Justice, an early poem that teaches the aesthetic value of rage, exhibits Hughes's knack for investing metaphor with a fierce potency that is as satisfying poetically as it is politically tumultuous. . . .
Hughes put together four of his Scottsboro poems and the verse play in a booklet, Scottsboro Limited, to raise money for the Scottsboro Defense Fund. The copy I used in the Berkeley library is inscribed to another political prisoner, Tom Mooney, the radical who had probably been framed, who had been imprisoned since 1916 for allegedly bombing the Los Angeles Times, and who was the object of repeated "Free Tom Mooney" campaigns. The copy is signed "Langston Hughes."
The collection opens with a four-line poem, "Justice" . . . .
The surface is moderate as Hughes quietly subverts the commonplace about Justice as a blind goddess impartially adjudicating. Instead, "we black[s] are wise" to exactly how blind justice is. Unlike "Letter to the Academy," where the "we" are those in the revolutionary new movement, in "Justice" race is central. Even the apparent typo, "black" instead of "blacks," emphasizes race. Some of Hughes's feelings about southern justice Scottsboro style emerge in the powerful image of the "two festering sores / that once perhaps were eyes." The qualification, "perhaps," opens up an endless prospect of disease, a connotation Hughes underscores in his view of "Dixie justice blind and syphilitic." This prose gloss on the central images of the "blind goddess" and the "festering sores" is from Hughes's Scottsboro essay, "Southern Gentlemen, White Prostitutes, Mill Owners and Negroes," which he wrote at the same time as the republication of "Justice." In the context of Scottsboro is there a subtext in "Justice," a sense that the goddess is not only blind but also white, a white woman with festering syphilitic sores? Has Hughes applied to the deified southern white woman or at least to white justice the stigmata of two of the accused, blindness and syphilis?
For me, "Justice" loses some of its disturbing, subversive power when it is removed from the context of the animating passions and particulars of the Scottsboro case. When Hughes reprinted "Justice" in A New Song, published by the International Workers Order (IWO) in 1938, he did not mention Scottsboro. He did not even connect the poem with Tom Mooney, whose experience deepens the poem, although two pages later Hughes did include his "Chant for Tom Mooney." He also shifted the emphasis from race to class by changing one word: "black" becomes "poor" in A New Song. In the process, we lose the subtext of blind, syphilitic Dixie justice and the specific resonances of Scottsboro, a major instance inspiring and validating the vision of the poem.
"Justice" could usefully be taught along with a group of Hughes's radical poems. This conveniently short, deceptively moderate poem raises the key issue of the importance of historical-political context, of language and energy streaming in from events and circumstances, to paraphrase Josephine Herbst. Scottsboro, the particular historical-political event, is a significant part of what for most students is still the suppressed history of America. In the context of Scottsboro and its suppression, the title, "Justice," invites a complex response. More technically, reading "Justice" in A New Song as part of the sequence "Let America Be America Again" (the 1938, not the usually anthologized version), "Justice," and "Park Bench," gives us a significantly different poem than the one in Scottsboro Limited. Working with the two versions raises the general issues of textual reliability ("black"/ "blacks"?) and textual change (from "black" to "poor") and the particular issue of why or to what effect Hughes made the change. In Hughes's case these technical matters are inseparable from the dynamics of the shifting relations of race and class in 1930s left politics generally and the Popular Front in particular. We will return to these concerns when we look more closely at A New Song.
"Justice" poses still another interpretive issue, because Hughes first published it in 1923 and thus originally Scottsboro was not involved in the meaning of the poem. Placed in its new context in Scottsboro Limited, however, is "Justice" open to the interpretation I have been suggesting or do we ignore the redefinition Scottsboro makes available? How fixed is the meaning of the poem? How do we deal with the different historical contexts, 1923, 1931, 1938? And what role does the interpreter play?
From The Power of Political Art: The 1930s Literary Left Reconsidered. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 2000. Copyright © 2000 by The U of North Carolina P.
On the face of it, Langston Hughes’ “Justice” is a fairly straightforward poem devoid of the rich complexity of some of his longer works. Nevertheless its portrayal of the “blind goddess” of justice contains a wealth of meaning that is worth careful examination.
Hughes refers the poem’s reader to the Western judicial tradition’s iconographic representation of the blindfolded Themis, the Greek goddess used symbolically to define the law as objective and impartial. Hughes’ “Justice” claims that Themis’ blindfold, while seeming to connote the impartiality of the law, is actually a façade purported to hide the fact that she is literally blind—or, to be more specific, blinded, as Hughes indicates by his description of her “two festering sores/That once perhaps were eyes” (Hughes 3-4). I will try to analyze Hughes’ point in altering the mythological depiction of Themis to make her a blinded figure.
Themis, viewed in Western tradition as embodying the law, was ironically implicated by Greek myth in one of the two primal crimes that Freud considered as having begun the refutation of social law—that of incest. Zeus, after having castrated his father Kronos, married Themis who was actually his aunt (Lesky 99). Since Themis is portrayed in Greek myth as being contrary to the law thanks to her incestuous relationship with Zeus, her cooptation by the law as embodying it is evidently a later event founded on some basis other than her mythological portrayal. While this cooptation is difficult to date, it probably occurred sometime in the sixteenth century when Breugel first portrayed Themis as blindfolded in his drawing Justicia (1559). The representation of Themis’ blindfold as connotative of legal impartiality is in fact an inversion of the content of Breugel’s drawing. Justicia shows people being tortured while Themis, reduced to a state of impotence by being blindfolded and placed on a pedestal, is unable to redress these injustices. Her helplessness is magnified by the torturers’ obliviousness to her presence. The drawing in fact seems to convey the sense that it is the torturers who have blindfolded her to bolster their crimes. Thus Themis’ blinding, in both Breugel’s drawing and in Hughes’ poem, castrates her by rendering her impotent.
The obvious question that would arise at this point is: who does Hughes implicate with the deed of having castrated Themis? Breugel’s drawing, as I have said before, indicates that the torturers are responsible for the deed. Far from seeing her as a figure administering justice, Breugel thus defines Themis as a site on which the law is enacted with its primal act of castration being executed upon her body. In her avatar as the goddess of justice, Hughes’ Themis would therefore have the law correspondingly enacted upon her body by the group whose interests she represents—white patriarchy. Hence I would assert that “Justice” sees Themis as being made to act as the bearer and repository of white patriarchal law specifically through her symbolic castration. Far from being a goddess who possesses divine powers enabling her to mete out justice, Hughes portrays her as a helpless figure who has had the law executed upon her body.
The symbolic castration of Hughes’ Themis makes her an embodiment of the victimization that the African American has been subjected to by the white male figure. After all, the African American, by being deprived of his social rights, is castrated into social impotence—a point that Hughes demonstrates in his poem “Madam and the Phone Bill.” In the poem Alberta Johnson, an African American woman, is having to pay the bill for a long-distance phone call that her lover Roscoe has made to her. Roscoe is in all probability unable to pay for the call himself because white American society has stripped him of the requisite financial resources—which is why he can do no more than call Alberta and tell her he loves her, that being all there is to their relationship. Roscoe’s sexual impotence in this relationship is a direct outcome of his impotence in the racialized white-American social sphere. As the quintessential African American male, his own voice is silenced in the poem, with the content of his talk reaching the reader through Alberta’s repetition of it.
By epitomizing this victimization through her castration, Hughes’ Themis accurately represents white patriarchal law, such victimization being the sole constituent of erstwhile racial white-American law vis-à-vis the African American. As for the African American himself, “Justice” sees him as being “wise” to Themis’ castration because it is brought home to him every moment of his life through his own social castration. By depicting Themis’ sores as still festering Hughes emphasizes the ongoing nature of this problem i.e. the social castration of the African American is not an act that he has recuperated from. I would therefore suggest that far from viewing the blindfolded Themis as being blameworthy for not administering justice sufficiently to the African American, Hughes actually identifies her with the African American, conflating them through their shared misfortune of being castrated by white-American patriarchal law.
Freud, Sigmund. Totem and Taboo. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company, 1950.
Hughes, Langston. “Justice.” Anthology of Modern American Poetry. Ed. Cary Nelson. New York, USA: Oxford University Press, 2000. 507.
---. “Madam and the Phone Bill.” Anthology of Modern American Poetry. Ed. Cary Nelson. New York, USA: Oxford University Press, 2000. 521-22.
Lesky, Alwin. A History of Greek Literature. Trans. Cornelis de Heer and James Willis. Indianapolis, Indiana: Hackett Publishing Company, 1966.
"Castration and the Law in Langston Hughes’ 'Justice.'" Copyright © 2010 by Debojoy Chanda.
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