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Pauli Murray reads "Dark Testament”

Pauli Murray standing in front of a microphone, reading from Dark Testament and Other Poems
Williams, Milton. Pauli Murray standing in front of a microphone, reading from Dark Testament and Other Poems, 1977 Jan. Pauli Murray Papers. Hollis #: olvwork20002334

Pauli Murray—an Episcopal priest, attorney, and civil rights activist—became an enduring voice for freedom and equal opportunity during her lifetime (1910–1985). 

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She was a founding member of the Congress of Racial Equality and the National Organization for Women, as well as a pioneer of African American genealogy.

“Dark Testament” was published in Murray’s only book of poetry, Dark Testament and Other Poems (1970), a compilation of poems written between 1933 and 1941. Speaking of her poetry, Murray said, “I think the same thing that made me write poetry, Dark Testament, the same kind of . . . I don't know whether to call it fire, the same kind of unrest, the same kind of response to situations, made me participate in activities.”

Listen to audio of Pauli Murray reading “Dark Testament”

For research tips and additional resources, view the Hear Black Women's Voices research guide.

[Start of first track]

[Pauli Murray speaking]

Dark Testament.

In memory of Stephen Vincent Benét.

[Pause]

Freedom is a dream
Haunting as amber wine
Or worlds remembered out of time.
Not Eden's gate, but freedom
Lures us down a trail of skulls
Where men forever crush the dreamers—
Never the dream.

I was an Israelite walking a sea bottom,
I was a Negro slave following the North Star,
I was an immigrant huddled in ship's belly,
I was a Mormon searching for a temple,
I was a refugee clogging roads to nowhere—
Always the dream was the same—
Always the dream was freedom.

[Pause]

America was a new dream and a new world for dreaming.
America was the vast sleeping Gulliver of the globe.
America was the dream of freedom,
But the dream was lost when campfires grew,
The Bible twisted as white men threw
The Redskins back to mountain pass,
The senses dulled with whiskey flask,
The arrow broken by searing lead.
"Better to die," the Red Man said.

The white slave ran away too soon,
Followed the path of dying moon—
 A face forgotten in frontier shack
Where none asked questions, few turned back,
Here was a place where a man could stand
Holding free earth in scrawny hand.
Here was a world where freedom was won
By the hand on an axe, the hand on a gun.

[End of first track]

[Start of second track]

[Pauli Murray speaking]

[Pause]

Free earth hungered for free men but
Free men soon hungered for gold.
Planters bargained with traders, traders bargained with slavers,
Slavers turned toward Africa.
The dream was lost in the quest for gold.

The men of Africa were stalwart men,
Tough as hickory deep in their primal forests,
Their skins the color of tree-bark—
Ebony, bamboo, cocoanut, mango—
Their hair was thick with jungle,
Their eyes were dark as star-fed night.
They were sly and cunning, fearless and cool,
They knew the cry of every forest bird and beast.

Smelters of iron, carvers of wood and ivory,
Weavers and potters of intricate design,
Followers of the honeybird to the honeytree,
Hunters of antelope, lion and elephant,
Some were gentle tribes and some were fiercely brave,
Warriors of the poisoned spear
Testing their strength in battle man for man.
And when they killed the foe, they ate his heart
To make themselves invincible.

Story-tellers all, refusing to be hurried,
Who nightly by the village fires
Recalled their tribal history,
Evoked ancestral heroes,
Imbued their young with pride.
And every task no matter what its import
Signalled a joyous song and tribal dance.

[Pause]

O black warrior,
Hurl a dark spear of song
Borne on a night-wind
Piercing the sorrow-haunted darkness—
Perpetual cycle of grief,
Cruel legacy of endless betrayal,
Frenzied anger beating against
Impenetrable walls of silence!

Ours is no bedtime story children beg to hear,
No heroes rode down the night to warn our sleeping villages.
Ours is a tale of blood streaking the Atlantic—

From Africa to Barbados
From Haiti to Massachusetts,
From Rhode Island to Virginia,
From the red clay of Georgia
To requiem in Memphis,
From swampy graves in Mississippi
To the morgues of Detroit.

Ours is a tale of charred and blackened fruit,
Aborted harvest dropped from blazing bough,
A tale of eagles exiled from the nest,
Brooding and hovering on the edge of sky—
A somber shadow on this native earth,
Yet no faint tremor of her breast
Eludes the circle of our hungered eye.

[Pause]

Black men were safe when tom-toms slumbered
'Til traders came with beads and rum,
Bartered and bribed on their slaver's quest,
Killed the watcher, silenced the drum.

Villages screamed in headless horror,
Villages blazed with fiery eye,
Trapped lions roared no greater terror
Than man pinned back on burning sky.
With one great throat the forests thundered,
With one vast body their creatures fled
But man the hunter was now the hunted
Bleeding fresh trails of dying and dead.

Tethered beneath a slave-ship's girth,
The hours throbbed with dying and birth,
Foaming and champing in slime and dung,
Rumbling curses in a jungle tongue,
Torturous writhing of limbs that burst,
Whimpering children choked with thirst,
Vomiting milk from curdled breast,
Rat's teeth sinking in suckling's chest,
Slave ships plunging through westing waves,
Grinding proud men to cringing slaves.

"Oh, runnin’ slaves is a risky trade
When you cross the path of Gov'ment sail,
They'll smell you five miles down the wind
For a slaver stinks like a rotting whale.
And when they spy you, dump your cargo,
Shove the first black over the rail . . ."

He twists, he spins, he claws at the sun,
He plummets down, dark dagger in the flood,
He sucks in the others one by one
And the foam track crimsons with their blood
As glistening shark fins flash among
The black heads bobbing on the wave,
The slave ship flees and freedom is won
In churning torrent, in fathomless grave.

[Pause]

We have not forgotten the market square—
Malignant commerce in our flesh—
Huddled like desolate sheep—
Tumult of boisterous haggling—
We waited the dreadful moment of dispersal.
One by one we climbed the auction block—
Naked in an alien land—

Driven by whip's relentless tongue
To dance and caper in the sun,
Ripple the muscles from shoulders to hips,
To show the teeth and bulge the biceps,
To feel the shame of a girl whose breasts
Are bared to squeeze of a breeder's fists.

Sold! Resold with the same coin
Our unrewarded sweat had borne.
Endless tearing—man wrested from woman
Warm and brown as sunflower heart,
Plucked up, thrust down in untamed earth,
Uprooted, dispersed again—she was too brief a wife.
She sits in frozen grief
And stares with mindless eyes
At fatherless children crying in the night.

[Pause]

Trade a king's freedom for a barrel of molasses,
Trade a queen's freedom for a red bandanna,
Or Cherokee-mulattoes in North Carolina,
Or a Creole mistress in Louisiana.
Sell a man's brain for a handful of greenbacks,
Mark him up in Congress—he's three-fifths human,
Mark him down in the record with mules and mortgage,
Sell him long! Sell him short! Cotton's a-boomin'.
Take a black's manhood, give a white God,
Send him 'way down in the dismal woods
Where a black man's tears will not embarrass
A white man's juleps and lofty moods.

A black man down on his knees in the swamp-grass
Sent his prayer straight to the white God's throne,
Built him a faith, built a bridge to this God
And God gave him hope and the power of song.

[Pause]

Hope is a crushed stalk
Between clenched fingers.
Hope is a bird's wing
Broken by a stone.
Hope is a word in a tuneless ditty—
A word whispered with the wind,
A dream of forty acres and a mule,
A cabin of one's own and a moment to rest,
A name and place for one's children
And children's children at last.
Hope is a song in a weary throat.

Give me a song of hope
And a world where I can sing it.
Give me a song of faith
And a people to believe in it.
Give me a song of kindliness
And a country where I can live it.
Give me a song of hope and love
And a brown girl's heart to hear it.

[Pause]

Pity the poor who hate—
Wild brood of earth's lean seasons—
Pity the poor, the land-robbed whites,
Driven by planters to marshy backlands,
Driven by fevers, pellagra and hookworm,
Driven to hate niggers warm in their cabins,
The nigger fed on scraps from the Big House,
The nigger's hands on a fine tall coach-whip,
The half-white nigger in a rich man's kitchen.

Give 'em a chance they'd burn that nigger,
Burn 'im on a tree in the swamp lands,
Teach 'im not to eat while white men hungered,
Teach 'im even God is white
And had no time for niggers' praying,
Teach 'im that the devil is black
And niggers were the sons of evil.

Pity slave and serf in their misery,
Bound by common fate to common destiny.

[Pause]

The drivers are dead now
But the drivers have sons.
The slaves are dead too
But the slaves have sons,
And when sons of drivers meet sons of slaves
The hate, the old hate, keeps grinding on.
Traders still trade in double-talk
Though they've swapped the selling block
For ghetto and gun!

This is our portion, this is our testament,
This is America, dual-brained creature,
One hand thrusting us out to the stars,
One hand shoving us down in the gutter.

Pile up the records, sing of pioneers,
Point to images chipped from mountain heart,
Swagger through history with glib-tongued traditions,
Say of your grass roots, "We are a hard-ribbed people,
One nation indivisible with liberty and justice for all."

Put it all down in a time capsule,
Bury it deep in the soil of Virginia,
Bury slave-song with the Constitution,
Bury it in that vineyard of planters
And poll-taxers, sharecroppers and Presidents.
In coffin and outhouse all men are equal,
And the same red earth is fed
By the white bones of Tom Jefferson
And the white bones of Nat Turner.

[Pause]

Tear it out of the history books!
Bury it in conspiracies of silence!
Fight many wars to suppress it!
But it is written in our faces
Twenty million times over!

It sings in our blood,
It cries from the housetops,
It mourns with the wind in the forests,
When dogs howl and will not be comforted,
When newborn lambs bleat in the snowdrifts,
And dead leaves rattle in the graveyards.
And we'll shout it from the mountains,
We'll tell it in the valleys,
We'll talk it in miner's shack,
We'll sing it at the work bench,
We'll whisper it over back fences,
We'll speak it in the kitchen,
We'll state it at the White House,
We'll tell it everywhere to all who will listen—

We will lay siege, let thunder serve our claim,
For it must be told, endlessly told, and you must hear it.
Listen, white brothers, hear the dirge of history,
And hold out your hand—hold out your hand.

[Pause]

Of us who darkly stand
Bared to the spittle of every curse,
Nor left the dignity of beasts,
Let none say, "Those were not men
But cowards all, with eyes dull-lidded as a frog's.
They labored long but not from love,
They strove from blind perpetual fear."

Better our seed rot on the ground
And our hearts burn to ash
Than the years be empty of our imprint.
We have no other dream, no land but this;
With slow deliberate hands these years
Have set her image on our brows.
We are her seed, have borne a fruit
Native and pure as unblemished cotton.

Then let the dream linger on.
Let it be the test of nations,
Let it be the quest of all our days,
The fevered pounding of our blood,
The measure of our souls—
That none shall rest in any land
And none return to dreamless sleep,
No heart be quieted, no tongue be stilled
Until the final man may stand in any place
And thrust his shoulders to the sky,
Friend and brother to every other man.

[End of second track]

[Start of third track]

[Margaret Hayes singing]

Unintelligible.

[Pauli Murray speaking]

We are presenting Dark Testament with words by Pauli Murray and music by Margaret Hayes.

[Pause]

[Margaret Hayes singing]

[soft guitar music]

Freedom is a dream
Haunting as amber wine
Or worlds remembered out of time.
Not Eden's gate, but freedom
Lures us down a trail of skulls
Where men forever crush the dreamers—
Never the dream.

I was an Israelite walking a sea bottom,
I was a Negro slave following the North Star,
I was an immigrant huddled in ship's belly,
I was a Mormon searching for a temple,
I was a refugee clogging roads to nowhere—
Always the dream was the same—
Always the dream was freedom.

Always the dream was freedom.

[Pause]

America was a new dream and a new world for dreaming.
America was the vast sleeping Gulliver of the globe.
America was the dream of freedom,
But the dream was lost when campfires grew,
The Bible twisted as white men threw
The Redskins back to mountain pass,
The senses dulled with whiskey flask,
The arrow broken by searing lead.
"Better to die," the Red Man said.

The white slave ran away too soon,
Followed the path of dying moon—
 A face forgotten in frontier shack
Where none asked questions, few turned back,
Here was a place where a man could stand
Holding free earth in scrawny hand.
Here was a world where freedom was won
By the hand on an axe, the hand on a gun.

[Pause]

Free earth hungered for free men but
Free men hungered soon for gold.
Planters bargained with traders, traders bargained with slavers,
Slavers turned toward Africa.
The dream was lost in the quest for gold.

The men of Africa were stalwart men,
Tough as hickory deep in their primal forests,
Their skins the color of tree-bark,
Ebony, bamboo, cocoanut, mango.
Their hair was thick with jungle,
Their eyes were dark as star-fed night.
They were sly and cunning, fearless and cool,
They knew the cry of every forest bird and beast.

Smelters of iron, carvers of wood and ivory,
Weavers and potters of intricate design,
Followers of the honeybird to the honey tree,
Hunters of antelope, lion and elephant,
Some were gentle tribes and some were fiercely brave
Warriors of the poisoned spear
Testing their strength in battle man for man.
And when they killed the foe, they ate his heart
To make themselves invincible.

Story-tellers all, refusing to be hurried,
Who nightly by the village fires
Recalled their tribal history,
Evoked ancestral heroes,
Imbued their young with pride.
And no task no matter what its import
Signalled a joyous song and tribal dance.

Ours is no bedtime story children beg to hear,
No heroes rode down the night to warn our sleeping villages.
Ours is a tale of blood streaking the Atlantic—

From Africa to Barbados
From Haiti to Massachusetts,
From Rhode Island to Virginia,
From the red clay of Georgia
To requiem in Memphis,
From swampy graves in Mississippi
To the morgues of Detroit.

Ours is a tale of charred and blackened fruit,
Aborted harvest dropped from blazing bough,
A tale of eagles exiled from the nest,
Brooding and hovering on the edge of sky—
A somber shadow on this native earth,
Yet no faint tremor of her breast
Eludes the circle of our hungered eye.

[Pause]

Black men were safe when tom-toms slumbered
'Til traders came with beads and rum,
Bartered and bribed on their slaver's quest,
Killed the watcher, silenced the drum.

Villages screamed in headless horror,
Villages blazed with fiery eye,
Trapped lions roared no greater terror
Than man pinned back on burning sky.
With one great throat the forests thundered,
With one vast body their creatures fled
But man the hunter was now the hunted
Bleeding fresh trails of dying and dead.

Tethered beneath a slave-ship's girth,
The hours throbbed with dying and birth,
Foaming and champing in slime and dung,
Rumbling curses in a jungle tongue,
Torturous writhings of limbs that burst,
Whimpering children choked with thirst,
Vomiting milk from curdled breast,
Rat's teeth sinking in suckling's chest,
Slave ships plunging through westing waves,
Grinding proud men to cringing slaves.

"Oh, running slaves is a risky trade
When you cross the path of Gov'ment sail,
They'll smell you five miles down the wind
For a slaver stinks like a rotting whale.
And when they spy you, dump your cargo,
Shove the first black over the rail . . ."

He twists, he spins, he claws at the sun,
He plummets down, dark dagger in the flood,
He sucks in the others one by one
And the foam track crimson with their blood
As glistening shark fins flash among
The black heads bobbing on the wave,
The slave ship flees and freedom is won
In churning torrent, in fathomless grave.

[Pause]

We have not forgotten the market square
Malignant commerce in our flesh
Huddled like desolate sheep
Tumult of boisterous haggling
We waited the dreadful moment of dispersal.
One by one we climbed the auction block,
Naked in an alien land.

Driven by whip's relentless tongue
To dance and caper in the sun,
Ripple the muscles from shoulders to hips,
To show the teeth and bulge the biceps,
To feel the shame of a girl whose breasts
Are bared to squeeze of a breeder's fists.

Sold! Resold with the same coin
Our unrewarded sweat had borne.
Endless tearing—man wrested from woman
Warm and brown as a sunflower heart,
Plucked up, thrust down in untamed earth,
Uprooted, dispersed again—she was too brief a wife.
She sits in frozen grief
And stares with mindless eyes
At fatherless children crying in the night.

[Pause]

Trade a king's freedom for a barrel of molasses,
Trade a queen's freedom for a red bandanna,
Or Cherokee-mulattoes in North Carolina,
Or a Creole mistress in Louisiana.
Sell a man's brain for a handful of greenbacks,
Mark him up in Congress—he's three-fifths human,
Mark him down in the record with mules and mortgage,
Sell him long! Sell him short! Cotton's a-booming.
Take a black's manhood, give a white God,
Send him ‘way down in the dismal woods
Where a black man's tears will not embarrass
A white man's juleps and lofty moods.

A black man down on his knees in the swamp grass
Sent his prayer straight to the white God's throne,
Built him a faith, built a bridge to this God
And God gave him hope and the power of song.

[Pause]

Hope is a crushed stalk
Between clenched fingers.
Hope is a bird's wing
Broken by stone.
Hope is a word in a tuneless ditty
A word whispered with the wind,
A dream of forty acres and a mule,
A cabin of one's own and a moment to rest,
A name and a place for one's children
And children's children at last.
Hope is a song in a weary throat.

Give me a song of hope
And a world where I can sing it.
Give me a song of faith
And a people to believe in it.
Give me a song of kindliness
And a country where I can live it.
Give me a song of hope and love
And a brown girl's heart to hear it.

[Pause]

Pity the poor who hate
Wild brood of earth's lean seasons
Pity the poor, the land-robbed whites,
Driven by planters to marshy backlands,
Driven by fevers, pellagra and hookworm,
Driven to hate niggers warm in their cabins,
The nigger fed on scraps from the Big House,
The nigger's hands on a fine tall coach-whip,
The half-white nigger in a rich man's kitchen.

Give 'em a chance they'd burn that nigger,
Burn 'im on a tree in the swamp lands,
Teach 'im not to eat while white men hungered,
Teach 'im that even God is white
And had no time for niggers' praying,
Teach 'im that the devil is black
And niggers were the sons of evil.

Pity slave and serf in their misery,
Bound by common fate to common destiny.

[Pause]

The drivers are dead now
But the drivers have sons.
The slaves are dead too
But the slaves have sons,
And when sons of drivers meet sons of slaves
The hate, the old hate, keeps grinding on.
Traders still trade in double-talk
Though they've swapped the selling block
For ghetto and gun!

This is our portion, this is our testament,
This is America, dual-brained creature,
One hand thrusting us out to the stars,
One hand shoving us down to the gutter.

Pile up the records, sing of pioneers,
Point to images chipped from mountain heart,
Swagger through history with glib-tongued traditions,
Say of your grass roots, "We are a hard-ribbed people,
One nation indivisible with liberty and justice for all."

Put it all down in a time capsule,
Bury it deep in the soil of Virginia,
Bury slave song with the Constitution,
Bury it in that vineyard of planters
And poll-taxers, sharecroppers and Presidents.
In coffin and outhouse all men are equal,
And the same red earth is fed
By the white bones of Tom Jefferson
And the white bones of Nat Turner.

[Pause]

Tear it out of the history books!
Bury it in conspiracies of silence!
Fight many wars to suppress it!
But it is written in our faces
Twenty million times over!

It sings in our blood,
It cries from the housetops,
It mourns with the wind in the forests,
When dogs howl and will not be comforted,
When newborn lambs bleat in the snowdrifts,
And dead leaves rattle in the graveyards.
And we'll shout it from the mountains,
We'll tell it in the valleys,
We'll talk it in miner's shack,
We'll sing it at the work bench,
We'll whisper it over back fences,
We'll speak it in the kitchen,
We'll state it in the White House,
We'll tell it everywhere to all who will listen—

We will lay siege, let thunder serve our claim,
For it must be told, endlessly told, and you must hear it.
Listen, white brothers, hear the dirge of history,
And hold out your hand—hold out your hand.

[Pause]

Of us who darkly stand
Bared to the spittle of every curse,
Nor left the dignity of beasts,
Let no one say, "Those were not men
But cowards all, with eyes dull-lidded as a frog.
They labored long but not from love,
They strove from blind perpetual fear."

Better our seed rot on the ground
And our hearts burn to ash
Than the years be empty of our imprint.
We have no other dream, no land but this;
With slow deliberate hands these years
Have set her image on our brows.
We are her seed, have borne a fruit
Native and pure as unblemished cotton.

Then let the dream linger on.
Let it be test of the nations,
Let it be the quest of all our days,
The fevered pounding of our blood,
The measure of our souls
That none shall rest in any land
And none return to dreamless sleep,
No heart be quieted, no tongue be stilled
Until the final man may stand in any place
And thrust his shoulders to the sky,
Friend and brother to every other man.

[end of third track]

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