Bartholomew Brinkman: On "Ku Klux"

Langston Hughs’s poem “Ku Klux,” like “Christ in Alabama” or “Park Bench” performs in a short lyric poem an incredible act of historical compression. In presenting a scene where a black man is accosted by members of the Ku Klux Klan, the five ballad stanzas of the poem revisit the whole history of race relations in America that has been structured on a master/slave dialectic. Although white and black no longer legally participate in a master-slave relationship, the white man is still “mister” and the black man is still a “boy.” There is a race-based hierarchical relationship in place that is emphasized and essentialized by the white coats of the KKK and the “Nigger”-ness of the black man.

While the black man demonstrates his own subjectivity and agency as the speaker of the poem, the white men deny him this identity. “They took me out” can be understood as not only taking the black man out to “some lonesome place” to be tortured and murdered, but also as taking me out, of divesting the black man of his individual subjectivity. To them, he is not an individual person, but only a pejorative example of his race. However, even as the white men deny the black man’s identity–which is necessary to sustain the oppressive white/black dialectic–they are dependent on him. They ask him, “‘Do you believe/ In the great white race?’” They depend on his belief in and fear of whiteness in order to sustain the construction of whiteness itself.

The black man replies in the next stanza, “‘To tell you the truth,/ I’d believe in anything/ if you let me loose.’” The black man is pleading for his life and is willing to believe in anything they tell him to if they will let him go. But this cuts to the heart of the white/ black dialectic. As Hegel suggests in Phenomenology of Spirit, the master/slave dialectic allows for an independent consciousness of the slave, but thebeing-for-self of the master is not certain because it is dependent on recognition of the slave who is not in a position to freely acknowledge the other. In “Ku Klux,” the black man’s belief is contingent on his freedom, so that while he is tied up his acknowledgment of whiteness can’t be trusted.

But the white men fail to understand this contingency. One of them demands of the “boy,” “Can it be/ You’re standing’ there/ A-sassin’ me?” They take anything other than unqualified agreement as insubordinate and worthy of violence. In response to the black man, the Klan members “hit me in the head/ And knocked me down/ And then they kicked me/ On the ground.” This stanza characterizes a history of race-based violence–on a personal, national and international level–that plagued much of the twentieth century. Hugh’s ironic use of “A-sassin,” however, suggests that it is this very back-talk, this verbal confrontation (as exhibited by the poem itself) that threatens to dismantle the construction of whiteness and kill the notion of the white man. Against such violence, the victim still has the power to call into question the system of their oppression and the identity of those who are dependent on such a system.

The final stanza repeats the previous demand more emphatically, “‘Nigger/ Look me in the face–/and tell me you believe in/ The great white race.’” The black man, who has physically been placed in a subordinate position, is asked to affirm the identity of his torturers. He must do this through an articulation of his gaze (it is instructive to consider here bell hooks’s notion of the “oppositional gaze” although it is specifically gendered) . But in order for the black man to look in the white man’s face, the latter must remove his KKK hood–his sustaining marker of whiteness–and reveal himself as an individual. The white man’s demand becomes a desperate plea: he is begging for the black man to acknowledge some essential whiteness that is not dependent on an oppressive dialectic, but is biologically inherent and assured. We do not get the black man’s response to this last question (unless we consider it to be the poem itself) and we do not know his fate. But we are left with an impression of “whiteness” as fragile and poorly constructed, to be questioned even by a man under torture. Hugh’s poem interrogates the history of oppression based on race and calls into question the very category of race itself.

Copyright © 2004 by Bartholomew Brinkman.

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Title Bartholomew Brinkman: On "Ku Klux" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Bartholomew Brinkman Criticism Target Langston Hughes
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 28 Sep 2015
Publication Status Original Criticism Publication No Data
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