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"The White Witch" appears to be a fanciful supernatural ballad, in which a vampire-like witch threatens to lure away young men and kill them. Beneath the surface, however, it is clear that Johnson is treating black-white sexual relations, the complex of psychological ills that accompany the thought of miscegenation, and the very real physical danger to the black man who succumbs to the lures of white women. The white witch is described by one who speaks, perhaps from the grave, about his own temptation and fall. He warns his younger brothers not to test their strength against the witch or even to look at her, "For in her glance there is a snare, / And in her smile there is a blight." The witch is not like the witches the boys have heard of in children's stories; this is no "ancient hag" with "snaggled tooth," but a beautiful woman "in all the glowing charms of youth." The third and fourth stanzas create a portrait of her as the archetypal white woman: "her face [is] like new-born lilies fair," her eyes are blue, and her hair is golden. Although she appears young, "unnumbered centuries are hers"; her origins go back to the beginning of the universe.

The speaker then tells his brothers how he has been trapped by the witch. At first he enjoyed the kisses from her unnaturally red lips and the bondage of her white arms and the golden hair that entangled him. But then a transformation took place, and the red lips began to "burn and sear / My body like a living coal." The temptress has led her victim to the stake, and the glow of her beauty becomes the glow of the lynch mob's fire, What motivates the white witch? In anticipation of much later works such as Calvin C. Hernton's Sex and Racism in America (1965) or Eldridge Cleaver's Soul on Ice (1968) her victim answers:


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 poem ends with the repeated warning to the younger brothers not to be enticed by the witch. Johnson operates with considerable subtlety in this poem. Nowhere is it stated that the speaker and his brothers are black, but given the imagery of the white enticer and the nature of the speaker's fate, it is apparent that the poem is a social fable on one level even though it may be read on another.