An Ex-Judge at the Bar

By Melvin B. Tolson 1898–1966
Bartender, make it straight and make it two—
One for the you in me and the me in you.
Now let us put our heads together: one
Is half enough for malice, sense, or fun.
I know, Bartender, yes, I know when the Law
Should wag its tail or rip with fang and claw.
When Pilate washed his hands, that neat event
Set for us judges a Caesarean precedent.
What I shall tell you now, as man is man,
You’ll find in neither Bible nor Koran.
It happened after my return from France
At the bar in Tony’s Lady of Romance.
We boys drank pros and cons, sang Dixie; and then,
The bar a Sahara, we pledged to meet again.
But lo, on the bar there stood in naked scorn
The Goddess Justice, like September Morn.
Who blindfolds Justice on the courthouse roof
While the lawyers weave the sleight-of-hand of proof?
I listened, Bartender, with my heart and head,
As the Goddess Justice unbandaged her eyes and said:
“To make the world safe for Democracy,
You lost a leg in Flanders fields—oui, oui?
To gain the judge’s seat, you twined the noose
That swung the Negro higher than a goose.”
Bartender, who has dotted every i?
Crossed every t? Put legs on every y?
Therefore, I challenged her: “Lay on, Macduff,
And damned be him who first cries, ‘Hold, enough!’”
The boys guffawed, and Justice began to laugh
Like a maniac on a broken phonograph.
Bartender, make it straight and make it three—
One for the Negro . . . one for you and me.

Melvin Tolson, "An Ex-Judge at the Bar" from Harlem Gallery and Other Poems of Melvin B. Tolson (Charlottesville: The University Press of Virginia, 1999)

Source: "Harlem Gallery" and Other Poems of Melvin B. Tolson (University Press of Virginia, 1999)

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Poet Melvin B. Tolson 1898–1966

SCHOOL / PERIOD Harlem Renaissance

Subjects Activities, Eating & Drinking, Social Commentaries, Crime & Punishment, Race & Ethnicity

Poetic Terms Rhymed Stanza

 Melvin B. Tolson


Known for his complex, challenging poetry, Melvin B. Tolson earned little critical attention throughout most of his life, but he eventually won a place among America's leading black poets. He was, in the opinion of Allen Tate, author of the preface to Tolson's Libretto for the Republic of Liberia, the first black poet to assimilate "completely the full poetic language of his time and, by implication, the language of the . . .

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SUBJECT Activities, Eating & Drinking, Social Commentaries, Crime & Punishment, Race & Ethnicity

SCHOOL / PERIOD Harlem Renaissance

Poetic Terms Rhymed Stanza

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Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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