Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

In vivid contrast to the beginning of Libretto for the Republic of Liberia, in which the shape of the African continent suggests to Tolson a question mark or a skull, the poem’s concluding section presents a series of glowingly positive images. The poem’s final prophetic section, the musical scale’s resolving “Do,” is written in verse paragraphs reminiscent of the Bible or Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass (1855). Here Tolson depicts the continent via the metaphor of the Futurafrique—imagined as a fast train, supersonic airplane, or ocean liner. This promise of a glorious modernistic future is followed by Tolson’s vision of a Parliament of African Peoples.

Earlier in the poem, Tolson quotes (in French) the nineteenth century rationalization for slavery and the colonization of Africa based on the argument that “alone of all the continents, Africa has no history” or civilization. It is against this claim that he offers his vision of the continent’s future. Rather than devoting the poem to a list of great African leaders or a chronicle of memorable precolonial achievements, Tolson refutes the myth of African inferiority with a catalog of African proverbs that testify to the wisdom and experience of the continent’s peoples. Finally, Tolson presents Liberia not only as a nineteenth century refuge for American slaves but also (as a result of its heroic survival) as a beacon of global promise, the coming fulfillment of humankind’s best possibilities as reflected in the nation’s motto, “The Love of Liberty Brought Us Here.”