Michael Thurston: On "Christ in Alabama"

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.

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Criticism Overview
Title Michael Thurston: On "Christ in Alabama" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Michael Thurston Criticism Target Langston Hughes
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 28 Sep 2015
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication College Literature
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