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Chicago’s Congo

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(Sonata for an Orchestra)

Chicago is an overgrown woman
      wearing her skyscrapers
      like a necklace ...
Chicago’s blood is kaleidoscopic
Chicago’s heart has a hundred auricles

*       *       *

                                  From the Congo
                                  to Chicago
                                  is a long trek
                                  —as the crow flies

Sing to me of a red warrior moon victorious in a Congo sky ... show me a round dollar moon in the ragged blue purse of Chicago’s heavens ... tell me of a hundred spoil laden blacks tramping home from the raid ... point me out a hundred brown men riding the elevated home on payday ... pick me the winners ... in Chicago? ... in the Congo?

Skyscraper pinnacles rip great holes in the rubber balloon bag of the sky ... do spears kill quicker than printed words? ... midnight lies and cobra fangs ... ask me if civilization produces new forms of biting and tearing and killing ... see three million whites and two hundred thousand blacks civilized in Chicago

                                  From the Congo
                                  to Chicago
                                  is a long trek
                                  —as the crow flies

*       *       *

I’m a grownup man today Chicago
My bones are thick and stout
      (when I moved to new districts bombings
      couldn’t break them)
My flesh is smooth and firm
      (look—the wounds you give me heal quickly)
See how the muscles ripple under my night-black skin
My strength comes not from resting
You should be proud of me Chicago
I’ve got a lion’s heart and a six-shooter
I’ve got a fighter’s fist and five newspapers
I’ve got an eye for beauty and another for cash
Nothing you’ve got I can’t have

A song dashes its rhythms in, my face like April rain
My song is a song of steel and bamboo, of brick flats and reed huts, of steamboats and slim canoes, of murder trials and jackal packs, of con men and pythons
My tune I get from automobiles and lions roaring, from the rustle of banknotes in a teller’s window and the rustle of leaves in Transvaal trees
I ask you to find a better song, a louder song, a sweeter song—
Here’s something Wagner couldn’t do

State Street is a wide gray band across Chicago’s forehead
At night a white faced mother moon clothes Skyscrapers in gray silk
At night when clocks yawn and hours get lazy
At night when the jungle’s a symphony in grays ...
Oh mother moon, mother of earth, bringer of silver gifts
Bring a veil of stardust to wrap this Congo in
Bring a shawl of moonmist to clothe Chicago’s body

*       *       *

Between the covers of books lie the bones of yesterdays
Today is a new dollar
And
My city is money mad

*       *       *

Across the street from the Ebenezer Baptist Church,
      women with cast-iron faces peddle love
In the flat above William’s Funeral Home
      six couples sway to the St. Louis Blues
Two doors away from the South Side Bank
      three penny-brown men scorch their guts with four bit whiskey
Dr. Jackson buys a Lincoln
His neighbor buys second hand, shoes
      —the artist who paints this town must
      use a checkered canvas ...

Tired looking houses of brown stone
Ramshackle flats with sightless eyes
A surface car throws a handful of white sparks at cracked red bricks
An L train roars oaths at backyard clotheslines
Mornings on South Parkway flats sit like silent cats watching the little green mice of buses running up and down the boulevard
And only grass has heard the secrets of vacant lots

*       *       *

This song has no tune. You cannot hum it.
This song has no words. You cannot sing it.
This song everybody knows, nobody knows.
It is in a pattern of brown faces at the Wabash Y.M.C.A., a 35th Street gambling place, a Parkway theatre—you get it or you don’t
It is a melody of everything and nothing

I saw twelve stars sitting along the edge of a four story flat
I saw a moon held by leafless tree fingers
I heard a shot tear huge holes in the blanket of silence
Later—just a little later—the moon got away and the stars stepped back into the sky

There will always be new wordless songs, new humless tunes
Chicago sings these songs each day
Chicago who wears her skyscrapers like a necklace ...

Frank Marshall Davis, “Chicago’s Congo” from Black Moods: Collected Poems. Copyright © 2002 by the Trustees of the University of Illinois. Reprinted with the permission of the University of Illinois Press.
Source: Black Man's Verse (University of Illinois Press, 1935)
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Chicago’s Congo

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  • Frank Marshall Davis's poetry "not only questioned social ills in his own time but also inspired Blacks in the politically charged 1960s," according to John Edgar Tidwell in the Dictionary of Literary Biography. Sometimes likened to poets such as Carl Sandburg, Edgar Lee Masters, and Langston Hughes, Davis published his first volume, Black Man's Verse, in 1935. The book met with much applause from critics, including Harriet Monroe, who concluded in Poetry that its author was "a poet of authentic inspiration, who belongs not only among the best of his race, but who need not lean upon his race for recognition as an impassioned singer with something to say." Davis concerned himself with portraying Black life, protesting racial inequalities, and promoting Black pride. The poet described his work thus in the poem "Frank Marshall Davis: Writer" from his I Am the American Negro: "When I wrote / I dipped my...

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