Onwucheka Jemie

Onwucheka Jemie: On "Ku Klux"

Hughes equates the Northern police violence of "Third Degree" and "Who But the Lord?" with the Southern violence of "Ku Klux." The police have the same "faces like jack-o-lanterns" as the members of the KKK in Ask Your Mama.

. . . .

Like Madam Alberta Johnson in "Madam and the Phone Bill," the narrator of "Ku Klux" is signifying and clowning around, sassing the white folks. He knows that anything he says will be used against him, and his knowledge gives him a certain freedom. He mocks his attackers' beliefs by saying he would believe in anything if they would just turn him loose; that is, he would accept their reading of reality only under duress. They are desperate to persuade him, but they also know it's useless. And the fact that he knows and says as much makes them even more frantic. The poem holds five hundred years of history in capsule, spotlighting the physical violence by which the West established and enforced the myth of its superiority over the rest of the world. . . .

"Ku Klux" is a leisurely account after the event; the victim has lived to tell his story, and can afford to mellow its memory with humor and sass.

From Langston Hughes: An Introduction to the Poetry. Copyright © 1976 by Columbia University Press.

Onwucheka Jemie: On "The Bitter River"

The most prolonged and deeply moving of Hughes's lynch poems is "The Bitter River," a dirge for two black youths lynched in Mississippi in 1942. Hughes conceives of the lynch terror as a bitter, poisonous river flowing through the South, a river at which black people have been forced to drink too long. Its water galls the taste, poisons the blood, and drowns black hopes. The "snake-like hiss of its stream" strangles black dreams. The bitter river reflects no stars, only the steel bars behind which are confined numberless innocents--the Scottsboro Boys, sharecroppers, and labor leaders. The bitter river makes nonsense of liberal rhetoric:

"Work, education, patience

Will bring a better day."

The swirl of the bitter river

Carries your "patience" away.

Patience is useless, the hope in work and education a slim and distant one. The poem ends in bitter complaint, weariness and gloom:

I'm tired of the bitter river!

Tired of the bars!


From Langston Hughes: An Introduction to the Poetry. Copyright © 1976 by Columbia University Press.

Onwucheka Jemie: "Lynching Song"

Most lynchings are for rape. But it is common knowledge that in the South it is extremely rare that a black man has actually raped or attempted to rape a white woman. In the South, sexual contact between black men and white women, from slavery times to the present, has almost always been initiated by the white woman. And every black man in the South knows that if he is unlucky enough to become the object of a white woman's affections, he must leave town or die. When a white woman invites you to love, you are doomed. If you accept and it is found out, as it will sooner or later, she will cry rape, and you will be lynched. If you refuse, she will in humiliation and revenge cry rape, and you will be lynched.

The rape-and-lynch psychosis must be viewed in the context of the perverted sexual mythology whereby white Americans first reduced black people to subhumans, then invested them with a hypersexuality, forced access of white males to black females, blocked access of black males to white females, and proceeded to project white lust and puritan guilt onto black males and victimize them for the sins of white males. For Southern white men to publicly admit that in liaisons with black men, Southern white women are usually willing accomplices, most often the provocateurs, is for them to lose control of reality as they wish to know it. Instead, that secret knowledge drives them even more rabidly violent. It is this psychological cat and mouse game that gives a poem like "Silhouette" its ironic power:

Southern gentle lady,

Do not swoon.

They've just hung a black man....


From Langston Hughes: An Introduction to the Poetry. Copyright © 1976 by Columbia University Press.