The Song of the Smoke

- 1868-1963

I am the smoke king,
I am black.
      I am swinging in the sky,
      I am ringing worlds on high;
      I am the thought of the throbbing mills,
      I am the soul of the Soul toil kills,
      I am the ripple of trading rills.
Up I’m curling from the sod,
I am whirling home to God.
I am the smoke king,
I am black.

I am the smoke king,
I am black.
      I am wreathing broken hearts,
      I am sheathing devils’ darts;
      Dark inspiration of iron times,
      Wedding the toil of toiling climes,
      Shedding the blood of bloodless crimes,
Down I lower in the blue,
Up I tower toward the true.
I am the smoke king,
I am black.

I am the smoke king,
I am black.
      I am darkening with song,
      I am hearkening to wrong;
      I will be black as blackness can,
      The blacker the mantle the mightier the man,
      My purpl’ing midnights no day dawn may ban.
I am carving God in night,
I am painting Hell in white.
I am the smoke king,
I am black.

I am the smoke king,
I am black.
      I am cursing ruddy morn,
      I am hearsing hearts unborn;
      Souls unto me are as mists in the night,
      I whiten my black men, I blacken my white,
      What’s the hue of a hide to a man in his might!
Hail, then, gritty, grimy hands,
Sweet Christ, pity toiling lands!
Hail to the smoke king
Hail to the black!

A Litany Of Atlanta

     Done at Atlanta, in the Day of Death, 1906.

O Silent God, Thou whose voice afar in mist and mystery
hath left our ears an-hungered in these fearful days—
    Hear us, good Lord!

Listen to us, Thy children: our faces dark with doubt
are 
made a mockery in Thy sanctuary.   With uplifted
hands we 
front Thy heaven, O God, crying:
    We beseech Thee to hear us, good Lord!

We are not better than our fellows, Lord, we are but
weak and human men.   When our devils do deviltry,
curse 
Thou the doer and the deed: curse them as we curse
them, 
do to them all and more than ever they have done
to inno
cence and weakness, to womanhood and home.
    Have mercy upon us, miserable sinners!

And yet whose is the deeper guilt?   Who made these
devils?   Who nursed them in crime and fed them on in-
justice?   Who ravished and debauched their mothers and
their grandmothers?   Who bought and sold their crime,
and 
waxed fat and rich on public iniquity?
    Thou knowest, good God!

Is this Thy justice, O Father, that guile be easier than
innocence, and the innocent crucified for the guilt of the
untouched guilty?
    Justice, O judge of men!

Wherefore do we pray?   Is not the God of the fathers
dead?   Have not seers seen in Heaven’s halls Thine
hearsed 
and lifeless form stark amidst the black and rolling
smoke of 
sin, where all along bow bitter forms of
endless dead?

    Awake, Thou that sleepest!

Thou art not dead, but flown afar, up hills of endless
light, thru blazing corridors of suns, where worlds do
swing of good and gentle men, of women strong and
free—
far from the cozenage, black hypocrisy and chaste
prostitu
tion of this shameful speck of dust!
    Turn again, O Lord, leave us not to perish in our sin!

From lust of body and lust of blood,
    Great God, deliver us!

From lust of power and lust of gold,
    Great God, deliver us!

From the leagued lying of despot and of brute,
    Great God, deliver us!

A city lay in travail, God our Lord, and from her
loins 
sprang twin Murder and Black Hate.   Red was
the mid
night; clang, crack and cry of death and fury filled
the air 
and trembled underneath the stars when church
spires 
pointed silently to Thee.   And all this was to sate
the greed 
of greedy men who hide behind the veil of
vengeance!

    Bend us Thine ear, O Lord!

In the pale, still morning we looked upon the deed.
We 
stopped our ears and held our leaping hands, but they
—did 
they not wag their heads and leer and cry with
bloody jaws: 
Cease from Crime!   The word was mockery,
for thus they 
train a hundred crimes while we do
cure one.

    Turn again our captivity, O Lord!

Behold this maimed and broken thing; dear God, it was
an humble black man who toiled and sweat to save a bit
from the pittance paid him.   They told him: Work and Rise.
He worked.   Did this man sin?   Nay, but some
one told how 
some one said another did—one whom he
had never seen 
nor known.   Yet for that man’s crime this
man lieth maimed 
and murdered, his wife naked to
shame, his children, to 
poverty and evil.
    Hear us, O Heavenly Father!

Doth not this justice of hell stink in Thy nostrils,
O God?   
How long shall the mounting flood of innocent
blood roar in 
Thine ears and pound in our hearts for
vengeance?   Pile the 
pale frenzy of blood-crazed brutes
who do such deeds high 
on Thine altar, Jehovah Jireh,
and burn it in hell forever 
and forever!
    Forgive us, good Lord; we know not what we say!

Bewildered we are, and passion-tost, mad with the mad-
ness of a mobbed and mocked and murdered people;
strain
ing at the armposts of Thy Throne, we raise our
shackled 
hands and charge Thee, God, by the bones of
our stolen 
fathers, by the tears of our dead mothers, by
the very blood 
of Thy crucified Christ: What meaneth
this?   Tell us the Plan; give us the Sign!
    Keep not Thou silence, O God!

Sit no longer blind, Lord God, deaf to our prayer
and 
dumb to our dumb suffering.   Surely Thou too art
not white, 
O Lord, a pale, bloodless, heartless thing?
    Ah! Christ of all the Pities!

Forgive the thought!   Forgive these wild, blasphemous
words.   Thou art still the God of our black fathers, and
in 
Thy soul’s soul sit some soft darkenings of the evening, some shadowings of the velvet night.

But whisper—speak—call, great God, for Thy silence
is 
white terror to our hearts!   The way, O God, show
us the 
way and point us the path.

Whither?   North is greed and South is blood; within,
the 
coward, and without, the liar.   Whither?   To death?
    Amen!   Welcome dark sleep!

Whither?   To life?   But not this life, dear God, not
this.   
Let the cup pass from us, tempt us not beyond
our strength, 
for there is that clamoring and clawing
within, to whose 
voice we would not listen, yet shudder
lest we must, and it is 
red, Ah! God!   It is a red and
awful shape.

    Selah!

In yonder East trembles a star.
    Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord!

Thy will, O Lord, be done!
    Kyrie Eleison!

Lord, we have done these pleading, wavering words.
    We beseech Thee to hear us, good Lord!

We bow our heads and hearken soft to the sobbing of
women and little children.
    We beseech Thee to hear us, good Lord!

Our voices sink in silence and in night.
    Hear us, good Lord!

In night, O God of a godless land!
    Amen!

In silence, O Silent God.
    Selah!

Related Poems

Black Girls Rising

Our Black bodies, sacred.
Our Black bodies, holy.

Our bodies, our own.
Every smile a protest.
Every laugh a miracle.

Piece by piece we stitch ourselves back together.
This Black girl body
that gets dragged out of school desk, slammed onto floor,
tossed about at pool side, pulled over and pushed onto grass,
arrested, never to return home,
shot on doorsteps, on sofas while sleeping 
and dreaming of our next day.

Our bodies, a quilt that tells the story of the middle passage.
Of roots yanked and replanted.

Our bodies, a mosaic of languages forgotten,
of freedom songs and moaned prayers.

Our bodies no longer
disregarded, objectified, scrutinized.

Our bodies, our own.
Every smile a protest.
Every laugh a miracle.

Our bodies rising. 
Our feet marching, legs dancing, our bellies birthing, hands raising, 
our hearts healing, voices speaking up.

Our bodies.
So Black, so beautiful.

Here, still.
Rising, rising.

The Black Queen

All hail! This honest dusky maid,
    Let all others prostrate fall;
Bring forth the international diadem,
    And crown her queen of all.

In all pure womanly qualities,
    She stands serene and tall,
Way up above the average,
    This makes her queen of all.

She’s not a sluggard at any place,
    She answers duty’s call
Come all ye people, small and great,
    And crown her queen of all.

She stands bolt upright by her men,
    She will not let them fall,
Now for her valor, tip your hat,
    And crown her queen of all.

Iris Song

You go outside and the trees don’t know
You’re black. The lilacs will chatter and break
Themselves real bloom, real boon,
No matter your gender. You matter.
Who in you is most material, so
You matter. Your afro gone touch the sky.
Come up from the ground looking extra fly,
Come up from the ground looking extra, fly,
I will touch the sky. I—open my mouth,
And my whole life falls out.