary in the Congo River; this event had drawn worldwide criticism, as had the colonial exploitation of the Congo under the government of Leopold II of Belgium. Lindsay defended the poem; in a letter to Joel Spingarn, Chairman of the Board of Directors of the NAACP, Lindsay wrote that "My 'Congo' and 'Booker T. Washington Trilogy' have both been denounced by the Colored people for reasons that I cannot fathom....The third section of 'The Congo' is certainly as hopeful as any human being dare to be in regard to any race." Spingarn responded by acknowledging Lindsay's good intentions, but saying that Lindsay sometimes glamorized differences between people of African descent and people of other races, while many African-Americans wished to emphasize the "feelings and desires" that they held in common with others.

Similarly, critics in academia often portray Lindsay as a well-meaning but misguided primitivist in his representations of Africans and African Americans. One such critic, Rachel DuPlessis, argues that the poem, while perhaps meant to be "hopeful," actually "others" Africans as an inherently violent race. In the poem and in Lindsays's defenses of it, DuPlessis hears Lindsay warning white readers not to be "hoo-doo'd" or seduced by violent African "mumbo jumbo." This warning seems to suggest that white civilization has been "infected" by African violence; Lindsay thus, in effect, "blames blacks for white violence directed against them." Conversely, Susan Gubar notes approvingly that "the poem contains lines blaming black violence on white imperialism." While acknowledging that the poem seems to have given its author and audiences an excuse to indulge in "'romantic racism' or 'slumming in slang,'" she also observes that Lindsay was "much more liberal than many of his poetic contemporaries," and that he seems to have intended a statement against the kind of racist violence perpetrated under Leopold in the Congo.

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