“This poem, particularly the third section, was suggested by an allusion
in a sermon by my pastor, F. W. Burnham, to the heroic life and death
of Ray Eldred. Eldred was a missionary of the Disciples of Christ
who perished while swimming a treacherous branch of the Congo.
See “A Master Builder on the Congo”, by Andrew F. Hensey,
published by Fleming H. Revell.
So wrote the poet Vachel Lindsay in a footnote to his most famous poem “The Congo” . The sermon which inspired the poem was preached in his hometown First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) of Springfield, IL in October, 1913. The preacher had been a friend of the Congo missionary Ray Eldred before his pioneering service in helping found the second Disciples mission station in Congo at Longa. According to Hensey’s book mentioned above, Ray Eldred perished while trying to ford a small tributary of Longa’s Ruki River.
The poem, while a startling reflection of the ignorance about Africa and the racism prevalent in the U.S. fifty years after the Emancipation Proclamation, made Lindsay famous and still appeared in most American poetry anthologies in the 1950’s and 60’s and may still
appear. Lindsay’s performances of this poem made him a public figure in the tradition of Walt Whitman and Allen Ginsberg. He was a wandering minstrel, twittering his verses for all within hearing distance and the Wikipedia article on the controversy of “The Congo” , on Lindsay’s championing of the poet Langston Hughes and other highlights of his fascinating life is a good introduction to him. See it here:
I strongly suggest reading the article on Lindsay’s life before the shock of reading the poem. Keeping in mind the cultural context and history of the times –early in the 1900’s Springfield was the setting for one of the worst race riots and lynchings in U.S. history- Lindsay’s claim of promoting the advance of “the Negro” by writing the poem seems more credible.
Read the poem at: