Langston Hughes - Prentiss Taylor - Charles Cullen

Langston Hughes, Scottsboro Limited and "Christ in Alabama", illus. by Prentiss Taylor;
Charles Cullen illustration from Countee Cullen's The Black Christ

Anti-Lynching Poems in the 1930s

Jon Woodson

In the 1930s Walter White responded to a rise in the number of racial lynchings:

In 1930, Walter White became NAACP executive secretary and developed a close working relationship with the Interracial Commission which led him to take up the drive for federal [anti-lynching] legislation once again. Walter White had forged his career in the anti-lynching struggle. In 1933, when lynching once more soared to a record high after dipping to a low of 10 the year before, he determined to channel the NAACP's piecemeal efforts into a concerted federal lobbying campaign and test the New Deal's commitment to black civil rights. (“Anti- Lynching Efforts”)

Of necessity, the African-Americans poets writing in the 1930s took up the theme of racial lynching. The discourse of the poetic embodiment of lynching in America had been established by E.L. Masters in Spoon River Anthology, which climaxes its derision of American culture in the 1920 by the presentation of a failed lynching, although the would-be victim was not a black man. The Spoon River Anthology concludes with the incomplete text of the late Mr. Jonathan Swift Somers’s “Spooniad,” which breaks off as the mob is forming:

Just then, four lusty men
Bore the town marshal, on whose iron face
The purple pall of death already lay,
To Trainor's drug store, shot by Jack McGuire.
And cries went up of “Lynch him!” and the sound
Of running feet from every side was heard
Bent on the
		(Masters 133)				
Masters’s volume was highly influential and many black poets absorbed various components of that pioneering modernist work—its free verse, its use of the confessional epitaph, its cynicism, and at times its highly tabooed depiction of the practice of lynching.

       The anti-lynching discourse in black poetry takes its definitive origin with Claude McKay’s lapidary sonnet “The Lynching.” In Joshua Eckhardt’s reading of the poem, “These generations of lynchers would seem to have defeated both the African and the religious forces brought against them…” (MAP), and Nilay Gandhi concurs, stating that “The Lynching” speaks to the cultural cancellation of the African-American race in the 1920s” (MAP).

from: The Book of American Negro Poetry
by James Weldon Johnson, which is online at

We can extract from these readings the motifs that comprise this discourse: namely, (1) “the association between the lynch victim and Christ” (Eckhardt MAP), (2) “the savagery of the white fiends” (Eckhardt MAP), and (3) “the [white] children are born with evil spirits… Racism is the greatest of all troubles, as natural as the day; one so rooted in the culture that the blacks cannot overcome it” (Gandhi). There is a deep intertextuality between McKay’s sonnet and the poems that followed it in the 1930s, even while the later poets struggled to overcome the conceptual problems (the divide between realistic and metaphysical treatments of the lynched body / soul) that they subsequently identified in McKay’s “Lynching.” We see this tendency to revisit the conventions of the anti-lynching discourse in one of the initial responses to the lynching crisis, that is, Langston Hughes’s poems in response to the Scottsboro Boys legal lynching, a situation that originally commenced with the events that took place on a rail line in Alabama on March 24, 1931. Susan Duffy describes Hughes’s interest in the Scottsboro controversy in these terms:

      The early 1930s, the depression years, were a period in which Hughes needed to find financial as well as artistic moorings. Thrown out of “Godmother” Mason’s white bourgeois environment that had served as a safe, even affluent, haven during the first two years of the Great Depression, Hughes sought solace and redirection in a trip to Cuba. The Scottsboro incident occurred prior to Hughes’ departure. In the intervening months before his return to the United States, the legal defense for the Scottsboro defendants was supplied by the American Communist Party, which raised the case to national prominence in order to attract new members. Scottsboro became a vehicle to advance leftist political and labor issues. The Scottsboro case allowed the International Labor Defense (ILD), the legal branch of the American Communist Party, to garner national favor with political liberals and minority workers. Rampersad saw this as a direct campaign to enact Stalin’s goals to increase “black participation in the party” and to establish “self-determination for Afro-Americans as a commitment of the communist effort in the United States.”

       Hughes’ return to New York came in the midst of the Scottsboro appeal. Feeling the need to reestablish himself professionally, he sought new, independent literary associations. Hughes gravitated towards individuals among the political Left, particularly writers and editors. Fortuitously, the radical writers who formed the membership of the John Reed Club in New York offered friendship as well as literary connections and publication outlets for Hughes. His poems and translations of poems by Frederico Garcia Lorca soon appeared in the pages of New Masses. The camaraderie extended by the JRC and the adoption of the Scottsboro case as the American Communist Party’s cause célèbre resulted in Hughes immersion in leftist politics and art. Whether this commitment was part of a newfound political activism or a part of a psychological distancing from the controlling wealth of Charlotte Mason is not clear. Nonetheless, Hughes was drawn to the dramatic racial controversy marked by white injustice towards young black men. Consequently, he became actively involved not only in the John Reed Club but also in the American Negro Labor Congress and other groups with leftist leanings. (Political Plays 25)

Hughes conducted a poetry reading tour of the South, Midwest, and West, covering seventeen states. While in Alabama he went to Kilby Prison and read his poetry to the Scottsboro Boys. During the beginning of his tour, Hughes’s earliest poem on the Scottsboro Boys, “Christ in Alabama,” appeared in 1931 in Contempo, an avant-garde literary magazine published in North Carolina. Michael Thurston’s discussion of the poem emphasizes Hughes’s revision of the trope that William J. Maxwell calls “the stock emblem of the crucified lynch victim” (MAP).

       Despite the five thousand copies of Contempo published to capitalize on the Scottsboro Boys case, this was an obscure beginning for a literary effort against lynching. Subsequently, “Christ in Alabama” was combined with several other poems and a dramatic treatment of the episode to make up a volume titled Scottsboro Limited, Four Poems and a Play in Verse. The cover art bore a striking graphic by Prentiss Taylor that followed in the pattern of associating victims of lynching with the crucified Christ made explicit in Countee Cullen’s book jackets (Eckhardt MAP).

The Black Christ by Countee Cullen, illustrated by Charles Cullen, Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1929.
click through for larger versions of the images

Langston Hughes, Scottsboro Limited, "Christ in Alabama" from Contempo, and The Negro Mother
click through for larger versions of the images

Beneath the words Scottsboro Limited set in crimson type and framed by thick red rules, Taylor’s moody etching depicts nine massed figures riding in an open railroad gondola: a telephone pole looms threateningly over the nine black men, and the wires descending perspectively from its two cross ties suggest nine ropes that suspend the shadowy figures. Recalling Zell Ingram’s illustration for “Christ in Alabama,” one man’s silhouetted hands are raised into the rays of the sun. Cary Nelson’s discussion of “Christ in Alabama” is interesting in that it advocates the view that “Indeed it is one of the most compelling poems in American literature,” while remaining unspecific about the poem’s reception:
In this powerful illustrated form, with its mixture of Roman and italic lines cutting back and forth across the space of American history, “Christ in Alabama” remained largely unknown for decades, though Hughes’s now rare 1932 pamphlet Scottsboro Limited prints the poem with the same use of italics and thus confirms Hughes’s original intentions. There, however, it is accompanied by a Prentiss Taylor illustration that images the nine Scottsboro boys. (Nelson MAP)
While Hughes successfully disseminated his poetry volume, The Negro Mother, as he toured, even giving away hundreds of broadsides once he found that many of those who came to hear him could not afford to buy them, the Scottsboro Limited collection was not a factor commercially: “Scottsboro Limited did not capitalize on the great innovation of the Golden Stair Press: its invitation to audiences to participate in and further the creation of a black audience for black literature” (Davey 239-40).

       Moving away from Langston Hughes’s heavily documented activities, we see that there are many considerations that come into play when we try to evaluate the cultural space occupied by black poetry in the 1930s: when we turn to the places where poetry appeared in the 1930s, we enter upon a number of unexpected problems. The major black figures in poetry, Hughes, Sterling Brown, and Richard Wright all addressed themselves to the topic of lynching, but differently, and these differences have been exaggerated by literary history. Currently, the best known poem on lynching from the 1930s is not by Hughes but is the anthology-piece by Richard Wright, “Between the World and Me” — next to McKay’s sonnet perhaps the

Richard Wright, "Between the World and Me",
Partisan Review, Volume 2, No. 8 July-August 1935, online at Boston University

best known black poem on lynching. However, the centrality of Wright’s poem in the contemporary (from 1970—2000) narrative of black poetry in the 1930s certainly misrepresents the case, for the poem that had the most discernible effect on its times was not by Hughes or Wright, but by Esther Popel, one of what James Smethurst identifies as the journal poets of the period. Presumably, due to their nearly equal representation in the journals of the day, some of these journal poets may have been as well-known and as influential as the poets that now dominate the literary narrative of the period. In a rare reassessment of the conventional literary narrative, the editors of The Norton Anthology of African American Literature state that

Conventionally plotted in terms of literary giants who authored legendary works, a more complete history of this period would reveal a broad swath of literary activity that cannot be contained in traditional categories of genre, mode, and subject. For example, the rich and complex store of writings that blacks contributed to magazines has seldom found its way into the familiar syntheses of this period’s currents and crosscurrents; yet many black magazines, such as Crisis, Opportunity, and The Negro Quarterly, gave a hearing as well as small financial incentives to black writers who were otherwise closed out of mass circulation magazines. (“Realism, Naturalism, Modernism, 1940-1960” 1319)

I am particularly struck by one instance of influence that may be considered illustrative. Welborn Victor Jenkins, who in the opinion of Sterling Brown was one of the most important poets of the period, has been effaced from literary history. Yet one of the most outstanding of modern African-American poets as we now construct the historical literary narrative, was clearly influenced by him, suggesting that much of what went on in the 1930s may now be said to have gone on below the surface of literary history as it has been constructed. Melvin B. Tolson opens his highly regarded modernist epic, Harlem Gallery (1965), with lines that refer to lynching, and I have used those lines as one of the epigraphs for this chapter: Tolson’s “the faggot and the noose” in connection with the question “’Black Boy, O Black Boy, / is the port worth the cruise?’” (ln. xxx; emphasis added) compares favorably with the way in which Jenkins brings together lynching (“ the Noose and the Rack and Faggot”) and sailing (“leaving port at a certain hour”) in the passage below from Trumpet in the New Moon (1935):

There was an eminent foreigner visited our Country
To observe and study our manners and customs.
Was told of certain Creeds and Laws and Restrictions
That held the two races in separate compartments.
Was told that the Noose and the Rack and Faggot
Are oftimes evoked to maintain these Restrictions.
The visitor listened in grave and respectful silence,
Then asked: “Whence so many octoroons and quadroons
        and mulattoes?”
Was told of a ship leaving port at a certain hour:
And that we were grieved he so soon must be going.
                                              (lns. 277-83)
Previously, there was no perception of an association between Tolson and Jenkins. Strictly speaking, Jenkins was not a journal poet, for his work was self-published, and he was not published in the journals. I am presenting the Jenkins / Tolson association simply as an indication that fundamental components of the literary narrative of black poetry in the 1930s remain to be ascertained and evaluated.

       Another topic that must be considered relates to the race of the journal poets. If we are attempting to recover some of the poets and their contributions, we must also take into consideration that in many cases there is not enough information to establish identities for these poets. A particularly interesting case is the poet Kathleen Sutton, who published three poems in Opportunity: “Outcast” in 1936 and “Backwash” and “Dirge for a Saturday Night” in 1937. This is unremarkable except that “Dirge” contains a familiar line in the second stanza of a provocative and suggestive poem: “Strange fruit hanging from the live oak limb, / Whiskey down the gullet, cord around the throat.” The line is nearly identical to the controlling trope in the most famous poem in the anti-lynching campaign of the 1930s, “Bitter Fruit” (1937) by Lewis Allan (Abel Meeropol), the poem made famous in its interpretation by Billie Holiday as the jazz song, “Strange Fruit”:

Southern trees bear a strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,
Black body swinging in the Southern breeze,
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.
                              (Meeropol; emphasis added)	
The conventional history of Meeropol’s poem is as follows:

       In 1937 Abel Meeropol, a Jewish schoolteacher from New York, saw a photograph of the lynching of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith. Meeropol later recalled how the photograph “haunted me for days” and inspired the writing of the poem, “Strange Fruit”. Meeropol, a member of the American Communist Party, using the pseudonym, Lewis Allan, published the poem in the New York Teacher and later, the Marxist journal, New Masses.

       After seeing Billie Holiday perform at the club, Café Society, in New York, Meeropol showed her the poem. Holiday liked it and after working on it with Sonny White turned the poem into the song, “Strange Fruit”. The record made it to No. 16 on the charts in July 1939. However, the song was denounced by Time Magazine as “a prime piece of musical propaganda” for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) [“Strange Fruit”, web site].

At this point, I realized that I had privileged the Meeropol text over the poem by Sutton even though it is my contention that Meeropol’s poem was preceded by Sutton’s, my unconscious assumption being that Meeropol’s was the better poem. Nested within this interlocking consideration is my original point, that as far as I have been able to determine, Kathleen Sutton is a white woman. The presumption is nearly unavoidable that her poems in Opportunity, with their voice, topics, and subject position situate the writer as a black woman. The same may be said for other journal writers, particularly Leonard Twynham who resembles Sutton in his attention to racial concerns: such research as I have been able to carry out suggests that he was not black. The inquiry into the racial identities of the journal poets of the 1930s seems to be tended in the direction that caused Gloria Hull to assemble a list of questions about Hughes and Marxism; the pertinent question raised by Hull is the first:

1. How do Hughes’ identifiably Marxist poems compare with/differ from his non-Marxist ones? Which are better? Why? According to what/whose standards? Answering these questions would require textual analysis and could also include some discussions of Hughes’ literary lineage and of the personal/historio-cultural reasons why he chose the particular forms he did. One would also keep in mind that Hughes’ 1930’s poems are usually deemed inferior and either explicitly or implicitly speak to this judgment. (Duffy 201)
The assumption has often been made that Meerpol (or his Lewis Allan persona) was black: for that matter, Meeropol may well have assumed that Kathleen Sutton was black, and it is likely that he did so. Had Kathleen Sutton not been living in Alabama and had she had access to Billie Holiday, might it have been “Dirge for Saturday Night” that became the song that electrified Holliday’s audiences, alerting them to the horrors of southern life?

Dirge for a Saturday Night 
BLACK, brother black, hear the death bells toll Far across the ocean where your sires were bred; Pray on your knees for the Lord to bless your soul, Shiver in your cabin, tremble in your bed! Black, brother black, sing a Methodist hymn Learn from a preacher in a dark frock coat. (Strange fruit hanging from the live oak limb, Whiskey down the gullet, cord around the throat.) Black, brother black, stamp your feet and shout! Or run like a rabbit down the alley way While the white man’s guns put a race to rout, And the white man’s God has nothing to say.
The answer is no. Sutton’s “Dirge for a Saturday Night,” strictly speaking, is not a poem about lynching; instead it is a list of the manifold travails that afflict a universalized black man. The black man is addressed three times by the speaker as “black, brother black,” a locution that is troublingly abstract, unnatural, and inauthentic. The poem places the collective black subject under its panoptic, omniscient gaze: the speaker is allowed such a questionable position, presumably, because the political opinion that is expressed in the poem is sympathetic to the black man: if the poem is understood correctly, it may be taken as an advocacy for black agency, an end to the hiding, praying, and fleeing that constitute the black man’s strategies for survival, at least as the speaker of the poem tells it. The key to the poem is the repetition of “black, brother black” in the first line of each stanza, a device that has the effect of emphasizing the speaker’s intimacy with the black brother, even as what is being said separates the speaker from the addressee. The first two lines allude to the Italian invasion of Ethiopia, thereby conflating the condition of all black men into the helplessness of the black brother who seeks only to avoid the realities of his own oppression: that the Ethiopians attempted to repel the Italian invaders is not admitted into the poem’s scheme. The construction of the poem is nearly symmetrical, with the first two lines of each stanza depicting a condition, and the third and fourth showing the effect brought about by the black man’s weakness: this symmetry is most pronounced in the second stanza, where the topic of lynching is addressed, and the parentheses not only replicate the “cord around the throat,” but the division of the stanza into two lines about religion and two lines about lynching suggests that the because of his embrace of religion, the black brother colludes in his own lynching.

       Unavoidably, then, we see that the speaker blames the black man for his oppressed condition. Sutton is subtle in her treatment of this challenging theme, and the conclusion that the black brother must in the end abandon his futile religion and directly strike against his oppressor is left unstated. We may also consider the possibility that Sutton’s rejection of religion is paired with lynching because of her intertextual confrontation of the specific trope of the lynch victim as the fruit of a tree in Countee Cullen’s poem “The Black Christ,” where the protagonist, beaten, as Jesus was before him, is dragged out and hanged on a “virgin tree / awaiting its fecundity” (Smylie 8): fecundity means “fruitful” so that Cullen is the possible originator the lynchee-fruit trope, with the divergence of the virgin-strange modifiers of the tree to take note of as markers of the break between the discourse of Cullen’s existential Christ-mysticism (Smylie 168, 171) and Sutton’s horror (in the mode of such pulp publications of the 1930s as Strange Tales). The resolution of Sutton’s poem — “And the white man’s God has nothing to say.” (ln. 12) — echoes W.E.B. DuBois’s “A Litany of Atlanta,” written after an outbreak of violence against blacks in 1906, in which DuBois cried out to the “blind” God, the “silent” God, the “deaf” God (Smylie 163).

       When Sutton collected her poems into This Is the Season (1947), she omitted “Dirge” and “Outcast” and included “Backwash.” She included Opportunity in the impressive list of periodicals where her work had appeared, so there was no attempt to efface her association with a black periodical, yet there is nothing in the volume that betrays an interest in racial issues, and where the poems are political and social, the concerns are without racial emphasis. However, when “Outcast” was published in Opportunity in 1936, the effect achieved by the contextualization of the poem on a page that discussed the need for Negro youth to pursue careers in dentistry is far different than that of the poem as it appears in This Is the Season. The poem’s lines “Yet missing the approval of his kind, / He reeled, to fall once more into despair” (lns. 7-8) resonate tellingly against John J. Mullowney’s plea: “…eighty per cent of the equipment for the training of dental students at Meharry stands idle because Negro youth have been unwilling to undergo the four years of training required for entering the dental profession. The need is terrific. The opportunity unlimited. The challenge cannot be shirked” (374).

In “The Materiality of the Text” Sean Cubitt states that

“Texts draw their standing as authentic or corrupt from their spatial and temporal relations, their geographical and historical distance from a mythic point of origin, whether that origin be human or divine. Places, times and texts are, in this sense, functions of distribution. The meeting of all three in a specific and concrete occasion we call reading…. As the text is circumscribed by its materialisation in books, so reading is circumscribed by the times and places which, socially and culturally, are appropriated for reading.”
Thus the semiology of the page in The Crisis plays a determining role in how the poem may be read and who may be presumed to have written the text. The conjunction of Sutton’s poem, “Outcast” and the article on dentistry installs the poem within the discourse of the journal’s presentation of “Negro life,” with a specific address to the problem of the inclusiveness of Negro youth within useful fields of endeavor: “Outcast” becomes a comment on the training of dentists and the Negro who does not avail him/herself of the opportunities is transcribed into the poem’s outcast (and Sutton is transcriptively black). Similarly, our reading of poems conjoined to texts concerned with the anti-lynching theme take on the aura of that concern, so that poems become infused with an anti-lynching discourse as a result of their placement on the page. Viewed in terms of the semiology of the pages on which they appear, texts may be understood very differently than when they are decontextualized. Emily B. Garrett’s sequence of two sonnets lose their escapist configuration when they are accessed on page 47 of The Crisis for February 1936. The top third of the page presents a statistical chart showing eleven states where “Negroes are disenfranchised wholly or in part.” Occupying the two columns parallel to Garrett’s poem is a news story titled, “Joint Defense Committee for Scottsboro Youths.” Garrett’s “Sequence” is as long as the Scottsboro story, but the size and weight of the Scottsboro headline commands attention and dominates the center of the page, so the poem seems an extension of the news story: the romantic cast of the first sonnet resolves into a realistic appraisal — the “sore-depressing rented room” (ln. 12) that the poet inhabits and the figurative “unyielding bars of Life’s bleak cage” (ln. 2) allude to the incarcerated Scottsboro victims. The hopefulness of the second poem where “the day requites / Me with a myriad enchanting things” is a comment of the salvation of the prisoners.

       In another example, Eugene Redmond lists J. Harvey L. Baxter as a poet of “romantic escapes” (Drumvoices 223), yet when we encounter an advertisement for Baxter’s volume in The Crisis for January 1935, it is printed on a page with a story on the Costigan-Wagner anti-lynching bill, an ironic protest poem titled “Lyncher’s Rally Song", and an advertisement for colored boudoir dolls, and the title of Baxter’s book appears yet again as it is listed with nine other books received for review. What we realize is that (despite its avowedly social realist point of origin) the romantic escapist determination derives from a non-material and idealistic understanding of textuality that does not take into account the intertextual materiality of the page in which the text operates. Baxter’s advertisement for That Which Concerneth Me: Sonnets and Other Poems urges above the title that the reader “select this book for your library,” thereby constructing a prospective reader for the poems over and above what the ten sections of the page’s complex typography present to the reader — a mélange of politics, sports, commodities, and literature. Baxter’s volume is made contingent with a progressive dynamism that has little to do with an interest in escape, a page on which even the dolls seem a positive affirmation of black social identity. Baxter’s title, despite its Biblical-archaic rhetoric (“The Lord will perfect that which concerneth me,” Psalm 138.8) indicates the poet’s involvement with a complex and perilous social reality.

       The first breakthrough in the discourse of anti-lynching in the poems written in the 1930s was for the poets to allow the voices of the victims themselves to be heard. This solved a number of problems — the silence of the victim, the unreality of the speaking trees, and the aesthetic (and political) ineffectiveness of the portrayal of mob violence — that had come about because of adherence to the restricted subject positions derived from imitations of the pioneering ballads and sonnets, even though poems that followed in the 1930s did not utilize the forms of the previous poems, but were either loosely rhymed or used free verse. Williamson achieves considerably more realism in “From the Delta’s Unmarked Graves” (1934), by imitating the epitaphs of Masters’s Spoon River Anthology in order to allow the voices of the lynched to tell their individual stories. Marcus Christian’s “Spring in the South” is a remarkable poem, for it does not treat lynching directly, but the urgency of the voice betrays the subject’s terror at being in the South: once the imagery has done its work, it is apparent that the poem is deeply invested in lynching, for the poem recapitulates the entire ritual of lynching through its vocabulary and imagery: the “resurrection” in the first line suggests the spiritual ascent of McKay’s sonnet, “The Lynching.” Pain grips the subject’s body in line five. Most telling, however, is the suggestion of burning in “warm” (ln. 2), “flames leap up” (ln .3), “fire” (ln. 7), “kindling” (ln. 8) and the wordplay in which “kindlier” (ln.12) echoes kindle. We also are confronted with the familiar motif of the victim’s inarticulacy — “Song inarticulate damns up the mouth” (ln. 6).

       A subsequent innovation in the anti-lynching discourse was to allow the lynchers to speak directly to the reader. One particularly noteworthy instance of the development of this approach is an anecdote in Jenkins’s long poem, Trumpet. The Southerners are presented through indirect discourse, and like Sterling Brown’s “Let Us Suppose” (1935) the sophisticated use of an ironic and magisterial voice entertains the reader at the expense of producing an emotional reaction.

There was an eminent foreigner visited our Country
To observe and study our manners and customs.
Was told of certain Creeds and Laws and Restrictions
That held the two races in separate compartments.
Was told that the Noose and the Rack and Faggot
Are oftimes evoked to maintain these Restrictions.
The visitor listened in grave and respectful silence,
Then asked: “Whence so many octoroons and quadroons
       and mulattoes?”
Was told of a ship leaving port at a certain hour:
And that we were grieved he so soon must be going.

                                           (Trumpet  lns. 272 -284)

       The culmination of the anti-lynching discourse in the black poetry of the 1930s came about when it became possible for a new voice to be heard. The persuasive possibilities of this voice were made apparent in poems that presented African-American children as foils to the demonic children that so tellingly make an entrance in McKay’s sonnet, “The Lynching” — “And little lads, lynchers that were to be, / Danced round the dreadful thing in fiendish glee.” (lns. 13-14), although the white child that is party to a lynching enters the discourse much earlier in Dunbar’s “The Haunted Oak”: Oh, the judge, he wore a mask of black, /And the doctor one of white, /And the minister, with his oldest son, /Was curiously bedight. (lns. 37-40). The treatment of the black child in connection with lynching was fairly common among black poets of the 1930s, perhaps because it seemed a natural response to the theme of the dehumanizing initiation of the white child into the practice of lynching: thus if the white child was to be shown as a dehumanized brute or a demon, the black child could be shown with positive characteristics.

       The African-American poetry of the 1930s derived this approach to the black child from a discourse that had previously positioned the black child in the ant-lynching discourse beginning decades earlier. Katherine Capshaw Smith’s research on children’s literature in the Harlem Renaissance shows that “ethnic children’s literature becomes a particularly intense site of ideological and political contest, for various groups of adults struggle over which versions of ethnic identity will become institutionalized in school, home, and library settings…” (Smith “Introduction”). Smith demonstrates that in the first two decades of the twentieth century children’s literature formulated at the behest of W.E.B. Du Bois and the NAACP children’s literature “cross-writing” blurred the line between the child and the adult, connecting the child to adult political issues, such as lynching. For Du Bois, the child was the only real source from which social progress could spring. Smith also shows that in the anti-lynching discourse of the 1920s the child was often portrayed as the direct or indirect victim of racial violence, and we have seen that that depiction of the black child as a victim of racial violence continued in the poetry of the 1930s. The handling of this motif in Gwendolyn Brook’s poem, “Southern Lynching” (Crisis 1937) is unexceptional except for the inclusion of the adjective “little” in the poem’s final line: “Brown little baby, go to bed.”

Brooks’s “little” resounds intertextually against McKay’s “…little lads, lynchers that were to be” (ln. 13), so that her entire poem is redirected into an affirmation of black humanity. The final innovation in the anti-lynching discourse of the poetry written in the 1930s was to position the black child as a militant spokesperson and activist. The culmination of the poetic anti-lynching discourse that centers on the motif of the black child — which is also the culmination of the poetic anti-lynching discourse — was a poem by Esther Popel, “Flag Salute,” a text that was published in The Crisis in 1934, 1936, 1938, and 1940.

Left: from The Crisis, May 1936, p.137, Right: The Crisis Nov 1940
many issues of The Crisis are available online via google books.

Popel, a Washington, D.C. schoolteacher, was a minor Harlem Renaissance figure, whose poetry was dismissed in the 1930s by Alain Locke as belonging to the school of romantic escape (Redmond xxx). Though Popel did publish “romantic” poems in journals during the 1930s, she was one of the many black journal poets writing in the 1930s who at times wrote poems of social protest. Her poem, “Flag Salute,” is noteworthy for the method of its composition as well as for its unique reception:

Flag Salute

(Note: In a classroom in a Negro school a pupil gave as his news topic during
the opening exercises of the morning, a report of the Princess Anne lynching of
Oct. 18, 1933. A brief discussion of the facts of the case followed, after which
the student in charge gave this direction: Pupils, rise, and give the flag salute!
They did so without hesitation!)
“I pledge allegiance to the flag”—

They dragged him naked 
Through the muddy streets, 
A feeble-minded black boy! 
And the charge? Supposed assault
Upon an aged woman! 
“Of the United States of America”—
One mile they dragged him 
Like a sack of meal, 
A rope around his neck,
A bloody ear 
Left dangling by the patriotic hand
Of Nordic youth! (A boy of seventeen!) 
“And to the Republic for which it stands”—
 And then they hanged his body to a tree,
 Below the window of the county judge 
Whose pleadings for that battered human flesh
 Were stifled by the brutish, raucous howls 
Of men, and boys, and women with their babes, 
Brought out to see the bloody spectacle 
Of murder in the style of  ’33!  
(Three thousand strong, they were!)
 "One Nation, Indivisible”—
 To make the tale complete
 They built a fire— 
What matters that the stuff they burned
 Was flesh—and bone—and hair—
And reeking gasoline! 
"With Liberty—and Justice”— 
They cut the rope in bits
 And passed them out,
For souvenirs, among the men and boys!
 The teeth no doubt, on golden chains 
Will hang 
About the favored necks of sweethearts, wives, 
And daughters, mothers, sisters, babies, too!
“For ALL!” 

       The structure of Popel’s poem is deceptively simple, consisting of (1) a parenthetical note (2) the flag salute, italicized and enclosed in quotation marks, and (3) an account of a lynching. The note sets the scene by describing the opening exercises for a public school classroom. While the note does specify that the classroom is in a Negro school, no geographic information is disclosed. The note relates what took place in the classroom, though there is no mention of a teacher, and the students are shown conducting the exercise, the reading of a news story, the discussion, and the subsequent flag salute without any adult supervision.

       The text of the flag salute is dispersed throughout the poem, such that its first line begins the poem and its last line ends it. The text of the flag salute interrupts the description of the lynching at four other points within the poem, although since the poem is without stanza divisions, the text seems all of a piece.

       The account of the lynching is particularly ambiguous. The note states that “a pupil gave as his news topic during the opening exercises of the morning, a report of the Princess Anne lynching of Oct. 18, 1933,” so that we might assume that the account in the body of the poem is that report, but a close reading of the text casts doubt on the origin of the “report” as it is given in the poem. The report is divided into five sections, and each section ends with an exclamation point, a fact which immediately rules out the report as falling within the discourse of journalism. There are additional violations of journalistic style — inverted grammar, rhetorical questions, figurative language, and speculation. The speaker offers a detailed account of the familiar ritualistic lynching attended by a mass audience. We are not able, however, to account for the outraged voice of the speaker. Thus the poem operates by situating the poem at the intersection of three objective texts, which form one text with the characteristic of meta-objectivity.

       The function of such an achieved meta-objectivity is obvious, for it endows the poem with an unassailable moral judgment that condemns the deeply engrained American practice of unequally distributing justice. In other words, the poem operates to illustrate what Gunnar Myrdal later defined as the American dilemma, isolating for examination an injustice that flies in the face of America’s founding principles: the flag salute itself, then, comments negatively on the newspaper report of the lynching. That this subversion is achieved by Negro students through the manipulation of authoritative texts is the ultimate protest of racial injustice. In reality, as we have seen, the “report” is less than objective, and were it not so, the poem would be ineffective, for it is the simulation of objectivity that allows the poem at once to be meta-objective, while maintaining the subject position of an outraged witness whose reaction is personal, emotional, and terrorized. In other words the poem is provided a voice with whom the reader can identify, while listening to the voice as though it is merely reciting a factual account. Popel’s poem is ultimately ironic, as are so many of the poems in this discourse, but here the irony is multiply situational, another feature which does not overly disturb the appearance of the poem’s meta-objectivity: the children do not dissent from saluting the flag, while at the same time the speaker of the account implies that the poem is an exercise in dissent. Distanced by the meta-objective intertextuality of the flag salute and the “report,” the students do not seem to identify with the victim, though we notice that their “brief discussion of the facts of the case” is not included in the poem. Finally, then, the poem is suspended on this aporia: the children are an unknown and unknowable quantity. The poem does not give us what it pretends to give, and it leaves us with the mystery of the future.

       Popel’s “Flag Salute” effectively framed a viable poetic response to lynchings. At the same time, perhaps unavoidably, the poem was effective enough to stir up forces of opposition. The original publication in 1934 came in an issue dedicated to the theme of higher education, and it promised news of the 1934 college graduates. The cover featured an illustration in the social realist style that portrayed two oversized figures, one in chains with his arms around proportional figures — a laborer, a farmer, and a scrubwoman —; the second figure was shown soaring aloft with a diploma and a mortarboard, two watching figures rejoiced. Below the picture was a headline saying “Cowards from the Colleges” by Langston Hughes. The complex page on which Popel’s poem was printed in the right-hand column also showed a picture of a crowd across the entire bottom — NAACP in Oklahoma City, Okla., June 27 — July 1, 1934. The left-hand column was taken up with the end of a news story about recent NAACP events and below that “Persistent Quest,” a sonnet by C. Faye Bennett. When the poem reappeared in May of 1936, it ran beneath a heading that proclaimed “School Officials Dislike This.” The editor’s note that followed stated that the poem was one of the items judged “objectionable” by a committee which reported to the Board of Education, and recommended that The Crisis not be approved for use in the schools of the District of Columbia. The poem was printed below, divided into two columns. The remainder of the page was occupied by the completion of a story that began on the previous page, “’Objectionable Matter’ in The Crisis.” Apparently, the controversy continued, for the May 1938 issue carried as one of its headlines, “The Crisis ‘Not Approved,’ A Ruling by the Board of Education in Washington, D.C.” The end of the news story poses the question “…of how a magazine could be published in the United States of America in the interest of Negroes and not be critical of the white race.

From The Crisis, May 1936, pages 136-138. The full article and issue are accessible through google books.

The poem ran again in November of 1940, this time on the cover of the issue: the appearance of the poem on the cover, running within a single line border and beneath the masthead with its title in print nearly as large as the magazine’s name is graphically arresting. The cover of the issue immediately preceding the number featuring Popel’s poem had showed black men manning an anti-aircraft cannon, so the cover bearing a poem beneath the masthead for The Crisis is at once restrained and ominous. This time, Popel’s note was different:

(Note: In these days when armies are marching and there is much talk of loyalty and democracy on all fronts in America, it is being said that the strongest defense of democracy lies in the unity of all groups in the nation and a conviction that each has a stake in a democratic government. When it was announced in Washington on October 9, almost simultaneously, that the federal anti-lynching bill had been killed in the Senate and that Negro Americans would be segregated and discriminated against in the U. S. armed forces, THE CRISIS received several requests to reprint this poem. It was written after a lynching which occurred in Princess Anne, Maryland, October 18, 1933.)

The note has been made politically and socially relevant to the threat of war and the failure of the government to address the continuing fact of racial violence at the expense of poetic meaning, for the crucial description of the scene within the school has been omitted. Given the urgency of the events described in the new note, it is possible to understand what drove the editors of The Crisis to their insensitivity to the text, but it must be pointed out that as it appeared in 1940, despite the grand appearance that the poem made on the cover, it made very little sense. The fact that Esther Popel’s disturbing poem, “Flag Salute,” was used to tie the continuation of racial terrorism to the promise that the African-American would be expected to play a role in an imminent world war is a fitting end to this discussion of the anti-lynching poetry of the 1930s. Popel’s poem is unique in the way that it presents a dissenting voice, for much of what was written in this discourse is merely protest poetry that does not rise above obligatory conceptions. We see, from the editor’s note in the 1940 version, that “Flag Salute” was reprinted a fourth time because of urgings from the readership, a tangible indication that poetry in this vein was an important component of the black culture of the decade. For many people it gave expression to crucial insights, feelings, and ideas which it might otherwise have been impossible to remedy from trauma, incoherence, and inarticulacy.

       We may say that the determining social condition on black subjectivity in the 1930s is what we may call the white nullification of the black self (and perhaps we might even frame the proposition so that it addresses white self-fashioning through this type of extinction of the black self-image, so that we do not lose sight of the intersubjective dynamic inherent in this process). In response to this complex cultural attack on the black self, black Americans created a countertext in which they attempted the resubjectivation of the black self. This countertext took many forms (and to a large extent was in a sense unconscious) — and we may even propose that the anti-racist, anti-lynching textuality of the 1930s consisted of a subjectivizing counter-text, of which formal poetry constituted but one aspect. This view of the reading of poetry is encouraged by the psychologist K.R. Gergen who states that “Persons of letters — including poets, historians, journalists, essayists, philosophers, novelists and the like — are of special interest for the study of the diachronic development of self-understanding. It is such groups in particular that have most effectively pushed forward the dialogue of self-construction” (emphasis added; 76). Similarly, Erik Erikson suggests the specificity of the role of African-American literature in the formation of African-American self-understanding and self- construction: “In a haunting way they [Du Bois, Baldwin, Ellison] defend a latently existing but in some ways voiceless identity against the stereotypes which hide it. They are involved in a battle to reconquer for their people, but first of all (as writers must) for themselves … a ‘surrendered identity.’ … what is latent can become a living actuality, and thus a bridge from past to future” (Identity 297). Erikson’s insistence on the latency of African-American identity is suggestive, since we have seen the process of self-formation in successive anti-lynching poems. We might posit the particularly central role of poets in this activity of black self-construction during the Depression, given the paucity of African-American historians, philosophers, and novelists to work along these lines: with Gergen’s insight in mind, we see that we may not take for granted the work of black poets whose works were routinely situated adjacent to journalism and essays in such journals as The Crisis and Opportunity.


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Jon Woodson is a Howard University Emeritus Professor of English. His critical studies include Oragean Modernism: A lost literary movement, 1924-1953 (CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2013), To Make a New Race: Gurdjieff, Toomer, and the Harlem Renaissance (University Press of Mississippi, 1999), Anthems, Sonnets, and Chants: Recovering the African-American Poetry of the 1930s (Ohio State University Press, 2010), and A Study of Joseph Heller's Catch-22: Going Around Twice (Peter Lang International Academic Publishers, 2001). He has also written a comic novel, Endowed (CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2012). More can be found at Prof. Woodson's page. A related essay can be found at "Anthroparody: Zora Neale Hurston's 'The Characteristics of Negro Expression' and the Real Characteristics of Black Expression."

His latest project is the editing of an unprecedented historical novel on the colonization of the Belgian Congo—Zairian author Dicho Ilunga’s Dancing with Cannibals, initially available as an Amazon ebook.

Prof. Woodson appears also in FlashPøint #14's Melvin B. Tolson issue, namely: "Reading Melvin B. Tolson's Harlem Gallery: Alchemy, Codes, and the Key to the Secret of Life" and "Melvin B. Tolson and Oragean Modernism: a few notes on The Problem of Esoteric Writers in American Literature."