On "White Things"
J. Lee Greene
[W]hat caused her to put the poem on paper was her reading in Monroe Work’s Negro Year Book the account of a pregnant black woman who was seized by a lynch mob and cut through the abdomen to kill her and her unborn child. The incident to which she referred probably was the one reported in Work’s Negro Year Book for 1918 (which gives a clue to the approximate date "White Things" was composed). Work mentions the lynching, but does not record the specific details Mrs. Spencer recounted to me. Though the story was reported by several journalists in many publications, it just might be that she read Walter White’s account of this same lynching, published in Thirty Years of Lynching in the United States (1919):
Hampton Smith, a white farmer, had the reputation of ill treating his Negro employees. Among those whom he abused was Sidney Johnson, a Negro peon, whose fine of thirty dollars he had paid when he was up before the court for gaming. After having been beaten and abused, the Negro shot and killed Smith as he sat in his window at home He also shot and wounded Smith’s wife.
For this murder a mob of white men of Georgia for a week, May 17 to 24, engaged in a hunt for the guilty man, and in the meantime lynched the following innocent persons: Will Head, Will Thompson, Hayes Turner, Mary Turner, his wife, for loudly proclaiming her husband’s innocence, Chime Riley and four unidentified Negroes. Mary Turner was pregnant and was hung by her feet. Gasoline was thrown on her clothing and it was set on fire. Her body was cut open and her infant fell to the ground with a little cry, to be crushed to death by the heel of one of the white men present. The mother’s body was then riddled with bullets. The murderer, Sidney Johnson, was at length located in a house in Valdosta.
The house was surrounded by a posse headed by the Chief of Police and Johnson, who was known to be armed, fired until his shot gave out, wounding the Chief. The house was entered and Johnson found dead. His body was mutilated. After the lynching more than 500 Negroes left the vicinity of Valdosta, leaving hundreds of acres of untilled land behind them.
White’s account corresponds in detail here to what Mrs. Spencer told me about the incident which precipitated "White Things."
The poem follows her usual structural scheme, but in reverse; it moves from a quiet, positive tone to one of defiance and determination, climaxing in a powerful statement of its theme. She uses the traditional connotations of white and black (good and evil, positive and negative), only to reverse these connotations through imagery and language and thus retrieve the poem from that category of so many racial protest poems which are rendered ineffective as time passes either because of their racial romanticism (melodramatic laments about the plight of blacks in America or sentimental longings for a remote African past) or because such poems are mere rhetoric clothed in seemingly contrived tones of anger and indignation. A finely executed protest poem, and perhaps one of her best poems, "White Things" closely interweaves natural scenery with motifs of freedom and human frailties, with religious overtones.
One of the basic statements of the poem comes in the second line: "Black men are most men, but the white are free." The first stanza proposes through images of natural scenery that white men have erected a human hierarchy based on whiteness. Perhaps alluding remotely to Scandinavian military history and the conquest of western European nations, and referring more specifically to the spread of western European civilization in the Americas, the poem’s first stanza asserts that whites "stole from out a silvered world—somewhere" on their imperialistic quest, and "Finding earth-plains fair plains, save greenly grassed, / They strewed white feathers of cowardice, as they passed." Their violation of nature prefaced their destructive campaign to subjugate human nature and deprive other men of the human right to be free. Continually narrowing its scope from the general (black men referring to the dark-skinned peoples of the world) to the more specific (black Americans), the poem does not limit its reference in the first stanza to the dominance of white over black, but through color imagery includes the red man among the "colorful things," and, therefore, begins to develop more specific implications for American civilization.
The fundamental analogy in the first stanza is one between nature and men of color. Both have been violated and subjugated by white men’s "lances fine " With a maniacal drive to wield power and spread whiteness, white men have blanched "The hills all red and darkened pine . . . / And turned the blood in a ruby rose / To a poor white poppy-flower."
The structural device of general to particular shows a careful balance and transition between the two stanzas, the metaphors and images easily and smoothly giving way to the more specific message of the poem, unveiled in the second stanza. Stanza two decries the white race’s hostility in America toward the black race. The old phrase "the only good nigger is a dead nigger" (a slight modification of the phrase used for the red man) is dramatized in this stanza, because only after the black man’s destruction does the white man see him in any favorable light. After the lynching, after the burning, "Laughing, a young one claimed a skull, / For the skull of a black is white, not dull, / But a glistening awful thing." The claiming of the skull recalls the practice of whites collecting souvenirs from their victims during the usually festive atmosphere of a lynching scene. At the same time the lines suggest the likeness of men ("For the skull of a black man is white, not dull") in that all men are men and are basically alike in the eyes of God. Important is the irony in this stanza: the "ghoul" is attracted to his victim only after the victim’s blackness has been "pyred" into "ashes white." The overwhelming paradox of the first lines of this stanza (and in the poem as a whole) is that to destroy the symbol of the black man’s spirituality, his color, is to destroy his essence. The objective of whiteness is to reign supreme, and necessarily subjugate or destroy all in its path.
The concluding four lines of the poem take a sharp twist and reverse the universal connotations of black and white, for the young white man who "claimed" the skull is the "ghoul." And though he is attracted only to the whiteness of the skull, at this point white itself is negative. The lines suggest that the psychological sustenance for whites is in destroying blackness. The last four lines, which contain the essential meaning for the entire poem, must be read together to grasp the continuity of their meaning.
The concerns of the two stanzas culminate in the last four lines. In the first stanza the white man has tried to dominate nature—both physical objects and human beings. God is nature, and in trying to control nature the white man has endeavored to control God, which the concluding lines of the second stanza reiterate. Destruction of the black man is a destruction of God’s works, and in doing so the white man with his "wand of power" has defied God and damned the majority of His creations—"colorful things." In his obsession with whiteness the white man is essence has demanded: "Man-maker, make white"; that is, that white things be the only things of worth in this world.
From Time’s Unfading Garden. © 1977 Louisiana State UP.
The connection between male domination, white supremacy, and the destruction of nature is evident in Anne Spencer's "White Things." She begins with a statement that most things on this earth are "colorful" but that the single race without color is the one that dominates: "Most things are colorful things--the sky, earth, and sea. / Black men are most men; but the white are free!" In a sophisticated analysis of power lust, Spencer likens the colonization process to a draining of nature's vitality when she says that white men "blanched with their wand of power" all with which they came in contact. . . .
Abruptly, Spencer shifts her focus to terrorism against Blacks in the second stanza, ending with a chilllng image of one member of a lynch mob laughingly swinging a skull "in the face of God," enjoining his deity to turn the world white. . . .
While the poem mentions neither Native Americans nor women, it concerns both. Spencer wrote these lines after reading about a woman, pregnant at the time, tortured by a lynch mob in 1918. She had been trying to protect her husband, who had killed his employer, a farmer known for his vicious treatment of Black laborers. The reference to colonization of Native Americans can be found in the first stanza where the arrival of Europeans is described in line four: "They stole from out a silvered world--somewhere," The poet then metaphorically places the original inhabitants of these "earth-plains" in the landscape by referring to "hills all red" which the colonizer paradoxically turned white
with his bloody attack. The metaphor is extended in lines ten and eleven where, we are told, whites "turned the blood in a ruby rose / To a poor white poppy-flower." Spencer identified strongly with Native Americans (her father was half Seminole and she frequently wore her long, straight hair in braids). Here, she makes a connection between their defeat and terrorism against Afro-Americans, linking both to the mad desire of a minority race to destroy everything unlike itself.
From Shadowed Dreams: Womens Poetry of the Harlem Renaissance. Ed. Maureen Honey. Copyright © 1989 by Rutgers University Press.
What is the basic relationship of blackness to whiteness and why is it that has been dominated by white? The first stanza of Anne Spencer's "White Things"--which appeared in a 1923 issue of The Crisis--strikingly disentangles preponderance from power, majority from might, in its meditation on these questions.
Beginning with black human beings, Spencer's poem subversively locates whiteness as an aberration. Most of the earth and its inhabitants are colored so where did the whites come from and why, asks the poet, is the white race "free"?
Unlike black men in Spencer's poem, whose color complements the green plains, golden stars, red hills, darkened pines, and ruby rose of nature, the white race appears unnatural: Whiteness is represented by "things," rather than beings, things which are "rare" and alien, as if from a "silvered" world elsewhere. Interlopers on the earth, the whites steal (creep out) into the world of sky, earth, and sea so as to steal (appropriate) it by steeling for warfare. Indeed, the first stanza ends with a cluster of images of destruction: "white feathers of cowardice," used throughout World War I to encourage men to volunteer for the front and almost certain death; the "wand of power" as a magical, magisterial phallus or weapon; the blood drained from the bleached, blanched "white poppy-flower." Rare, expensive, silver white things have devolved by the end of the stanza to "poor" white things, for the "wand" of white power blanches or bleaches, leaching color from the earth.
In the second and final stanza of "White Things," the stealing of the whites moves beyond pilfering and pillaging to the systematic murdering of a lynch mob. When the fire of the pyre changes black into white, life turns into death, burnt flesh and skin become ashes, heads revert to glistening skulls. In this nightmare conclusion, a ghoulish "young one" swings such a skull "In the face of God" and demands that this deity "make" the world and its inhabitants "white" or, in James Weldon Johnson's term, "ex-coloured." Spencer concludes her poem, then, with a scene of lugubrious drollery reminiscent of the fates of Gus and Silas Lynch in The Birth of a Nation. Her ghastly Descartes/Kurtz responds to the jungle as a suitable setting for a scapegoating ritual from a theater of cruelty not unlike the lynchers dancing "round the dreadful thing in fiendish glee" at the end of Claude McKay's sonnet "The Lynching" (1920).
As a statement about the psychology of racism, Spencer's poem suggests that the marginalization of whites, their insecurity at being a minority, their guilt at appropriating a world in which they feel alien, their envy of a natural beauty not their own, all these factors combine to cause the murderous mastery of imperialist violence. Here whiteness resembles cowardice or fear and its reaction-formation, domination.
. . .
Reversing normative ethical and spiritual valuations of color, Spencer hints that the white race should be associated with evil. For the "ghoul" who swears "by the hell that sired him" utters not a pious prayer but a daemonic curse that God "make white," and "white" rhymes here with "might." The only hope the poem holds out persists in the quotation marks of the last line which contain the possibility that the God who made (black) men (not white ghouls) is a deity of color who will refuse to hear or heed the deadly malediction.
A powerful protest poem, "White Things" illustrates exactly how extraordinary a cultural moment occurred during the Harlem Renaissance because this poem traverses normative stories about race. By starting with a "colorful" world peopled by "Black men," Spencer topples the usual view of beginnings offered by traditional myths of racial origin.
. . .
Unlike most earlier speculations, Spencer's poem operates under the radical assumption that black people are the "first" race in the sense that they are the originatory, natural people inhabiting a landscape of their own; the whites--Promethean and Satanic--are second-comers, sly and destructive thieves. She therefore attributes racism to white belatedness, the anxieties of whites about entering a world of green, gold, red, dark, and ruby rose colors, all of which are born and born alive, while whiteness is produced by and through death. At its most gruesome Spencer's poem implies that, though colors simply exist, whiteness must be manufactured out of sacrificed black bodies. If blacks turn white only in death, perhaps white men are dead men, ghoulish ghosts in a silvered world of Unbeing. As so often in satiric portrayals of lynching, whites are the savages who engage in cannibalism, the human sacrifice of pyring a race. The poet therefore sees the advancing, colonizing culture of whiteness as one grotesquely committed to transforming black into white and in the process murdeing nature, killing colorful lives into ashen, blanched things. According to Spencer, then, white culture dedicates itself to genocidal race-change, reducing black heads to white skulls, for no other reason than the need of whites to assert dominion.
From Gubar, Susan. Racechanges: White Skin, Black Face in American Culture. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997. Copyright © 1997 by Susan Gubar.
Caroline Van Linthout
In “White Things”, Anne Spencer uses the imagery of colors in order to condemn the racist ideology in a poetic way, avoiding the lament-type protest poem or angry ineffective rhetorics (see J. Lee Greene, MAPS). The poet makes use of the conventional dualism “black vs. white”, and more particularly of the connotations that are traditionally associated with these two colors, only to reverse it and show how white is actually evil or negative, and black good or positive. However, in her attempt to invert this binary opposition, Spencer dangerously tends to re-inscribe the black/white polarity, which might eventually undermine her own efforts. Yet, the language and the images that she uses prevent her from falling into this trap. Indeed, it is important to point out that in Spencer’s poetic language, the adjective “black”, actually stands for all things and beings that are non-white.
The first three lines, along with the title “White things”, establish the context of reading of the poem, drawing parallels between and defining the terms which the poet will challenge throughout her poem.
Most things are colorful things (…)
Black men are most men (…)
White things are rare things (…)
The double equation between on the one hand “colorful” and “black”, and on the other hand “things” and “men” is obvious but nonetheless complex. Whereas the appropriation of blackness under the more generic term of “color(ed)” (or vice versa) is clear and does not pose any major problem as far as the connotations are concerned (notably because black, like all colors, is defined against white), the assimilation of things with men (or of men with things) is more problematic because it inevitably sounds reductive and again tends to reassert the racist ideology Spencer tries to deconstruct. The title itself already holds multiple meanings and posits the complexity of the relationship between things/men on the one hand, and white/non-white on the other hand. Indeed, the title “White Things” immediately evokes its opposite, namely “Black Men”, which would be a rather clearly stated opposition if the opening lines of the poem did not blur the limits of definition of the terms “white”, “color”, “thing”, and “men”. Who can, or even should, be considered to be men? What does the term “thing” refer to? What or who is black/white?
The poet/speaker is aware of this confusion, and tries at once to clarify the ambiguity. First, Spencer does not restrict her critique of racist ideology to the dual opposition “white vs. black”, but she expands it so as to eventually encompass all non-white or “colorful things” which are part of the world. Therefore, one should read “White Things” in terms of white vs. color, or white vs. non-white, instead of the traditional black vs. white. It is true that the white category remains the default term against which everything is measured, but this might be read as a part of Spencer’s critique of the white colonizing mind. White power is so strong that even when the dichotomy is inverted, it remains the oppressive norm which colors can never defeat. Whether it is reversed or not, whiteness is always the default: “white things are rare things”, but they nonetheless exert their power over “most things”, i.e. colorful things. This impossibility of change certainly comes from the fact that even though the wide panel of colors that the poet opposes to whiteness may culturally be richer and more varied, this variety also weakens their power because despite their regrouping under the common label of “colorful things”, the word “color” itself contains and implies diversity, as opposed to “white” which designates one single and well-defined thing. However, rather than weakening her critique, this linguistic aspect of the poem serves Spencer’s argument: her inversion of the traditional dichotomy black vs. white does re-inscribe the dichotomy, and whether it is deliberate or not, it should be interpreted as part of Spencer’s intent and critique. The inescapability out of white power and oppression is not only her central theme, but also present in her treatment of language and images.
As for the ambiguous use of “things” and “men”, the second part of the first line makes clear what the so-called things are, and thereby attenuates the negativity one might infer from the integration of men into the same category as things: “Most things are colorful things –the sky, earth, and sea”. For Spencer, “things” are not mere worldly objects; they are all the natural elements, doted with life and beauty. “Things” represent Life; this idea will prove particularly relevant by the end of the poem, when the poet makes a connection between the white color and death. White, which is first associated with things, and then gradually with men, should be provided with life –far more than things–, but it eventually turn out to lack a certain life-like quality. The simultaneous reading of “colorful things” and “black men” is confusing but also illuminating insofar as it establishes the identification of “black” with “colorful”, and “men” with “things”. On the one hand, the poet affirms the resemblance between mankind and natural things, but on the other hand, the ever-changing associations of colors with these categories prevent the reader from creating a definitive interpretation of the meaning of these terms.
Despite this unresolvable ambiguity, the identification of man with natural elements, i.e. nature, demonstrates the deep link –even, love– that exists between man and nature. However, man’s harmonious relationship with nature is not universal, as Spencer suggests by establishing a sharp contrast between white and non-white things or men.
As I have just said, the color imagery not only includes the African American population, but also the Native Indians of America: “The hills all red and darkened pine/ they blanched with their wand of power”. The redness of the hills directly refers to the so-called red man, i.e. the Indian. By integrating the Natives in her protest against white dominance and even oppression, Spencer shows her willingness to account for all victims of white power. This aspect of her writing is very interesting because at the same time as she associates man and nature (Indians with red hills for example), suggesting that nature and man are one and the same colorful thing, she strengthens her statement about the white people’s desire to dominate their environment, whether it is other men or beings, or nature itself. The first stanza exposes the white men’s desire for power:
Most things are colorful things –the sky, earth, and sea.
Black men are most men; but white are free!
White things are rare things; so rare, so rare
They stole from out a silvered world –somewhere.
Finding earth-plains fair plains, save greenly grassed,
They strewed white feathers of cowardice, as they passed;
The golden stars with lances fine,
The hills all red and darkened pine,
They blanched with their wand of power;
And turned the blood in ruby rose
To a poor white poppy-flower.
“White things are rare”, unnatural, coming from a “silvered world –somewhere”, but they nevertheless strive to impose “their wand of power” over the natural (colorful) world. The colonizing process that is suggested in this first stanza begins with the appropriation by the White of a land that does not belong to them –or to anyone. This gradual “blanching” of the natural world, is visible in expressions such as “they strewed white feathers as they passed”, or “they turned the blood in ruby rose”. This insistence on the process of whitening of nature –nature in its broader sense, that is physical objects and all living beings (men and animals) – which occurs through the colonization of people, but also of land reminds me of a passage in a novel (published in 1933, i.e. ten years after Spencer’s “White Things”) by a Lakota Indian writer, Luther Standing Bear:
Two lovely legends of the Lakotas would be fine subjects for sculpturing –the Black Hills as the earth mother, and the story of the genesis of the tribe. Instead, the face of a white man is being outlined on the face of a stone cliff in the Black Hills. (Luther Standing Bear, Land of the Spotted Eagle, p.43)
Spencer’s statement that the whites stole the land and freedom from the Natives (“red hills”), is most powerfully expressed in the ninth line: “They blanched with their wand of power”, which can be paralleled with Standing Bear’s reference to the Mount Rushmore. The Black Hills which meant so much to the Lakotas, have become “the face of a white man”. Hills are no longer “all red” but white(ned), so that their very appellation –“Black Hills”– becomes absurd since white people have taken possession of and contaminated them. White people have literally and figuratively blanched the land: the gold rushers have stolen the gold (i.e. the yellow color) from the hills, and the presence of these invaders suggests a white shadow over the hills. In both cases, the colors (the gold in the Black Hills is yellow, nature in general (and the Black Hills in particular here) is colorful) have gradually faded away. In other words, both passages from Anne Spencer and Luther Standing Bear eloquently demonstrate how the process of colonizing the land is tightly linked to human oppression. In this respect, another (well-known) passage from Standing Bear is worth quoting:
Only to the white man was nature a ‘wilderness’ and only to him was the land ‘infested’ with ‘wild’ animals and ‘savage’ people. To us it was tame. Earth was bountiful and we were surrounded with the blessings of the Great Mystery. Not until the hairy man from the east came and with brutal frenzy heaped injustices upon us and the families we loved was it ‘wild’ for us. When the very animals of the forest began fleeing from his approach, then it was that for us the ‘Wild West’ began. (Luther Standing Bear, Land of the Spotted Eagle, p.38)
This excerpt shows how colonization begins with the invasion of the land, which has then inevitable consequences for the other creatures living on this land, i.e. both animals and men, who all find themselves deprived of their natural environment. This also reinforces Spencer’s assimilation of colorful human beings to nature, as opposed to the white’s power relationship with it. As both Standing Bear and Spencer suggest, Indians –and by extension, Africans and all colored people– live in harmony with nature, whereas white people are always trying to dominate it. Spencer’s explanation for this phenomenon is that white racist ideology comes from “the marginalization of whites, their insecurity at being a minority, their guilt at appropriating a world in which they feel alien, their envy of a natural beauty not their own” (Susan Gubar, MAPS). These anxieties conjugated with the fear of the “Other” first leads to a certain distrust and racism towards the alien being, and then towards cruel actions perpetrated onto the so-called inferior beings, or “savages”.
The second stanza goes from the appropriation of the colorful nature (i.e. the colorful Life) onto a more “macabre” aspect of the colonization, namely the killing of the colorful human beings. Not only was the land whitened, but so was mankind, and this whitening or “blanching” process inevitably goes through miscegenation and eradication; eradication of color (which can be associated with life) in order to achieve the paleness and whiteness generally associated with death. Indeed, only in death do “colorful things” become white. The well-know expression “the only good nigger/Indian is a dead nigger/Indian” is best illustrated in this second stanza (see J. Lee Greene, MAPS) and becomes rather ironic here: “They pyred a race of black, black men,/and burned them to ashes white”. The repetition of “black” in the first line reinforces the importance of the white color: he was so black that the whites had to kill him. It is somewhat ironic that white people burn their “enemies” to turn them white since burning primarily implies a darkening (reddening and then blackening) process. Then, the colors and life disappear and make place for white ashes, i.e. death. The white people laugh before the white skull of the black corpse, as if they were celebrating the little whiteness they have finally achieved in their killing of colorful beings. But the white “ghoul” comes as defying “God with all his might”, which demonstrates that white colonization (and white in general) is unnatural because it disrupts the natural order of the universe created by God. Moreover, the ghoul has been generated by the hell (“by the hell that sired him”), which confirms the evil nature of white creatures and emphasizes their opposition to God.
The last line of the second stanza, and thus of the poem, is very explicit and significant insofar as it summarizes the racist imperialistic ideology the Whites have imposed upon the world for centuries (and which certainly continues today), definitively posing “man” and “white” as synonyms, and reducing any other being or object to an inferior level: “Man-maker, make white!”. This exhortation can be read as one addressed to God (the “man-maker”), which emphasizes the religious justification that imperialistic ideologies have often used to legitimate their deeds and their position in the racial hierarchy. In this last line, the voice shifts –this is clearly marked by the quotation marks– from a critique of white imperialism and colonialist past, to the reproduction of the imperialistic discourse itself. This change of tone and the use of direct discourse operate as an even stronger critique because they show the absurdity and danger emanating from such beliefs. Spencer may thus not resolve the ambiguity relating to her use of the terms white/black/colorful, and things/men, but this confusion accentuates the fragile nature of the white imperialistic ideology, because it is not only unnatural (i.e. against Nature, and therefore, against Life), but also rests upon dubious principles, such as the faith in a white God/man-maker, or the belief in the possibility of possessing the land and its inhabitants. As Emerson expresses in his 1846 poem “Hamatreya”, one cannot own the land but instead is consumed by it. This simple but true affirmation deconstructs and shows the absurdity of the whole ideology of colonialism, which Spencer metaphorically criticizes in “White Things”.
Copyright © 2007 by Caroline Van Linthout.
 J. Lee Greene, Time’s Unfading Garden (Baton Rouge; London: Louisiana State University Press, 1977), p.123.
Anne Spencer’s “White Things” swiftly denaturalizes the relationship between and the hierarchy among “black” and “white” by pathologizing whiteness, marking it as a dangerous aberration rather than a sign of superiority. In doing so, Spencer relies on the language of race relations in the United States in order to radically undermine it, for if a drop of black blood makes someone black, then “Black men are most men,” and “pure” whiteness is both extraordinarily fragile and “rare.” Spencer revisions a racist legal and social history by recasting “Black” as a quality of coalition and connection – something that unites “most men” and excludes those who identify as white. In these first lines, Spencer also sunders the associative link between the qualities of “rareness” and “preciousness,” for it soon becomes clear that “the white” destroy precious things rather than possessing any valuable qualities themselves. Also, by writing that “They stole from out a silvered world – somewhere,” Spencer insists that the “white things” have no real home and that, as Maureen Honey suggests, they have found a place only through colonization and the violent appropriation of other people’s homelands (MAPS).
Despite Spencer’s withering critique of white power, Keith Clark insists that
Spencer didn’t write “protest” poetry – as if the term “protest poem” can only refer to poetry that exhibits a very specific rhetoric and form. Clark writes, “the persona of ‘White Things’ addresses race metaphorically,” and yet the poem’s power relies very explicitly on the material reality of race relations (MAPS). For example, the first lines of the second stanza provide a sickening image of the “creation” of whiteness that relies on references to the history of lynching; here, whiteness works not only as a metaphor, but also as a reference to the very real quality of the burned flesh of black men:
They pyrred a race of black, black men,
And burned them to ashes white, then
Laughing, a young one claimed a skull
For the skull of a black is white, not dull
In this stanza, whiteness not only acts as an agent of murder and destruction, but it is also created out of that destruction, a move that rewrites the white, Christian origin myth as a story of death and violence rather than the creation of life.
As Susan Gubar notes, the “White Things” are never named as people, though the actions of attempting to dominate and destroy the earth and the lynching scene are very clearly the actions of “white men” (MAPS). By identifying “white people” metonymically through their imperialistic, racist, and extraordinarily violent actions, Spencer provides a scathing criticism of “white rights” or Manifest Destiny. When the line “but the white are free!” is read through the lens of the rest of the poem, it becomes clear that the “white” are “free” to destroy all things of color and beauty. By speaking about the “freedom” of “the whites,” Spencer calls attention to the historical links that bind the Enlightenment rhetoric of freedom and human rights to the violent histories of imperialism, so that white freedom is almost always predicated on the violation and colonization of “black” or non-white bodies.
Spencer’s poem can be read as a global – rather than just a national – critique of racism, Like Langston Hughes “White Shadows,” which addresses his “Dark brothers” around the world in the hope of finding a place “Where the white shadows/ Will not fall,” Spencer’s poem simultaneously critiques white imperialism and calls attention to the global connections between “black men.” Spencer and Hughes’ references to black internationalism reveal their concerns for global politics and their awareness of linked oppressions. Spencer not only critiques white domination and the colonization of people, but also their destruction of the natural world, which they have “blanched with their wand of power.” Spencer reveals that this “wand,” as phallically powerful as it appears, is actually a curse because, like Midas’s touch, it destroys everything that it tries to appropriate.
J. Lee Greene (MAPS) argues that the lines in the last stanza “suggest the likeness of men (‘For the skull of a black man is white, not dull’) in that all men are men and are basically alike in the eyes of God,” yet Spencer seems to be suggesting otherwise. In the process of reversing racial discourses that cast non-white people as “naturally” inferior or inhuman, Spencer suggests that the “White Things” have dehumanized themselves through their destructive actions and, in doing so, have made a mockery of both God and humanity. Gubar writes, “The only hope the poem holds out persists in the quotation marks of the last line which contain the possibility that the God who made (black) men (not white ghouls) is a deity of color who will refuse to hear or heed the deadly malediction.” However, the poem’s ending suggests that the “young ghoul” is swearing to the master of hell, not of heaven, which raises the dual possibilities that hell is the source of the “white things” and that the work of a heavenly or benevolent God is already being systematically destroyed. The suggestion that white domination has effectively driven God out of the world is echoed in Spencer's poem “(God never planted a garden),” in which the “keepers” that God placed in the “garden” destroy the garden and drive God out of it. Spencer’s poems provide a series of chilling revisions of the Christian creation myth: instead of the “white men” being created in the image of God, they are rising out of the ashes of black bodies, and instead of a man and a woman being evicted from the Garden of Eden, God is being systematically evacuated from the garden of the world.
Copyright © 2006 by Christina Scheuer
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