What is the purpose of the poem "The Congo" by Vachel Lindsay?

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edcon eNotes educator| Certified Educator

It is impossible to know definitively what Lindsay's purpose was, but by analyzing the poem's content and style it is possible to develop some informed claims. Lindsay's purpose could be said to follow the trajectory of African and African American lives from pre-colonialism to post-colonialism.

In terms of style, Lindsay was interested in sound and rhythm, perhaps in the service of evoking the sounds of African culture. Lindsay exploited end rhyme (boom/room, vision/derision, yell/hell), onomatopoeia (boom), and repetition (Mumbo-Jumbo will hoo-doo you/Mumbo-Jumbo will hoo-doo you/Mumbo-Jumbo will hoo-doo you) to evoke the sounds of indigenous chanting and drumming.

References to the crimes of Leopold II, the late nineteenth-century Belgian king who created the Congo Free State, suggest a purpose of recalling the exploitation of the Congolese and the hope that he is paying for his sins in the afterlife.

The end of the poem suggests that Congolese culture was all but supplanted by Christian interlopers who worked to ensure that "Mumbo-Jumbo is dead in the jungle. Never again will he hoo-doo you." Whether that is true or not is left to interpretation, as a vulture is left behind to remember and cry the Congo's tune: "Mumbo . . . Jumbo . . . will . . . hoo-doo . . . you.”

Overall, Lindsay's speaker observes that imperialism has a long history of all but eradicating native people and their lifeways.

willowswriter eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Vachel Lindsay, who described himself as writing "singing poetry," was a forerunner of today's poet/performance artist.

His most famous poem, "The Congo," subtitles itself "A Study of the Negro Race." It traces what Lindsay views as primitives or savage Africans from their original home in the Congo to their life in the Americas.

From his point of view, Lindsay was an strong advocate for African-Americans, and many of his contemporaries, notable African-Americans like W.E B. Dubois and Langston Hughes, praised him in that regard.

"The Congo," the poem itself, however, despite its vivid imagery and memorable chorus of "Boomlay boomlay boomlay Booom!" is seen to depict African-Americans with strong racial stereotyping.

Lindsay's purpose in writing the poem, then, was a well intentioned attempt to romanticize African-Americans, but its purpose has ultimately been defeated by time. Today, the poem seems hopelessly mired in too many negative stereotypes to be currently used for the purpose Lindsay intended.