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On "The White Witch"

Robert E. Fleming

"The White Witch" appears to be a fanciful supernatural ballad, in which a vampire-like witch threatens to lure away young men and kill them. Beneath the surface, however, it is clear that Johnson is treating black-white sexual relations, the complex of psychological ills that accompany the thought of miscegenation, and the very real physical danger to the black man who succumbs to the lures of white women. The white witch is described by one who speaks, perhaps from the grave, about his own temptation and fall. He warns his younger brothers not to test their strength against the witch or even to look at her, "For in her glance there is a snare, / And in her smile there is a blight." The witch is not like the witches the boys have heard of in children's stories; this is no "ancient hag" with "snaggled tooth," but a beautiful woman "in all the glowing charms of youth." The third and fourth stanzas create a portrait of her as the archetypal white woman: "her face [is] like new-born lilies fair," her eyes are blue, and her hair is golden. Although she appears young, "unnumbered centuries are hers"; her origins go back to the beginning of the universe.

The speaker then tells his brothers how he has been trapped by the witch. At first he enjoyed the kisses from her unnaturally red lips and the bondage of her white arms and the golden hair that entangled him. But then a transformation took place, and the red lips began to "burn and sear / My body like a living coal." The temptress has led her victim to the stake, and the glow of her beauty becomes the glow of the lynch mob's fire, What motivates the white witch? In anticipation of much later works such as Calvin C. Hernton's Sex and Racism in America (1965) or Eldridge Cleaver's Soul on Ice (1968) her victim answers:

She feels the old Antaean strength
in you, the great dynamic beat
Of primal passions, and she sees
In you the last besieged retreat
Of love relentless, lusty, fierce,
Love pain-ecstatic, cruel-sweet,

The poem ends with the repeated warning to the younger brothers not to be enticed by the witch. Johnson operates with considerable subtlety in this poem. Nowhere is it stated that the speaker and his brothers are black, but given the imagery of the white enticer and the nature of the speaker's fate, it is apparent that the poem is a social fable on one level even though it may be read on another.

From James Weldon Johnson. Copyright © 1987 by G.K. Hall and Company.

Felipe Smith

James Weldon Johnson's application of the witch lore would give a racial accent to the sado-masochistic worship of the deified white muse of poetry. The narrator of his 1915 poem "The White Witcli" warns his "brothers" that the onlv safety from the "white witch" is to flee, "For in her glance there is a snare, / And in her smile there is a blight." In subsequent stanzas, Johnson reveals the following important characteristics of the "witch": she does not look like the "ancient hag" she really is, but appears deceptively "in all the glowing charms of youth"; behind her smile lurks the "shadow of the panther" and the "spirit of the vampire"; it is the "Antaean strength" of her victims that attracts her--"the great dynamic beat / Of primal passions," "the echo of a far-off day, / When man was closer to the earth." The speaker identifies himself as a victim of the witch who has been "bound" by her yellow hair, his strength drained from his soul as he lay helplessly entranced in the arms of the vampire woman.

[ . . . ]

The poem, written during the early stage of the massive migration of blacks northward during and after World War I, superimposes the significance of the Du Boisian white witch upon an evolving discourse of the failed promises of the northern black experience, with the important exception that Johnson's women will not be cold, "spiritually white" mulattoes but women who socially classify themselves as white. Johnson's enumeration of the witch's "properties" becomes one of the signatory aspects of the motif, especially the great importance he attaches to color symbolism:

Her lips are like carnations red,
Her face like new-born lilies fair,
Her eyes like ocean waters blue
She moves with subtle grace and air
And all about her head there floats
The golden glory of her hair.

His chromatic scheme suggests overlapping symbolic economies--the Aryan somatic ideal, revealed as the red, white, and blue of the American flag, with the "golden glory" of the national wealth thrown in for good measure. As Michel Fabre's semiotic reading of Ralph Ellison's Circean white witch in the "Battle Royal" scene of Invisible Man reveals, such codes of race/nationalist desire inscribing her feminine form with the myths of freedom and opportunity make her vampiric seduction of the "brothers" a striking critique of American democracy and capitalism, even in their most benign manifestations.

[. . . .]

[T]he poems reveal that these oppositional female archetypes coincide with respect to a pervasive distrust of the feminine--a black male deracination so profound that neither in the compromised domesticity of the South nor in the impermanent sexual commerce of the North is there any hope of sanctuary. The white witch, siren of false hopes, projection of internalized self-doubt, blocks the advance of the black male into American national subjecthood, while the treacherous black mother mortgages his refuge in the black world of the Jim Crow South. In the end, both betray the black male to secure their own marginal positions in the white world. Johnson's cosmos of black male striving is a bleaker one than Du Bois's, absent a committed, sacrificial black madonna, which leaves the black male subject paralyzed between emasculating feminine ideations. After Johnson, the presentation of the feminine in black male texts (especially in prose and drama) will typically employ this misogynistic interracial construct.

[. . . .]

Juxtaposing the white witch and the black mother, as in Chesnutt's "Uncle Wellington's Wives," formalizes a North-South dialectic in black twentieth-century thought. Johnson's two poems hold out no hope of assistance from either North or South in the black soul's progress and use the opposed female images to investigate the conflicting emotions of the black deraciné. The question of embodiment during the northern migration takes a definitive turn from earlier formulations that assumed that white women would betray black lovers to lynch mobs rather than stiffer social death. The literature of the early twentieth century recognizes the changed circumstances of interracial relations brought on by the northern urban experience. The white woman's body, a symbolic enticement into the promised good life of America, betrays the black quester by creating a psychic barrier to the inclusion he seeks.

The blazon of the white witch in Johnson's poem, in her red, white, and blue, is only one element in Johnson's rich symbolism, extending his critique of the American "spirit of the vampire" to cultural and economic exploitation. Johnson, in effect, sounds one of the earliest literary warnings against cultural appropriation--the exploitation of black cultural productivity as native American exotica. Though Johnson often expressed a naive faith in the liberating potential of the coming vogue of primitivism, which because of his experiences on the New York and European theatrical scenes he predicted would become an important social force, in "The White Witch" he reveals a structural ambivalence that would resonate through the decades of fluctuating African American access to the American cultural capital of New York. His white witch is the American consumer par excellence—the slummer, the bored habitué of Negro nightlife, the avant-garde stalker of novelty who would turn black Harlem within a decade into a peep show. The striver's "strong young limbs" and "laughter loud and gay" remind the witch of "a far-off day, / When man was closer to the earth":

She feels the old Antaean strength
In you, the great dynamic beat
Of primal passions, and she sees
In you the last besieged retreat
Of love relentless, lusty, fierce,
Love pain-ecstatic, cruel sweet.

The witch parodies "Liberty" by sneering at the greatest of white-world social taboos, interracial sex. In a sense, the homogenizing effect of American culture is a by-product of her assault on the racial margin, for as she goes from victim to victim, she consumes the "primal passions" of each black Antaeus, leaving each soul drained and pacified--forms empty of content. Her victims, therefore, do not speak from the grave but remain trapped in a death-in-life paralysis of will: "twined [in] her arms, /And bound ... with her yellow hair" (36). The reference to Antaeus "grounds" Johnson's core narrative of black deracination. Like Antaeus, the black quester as primitive draws his strength directly from nature, in which, unlike the men of the industrialized North, the southern black has been firmly rooted. But as we learn from Johnson's companion poem, the Earth Mother of the South whose nurturance he needs is similarly enthralled and colonized by the white patriarchy. Deprived of a nurturing southern soil to stand upon as his own, the black Antaeus dies a slow painful death in the North.

In both the witch and mammy poems, the underlying theme of black male victimization thwarts the proprietary impulse, arguing by negation the unfairness of a universe in which no woman can, finally, be owned by black men.

The blazon of the witch reflects a specific response topos of AMERICA. The tradition of the white witch demonstrates the paradox of living in an America determined to make AMERICA impossible as specifically an assault on black manhood. It adopts the mode of the "prospect"--the gaze across the horizon at gendered sign[s] of the territory to be conquered and occupied." Yet it simultaneously announces America's resistance to such occupation.

[. . . .]

James Weldon Johnson’s witch casts a "blight" on her prey through an evil eye that complements the sexual nature of her vampirism--like her southern sister, she punishes the black male who wanders into her visual field with a ligature that, if not unto death, certainly invests black male spatial adventurism with imminent peril.

The tradition of the white witch consequently focuses on the boundedness of America through images of a spatially "closed" female white America that, once "penetrated" by the black male nation builder, becomes a space of confinement.

[. . . .]

Johnson’s witch subverts the appropriating male gaze by beguiling her victims into the illusion that they leave chosen her, even as she assails their "last besieged retreat"of "primal passions." Johnson's "feminizing" rhetoric of black primitivism thus shifts subjectivity from the gaze of the male to that of the witch herself, making the black quester the commodified object of the discourse. His acknowledgment of the situational masculinity of the white woman in an interracial relationship makes her the phallic woman, reducing the black male to an impotence and exploitation escapable only through flight. It is he who ends "enclosed": "Around me she has twined her arms, / And bound me with her yellow hair." The black male's quest for freedom ends with the image of an enslavement more profound for its implicit emasculation.

[Note: Smith compares "The White Witch" with Johnson’s companion poem "The Black Mammy." See the full discussion in American Body Politics.]

from American Body Politics: Race, Gender, and Black Literary Renaissance. Copyright © 1998 by University of Georgia Press.

Cristina Stanciu

“The Sinister Figure”: James Weldon Johnson’s “The White Witch” (1922)
and Jean Toomer’s “Portrait in Georgia” (1923)

Before Richard Wright made the white female body less threatening to black masculinity in his acclaimed novel Native Son (1940) by mutilating the sexualized body of Mary Dalton in Bigger Thomas’s act of self-defense and political statement, the representation of the white female’s destructive power over black masculine subjectivity has been a recurrent theme in African American literature. The emphasis on the white body as sexual subject enticing the black man into the inherent dangers of white ideology displays two complex features: on the one hand, the white woman’s subjectivity -- while voiceless within the boundaries of her race -- is defined in relation to her sexual fantasies with the racial other; on the other hand, the taboo, untouchable white female body devours the black male body, thus giving “the primitive” a new meaning. As Rachel Blau DuPlessis argues, conventionally, black women were associated with “the primitive,” albeit the “libidinous” and “sexually free,” thus fulfilling the white ideological “reading” of the “primitive,” in opposition to the topos of cultural resistance it represented for African Americans (128). Nevertheless, Johnson’s “The White Witch” suggests, underneath the archetypal features of the beautiful white female body lies the savage, primitive, animal nature of the “panther” hunting for her prey, an episode which completely redefines the traditional “portrait” of the Southern belle:

And back behind those smiling lips,
And down within those laughing eyes,
And underneath the soft caress
Of hand and voice and purring sighs,
The shadow of the panther lurks.
The spirit of the vampire lies. (lines 25-30)

Johnson’s “The White Witch” uses the image of the white female body and its “vampiric” attributes to signal, at the literal level, the threat its luring presence implies; moreover, Johnson’s use of a speaker whose voice, one might argue, comes from the great beyond, intensifies the dramatism of the message and cautions “the younger brothers” against her sexual games. Thus the poem becomes a warning against the enticements of white sexuality: “O brothers mine, take care! Take care!” (line1). Similarly, Jean Toomer’s “Portrait in Georgia,” also read by critics as a portrait OF Georgia in its racial violence, examines the superimposed images of a black woman’s body and the ashes of a lynched black (male) body. As George Hutchinson has aptly remarked, Johnson’s white witch remains a “seductive” figure in comparison with Toomer’s “sinister figure” (233). However, it seems only fair to notice that Johnson’s portrait remains “seductive” only at a superficial level. While the last two lines in Toomer’s poem allude to a consumed death of the black male -- “And her slim body, white as the ash / of black flesh after flame” (lines 6-7) -- a similarly sinister message can be read in between Johnson’s lines: “My body like a living coal” (line 38). This line could be interpreted as a direct allusion to the lynch mob’s fire and immanent death despite its literal sexual connotation. Moreover, the allusion to KKK’s white ghostly costumes haunting the Southern nights may open up a new perspective on reading the “witch.” Despite lack of direct evidence, one may speculate that Toomer’s poem is written in direct response to Johnson’s “The White Witch,” given the common images and theme they share, as well as Toomer’s rearticulation of the white figure on the framework created by Johnson (hair, eyes, lips, breath, body), with a deliberate gender ambiguity. Also, chronologically, Toomer’s “Portrait in Georgia” is published a year after Johnson’s.

The ethereal appearance of the “white witch” at dusk (both a poetic and a threatening, illusory time) is suggestive of her dual nature: on the one hand, a fairy-tale character (her external body is recreated by the speaker in colorful images); on the other, a life-threatening “vampire” (the internal body is suggested by an accumulation of prepositional phrases that direct the reader’s attention to the preying essence of this luring body: “back behind [those smiling lips],” “down within [those laughing eyes],” and “underneath the soft caress,” lines 25-27). Consequently, under the conventional portrait of the white woman (red lips, fair face, blue eyes, golden hair – the Arian ideal) lies the destructive Medusa, an epitome of the modern white world in search for “primal passions” (line 51), threatening black masculinity. If, indeed, we can read both Johnson’s and Toomer’s poems as exemplary representations of the black persons’ contact with the white world in the big cities during the Great Migration – the white body becoming thus the female-gendered white world – then both poems may reflect the modernism’s lack of vitality and its appeal to the “primitive” in order to revigorate the Western waste land.* Johnson’s speaker cautions the young brothers against the modernity’s (albeit “the white witch’s”) entrapment of their racial capital in an attempt to revitalize modernity. Rachel Blau DuPlessis’ argument, informed by art historian Gill Perry, emphasizes the white culture’s appropriation of primitive tropes in its artistic endeavors, as a critique of modernity. Moreover, she insists that “blacks have often been used by whites as an image of the unconscious of whites – fecund, productive, creative […] in the factory of whiteness” (122-23). Johnson’s poem cautions the black ethnicity against succumbing to such ideological traps, underlining the impossibility of such a (racial) union, “cruel-sweet”:

She feels the old Antaean strength
In you, the great dynamic beat
Of primal passions, and she sees
In you the last besieged retreat
Of love relentless, lusty, fierce,
Love pain-ecstatic, cruel-sweet. (Johnson, “The White Witch,” lines 49-54)

Whereas the geography of Johnson’s poem is not clearly defined, thus emphasizing flight from the “white witch” regardless of her topographic emergence, Jean Toomer’s portrait is located tentatively “in Georgia.” Barbara Foley has emphasized Toomer’s concern “with contemporaneous episodes of racial violence” (“In the Land of Cotton…” 184), underscoring an important aspect students of Jean Toomer, the modernist writer, tend to forget: “Toomer may have written in a densely symbolistic modernist idiom, but he did not substitute myth for history” (“Toomer’s Sparta” 749). Thus the social relations Toomer criticizes in this work, particularly chaotic and failed human relationships – including inter-racial relations -- need to be interpreted as the writer’s engagement with history rather than its disembodied transcendence. Besides establishing a racist “outline,” poems like “Face” and “Portrait in Georgia” deromanticize the traditional female embodiment by recreating a worn out “face” rather than a sexualized body, a fragmented body of “purple” and “channelled muscles” which announce the old body’s disintegration, portraying a different kind of natural fruition, as it becomes “nearly ripe for worms”:

Face –
like streams of stars,
Brows –
recurved canoes
quivered by the ripples blown by pain,
Her eyes
mists of tears
condensing on the face below
And her channeled muscles
are cluster grapes of sorrow
purple in the evening sun
nearly ripe for worms. (Toomer, “Face”)

Discussing this poem, Laura Doyle has offered a very insightful approach of “Face” as a revision of the “body-cataloguing blazon poem” through a deromanticization of the female experience of embodiment (86). In the tradition of the blazon, “Face” offers a careful depiction of female body parts (face, brows, eyes), but the critique becomes implicit in Toomer’s emphasis on pain rather than youthful exuberance. As Eldridge suggests, however, the beauty of this woman does not derive from her association with “superior” attributes (202). Instead, the external beauty is replaced by inner suffering and pain, becoming a relevant instance of what Elaine Scarry has called “the body in pain.” Moreover, the fusion of the woman’s features -- which add a dose of masculinity (“her channeled muscles”) to this portrait of decaying and decomposing female body -- with natural phenomena, also in a state of in-betweenness, point to Toomer’s ironic use of the blazon tradition in a poem that defies formal (prosodic) constraints, and its adaptation to Southern soil. As Doyle concludes, “Unlike the idealized virgin in a Petrarchan blazon, this woman has gray hair, her body quivers with pain rather than desire or duplicity, and her fate is death rather than love” (86-87). The death of this “Face” figure – fragmented, but still bearing the unseen mark of race, rendered through the braided hair, “like a stream of stars” – seems to be emblematic of the death of the entire culture, “purple in the evening sun,” awaiting decomposition, being “nearly ripe for worms.

A less optimistic rendering of the racial body in pain is captured by “Portrait in Georgia,” a highly-anthologized Toomer poem, which shares functional similarly to “Face,” as a preamble to the lynching story in “Blood Burning Moon.” More specifically, in the same tradition of the blazon poem, celebrated features of a (white) woman’s body are ironically linked with the dismembered body parts of a lynched and burned body of a black person, significantly of ambiguous gender. This lyrical portrait of a lynching episode is materialized in “Blood Burning Moon” -- a story in Jean Toomer’s Cane, where “Face” and “Portrait in Georgia” also appeared -- which dramatizes Louisa’s race-inflected double desire, for the white man Bob Stone and the black man Tom Burwell (whose name, a corruption of “burn well,” becomes emblematic of his tragic fate):

Hair – braided chestnut,
           coiled like a lyncher’s rope,
Eyes – fagots,
Lips – old scars, or the first red blisters,
Breath – the last sweet scent of cane,
And her slim body, white as the ash
                        of black flesh after flame. (Toomer, “Portrait in Georgia”)

Each line opens with an object of physical desire – hair, eyes, lips, breath, slim body – which recreates a specific image of a lynching scene, thus unifying eros and thanatos in an attempt to define both interracial desire and to mark the racialized body with the scars of historical “discipline.” Critics have oscillated between reading the last two lines as a Georgian portrait of “a lynched and burned black woman” (Jones xvii), or a white woman -- a “sinister figure” (Hutchinson 233) – which causes the lynching of the generic balck male for despoiling white womanhood. Eldridge also subscribes to this latter interpretation, suggesting that “The message is clear in all its grim aspects: white woman, symbol of life and beauty, is equally the symbol of violence and death” (211-12). George Hutchinson offers a very insightful approach to this portrait of a “white woman” whom he compares with James Weldon Johnson’s “White Witch” and Amiri Baraka’s Lula in Dutchman, suggesting an identity between the fragments of bodies in Toomer’s poem:

By superimposing the images of the white woman, the apparatus of lynching, and the
burning flesh of the black man, Toomer graphically embodies both a union of black male
and white female and the terrifying method of exorcising that union to maintain a racial
difference the poem linguistically defies. (233-34) (Hutchinson’s emphasis)

All the above-mentioned readings are legitimate and well supported, but they all miss Toomer’s deliberate superimposition of both racial features in a single, fragmented, ambiguously gendered body: “And her slim body, white as the ash / of black flesh after flame.” This superimposition of black and white images aims at collapsing not only racial boundaries – white and black bodies become one in death -- but sexual as well, by depicting the pained and incomplete embodiment of a new, nascent body, emerging after the consummation of the “flame” and the burning of black male and female bodies through an imaginative alchemy. Thus, by collapsing thegender binaries, both James Weldon Johnson and Jean Toomer signal in their poems the dangers of essentializing the body, and the threats of a long history of racism that facilitated the marking of a body by the other.


Johnson’s poem also appeared in 1922, the “Waste Land” year.


Works Cited

Blau DuPlessis, Rachel. Genders, Races, and Religious Cultures in Modern American Poetry, 1908-
1934. Cambridge, MA: Cambridge UP, 2001.

Doyle, Laura. “Swan Song for the Race Mother: Late-Romantic Narrative in Cane.” Bordering
on the Body. The Racial Matrix of Modern Fiction and Culture. New York: Oxford UP,
1994. 81-107.

Eldridge, Richard. “The Unifying Images in Part One of Jean Toomer’s Cane.” CLA Journal 22.3
(March 1979): 187-214.

Foley, Barbara. “’In the Land of Cotton’: Economics and Violence in Jean Toomer’s Cane. African
American Review 32.2 (Summer 1998): 181-98.

---. “Jean Toomer’s Sparta.” American Literature 67.4 (December 1995): 747-75.

Hutchinson, George. “Toomer and Radical Discourse.” Texas Studies in Literature and Language
35 (Summer 1993): 226-50.

Jones, Robert B. ---. Introduction. The Collected Poems of Jean Toomer. Eds. Robert B. Jones and

Margery Toomer Latimer. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina Press, 1988. ix-xxxv.
Scarry, Elaine. The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World. New York: Oxford UP,



Copyright © 2004 by Cristina Stanciu



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