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  • Harlem John Henry Views the Airmada1
  • Alice Dunbar-Nelson

The Crisis, January 1932

Harlem John Henry mused into the sky, “Beauty must be, must be, else life is dust.” Outspread white wings that cleave the sullen gray, Myriads of double wings, swooping on in threes, Darting tralineate, far, near, in threes,        5 Twelve, thirty, sixty. And converges now A flock of eagles, zooming crescendo roars; In threes and twelves, thrice tens, and six times ten; Six hundred more make dark the air, and cloud That lone sarcophagus commemorative of him        10 Who cried in pain of soul, “Let us have peace!”

Beauty must be. But is this threat beauty? Harlem John Henry hears the sinister drone Of sextuples of planes. Sings jeeringly—       15

  “I’ve got wings,   You’ve got wings,   All God’s chillen got wings!”                    20

Lowers his gaze from dun rain-clouds of May, Where scarring wings insult the quiet of spring, And laughs aloud at that white pediment, On whose Corinthian beauty blazons tall The hope-fraught words that make the Hudson sneer,       25 And Harlem John Henry rock with mirthless mirth.

Beauty and peace? Beauty and War? Yet no. Beyond the clouds that drift athwart the wings, An ancient scene seeps in John Henry’s soul.       30 Above the crashing zoom of mighty sound, John Henry hears a throbbing, vibrant note— [End Page 399]

  “Boom ba boom boom   Boom ba boom boom     Boom ba boom!”       35

Jungle bamboula beats the undertone To all that fierce hoarse hiss above the sky. Cruel corsairs of foul, slave-weighted ships; Deep-throated wails from black, stench-crowded depths——       40

  “Sometimes I feel like a motherless child,   Sometimes I feel like a motherless child,   Sometimes I feel like a motherless child,     A long ways from home!”       45

Beauty must be, must be, beauty, not death. Harlem John Henry shivers. A gusty blast, March winds benumbing Boston streets of old; Crispus, the mighty, gone Berserk again,       50 Cursing his rage at red-coats’ insolence, Smiting a first wild blow for Liberty, Dying, his face turned to the bullets’ spirt.

  “Joshua fit de battle of Jericho, Jericho, Jericho!       55   Joshua fit de battle of Jericho,   An’ de walls come tumblin’ down!”

Surcease of weary strife. An infant land That marched erect to wealth on lowly backs.       60 Harlem John Henry’s soul flowed to the past; Zoom-zoom, resounding from the lowering sky, Throbs like the bass-viol in the symphony—

  “Go down, Moses, way down in Egypt’s land,       65   Tell ol’ Pharaoh, let my people go!”

“Peace will be served by this, this airmada, For me and mine, they said,” John Henry mused. “We helped build beauty tall unto the skies.”       70 But years ere towers could rise of steel or stone, Structures that clutched the rocks beneath the sea— [End Page 400]

Boom-boom, drum beats of seventy years agone, Boom-boom, answering the zoom of circling wings—                    75

  “We are coming, Father Abraham,   One hundred thousand strong!”

And in the camp fires’ glow o’er Wagner’s heights, A thousand black throats hurl their melody——       80

  “Dey look like men,   Dey look like men,   Dey look like men of war;   All dressed up in deir uniforms,       85   Dey look like men of war!”

Let us have peace! and weary warriors Echoed the clatter of dropped pen that wrote Fulfilment of three centuries of hope——       90

  “Sometimes I feel like an eagle in de air,   Som-a dese mornin’s bright an’ fair   I’m goin’ to lay down my heavy load,   Goin’ to spread my wings an’ cleave de air!”       95

Who thought of beauty? Money marts and trade, Argosies on seas, schools, churches, trusts and rings, Politicians, wealth, cotton, wheat, machines, Steel tracks, flung spider-like o’er continent.       100 Harlem John Henry hears a tiny voice, Piping a thin thread through that turgid roar, “Get money, get trades, be thrift y, be compliant!”

  “We are climbin’ Jacob’s ladder,       105   We are climbin’ Jacob’s ladder,   Every roun’ goes higher, higher,   Every roun’ goes higher, higher,     Soldiers of de Cross!”                    110 [End Page 401]

Beauty is lost in smugness, sordidness, Harlem John Henry sights...


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