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On "Christ in Alabama"


Onwuchekwa Jemie

"Christ is a nigger" in two senses: in the historical sense as a brown-skinned Jew like other Jews of his day, with a brown-skinned mother--both later adopted into the white West and given a lily-white heavenly father; and in the symbolic sense of Jesus as an alien presence, preaching an exacting spirituality, a foreign religion as it were, much as the black man, with his different color and culture, is an alien presence in the South. Each is a scapegoat sacrificed for the society's sins. In particular, the white sin of lust has created a mongrel mulatto race ("most holy bastard") with black slave mothers ("Mammy of the South") and white slavemaster fathers ("White Master above"). And, once created, this race is cast out, disinherited, crucified. . . .

The cryptic simplicity of "Christ in Alabama" exhibits Hughes at his best. Profound insight is carelessly draped in the most facile diction and form, the most commonplace images. There is no decoration or pedantry. The poem is so stark it could almost have been written by a child. It reminds one of classic African sculpture, with its bold lines and geometric precision. The poem evokes the feeling that great art so often evokes: that it could not have been done any other way. It commands both accessibility and depth. Hughes is a master at clothing the complex and profound in simple garb; and perhaps it is this more than any other quality that marks him as a great poet.

From Langston Hughes: An Introduction to the Poetry. Copyright 1976 by Columbia University Press.


Karen Ford

[Stanley Shott's analysis (in "Langston Hughes: The Minstrel as Artificer," Journal of Modern Literature, 1974))] of two versions of the controversial "Christ in Alabama" identifies only the poet's desire to make it more "universal and less personal," qualities Schatt associates with greater artistry. The first version appeared in the December 1, 1931, issue of Contempo and was reprinted without change the following year in the political booklet Scottsboro, Limited; the second version appeared in The Panther and the Lash (1967).

Scottsboro
Christ is a Nigger,
Beaten and black--
0, bare your back.
Panther
Christ is a nigger,
Beaten and black:
Oh, bare your back!
 

Mary is His Mother
Mammy of the South,
Silence your Mouth.

 

Mary is His mother:
Mammy of the South,
Silence your mouth.

 

God's His Father--
White Master above
Grant us your love.

 

God is His father:
White Master above
Grant Him your love.

 

Most holy bastard
Of the bleeding mouth:
Nigger Christ
On the cross of the South.

 

Most holy bastard
Of the bleeding mouth,
Nigger Christ
On the Cross
Of the South

Schatt dismisses the typographical changes as insignificant and comments only on the ninth line in both versions, claiming that the substitution of "Him" for "us" shifts the point of view and removes Hughes from the poem: "It is still a social statement about the black man's plight in the South, but the revision makes it universal and less personal."

In fact, however, a great deal more than point of view shifts in the revision. The italics in the earlier version indicate that there are at least two levels of discourse, that the voice of the poem is not unitary and stable as in the later revision. The alternating typefaces function visually and thematically as a call and response: the first voice asserts the ironic parallels between Christ and black people, and the response voice adapts that parallel into a highly ambiguous prayer refrain. Who shouts the italicized orders in the first two stanzas? Who urges black people to act like Christ (by silently submitting to beatings)? Such demands would typically issue from white racists, but here they seem also to come from blacks themselves in their effort to emulate the submission of Christ. These first two stanzas of the earlier version confuse the fact of oppression with the glorification of suffering that can result from it, especially in Christianity. The speaker here is both commentator and chorus, preacher and parishioner, whose voice blends in disturbing ways with the oppressor's. The capitalized nouns underscore these blurrings, visually pairing Christ and Nigger, Mary and Mother, God and Father. Schatt is right when he says that the shift from "us" to "Him" in line 9 alters the point of view, but if that revision makes the poem less personal, it also renders it less political. The speaker of the second version maintains a monotonous authority over the lines of the poem; he is aloof and sarcastic, able to register the similarities between Christ and southern blacks without being able to charge these parallels with tensions as the first version does. Indeed, this second poem tidies up the typography and punctuation, editing out the ironies created by the italics and capitalizations. Little wonder that the troubling ninth line is delivered flatly here, without the original implication of masochistic and confused loyalties. Finally, the second version recasts the last stanza, dismantling the metaphor of the South as crucifix in the last three lines. Indentation, line breaks, and capitalization indicate that the speaker has become too self-conscious of the metaphor in the later version. The phrases of the closing analogy are now doled out more deliberately, like a punch line or a clever afterthought. While the second version ends with a rhetorical snap, the first concludes with an expression of deeply internalized contradiction that only a more complex and ambiguous speaker could generate. And it is the original speaker who makes the greater political claim on us, for his discursive conflicts articulate a racism that cannot be reduced to one speaker or one stanza. The original version problematizes the speaker and therefore complicates the poem's "social statement about the black man's plight in the South."

The textual life of "Christ in Alabama" tells us a great deal about its status as a literary commodity. In 1932, the same year that Hughes signed an open letter backing the Communist presidential ticket, the poem identifies the pervasiveness of racism: the enemy without calls perniciously to the enemy within. The depiction of internalized racism makes it difficult to cast oppression in strictly racial terms. The early version of the poem, then, is an analysis of power relations as well as race relations. By 1959, "Christ in Alabama" is absent from the Selected Poems, along with many other fine poems from Hughes's leftist period. The attacks on Hughes from McCarthy and other conservatives and the general coldwar atmosphere induced Hughes to suppress his more militant work. But in 1967, the cultural marketplace has a new use for the poem. The Panther and the Lash reprints much of Hughes's militant verse excluded from the Selected Poems. "Christ in Alabama" surfaces now, but with a less equivocal tone. The revised version is repackaged in subtle ways to reflect the certitude of the 1960s; its single typeface embodies the uniformity of the black nationalist vision and obscures the significantly more ambiguous representation of racism conveyed in the original version. If slight changes in typeface or punctuation or pronouns can work such important transformations on a poem, then readers of Hughes's poetry must take better stock of his incessant reworkings.

From "Making Poetry Pay: The Commodification of Langston Hughes" in Kevin Dettman and Stephen Watt, eds., Making Modernisms (University of Michigan Press, 1966).


Michael Thurston

The inflammatory opening line specifies and historicizes Christ as a dark-skinned man and ironizes traditional portrayals of the pale savior, but it also aggressively deploys the trope of the Black Christ familiar, especially, from Countee Cullen's work of the late 1920s. The lines in Roman type through the rest of the poem define the image: Mary is Christ's mother, God his father. The final stanza's two Roman lines bring together the basis of Christ's divinity, his unique parentage ("most holy bastard"), and the heart of Christ's mission, the suffering through violence ("bleeding mouth") which refigures the crucifixion. These lines figuratively crucify a religious culture grown passive or complicit, a Christianity whose apotheosis of suffering seems to justify and (super)naturalize racial oppression. The overt critique of Christianity functions simultaneously as a covert critique, a "signifyin(g)" repetition of the Black Christ constituted by passive suffering.

. . .

The poem's italicized lines, however, complicate and destabilize [any] reading. Following the Roman lines in each stanza, set off by dashes in the first three stanzas and a colon in the last, and -- except for the last stanza -- cast as imperatives, the italicized lines resonate as antiphonal responses to the Roman lines' nominative calls. But the relative familiarity of antiphonal structures from African-American hymns and worksongs and from Hughes' own work is challenged here by the sheer impossibility of determining the speakers of each set of lines. The unassuming typographical device of italic script brings to this deceptively simple poem all the interpretive uncertainty of mob psychology; both Roman and italic lines offer multiple subject positions that, like a Union Square protest rally, are crowded with potential speakers. The italic imperatives in the first three stanzas, for example, seem directed at black hearers by white speakers. The Black Christ is ordered to submit to a beating ("O, bare your back"), while Mary is commanded to remain silent ("Silence your mouth"). Mary's identity as a black woman is reinforced by her italicized colloquial appositive -- "Mammy of the South." This pattern breaks down in the third stanza, in which the speaker implores the "White, Master," God, for his love. This is a puzzling moment. Perhaps the descriptor here, marking the usually unmarked cultural position of the white, emphasizes the italicized speaker's identification with the white god. But italics, conventionally indicating a stressed or unusual tone, can lead us to read these lines as the ironic habitation of a white subject position by a black speaker or speakers. The commands to "bare your back" and "Silence your mouth," in this case, struggle against themselves, rhetorically illustrating the deplorable conditions of black life in the South. The invocation of the "White Master," the plea for his love, rings with an irony made more bitter still by the poem's final two lines. Whereas, in the New Testament, "God so loved the world he gave his only begotten son," the speakers of the italicized lines receive the "Nigger Christ / On the cross of the South." The unique suffering of the Gospel is replaced by the repeated suffering of the lynched black man; the black masses are continually forced to partake in this outward and visible sign of the White Master's cruel "love."

The Christ image is, of course, also deflated by Hughes' rewriting of the immaculate conception; the poem radically reinscribes the divine creation of the Biblical Jesus as the profane creation of the mulatto; the savior becomes the unwanted issue of a white man's rape of a black woman. Hughes returned to the mulatto theme throughout his career, and this obsession leads us to Hughes' own sense of his position in the racial culture of America.

. . . .

Hughes stands upon several cultural thresholds, his feet placed in multiple discursively created and maintained fields. Thresholds, of course, are meant to be crossed. They are ways through; they provide communication, however tenuous, between enclosed spaces, hostile territories, divergent priorities. In "Christ in Alabama," Hughes fashions from the doorjambs and lintels of cultural thresholds a cross with which to consociate race, gender, and political conflicts. The "cross of the south" becomes a crux for coalitional politics.

The rhetorical instability of "Christ in Alabama," enacted through its compression, its irresolvable typography, its redefintion of the Black Christ trope, and its multiply refracting irony, makes the poem available for various political readings; the cross might support numerous structures. Reading the poem in its initial publication, we can see how context shapes those structures, partially foreclosing some meanings while throwing others into sharper relief. Hughes first published "Christ in Alabama" in the December 1, 1931 issue of Contempo, a magazine published by Anthony Buttitta and Milton Abernethy in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Buttitta and Abernethy had published a poem of Hughes' in September and, when they heard of the poet's plans for a reading tour through the South, contacted him about an appearance at the university and solicited work about the Scottsboro case. Hughes responded with "Christ in Alabama" and an inflammatory essay, "Southern Gentlemen, White Prostitutes, Mill-Owners, and Negroes." The Contempo editors published both pieces on the front page of their December 1 issue, timed to coincide with Hughes' arrival in Chapel Hill on November 19. Anticipating the furor Hughes' appearance would cause, they printed an extra five-thousand copies. As a final affront to white Chapel Hill society, they took Hughes to lunch the day after the reading at what Buttitta called "the snappiest cafeteria in town," where Hughes was served, according to Buttitta, because "the cheap, southern soda jerker took [him] for a mexican or something and let it go at that. . . ." Needless to say, the outcry was tremendous; Hughes was attacked in the North Carolina press and, when news of the controversy reached the North, he was implored by his mother to abandon his plan for a visit with the Scottsboro defendants.

Reading the text of "Christ in Alabama" in Contempo requires great concentration; the visually rich field of the front page draws the eye away from the poem even though it occupies the center of the page, set off from surrounding columns of print by white space. Zell Ingram's illustration looms immediately above the poem: a stylized silhouette of a black man's head and upper torso, his hands raised by his face, palms out. The figure stands in deep shadow -- "lit" from behind and to its right -- so that its features are indistinguishable. In fact, the figure is completely black except for the stigmata on each hand and the lips, which are white. Half as long and a third again as broad as the text of the poem, the illustration dominates the page, casting the poem beneath into its shadow. The stigmata reinforce the poem's Black Christ image, but the stylized figure also supports Hughes' apparent ironic distance from aspects of that trope. Ingram's spare design, though, maintains a quiet dignity for the figure, rescuing Hughes' Christ from the poet's own irony. The featureless face atop the poem substitutes for Christ's uniqueness the ubiquity of black suffering.

From "Black Christ, Red Flag: Langston Hughes on Scottsboro." College Literature, 1995.


William J. Maxwell

Here, the stock emblem of the crucified lynch victim is draped over four stanzas framing an apocryphal Christian Trinity: a Scottsboro boy turned "Nigger Christ" with "bleeding," not blood-red painted, mouth; a black mother Mary enjoined to "silence," "Mammy" of this reviled son; and a white master/God-father without pity or love. The evident, iconoclastic political moral of the ensemble is that the South’s champion miscegenationist--"White Master above"--has fingered his black sons for his own sins and chastised them in Scottsboro. Behind this, however, the poet’s enterprise is to build a point-for-point alternative to the anti-rape-lynch triplet of Hughes's Scottsboro drama. "Christ in Alabama" describes an interracial triangle founded on the systematic sexual use of black women by white men, a triangle whose sheer southern pervasiveness was dimmed by the debate over lynching. It thus describes a figure that does not pivot on white women, banish black women, or even successfully triangulate among its three parties. Though a hushed black mother is placed between lines devoted to her white lover and her black son, she is no go-between. Unresolved tension clamps each member of the poem's trio into isolated stances and stanzas. Instead of a homosocial alliance clinched over white women scorned, we end with a black Christ on the cross and the three-way standoff of a frozen family romance, unable to speak its interracial name. The poem's silence on Scottsboro's Two White Women was probably not intended to mollify white Southerners who objected to Communist reports of a frame-up by prostitutes; "Christ in Alabama" stops just short of picturing white southern Christians as a deicidal people. Its substitute triangle may instead have been aimed toward and by radical black women, one of whom--Louise Thompson--guided Hughes to the Soviet Union and passed him early information on the Scottsboro case.

From New Negro, Old Left: African-American Writing and Communism Between the Wars. Copyright 1999 by Columbia University Press.


Cary Nelson

 The red-baiting of Hughes is part of a larger phenomenon that includes as well the long-term red-baiting of the civil rights movement. One of its effects has been to keep not only Hughes's more radical poems about class injustice out of print but also to keep many of his most radical and challenging poems about race either out of print or out of anthologies. "Christ in Alabama" is a case in point . . . . For nearly half a century this poem went virtually unremarked in academic literary studies, the only exceptions I know of being a misguided commentary by Stanley Shott in 1974 and a useful passage, quoted below, by Onwuchekwa Jemie two years later:

"Christ is a nigger" in two senses: in the historical sense as a brown-skinned Jew like other Jews of his day, with a brown-skinned mother—both later adopted into the white West and given a lily-white heavenly father; and in the symbolic sense of Jesus as an alien presence, preaching an exacting spirituality, a foreign religion as it were, much as the black man, with his different color and culture, is an alien presence in the South. Each is a scapegoat sacrificed for the society's sins. In particular, the white sin of lust has created a mongrel mulatto race ("most holy bastard") with black slave mothers ("Mamy of the South") and white slavemaster fathers ("White Master above"). And, once created, this race is cast out, disinherited, crucified . . . The cryptic simplicity of "Christ in Alabama" exhibits Hughes at his best . . . There is no decoration or pedantry. The poem is so stark it could almost have been written by a child.

Jemie goes on to say that the poem "evokes the feeling that great art so often evokes: that it could not have been done in any other way." In one sense Jemie is right. "Christ in Alabama," like many other great short poems, possesses an absolute and impeccable economy. No word could be taken away without losing a great deal. It is a miracle of condensation. Yet as Hughes himself would prove, there was indeed another way of presenting the text.

Two hundred years of racial trauma are driven full force into this thirteen-line, forty-seven word poem. It combines this astonishing historical compression with a remarkable level of rhetorical confidence and urgency. Each of the first three stanzas opens and closes in the same way: a concise, riveting definition ("Christ is a Nigger," "Mary is His Mother," "God's His Father") is balanced by an italicized plea or declaration—"O, bare your back," "Silence your mouth," "Grant us your love."

Written in 1931 in response to a request for a poem about the Scottsboro case, circumstances which have been most ably analyzed by Michael Thurston, the poem turns the false accusation of rape lodged against nine young black men back on the South's dominant culture of white privilege and power. The South's real sexual violence, Hughes insists, is the historical violence white men have carried out against black women.

But no prose summary can match the fervor of Hughes's vivid declarations. "Christ is a Nigger" Hughes announces in the opening line, and in that one line a whole ideological field realigns itself to open a new vista on American history. Cast out, vilified, and crucified, the historical Christ returns to earth in serial fashion——in the person of every black man "beaten and black," every slave, every lynching victim, every post-Civil war black denied the full rights of citizenship. The black Christ was, of course, a common enough figure in the preceding decade. Countee Cullen published a long poem with that title; its frontispiece is still one of the notable graphic works of the period [Fig. 20]. But Hughes's bold gesture——linking Christ with America's most notorious racial epithet——makes a more powerful claim. It asks a contemporary American reader to understand the black man as the Christ of our time. Those who crucified Christ are thus linked with every racist white in the modern South. Contemporary Christians do not honor Christ, we may conclude; they gather like Pontius Pilate's Romans to murder him over and over again. The black man in the South serves the same social function as Christ did nearly 2,000 years ago.

Of course the archetypal black victim is the product of rape, especially the white rape of a black woman, for then the white father can repress his paternity by murdering his own son. William Maxwell has recently captured this drama succinctly:

the stock emblem of the crucified lynch victim is draped over four stanzas framing an apocryphal Christian trinity: a Scottsboro boy turned "Nigger Christ" with "bleeding," not blood-red painted, mouth; a black mother Mary enjoined to "silence," "Mammy" of this reviled son; and a white master/God-father without pity or love. The evident, iconoclastic political moral of the ensemble is that the South's champion miscegenationist—"White Master above"—has fingered his black sons for his own sins and chastised them in Scottsboro . . . we end with a black Christ on the cross and the three-way standoff of a frozen family romance, unable to speak its interracial name.

It is that historical family, sanctified only by violence, who enter in stanzas two and three. The South's omnipresent and universally denied trinity—white father, black mother, and ostracized black son—form the background for the South's repeated crucifixion scene: "Nigger Christ / On the cross of the South." There is a Calvary in every southern hamlet, the bleeding, ritualized product of denial and repression.

So much, at least, can be gleaned from the version of the poem Hughes reissued in The Panther and the Lash decades later in 1967. Yet in a very real sense Hughes never actually reprinted the poem. He finally issued a revised—and seriously weakened—version that converts the seven italicized lines to Roman type, thereby undercutting the poem's counterpointing dialogue; drops the capitalization of "Nigger," "Mother," and "Father" at the ends of lines 1, 4, and 7, reducing the parallelism in the definitions; and changes "Grant us your love" to "Grant Him your love," the last change arguably an easier and less complexly compromising plea.

The call and response quality of the original version will be apparent to any reader. The equal mix of Roman and italicized lines turns the poem into a mass choral dialogue. All the participants in the social drama of American race relations call out to one another in pleas and commands of uncanny power. I have divided a large class in half and had, say, the men read the lines in Roman type and the women the italicized lines. The effect is extraordinary, as if the poem were being performed by a Greek chorus, but also substantially unstable and open-ended. For Hughes does not tell us what groups should have responsibility for speaking these lines. Though the poem's general cultural indictment could not be stronger, it isn't easy to apportion or limit responsibility. Karen Ford has written eloquently about the early version of the poem:

The italics in the earlier version indicate that there are at least two levels of discourse, that the voice of the poem is not unitary and stable as in the later version. The alternating typefaces function visually and thematically as a call and response: the first voice asserts the ironic parallels between Christ and black people, and the response voice adapts that parallel into a highly ambiguous prayer refrain. Who shouts the italicized orders in the first two stanzas? Who urges black people to act like Christ (by silently submitting to beatings)? Such demands would typically issue from white racists, but here they seem also to come from blacks themselves in their effort to emulate the submission of Christ. These first two stanzas of the earlier version confuse the fact of oppression with the glorification of suffering that can result from it, especially in Christianity. The speaker here is both commentator and chorus, preacher and parishioner, whose voice blends in disturbing ways with the oppressor's.

That is finally what is so uncanny about "Christ in Alabama." It is a poem of searing truths uttered by ambiguous speakers. It is the reader's responsibility to sort through the poem's mobile indictments and negotiate a relationship to them and a level of personal and social responsibility. Just who, for example, utters the commands that conclude the first three stanzas? Who is it who calls on the black Christ to "bare your back" to the slaver's whip and centuries of oppression? Who cries out to the black "Mammy of the South" and urges, warns, orders, or pleads with her "Silence your mouth"? Are these the explicit commands of those in power? Are they, as Ford asks, the counsel of fellow blacks? Are they the implicit laws built into a culture so omnipresent and inexorable they need not be spoken aloud? Are these lines rife with anger or resignation? Are the speakers black or white? As each of the players in this historical tragedy steps forward to claim these lines, the words resound with equal power.

The brevity of the lines gives them the rhythm of refrains in spirituals or work songs, or, as Jemie implied, the simplicity of nursery lines. And the alternation of Roman and italic lines adds a haunting intensity to the poem's lyricism. "Christ in Alabama" is at once a protest against the legacy of slavery and a testament to its inexorable logic. It echoes at once with the sound of the lash and with lamentation.

As the poem proceeds, its referents become, if anything, increasingly less stable. For by the third stanza "Christ in Alabama" is still more powerfully dual—at once hieratical and secular. Its powerful critique cuts two ways, unmasking the faux divinity of white masters, politicians, and fathers and exposing the vulnerable logic of Christian symbolism. For the racialized logic of our secular hierarchies has corrupted Christian images of divine authority. "White Master above / Grant us your love." The lines are directed simultaneously to a human and a divine father; the two destinations are mutually corrupting. No wonder the editors of Contempo, where the poem was first published, instinctively realized the poem was explosive. Its equations depict Christianity as a form of tyranny.

Yet the poem also makes a claim for the spiritual power of black suffering. If Alabama blacks are modern Christs, their mothers modern Marys, then each cast out child is a "holy bastard," sacramental offspring of a brutal social ritual. And every utterance of a racial epithet is a worldly sacrament as well. "Nigger" is always "Nigger Christ," whether or not the sacred name is spoken, or so the poem insists in its fourth and final stanza.

Four lines long in its first published version (Hughes later changed it to five to offer a misleading visual form of resolution), the last stanza takes the form of a final definition that reiterates and solidifies the poem's consistent reasoning. It offers neither resolution nor consolation but rather inescapable confirmation. It reaches out spatially and temporally to name the geography and history of America's longest-running tragedy—"Nigger Christ / On the cross of the South." "Christ in Alabama"'s equivalent stanzas make for a poem of reiteration and intensification. It is an act of witness to the serial repetition of a public nightmare. Held up to us like a declaration and a mirror, it bars the way to the future, demanding that we recognize ourselves before we move on.

The emblematic silhouette by Hughes's longtime companion Zell Ingram above the poem serves much the same function [Fig. 21]. Wounds bared, the black Christ bars our way. We cannot pass beyond him to any alternative resolution. He is at once a victim and a herald. As Michael Thurston writes,

Zell Ingram's illustration looms immediately above the poem: a stylized silhouette of a black man's head and upper torso, his hands raised by his face, palms out. The figure stands in deep shadow—`lit' from behind and to its right—so that its features are indistinguishable. In fact, the figure is completely black except for the stigmata on each hand and the lips, which are white. Half again as long and a third again as broad as the text of the poem, the illustration dominates the page, casting the poem beneath into its shadow. . . The featureless face atop the poem substitutes for Christ's uniqueness the ubiquity of black suffering.

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. Arnold Rampersad's 1993 edition of Hughes's Collected Poems unfortunately reprints the modified version from The Panther and the Lash, citing the December 1931 publication in Contempo but taking no note of Hughes's revisions. It is the original version that makes the strongest claim on our attention. Indeed it is one of the most compelling poems in American literature.

from Cary Nelson, Revolutionary Memory: Recovering the Poetry of the American Left, copyright Routledge 2001.


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