Strong Men

They dragged you from homeland,
They chained you in coffles,
They huddled you spoon-fashion in filthy hatches,
They sold you to give a few gentlemen ease.

They broke you in like oxen,
They scourged you,
They branded you,
They made your women breeders,
They swelled your numbers with bastards. . . .
They taught you the religion they disgraced.

You sang:
            Keep a inchin’ along
            Lak a po’ inch worm. . . .

You sang:
            Bye and bye
            I’m gonna lay down dis heaby load. . . .

You sang.
            Walk togedder, chillen,
            Dontcha git weary. . . .

                The strong men keep a-comin’ on
                The strong men git stronger.

They point with pride to the roads you built for them,
They ride in comfort over the rails you laid for them.
They put hammers in your hands
And said—Drive so much before sundown.

You sang:
             Ain’t no hammah
             In dis lan’,
             Strikes lak mine, bebby,
             Strikes lak mine.

They cooped you in their kitchens,
They penned you in their factories,
They gave you the jobs that they were too good for,
They tried to guarantee happiness to themselves
By shunting dirt and misery to you.

You sang:
             Me an’ muh baby gonna shine, shine
             Me an’ muh baby gonna shine.

                     The strong men keep a-comin’ on
                     The strong men git stronger . . .

They bought off some of your leaders
You stumbled, as blind men will . . .
They coaxed you, unwontedly soft voiced . . .
You followed a way.
Then laughed as usual.
They heard the laugh and wondered;
Unadmitting a deeper terror. . . .

                    The strong men keep a-comin’ on
                    Gittin’ stronger. . . .

What, from the slums
Where they have hemmed you,
What, from the tiny huts
They could not keep from you—
What reaches them
Making them ill at ease, fearful?
Today they shout prohibition at you
“Thou shalt not this”
“Thou shalt not that”
“Reserved for whites only”
You laugh.

One thing they cannot prohibit—
                     The strong men . . . coming on
                     The strong men gittin’ stronger.
                     Strong men . . .
                     Stronger . . .

From The Book of American Negro Poetry (Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1922), edited by James Weldon Johnson. This poem is in the public domain.