Original Criticism

Heather Zadra: On "Three Songs about Lynching"

"Three Songs About Lynching" uses the conventions of song, including repeated phrases and lines that work as recurring "bridges," to enact and reenforce a terrifying depiction of lynching, one that becomes representative of each victim, each instance of death, no matter the varying circumstances of events. Just as traditional songs move from verse to verse, so too does "Three Songs" move from one "stage" of the lynching process to another. None of the songs retain the full effect of their significance without the others; thus, each song exists not independently, but as a part or verse of a "Grand Chorus" that intricately describes, laments, and rails against the ongoing travesty represented in the single lynching depicted in the songs.

If we decide to read the songs as units whose individual "tales" make up a coherent "narrative," one that reveals an even more overwhelming image of hate than each song would elicit read alone or separately, it is significant to note that the stages of the lynching, the order of the verses as we would expect to hear them sung or performed, seem out of place. If Hughes composed the songs to be published together, as evidence indicates he did for *Opportunity,* why not follow the logical path from the innocent man's attempt to escape, to his implicit capture and actual hanging, to his lone "silhouette" disturbing the genteel lady in her perfect world? It seems to me that, despite the horrifying nature of the songs' subject matter, Hughes chooses to follow a chronology of the black race's future potential for freedom and empowerment, rather than of actual events. While the hope that exists in the songs may appear insignificant, even trivial, in contrast to the sheer force of the evil that drives lynchings, Hughes finally forges life from death, just as the last stanza's gloss indicates: "life not dead at all."

In describing "Silhouette" in a word, we might adequately identify it by the term "hypocrisy." The song focuses on the "Southern gentle lady" who, even if she has not directly effected the hanging of the black man on "a roadside tree," is representative of white women who, by claiming rape or force by their actual lovers (or by making blatantly false accusations of rape), preserve their own reputation and condemn innocent men to die (thus, "silhouette" is appropriate not only for the shape of the lynched man's body against the landscape, but also for the shell or shadow of virtue or goodness that the Southern woman represents, and the sham illusion of justice that lynching pretends to carry out). Here lies a central reason for black lynchings in the early decades of the century; the "white womanhood" so jealously defended leaves little room for the black man's defense of himself. The woman's ability to "swoon" upon, perhaps, such a dreadful sight masks her own cruelty in causing the event, her hidden staunchness in affirming a crime that was never committed. Hope seems almost entirely absent in this song; "the dark of the [white] moon," significantly repeated, suggests both the evil impulses and motivations of the white woman, and the consentual sexual union of white and black that will later be denied. The speaker's command to "Be good!" may be read as white men's insistence that she acquiesce to the rape story, perpetuate the accusation to maintain her "innocence"--which does not excuse her but merely seals her part as murderer.

Another way to interpret the intriguing "Be good!", however, may relate to some potential for future change; if the speaker continues as the sarcastic, bitter voice heard thus far in the song, he may be imploring her to take the first step toward releasing black men from the injustice of lynching, for it is white women's voices that have the power to free them from their fates. At the same time, the power of the black poet in creating the words and tenor of the "satirically sentimental" song is indicated as "the world...see[s] / How Dixie protects / Its white womanhood." Through song, the poet attempts to make "the world see" another side of the same story, to reveal that Dixie's "protection" is nothing more than murder. In this sense, then, the poet becomes agencied in that he brings to light a new vision of truth, one that subverts the very words of racist ideology through satire and irony, and reveals a justified hatred of the causes that kill innocent men. 

Again, in "Flight" we can literally feel the utter despair of the hunted man; that the guiding speaker urges him to "Hurry, black boy, hurry!", cutting him off from any explanation of his innocence, suggests the impossibility of words in such a desperate situation. Words of truth don't matter here, for the whites construct their own truth, and escape from its consequences is the only real hope the fugitive has. Indeed, the hopelessness of the scenario feels almost oppressive as one reads the song, even as the speaker pushes the "sweating runner" on; to "Plant your toes in the cool swamp mud," and then to "Step and leave no track" seems an almost superhuman feat, for it is mud, not dirt, that leaves the most visible marks of travel. The hounds follow close behind; and even if the man escapes (which, given our united narrative hypothosis, cannot be), he will not be redeemed by any law governed by white men, and must wander in secret, cut off from his family and friends. 

Where, then, to find a vision of freedom, agency? Perhaps we can see the poet's gesture toward the future in his very description of despair, and in the following lines of the next song. Here I'm thinking of Hughes' "The Bitter River," when he mentions the quenching of his dream: "The book studied--but useless, / Tool handled--but unused, / Knowledge acquired but thrown away, / Ambition battered and bruised." Notice that it is the fleeing "black boy"'s physical motions that are marked out in the song's lines--the necessity to run for his life, true, but also the potential one day to show physical, and underlying mental, strength in the face of opposition. The terms used in the chase, the "planting" of the feet in preparing to take off, the precise "stepping" that must be calculated to achieve maximum speed, suggest not only the "could have beens," as in "The Bitter River," but also what might be in the future. 

Perhaps "Lynching Song" is the most difficult to read for its brutal, gleeful cries to "Pull at the rope! O! Pull it high!", but it is in this song that the sympathetic voice of the second song, and the bitter voice of the first, come together to create an alternative, subversive strain to the calls of the lynchers. That the song is to be accompanied by trumpets indicates some fanfare or victory; but the sound of their "empty wonder" reveals the utter futility of the whites' triumph over the dead man. The strong, virile body of the second song is not overcome or defeated by death, for it symbolizes a race that decries and denounces the horrors done to it thus far, and that refuses further abuse: "NOT I." The body speaks the message of its people through its very silence and stillness. Though the words of the poet interpret the message's meaning for readers, the image of the body itself asserts blacks' refusal to submit to another kind of death that whites have committed themselves to through hatred: an emotional death, a deadening of the senses and of all human compassion that does not end with life, but that passes on to--and poisons--future generations. The speaker's voice interrupts the lynching song by mimicing it, turning the cries of its perpetrators onto themselves: "Pull it, boys, / With a bloody cry / As the nigger spins / And the white folks die." Thus, with each pull of the rope, the whites effectively tighten the metaphorical noose around their own necks. Hearing something awry, they must question the voice that has spoken out of turn, out of phrase; "The white folks die? / What do you mean-- / The white folks die?". This moment reveals not only the whites' anxiety over the inversion, but also the utter unawareness that the lynchers have regarding their self-destruction. The final words again, "NOT I," end the songs with the future dream-vision; though justifiably angry, even raging against the injustices of whites, blacks will not submit to the same emotional death that whites have, nor will they allow themselves to become objectified, vilified by whites' hatred.

Copyright © 2001 by Heather Zadra

Suzanne Lynch: On "Madam and the Phone Bill"

Her man done upt and lef her with nuttin’ but memories of another time and quarrels with the phone lady; clearly sister ‘s got tone. "You say I O.Ked / LONG DISTANCE?" Alberta K. Johnson asks the operator in a tone that says "[don’t go there girlfrien’] That was then!" What the operator does not understand, nor cares to understand is that Alberta lives in a complex world fraught with tensions of strength and vulnerability in which she carries the heavy burden of her men: "I’m mad and disgusted/ With that Negro now. / I don’t pay no REVERSED/ CHARGES nohow." And the conversation continues in this manner, with Alberta voicing her objections to once again being taken advantage of by her distant lover. Hughes, however, makes certain, primarily through Alberta’s haughtiness, that the narrative she communicates in "Madam and the Phone Bill" avoids a tale of female victimization in which she renders herself helpless to her lover’s demands or, for that matter, to the demands of an intrusive bureaucracy.

The controlling metaphor of phone and phone bill, established as a discussion between the operator and Alberta K. Johnson, suggests that the poem is localized within the contention between the operator and the speaker. But what Hughes makes less obvious is the internal conflict Alberta experiences over the rejection and abuse that her absent boyfriend continues to deliver and inflict. One might even go so far as to say that Alberta K. Johnson is the sad recipient of a society that attempts to emasculate black men by reducing them to economic inferiority. By this I mean that Roscoe’s inability to take responsibility for something as basic as his own phone call suggests a sad impotence of the underclass black male, and naturally, by association, also suggests the distress and debilitating loneliness of the black woman who must become, by virtue of partnership, the custodian of black culture. Underlying through the wit and bite of Hughes’ Alberta is the somber realization of a historical tradition that denied generations of Americans their right to be human. To the extent that Roscoe cannot pay his phone bill, that he surrenders responsibility to his woman, that he does not understand the consequences of his weakness, he becomes less of a man while consequently placing Alberta in the position of assuming both male and female roles by becoming his defender and appropriating the status of warrior.

It is no secret that black women in the black culture have traditionally and primarily carried the economic and emotional burden of the family and community. They have been the lovers, the mothers, the sisters, the providers and the teachers who struggle to combat the persistent violations imposed on them by their men who either by choice or circumstance seem unable to express their prowess through a means other than their sexuality. Despite Roscoe’s economic indigence, he continues to maintain romantic relationships beyond his commitment to Alberta: "[W]hat can/ Them other girls do/ That Alberta K. Johnson/ Can’t do—and more?" she asks. Her voice comes with the resignation of her rejection, and communicates a tormented edginess that she displaces to the annoying operator who insists on payment despite Alberta’s emotional anguish. But Alberta, in spite of her vulnerability, remains strong while she engages in a simultaneous battle for power and dignity with the operator: "You say, I will pay it--/ Else you’ll take out my phone?/ You better let / My phone alone" she says in stinging retort to her listener’s discourteousness. Demanding her right to be heard, her right to be understood and her right to love, Alberta asks the operator, following a momentary weakness in which her voice softens for Roscoe, "What’s that Central? You say you don’t care/ Noting about my/ Private Affair?" Alberta’s loneliness has reduced her to disclosing her private business to an indifferent ear, who instead of offering sympathy, threatens her with silence, and worse yet, with permanent, emotional isolation. Unfortunately "Central" does not understand that Alberta is not a paradigmatic American who adheres to prescribed roles. She is instead, through a contrived process of enablement, a manipulated player in the systematic crippling of black men. Living on the periphery of dominant culture within a private sphere of gender reversals, Alberta’s eventual rejection of Roscoe, implied thorough her refusal to pay for his call, bravely signifies her dignity and her decided oppositionality to any further contribution she might make towards the reduction of her man.

In one respect, we can read Hughes’ poem as the struggles of a black female in a world without men. Once the reader is able to get beyond the entertainment of Alberta’s tone, then Hughes reveals a world much more serious and grave than a "[m]adam and [her] [p]hone [b]ill." In a subtle, subversive sense of the word, Alberta is very much a "madam." Her constant disappointment and aching desire to be loved turns her, respectfully so, into a kept woman who erratically receives the benefits of her man’s sexual prowess in exchange for her soul. The merit of this relationship, however, seems to hold no long-term value, and furthermore, provides little immediate satisfaction which leads Alberta to the final conclusion that she "sure ain’t gonna pay" no more, nohow! Hughes’ poem therefore seems to question the workability of adult relationships in the black world where women pay with their souls for loving their men while it simultaneously highlights the legacy of colonialism that persists in disenfranchising black men and separating them from their women. In the end, Alberta’s dramatic dialogue, worded with the sting of solitary female blackness, amounts to what one might call a deliberate exposure of "a check truly gone bad."

Copyright © 2001 by Suzanne Lynch

Joshua Eckhardt: On "Christ in Alabama"

[Textual note: “The Negro’s tragedy” was first published without this title in the July-August issue of The Catholic Worker, where it is followed by “I turn to God for greater strength to fight” and “Around me roar and crash the pagan isms”.]

“The Negro’s Tragedy” is an identity politics poem par excellence—complicated by the Christology that McKay develops throughout The Catholic Worker sonnets. The speaker feels the “Negro’s tragedy” and wants to heal “his pain” in the first quatrain. In the second, such positive declarations give way to exclusionary ones: whites are excluded from the “Negro’s ken,” or point of view.

Only a thorn-crowned Negro and no white

    Can penetrate into the Negro’s ken 

                        (“The Negro’s Tragedy” ll. 5-6)

A second qualifier in addition to race has slipped in here: “Only a thorn-crowned Negro”. This direct reference to the suffering Christ, mockingly crowned king of the Jews by Roman soldiers, draws from a later moment of Christ’s ministry than does “Look Within.” Indeed, Christ’s ministry is all but over, and his Passion well underway, by the time he is beaten before Pilate. And it is just such a suffering Christ whom the “Negro” must follow, for McKay, if he is going to “penetrate” his own “ken,” or understand and correct his own social position.

In the sestet, the “white man” is again excluded, here from writing McKay’s book, which is “shot out of my blood.”

So what I write is shot out of my blood.

    There is no white man who could write my book

Though many think the story can be told

    Of what the Negro people ought to brook.

Our statesmen roam the world to set things right.

    This Negro laughs, and prays to God for Light! 

                            (“The Negro’s Tragedy” ll. 9-14)

White men cannot do McKay’s writing for him. Nor can they rightly perceive the “Negro’s tragedy” and the way it needs to be answered. One wonders just how sweeping a critique this is: how many are the “many” who think they can tell the story of the “Negro’s tragedy”? There were of course many white antiracists on the left—and in the Catholic Worker movement; to how many of them does McKay’s critique apply? The second to last line may invite a sigh of relief after this uncertainty when it specifies the offending parties as “[o]ur statesmen.” If this can be taken as a specification of all of the whites earlier in the poem, then the target of this sonnet is no wider than that of “Look Within”—the U.S. government in its official ineffectiveness. But of course, there is no strictly linguistic reason why the subject of line 13 should modify the parties excluded from the “Negro’s tragedy” earlier in the poem. And there is even less historical/political reason why it should, given McKay’s regular boldness in critiquing those on the left who would be, and often were, his allies.

In the last line, the ineffective statesmen and the misunderstanding whites are laughed off as”[t]his” “thorn-crowned” “Negro” “prays to God for Light!” This “turn to God”—to take the words of the sonnet that follows this one in The Catholic Worker—participates in a move McKay made in a much earlier sonnet, the 1919 “To the White Fiends.” After turning racist associations of blackness and savagery against racists, "To the White Fiends" also asserts the unmistakably black speaker’s direct access to God. The result is that whether the "white fiends" subscribe to the confused notions of black savagery in the first half of the poem, and/or the vaguely Christian framework in the second, they are restricted from their own ideological apparatus. In the second half, the speaker claims that the "Almighty" has created the former’s soul out of "darkness" and set him on earth to be, paradoxically, a light.

But the Almighty from the darkness drew

My soul and said: Even thou shalt be a light

Awhile to burn on the benighted earth,

Thy dusky face I set among the white

For thee to prove thyself of higher worth;

Before the world is swallowed up in night,

To show thy little lamp: go forth, go forth! 

                            (“To the White Fiends, ll. 8-14)

But “To the White Fiends” is freeze-framed at creation: the originary moment in which the Almighty creates the speaker and bespeaks his special purpose to him. “The Negro’s Tragedy” is set later in such a speaker’s life: corresponding to the late point in Christ’s Passion when the speaker shares Christ’s crown of thorns but, knowingly and triumphantly, laughs and prays to God for light (cf. the “dark Passion” in the 1921 “The White City,” l. 6).

The combination of this crown of thorns and confidence in prayer does not only develop McKay’s earlier religious imagery; it heightens the distinction between his religious imagery and Langston Hughes’. One could say that Hughes’ “Christ in Alabama” wears the same crown of thorns that McKay’s 1945 Christ-figure does, since the “beaten and black” moment of Christ’s life was endured with a crown of thorns. In other words, like “The Negro’s Tragedy”, “Christ in Alabama” refers to a crucified Christ.

Christ is a nigger,

Beaten and black.

O bare your back! 

                (“Christ in Alabama,” ll. 1-3)

Both Hughes’ and McKay’s American Christ-figures are unmistakably black. The provocative implication Hughes makes by re-setting the holy family in the American south of the Scottsboro trial is that “in Alabama” only “a Nigger” can play Christ’s role, because only s/he participates in such suffering. In part, this is precisely what McKay says in this later sonnet: “Only a thorn-crowned Negro and no white / Can penetrate into the Negro’s ken.” But Hughes’ rendition of the black Christ is more exclusionary because it implies that only a “nigger” can follow Christ, at least “in Alabama.” McKay’s version says nothing about the ability of others to follow Christ, but he makes clear that, in order to “penetrate the Negro’s ken,” “[o]nly a thorn-crowned Negro” will do.

A more substantive difference between McKay’s and Hughes’ Christ-figures is forced by the third stanza of “Christ in Alabama.” After successfully appropriating the Christian imagery that too often was used to justify racism, Hughes goes on to identify Mary with the “Mammy of the South” and God the father with a “White Master.” In re-casting the holy family as the illegitimate family of the slave plantation, Hughes goes too far to unproblematically maintain his appropriation of Christianity. This is because in the first two stanzas, racists are confined to the italicized third lines, responsible for persecuting Christ and Mary and so cut off from them. In the third stanza though, the role of God the father is reserved for the “White Master”:

God’s His Father—

White Master above,

Grant us your love. 

                (“Christ in Alabama” ll. 7-9)

If the first stanza of the poem effectively steals Christianity away from racists, this third stanza would seem to give it right back, insisting that at least “in Alabama” mastery is synonymous with whiteness and that, as one of the master’s tools, Christianity always already serves the “White Master.” Colored in this way, the holy family does far more political harm than good. If both “Christ is a Nigger” “in Alabama” and God his father is a “White Master,” then not even God’s son can access him without reinscribing the illegitimate family structure of the slave plantation.

McKay’s “thorn-crowned Negro” “prays to God for Light,” on the other hand, without being troubled by Hughes’ pitfalls. This is as true of McKay’s early poems, such as “To the White Fiends” and “The Lynching,” as it is of the later ones. McKay never concedes Christianity or any other religion to racists, neither by coloring God nor by any other means. The difference between McKay’s early and late religious sentiments can be seen more clearly vis-à-vis “Christ in Alabama.” McKay’s early religious sonnets never achieve the specific shame and suffering of Christ, as Hughes so perfectly does in “Christ in Alabama.” In “The Negro’s Tragedy,” McKay approaches the force of “Christ in Alabama” much more closely: here McKay’s “Negro” is identified with the suffering, “thorn-crowned” Christ. The difference is that McKay’s Christ-figure can still laughingly pray to God. If Hughes’ Christ were to try to do that in Alabama, he would find himself quite forsaken, and probably starting the horrible poem over again with the white master cursing, “O, bare your back!”

Copyright © 2001 by Joshua Eckhardt

John Moore: On "Ku Klux"

Langston Hughes’s “Ku Klux” explores laughter as a site fraught with ambiguous political possibilities. Hughes’s poem engages the comedic on a number of levels. In shortening the name of the Ku Klux Klan for his title, Hughes highlights the comical alliteration in the organization’s name. Moreover, Hughes uses as a title only part of a phrase. Said repeatedly, “Ku Klux Klan” can lose the strangeness of its sound and become easier to say. Said alone, however, “Ku Klux,” becomes re-enstranged. In many ways, “Ku Klux” is an example of what Boris Ejxenbaum calls “enstrangement”—the idea “that the formation of lateral meanings, disrupting the usual associations of words, is the chief property of verse semantics” (26-7). Hughes’s poem is in part about words made to sound strange, in situations fraught with the threat of violence and in the rhetoric surrounding organizations whose chief aim is violence. “Ku Klux” also rewrites the scenario depicted by Sterling A. Brown’s “Sharecroppers” in a way that complicates the apparent optimism of Brown’s poem. One way that Hughes does this is by characterizing the sound of an African-American voice by a clear and well-articulated phrasing rather than by the noise of black laughter.

“Ku Klux” is a strangely humorous poem. No one laughs in this poem, and instead it is the possibility that the man being lynched might be laughing that further incites the rage of the Klansmen. The threat of physical violence that results from the Klansmen’s mishearing of their victim’s response to a question is contrasted by the way that the poem is littered with a comical vision of the language surrounding the Klan. The poetic persona’s response to one of the Klansmen’s question is perhaps the most vexed point in the poem, the point at which the Klansman’s enstranged and belabored language is most directly contrasted with a portrayal of comedy as dangerous. When asked if he “believe[s] / In the great white race,” the poem’s persona responds, “Mister, / To tell you the truth, / I’d believe in anything / If you’d just turn me loose” (“Ku Klux” 3-4, 5-8). We can contrast the strangeness of the sound of the question with the straightforwardness of the persona’s response. The question itself is difficult to read aloud. The phrase, “the great white race,” is difficult to pronounce not only because of three successive hard stresses, but also because of the succession of vowel sounds from “great” to “white.” It is a phrase that seems to require practice to enunciate clearly, perhaps suggesting that the question is borrowed from a Klan chant or is otherwise part of a ritualized rhetorical act. The poem incorporates not only the belabored sound of this phrase, but also the possible reading of it as a bombastic and ritualized question. The Klansman’s question is thus humorous whether we read it as the out-of-place repetition of a bombastic, ritualized chant or as simply clumsy speech.

The poetic persona’s response can be read in two radically different ways, and each reading implies different things about the status of comedy in the poem. We might say that the response is a witty rebuttal to the belabored stuttering or ritualized bombasity of the Klansman’s question. Alternatively, we might read the persona’s response literally; he really would say anything, “If you’d just turn [him] loose.” The situation is complicated by the fact that the first reading is in fact put forward by the Klansman asking the question—“The white man said, ‘Boy, / Can it be / You’re a-standin’ there / A-sassin’ me?” (9-12). As with the initial question, the Klansman’s response is humorous. “A-standin” and “a-sassin” are comical reversals of racizalized representations of dialect akin to what Brown does with dialect in poems like “Scotty Has His Say.” The humorous nature of the way that the Klansman struggles with language is part of what makes this poem difficult. The poem contrasts the belabored language of the Klansman with the calm, potentially witty response of the poetic persona. It is hard to not read the persona’s response to the Klansman’s question as a retort, especially given the fact that the question itself is said with either difficulty or bombast. Yet, if we read the poetic persona’s response as a witty act of resistance, then we are left with a question that never really comes up in Brown’s depiction of the sharecropper’s laughter in “Sharecroppers.” If the response is meant as resistance, how effective or well-advised of an act of resistance is it?

Hughes’s poem stages the double-bind of a theory of laughter as political resistance. Though, as Chasar wants to suggests, black laughter might be able to go into spaces that black bodies cannot, what actually happens when the laughter arrives in these new spaces? In “Ku Klux,” it is never quite clear whether the poetic persona mocks the lynch mob or whether his response is genuinely born out of fear for his life. This productive ambiguity allows Hughes to complicate the way that black laughter is staged in a poem like “Sharecroppers.” Ralph Ellison, in his 1985 essay “The Extravagance of Laughter,” repeats a story that was frequently rehearsed during his time at Tuskegee in the 1930’s that offers insight into the problematic opened up by Hughes’s poem. On their way back to campus, a group of Tuskegee students had been pulled over by two policeman, who “learned during the course of routine questioning that one of the group, a very black-skinned young man, bore the surname of ‘Whyte’” (Ellison 168). The policemen were indignant—“’Cause it stands to reason that there’s no way in the world for a nigra as black as that to pretend that his name is ‘White.’ Not unless he’s blind-staggers drunk or else plum out of his nappy-headed cotton-pickin’ mind!” (169). The two officers were even more indignant when they learned how Whyte spelled his name—“They made him write it down on a pad and then they made him spell it out—and I mean out loud!” (170). As Ellison explains, the story is humorous in a complicated way. A dangerous situation at the time, it was nonetheless comical in retrospect. Repeatedly retelling the story seems to have served a kind of ameliorating social function, offering the students a site of political resistance. Yet the retellings nonetheless “did nothing to change the Phenix [sic] City police, and probably wouldn’t have even if they heard the recitation” (171). Moreover, retelling the story “didn’t cancel out the unpleasantness or humiliation. Thus, back on campus we were compelled to buffer the pain and negate the humiliation by making grotesque comedy out of the extremes to which whites would go to keep us in what they considered to be our ‘place’” (171).

Ellison’s story illustrates that absurdist narratives of racialized violence have two functions for the communities in which they are told. They are on one level ameliorating narratives, offering both story-teller and audience an absurdist vision of everyday life. The real-life versions of the scenarios depicted by these narratives are violent and dangerous. Indeed, as Ellison observes, the specter of the Scottsboro trial was at the back of the story involving the two policemen, and the students at Tuskegee lived with the constant fear that every highway patrolman in the South still carried “a violent zeal” informed by a sense of justice having not been served by the trial’s outcome (167). Retelling a narrative about the possibility of racial violence as an absurdist event—and, indeed, abstracting the narrative beyond the particulars of the originally dangerous event—allows the students to create an alternative rhetorical community. In retelling the story, they alienate themselves from the all-too-real everyday and recast ordinariness of violence as exceptionally ridiculous.

However, as Simon Critchley notes, humorous narratives often work as “(un)timely reminder[s] of who one is, and the nature of what Heidegger would call one’s Geworfenheit, or thrownness. If humour returns us to our locale, then […] it can do this in an extremely uncomfortable way, precisely as thrown into something I did not and would not choose” (74-5). The very ambiguity that allows the narrative about the two highway patrolmen to be an absurdist escape from ordinary violence prevents the comedy from every fully eradicating the presence of that violence. In enstranging the ordinariness of racial violence, these narratives somehow manage to always remind one of just how ubiquitous that violence is. As Ellison observes, the students were fully aware of a certain futility implicit in the retelling of the story. Casting the event as humorous has no real impact on the actual practices of the highway patrolmen.

Hughes would certainly have been aware of the practice of telling absurdist narratives about racial violence, and he engages with this tradition by framing “Ku Klux” as a personal narrative about racial violence, one that from its very title seems to signal a comic vision. Moreover, the Klansman’s clumsy negotiation of language fits into the framework of a humorously strange-sounding language set out by the poem’s title. Like the story told by Ellison, the events described in “Ku Klux” center upon a white authority figure mishearing or misunderstanding a well-spoken African-American. Yet, unlike Ellison’s story, the poem never clarifies whether or not the poetic persona’s response is meant to mock or plead. Starting with the third stanza, Hughes begins the play with the framework of the absurdist narrative. The poem itself offers a reading of the persona’s otherwise ambiguous response in the form of the Klansman’s question, “Boy, / Can it be / You’re a-standin’ there / A-sassin’ me?” (“Ku Klux” 9-12). If the Klansman’s first question seemed to imply ritualized language, then the fact that the poem ends with the same belabored phrase becomes significant. The chant-like nature of the original question (“Do you believe / In the great white race?” (3-4)) and the utter confusion and anger of the Klansman at his victim’s well-phrased response suggests that asking the question is not about getting any other answer than silent fear or a simple “yes.” Any other answer simply does not fit the ritual. The poem ends, not with a “response” stanza, but with the repeated question, this time without an answer of any sort.

Though “Ku Klux” begins as a personal narrative that looks like the kind of absurdist narratives described by Ellison, by stanza three the poem shifts to an interpretive and structural framework dominated by the hegemonic power of white supremacy. Through this shift, Hughes places the poetic persona’s response to the first question in an odd position. If it actually is a joke, then it seems to have been an ill-advised one. Within the structural space of the poem, it is a form of political resistance that seems only to have incited further violence. More importantly, however, Hughes chooses to allow the persona to be reminded of this fact through the comparatively clumsy voice of the Klansman. If the response is a joke, then it recalls the inescapable “thrownness” of the persona’s world insofar as the joke is called ill-advised by the very person about whom the joke was made in the first place. Yet, if the response is not a joke, then the poem gives us an example of a situation in which a victim of racial violence is faced with the comically horrifying face—or, rather, jumbled words—of racism and chooses to respond with sincerity. In this second reading, sincerity never gets around the possibility of being read as a joke, as his attackers read his response as sarcasm nevertheless.

Hughes’s poem offers us two alternative readings. Laughter might be a political weapon, though if it is it hardly seems effective. Alternatively, laughter might be a rhetorical fantasy perpetuated by absurdist narratives that only momentarily deflect the very real violence of racial oppression, and yet it is a fantasy framed within the way that the lynch mob reads the victim’s response and thus, in some way, an inescapable framework of white hegemony. Yet, the poem does not reduce to either reading. The ambiguity arises from the fact that we cannot hear the tone of the poetic persona. As readers, we only know that the Klansmen hear the speaker’s words in a particular way, detecting sarcasm in words that, without the added element of tone of voice, could just as easily be read as sincere.

As in Sterling Brown’s “Sharecroppers,” so much depends in this poem on how we hear the voice of the victim through the violence of figures of white hegemonic authority. In “Sharecroppers,” the sharecropper’s laughter appears well before the lines in which he actually speaks, and so Brown’s readers hear the laughter first without hearing its particular tone. As Matthew Lessig observes, “Sharecroppers” differs from much of Brown’s poetry in that it “conserves black dialect for the direct discourse of its martyred hero’s dying words, thereby postponing a race conscious reading until it can be subsumed within the poem’s class conscious closing appeal” (MAPS). While it is always a possibility that the sharecropper is African-American, the fact that we do not hear his dialect until the last two lines underscores the fact that though we are told that he laughs, we never actually hear his laughter. The dialect evident in the final two lines of the poem not only racially identifies the sharecropper, but also illustrates that there is a sonic dimension to his laughter that, though inaccessible to a reader, nonetheless played a significant role in the events described in the poem. That is to say, when the sharecropper’s laughter is described in the poem, the lynch mob hears something that we, as readers, cannot. The dialect of the final lines suggests that sharecropper’s laughter would be similarly toned by a kind of laughter-dialect.

Chasar argues that the desire “to manage the increasingly public sounds of black laughter” on the part of white Americans was driven by the anxious belief “that the constant supervision of, and rhetorical attention to, this noise was perceived as crucial for the maintenance of white superiority” (65). Shooting the sharecropper in the side is an example of such attempts at controlling the noise of black laughter. Brown stages the attempt to control black laughter in the formal technique of the poem. Laughter is narrated, not heard, and yet the noise of black laughter nonetheless plays a central role in determining the actions of the lynch mob. In a certain sense, the final two lines of the poem allow the reader to hear the particular tone of the sharecropper’s laughter. Without the dialect, it is possible to read the sharecropper as white—and thus, read the mob violence as solely about union organizing. Yet, the addition of the African-American dialect racializes the encounter, and so the act of shooting the sharecropper in the side becomes also a response to the sound of black laughter, the aural reminder that unionization is taking place across color lines and so all the more threatening to the hegemonic power of the landlord.

The difference between “Sharecroppers” and “Ku Klux” is the difference between inarticulate sound and articulated response. In “Sharecroppers,” there is only one way for the lynch mob to read the sharecropper’s laughter, and we have to read that laughter through their immediate response. In “Ku Klux,” however, the poetic persona’s clearly-articulated response is somehow more ambiguous than the sharecropper’s laughter. The difference may be that even if Hughes’s poetic persona’s response is meant as an aggressive retort (accompanied perhaps by a bit of sly laughter) the way that Hughes litters the rest of the poem with comical language suggests that the man’s response is not quite the humorless laughter described by Chasar and staged by Brown. If the man in “Ku Klux” makes a joke, he is most definitely laughing at the Klansman. If he does not, the joke seems to frame his fate nonetheless.

Works Cited

Brown, Sterling A. “Sharecroppers.” 1939. Anthology of Modern American Poetry. Ed. Cary Nelson. New York: Oxford U P, 2000. 483-84. Print.

Chasar, Mike. “The Sounds of Black Laughter and the Harlem Renaissance: Claude McKay, Sterling Brown, Langston Hughes.” American Literature 80.1 (March 2008): 57-81. Print.

Critchley, Simon. On Humour. New York: Routledge, 2002. Print.

Ejxenbaum, Boris M. “The Theory of the Formal Method.” Readings in Russian Poetics: Formalist and Structuralist Views. 1971. Ed. Ladislav Matejka and Krystyna Pomorska. Chicago: Dalkey Archive, 2002. 3-37. Print.

Ellison, Ralph. “An Extravagance of Laughter.” Going to the Territory. New York: Random House, 1986. 145-197. Print.

Hughes, Langston. “Ku Klux.” 1942. Anthology of Modern American Poetry. Ed. Cary Nelson. New York: Oxford U P, 2000. 520-21. Print. 

Lessig, Matthew. “Sharecroppers.” Modern American Poetry Site. Web. 9 November, 2010.

Copyright © 2010 by John Moore.

Bartholomew Brinkman: On "Ku Klux"

Langston Hughs’s poem “Ku Klux,” like “Christ in Alabama” or “Park Bench” performs in a short lyric poem an incredible act of historical compression. In presenting a scene where a black man is accosted by members of the Ku Klux Klan, the five ballad stanzas of the poem revisit the whole history of race relations in America that has been structured on a master/slave dialectic. Although white and black no longer legally participate in a master-slave relationship, the white man is still “mister” and the black man is still a “boy.” There is a race-based hierarchical relationship in place that is emphasized and essentialized by the white coats of the KKK and the “Nigger”-ness of the black man.

While the black man demonstrates his own subjectivity and agency as the speaker of the poem, the white men deny him this identity. “They took me out” can be understood as not only taking the black man out to “some lonesome place” to be tortured and murdered, but also as taking me out, of divesting the black man of his individual subjectivity. To them, he is not an individual person, but only a pejorative example of his race. However, even as the white men deny the black man’s identity–which is necessary to sustain the oppressive white/black dialectic–they are dependent on him. They ask him, “‘Do you believe/ In the great white race?’” They depend on his belief in and fear of whiteness in order to sustain the construction of whiteness itself.

The black man replies in the next stanza, “‘To tell you the truth,/ I’d believe in anything/ if you let me loose.’” The black man is pleading for his life and is willing to believe in anything they tell him to if they will let him go. But this cuts to the heart of the white/ black dialectic. As Hegel suggests in Phenomenology of Spirit, the master/slave dialectic allows for an independent consciousness of the slave, but thebeing-for-self of the master is not certain because it is dependent on recognition of the slave who is not in a position to freely acknowledge the other. In “Ku Klux,” the black man’s belief is contingent on his freedom, so that while he is tied up his acknowledgment of whiteness can’t be trusted.

But the white men fail to understand this contingency. One of them demands of the “boy,” “Can it be/ You’re standing’ there/ A-sassin’ me?” They take anything other than unqualified agreement as insubordinate and worthy of violence. In response to the black man, the Klan members “hit me in the head/ And knocked me down/ And then they kicked me/ On the ground.” This stanza characterizes a history of race-based violence–on a personal, national and international level–that plagued much of the twentieth century. Hugh’s ironic use of “A-sassin,” however, suggests that it is this very back-talk, this verbal confrontation (as exhibited by the poem itself) that threatens to dismantle the construction of whiteness and kill the notion of the white man. Against such violence, the victim still has the power to call into question the system of their oppression and the identity of those who are dependent on such a system.

The final stanza repeats the previous demand more emphatically, “‘Nigger/ Look me in the face–/and tell me you believe in/ The great white race.’” The black man, who has physically been placed in a subordinate position, is asked to affirm the identity of his torturers. He must do this through an articulation of his gaze (it is instructive to consider here bell hooks’s notion of the “oppositional gaze” although it is specifically gendered) . But in order for the black man to look in the white man’s face, the latter must remove his KKK hood–his sustaining marker of whiteness–and reveal himself as an individual. The white man’s demand becomes a desperate plea: he is begging for the black man to acknowledge some essential whiteness that is not dependent on an oppressive dialectic, but is biologically inherent and assured. We do not get the black man’s response to this last question (unless we consider it to be the poem itself) and we do not know his fate. But we are left with an impression of “whiteness” as fragile and poorly constructed, to be questioned even by a man under torture. Hugh’s poem interrogates the history of oppression based on race and calls into question the very category of race itself.

Copyright © 2004 by Bartholomew Brinkman.

Jim Beatty: On "The Bitter River"

Langston Hughes’s "The Bitter River" is a complex analysis of how racial and class oppression operate in an articulated fashion, which suggests that the "two" facets of identity cannot be as easily separated as current critical treatments of them too often do. The poem offers not only an astute account of dominant oppression in the US, it teaches lessons that contemporary critical theory would do well to heed.

First, there seems to be a subtle, dual thrust to the recurrent reference to the speaker’s "dream." Hughes goes beyond the dream of equal treatment and civil rights ominously referred to in "Harlem" (i.e. the explosive nature of "a dream deferred") to give the "dream" specific, divergent content in "The Bitter River." The first mention of the "dream", strangled by the lyncher’s noose in line 16, is followed by a description of it as education and vocational training. This seems to be the dream of accommodation and "separate but equal" famously endorsed by Booker T. Washington among others. Hughes undercuts to validity of this dream by placing the same ideals in the white platitudes offered in lines 38-47. In line with Du Bois’ critique of Washington, then, Hughes dismisses this dream as a fantasy. Yet he intensifies his obliteration of the "dream" of vocational training as a means to better fit in the place relegated to African Americans in a racist system by showing that even a phantasmatic dream of racial progress is violently denied.

In the next reference to the speaker’s dream in line 61, however, the context signals a shift in content. This "dream" is not even serious enough for the racists to kill–they merely mock it. This "dream" is mentioned right after the speaker affirms that the lynched Charlie Lang and Ernest Green are his "comrades," and the horrific insult of their murder is heaped upon the exploitation of the speaker’s "labor." This "dream," then, at least evokes a communist struggle for class solidarity in the capitalist-racist system. Rather than Washington’s "dream" of the proper training for menial/wage-slave jobs fully endorsed yet murdered by the racist dominant class, this new dream is of salvation not through occupational subservience but rather through labor equality. It is interesting that the dubious dream offered by the white speakers must be killed but the more valid dream of labor solidarity and equality is merely "spit" upon. This seems to suggest that the latter, more valid dream is less of a threat to the capitalist-racist elite than even Washington’s subservient fantasy.

Hughes intensifies this connection between the violent suppression of black aspiration and the aloof contempt for a class-conscious racial struggle in lines 74-75: "Tired now of the bitter river, / Tired now of the pat on the back." The parallel structure here equates the rage about the lynchings the speaker imbibes from the Southern river with an equal rage concerning the paternalistic dismissal of a class-based revolutionary consciousness. While the literal lynching of African Americans is obviously a more immediately pressing problem, Hughes suggests that the symbolic lynching of class-based African-American struggles for equality may be just as damaging to the race in the end. The lyncher can be clearly identified and materially resisted. The wage-enslaving capitalist, who can enact on a large scale what the lyncher can only do one Black man at a time, however, is a much more elusive target for resistance.

It is also impressive that Hughes maintains this connection between physical, violent, and murderous oppression and a more subtle, class-based oppression through starvation 25 years later in "The Backlash Blues." In lines 5-6 the speaker again articulates economic and bodily oppression by mentioning "taxes," "wages," and "Vietnam" in the same breath. This poem too gestures towards a wider solidarity. Here, however, the speaker shows a more confident certainty in the eventual success of this class-based resistance, for he affirms a global solidarity. The "backlash" and the slaver’s whip symbolically enacted through economic oppression shifts by the end of the poem to a more literal "backlash" against the capitalist-racist elite once the more numerous "non-whites" of the world rise up and wrest control away from the real "minority" in global terms: the white, racist capitalists. Instead the tension between racial and class politics that Shulman seems to read in the various versions of "Justice," both "The Bitter River" and "The Backlash Blues" show Hughes’s remarkable ability to treat race and class in an articulated manner throughout his career.

Jim Beatty ©2001

Phillip Ernstmeyer: On "The Cat and the Saxophone"

Langston Hughes' "The Cat and the Saxophone (2 a.m.)" marks a solid contribution to modern American poetry. Though written in 1923, during the swing and ragtime craze, its innovative break with poetic invention is remarkably analogous to radical changes in modern jazz styles pioneered by musicians including Ornette Coleman, Eric Dolphy, and Albert Ayler in the 1960s. In the place of preset chord progressions, melody, and harmony, "free" and "avant-garde" jazz emphasized pitch and tonal variation and the improvisation of thickly layered acoustic textures. For example, late in his career, John Coltrane's phraseology turned towards exquisite fragmentation, interspersed by screeches and squeals, defying jazz conventions and baffling most critics. "The Cat and the Saxophone (2 a.m.)" performs a similar experiment. It is less comparable to an "orchestra score," as Jean Wagner (MAPS) has suggested, and more commensurate with the advances of the 1960s avant-garde, which pressed jazz to a threshold.

“The Cat and the Saxophone (2 a.m.)” lacks many expected and identifiable poetic features. Unlike “The Weary Blues” — one of Hughes’ many “musical” poems — it is not directly representational; it does not orient a scene or relate a subject’s experience. Indeed, though it is ostensibly arranged in verse, it does not explicitly contain images, rhymes, or tropes. Instead, it records the textures of a space, or a speakeasy. Formally, the poem is an assemblage of three texts: the title, which cannot be straightaway related to the poem; Jack Palmer’s and Spencer William’s popular ragtime song, “Everybody Loves My Baby, But My Baby Don’t Love Nobody But Me,” typographically distinguished by capitalized lettering; and pieces of conversation, spoken in the speakeasy, represented without quotation marks. Significantly, although the references to “daddy” and “mamma” suggest male and female speakers, the absence of quotation marks welcomes to the poem a plurality of speakers. Furthermore, their absence, along with the capitalized lettering, suggests that rather than being uttered, like a traditional poem, “The Cat and the Saxophone (2 a.m.)” was written to be seen, a fact reinforced by the unspeakable, visual sign concluding it: a simple exclamation mark (“!”). Fragmented and juxtaposed, these texts oscillate back and forth, interrupting, reflecting, amplifying, and intensifying one another, like a jazz improvisation.

Through their exchanges, the texts perform a double operation: while insinuating certain images and emotions, they simultaneously stack together a richly exuberant ambiance. On the surface, “The Cat and the Saxophone (2 a.m.)” intimates a scene from 1920s popular culture. People are milling around a speakeasy, where they are not only socially enjoying drinks with company but, during the Prohibition era, are purchasing and consuming alcohol illegally: “Half pint, — / Gin? / No, make it / [ . . . ] corn” (2-4, 6). Simultaneously, a ragtime band is swinging LOUDLY. In this intoxicating environment, inhibitions are lost and spontaneity spreads contagiously. A woman, who seems unacquainted with her partner, suddenly demands a kiss: “Kiss me, / [ . . . ] / daddy” (10, 12). Then, there is the impulsive and overwhelming urge to dance — and to dance the wildly popular Charleston — conveyed through the affectionately exultant exclamation: “Charleston, / mamma!” (28-9). All of these atmospheric affects and impressions stimulate the reader at once. They are surrounded, soused by the sensations of risk, desire, and recklessness which come when all restraints are relinquished. Without images, without symbols, without metaphors, “The Cat and the Saxophone (2 a.m.)” imbricates an ambiance of inebriation, insouciance, delight, abandon, and danger: a texture of frenzy, similar to ragtime, communicated through short, raggedy, syncopated bursts.

Interestingly, below the surface, Hughes imbricates these ambient textures by coordinating texts in extraordinary ways. Notable is the synthesis struck between "Everybody Loves My Baby" and the couple's dialogue by harmonizing their terms of endearment; the word "BABY," repeated throughout the ragtime tune, reverberates through variegated permutations: "honey," "daddy," "sweetie," "mamma" (8, 12, 20, 29). Similarly, in a most exquisite moment, texts coincide almost flawlessly.

DON'T LOVE NOBODY

daddy

BUT ME. 

Say!

EVERYBODY

Yes?

WANTS MY BABY (10-6)

Originally, in Palmer's and William's lyrics, between "BUT ME" and "EVERYBODY" appears the word "Yes." But for the poem Hughes tweaks it. In the place of "YES" appears an equally monosyllabic and exclamatory "say!", and the affirmative "yes" that it replaces appears belatedly, slightly permuted, as a question: "Yes?" In this way, texts merge and diverge synchronistically. Like a jazz performance, "The Cat and the Saxophone (2 a.m.)" subjects "Everybody Loves My Baby" to a series of atmospheric and exhilarating intertextual conflations and displacements. In the poem, Hughes effectively rags the song lyrics, syncopates them, so accents fall, slightly delayed, between or behind metrical "beats," in vividly irresistible rhythms, and he noodles individual words, inflecting sounds with suggestive pitch and tonal modulations. He creates a "gut bucket" poetry, less concerned with constructing content than groove, texture, mood.

In this way, "The Cat and the Saxophone (2 a.m.)" is a "rag." Though neither the popular ragtime tune nor the speakeasy chatter contain concrete images, the title does convey a "cat" and a "saxophone," and a temporal period. If within the word "cat" can be deciphered "hepcat," Hughes' experimental poem becomes in its totality metonymic. "The Cat and the Saxophone (2 a.m.)" can be experienced as the evocation of the ambience created, after the nightclub has closed and all the squares have gone home, by a saxophonist blowing and burning late into night. Gushing from this cat and his saxophone comes the ragged, interjected, heavily inflected popular tune which constitutes "The Cat and the Saxophone (2 a.m.)." In this sense, Hughes' poem is a bit, scrap, or remnant which after it has been used is discarded. Juxtapositions, atmospheric textures, and syncopations appear only in order to disappear metonymically, and to express, through the silent intervals after their erasure, a musicality too frenzied, too euphoric, too beautiful for words. In the end, language collapses; the poem is reduced to the strange, unspeakable exclamation mark ("!"), reserved in a space all to itself, which concludes it. Like the "gut bucket" technique, the "!" does not communicate a content, though its silence does elicit the vibration, felt throughout the poem, of effervescence and elation, undergone when all limitations have been removed and "everybody" cuts loose.

Examining "The Cat and the Saxophone (2 a.m.)" in this way suggests that Hughes' poem possesses remarkable originality. James Smethurst (MAPS) has suggested that Hughes' "attempt to represent a number of simultaneous voices within a single work" (understood relative to Pinsky's "formal heteroglossia") renders it distinctly and definitively "modern." However, in this case, the poem's multivocality seems to be subordinate to its technical virtuosity. Similar modernist poems -- poems which attempt to emulate musical experience -- such as Stevens' "Peter Quince at the Clavier" (1915), Eliot's Four Quartets (1936), or Tolson's "Dark Symphony" (1944) stress classical ("European") musical forms. Hughes' focus on jazz allowed him not only to explore new territory in American poetry; by implementing techniques of the genre, such as syncopation and improvisation, foreign to his contemporaries' stylistic choices, he could produce poetry of a wholly other order. Indeed, considering the resemblance between "The Cat and the Saxophone (2 a.m.)" and 1960s avant-garde jazz, his experimental verse may even have been ahead of its time. In it, the sax replaces the lyre of the lyric.

 

Copyright © 2006 Phillip Ernstmeyer

Consumption: Devouring "The Harlem Dancer"

Youth and sex characterize the Harlem Dancer’s audience: the "[a]pplauding youths," the "young prostitutes," the "bold-eyed boys," and simply, "the girls [my italics]." The speaker of the poem doesn’t seem to belong to or identify with any of these groups, separating himself from their juvenility, their undisguised lust for the dancer (which seems to frighten or dismay the poet), and even perhaps from their designation by gender; the speaker distinguishes himself from the rest of the audience by not gendering himself within the poem. Instead, he identifies himself and the dancer with blackness, and draws a charmed circle around the two of them by virtue of their shared race. She sings a gospel, spiritual or jazz song; McKay, alone among the white folks slumming in Harlem, sees in that the codes of a common history. The poem explicitly codes the dancer female, however, and its rhetoric emphasizes her sexuality and its effect on the audience. McKay and the dancer may be on the porch together, telling stories and signifying to one another about their passage through the storm, but the dancer’s gender in combination with her race changed the course of her passage. The storm she passed through has invested her with a double consciousness, informed not only by her race but also by her gender.

McKay deliberately takes the position of the outsider in this Harlem scene. He is neither male nor female, nor young, like the boys, the prostitutes, or the girls. Something else besides the dancer’s sensuality moves his fascination with her, or so he would prefer us to believe. Unresolved oppositions in the descriptive rhetoric of the poem call this subject position into question; the speaker distances himself madly – too insistently – from the "passionate," devouring boys and girls. This fringe position allows him to view the scene from on high (morally speaking), but in the context of the poem, the speaker has exclusive access to the dancer’s psyche. He alone knows what she is thinking, and that she doesn’t belong where she is right now. The notes McKay makes on her performance contribute to the idea that a sexualized interpretation (the reaction of the rest of her audience) is un-called for or inappropriate: "she seemed a proudly-swaying palm" (7), she danced "gracefully and calm" (5). McKay emphasizes her nobility and grace, not her sexuality.

The way he describes the dancer, in lines 5 and 6, is intended to de-sexualize her and/or to de-exoticize her. "She sang and danced on gracefully and calm/The light gauze hanging loose about her form" turns around the image of the half-clothed, semi-savage exotic in the second line. But lush, tropical imagery returns in the next line, comparing the dancer to a "proudly-swaying palm." In fact, it’s hard to reconcile the juxtaposition of these two descriptions with one narrative speaker – unless the anxiety present is part of his character, a testament to the dancer’s stirring sexuality. He can’t help himself. Though the speaker wants to distance himself from the rest of the audience, he ends up identifying with them in that respect, both holding back from the objectification of the dancer and participating in it.

The boys and even the girls, however, "devour" the dancer with their gaze. The fact that even the girls are watching the dancer with hunger in their eyes suggests a number of things: 1) that girls, who would not "normally" be watching another woman with lust, are drawn to this one – perhaps because of something in her or about her that draws them, but possibly 2) because their sexual or gender (or both) identities, as a part of the Harlem dancer’s audience, are placed in imperfect service of McKay’s racially motivated poetics. Line 1 and line 11 are nearly parallel in content: a description of boys in the audience, then a description of girls in the audience. First, in line 1, the boys are a monolith and the girls are a separate mass. The boys take the action: they are the subjects of this sentence and they "watc[h] her perfect, half-clothed body sway." In line 11, the boys and the girls fuse into one watching body, the gaze of which is juxtaposed to the poet-speaker’s genuine racial vision. The audience’s gaze is clearly sexual and possessive; the speaker, on the other hand, is interested in the dancer’s "self" rather than her body. Uncontrolled and uncontrollable sexuality gets conflated with race, another example of the exoticizing of the dancer. In order to emphasize this distinction – between white representations or imaginings of black sexuality and the distance that comes with the speaker’s invocation of African-American history, the boys and the girls become genderless. They possess this passionate gaze regardless of their particular fulfillment of gender roles.

McKay finds these boys and girls invasive. This audience may be invading in a different way, however; they may be white folks slumming it in a Harlem nightclub, soaking in black culture as they might take in the totem poles uptown at the Museum of Natural History. In contrast to the audience’s misinterpretation of the dancer, the speaker identifies his personal knowledge of the dancer with blackness: "Her voice was like the sound of blended flutes/Blown by black players upon a picnic day [my italics]"; "Upon her swarthy neck black shiny curls/Luxuriant fell." Only he notices these things, he would say, just as only a black flautist could interpret the voice of a black singer. She is "lovelier for passing through a storm," presumably America’s storm of racial oppression. Nobody knows the troubles she’s seen, and still sees as she distances herself from that strange place; nobody knows, that is, but the black man watching from the seat in the back of the club. Her beauty, expressly linked in the mind of the speaker to the experience of blackness (the same history which fuels McKay’s more racially polemical poems), moves him not to passion but to idealization.

The tension between these two visions of the dancer – as Madonna and as whore – splits the consciousness of the poem. The dancer is alternately exoticized by the young, hot-blooded, wine-flushed members of the audience, and idealized by McKay as a pure representation of his kind of beauty. A collection of phrases from Hughes’ "Mulatto" elaborate on that history; the historical precedent and the danger underlying the "devouring" gaze of the white boys and girls comes into focus. A gaze implies power, and a certain level of coercion – an awareness of the rules overseeing bodies (especially black bodies) and self-government according to those rules. The dancer’s self "was not in that strange place"; it is, in fact, equally in this one:

What’s a body but a toy?     Juicy bodies     Of nigger wenches     Blue black     Against black fences… What’s the body of your mother? (11-15, 19)

The dancer, the poem implies, cannot take responsibility for the expectations placed upon her by her white audience. Any reading of her sexuality as exotic, overpowering, and uncontrollable, and thus fascinating to boys and even girls automatically contains and ignores this version of history which McKay is party to. The poem addresses the hegemonic fear of and fascination with the "other" by way of a speaker who isn’t exactly one of "us," but isn’t exactly othered either. The poem sexualizes the co-opting of black experience and black art by white people looking for novelty, characterizing it as a kind of cultural rape.

McKay frequently reworks the sonnet form to express racial rage, most memorably in poems like "Mulatto" and "The White City." Where the boys and girls of "The Harlem Dancer" read their representations of Africa and black female sexuality on to the dancer’s body, McKay takes the body of the sonnet – a privilege-soaked, white-identified form – and uses it to insert "Afric’s son" into Shakespeare’s mode of discourse. The sonnet, then, serves as "high talk," speaking with Old Massa’s voice to lull him into believing in his slaves’ perfect assimilation. It could be (and has historically been) dismissed as apery, but that would be done at peril when it comes to McKay:

Think you I am not fiend and savage too? Think you I could not arm me with a gun And shoot down ten of you for every one Of my black brothers murdered, burnt by you?" ("To the White Fiends, 1-4)

"The Harlem Dancer," though, doesn’t summon up this characteristic rage, though it does turn around the sonnet form in provocative ways. If it is a love sonnet to the dancer’s eyebrows, it does also contain the cultural history of rape, and in that way subverts the sonnet form. It may parenthetically allude to the rage that appears in "The Lynching," since most lynchings were punishment for perceived sexual encroachment upon white women by black men. Here, in the Harlem club, these white children (stand-ins for the "little lads, lynchers that were to be" ("The Lynching," 13)?) devour the dancer with their eyes. The place is at once strange and familiar.

The boys and the girls are differentiated, however – not in their deployment of the gaze, but in their representation within the poem. The youths in the first line applaud; they act at first, before the girls, by watching the dancer. The girls are at first described as prostitutes; they do not act, are not granted any verbs, in the beginning of the poem. When the description becomes more vivid in line 11 – the boys are "wine-flushed, bold-eyed" – the girls are merely "girls," with no descriptors attached. There’s a hierarchy of description of gender in the poem, and I would argue, an intentionally deconstructive one: the boys and girls appear to be as one in their objectification of the dancer, but there is also a second layer of objectification relating to the "young prostitutes." The girls and boys of the audience fuse into one at points in the poem; however, at other points the poem’s rhetoric differentiates them. Even boys and girls, united in their gaze, visually re-enacting a rape, are still boys and girls. Surprise must still be expressed at the queering of the girls’ reaction to the dancer; the girls are prostitutes, defined in the poem by their sexual servitude. In the end, then, McKay can’t be comfortable with reading the dancer solely as fellow sufferer in America’s storm. In addition to the dancer’s blackness, she carries the additional burden of being a sexual object, blue-black against a black fence. 

Copyright © 2001 by Beth Palatnik

Stephen Hugh-Jones: "an untruth in yr website"

[Ed. note: the following is an email sent by Mr. Hugh-Jones to MAPS]

by chance, i came upon my own name in your website...

(try: modern american poetry---corso---bomb)

in which you cite the autobiography of dom moraes....

....in which he avers that when gregory corso and allen ginsberg came to oxford university in the late 1950s, and corso read a poem about the hydrogen bomb to the "new college poetry society", the members of the said society led by myself started throwing our shoes at him

your quotation is no doubt accurate, verbally; and i wouldn't turn a hair if it were true. but i fear the best bit of the alleged event is moraes's fantasy.

as anyone who knew him will tell you, dom moraes was a brilliant, stunningly good, young poet--and an equally skilled affabulist and fond of exercising that skill. 

corso and ginsberg indeed came to oxford, and indeed read some poems. (though, not that it matters, not to any "New College poetry society"--no such society, to my memory, ever existed. this may have been a meeting of the university labour club, perhaps? i don't know).

more to the point, the shoe-throwing is pure invention.

the assembled oxford students certainly heckled corso. alas, we threw no shoes. britons--like americans/french/chinese/most others--don't throw shoes as a sign of disapproval (even if they believed in smashing up their host's pictures and windows with the heavy english shoes worn in those days, to mark their disapproval of one of his guests).

in contrast, there is indeed a well known indian phrase--i've no idea if these days it's a genuine indian habit-- "throwing one's chappals [light sandals] at so-and-so" to mark one's disapproval. and, not by coincidence, dom moraes is an indian.

i would not be in the least ashamed, then or now, to have led disapproval of a silly poem by a silly man, as corso (strikingly unlike ginsberg) and his poem then appeared to be. but the shoe-throwing simply didn't happen, period.

merely in the interests of truth--not myself, i've done much sillier things than throw shoes 40-odd years ago--you should append a note to this extract, lest fantasy be taken for fact (as it already has in at least one biography of ginsberg). i suggest the following:

"The alleged leader of the alleged shoe-throwing records--to his regret, but from personal knowledge--that the high point of this entertaining tale is fantasy. We thought it a lousy poem, but we threw no shoes."

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