On "The Lynching"
The Lynching opens with the ascension of the victims Spirit to his father in high heaven. It continues in this vein to offer what most readers (including McKay himself) would consider a patently inadequate explanation for the lynching:
His Spirit in smoke ascended to high heaven.
His father, by the cruelest way of pain,
Had bidden him to his bosom once again;
(The Lynching ll. 1-3)
God the father himself has called the victim to heaven. While this religious account of lynching may explain the roles of the victim and his heavenly father in the eventand do so to the frustration of the lynchersit does not explain away the lynching itself; it does not alleviate the guilt of the lynchers. Indeed, the poem continues to affirm their guilt and to deny them any means of forgiveness: The awful sin remained unforgiven (l. 4). This effectively refuses lynchers any access to the divine-human relationship highlighted in the opening lines. The force of this line draws on the conventional association of lynch victims with the crucified Christ, made explicit in Countee Cullens book jackets and Langston Hughes Christ in Alabama. This association is hinted at in the opening lines, which sound rather Christian with the father welcoming the son ascending, &c. But the association between the lynch victim and Christ is even more central when the analogy would seem to break down in line 4. If [t]he awful sin remained still unforgiven, this is not simply because, unlike the crucifixion, the lynching is not adequate to atone for sins. Line 4 is quite clear that the lynchers sin is not forgiven by any means, Christs crucifixion included. Neither the lynch victims nor Christs murder is capable of forgiving unrepentant lynchers, viewing the body without sorrow, dancing around it in glee. They remain unforgiven.
In so far as The Lynching refuses racists any access to God, it participates in the same move made in the second half of To the White Fiends. After turning racist associations of blackness and savagery against racists, To the White Fiends also asserts Gods particular love for the persecuted African American before his enemies. The result is that whether the white fiends subscribe to the confused notions of black savagery in the first half of the poem, and/or the vaguely Christian framework in the second, they are restricted from their own ideological apparatus. In the second half, the speaker claims that the Almighty has created the formers soul out of darkness and set him on earth to be, paradoxically, a light.
But the Almighty from the darkness drew
My soul and said: Even thou shalt be a light
Awhile to burn on the benighted earth,
Thy dusky face I set among the white
For thee to prove thyself of higher worth;
Before the world is swallowed up in night,
To show thy little lamp: go forth, go forth!
(To the White Fiends ll. 8-14)
The speaker only needs to answer this divine commission, and the savage fiends of the first half of the poem will have to run from his divine light. Understandably, this is a more optimistic ending than that of a poem about lynching. In To the White Fiends, whether the speaker emphasizes his African lineage or his divine favor, he promises to confront the white fiends with forces inaccessible to them. The Lynching cannot be so optimistic. The lynch victim has clearly not been kept from the savagery of the white fiends by either Afric or the Almighty. And so, to continue reading The Lynching in terms of To the White Fiends, God has lost another light, as the world is increasingly swallowed up in night. In other words, as the victims spirit departs from the world in The Lynching, it would seem that the divine light of To the White Fiends departs with him. Indeed, in the second quatrain of The Lynching, the only light is far above the earth.
All night a bright and solitary star
(Perchance the one that ever guided him,
Yet gave him up at last to Fates wild whim)
Hung pitifully oer the swinging char.
(The Lynching ll. 5-8)
The rest of the poem is dominated by the unrepentant on-lookers who ensure the lineage of white fiends:
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.
(The Lynching ll. 11-14)
These generations of lynchers would seem to have defeated both the African and the religious forces brought against them in To the White Fiends. The divine light that God set aggressively upon the earth in To the White Fiends has given the lynch victim over to Fates wild whim. And God is reduced to a father welcoming his returning son far off.
Copyright © 2001 by Joshua Eckhardt
"The Lynching" speaks to the cultural cancellation of the African-American
race in the 1920s. Its form is a striking variation on the Italian sonnet. Much of
the Italian sonnet's aesthetic appeal is its ability to go slowly, cruise the reader through
a description and then a calm conclusion, in contrast to the quick abab rhymes and
the final couplet (gg) in a Shakespearean (or the variant Spenserian) sonnet. Accordingly, the octave in this poem follows the traditional Italian form, rhyming abbacddc. The concluding sestet breaks form, rhyming effegg. The embedded third quatrain makes the poem mimic a Shakespearean sonnet (three quatrains and a couplet). Because of this formal duality, it might be difficult to call "The Lynching" Italian or Shakespearean; the key is the poetic pace -- the reflective tone is more indicative of an Italian sonnet and so the poem can be primarily characterized as such. It largely follows the Italian rhyme scheme but has Shakespearean organization.
The Italian form rhetorically draws out both quatrains, forces the reader to
mull over the event and not get caught up in verse. The octave's slow pace works well
in describing the lynched man and his death. Line four, "The awful sin remained still
unforgiven," is end-stopped with a period. Thus, we have the slight pause of the line's
end together with
the full stop, a longer caesura. This technique is repeated in the second quatrain, and in the third with a semicolon. These "hypercaesurae," caused by combining natural rhythmic breaks and punctuation, allow us to read the quatrains
independently. The reader is forced to consider each quatrain for a moment, and then move on with the poem. We are made to read and evaluate simultaneously.
The first eight lines offer a description of the lynched man's general
oneness with the night, Heaven, and his own culture. In line one we see him ascend to
Heaven. In the second quatrain, the "bright and solitary star" (5) may represent the
North star which slaves were told to follow when running away from their masters,
the one that ever guided him" (6). The use of "ever" would suggest a universal struggle for the African-American, positing this early 20th century lynching as a remnant of slavery itself. While this content offers an interesting notion of the separation between the blacks' heritage and whites' continuous present (always existing in the domination of
a moment), it is all again intensified through form. The two-line space between the primary rhymes (aa and cc) adds pause to the hypercaesura, poignantly draws out each image, and heightens the despair.
The subject of the poem is hanged at night and related to the star that does
not shine during the day. The relation between the man and night is emphasized at
the poem's ninth line, the traditional turning point (volta) in an Italian sonnet.
The sestet opens with "Day dawned" (9). The new day occurs simultaneously with the
"the mixed crowds [that] came to view" (9). We have, therefore, a juxtaposition of the unnatural and the natural: death/night against life/day. Whereas the octave describes logistically unreal events of a spirit's ascension, the sestet focuses on the tangible and earthly. The speaker creates a disparaging oneness between the racist and the
world. It is not only that these people are evil but that the world itself is evil. While the women's eyes in line 12 may very well be blue, the introduction of the day suggests an implicit parallel between the eyes and the color of the sky, between the racist and Nature. It is a hyperbole meant to demonstrate the power of the lynchers, that they could even control the uncontrollable. The body is "ghastly" (10) and later it is a "dreadful thing" (14). It loses any sense of human identification. Contrastingly, the crowds seem normal; the speaker offers no negative description through line 12. Lynching becomes not only accepted but natural.
This is why McKay breaks the Italian form. The added quatrain and
lengthened pauses have us pensively consider the descriptions. The couplet is a way of
saying nothing that preceded it makes sense. In describing the children as "fiendish"
dancers (14), the lynchers are at last presented as wholly evil and so Nature and Fate (7)
are evil. Through the dominance of a people, whites dominate the order of things.
The redemption the man receives in the afterlife, a parallel drawn between the lynched and
the Holy Spirit (1) and his dead father and God (2), combines with the rest of the poem to
provide a political statement: the oppressor may own the world but the oppressed are the
children of God. The final couplet negates the black race's societal worth. The children
are born with evil spirits, "lynchers that were to be" (13). Unlike McKay's "The White City"
which presents economic problems that can be fought, the link between the racist and
the world in "The Lynching" demonstrates how ingrained racism is in the
American society. It leaves no hope outside of the afterlife. Racism is the greatest of all troubles, as natural as the day; one so rooted in the culture that the blacks cannot overcome it. They are the hopeless.
Copyright © 2003 by Nilay Gandh
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