Poem #20: "They Are Coming?" by Josephine Delphine Henderson Heard

Estimated Reading Time: 4 minutes
Book cover to African American Poetry - An Anthology, 1773-1927, Dover Edition.

Title"They Are Coming?"

Josephine Delphine Henderson Heard

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.


They are coming, coming slowly —
They are coming, surely, surely —
In each avenue you hear the steady tread.
From the depths of foul oppression,
Comes a swarthy-hued procession,
And victory perches on their banners' head.

They are coming, coming slowly —
They are coming; yes, the lowly,
No longer writhing in their servile bands.
From the rice fields and plantation
Comes a factor of the nation,
And threatening, like Banquo's ghost, it stands.

They are coming, coming proudly
They are crying, crying loudly:
O, for justice from the rulers of the land!
And that justice will be given,
For the mighty God of heaven
Holds the balances of power in his hand.

Prayers have risen, risen, risen,
From the cotton fields and prison;
Though the overseer stood with lash in hand,
Groaned the overburdened heart;
Not a tear-drop dared to start —
But the Slaves' petition reach'd the glory-land.

They are coming, they are coming,
From away in tangled swamp,
Where the slimy reptile hid its poisonous head;
Through the long night and the day,
They have heard the bloodhounds' bay,
While the morass furnished them an humble bed.

They are coming, rising, rising,
And their progress is surprising,
By their brawny muscles earning daily bread;
Though their wages be a pittance,
Still each week a small remittance,
Builds a shelter for the weary toiling head.

They are coming, they are coming —
Listen! You will hear the humming
Of the thousands that are falling into line:
There are Doctors, Lawyers, Preachers;
There are Sculptors, Poets, Teachers —
Men and women, who with honor yet shall shine.

They are coming, coming boldly,
Though the Nation greets them coldly;
They are coming from the hillside and the plain.
With their scars they tell the story
Of the canebrakes wet and gory,
Where their brothers' bones lie bleaching with the slain.

They are coming, coming singing,
Their Thanksgiving hymn is ringing.
For the clouds are slowly breaking now away,
And there comes a brighter dawning —
It is liberty's fair morning,
They are coming surely, coming, clear the way.

Yes, they come, their stopping's steady,
And their power is felt already —
God has heard the lowly cry of the oppressed:
And beneath his mighty frown,
Every wrong shall crumble down,
When the right shall triumph and the world be blest!


The rhythm and movement of this poem strike me as a chant or a song--something that is meant to be heard and more importantly, felt through a loud reverberation of those who "are coming."  Henderson's poem feels like a rallying cry and stays with you long after reading it.  

There's something in how she both embraces the horrors of the past ("foul oppression", "canebrakes, wet and gory") while celebrating their struggles and their victories. In covering this terrain, she covers the breadth of history and shows how despite the past and present struggles, that Black people have not just survived but thrived (as "Doctors, Lawyers, Preachers...Sculptors, Poets, Teachers").  

There's also within this, the clear invocation of how white America have restrained and done violence towards Black people but Henderson shows that is not the goal in their rising.  Rather they are here to shine and do better in the long run.  This is reinforced by the line about Banquo ("And threatening, like Banquo's ghost, it stands.").  A character from Shakespeare's Macbeth, Banquo is a loyal friend to Macbeth who ultimately has killed because Banquo's heirs have been prophesized to inherit the throne.  Banquo appears later in the play to haunt Macbeth and remind him of his self-inflicted failures.  Banquo's heirs will indeed come into power but not because of Banquo but because of MacBeth's selfish acts. Thus, Banquo feels like the perfect reference for how Henderson is constructing this tension between Black people and white America. 

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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