Fenton Johnson was born in Chicago and lived most of his life there, though he can be considered a poet of both the Harlem Renaissance and the lesser known Chicago Renaissance. He attended college at Northwestern University and the University of Chicago and later studied in New York at Columbia’s School of Journalism before returning to Chicago in 1916. The following poem, “Tired,” was first published in January 1919, just months before the Chicago Race Riots of 1919, and it may help illuminate an atmosphere of weariness or adversity for many African Americans in Chicago at that time and place, where thousands had fled from the South to find further discrimination and segregation. The riots, lasting from July 27 to August 3, 1919, saw 38 people killed, including 23 black victims and 15 white. The turmoil erupted when, after a 17-year-old African American boy’s raft drifted into an informally segregated white beach area, white beachgoers then stoned the boy, Eugene Williams, causing him to drown. Johnson’s poem unfolds in modern free verse, and the words can be read either as the despairing, agonizing breath of a man near exhaustion, or as a scathing indictment of the society he has long suffered. In its witness to and sharing of such suffering, the poem enacts and evokes a principle articulated across history, from the Apostle Paul to John Donne to Martin Luther King Jr., that if one part of a body suffers, the other parts will suffer with it eventually.
by Fenton Johnson
I am tired of work; I am tired of building up somebody else’s civilization.
Let us take a rest, M’Lissy Jane.
I will go down to the Last Chance Saloon, drink a gallon or two of gin, shoot a game or two of dice and sleep the rest of the night on one of Mike’s barrels.
You will let the old shanty go to rot, the white people’s clothes turn to dust, and the Calvary Baptist Church sink to the bottomless pit.
You will spend your days forgetting you married me and your nights hunting the warm gin Mike serves the ladies in the rear of the Last Chance Saloon.
Throw the children into the river; civilization has given us too many. It is better to die than it is to grow up and find out that you are colored.
Pluck the stars out of the heavens. The stars mark our destiny. The stars marked my destiny.
I am tired of civilization.
From Others magazine (January 1919). The poem was also anthologized in Others for 1919: An Anthology of the New Verse (Nicholas L. Brown, 1920) and James Weldon Johnson’s 1922 anthology The Book of American Negro Poetry.
Photograph by Jun Fujita, Chicago History Museum. The photo shows National Guard soldiers standing in front of Ogden’s Cafe during or following the Chicago Race Riots of 1919. Jun Fujita’s achievements in photography and poetry, along with the discrimination he encountered, provide yet another story, which you can read about here.