Karen Ford: On "Christ in Alabama"

[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).

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Criticism Overview
Title Karen Ford: On "Christ in Alabama" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Criticism Target Langston Hughes
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 28 Sep 2015
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication No Data
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