on a gnarled and naked tree
THE LITERATURE OF LYNCHING
Hollis Robbins is Director of the Center for Africana
Studies in the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences and is Chair
of the Humanities Department at Peabody, where she teaches courses
on poetry, drama, film, and aesthetics. Her most recent article
is “Django Unchained: Repurposing Film Music,” Safundi,
16:3, July (2015). She is currently co-editing the Penguin
Portable Nineteenth Century Black Women Writers with Henry
Louis Gates, Jr., due out in 2017.
Coates’s book, Between the World and Me, a letter
to his son about race in America, takes its title from Richard
Wright’s brutal lynching poem, "Between the World
and Me" (1935). Coates offers the first three lines of
Wright’s poem as an epigraph:
one morning while in the woods I stumbled
suddenly upon the thing,
Stumbled upon it in a grassy clearing guarded by scaly
oaks and elms.
And the sooty details of the scene rose, thrusting
themselves between the world and me . . .
poem is one of the more fierce and forthright entries in the
canon of American poems about lynching. But I have never taught
it, though I have taught American and African-American poetry
in college courses for over a decade. It hasn’t been convenient.
The poem doesn’t appear in standard teaching anthologies
alongside the usual 20th-century works by Robert Frost, Langston
Hughes, and Elizabeth Bishop. Wright’s poem is curiously
absent from most anthologies of African-American literature
the politics of anthologizing a matter of race, or the timidity
of introductory literary courses in the era of trigger warnings,
or both? How would adding Wright’s "Between the World
and Me" change the nature of the American poetry syllabus?
poems about lynching is complicated. On the one hand, a poem
on any subject is still a poem, a formal composition that registers
and distils something both particular and universal about human
existence. On the other hand, lynching is a uniquely American
political act that grounds the poem in horrific specificity
and resists a universal interpretation.
lynching poem must capture and represent the horror of a specific
event. It must trigger strong feelings and perhaps rage. Moreover,
a good class discussion must address politics: not only the
politics of lynching but also the literary politics of creation
and publication. Who writes about lynching and when? Who publishes
the work and why?
short, the endeavour is not for the faint of heart.
"Between the World and Me" first appeared in the July-August
1935 issue of The Partisan Review, which announced itself as
no onger "an organ of the John Reed Club of New York"
but simply "a revolutionary literary magazine edited by
a group of young Communist writers, whose purpose will be to
print the best revolutionary literature and Marxist criticism
in this country and abroad." Richard Wright, the contributor
page states, "is a young Negro Communist poet of Chicago’s
often taught one of the earliest and most anthologized poems
about lynching written by an African-American poet: Paul Laurence
Dunbar’s mock-Romantic ballad "The Haunted Oak."
First published in The Century Magazine in 1900, the
poem tells the story of a lynching from the perspective of the
feel the rope against my bark,
And the weight of him in my grain,
I feel in the throe of his final woe
The touch of my own last pain.
never more shall leaves come forth
On the bough that bears the ban;
I am burned with dread, I am dried and dead,
From the curse of a guiltless man.
heard the tale about a haunted tree from a groundskeeper at
Howard University, an old man who had once been enslaved. I
mention to students that the Century’s editor
published the poem during an epidemic of lynching but cut two
stanzas about the haunting of the lynchers to soften the blow.
"The Haunted Oak" provokes lively conversation about
old-fashioned poetry, but in its antique diction and geographic
nonspecificity, it doesn’t provoke horror.
McKay’s sonnet "The Lynching," first published
in C.K. Ogden’s Cambridge Magazine (a British
journal) in 1920, provokes similar ambivalence:
spirit is smoke ascended to high heaven.
His father, by the cruellest way of pain,
Had bidden him to his bosom once again;
The awful sin remained still unforgiven.
All night a bright and solitary star
(Perchance the one that ever guided him,
Yet gave him up at last to Fate’s wild whim)
Hung pitifully o’er the swinging char.
Day dawned, and soon the mixed crowds came to view
The ghastly body swaying in the sun:
The women thronged to look, but never a one
Showed sorrow in her eyes of steely blue;
And little lads, lynchers that were to be,
Danced round the dreadful thing in fiendish glee.
balk at the "perchance" and the "o’er,"
and the poem ultimately fails to work as either a well-crafted
sonnet or a poem about an American lynching, partly because
it is removed from local politics. Even students with blue eyes
feel distant from it.
Langston Hughes’s "Christ in Alabama," however,
published on the front page of a radical college literary magazine,
Contempo, in 1931, always shocks:
is a Nigger,
Beaten and black —
Oh, bare your back.
is His Mother —
Mammy of the South,
Silence your mouth.
His father —
White Master above
Grant us your love.
Of the bleeding mouth:
On the cross of the South.
poem states bluntly what McKay and others hint at, that a lynching
is a crucifixion. Contempo was launched by five white
college students at the University of North Carolina, in Chapel
Hill, out of a dorm room. One of the journal’s goals was
"encouraging literary controversy." The editors had
asked Hughes for a poem in response to the Scottsboro incident
(in which nine African-American teenagers were accused of raping
two white women).
discussion generally focuses on the inflammatory first line
and whether college students today could or would publish such
a work. Students are uncomfortable with "the N-word."
We don’t generally get to the subject of lynching specifically.
is where I might insert Wright’s "Between the World
and Me" into the syllabus as a poem also first published
in a magazine edited by young people aiming for revolution.
The poem is the second feature in the issue. It proclaims the
specific horrors of a lynching in painstaking detail. Here is
the last stanza:
then they had me, stripped me, battering my teeth
into my throat till I swallowed my own blood.
My voice was drowned in the roar of their voices,
and my black wet body slipped and rolled in their hands
as they bound me to the sapling.
And my skin clung to the bubbling hot tar,
falling from me in limp patches.
And the down and quills of the white feathers sank
into my raw flesh, and I moaned in my agony.
Then my blood was cooled mercifully,
cooled by a baptism of gasoline.
And in a blaze of red I leaped to the sky
as pain rose like water, boiling my limbs.
Panting, begging I clutched childlike,
clutched to the hot sides of death.
Now I am dry bones and my face a stony skull staring
in yellow surprise at the sun . . .
imagine the hush of the classroom as the student called on to
read aloud finishes. There is little that we would consider
poetry here: no rhyme, no alliteration, no meter. There are
only stumbling words and death. Diana Fuss, one of the few recent
scholars who offers a sustained exegesis of "Between the
World and Me," reads the poem as a "corpse poem,"
by which she means a poem "not about the dead but spoken
by the dead, lyric utterances not from beyond the grave but
from inside it." The final stanza is so shattering, Fuss
adds, because the reader inhabits and identifies with the lynched
a corpse poem and a revolutionary work, "Between the World
and Me" also shatters a common assumption that poetry —
particularly the poetry of nature — should seek to console.
Relief is not offered in another rural American lynching poem
that I have never taught, Lucille Clifton’s "jasper
texas 1998," with a dedication "for j. byrd."
poem was first published in the Spring 1999 issue of Ploughshares,
written for 49-year-old James Byrd Jr., who was dismembered
as he was pulled behind a pickup truck. The poem opens on a
am a man’s head hunched in the road.
i was chosen to speak by the members
of my body. the arm as it pulled away
pointed toward me, the hand opened once
and was gone.
and why and why
should i call a white man brother?
who is the human in this place,
the thing that is dragged or the dragger?
what does my daughter say?
sun is a blister overhead.
if i were alive i could not bear it.
the townsfolk sing we shall overcome
while hope bleeds slowly from my mouth
into the dirt that covers us all.
i am done with this dust. i am done.
poem won the Pushcart Prize and is rarely anthologized except
in collections of Pushcart Prize winners. What does it mean
for a lynching poem to win a literary prize? Is the prize a
kind of consolation, given by the (mostly white) editors of
little literary magazines made uncomfortable by the absence
of Clifton’s usual tone of forgiveness?
Luther King Jr. notably said that 11:00 Sunday morning is the
most segregated hour in the nation. The world of poetry is equally
divided. Racial segregation is not only a matter of students,
syllabus, and textbook but also of categories of poetry. The
Open Yale Course "Modern Poetry" includes only one
lecture out of 25 on an African-American poet: Langston Hughes.
(Other American poets featured include Frost, Hart Crane, Ezra
Pound, and Wallace Stevens.) Langdon Hammer, the chairman of
Yale’s English department, who teaches the course, discusses
the most widely anthologized Hughes poem about lynching, "Song
for a Dark Girl" (1927):
Down South in Dixie
(Break the heart of me)
They hung my black young lover
To a cross roads tree.
Down South in Dixie
(Bruised body high in air)
I asked the white Lord Jesus
What was the use of prayer.
Down South in Dixie
(Break the heart of me)
Love is a naked shadow
On a gnarled and naked tree.
his online lecture, Hammer considers the second stanza of the
poem without talking about lynching at all:
parenthesis holds in it a kind of brutal image, something horrifying
that must be set off slightly. The body is bruised, it shows
the marks of beating, of suffering, in advance of murder. It’s
lifted high in air, not in honour or tribute. Rather, to be
lifted in this way is to lose all agency, to be made lifeless;
all of this presented as a kind of syntactic fragment in the
poem, not yet integrated into the poem, so to speak, or it may
not yet be integrated into consciousness.
other words, Hughes’s poem is presented not as lynching
poem but simply as a work of modernist literature. Perhaps Hammer
examines parentheses and syntactic fragments because Hughes
does not offer ashes or bone fragments to sift though. Hammer
is not interested in history: He does not mention that the poem
first appeared in a middlebrow literary journal, Saturday
Review of Literature, or that several notorious lynchings
occurred in the year of its publication. Outrage is not the
integration of Hughes into his syllabus is laudable. But one
of the most influential anthologies of modernist poetry, Modern
Verse in English, 1900-1950 (Macmillan, 1958), fails to
include any African-American poets at all (although it does
include Allen Tate’s 1953 "The Swimmers," a
coming-of-age story about a white boy who sees a lynched black
body). Helen Vendler’s recent book, The Ocean, the
Bird, and the Scholar: Essays on Poets and
Poetry (Harvard University Press, 2015), includes only
one African-American poet — again, Langston Hughes.
unsaid in the Yale course is how the inclusion of a black poet
changes the category of modernism, especially when Hammer introduces
Hughes as "the only modernist poet who begins as a busboy."
power of Coates’s Between the World and Me, like
the poem for which it is named, resides in its ruthless recognition
of violence to the black body in America. But how does one bring
that recognition into a literature class as a matter of literature?
emphatically not teach Wright’s "Between the World
and Me" as just another poem, as the 2014 Kaplan AP English
test prep book does when it prompts: "Read the following
poem carefully. Then, in a well-organized essay, analyze how
the speaker uses the varied imagery of the poem to reveal his
attitude toward what he has found and how it affects him, paying
particular attention to the shifting point of view of the narrator."
The prep book prints Wright’s poem in all its ghastly
prep guide states that high scores will be given to writers
who recognize "Wright’s masterful use of strong imagery,"
who demonstrate "perceptive understanding of … the
movement of the poem," who show "sensitivity toward
the subtle movement of the narrator from a casual observer to
a highly empathetic witness," and who "respond to
the prompt accurately."
writer is not expected to write about lynching, or about how
Wright’s sylvan opening lines change the nature of nature
poetry, or how references to clearings and saplings and feathers
and design might evoke, say, the poetry of Frost.
integrated poetry course would read "Between the World
and Me" alongside Frost’s widely anthologized "The
Road Not Taken," because Wright’s poem reminds us
that everything depends on perspective and whose woods these
are that Wright stumbles in. One must always recall that a road
diverging in a yellow wood, "in leaves no step had trodden
black," might just lead to the remains of a lynching.
poem "jasper texas 1998" is reprinted with permission©Lucille