Robert E. Howard and the Issue of Racism: The African and African-American Poems — Part 4

Table of Content

Offensive or Derogatory Words or Phrases

The five poems in this next category contain demeaning and derogatory expressions for Africans and African-Americans, including the offensive word “nigger” in the first two.

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“De Ole River-Ox” (undated) The racism analysis of this poem includes the use of the “N” word as well as the dialect itself.

De ole river-ox come over de ridge!
Whoom! Whoom!
He bellow, he roar, he fling his head,
He tear up de reeds where de mud-flats spread!
He low, and he plunge and he butt de bridge.
He shake he horns at de gnat an’ midge,
An’ he kick up de spray an’ spume.

De ole river-ox on a big rampage!
Whoom! Whoom!
He lash his tail and he stomp his hoofs
An’ he splash de spray on de niggers’ roofs.
He roar an’ he prance wid a marvelous rage
An’ he try uproot de landin’ stage!
An’ he whirls de banks like a flume.

De ole river-ox come up to de sea!
Whoom! Whoom!
He catch de boats in his yellow horns
And he tromp ’em down just like he scorns.
He stomp de ocean an’ low an’ roar
An’ drive de ships way up on de shore.
An’ shouts in de flyin’ spume.

Merriam-Webster defines “nigger” as an offensive description of a black person or a member of any dark skinned race. But even among dictionaries there is no agreement. The online Urban Dictionary (21st Century Definition) says it is: “An offensive word that, despite its past usage as an racial slur, is now gaining popularity as a word to describe ignorant, ill mannered, or low-class people, without regard to their ethnicity.”

In A Critical Pronouncing Dictionary, and Expositor of the English Language (Collins and Hannay, No. 230, Pearl Street, NY 1819) the words “racist” and “racism” do not appear. Nor does the word “nigger.” In it, “negro” as a “blackmore” with this added note: “Some speakers, but only those of the very lowest order, pronounce this word as if written ‘ne-gur.’”

Although today it is generally regarded as a racial slur, despite its 21st Century meaning, that was not always true. Webster-online-dictionary website states:

In the United States, the word nigger was not always considered derogatory, but was instead used by many as merely denotative of black skin, as it was in other parts of the English-speaking world. In nineteenth-century literature, there are many uses of the word nigger with no intended negative connotation. Charles Dickens, and Joseph Conrad (who published The Nigger of the ‘Narcissus’ in 1897) used the word without racist intent. Mark Twain often put the word into the mouths of his characters, white and black, but did not use the word when writing as himself in his autobiographical Life on the Mississippi.

The word was much more common in usage in REH’s time and even into the 1950s. For example, in the movie, The Dam Busters, Wing Commander Guy Gibson’s black dog bears that name which was changed to “Trigger” for US film distributions. Ironically, the dog playing “Nigger” in the film had that name.

Does a racial slur constitute racism? While this concept has been thoroughly examined under “The Gods of the Jungle Drums,” in Part 2, Fredrickson’s definition of racism also applies.

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.

In this case, Howard is referring to the roofs of people who live next to the river. Again, it is mainstream thinking but even under that meaning, his statements do not contain anything derogatory about African-Americans as a people.

The other issue in this poem is whether REH’s use of the dialect can be considered racism. Did he use it to be purposefully offensive or demeaning? Without more information about the circumstances under which the poem was written, this can’t be determined. However, there are other clues regarding its usage. A possible reason that should be considered is Howard’s background and familiarity with the dialect. In The Collected Letters of Robert E. Howard, v. 2, pp 75-6, he writes to H. P. Lovecraft:

As regards African-legend sources, I well remember the tales I listened to and shivered at, when a child in the “piney woods” of East Texas, where Red River marks the Arkansas and Texas boundaries. There were quite a number of old slave darkies still living then. The one to whom I listened most was the cook, old Aunt Mary Bohannon who was nearly white — about one sixteenth negro, I should say…. She told many tales, one which particularly made my hair rise; it occurred in her youth. A young girl going to the river for water, met, in the dimness of dusk, an old man, long dead, who carried his severed head in one hand. This, said Aunt Mary, occurred on the plantation of her master, and she herself saw the girl come screaming through the dusk, to be whipped for throwing away the water-buckets in her flight.

Another tale she told that I have often met with in negro-lore. The setting, time and circumstances are changed by telling, but the tale remains basically the same. Two or three men — usually negroes — are travelling in a wagon through some isolated district — usually a broad, deserted river-bottom. They come on to the ruins of a once thriving plantation at dusk, and decide to spend the night in the deserted plantation house. This house is always huge, brooding and forbidding, and always, as the men approach the high columned verandah, through the high weeds that surround the house, great numbers of pigeons rise from their roosting places on the railing and fly away. The men sleep in the big front-room with its crumbling fire-place, and in the night they are awakened by a jangling of chains, weird noises and groans from upstairs. Sometimes footsteps descend the stairs with no visible cause. Then a terrible apparition appears to the men who flee in terror. This monster, in all the tales I have heard, is invariably a headless giant, naked or clad in shapeless sort of garment, and is sometimes armed with a broad-axe. This motif appears over and over in negro-lore.

This poem and other dialect poems of the same nature could be the result of his relationship with Aunt Mary Bohannon and are possible tributes to her memory. The article, ”The Dialects of American English,” which traces the English language in its many forms in the United States, was used to trace the dialect used in the poem. It states: “Southern English was mixed with Black English when Black nannies helped to raise white children. The resulting language was a form of pidgin English.”

The Howards stayed in Bagwell from mid-1913 to January 1915 — long enough according to his letter above to keep an impressionable boy spellbound with her horror stories and possibly to pick up her way of speaking. Aunt Mary Bohannon was not a nanny for Howard, but her tales had a great influence on him. Most Howard readers will recognize his short story, “Pigeons From Hell” in the second paragraph quoted above.According to the Western Washington University article on “The Dialects of American English,” the characteristics of Black English that show up in “De Ole River Ox.”

Loss of final t, d after another consonant, e.g., an(d), tol(d)
He shake he horns at de gnat an’ midge,

Loss of the final ng, e.g., somethin’, nothin’, etc.
An’ he try uproot de landin’ stage!

Emphasis on aspect rather than tense. For example, He workin’ (right now) vs. He be workin’. This is found in many West African languages.
He bellow, he roar, he fling his head,

The th in the initial position becomes d: dis, dey
De ole river-ox come over de ridge!

There is also the possibility of REH parodying someone else’s work. There were minstrel shows during REH’s lifetime and although there is no indication that Howard saw any of the eleven movies Al Jolson made between 1927 and 1931, Jolson did have more than 80 hit songs so the culture of that time could be a source of a parody.

This next poem “John Brown” (The Collected Letters of Robert E. Howard, v. 2, p. 343, ca. May 1932) is a diatribe. He starts out the letter to his friend, Clyde Smith with “I approach thee with a liver dripping with gall and venom on the great folk of life.”

According to the online New World Encyclopedia website, John Brown (1800–1859) was an abolitionist who advocated and used force as a means to free African-American slaves. He led the Pottawatomie Massacre during which five men were killed in 1856 Kansas and also led the unsuccessful raid at Harpers Ferry in 1859. He was tried for treason against the state of Virginia on charges of murder and conspiracy to incite slave rebellion and hanged. After the Civil War, Black leader Frederick Douglass wrote of John Brown:

His zeal in the cause of my race was far greater than mine—it was as the burning sun to my taper light—mine was bounded by time, his stretched away to the boundless shores of eternity. I could live for the slave, but he could die for him.

But America was divided in opinion about him and John Brown has been called “the most controversial of all 19th-century Americans.”

Even as late as the mid-20th century, some Southerners used his name as a substitute for profanity and used the eponym as a curse.

The John Brown poem also uses the offensive N Word. However, substituting another group of people that John Brown “stole” (for example, the five pro-slavery settlers that were eventually killed) allows us to examine other issues in the poem as well.

You stole niggers, John Brown,
And smashed the skulls of total strangers
Who had the misfortune to disagree with you
You had the Jehovah complex to a fare-thee-well, John,
And there was but a single blasphemy
In your religion.
That was to differ from John Brown’s opinion.
They make a saint out of you, Johnny oh,
While they gnash their teeth at Quantrell.
The only difference between you gentle souls
Was that his side lost and yours won.
You stole and murdered, John,
And I could overlook that, because
Some of your victims were undoubtedly lice.
But you poisoned a sheep dog, Saint John,
And I can’t overlook that.
Still, John Brown, I am grateful to you,
Because of one warm, fond, glowing memory—
They gave the word and the trap sprung
And your neck cracked like a bull-whip.
On nights of insomnia
This gleeful memory
Lulls me to sleep.

While it could be expected that racism would be a central issue in this poem because of John Brown’s sympathies and actions against slavery, the venom in the poem seems to center on John Brown’s treatment of those who disagreed with him. But that is not the ultimate crime in the eyes of Robert E. Howard, a confirmed lover of animals, in particular his dog, Patch. He accuses John Brown of killing a sheepdog. According to various biographies, Brown was heavily involved in the sheep business and must have known the value of a herding dog. Perhaps the dog was killed in order to keep it from sounding the alarm during one of Brown’s raids. Whatever the reason, Howard’s outrage and anger are directed towards John Brown for his mistreatment of an animal and not for Brown’s anti-slavery activities.

Unfortunately, the use of the word “nigger” is not the only offensive term REH used in his poetry.

In Echoes From an Iron Harp “Private Magrath of the A.E.F.” (Yellow Jacket, 1927) is a poem that tells of bravery, tolerance and compassion. In fact, the Iron Harp version contains a line that is missing from The Collected Poetry of Robert E. Howard: ”As an Aid to remembrance of November 11th, 1918.” Most importantly, it also contains a different first line: “The night was dark as a Bowery saloon.” Sadly, Howard’s original text reads quite differently.

The night was dark as a Harlem coon
Smoke and clouds once lin’ thet moon;
Flares goin’ up with a venomous sound,
Bustin’ and throwin’ a green light around.
An’, yeah, there was me, a cursin’ my soul
For losin’ meself from the raidin’ patrol.
Creppin’ along in the mud and the slime,
Cussin’ and havin’ the Devil’s own time.
Smeared and spattered with Flanders’ mire,
Tearin’ me clothes on the loose barbwire.

In no man’s land, Magrath encounters a German soldier and a fist fight ensues when he realizes his gun has slipped out of his holster. As he goes to kill the enemy soldier with his own bayonet, he sees a locket around the neck of the enemy soldier and is able to read the message by the light of a rocket that goes off.

Limns it in light like a crimson flame
And I see the face of a white haired dame
And German letters beneath it run,
Which I take it to mean, “To my darlin’ son.”
I haul that Hun up onto his pegs,
And I says, “Get goin’; and shake your legs.
Your lines are that way, now get gone.”
And I hands him a boot to help him on.
Saying, “Make tracks on your homeward path,
With the compliments of Monk Magrath.”

Howard uses the anthropomorphism “the night was as black as a Harlem coon.” Again, an offensive reference to African-Americans. If the phrase “Harlem coon” is replaced with “Bowery saloon” as printed in Echoes of an Iron Harp, the rest of the poem comes into focus and the theme of the poem about the relationship between two enemies on the front line of World War I is revealed. While the anthropomorphism shows racial prejudice, there is no indication of any acts of discrimination in the poem. The analysis under “De Ole River-Ox” regarding racial slurs would apply here.

“Slugger’s Vow” is one of Howard’s boxing poems and was included in a letter to Clyde Smith dated January 30, 1925 (The Collected Letters of Robert E. Howard, v. 1, p.44.)

How your right thudded on my jaw.
Gad, what a punch you have!
Also that left jab
To the nose was a pippin.
The referee is counting
But I care not at all.
Presently I shall get up and
Knock you for a row of South
African pickaninies.

Pickaninies is a disparaging terms for an African child. It is the third type of offensive word to be looked at and is added to the other two as offensive terms that REH uses for African-Americans in his poetry.

Do racial slurs constitute racism? The use of these three offensive and disparaging terms for African-Americans: “nigger,” “coon,” and “pickaninies” may indicate “group centered prejudice” and a “snobbery toward” African-Americans. According to Fredrickson, it is not enough to constitute racism. In addition, these words are not the central theme of the four poems in which they are used, nor are the themes directed against African-Americans.

The following poem is different. Also a doggerel, “When I Was in Africa” (undated) requires a separate and more in-depth analysis. Africa is the theme and REH mentions several African tribes in it, using the word “nigger” twice.

When I was down in Africa, in Africa, in Africa,
When I was down in Africa, a tough guy was I!
I licked the Makololos, I licked the Makololos,
I licked the Makololos and walloped the Masai!

I took a lion by the tail, by the tail, by the tail,
I took a lion by the tail and made him run with fear.
I chased the Matabeles about and put the Hottentots to rout,
I chased the elephants all out and all the hippos near.

I took a nigger by the heels, by the heels, by the heels,
I swung him ’round until his squeals woke up the fishes and the eels,
And then I hove him with a thud, he landed sitting in the mud,
A-cussin like a pirate gink, it was some cussing I should think,
And kicking up his heels.

I caught a scaly crocodile, crocodile, crocodile,
I caught a scaly crocodile out of a swamp beside the Nile,
When he would give a tusky smile, the niggers all would run a mile,
Run a mile, run a mile, run a mile, for that’s the proper Kaffir style.

I chased a hippopotamus, hippopotamus, hippopotamus,
I chased a hippopotamus across Nyanza lake,
The Jagas came to raise a fuss, I took my trusty blunderbuss,
They ran when I began to cuss and hid in a reed-brake.

This has the same rhythm as a traditionally popular children’s song, and could be considered a parody of “Here we go round the mulberry bush.”

Here we go ‘round the mulberry bush
The mulberry bush, the mulberry bush
Here we go ‘round the mulberry bush
So early in the morning

T. S. Eliot used the rhythm of this nursery rhyme in his poem, “The Hollow Men,” replacing the mulberry bush with a prickly pear and “on a cold and frosty morning” with “at five o’clock in the morning.” “The Hollow Men” was published in Eliot’s Poems: 1909-1925 in November 1925 and had a profound effect on American literary culture so it is very possible that Howard knew of it.

While there is no proof that Howard parodied this Eliot poem, he did parody another one. According to “The Robert E. Howard Bookshelf” webpage compiled by Rusty Burke, REH was acquainted with T. S. Eliot’s Sweeney Among the Nightingales. He gave a copy of this book to his friend Clyde Smith with the inscription:

Apeneck Sweeney spreads his knees
Letting his hands hang down to laugh.
The zebra stripes along his jaw
Swell to macculate giraffe.
Yet in spite of this here between
These covers is proof that the world
Was once even more mad than it is

The difficulty in evaluating REH’s use of the word “nigger” is a personal sense of revulsion. Perhaps the use of this word, which was common in the South during this period of time, is not as important as REH’s ultimate behavior towards and his treatment of African-Americans. That is what is being determined in this analysis of racism in his poetry.

Howard writes of Zulu chiefs in a letter to Harold Preece ca. January-February 1928: “The characters I write about in my fiction are all primitive, see. The one I like to write about best and which I have sold best is kind of a combination of Jack Dempsey, a Zulu chief and a prehistoric man.” (The Collected Letters of Robert E. Howard, v. 1, p. 167)

The Collected Letters of Robert E. Howard do not show any in-depth analyses of the tribes mentioned in “When I Was in Africa.” Yet Howard’s descriptions of the Zulu tribes in “The Zulu Lord,” and “Zululand” are accurate when compared to those of Rev. John George Wood’s The Uncivilized Races of Men in All the Countries of the World, Vol. 1. (J. B. Burr Publishing Company, 1876.) (Wood’s comments regarding the Zulu warriors and their way of life are extensively quoted in conjunction with “Zululand” in Part 2.)

Wood also discusses the Makalolos tribe in great depth, mentioning that they aided David Livingstone in his exploration of the Southern part of Africa. The Makalolos were strong in war but merciful towards captives who were given the choice of submission and life of equality among the tribe or death. Originally, the Makalolos lived in South Africa until they were displaced by Chakra and the Zulus.

The Hottentots, originally occupied Southern Africa until they also were displaced by the Zulus. According to Wood, they had an instinctive and complete hatred for the Kaffir tribes and the feeling was reciprocated. “Hottentots do not know fear and they fought bravely until their last breath. They often survive wounds that would kill most other men.” The Hottentot tribes were characterized by skin that is lighter, sallow and more yellow in pigment than black. In his book, Wood offers this as proof that the existence of this light-colored race in such a locality means that “complexion is not entirely caused by the sun.” This point of view eventually became the basis for discrimination by the White Supremacists.

While the Matabele are mentioned briefly by Wood, he does not give much depth or insight into the tribe. According to Wikipedia, the Matabele (var. Ndebele) tribe is a branch of the Zulus who split from King Shaka in the early 1820s under the leadership of Mzilikazi, (var. Mosilikatze) who was a former general in Shaka’s army. REH tells the story of this split in his poem “The Chief of the Matabeles” in Part 2.

The Kaffir Zulus, Matabeles, Hottentots, and Makalolos were South African tribes. But Howard’s knowledge of African tribes was broader than just that area. The Maasai (var. Masai), a nomadic tribe, eventually settled in East Africa. The concept of private ownership of land was foreign to them before 1960. The largest loss of their land came when the government confiscated it to form the preserves in Kenya and Tanzania. As a result the Maasai tribes have lost access to water sources and are currently living under conditions of unbelievable poverty.

Howard also mentions the Jagas who lived in the interior of Africa. Until 1972, it was not known that there were two different branches of Jagas: the Yaka Jaga and the Imbangala Jaga. They were completely unrelated but both were fierce and cruel mercenaries.

Again, checking “The Robert E. Howard Bookshelf” webpage, there is no indication that Howard read Rev. John George Wood’s The Uncivilized Races of Men in All the Countries of the World.

This poem reveals the other side of his admiration for the African warrior. In analyzing the issue of racism in it, despite of the depth of Howard’s knowledge of African tribes, “When I Was in Africa,” certainly contains offensive language. However, unlike the other four poems above using the same language, this time African-Americans are central to the theme making the use of the word “nigger” more personal. In this parody, Africans are portrayed in a degrading manner because of who they are and are held up to ridicule. While these poems that contain offensive words would be considered mainstream language in Howard’s era, under the modern definition of racism, at least the majority of them would be considered racist.

As mentioned previously, Howard is a man of opposing opinions. In stark contrast to the offensive doggerel “When I Was in Africa,” is his tribute to Africa in the poem “The Land of Mystery.” This poem is a verse heading for an unfinished draft story of the same name. (The Early Adventures of El Borak, REH Foundation Press, 2010.) Neither the unfinished draft nor the poem were published during his lifetime.

Ancient of nations as the pyramid,
What mysteries lie vaguely hid,
Amid the ancient jungles and the plains,
Where, lichen-grown beneath the jungle rains,
Half-hid by trees that tower toward the sky
The ruins of strange, ancient cities lie;
Cities that were forgot already when
Stonehenge and Karnak sheltered tribes of men.
Cities whose kings had gone to their last sleep,
Ere lost Atlantis sank into the deep.
Oh, land of ancient mystery’s domains,
Dark as the tribes that roam thy ancient plains,
There you will find, as stayed Time’s tracing hand,
Yesterday’s ages in that ancient land,
Thou, Africa.

Like “Zululand,” examined in Part 2, it also lends proof of Howard’s fascination with that country and its peoples and offers a sharp relief from the offensive doggerel poems in this section.

Reincarnation and Dreams

The poem, (“A haunting cadence fills the night with fierce…”) (The Collected Letters of Robert E. Howard, v. 1, p. 320) was sent to Clyde Smith ca. February 1929 when REH was twenty-three years old. “A haunting cadence…” is about Time and Space and reincarnation. Here, REH is transported back to the hut of a Matabele chief and as the poem proceeds, Howard himself is a black warrior living what sounds like a contented life.

A haunting cadence fills the night with fierce longing,
Afar, afar, oh red heart in my bosom!
Like ghost drums wailing in the dark blue bowl of the night.
Like pipes of strange dancers on the sward.
But afar, afar. Abysses of night and stars separate us,
The dark gulf of space intertwines us. But I know, I am.
Again the whisper, the dim call.
The eery refrain, the murmur that is not a murmur.
Afar, afar, on the horizon. On the rim of nothingness.
On the ridge of the world, where the distances melt and only Time is.
How shall I attain it, how grope my way through the shadows,
How thrust aside the stars that cling and the moons that whisper,
To reach out my hot primitive hands to grasp—what?
But afar, and afar, oh burning brain in the bony caverns of my skull!
Long ago I climbed the outer rim of a pagoda in the garden of
A mandarin.
Long ago I saw the Imperial City stretch drowsily below me.
But the whisper crawled along the horizon
Like yellow spiders on the Hoang-Ho. And I was, and I am.
But silken fans lulled me with sibilant rustling and I lay
On the bosom of a Manchu princess and was content—after a fashion.
But afar, oh afar, sleeping blood in the red veins of me!
A whisper and a yearning.
Her breasts were dome of old ivory, ivory that grows yellow in the
Treasure hut of a Matabele chief.
Yellow ivory—and my lips were hot against them—yellow ivory
And my thirsty fingers ruminated the mysteries of her body.
Yellow ivory—yet afar, afar, oh, sandals on my restless feet!
I was a chief once, an ebon iron-thewed warrior.
The scent of the lush grass was wine to my nostrils.
The scent of cooking meat soothed me.
I sat without the doorway of my grass roofed hut
And watched the springbok graze,
The wildebeest come up from the east with a clash of antlers,
And a rattle of hoofs.
The crocodile smote the river with its tail and my heart
The birds flew over, the veldt birds, in long streams
From west to east.
And afar, afar, oh pulsing heart in my black body!
And the night rose and the stars rose, great white
Spear points in the velvet black.
The flames beat up the night in the village and the
Tom-toms rumbled through the dusk.
I felt the body of my naked woman throb beneath me.
Her body pulsed to mine, keeping the rhythm of my vibrations.
Her buttocks were firmer than the hard earth beneath us.
They gave but they rebounded with a springy rhythm.
But afar, oh afar, groping soul in my fierce red brain!
Sound in the tropic night, oh dim whisper down the ages!
Sound! You sing above the jade gong and the hide-covered drum.
Stronger than the woman-call, stronger than the life-call.
Over the hill, beyond the mountain rim.
Farther than the farthest valley, on the other side of
The sea-rim.
Beyond the seas, beyond the skyline.
I know, I was, I am. But afar, oh afar, soul that is mine
To that mystery to which I may never attain.

Again, in “A haunting cadence…” Howard paints a positive picture of African tribal life. In “Drum Gods” (undated) he speaks of brown skinned girls with whom he has sexual relations and then abandons when lured by the jungle drums.

My muscles ripple ’neath my skin,
My steely eyes are straight and far,
Though I have known all roads of sin
From Assuan to Calabar.
And many a brown Somali maid,
Or slim-limbed Berber on my trails
Mark where my erring feet have strayed,
With light-skinned bastards in their kraals.
About the jungle-village fire,
The dusky shadows leap and weave,
And I, enthroned with brief desire,
Make dalliance with some dusky Eve.
I laugh at eyes that gleam and slant,
And brown limbs tossing, bare and free
And yet, beyond the tom-tom’s chant,
The drums of empire beckon me;
So, so, in crimson dawns I rise
And leave my sleeping paramours
To follow lights of dim surmise:
The drum gods’ lure, the drum gods’ lures.

And while REH does abandon the young women there is no indication of any disrespect for who they are. Again, it is a tale told in the first person as if REH himself were there. He loves and then walks on alone. It is very reminiscent of Novalyne Price-Ellis’ description of Robert E. Howard in her book, One Who Walked Alone.

Read Part 1 / Part 2 / Part 3 / Part 5

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Robert E. Howard and the Issue of Racism: The African and African-American Poems — Part 4. (2017, Jul 18). Retrieved from

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