IX

Of Beauty and Death

For long years we of the world gone wild have looked into the face of death and smiled. Through all our bitter tears we knew how beautiful it was to die for that which our souls called sufficient. Like all true beauty this thing of dying was so simple, so matter-of-fact. The boy clothed in his splendid youth stood before us and laughed in his own jolly way⁠—went and was gone. Suddenly the world was full of the fragrance of sacrifice. We left our digging and burden-bearing; we turned from our scraping and twisting of things and words; we paused from our hurrying hither and thither and walking up and down, and asked in half-whisper: this Death⁠—is this Life? And is its beauty real or false? And of this heart-questioning I am writing.


My friend, who is pale and positive, said to me yesterday, as the tired sun was nodding:

“You are too sensitive.”

I admit, I am⁠—sensitive. I am artificial. I cringe or am bumptious or immobile. I am intellectually dishonest, art-blind, and I lack humor.

“Why don’t you stop all this?” she retorts triumphantly.

You will not let us.

“There you go, again. You know that I⁠—”

Wait! I answer. Wait!

I arise at seven. The milkman has neglected me. He pays little attention to colored districts. My white neighbor glares elaborately. I walk softly, lest I disturb him. The children jeer as I pass to work. The women in the street car withdraw their skirts or prefer to stand. The policeman is truculent. The elevator man hates to serve Negroes. My job is insecure because the white union wants it and does not want me. I try to lunch, but no place near will serve me. I go forty blocks to Marshall’s, but the Committee of Fourteen closes Marshall’s; they say white women frequent it.

“Do all eating places discriminate?”

No, but how shall I know which do not⁠—except⁠—

I hurry home through crowds. They mutter or get angry. I go to a mass-meeting. They stare. I go to a church. “We don’t admit niggers!”

Or perhaps I leave the beaten track. I seek new work. “Our employees would not work with you; our customers would object.”

I ask to help in social uplift.

“Why⁠—er⁠—we will write you.”

I enter the free field of science. Every laboratory door is closed and no endowments are available.

I seek the universal mistress, Art; the studio door is locked.

I write literature. “We cannot publish stories of colored folks of that type.” It’s the only type I know.

This is my life. It makes me idiotic. It gives me artificial problems. I hesitate, I rush, I waver. In fine⁠—I am sensitive!

My pale friend looks at me with disbelief and curling tongue.

“Do you mean to sit there and tell me that this is what happens to you each day?”

Certainly not, I answer low.

“Then you only fear it will happen?”

I fear!

“Well, haven’t you the courage to rise above a⁠—almost a craven fear?”

Quite⁠—quite craven is my fear, I admit; but the terrible thing is⁠—these things do happen!

“But you just said⁠—”

They do happen. Not all each day⁠—surely not. But now and then⁠—now seldom, now, sudden; now after a week, now in a chain of awful minutes; not everywhere, but anywhere⁠—in Boston, in Atlanta. That’s the hell of it. Imagine spending your life looking for insults or for hiding places from them⁠—shrinking (instinctively and despite desperate bolsterings of courage) from blows that are not always but ever; not each day, but each week, each month, each year. Just, perhaps, as you have choked back the craven fear and cried, “I am and will be the master of my⁠—”

“No more tickets downstairs; here’s one to the smoking gallery.”

You hesitate. You beat back your suspicions. After all, a cigarette with Charlie Chaplin⁠—then a white man pushes by⁠—

“Three in the orchestra.”

“Yes, sir.” And in he goes.

Suddenly your heart chills. You turn yourself away toward the golden twinkle of the purple night and hesitate again. What’s the use? Why not always yield⁠—always take what’s offered⁠—always bow to force, whether of cannon or dislike? Then the great fear surges in your soul, the real fear⁠—the fear beside which other fears are vain imaginings; the fear lest right there and then you are losing your own soul; that you are losing your own soul and the soul of a people; that millions of unborn children, black and gold and mauve, are being there and then despoiled by you because you are a coward and dare not fight!

Suddenly that silly orchestra seat and the cavorting of a comedian with funny feet become matters of life, death, and immortality; you grasp the pillars of the universe and strain as you sway back to that befrilled ticket girl. You grip your soul for riot and murder. You choke and sputter, and she seeing that you are about to make a “fuss” obeys her orders and throws the tickets at you in contempt. Then you slink to your seat and crouch in the darkness before the film, with every tissue burning! The miserable wave of reaction engulfs you. To think of compelling puppies to take your hard-earned money; fattening hogs to hate you and yours; forcing your way among cheap and tawdry idiots⁠—God! What a night of pleasure!


Here, then, is beauty and ugliness, a wide vision of world-sacrifice, a fierce gleam of world-hate. Which is life and what is death and how shall we face so tantalizing a contradiction? Any explanation must necessarily be subtle and involved. No pert and easy word of encouragement, no merely dark despair, can lay hold of the roots of these things. And first and before all, we cannot forget that this world is beautiful. Grant all its ugliness and sin⁠—the petty, horrible snarl of its putrid threads, which few have seen more near or more often than I⁠—notwithstanding all this, the beauty of this world is not to be denied.

Casting my eyes about I dare not let them rest on the beauty of Love and Friend, for even if my tongue were cunning enough to sing this, the revelation of reality here is too sacred and the fancy too untrue. Of one world-beauty alone may we at once be brutally frank and that is the glory of physical nature; this, though the last of beauties, is divine!

And so, too, there are depths of human degradation which it is not fair for us to probe. With all their horrible prevalence, we cannot call them natural. But may we not compare the least of the world’s beauty with the least of its ugliness⁠—not murder, starvation, and rapine, with love and friendship and creation⁠—but the glory of sea and sky and city, with the little hatefulnesses and thoughtfulnesses of race prejudice, that out of such juxtaposition we may, perhaps, deduce some rule of beauty and life⁠—or death?


There mountains hurl themselves against the stars and at their feet lie black and leaden seas. Above float clouds⁠—white, gray, and inken, while the clear, impalpable air springs and sparkles like new wine. Last night we floated on the calm bosom of the sea in the southernmost haven of Mount Desert. The water flamed and sparkled. The sun had gone, but above the crooked back of cumulus clouds, dark and pink with radiance, and on the other sky aloft to the eastward piled the gorgeous-curtained mists of evening. The radiance faded and a shadowy velvet veiled the mountains, a humid depth of gloom behind which lurked all the mysteries of life and death, while above, the clouds hung ashen and dull; lights twinkled and flashed along the shore, boats glided in the twilight, and the little puffing of motors droned away. Then was the hour to talk of life and the meaning of life, while above gleamed silently, suddenly, star on star.

Bar Harbor lies beneath a mighty mountain, a great, bare, black mountain that sleeps above the town; but as you leave, it rises suddenly, threateningly, until far away on Frenchman’s Bay it looms above the town in withering vastness, as if to call all that little world petty save itself. Beneath the cool, wide stare of that great mountain, men cannot live as giddily as in some lesser summer’s playground. Before the unveiled face of nature, as it lies naked on the Maine coast, rises a certain human awe.

God molded his world largely and mightily off this marvelous coast and meant that in the tired days of life men should come and worship here and renew their spirit. This I have done and turning I go to work again. As we go, ever the mountains of Mount Desert rise and greet us on our going⁠—somber, rock-ribbed and silent, looking unmoved on the moving world, yet conscious of their everlasting strength.

About us beats the sea⁠—the sail-flecked, restless sea, humming its tune about our flying keel, unmindful of the voices of men. The land sinks to meadows, black pine forests, with here and there a blue and wistful mountain. Then there are islands⁠—bold rocks above the sea, curled meadows; through and about them roll ships, weather-beaten and patched of sail, strong-hulled and smoking, light gray and shining. All the colors of the sea lie about us⁠—gray and yellowing greens and doubtful blues, blacks not quite black, tinted silvers and golds and dreaming whites. Long tongues of dark and golden land lick far out into the tossing waters, and the white gulls sail and scream above them. It is a mighty coast⁠—ground out and pounded, scarred, crushed, and carven in massive, frightful lineaments. Everywhere stand the pines⁠—the little dark and steadfast pines that smile not, neither weep, but wait and wait. Near us lie isles of flesh and blood, white cottages, tiled and meadowed. Afar lie shadow-lands, high mist-hidden hills, mountains boldly limned, yet shading to the sky, faint and unreal.

We skirt the pine-clad shores, chary of men, and know how bitterly winter kisses these lonely shores to fill yon row of beaked ice houses that creep up the hills. We are sailing due westward and the sun, yet two hours high, is blazoning a fiery glory on the sea that spreads and gleams like some broad, jeweled trail, to where the blue and distant shadow-land lifts its carven front aloft, leaving, as it gropes, shades of shadows beyond.


Why do not those who are scarred in the world’s battle and hurt by its hardness travel to these places of beauty and drown themselves in the utter joy of life? I asked this once sitting in a Southern home. Outside the spring of a Georgia February was luring gold to the bushes and languor to the soft air. Around me sat color in human flesh⁠—brown that crimsoned readily; dim soft-yellow that escaped description; cream-like duskiness that shadowed to rich tints of autumn leaves. And yet a suggested journey in the world brought no response.

“I should think you would like to travel,” said the white one.

But no, the thought of a journey seemed to depress them.

Did you ever see a “Jim-Crow” waiting-room? There are always exceptions, as at Greensboro⁠—but usually there is no heat in winter and no air in summer; with undisturbed loafers and train hands and broken, disreputable settees; to buy a ticket is torture; you stand and stand and wait and wait until every white person at the “other window” is waited on. Then the tired agent yells across, because all the tickets and money are over there⁠—

“What d’ye want? What? Where?”

The agent browbeats and contradicts you, hurries and confuses the ignorant, gives many persons the wrong change, compels some to purchase their tickets on the train at a higher price, and sends you and me out on the platform, burning with indignation and hatred!

The “Jim-Crow” car is up next the baggage car and engine. It stops out beyond the covering in the rain or sun or dust. Usually there is no step to help you climb on and often the car is a smoker cut in two and you must pass through the white smokers or else they pass through your part, with swagger and noise and stares. Your compartment is a half or a quarter or an eighth of the oldest car in service on the road. Unless it happens to be a thorough express, the plush is caked with dirt, the floor is grimy, and the windows dirty. An impertinent white newsboy occupies two seats at the end of the car and importunes you to the point of rage to buy cheap candy, Coco-Cola, and worthless, if not vulgar, books. He yells and swaggers, while a continued stream of white men saunters back and forth from the smoker to buy and hear. The white train crew from the baggage car uses the “Jim-Crow” to lounge in and perform their toilet. The conductor appropriates two seats for himself and his papers and yells gruffly for your tickets before the train has scarcely started. It is best not to ask him for information even in the gentlest tones. His information is for white persons chiefly. It is difficult to get lunch or clean water. Lunch rooms either don’t serve niggers or serve them at some dirty and ill-attended hole in the wall. As for toilet rooms⁠—don’t! If you have to change cars, be wary of junctions which are usually without accommodation and filled with quarrelsome white persons who hate a “darky dressed up.” You are apt to have the company of a sheriff and a couple of meek or sullen black prisoners on part of your way and dirty colored section hands will pour in toward night and drive you to the smallest corner.

“No,” said the little lady in the corner (she looked like an ivory cameo and her dress flowed on her like a caress), “we don’t travel much.”


Pessimism is cowardice. The man who cannot frankly acknowledge the “Jim-Crow” car as a fact and yet live and hope is simply afraid either of himself or of the world. There is not in the world a more disgraceful denial of human brotherhood than the “Jim-Crow” car of the southern United States; but, too, just as true, there is nothing more beautiful in the universe than sunset and moonlight on Montego Bay in far Jamaica. And both things are true and both belong to this our world, and neither can be denied.


The sun, prepared to cross that awful border which men call Night and Death, marshals his hosts. I seem to see the spears of mighty horsemen flash golden in the light; empurpled banners flame afar, and the low thunder of marching hosts thrills with the thunder of the sea. Athwart his own path, screening a face of fire, he throws cloud masses, masking his trained guns. And then the miracle is done. The host passes with roar too vast for human ear and the sun is set, leaving the frightened moon and blinded stars.

In the dusk the green-gold palms turn their starlike faces and stretch their fan-like fingers, lifting themselves proudly, lest any lordly leaf should know the taint of earth.

Out from the isle the serpent hill thrusts its great length around the bay, shouldering back the waters and the shadows. Ghost rains sweep down, smearing his rugged sides, yet on he writhes, undulant with pine and palm, gleaming until his low, sharp head and lambent tongue, grown gray and pale and silver in the dying day, kisses the molten gold of the golden sea.

Then comes the moon. Like fireflies nesting in the hand of God gleams the city, dim-swathed by fairy palms. A long, thin thumb, mist-mighty, points shadowy to the Spanish Main, while through the fingers foam the Seven Seas. Above the calm and gold-green moon, beneath the wind-wet earth; and here, alone, my soul enchained, enchanted!


From such heights of holiness men turn to master the world. All the pettiness of life drops away and it becomes a great battle before the Lord. His trumpet⁠—where does it sound and whither? I go. I saw Montego Bay at the beginning of the World War. The cry for service as high as heaven, as wide as human feeling, seemed filling the earth. What were petty slights, silly insults, paltry problems, beside this call to do and dare and die? We black folk offered our services to fight. What happened? Most Americans have forgotten the extraordinary series of events which worked the feelings of black America to fever heat.

First was the refusal to accept Negro volunteers for the army, except in the four black regiments already established. While the nation was combing the country for volunteers for the regular army, it would not let the American Negro furnish even his proportionate quota of regular soldiers. This led to some grim bantering among Negroes:

“Why do you want to volunteer?” asked many. “Why should you fight for this country?”

Before we had chance to reply to this, there came the army draft bill and the proposal by Vardaman and his ilk to except Negroes. We protested to Washington in various ways, and while we were insisting that colored men should be drafted just as other citizens, the bill went through with two little “jokers.”

First, it provided that Negroes should be drafted, but trained in “separate” units; and, secondly, it somewhat ambiguously permitted men to be drafted for “labor.”

A wave of fear and unrest spread among Negroes and while we were looking at both these provisions askance, suddenly we received the draft registration blank. It directed persons “of African descent” to “tear off the corner!” Probably never before in the history of the United States has a portion of the citizens been so openly and crassly discriminated against by action of the general government. It was disheartening, and on top of it came the celebrated “German plots.” It was alleged in various parts of the country with singular unanimity that Germans were working among the Negroes, and it was further intimated that this would make the Negroes too dangerous an element to trust with guns. To us, of course, it looked as though the discovery and the proposition came from the same thinly-veiled sources.

Considering carefully this series of happenings the American Negro sensed an approaching crisis and faced a puzzling dilemma. Here was evidently preparing fertile ground for the spread of disloyalty and resentment among the black masses, as they were forced to choose apparently between forced labor or a “Jim-Crow” draft. Manifestly when a minority group is thus segregated and forced out of the nation, they can in reason do but one thing⁠—take advantage of the disadvantage. In this case we demanded colored officers for the colored troops.

General Wood was early approached and asked to admit suitable candidates to Plattsburg. He refused. We thereupon pressed the government for a “separate” camp for the training of Negro officers. Not only did the War Department hesitate at this request, but strong opposition arose among colored people themselves. They said we were going too far. “We will obey the law, but to ask for voluntary segregation is to insult ourselves.” But strong, sober second thought came to our rescue. We said to our protesting brothers: “We face a condition, not a theory. There is not the slightest chance of our being admitted to white camps; therefore, it is either a case of a ‘Jim-Crow’ officers’ training camp or no colored officers. Of the two things no colored officers would be the greater calamity.”

Thus we gradually made up our minds. But the War Department still hesitated. It was besieged, and when it presented its final argument, “We have no place for such a camp,” the trustees of Howard University said: “Take our campus.” Eventually twelve hundred colored cadets were assembled at Fort Des Moines for officers’ training.

The city of Des Moines promptly protested, but it finally changed its mind. Des Moines never before had seen such a class of colored men. They rapidly became popular with all classes and many encomiums were passed upon their conduct. Their commanding colonel pronounced their work first class and declared that they presented excellent material for officers.

Meantime, with one accord, the thought of the colored people turned toward Colonel Young, their highest officer in the regular army. Charles Young is a heroic figure. He is the typical soldier⁠—silent, uncomplaining, brave, and efficient! From his days at West Point throughout his thirty years of service he has taken whatever task was assigned him and performed it efficiently; and there is no doubt but that the army has been almost merciless in the requirements which it has put upon this splendid officer. He came through all with flying colors. In Haiti, in Liberia, in western camps, in the Sequoia Forests of California, and finally with Pershing in Mexico⁠—in every case he triumphed. Just at the time we were looking to the United States government to call him to head the colored officers’ training at Des Moines, he was retired from the army, because of “high blood pressure!” There is no disputing army surgeons and their judgment in this case may be justified, but coming at the time it did, nearly every Negro in the United States believed that the “high blood pressure” that retired Colonel Young was in the prejudiced heads of the Southern oligarchy who were determined that no American Negro should ever wear the stars of a General.

To say that Negroes of the United States were disheartened at the retirement of Colonel Young is to put it mildly⁠—but there was more trouble. The provision that Negroes must be trained separately looked simple and was simple in places where there were large Negro contingents, but in the North with solitary Negroes drafted here and there we had some extraordinary developments. Regiments appeared with one Negro where the Negro had to be separated like a pest and put into a house or even a village by himself while the commander frantically telegraphed to Washington. Small wonder that one poor fellow in Ohio solved the problem by cutting his throat. The whole process of drafting Negroes had to be held up until the government could find methods and places for assembling them.

Then came Houston. In a moment the nation forgot the whole record of one of the most celebrated regiments in the United States Army and its splendid service in the Indian Wars and in the Philippines. It was the first regiment mobilized in the Spanish-American War and it was the regiment that volunteered to a man to clean up the yellow fever camps when others hesitated. It was one of the regiments to which Pershing said in December:

“Men, I am authorized by Congress to tell you all that our people back in the States are mightily glad and proud at the way the soldiers have conducted themselves while in Mexico, and I, General Pershing, can say with pride that a finer body of men never stood under the flag of our nation than we find here tonight.”

The nation, also, forgot the deep resentment mixed with the pale ghost of fear which Negro soldiers call up in the breasts of the white South. It is not so much that they fear that the Negro will strike if he gets a chance, but rather that they assume with curious unanimity that he has reason to strike, that any other persons in his circumstances or treated as he is would rebel. Instead of seeking to relieve the cause of such a possible feeling, most of them strain every effort to bottle up the black man’s resentment. Is it inconceivable that now and then it bursts all bounds, as at Brownsville and Houston?

So in the midst of this mental turmoil came Houston and East St. Louis. At Houston black soldiers, goaded and insulted, suddenly went wild and “shot up” the town. At East St. Louis white strikers on war work killed and mobbed Negro workingmen, and as a result 19 colored soldiers were hanged and 51 imprisoned for life for killing 17 whites at Houston, while for killing 125 Negroes in East St. Louis, 20 white men were imprisoned, none for more than 15 years, and 10 colored men with them.


Once upon a time I took a great journey in this land to three of the ends of our world and over seven thousand mighty miles. I saw the grim desert and the high ramparts of the Rocky Mountains. Three days I flew from the silver beauty of Seattle to the somber whirl of Kansas City. Three days I flew from the brute might of Chicago to the air of the Angels in California, scented with golden flowers, where the homes of men crouch low and loving on the good, broad earth, as though they were kissing her blossoms. Three days I flew through the empire of Texas, but all these shall be tales untold, for in all this journey I saw but one thing that lived and will live eternal in my soul⁠—the Grand Canyon.

It is a sudden void in the bosom of the earth, down to its entrails⁠—a wound where the dull titanic knife has turned and twisted in the hole, leaving its edges livid, scarred, jagged, and pulsing over the white, and red, and purple of its mighty flesh, while down below⁠—down, down below, in black and severed vein, boils the dull and sullen flood of the Colorado.

It is awful. There can be nothing like it. It is the earth and sky gone stark and raving mad. The mountains up-twirled, disbodied and inverted, stand on their peaks and throw their bowels to the sky. Their earth is air; their ether blood-red rock engreened. You stand upon their roots and fall into their pinnacles, a mighty mile.

Behold this mauve and purple mocking of time and space! See yonder peak! No human foot has trod it. Into that blue shadow only the eye of God has looked. Listen to the accents of that gorge which mutters: “Before Abraham was, I am.” Is yonder wall a hedge of black or is it the rampart between heaven and hell? I see greens⁠—is it moss or giant pines? I see specks that may be boulders. Ever the winds sigh and drop into those sun-swept silences. Ever the gorge lies motionless, unmoved, until I fear. It is a grim thing, unholy, terrible! It is human⁠—some mighty drama unseen, unheard, is playing there its tragedies or mocking comedy, and the laugh of endless years is shrieking onward from peak to peak, unheard, unechoed, and unknown.

One throws a rock into the abyss. It gives back no sound. It falls on silence⁠—the voice of its thunders cannot reach so far. It is not⁠—it cannot be a mere, inert, unfeeling, brute fact⁠—its grandeur is too serene⁠—its beauty too divine! It is not red, and blue, and green, but, ah! the shadows and the shades of all the world, glad colorings touched with a hesitant spiritual delicacy. What does it mean⁠—what does it mean? Tell me, black and boiling water!

It is not real. It is but shadows. The shading of eternity. Last night yonder tesselated palace was gloom⁠—dark, brooding thought and sin, while hither rose the mountains of the sun, golden, blazing, ensanguined. It was a dream. This blue and brilliant morning shows all those burning peaks alight, while here, shapeless, mistful, brood the shadowed towers.

I have been down into the entrails of earth⁠—down, down by straight and staring cliffs⁠—down by sounding waters and sun-strewn meadows; down by green pastures and still waters, by great, steep chasms⁠—down by the gnarled and twisted fists of God to the deep, sad moan of the yellow river that did this thing of wonder⁠—a little winding river with death in its depth and a crown of glory in its flying hair.

I have seen what eye of man was never meant to see. I have profaned the sanctuary. I have looked upon the dread disrobing of the Night, and yet I live. Ere I hid my head she was standing in her cavern halls, glowing coldly westward⁠—her feet were blackness: her robes, empurpled, flowed mistily from shoulder down in formless folds of folds; her head, pine-crowned, was set with jeweled stars. I turned away and dreamed⁠—the canyon⁠—the awful, its depths called; its heights shuddered. Then suddenly I arose and looked. Her robes were falling. At dim-dawn they hung purplish-green and black. Slowly she stripped them from her gaunt and shapely limbs⁠—her cold, gray garments shot with shadows stood revealed. Down dropped the black-blue robes, gray-pearled and slipped, leaving a filmy, silken, misty thing, and underneath I glimpsed her limbs of utter light.


My God! For what am I thankful this night? For nothing. For nothing but the most commonplace of commonplaces; a table of gentlewomen and gentlemen⁠—soft-spoken, sweet-tempered, full of human sympathy, who made me, a stranger, one of them. Ours was a fellowship of common books, common knowledge, mighty aims. We could laugh and joke and think as friends⁠—and the Thing⁠—the hateful, murderous, dirty Thing which in American we call “Nigger-hatred” was not only not there⁠—it could not even be understood. It was a curious monstrosity at which civilized folk laughed or looked puzzled. There was no elegant and elaborate condescension of⁠—“We once had a colored servant”⁠—“My father was an Abolitionist”⁠—“I’ve always been interested in your people”⁠—there was only the community of kindred souls, the delicate reverence for the Thought that led, the quick deference to the guest. You left in quiet regret, knowing that they were not discussing you behind your back with lies and license. God! It was simply human decency and I had to be thankful for it because I am an American Negro, and white America, with saving exceptions, is cruel to everything that has black blood⁠—and this was Paris, in the years of salvation, 1919. Fellow blacks, we must join the democracy of Europe.


Toul! Dim through the deepening dark of early afternoon, I saw its towers gloom dusky toward the murk of heaven. We wound in misty roads and dropped upon the city through the great throats of its walled bastions. There lay France⁠—a strange, unknown, unfamiliar France. The city was dispossessed. Through its streets⁠—its narrow, winding streets, old and low and dark, carven and quaint⁠—poured thousands upon thousands of strange feet of khaki-clad foreigners, and the echoes threw back awkward syllables that were never French. Here was France beaten to her knees yet fighting as never nation fought before, calling in her death agony across the seas till her help came and with all its strut and careless braggadocio saved the worthiest nation of the world from the wickedest fate ever plotted by Fools.


Tim Brimm was playing by the town-pump. Tim Brimm and the bugles of Harlem blared in the little streets of Maron in far Lorraine. The tiny streets were seas of mud. Dank mist and rain sifted through the cold air above the blue Moselle. Soldiers⁠—soldiers everywhere⁠—black soldiers, boys of Washington, Alabama, Philadelphia, Mississippi. Wild and sweet and wooing leapt the strains upon the air. French children gazed in wonder⁠—women left their washing. Up in the window stood a black Major, a Captain, a Teacher, and I⁠—with tears behind our smiling eyes. Tim Brimm was playing by the town-pump.

The audience was framed in smoke. It rose ghostlike out of memories⁠—bitter memories of the officer near dead of pneumonia whose pain was lighted up by the nurses waiting to know whether he must be “Jim-Crowed” with privates or not. Memories of that great last morning when the thunders of hell called the Ninety-second to its last drive. Memories of bitter humiliations, determined triumphs, great victories, and bugle-calls that sounded from earth to heaven. Like memories framed in the breath of God, my audience peered in upon me⁠—good, brown faces with great, kind, beautiful eyes⁠—black soldiers of America rescuing beloved France⁠—and the words came in praise and benediction there in the “Y,” with its little stock of cigarettes and candies and its rusty wood stove.

Alors,” said Madame, “quatre sont morts”⁠—four dead⁠—four tall, strong sons dead for France⁠—sons like the sweet and blue-eyed daughter who was hiding her brave smile in the dusk. It was a tiny stone house whose front window lipped the passing sidewalk where ever tramped the feet of black soldiers marching home. There was a cavernous wardrobe, a great fireplace invaded by a new and jaunty iron stove. Vast, thick piles of bedding rose in yonder corner. Without was the crowded kitchen and up a half-stair was our bedroom that gave upon a tiny court with arched stone staircase and one green tree. We were a touching family party held together by a great sorrow and a great joy. How we laughed over the salad that got brandy instead of vinegar⁠—how we ate the golden pile of fried potatoes and how we pored over the postcard from the Lieutenant of the Senegalese⁠—dear little vale of crushed and risen France, in the day when Negroes went “over the top” at Pont-à-Mousson.


Paris, Paris by purple façade of the opera, the crowd on the Boulevard des Italiens and the great swing of the Champs Élysées. But not the Paris the world knows. Paris with its soul cut to the core⁠—feverish, crowded, nervous, hurried; full of uniforms and mourning bands, with cafés closed at 9:30⁠—no sugar, scarce bread, and tears so interwined with joy that there is scant difference. Paris has been dreaming a nightmare, and though she awakes, the grim terror is upon her⁠—it lies on the sand-closed art treasures of the Louvre. Only the flowers are there, always the flowers, the Roses of England and the Lilies of France.


New York! Behind the Liberty that faces free France rise the white cliffs of Manhattan, tier on tier, with a curving pinnacle, towers square and twin, a giant inkwell daintily stoppered, an ancient pyramid enthroned; beneath, low ramparts wide and mighty; while above, faint-limned against the turbulent sky, looms the vast grace of that Cathedral of the Purchased and Purchasing Poor, topping the world and pointing higher.

Yonder the gray cobwebs of the Brooklyn bridges leap the sea, and here creep the argosies from all earth’s ends. We move to this swift home on dun and swelling waters and hear as we come the heartbeats of the new world.


New York and night from the Brooklyn Bridge: The bees and fireflies flit and twinkle in their vast hives; curved clouds like the breath of gods hover between the towers and the moon. One hears the hiss of lightnings, the deep thunder of human things, and a fevered breathing as of some attendant and invincible Powers. The glow of burning millions melts outward into dim and fairy outlines until afar the liquid music born of rushing crowds drips like a benediction on the sea.


New York and morning: the sun is kissing the timid dew in Central Park, and from the Fountain of Plenty one looks along that world street, Fifth Avenue, and walks toward town. The earth lifts and curves graciously down from the older mansions of princes to the newer shops of luxury. Egypt and Abyssinia, Paris and Damascus, London and India caress you by the way; churches stand aloof while the shops swell to emporiums. But all this is nothing. Everything is mankind. Humanity stands and flies and walks and rolls about⁠—the poor, the priceless, the world-known and the forgotten; child and grandfather, king and leman⁠—the pageant of the world goes by, set in a frame of stone and jewels, clothed in scarlet and rags. Princes Street and the Elysian Fields, the Strand and the Ringstrasse⁠—these are the Ways of the World today.


New York and twilight, there where the Sixth Avenue “L” rises and leaps above the tenements into the free air at 110th Street. It circles like a bird with heaven and St. John’s above and earth and the sweet green and gold of the Park beneath. Beyond lie all the blue mists and mysteries of distance; beneath, the city rushes and crawls. Behind echo all the roar and war and care and maze of the wide city set in its sullen darkening walls, flashing weird and crimson farewells. Out at the sides the stars twinkle.


Again New York and Night and Harlem. A dark city of fifty thousand rises like magic from the earth. Gone is the white world, the pale lips, the lank hair; gone is the West and North⁠—the East and South is here triumphant. The street is crowd and leisure and laughter. Everywhere black eyes, black and brown, and frizzled hair curled and sleek, and skins that riot with luscious color and deep, burning blood. Humanity is packed dense in high piles of close-knit homes that lie in layers above gray shops of food and clothes and drink, with here and there a moving-picture show. Orators declaim on the corners, lovers lark in the streets, gamblers glide by the saloons, workers lounge wearily home. Children scream and run and frolic, and all is good and human and beautiful and ugly and evil, even as Life is elsewhere.


And then⁠—the Veil. It drops as drops the night on southern seas⁠—vast, sudden, unanswering. There is Hate behind it, and Cruelty and Tears. As one peers through its intricate, unfathomable pattern of ancient, old, old design, one sees blood and guilt and misunderstanding. And yet it hangs there, this Veil, between Then and Now, between Pale and Colored and Black and White⁠—between You and Me. Surely it is a thought-thing, tenuous, intangible; yet just as surely is it true and terrible and not in our little day may you and I lift it. We may feverishly unravel its edges and even climb slow with giant shears to where its ringed and gilded top nestles close to the throne of God. But as we work and climb we shall see through streaming eyes and hear with aching ears, lynching and murder, cheating and despising, degrading and lying, so flashed and fleshed through this vast hanging darkness that the Doer never sees the Deed and the Victim knows not the Victor and Each hates All in wild and bitter ignorance. Listen, O Isles, to these Voices from within the Veil, for they portray the most human hurt of the Twentieth Cycle of that poor Jesus who was called the Christ!


There is something in the nature of Beauty that demands an end. Ugliness may be indefinite. It may trail off into gray endlessness. But Beauty must be complete⁠—whether it be a field of poppies or a great life⁠—it must end, and the End is part and triumph of the Beauty. I know there are those who envisage a beauty eternal. But I cannot. I can dream of great and never-ending processions of beautiful things and visions and acts. But each must be complete or it cannot for me exist.

On the other hand, Ugliness to me is eternal, not in the essence but in its incompleteness; but its eternity does not daunt me, for its eternal unfulfilment is a cause of joy. There is in it nothing new or unexpected; it is the old evil stretching out and ever seeking the end it cannot find; it may coil and writhe and recur in endless battle to days without end, but it is the same human ill and bitter hurt. But Beauty is fulfilment. It satisfies. It is always new and strange. It is the reasonable thing. Its end is Death⁠—the sweet silence of perfection, the calm and balance of utter music. Therein is the triumph of Beauty.

So strong is the spell of beauty that there are those who, contradicting their own knowledge and experience, try to say that all is beauty. They are called optimists, and they lie. All is not beauty. Ugliness and hate and ill are here with all their contradiction and illogic; they will always be here⁠—perhaps, God send, with lessened volume and force, but here and eternal, while beauty triumphs in its great completion⁠—Death. We cannot conjure the end of all ugliness in eternal beauty, for beauty by its very being and definition has in each definition its ends and limits; but while beauty lies implicit and revealed in its end, ugliness writhes on in darkness forever. So the ugliness of continual birth fulfils itself and conquers gloriously only in the beautiful end, Death.


At last to us all comes happiness, there in the Court of Peace, where the dead lie so still and calm and good. If we were not dead we would lie and listen to the flowers grow. We would hear the birds sing and see how the rain rises and blushes and burns and pales and dies in beauty. We would see spring, summer, and the red riot of autumn, and then in winter, beneath the soft white snow, sleep and dream of dreams. But we know that being dead, our Happiness is a fine and finished thing and that ten, a hundred, and a thousand years, we shall lie at rest, unhurt in the Court of Peace.

The Prayers of God

Name of God’s Name!
Red murder reigns;
All hell is loose;
On gold autumnal air
Walk grinning devils, barbed and hoofed;
While high on hills of hate,
Black-blossomed, crimson-sky’d,
Thou sittest, dumb.

Father Almighty!
This earth is mad!
Palsied, our cunning hands;
Rotten, our gold;
Our argosies reel and stagger
Over empty seas;
All the long aisles
Of Thy Great Temples, God,
Stink with the entrails
Of our souls.
And Thou art dumb.

Above the thunder of Thy Thunders, Lord,
Lightening Thy Lightnings,
Rings and roars
The dark damnation
Of this hell of war.
Red piles the pulp of hearts and heads
And little children’s hands.

Allah!
Elohim!
Very God of God!

Death is here!
Dead are the living; deep⁠—dead the dead.
Dying are earth’s unborn⁠—
The babes’ wide eyes of genius and of joy,
Poems and prayers, sun-glows and earth-songs,
Great-pictured dreams,
Enmarbled fantasies,
High hymning heavens⁠—all
In this dread night
Writhe and shriek and choke and die
This long ghost-night⁠—
While Thou art dumb.

Have mercy!
Have mercy upon us, miserable sinners!
Stand forth, unveil Thy Face,
Pour down the light
That seethes above Thy Throne,
And blaze this devil’s dance to darkness!
Hear!
Speak!
In Christ’s Great Name⁠—

I hear!
Forgive me, God!
Above the thunder I hearkened;
Beneath the silence, now⁠—
I hear!

(Wait, God, a little space.
It is so strange to talk with Thee⁠—
Alone!)

This gold?
I took it.
Is it Thine?
Forgive; I did not know.

Blood? Is it wet with blood?
’Tis from my brother’s hands.
(I know; his hands are mine.)
It flowed for Thee, O Lord.

War? Not so; not war⁠—
Dominion, Lord, and over black, not white;
Black, brown, and fawn,
And not Thy Chosen Brood, O God,
We murdered.
To build Thy Kingdom,
To drape our wives and little ones,
And set their souls a-glitter⁠—
For this we killed these lesser breeds
And civilized their dead,
Raping red rubber, diamonds, cocoa, gold!

For this, too, once, and in Thy Name,
I lynched a Nigger⁠—

(He raved and writhed,
I heard him cry,
I felt the life-light leap and lie,
I saw him crackle there, on high,
I watched him wither!)

Thou?
Thee?
I lynched Thee?

Awake me, God! I sleep!
What was that awful word Thou saidst?
That black and riven thing⁠—was it Thee?
That gasp⁠—was it Thine?
This pain⁠—is it Thine?
Are, then, these bullets piercing Thee?
Have all the wars of all the world,
Down all dim time, drawn blood from Thee?
Have all the lies and thefts and hates⁠—
Is this Thy Crucifixion, God,
And not that funny, little cross,
With vinegar and thorns?
Is this Thy kingdom here, not there,
This stone and stucco drift of dreams?

Help!
I sense that low and awful cry⁠—

Who cries?
Who weeps?
With silent sob that rends and tears⁠—
Can God sob?

Who prays?
I hear strong prayers throng by,
Like mighty winds on dusky moors⁠—
Can God pray?

Prayest Thou, Lord, and to me?
Thou needest me?
Thou needest me?
Thou needest me?
Poor, wounded soul!
Of this I never dreamed. I thought⁠—

Courage, God,
I come!