January 22, 2008
Copyright © 2008
by Marc Norton
Tigers kill, as we saw at the San Francisco Zoo on Christmas day.
But for all its ferocity, the tiger is not the King of Beasts. That title belongs to the lion. Let loose an equal number of tigers and lions, and the lions will kill off the tigers. Why? Because the tiger, ever the rugged individualist, fights alone. Lions fight together as a pack.
I didn't learn this fact from some nature book. I learned it from reading a book called
Caviar and Cabbage, a collection of newspaper columns by Melvin B. Tolson.
Tolson was the professor, poet and writer portrayed by Denzel Washington in
The Great Debaters, which is based on a true story from 1935 America.
Near the end of the movie, we are tantalized by an impending debate on the morality of capitalism. Tolson would have relished this clash of ideas. Here is some of what he had to say in his 1940 column, "Tigers and Lions and Men:"
"Behold the tiger, ye admirers of rugged individualism! The tiger glories in his own strength. The tiger, even in captivity, believes he is the master of his fate and the captain of his soul... The tiger hunts alone and eats alone. He believes in the survival of the fittest. He believes in Might...
"The tiger always went through the jungle by himself. He attacked everything --
the crocodile, the python, and whatnot.
"Whenever you see one lion in the jungle, beware of the pack!
"...Although Tom [the tiger] is caged in the Marsalis Park Zoo, he still tries, by himself, to kill his keeper. Don't be surprised if you hear of the death of Tom!
Tom is like some deluded Americans: he doesn't know that the day of rugged individualism has passed forever...
"Tom the tiger... hates Man as much as the Big Boys who exploit Man... In some ways the tiger is superior to Man, who is always disgracing God by boasting that he's 'made in the image of God.' Tigers do not live on men unless tigers are old and toothless. There are parasitic, money-loving men who live on men all the days of their youth and old age..."
Tolson would have found some irony in the death of the tiger Tatiana on Christmas day. Tolson was a true disciple of Jesus. Some more gems from his columns:
"I am the son of a preacher, who was the son of a preacher, who was the son of a preacher...
"The essence of the teachings of Jesus is democracy... The disciples of Jesus were poor.
His followers were the riffraff, the down-and-outers, the scum of society...
"You recall the high tragedy of the rich young man who came to Jesus. He had kept all the commandments from his youth up. But that was not enough.
"Needless to say, that rich young man could have joined any church in America. By our low standards, he would have been okay. But not by Jesus'.
"Jesus said: 'Take what thou hast and give it to the poor.'
"The rich young man did just what most of us would do today. He told Jesus good-bye...
"It's okay to describe Jesus driving the moneylenders out of the Temple 1,900 years ago; but you'd better not talk about the... racketeers in the Temple [today]...
"If Jesus tried to bring a real democracy to America in the year of our Lord 1940, Jesus would not die on the Cross a second time. No, the capitalist... would lynch Jesus before He could get to the Cross...
"Christians... were the first Communists: that is, they held everything in common. They were not social climbers. They did not cater to the selfishness of the Big Boys. If Luke had a loaf of bread, he shared it with Mark. They had Christianity: they didn't know anything about modern Churchianity...
"A Communist is a man with an empty belly knocking at the door of a capitalist."
Tigers kill, tigers die, even on the birthday of Christ the King. But lions, fighting in solidarity together, are the King of Beasts. In the end, the lion rules the jungle.
The University of Missouri Press plans to bring some of Tolson's writings and poetry back into print in February. Read. Learn. Enjoy. Fight to win.