The Idols of the Tribe

By Melvin B. Tolson 1898–1966

A State which, in the epoch of race poisoning, dedicates itself to the cherishing of its best racial elements, must some day be master of the world.
                                                                                                                              —Mein  Kampf


                                     I
 
                      The veldt men pray
                      Carved wood and stone
                      And tear their flesh
                      To vein and bone.
 
                      The idols scowl
                      In the brassy sun
                      Unmindful of
                      Appeasement done.
 
                      Yea, warriors cringe,
                      Whose tauntings dare
                      The regnant brute
                      In regal lair.
 
                      As tribal gods
                      The brave confound,
                      They bruise their heads
                      Against the ground.
 
                      Kennings of death
                      Encyst the square,
                      The mourners drool
                      And children scare.
 
                      Hyena laughs
                      Spear to the stars,
                      Dark bodies fall
                      Like ruptured spars.

                      Witch doctors whine
                      Edicts anew
                      And saint their mugs
                      Of chloral brew.
 
                      Fear grapples fear,
                      Crinkles the knife:
                      And life is death
                      And death is life.
 
                      And he who dies
                      Bequeaths the chief
                      His herd and flock,
                      But not his grief.
 
                      Who dares to mock,
                      Who dares to shove
                      The idols folk
                      Are schooled to love?
 
                      And graybeards croak
                      One fool alone
                      Reviled the hakims
                      Of wood and stone:
 
                      And headmen staked
                      The wretch to die
                      From dooms that crawl
                      And dooms that fly.
 
                      Ages fag out
                      In cyclic nights,
                      But sire and son
                      Repeat the rites.
 
 
                                     II
 
The rule-or-ruin class, in idols of the tribe,
Creates narcissine images of itself;
Defend its fetishes from the merest gibe,
Like iron captains of the Guelf.
 
The black-veldt god
Behold, hair kinked and flat,
Against the sun’s needling myriapod
A cooling mat.
The low wide nostrils ventilate
The long head in the incandescent air.
Insufferable sunrays cannot penetrate
Black tissues as the fair.
The python arm with reach to spare
Are at the beck of tribal law:
The black-veldt god is not aware
Of civilizations buried in the jungle’s maw.
 
The yellow god
Behold, his mongoloid eye fold,
The color of his sod.
The cheekbones arched and bold,
The broad index of face,
The stoic mold
Herald the myth of race.
Lulled by the incense wisdom of repose,
Millenniums of candlelight,
The vegetarian god turns up his nose
At odors of the carnivorous white.
 
The Nordic god
Behold, his blue-gray eyes
Far-famed to conquer with a single prod
A people mazed in a hinterland of whys.
Hairy as the ape, of lip as thin,
With Mongol, one in blood, with African,
He makes a pseudo-science of his skin
And writes his autobiography Superman.
 
Race biases sow
Hemlocks to maim and blind,
Pile up Sinais of woe,
Jettison the freedoms of mind,
Breed the hydras of stealth,
Set kind razeeing kind,
Convert to potter’s fields the commonwealth.
 
Drink, O Fool, the bias of the tribe,
Autograph the epitaph of pain,
Press to the heart the fangs of the moccasin bribe,
Rape beauty’s flesh behind the crib of grain,
Let dust bowls blight the soul’s topography,
Eat, O Fool, the racist shibboleth—
Damn the soul to sodomy!
Damn the soul to death!
 
 
                                     III
 
                       How many times
                       Does a Southern town
                       Waste white genius
                       To keep the Blacks down?

                       How many times
                       Does progress stop
                       To find the maimed
                       A mythical prop?
 
                       How many times
                       Do a Führer’s claws
                       Dig up dry bones
                       Of the gray Lost Cause?
 
                       How many times
                       Does the ermine class
                       Throw scraps of hate
                       To the starved white mass?
 
Five roads, the spokes of a county wheel,
Mortise the hub of our Courthouse Square:
Our graybeards fable our Daniel Boone,
Who brothered the red chiefs where
Five dark and bloody frontier paths,
Crossbones old as the skull of the moon,
Witnessed the sacrament pipe of peace,
Grim as the grin of a dead buffoon.
 
                  Gone are scalping-knives,
                  Gone are red frontiers,
                  Gone are homeborn chiefs,
                  Gone are pioneers.
 
                  Yet the town Five Points
                  Worships myths of race;
                  Like the veldt men, hates
                  Alien norm and face.
 
                  Sky the Jim Crow sign,
                  Dam the ghetto’s wrath,
                  Gibbet freedom’s sons—
                  Tell it not in Gath!
 
Out of the burial-crags of night
The felon winds hawk down;
Their devil claws riprap the roofs
That visor the town.
 
The stores on Main Street lean,
Tome to mummy tome;
The houses squat like smoking hulls
Half-convexed on a shoal of foam,
And glowworm windows in the deaf-dumb streets
Are greeting cards of home.
 
                  Idols of the tribe
                  Jail the spirit fast.
                  Scorn of lesser breeds
                  Flash and bone outlast.
 
                  Vandal Z’s of wind,
                  Beggar vale and hill,
                  As the myths of race
                  Loot the people’s will.
 
Upon the courthouse Justice stands,
Eyes fated not to see;
The town clock christens now the first-born hour
Of a day of hate to be.
 
Nor man nor beast prowls in his world,
But on the Courthouse Square
A statue of the Lost Cause bayonets
Contemporary air.
 
                  The skull and bones
                  Of yesterday
                  Haunts those who travel
                  The American Way.
 
                  Nobler to grope
                  In the dusk of dawn
                  Than to stumble back
                  In midnight’s spawn.
 
                  Mein Kampf is not
                  A bible writ
                  With hand of gore
                  And heart of grit.
 
                  Mein Kampf is lepra
                  That whores the soul,
                  And the brothels of race
                  Nordic bawds control.
 
                  Yet thunderbolt hells
                  Of chastening rods
                  Smite ever Gomorrahs
                  Of tribal gods!

Melvin Tolson, "The Idols of the Tribe" 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 Social Commentaries, History & Politics, Race & Ethnicity

Poetic Terms Series/Sequence

 Melvin B. Tolson

Biography

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 Social Commentaries, History & Politics, Race & Ethnicity

SCHOOL / PERIOD Harlem Renaissance

Poetic Terms Series/Sequence

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