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James Weldon Johnson's application of the witch lore would give a racial accent to the sado-masochistic worship of the deified white muse of poetry. The narrator of his 1915 poem "The White Witcli" warns his "brothers" that the onlv safety from the "white witch" is to flee, "For in her glance there is a snare, / And in her smile there is a blight." In subsequent stanzas, Johnson reveals the following important characteristics of the "witch": she does not look like the "ancient hag" she really is, but appears deceptively "in all the glowing charms of youth"; behind her smile lurks the "shadow of the panther" and the "spirit of the vampire"; it is the "Antaean strength" of her victims that attracts her--"the great dynamic beat / Of primal passions," "the echo of a far-off day, / When man was closer to the earth." The speaker identifies himself as a victim of the witch who has been "bound" by her yellow hair, his strength drained from his soul as he lay helplessly entranced in the arms of the vampire woman.

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The poem, written during the early stage of the massive migration of blacks northward during and after World War I, superimposes the significance of the Du Boisian white witch upon an evolving discourse of the failed promises of the northern black experience, with the important exception that Johnson's women will not be cold, "spiritually white" mulattoes but women who socially classify themselves as white. Johnson's enumeration of the witch's "properties" becomes one of the signatory aspects of the motif, especially the great importance he attaches to color symbolism:


Her lips are like carnations red,

Her face like new-born lilies fair,

Her eyes like ocean waters blue

She moves with subtle grace and air

And all about her head there floats

The golden glory of her hair.


His chromatic scheme suggests overlapping symbolic economies--the Aryan somatic ideal, revealed as the red, white, and blue of the American flag, with the "golden glory" of the national wealth thrown in for good measure. As Michel Fabre's semiotic reading of Ralph Ellison's Circean white witch in the "Battle Royal" scene of Invisible Man reveals, such codes of race/nationalist desire inscribing her feminine form with the myths of freedom and opportunity make her vampiric seduction of the "brothers" a striking critique of American democracy and capitalism, even in their most benign manifestations.

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[T]he poems reveal that these oppositional female archetypes coincide with respect to a pervasive distrust of the feminine--a black male deracination so profound that neither in the compromised domesticity of the South nor in the impermanent sexual commerce of the North is there any hope of sanctuary. The white witch, siren of false hopes, projection of internalized self-doubt, blocks the advance of the black male into American national subjecthood, while the treacherous black mother mortgages his refuge in the black world of the Jim Crow South. In the end, both betray the black male to secure their own marginal positions in the white world. Johnson's cosmos of black male striving is a bleaker one than Du Bois's, absent a committed, sacrificial black madonna, which leaves the black male subject paralyzed between emasculating feminine ideations. After Johnson, the presentation of the feminine in black male texts (especially in prose and drama) will typically employ this misogynistic interracial construct.

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Juxtaposing the white witch and the black mother, as in Chesnutt's "Uncle Wellington's Wives," formalizes a North-South dialectic in black twentieth-century thought. Johnson's two poems hold out no hope of assistance from either North or South in the black soul's progress and use the opposed female images to investigate the conflicting emotions of the black deraciné. The question of embodiment during the northern migration takes a definitive turn from earlier formulations that assumed that white women would betray black lovers to lynch mobs rather than stiffer social death. The literature of the early twentieth century recognizes the changed circumstances of interracial relations brought on by the northern urban experience. The white woman's body, a symbolic enticement into the promised good life of America, betrays the black quester by creating a psychic barrier to the inclusion he seeks.

The blazon of the white witch in Johnson's poem, in her red, white, and blue, is only one element in Johnson's rich symbolism, extending his critique of the American "spirit of the vampire" to cultural and economic exploitation. Johnson, in effect, sounds one of the earliest literary warnings against cultural appropriation--the exploitation of black cultural productivity as native American exotica. Though Johnson often expressed a naive faith in the liberating potential of the coming vogue of primitivism, which because of his experiences on the New York and European theatrical scenes he predicted would become an important social force, in "The White Witch" he reveals a structural ambivalence that would resonate through the decades of fluctuating African American access to the American cultural capital of New York. His white witch is the American consumer par excellence—the slummer, the bored habitué of Negro nightlife, the avant-garde stalker of novelty who would turn black Harlem within a decade into a peep show. The striver's "strong young limbs" and "laughter loud and gay" remind the witch of "a far-off day, / When man was closer to the earth":


She feels the old Antaean strength

In you, the great dynamic beat

Of primal passions, and she sees

In you the last besieged retreat

Of love relentless, lusty, fierce,

Love pain-ecstatic, cruel sweet.


The witch parodies "Liberty" by sneering at the greatest of white-world social taboos, interracial sex. In a sense, the homogenizing effect of American culture is a by-product of her assault on the racial margin, for as she goes from victim to victim, she consumes the "primal passions" of each black Antaeus, leaving each soul drained and pacified--forms empty of content. Her victims, therefore, do not speak from the grave but remain trapped in a death-in-life paralysis of will: "twined [in] her arms, /And bound ... with her yellow hair" (36). The reference to Antaeus "grounds" Johnson's core narrative of black deracination. Like Antaeus, the black quester as primitive draws his strength directly from nature, in which, unlike the men of the industrialized North, the southern black has been firmly rooted. But as we learn from Johnson's companion poem, the Earth Mother of the South whose nurturance he needs is similarly enthralled and colonized by the white patriarchy. Deprived of a nurturing southern soil to stand upon as his own, the black Antaeus dies a slow painful death in the North.

In both the witch and mammy poems, the underlying theme of black male victimization thwarts the proprietary impulse, arguing by negation the unfairness of a universe in which no woman can, finally, be owned by black men.

The blazon of the witch reflects a specific response topos of AMERICA. The tradition of the white witch demonstrates the paradox of living in an America determined to make AMERICA impossible as specifically an assault on black manhood. It adopts the mode of the "prospect"--the gaze across the horizon at gendered sign[s] of the territory to be conquered and occupied." Yet it simultaneously announces America's resistance to such occupation.

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James Weldon Johnson’s witch casts a "blight" on her prey through an evil eye that complements the sexual nature of her vampirism--like her southern sister, she punishes the black male who wanders into her visual field with a ligature that, if not unto death, certainly invests black male spatial adventurism with imminent peril.

The tradition of the white witch consequently focuses on the boundedness of America through images of a spatially "closed" female white America that, once "penetrated" by the black male nation builder, becomes a space of confinement.

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Johnson’s witch subverts the appropriating male gaze by beguiling her victims into the illusion that they leave chosen her, even as she assails their "last besieged retreat"of "primal passions." Johnson's "feminizing" rhetoric of black primitivism thus shifts subjectivity from the gaze of the male to that of the witch herself, making the black quester the commodified object of the discourse. His acknowledgment of the situational masculinity of the white woman in an interracial relationship makes her the phallic woman, reducing the black male to an impotence and exploitation escapable only through flight. It is he who ends "enclosed": "Around me she has twined her arms, / And bound me with her yellow hair." The black male's quest for freedom ends with the image of an enslavement more profound for its implicit emasculation.

[Note: Smith compares "The White Witch" with Johnson’s companion poem "The Black Mammy." See the full discussion in American Body Politics.]