Poem #10: How Long? by James Monroe Whitfield

Estimated Reading Time: 8.5 minutes
Book cover to African American Poetry - An Anthology, 1773-1927, Dover Edition.

TitleHow Long?

Author: James Monroe Whitfield

Source:  African-American Poetry: An Anthology, 1773-1927. Dover Thrift Editions. Ed. Joan R. Sherman. 1997. ISBN:  978-0-486-29604-3.

Link: You can find this poem on this website.


How long, oh gracious God! how long
Shall power lord it over right?
The feeble, trampled by the strong,
Remain in slavery's gloomy night.
In every region of the earth,
Oppression rules with iron power,
And every man of sterling worth,
Whose soul disdains to cringe, or cower
Beneath a haughty tyrant's nod,
And, supplicating, kiss the rod,
That, wielded by oppression's might,
Smites to the earth his dearest right,
The right to speak, and think, and feel,
And spread his uttered thoughts abroad,
To labor for the common weal,
Responsible to none but God -
Is threatened with the dungeon's gloom,
The felon's cell, the traitor's doom;
And treacherous politicians league
With hireling priests, to crush and ban
All who expose their vile intrigue,
And vindicate the rights of man.
How long shall Afric raise to thee
Her fettered hand, oh Lord, in vain?
And plead in fearful agony,
For vengeance for her children slain.
I see the Gambia's swelling flood,
And Niger's darkly rolling wave,
Bear on their bosoms stained with blood,
The bound and lacerated slave;
While numerous tribes spread near and far,
Fierce, devastating, barbarous war -
Earth's fairest scenes in ruin laid
To furnish victims for that trade,
Which breeds on earth such deeds of shame
As fiends might blush to hear or name.
I see where Danube's waters roll,
And where the Magyar vainly strove,
With valiant arm, and faithful soul,
In battle for the land he loved -
A perjured tyrant's legions tread
The ground where Freedom's heroes bled,
And still the voice of those who feel
Their country's wrongs, with Austrian steel.
I see the 'Rugged Russian Bear'
Lead forth his slavish hordes, to War
Upon the right of every State
Its own affairs to regulate:
To help each Despot bind the chain
Upon the people's rights again,
And crush beneath his ponderous paw
All Constitutions, rights and law.
I see in France, oh, burning shame!
The shadow of a mighty name,
Wielding the power her patriot bands
Had boldly wrenched from kingly hands,
With more despotic pride of sway
Than ever monarch dared display.
The Fisher, too, whose world-wide nets
Are spread to snare the souls of men,
By foreign tyrant's bayonets
Established on his throne again,
Blesses the swords still reeking red
With the best blood his country bore,
And prays for blessings on the head
Of him who wades through Roman gore.

The same unholy sacrifice,
Where'er I turn, bursts on mine eyes,
Of princely pomp, and priestly pride.
The people trampled in the dust,
Their dearest, holiest rights denied,
Their hopes destroyed, their spirit crushed;
But when I turn the land to view,
Which claims, par excellence, to be
The refuge of the brave and true,
The strongest bulwark of the free,
The grand asylum for the poor
And trodden-down of every land,
Where they may rest in peace secure,
Nor fear th' oppressor's iron hand -
Worse scenes of rapine, lust and shame,
Than e'er disgraced the Russian name,
Worse than the Austrian ever saw,
Are sanctioned here as righteous law.
Here might the Austrian Butcher make
Progress in shameful cruelty,
Where women-whippers proudly take
The meed and praise of chivalry.
Here might the cunning Jesuit learn -
Though skilled in subtle sophistry,
And trained to persevere in stern,
Unsympathizing cruelty,
And call that good, which, right or wrong,
Will tend to make his order strong -
He here might learn from those who stand
High in the gospel ministry,
The very magnates of the land
In evangelic piety,
That conscience must not only bend
To every thing the Church decrees,
But it must also condescend,
When drunken politicians please
To place their own inhuman acts
Above the 'higher law' of God,
And on the hunted victim's tracks
Cheer the malignant fiends of blood;
To help the man-thief bind the chain
Upon his Christian brother's limb,
And bear to Slavery's hell again
The bound and suffering child of Him
Who died upon the cross, to save
Alike, the master and the slave.
While all th' oppressed from every land
Are welcomed here with open hand,
And fulsome praises rend the heaven
For those who have the fetters riven
Of European tyranny,
And bravely struck for liberty;
And while from thirty thousand fanes
Mock prayers go up, and hymns are sung,
Three millions drag their clanking chains,
'Unwept, unhonored and unsung;'
Doomed to a state of slavery
Compared with which the darkest night
Of European tyranny,
Seems brilliant as the noonday light;
While politicians, void of shame,
Cry, this is law and liberty,
The clergy lend the awful name
And sanction of the Deity,
To help sustain the monstrous wrong,
And crush the weak beneath the strong.
Lord! thou hast said, the tyrant's ear
Shall not be always closed to thee,
But that thou wilt in wrath appear,
And set the trembling captive free;
And even now dark omens rise
To those who either see or hear,
And gather o'er the darkening skies
The threatening signs of fate and fear.
Not like the plagues which Egypt saw,
When rising in an evil hour,
A rebel 'gainst the 'higher law,'
And glorying in her mighty power -
Saw blasting fire, and blighting hail,
Sweep o'er her rich and fertile vale,
And heard on every rising gale,
Ascend the bitter, mourning wail;
And blighted herd, and blasted plain,
Through all the land the first-born slain,
Her priests and magi made to cower
In witness of a higher power,
And darkness, like a sable pall,
Shrouding the land in deepest gloom,
Sent sadly through the minds of all
Forebodings of approaching doom.
What though no real shower of fire
Spreads o'er this land its withering blight,
Denouncing wide Jehovah's ire
Like that which palsied Egypt's might;
And though no literal darkness spreads
Upon the land its sable gloom,
And seems to fling around our heads
The awful terrors of the tomb:

Yet to the eye of him who reads
The fate of nations past and gone,
And marks with care the wrongful deeds
By which their power was overthrown,
Worse plagues than Egypt ever felt
Are seen wide-spreading through the land,
Announcing that the heinous guilt
On which the nation proudly stands,
Has risen to Jehovah's throne
And kindled his avenging ire,
And broad-cast through the land has sown
The seeds of a devouring fire.
Tainting with foul, pestiferous breath
The fountain-springs of moral life,
And planting deep the seeds of death,
And future germs of deadly strife;
And moral darkness spreads its gloom
Over the land in every part
And buries in a living tomb
Each generous prompting of the heart.
Vice in its darkest, deadliest stains,
Here walks with brazen front abroad,
And foul corruption proudly reigns
Triumphant in the Church of God;
And sinks so low the Christian name,
In foul, degrading vice, and shame,
That Moslem, Heathen, Atheist, Jew,
And men of every faith and creed,
To their professions far more true,
More liberal both in word and deed,
May well reject, with loathing scorn,
The doctrines taught by those who sell
Their brethren in the Saviour born,
Down into slavery's hateful hell;
And with the price of Christian blood
Build temples to the Christian's God;
And offer up as sacrifice,
And incense to the God of heaven,
The mourning wail, and bitter cries,
Of mothers from their children riven;
Of virgin purity profaned
To sate some brutal ruffian's lust,
Millions of Godlike minds ordained
To grovel ever in the dust;
Shut out by Christian power and might,
From every ray of Christian light.

How long, oh Lord! shall such vile deeds
Be acted in thy holy name,
And senseless bigots, o'er their creeds,
Fill the whole earth with war and flame?
How long shall ruthless tyrants claim
Thy sanction to their bloody laws,
And throw the mantle of thy name,
Around their foul, unhallowed cause?
How long shall all the people bow
As vassals of the favored few,
And shame the pride of manhood's brow,
Give what to God alone is due -
Homage, to wealth, and rank, and power
Vain shadows of a passing hour?
Oh for a pen of living fire,
A tongue of flame, an arm of steel,
To rouse the people's slumbering ire,
And teach the tyrant's heart to feel.
Oh Lord! in vengeance now appear,
And guide the battles for the right,
The spirits of the fainting cheer,
And nerve the patriot's arm with might;
Till slavery banished from the world,
And tyrants from their powers hurled,
And all mankind from bondage free,
Exult in glorious liberty.


The weight of this poem lingers in my mind with its literary and historical references along with its somber tone.  Like other poems written by Black people in the 19th century, it calls upon white people of European descent to be better than the wicked deeds that haunt their histories and their current practices (i.e. slavery).  He invokes the supposed inalienable rights ("to speak, and think, and feel,/And spread his uttered thoughts abroad,/To labor for the common weal,/Responsible to none but God") while also calling out the cruelty of practices in Europe.  I was fascinated by the references here.  The "Rugged Russian Bear" is unclear but could be a reference from Shakespeare's MacBeth or might be a symbol for Russia in general (https://www.rbth.com/history/330484-russian-bear-became-symbol).  More interesting though was the "Austrian Butcher"--an actual person that lived in the 19th century and committed the acts that the poet speaks of.  

The thing that strikes me most strongly about the poem is how it so strongly critiques Europe for its constant battle between tyranny and the possibility of being something better coupled with their aspirations to be Christian people culminate in the creation of slavery in Europe and the US where the hypocrisy of religion and love of life clash so evidently. I'm intrigued by this argument as it's one that still invoked today about how much creulty is evident from leaders who claim to be faithful followers of Christianity (or most religions for that matter). It leaves me wondering how old this argument is and how useful has it been in changing people's more horrific practices. 

Those are my thoughts.  How do you interpret the poem?

About the reflections
This poem is part of a 365 day challenge project that focuses on a poem a day.  Similar projects have included short shorties and photo reflections. Part of the intention of this year's project is to develop a better appreciation and means of reflecting on poetry, something that has never been a strong suit for me.  These reflections therefore do not represent a definitive assessment of the work by me. They are merely an opportunity for me to have a public conversation about what they mean in order to help myself better understand them and mayhaps have a conversation with readers for further insight.  

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