The Chronicle Review

The Literature of Lynching

Lawrence Beitler, Bettmann/CORBIS

A lynching in Marion, Ind., in 1930
August 10, 2015

Ta-Nehisi Coates’s new 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:

And 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 …

Wright’s 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 as well.

Are 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?

Teaching poems about lynching is complicated. On the one hand, a poem on any subject is still a poem, a formal composition that registers and distills 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.

A "good" 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?

In short, the endeavor is not for the faint of heart.

Wright’s "Between the World and Me" first appeared in the July-August 1935 issue of The Partisan Review, which announced itself as no longer "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 South Side."

I have 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 tree:

I 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.

And 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.

Dunbar 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.

Claude McKay’s sonnet "The Lynching," first published in C.K. Ogden’s Cambridge Magazine (a British journal) in 1920, provokes similar ambivalence:

His spirit is smoke ascended to high heaven.
His father, by the cruelest 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.

Students 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:

Christ is a Nigger,
Beaten and black —
Oh, bare your back.

Mary is His Mother —
Mammy of the South,
Silence your mouth.

God’s His father —
White Master above
Grant us your love.

Most holy bastard
Of the bleeding mouth:
     Nigger Christ
     On the cross of the South.

Hughes’s 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).

Class 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.

Here 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:

And 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 …

I can 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 body.

As 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."

The 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 country road:

i 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.

why 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?

the 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.

Clifton’s 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?

Martin 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):

Way Down South in Dixie
(Break the heart of me)
They hung my black young lover
To a cross roads tree.

Way Down South in Dixie
(Bruised body high in air)
I asked the white Lord Jesus
What was the use of prayer.

Way Down South in Dixie
(Break the heart of me)
Love is a naked shadow
On a gnarled and naked tree.

In his online lecture, Hammer considers the second stanza of the poem without talking about lynching at all:

the 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 honor 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.

In 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 point.

Hammer’s 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.

Left 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."

The 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?

I would 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 specificity.

The 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."

The 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.

A fully 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.

Hollis Robbins is director of the Center for Africana Studies at the Johns Hopkins University and chair of the humanities department at Johns Hopkins’s Peabody Institute. The poem "jasper texas 1998" is reprinted with permission, © Lucille Clifton.