Poem: “The Birth of John Henry” by Melvin B. Tolson

0 Posted by - April 3, 2024 - Black History, History, LATEST POSTS

The Birth of John Henry

By Melvin B. Tolson

The night John Henry is born an ax

         of lightning splits the sky,
  and a hammer of thunder pounds the earth,
     and the eagles and panthers cry!
     John Henry—he says to his Ma and Pa:
         “Get a gallon of barleycorn.
     I want to start right, like a he-man child,
         the night that I am born!”
  Says: “I want some ham hocks, ribs, and jowls,
         a pot of cabbage and greens;
     some hoecakes, jam, and buttermilk,
         a platter of pork and beans!”
     John Henry’s Ma—she wrings her hands,
         and his Pa—he scratches his head.
     John Henry—he curses in giraffe-tall words,
         flops over, and kicks down the bed.
     He’s burning mad, like a bear on fire—
         so he tears to the riverside.
 As he stoops to drink, Old Man River gets scared
         and runs upstream to hide!
     Some say he was born in Georgia—O Lord!
         Some say in Alabam.
  But it’s writ on the rock at the Big Bend Tunnel:
     “Lousyana was my home. So scram!


Melvin Beaunorus Tolson was an American poet, educator, columnist, and politician. As a poet, he was influenced both by Modernism and the language and experiences of African Americans, and he was deeply influenced by his study of the Harlem Renaissance.

Born in Moberly, Missouri, Tolson was one of four children of Reverend Alonzo Tolson, a Methodist minister, and Lera (Hurt) Tolson, a seamstress of African-Creek ancestry. Alonzo Tolson was also of mixed race, the son of an enslaved woman and her white master.

Tolson graduated from Lincoln High School in Kansas City in 1919. He enrolled at Fisk University but transferred to Lincoln University, Pennsylvania the next year for financial reasons. Tolson graduated with honors in 1924. He became a member of the Omega Psi Phi fraternity.

As a debate coach at the historically black Wiley College in Marshall, Texas, Tolson led a team that pioneered interracial college debates against white colleges in the segregated South.

From October 1937 to June 1944, Tolson wrote a column for The Washington Tribune, which he called “Cabbage and Caviar.” In 1941, he published his poem “Dark Symphony” in 1941. Some critics believe it is his greatest work, in which he compared and contrasted African-American and European-American history. Tolson’s final work to appear in his lifetime, the long poem Harlem Gallery, was published in 1965. The poem consists of several sections, each beginning with a letter of the Greek alphabet.





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