blacktitle.jpg (12329 bytes)

On 'Three Songs about Lynching"


Heather Zadra

"Three Songs About Lynching" uses the conventions of song, including repeated phrases and lines that work as recurring "bridges," to enact and reenforce a terrifying depiction of lynching, one that becomes representative of each victim, each instance of death, no matter the varying circumstances of events. Just as traditional songs move from verse to verse, so too does "Three Songs" move from one "stage" of the lynching process to another. None of the songs retain the full effect of their significance without the others; thus, each song exists not independently, but as a part or verse of a "Grand Chorus" that intricately describes, laments, and rails against the ongoing travesty represented in the single lynching depicted in the songs.

If we decide to read the songs as units whose individual "tales" make up a coherent "narrative," one that reveals an even more overwhelming image of hate than each song would elicit read alone or separately, it is significant to note that the stages of the lynching, the order of the verses as we would expect to hear them sung or performed, seem out of place. If Hughes composed the songs to be published together, as evidence indicates he did for *Opportunity,* why not follow the logical path from the innocent man's attempt to escape, to his implicit capture and actual hanging, to his lone "silhouette" disturbing the genteel lady in her perfect world? It seems to me that, despite the horrifying nature of the songs' subject matter, Hughes chooses to follow a chronology of the black race's future potential for freedom and empowerment, rather than of actual events. While the hope that exists in the songs may appear insignificant, even trivial, in contrast to the sheer force of the evil that drives lynchings, Hughes finally forges life from death, just as the last stanza's gloss indicates: "life not dead at all."

In describing "Silhouette" in a word, we might adequately identify it by the term "hypocrisy." The song focuses on the "Southern gentle lady" who, even if she has not directly effected the hanging of the black man on "a roadside tree," is representative of white women who, by claiming rape or force by their actual lovers (or by making blatantly false accusations of rape), preserve their own reputation and condemn innocent men to die (thus, "silhouette" is appropriate not only for the shape of the lynched man's body against the landscape, but also for the shell or shadow of virtue or goodness that the Southern woman represents, and the sham illusion of justice that lynching pretends to carry out). Here lies a central reason for black lynchings in the early decades of the century; the "white womanhood" so jealously defended leaves little room for the black man's defense of himself. The woman's ability to "swoon" upon, perhaps, such a dreadful sight masks her own cruelty in causing the event, her hidden staunchness in affirming a crime that was never committed. Hope seems almost entirely absent in this song; "the dark of the [white] moon," significantly repeated, suggests both the evil impulses and motivations of the white woman, and the consentual sexual union of white and black that will later be denied. The speaker's command to "Be good!" may be read as white men's insistence that she acquiesce to the rape story, perpetuate the accusation to maintain her "innocence"--which does not excuse her but merely seals her part as murderer.

Another way to interpret the intriguing "Be good!", however, may relate to some potential for future change; if the speaker continues as the sarcastic, bitter voice heard thus far in the song, he may be imploring her to take the first step toward releasing black men from the injustice of lynching, for it is white women's voices that have the power to free them from their fates. At the same time, the power of the black poet in creating the words and tenor of the "satirically sentimental" song is indicated as "the world...see[s] / How Dixie protects / Its white womanhood." Through song, the poet attempts to make "the world see" another side of the same story, to reveal that Dixie's "protection" is nothing more than murder. In this sense, then, the poet becomes agencied in that he brings to light a new vision of truth, one that subverts the very words of racist ideology through satire and irony, and reveals a justified hatred of the causes that kill innocent men. 

Again, in "Flight" we can literally feel the utter despair of the hunted man; that the guiding speaker urges him to "Hurry, black boy, hurry!", cutting him off from any explanation of his innocence, suggests the impossibility of words in such a desperate situation. Words of truth don't matter here, for the whites construct their own truth, and escape from its consequences is the only real hope the fugitive has. Indeed, the hopelessness of the scenario feels almost oppressive as one reads the song, even as the speaker pushes the "sweating runner" on; to "Plant your toes in the cool swamp mud," and then to "Step and leave no track" seems an almost superhuman feat, for it is mud, not dirt, that leaves the most visible marks of travel. The hounds follow close behind; and even if the man escapes (which, given our united narrative hypothosis, cannot be), he will not be redeemed by any law governed by white men, and must wander in secret, cut off from his family and friends. 

Where, then, to find a vision of freedom, agency? Perhaps we can see the poet's gesture toward the future in his very description of despair, and in the following lines of the next song. Here I'm thinking of Hughes' "The Bitter River," when he mentions the quenching of his dream: "The book studied--but useless, / Tool handled--but unused, / Knowledge acquired but thrown away, / Ambition battered and bruised." Notice that it is the fleeing "black boy"'s physical motions that are marked out in the song's lines--the necessity to run for his life, true, but also the potential one day to show physical, and underlying mental, strength in the face of opposition. The terms used in the chase, the "planting" of the feet in preparing to take off, the precise "stepping" that must be calculated to achieve maximum speed, suggest not only the "could have beens," as in "The Bitter River," but also what might be in the future. 

Perhaps "Lynching Song" is the most difficult to read for its brutal, gleeful cries to "Pull at the rope! O! Pull it high!", but it is in this song that the sympathetic voice of the second song, and the bitter voice of the first, come together to create an alternative, subversive strain to the calls of the lynchers. That the song is to be accompanied by trumpets indicates some fanfare or victory; but the sound of their "empty wonder" reveals the utter futility of the whites' triumph over the dead man. The strong, virile body of the second song is not overcome or defeated by death, for it symbolizes a race that decries and denounces the horrors done to it thus far, and that refuses further abuse: "NOT I." The body speaks the message of its people through its very silence and stillness. Though the words of the poet interpret the message's meaning for readers, the image of the body itself asserts blacks' refusal to submit to another kind of death that whites have committed themselves to through hatred: an emotional death, a deadening of the senses and of all human compassion that does not end with life, but that passes on to--and poisons--future generations. The speaker's voice interrupts the lynching song by mimicing it, turning the cries of its perpetrators onto themselves: "Pull it, boys, / With a bloody cry / As the nigger spins / And the white folks die." Thus, with each pull of the rope, the whites effectively tighten the metaphorical noose around their own necks. Hearing something awry, they must question the voice that has spoken out of turn, out of phrase; "The white folks die? / What do you mean-- / The white folks die?". This moment reveals not only the whites' anxiety over the inversion, but also the utter unawareness that the lynchers have regarding their self-destruction. The final words again, "NOT I," end the songs with the future dream-vision; though justifiably angry, even raging against the injustices of whites, blacks will not submit to the same emotional death that whites have, nor will they allow themselves to become objectified, vilified by whites' hatred.

Copyright 2001 by Heather Zadra


Return to Langston Hughes