by: James Weldon Johnson (1871-1938)

      EE! There he stands; not brave, but with an air
      Of sullen stupor. Mark him well! Is he
      Not more like brute than man? Look in his eye!
      No light is there; none, save the glint that shines
      In the now glaring, and now shifting orbs
      Of some wild animal caught in the hunter's trap.
      How came this beast in human shape and form?
      Speak, man! -- We call you man because you wear
      His shape. -- How are you thus? Are you not from
      That docile, child-like, tender-hearted race
      Which we have known three centuries? Not from
      That more than faithful race which through three wars
      Fed our dear wives and nursed our helpless babes
      Without a single breach of trust? Speak out!

      I am, and am not.
      Then who, why are you?
      I am a thing not new, I am as old
      As human nature. I am that which lurks,
      Ready to spring whenever a bar is loosed;
      The ancient trait which fights incessantly
      Against restraint, balks at the upward climb;
      The weight forever seeking to obey
      The law of downward pull; and I am more:
      The bitter fruit am I of planted seed;
      The resultant, the inevitable end
      Of evil forces and the powers of wrong.
      Lessons in degradation, taught and learned,
      The memories of cruel sights and deeds,
      The pent-up bitterness, the unspent hate
      Filtered through fifteen generations have
      Sprung up and found in me sporadic life.
      In me the muttered curse of dying men,
      On me the stain of conquered women, and
      Consuming me the fearful fires of lust,
      Lit long ago, by other hands than mine.
      In me the down-crushed spirit, the hurled-back prayers
      Of wretches now long dead, -- their dire bequests, --
      In me the echo of the stifled cry
      Of children for their bartered mothers' breasts.
      I claim no race, no race claims me; I am
      No more than human dregs; degenerate;
      The monstrous offspring of the monster, Sin;
      I am-just what I am . . . . The race that fed
      Your wives and nursed your babes would do the same
      To-day, but I --

      Enough, the brute must die!
      Quick! Chain him to that oak! It will resist
      The fire much longer than this slender pine.
      Now bring the fuel! Pile it 'round him! Wait!
      Pile not so fast or high! or we shall lose
      The agony and terror in his face.
      And now the torch! Good fuel that! the flames
      Already leap head-high. Ha! hear that shriek!
      And there's another! Wilder than the first.
      Fetch water! Water! Pour a little on
      The fire, lest it should burn too fast. Hold so!
      Now let it slowly blaze again. See there!
      He squirms! He groans! His eyes bulge wildly out,
      Searching around in vain appeal for help!
      Another shriek, the last! Watch how the flesh
      Grows crisp and hangs till, turned to ash, it sifts
      Down through the coils of chain that hold erect
      The ghastly frame against the bark-scorched tree.
      Stop! to each man no more than one man's share.
      You take that bone, and you this tooth; the chain --
      Let us divide its links; this skull, of course,
      In fair division, to the leader comes.
      And now his fiendish crime has been avenged;
      Let us back to our wives and children. -- Say,
      What did he mean by those last muttered words,
      "Brothers in spirit, brothers in deed are we"?

"Brothers" is reprinted from The Book of American Negro Poetry. Ed. James Weldon Johnson. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Co., 1922.




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