“We shall not always plant while others reap.” This is the first line of Countee Cullen’s poem “From the Dark Tower.” I first read the poem last year, during the election and after having been active in the #BlackLivesMatter movement. Cullen wrote the poem at the height of the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s. The Dark Tower itself was a building in Harlem where writers and intellectuals frequently met. As I read it, I wondered why it is that, ninety years later, the plaintive hope of the poem still seems so distant.
Cullen’s poem helps me remember, as I read the Book of Exodus, that the forty years the Israelites wandered in the wilderness is as nothing compared to the centuries that African-American people have been waiting for justice. Yet it’s the poem’s hope that most deeply effected me when I first read it. I made this image to reflect that hope, and the question that lingers behind the hope: how long must people wait for justice? In Cullen’s words, how long must people “wait, and tend our agonizing seeds”? Here’s the whole text of the poem:
From the Dark Tower
We shall not always plant while others reap
The golden increment of bursting fruit,
Not always countenance, abject and mute
That lesser men should hold their brothers cheap;
Not everlastingly while others sleep
Shall we beguile their limbs with mellow flute,
Not always bend to some more subtle brute;
We were not made eternally to weep.
The night whose sable breast relieves the stark
White stars is no less lovely being dark,
And there are buds that cannot bloom at all
In light, but crumple, piteous, and fall;
So in the dark we hide the heart that bleeds,
And wait, and tend our agonizing seeds.