Robert E. Howard and the Issue of Racism: The African and African-American Poems — Part 2

Under the modern definition, with his strong feelings of anti-miscegenation and the “sweeping racist generalities,” Howard would certainly be considered a racist. As quoted previously, Rusty Burke also gives him credit when he states REH “seemed to be able to give any man his due,” i.e., judging individuals on their merit. Definitely not mainstream thinking. However, Robert E. Howard was a complex man who held opposing viecrovwpoints on many subjects. To analyze his views on the subject of racism, each of his thirty-two poems relating to Africa, Africans, and African-Americans are examined.

To aid in these analyses, two definitions will be used: (1) a belief in the superiority of a particular race; prejudices based on this. An antagonism towards other races especially as a result of this and a theory that human abilities, etc., are determined by race; and (2) Professor Fredrickson’s statements that racism is not merely an attitude or set of beliefs; it also expresses itself in the practices, institutions, and structures that a sense of deep difference justifies or validates. Racism, therefore, is more than theorizing about human differences or thinking badly of a group over which one has no control. It either directly sustains or proposes to establish a racial order, a permanent group hierarchy that is believed to reflect the laws of nature or the decrees of God.

All the poems have been categorized by genre and within each genre they have been alphabetized. Since most of the poems are undated, a chronological order is not possible. Wherever possible, verses that are not pertinent are omitted. To read the complete poem, see The Collected Poetry of Robert E. Howard (Robert E. Howard Foundation Press, 2008)

 Historical/Narrative Poems

“The Chief of the Matabeles” (undated) is a story about the Matabeles African tribe and its history as told by Umengan, an elder in the tribe, to Baas, a tribesman. It is a narrative tale of the origins of the tribe, its various chiefs and the time and nature of their battles when impi [a body of Kaffir warriors] slayed impi. “Chief of the Matabeles” speaks respectfully of the tribal history.

The warm veldt spread beneath the tropic sun,
I climbed a rocky kopje and sat down.
The baboons chattered, full of rage
At me, invader of their dens, but came not near me.
So I sat, and watched the cattle grazing on the veldt.
Herded by small, half-naked Kaffir boys,
Who, as they herded, played their Kaffir games,
And ran about the veldt, waving their wooden spears
In mimic war.
A jackal slunk from bush to bush
Behind a kopje. Furtive, sly,
Stalking a small veldt-deer, who caught his scent
And fled away. And o’er across the veldt I saw
The kraal of Umlaganna,
Chief of the Matabeles.

Then up the kopje came old Umengan,
One of the oldest men of the kraal,
A counselor of the chief of the Matabeles,
And one who knew the legends of his race.
Umengan sat down near me. “Baas,” said he,
“Does not the veldt seem peaceful at this time?
Aye, so it is. With cattle grazing placidly,
Herded by umfan, the young warriors,
And yonder in the kraal the women cook
And they brew the beer for feasting, revel, dance.
Yet I have seen the plains drenched with blood,
Where warriors leaped and smote and thrust and slew,
And knob-sticks smote and whirled and smote again,
And spears were crimson-red from point to grip,
’Twas there that Lobengula made his stand,
’Twas there the British armies broke his power.

“When I was young,” Umengan said, “I followed many a chief,
Fought many a fight. Chaka, I followed first, the Zulu chief.
Chaka the bloody, Chaka the Wild Beast. There was a king!
When we had smote our foes so none remained,
And Chaka lusted for the battle-blood,
He bade the impis turn their spears on one another.
So we turned, impi on impi, Kaffir against Kaffir, and we smote,
And all the tribes made up those impis, all the tribes
Of Kaffirland. Spear clanged on spear and so we smote and slew.
And Chaka watched, his strange, black eyes, flaming with lust of slaughter.
So we slew, and slaughtered one another,
Till Chaka bade us cease.
So, as I said, I followed Chaka, for a king
To be a king and reign, must be a slayer.
For they rule by fear and power. Let a king
Allow his tribe to lose their fear of him and they will hurl him down.

“Then the young chief, Um Silikaz, arose in power,
A chief of my own tribe, Mosilikatze.
A mighty chieftain of the Matabele.
He was a Matabele and so am I. Should I, Umengan, serve a Zulu king?
Yet I think that the young chief, Mosilikatze,
Had never risen to power, had it not been for his aquira, Umlimo.
Many and mighty are the Kaffir tribes,
And Matabele and Zulu are akin. So with shrewd eye to coming power,
Umlimo, aquira of the Zulus came to the induna of the Matabele,
Mosilikatze. ’Twas he who counseled the young chief, Mosilikatze,
To raid the tribes of far Mashonaland.
Whereby the impi of Mosilikatze gained fame and power, women, cattle, loot.
’Twas he bade Mosilikatze withhold the cattle that were the Inkosa’s due,
Whereat Chaka, the king was full of wrath
And ordered forth an impi to bring captive, Mosilikatze, chief of the Matabeles.

“The impi found Mosilikatze, alone with his aquira, Umlimo.
Then in his mighty strength the chieftain laughed,
And with his spear and shield prepared for fray.
But the aquira spoke, ‘Nay, fight not now.
Nay, nay, throw down your spear and yield and I will steal away.’
So the chief of the Matabeles did as the aquira said,
And as the impi closed about, Umlimo sprang,
And leaped away and none could stay him, so he fled,
Escaping. Then they dragged Mosilikatze before the king.
And on him Chaka glared, and bold Mosilikatze
Shrank back before the glare of Chaka’s eyes, for none could
Face the Inkosa’s eyes when savage rage blazed from them.
‘Fling this jackal in a hut,’ then Chaka said,
‘And slay him when I order.’ So they took
Mosilikatze and placed him in a hut, whereby a warrior stood with an assegai.

“Then came Umlimo and with him warriors of the Matabeles.
The Zulu warrior they smote senseless and they freed
Mosilikatze and fled to the Matabeles.
And when Chaka learned his prey had fled,
He slew a dozen warriors in his rage, with his own spear.
And to Mosilikatze came many warriors of the Matabeles.

This unfinished poem uses the first person point of view and we see the Matabele tribe through the eyes of the elder, Umengan.  The story is told by REH as if he were “there” viewing the events as they occurred. It is an African tale of heroism that gives glimpses into the daily life of the tribe.

“The Gods of the Jungle Drums” (undated) tells another story of tradition and history. This time there is the narration of a battle and the victory celebration in its aftermath.

Mutter of drums, jungle drums!
Over the bay their murmur comes;
The dark waves ruffle unto their beat
As over the water on unseen feet
Eery and phantom, spectre fleet,
They glide and float, each ghostly note—
Eyes in the shadows that gleam and gloat—
The gods of the jungle drums.

Spears will flash in the crimson dawn—
Boom! Boom!—say the hidden drums—
Boats will leap from the dusky shore
Steered by Satan’s own yelling spawn.
Then red assegai and flying oar
And the battle yell and the war horn’s roar
Will drown the sound of the drums.

Fires will gleam in the kraal tonight—
Boom! Boom!—say the jungle drums—
Crimson and fierce their leaping light
Red as the spears that swept the fight.
There will the warriors boast their might
And shout their fame as about the flame
They leap in a dance that fiends would shame.

For the cooking pots are brimming o’er
And the red-stained war-spears clash no more;
Stilled is the giant war conch’s roar;
And the drums held sway as they did before—
The magical jungle drums.

This time the poem is told from the third person viecrovwpoint. Here, the poet Howard is not part of the action. He is an observer. A further examination of the poems below show this third person view is unusual. However, if the line “For the cooking pots are brimming o’er” means the warriors are cannibals, that could explain it. It would also explain the two lines: “Steered by Satan’s own yelling spawn” and “They leap in a dance that fiends would shame.” Both of these lines are not in keeping with the respect REH shows the tribes in “The Chief of the Matabeles” and “Victory” (analyzed below) which has a similar theme of a celebration after a battle.

Are these two lines considered racism? The descriptions in them seem to be an essential part of the action so that the reader knows these men in particular are evil. In other words, the lines could be just an old fashioned statement that these are bad guys and they are up to no good. At the most they could be “hostile or negative feelings of one ethnic group or “people” toward another. Even if the lines are interpreted this way though, according to Fredrickson, they would not be considered racism.

The term “racism” is often used in a loose and unreflective way to describe the hostile or negative feelings of one ethnic group or “people” toward another and the actions resulting from such attitudes.

He also adds that racism is more than this:

But sometimes the antipathy of one group toward another is expressed and acted upon with a single-mindedness and brutality that go far beyond the group-centered prejudice and snobbery that seem to constitute an almost universal human failing.

“Kelly, the Conjure Man” (1931) is the title poem in the Howard article of the same name that was submitted unsuccessfully to the Texaco Star, the house organ of Texaco.

There are strange tales told when the full moon shines
Of voodoo nights when the ghost-things ran—
But the strangest figure among the pines
Was Kelly the conjure-man.

In his introduction in The Second Book of Robert E. Howard (Zebra Kensington Publishing, 1976) Glenn Lord writes about this poem, “The original theme of ‘Black Canaan’ was ‘woven about the mysterious Kelly, the Conjure-Man, who was a real character, back in the seventies – an ebon giant with copper rings in his ears and a gift of magic who came from nowhere and vanished into nowhere one dark night when the owls hooted in the cypresses and the wind moaned among the negro cabins.’” Howard Scholar, Patrice Louinet, who researched Kelly, says, “The man was apparently working his magic in Ouachita County, Arkansas, that is to say where Isaac H spent the first 25 years or so of his life. So this may have been a story told to REH by his father, and the name could have been misremembered.”

“A Negro Girl” (undated) describes the heritage of a young woman who according to REH was “born in a tolerant land.” He contrasts her birth in this land with the brutality suffered by other native Africans who fell prey to the slave trade. The journey takes the reader from Africa to Harlem.

Favored child of a lucky star, born in a tolerant land—
Yet she hummed a wild barbaric tune that she did not understand.
I have heard that croon in the barracoon o’er the crack of the driver’s whip,
I have heard that song the whole night long from the holds of the slaver ship;
And I heard it rise to the naked skies through the veldt’s hot, burning breath,
When Chaka’s hosts sent white men’s ghosts to beat at the doors of death.
Through the dim starlight of the desert night, through the jungle’s mid-day blaze
I have heard the songs that I hear today in Harlem’s cabarets.

Again, REH refers to Chaka, the ruler of the Zulu tribe, and describes Africa itself, the journey of the slave ship and the New York cabarets from the viecrovwpoint of the first person. The real issue is whether she was actually “born in a tolerant land?” This poem could be considered a good example of mainstream thinking at the time. As stated in Part 1, “By the time of the First World War, the dominant discourse about blacks in the white South was shifting from one expressing utter contempt and even genocidal hatred to one characterized more often by paternalism and condescending benevolence.” It’s true she did not suffer the slave driver’s whip or confinement in the holds of a slaver ship or even death by Chaka’s troops. In reality though, in the 1930s, African-Americans were subject to the Jim Crow laws and the freedoms guaranteed to all American citizens under the U.S. Constitution did not exist for her.

The term for African-Americans in the 1930s was “negro.” This word was in common usage until the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and 1960s when it was changed to Black-Americans.

Like the poem, “The Gods of the Jungle Drums” above, “Victory” (undated) is about an African tribe, the Mafu (var. Mofu) who are a group of tribes in the Cameroon area of West and Central Africa.

Red fires in the North are glowing bright,
And tom-tom thump through the whispering night.
Aye, the jungle knows to the least leaf-blade
That the men of Mafu are back from the raid:

Back with the heads of a hundred braves,
Back with a hundred female slaves.
Aye, the men for the loot are throwing lots,
While the women bend to the cooking pots.

And the night wind blows,
And the jungle knows,
That the men of Mafu
Have smote their foes.

Chiefs and councillors haste to glut
At the feast in Mafu’s palace-hut.
They stride through the door and a bead of red
Unheeded falls on each feathered head.
And scarce an eye turns toward the ghastly thing
That once was the head of Goru’s king:
He that died at the height of pride,
Hung high, feet to a cross-beam tied.

And the echoes thrum
To the roaring drum
That boasts of the foemen
Mafu’s overcome.

And fire-light gleams as lithe forms prance;
Mafu’s warriors spin in a blood-crazed dance.
The great fire chuckles in crimson blast
As the naked, leaping forms lurch past.
Like shadow-things in the shifting light,
They leap in a ghastly voodoo rite,

And the firelight gleams on white teeth bare
In fierce-eyed faces, amid flying hair.

And the dancers whirl
Through the shadowy swirl,
Mocking the shrieks
Of a captive girl.

Far to the East ’neath a baobab tree,
By a sullen river that runs to the sea,
Smolders a heap of ruins laid
In the midst of a ruined palisade.
Veiled by a grisly, yellow smoke,
No sound is heard save the vulture’s croak
And the jackals’ snarl at the cindered bones—
Unheeding, the sullen river drones.

And the river flows,
And the night wind blows,
Sifting the ashes
Of Mafu’s foes.

It is the story of a victory raid by the Mafu tribe and the celebration of the death of the Goru tribe king. The Goru tribe was originally known as the “Kweni” that between 1906-1912 were brutally colonized by invading French colonials. The dominant Baule people of the region subsequently named them the Goru tribe. It’s interesting that the poem states that the Mafu killed the Goru king, especially since there are three countries between Cameroon and the Ivory Coast where the respective tribes lived.

“The Zulu Lord” (undated) is actually part of Bob Howard’s poems on Chaka (var. Shaka,) the Zulu King. Whether the following scene takes places before or after the break of the Matabeles from the rest of the Zulu tribe, it is not known.

This is the tale the Kaffirs tell as the tints of twilight melt
And the jackal jeers from the kopje’s stones and the nighttime veils the veldt;
As the cooking fires begin to glow and the lounging braves match tales,
This is the story the ancients tell in far, fire-lighted kraals:

Chaka sat in his throne of state; no girls that dance or sing
Bent supple forms in the palace hut for Chaka the Zulu king.
For Chaka the king was a man of war and his hands with blood were red
And never a girl could thrill his soul as the sight of the spear-rent dead.

But the idle assegais hung in the rack
And idle the warring horde
For the tribes of the veldt-land bent the back
To Chaka, the Zulu lord.

Then he formed his impis rank upon rank and bid them smite and slay;
Three thousand warriors of Zululand fell on that bloody day.
Spear clanged on shield and the squadrons reeled under the hot blue skies;
From his throne of state King Chaka watched with his gleaming, magical eyes.

And now when the dim stars light their brands
And the night wind brings its musk
The ghosts come out of the Shadowlands
And stalk through the shuddering dusk.

They say, when the night wind stirs the leaves and the starlight gleams and peers,
That ’tis the rustle of unseen shields and the glitter of shadow spears.
And there in the dim of the ghostly night, far out on the silent plain,
The phantom hordes form ranks and charge, retreat, surge on again.

And the moon that rises above the ghosts
And silvers the dusky land
Is Chaka, watching the spectral hosts
That died at his command.

Although this battle between impis is also referred to in “Chief of the Matabeles,” it’s difficult to say whether Howard’s poem about Chaka, (1787-1828) is a depiction of a real event. However, according to history, the Zulu warrior ruler was certainly capable of such brutal acts. Chaka was considered by many to be a military genius for his reforms and innovations.  His warriors were trained in the use of the iklwa, a short stabbing spear. Its use terrified opposing warriors who tossed their spears and did not fight in close quarters. According to Wikipedia, Chaka is also supposed to have introduced a larger, heavier shield made of cowhide and to have taught each warrior how to use the shield’s left side to hook the enemy’s shield to the right, exposing his ribs for a fatal spear stab.

Chaka

And while he made many innovations to the art of fighting in war, Shaka was especially well known for the brutality of his reign.  An example is the particularly gruesome revenge he took against the mother of his enemy. He locked her in a hut and then put jackals or hyenas inside. After they devoured her, in the morning, Shaka burned the house to the ground.  Again, according to Wikipedia:

At the time of his death, Shaka ruled over 250,000 people and could muster more than 50,000 warriors. His ten years as ruler resulted in a massive number of deaths, probably most of which were due to the disruptions the Zulu caused in neighbouring tribes. He had many enemies and was assassinated by his half-brothers after showing extreme brutality towards members of his own tribe when his mother died. According to Donald Morris, author of The Washing of the Spears A History of the Rise of the Zulu Nation Under Shaka and Its Fall in the Zulu Wars of 1879, during the mourning period Shaka ordered that no crops should be planted during the following year, no milk (the basis of the Zulu diet at the time) was to be used, and any woman who became pregnant was to be killed along with her husband. At least 7,000 people deemed insufficiently grief-stricken were executed, though it wasn’t restricted to humans, cows were slaughtered so that their calves would know what losing a mother felt like.

Although REH’s poem does give hints of Chaka’s brutality, there is also an undercurrent of respect and admiration for the warrior Zulu Lord. Even under the modern dictionary definition there is no indication of racial prejudice or discrimination.

Also related to “The Chief of the Matabeles” and “The Zulu Lord” is “Zululand” (undated); since all three are undated and never published during REH’s lifetime, it’s difficult to know the order in which they were written. Again, “Zululand,” like the two poems discussed previously, shows a deep respect for the tribes and Africa itself.

That is no land for weaklings, no land for coward or fool,
For if ever a man goes to that land, he learns at the greatest school.
The white men in that country are a hardy, chosen band,
For of all the earth the place for worth to be proven is Zululand.

Oh, the free days under the wide free sky! The freedom known and felt,
The wind of the sea, the jungle for me, but best of it all the veldt.
Blazing under a blazing sky; under the sun at noon.
And weirdly white in the tropic night under the tropic moon.

Midnight! Hark to the roaring of lions miles away,
And the night birds that break your dreams in the first gray dawn of day.
The weird laugh of the hyena, as he lopes across the plain,
The scurrying fear of the wild bush-deer as the lion roars again.

Day, high day! With the sunlight flooding the veldt with gold,
And on the slope graze the antelope and the fluttering bush-birds scold.
And listen! Through the morning air, over the veldt there comes,
Bound and rebound from the sky to the ground, the rolling of Kaffir drums.

Leaping back from the azure sky to thunder in the ear,
As the grass strewn ground flings back the sound into the atmosphere.
Boom! Boom! Rumble and thud! The drums speak loud and far,
Speak without cease, a song of peace or a tale of bloody war.

And then the close ranked battle lines, where the feet beat the hard packed loam,
The roar like the sea and the fierce “Sgee!” as the flashing spear goes home.
The ranks of tall, plumed warriors, warriors in stately, warlike array,
Shield held to breast, war-spear and crest, ready for kingly fray.

Aye, that is a land for strong men, and the race will never cease,
A chosen land for a chosen band whether in war or peace.
Then here is a toast to the strong and the true, a toast to that hardy band,
The Afric host, and here’s a toast to their country, Zululand!

And, Howard does not exaggerate the virtues of Zululand and its tribes and his descriptions of the Zulu world appear to be accurate. In his book, The Uncivilized Races of Men in All Countries of the World, Vol. I, (J.B. Burr Publishing Co., 1876) Rev. John George Wood writes: “Of all the true Kaffir Tribes, the Zulu is the chief type. Wood describes the lifestyle and customs of the Kaffir/Zulu, their enjoyment of the Socratic type of argument and practical jokes and writes of their youth:

Each muscle and sinew has had fair play, the lungs have breathed fresh air and the active habits have given to the form that rounded perfection which is never seen except in those who have enjoyed similar advantages. We all admire the almost superhuman majesty of the human form as seen in ancient sculpture, and we need only to travel to Southern Africa to see similar forms, yet breathing and moving, not motionless images of marble, but living statues.

The Zulus were known to be swift and have great endurance. The tribes valued both female and male children. They ate a simple diet and for the most part were in perfect health. This is probably what enabled them to survive injuries that would kill most ordinary civilized Europeans.  A warrior race indeed. REH wrote of them with great respect.

Read Part 1 / Part 3 / Part 4 / Part 5