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The Negro Dancers


  1. Lit with cheap colored lights a basement den,

  2. With rows of chairs and tables on each side,

  3. And, all about, young, dark-skinned women and men

  4. Drinking and smoking, merry, vacant-eyed.

  5. A Negro band, that scarcely seems awake,

  6. Drones out half-heartedly a lazy tune,

  7. While quick and willing boys their orders take

  8. And hurry to and from the near saloon.

  9. Then suddenly a happy, lilting note

  10. Is struck, the walk and hop and trot begin,

  11. Under the smoke upon foul air afloat;

  12. Around the room the laughing puppets spin

  13. To sound of fiddle, drum and clarinet,

  14. Dancing, their world of shadows to forget.

  15. II

  16. 'Tis best to sit and gaze; my heart then dances

  17. To the lithe bodies gliding slowly by,

  18. The amorous and inimitable glances

  19. That subtly pass from roguish eye to eye,

  20. The laughter gay like sounding silver ringing,

  21. That fills the whole wide room from floor to ceiling,—

  22. A rush of rapture to my tried soul bringing—

  23. The deathless spirit of a race revealing,

  24. Not one false step, no note that rings not true!

  25. Unconscious even of the higher worth

  26. Of their great art, they serpent-wise glide through

  27. The syncopated waltz. Dead to the earth

  28. And her unkindly ways of toil and strife,

  29. For them the dance is the true joy of life.

  30. III

  31. And yet they are the outcasts of the earth,

  32. A race oppressed and scorned by ruling man;

  33. How can they thus consent to joy and mirth

  34. Who live beneath a world-eternal ban?

  35. No faith is theirs, no shining ray of hope,

  36. Except the martyr's faith, the hope that death

  37. Some day will free them from their narrow scope

  38. And once more merge them with the infinite breath.

  39. But, oh! they dance with poetry in their eyes

  40. Whose dreamy loveliness no sorrow dims,

  41. And parted lips and eager, gleeful cries,

  42. And perfect rhythm in their nimble limbs.

  43. The gifts divine are theirs, music and laughter:

  44. All other things, however great, come after.


Harlem Shadows (1922)

Additional Poems by Claude McKay

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