Rendezvous with America

Time unhinged the gates
Of Plymouth Rock and Jamestown and Ellis Island,
And worlds of men with hungers of body and soul
Hazarded the wilderness of waters,
Cadenced their destinies
With the potters’-wheeling miracles
Of mountain and valley, prairie and river.
                                 These were the men
                                 Who bridged the ocean
                                 With arches of dreams
                                 And piers of devotion;
Messiahs from the Sodoms and Gomorrahs of the Old World,
Searchers for Cathay and Cipango and El Dorado,
Mystics from Oubangui Chari and Uppsala,
Serfs from Perugia and Tonle Sap,
Jailbirds from Newgate and Danzig,
Patriots from Yokosuka and Stralsund,
Scholars from Oxford and Leyden,
Beggars from Bagdad and Montmartre,
Traders from the Tyrrhenian Sea and Mona Passage,
Sailors from the Skagerrak and Bosporus Strait,
Iconoclasts from Buteshire and Zermatt.
             These were the men of many breeds
             Who mixed their bloods and sowed their seeds.
             Designed in gold and shaped of dross,
             They raised the Sword beside the Cross.
             These were the men who laughed at odds
             And scoffed at dooms and diced with gods,
             Who freed their souls from inner bars
             And mused with forests and sang with stars.
             These were the men of prose and rhyme
             Who telescoped empires of time,
             Who knew the feel of spinal verve
             And walked the straight line of the curve.
             These were the men of iron lips
             Who challenged Dawn’s apocalypse,
             Who married Earth and Sea and Sky
             And died to live and lived to die.

             These were the men who dared to be
             The sires of things they could not see,
             Whose martyred and  rejected bones
             Became the States’ foundation-stones.
                  Into the arteries of the Republic poured
                          The babels of bloods,
                           The omegas of peoples,
                           The moods of continents,
                           The melting-pots of seas,
                           The flotsams of isms,
                           The flavors of tongues,
                           The yesterdays of martyrs,
                           The tomorrows of utopias.
                  Into the matrix of the Republic poured
                           White gulf streams of Europe,
                           Black tidal waves of Africa,
                           Yellow neap tides of Asia,
                           Niagaras of the little people.
                         America is the Black Man’s country,
                         The Red Man’s, the Yellow Man’s,
                         The Brown Man’s, the White Man’s.
An international river with a legion of tributaries!
A magnificent cosmorama with myriad patterns and colors!
A giant forest with loin-roots in a hundred lands!
A cosmopolitan orchestra with a thousand instruments playing
        I see America in Daniel Boone,
As he scouts in the Judas night of a forest aisle;
     In big Paul Bunyan, as he guillotines
The timber avalanche that writhes a mile.
        I see America in Jesse James,
As his legends match his horse’s epic stride;
     In big John Henry, as his hammer beats
The monster shovel that quakes the mountainside.
        I see America in Casey Jones,
As he mounts No. 4 with the seal of death in his hand;
        In Johnny Appleseed, as his miracles
Fruit the hills and valleys and plains of our Promised Land.

        I see America in Joe DiMaggio,
As his bat cuts a vacuum in the paralyzed air;
     In brown Joe Louis, surfed in white acclaim,
As he fights his country’s cause in Madison Square.
        I see America in Thomas Paine,
As he pinnacles the freedoms that tyrants ban;
    In young Abe Lincoln, tanned by prairie suns,
As he splits his rails and thinks the Rights of Man.
                                         A blind man said,
                                     “Look at the kikes.”
                                               And I saw
Rosenwald sowing the seeds of culture in the Black Belt,
Michelson measuring the odysseys of invisible worlds,
Brandeis opening the eyes of the blind to the Constitution,
Boas translating the oneness in the Rosetta stone of mankind.
                                         A blind man said,
                                      “Look at the dagos.”
                                               And I saw
La Guardia shaping the cosmos of pyramided Manhattan,
Brumidi verving the Capitol frescoes of Washington at Yorktown,
Caruso scaling the Alpine ranges of drama with the staff of song,
Toscanini enchanting earthward the music of the spheres.
                                         A blind man said,
                                     “Look at the chinks.”
                                               And I saw
Lin Yutang crying the World Charter in the white man’s wilderness,
Dr. Chen charting the voyages of bacteria in the Lilly Laboratories,
Lu Cong weaving plant-tapestries in the Department of Agriculture,
Madame Chiang Kai-shek interpreting the Orient and the Occident.
                                         A blind man said,
                                     “Look at the bohunks.”
                                               And I saw
Sikorsky blue-printing the cabala of the airways,
Stokowski imprisoning the magic of symphonies with a baton,
Zvak erecting St. Patricks’s Cathedral in a forest of skyscrapers,
Dvořák enwombing the multiple soul of the New World.
                                         A blind man said,
                                     “Look at the niggers.”
                                                And I saw
Black Samson mowing down Hessians with a scythe at Brandy-wine,
Marian Anderson bewitching continents with the talisman of art,
Fred Douglass hurling from tombstones the philippies of freedom,
Private Brooks dying at the feet of MacArthur in Bataan.
             America can sing a lullaby
             When slippered dusk steals down the terraced sky;
             Then in a voice to wake the Plymouth dead
             Embattled hordes of tyranny defy.
             America can join the riotous throng
             And sell her virtues for a harlot song;
             Then give the clothes that hide her nakedness
             To help her sister nations carry on.
             America can worship gods of brass
             And bow before the strut of Breed and Class;
             Then gather to her bosom refugees
             Who champion the causes of the Mass.
             America can loose a world of laughter
             To shake the States from cornerstone to rafter;
             Then gird her mighty loins with corded strength
             In the volcanic nightmare of disaster.
             America can knot her arms and brow
             And guide across frontiers the untamed plow;
             Then beat the plowshares into vengeful swords
             To keep a rendezvous with Justice now.
                                                Uncle Sam
Pillows his head on the Statue of Liberty,
Tranquilizes himself on the soft couch of the Corn Belt,
Laves his feet in the Golden Gate,
And sinks into the nepenthe of slumber.
And the termites of anti-Semitism busy themselves
And the Ku Klux Klan marches with rope and faggot
And the money-changers plunder the Temple of
And the copperheads start boring from within
And the robber barons pillage the countryside
And the con men try to jimmy the Constitution
And the men of good will are hounded over the Land
And the People groan in the tribulum of tryanny.
       Comes the roar of cannon at Fort Sumter
       Or the explosion of Teapot Dome
       Or the Wall Street Crash of ‘29
       Or the thunderclap of bombs at Pearl Harbor!
     I have a rendezvous with America
     At Plymouth Rock,
     Where the Mayflower lies
     Battered beam on beam
     By titan-chested waves that heave and shock
And cold December winds
That in the riggings pound their fists and scream.
The Pilgrim Fathers draw
The New World’s testament of faith and law:
A government of and by and for the People,
A pact of peers who share and bear and plan,
A government which leaves men free and equal
And yet knits men together as one man.
I have a rendezvous with America
At Valley Forge.
These are the times that try men’s souls
And fetter cowards to their under goals.
Through yonder gorge
Hunger and Cold, Disease and Fear,
Advance with treasonous blows;
The bayonets of the wind stab through
Our winter soldiers’ clothes,
And bloody footsteps stain the deep December snows.
Our winter soldiers keep the faith
And keep their powder dry . . . 
To do or die!
I have a rendezvous with America
This Seventh of December.
The maiden freshness of Pearl Harbor’s dawn,
The peace of seas that thieve the breath,
I shall remember.
Out of yonder Sunrise Land of Death
The fascist spawn
Strikes like the talons of the mad harpoon,
Strikes like the moccasin in the black lagoon,
Strikes like the fury of the raw typhoon.
                              The traitor’s ruse
                              And the traitor’s lie,
                              Pearl Harbor’s ruins
                              Of sea and sky,
                              Shall live with me
                              Till the day I die.
At Pearl Harbor, I remember
I have a rendezvous at Plymouth Rock and Valley Forge
This Seventh of December.
                     In these midnight dawns
   Of the Gethsemanes and the Golgothas of Peoples,
   I put my ear to the common ground of America.
                     From the brows of mountains
                     And the breasts of rivers
                     And the flanks of prairies
                     And the wombs of valleys
       Swells the Victory March of the Republic,
       In the masculine allegro of factories
       And the blues rhapsody of express trains,
       In the bass crescendo of power dams
       And the nocturne adagio of river boats,
       In the sound and fury of threshing machines
       And the clarineting needles of textile mills,
       In the fortissimo hammers of shipyards
       And the diatonic picks of coal mines,
       In the oboe rhythms of cotton gins
       And the sharped notes of salmon traps,
       In the belting harmonics of lumber camps
       And the drumming derricks of oil fields.
                        In these midnight dawns
Of the vulture Philistines of the unquiet skies
And the rattlesnake Attilas of the uptorn seas …
                        In these midnight dawns
Of the Gethsemanes and the Golgothas of Peoples,
                                America stands
     Granite-footed as the Rocky Mountains
     Beaten by the whirlpool belts of wet winds,
     Deep-chested as the Appalachians
     Sunning valleys in the palms of their hands,
     Tough-tendoned as the Cumberlands
     Shouldering the truck caravans of US 40,
     Clean-flanked as the lavender walls of Palo Duro
     Washed by the living airs of canyon rivers,
     Eagle-hearted as the Pacific redwoods
Uprearing their heads in the dawns and dusks of ages.
Melvin Tolson, "Rendezvous with America" 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)
More Poems by Melvin B. Tolson