Langston Hughes’s “Ku Klux” explores laughter as a site fraught with ambiguous political possibilities. Hughes’s poem engages the comedic on a number of levels. In shortening the name of the Ku Klux Klan for his title, Hughes highlights the comical alliteration in the organization’s name. Moreover, Hughes uses as a title only part of a phrase. Said repeatedly, “Ku Klux Klan” can lose the strangeness of its sound and become easier to say. Said alone, however, “Ku Klux,” becomes re-enstranged. In many ways, “Ku Klux” is an example of what Boris Ejxenbaum calls “enstrangement”—the idea “that the formation of lateral meanings, disrupting the usual associations of words, is the chief property of verse semantics” (26-7). Hughes’s poem is in part about words made to sound strange, in situations fraught with the threat of violence and in the rhetoric surrounding organizations whose chief aim is violence. “Ku Klux” also rewrites the scenario depicted by Sterling A. Brown’s “Sharecroppers” in a way that complicates the apparent optimism of Brown’s poem. One way that Hughes does this is by characterizing the sound of an African-American voice by a clear and well-articulated phrasing rather than by the noise of black laughter.
“Ku Klux” is a strangely humorous poem. No one laughs in this poem, and instead it is the possibility that the man being lynched might be laughing that further incites the rage of the Klansmen. The threat of physical violence that results from the Klansmen’s mishearing of their victim’s response to a question is contrasted by the way that the poem is littered with a comical vision of the language surrounding the Klan. The poetic persona’s response to one of the Klansmen’s question is perhaps the most vexed point in the poem, the point at which the Klansman’s enstranged and belabored language is most directly contrasted with a portrayal of comedy as dangerous. When asked if he “believe[s] / In the great white race,” the poem’s persona responds, “Mister, / To tell you the truth, / I’d believe in anything / If you’d just turn me loose” (“Ku Klux” 3-4, 5-8). We can contrast the strangeness of the sound of the question with the straightforwardness of the persona’s response. The question itself is difficult to read aloud. The phrase, “the great white race,” is difficult to pronounce not only because of three successive hard stresses, but also because of the succession of vowel sounds from “great” to “white.” It is a phrase that seems to require practice to enunciate clearly, perhaps suggesting that the question is borrowed from a Klan chant or is otherwise part of a ritualized rhetorical act. The poem incorporates not only the belabored sound of this phrase, but also the possible reading of it as a bombastic and ritualized question. The Klansman’s question is thus humorous whether we read it as the out-of-place repetition of a bombastic, ritualized chant or as simply clumsy speech.
The poetic persona’s response can be read in two radically different ways, and each reading implies different things about the status of comedy in the poem. We might say that the response is a witty rebuttal to the belabored stuttering or ritualized bombasity of the Klansman’s question. Alternatively, we might read the persona’s response literally; he really would say anything, “If you’d just turn [him] loose.” The situation is complicated by the fact that the first reading is in fact put forward by the Klansman asking the question—“The white man said, ‘Boy, / Can it be / You’re a-standin’ there / A-sassin’ me?” (9-12). As with the initial question, the Klansman’s response is humorous. “A-standin” and “a-sassin” are comical reversals of racizalized representations of dialect akin to what Brown does with dialect in poems like “Scotty Has His Say.” The humorous nature of the way that the Klansman struggles with language is part of what makes this poem difficult. The poem contrasts the belabored language of the Klansman with the calm, potentially witty response of the poetic persona. It is hard to not read the persona’s response to the Klansman’s question as a retort, especially given the fact that the question itself is said with either difficulty or bombast. Yet, if we read the poetic persona’s response as a witty act of resistance, then we are left with a question that never really comes up in Brown’s depiction of the sharecropper’s laughter in “Sharecroppers.” If the response is meant as resistance, how effective or well-advised of an act of resistance is it?
Hughes’s poem stages the double-bind of a theory of laughter as political resistance. Though, as Chasar wants to suggests, black laughter might be able to go into spaces that black bodies cannot, what actually happens when the laughter arrives in these new spaces? In “Ku Klux,” it is never quite clear whether the poetic persona mocks the lynch mob or whether his response is genuinely born out of fear for his life. This productive ambiguity allows Hughes to complicate the way that black laughter is staged in a poem like “Sharecroppers.” Ralph Ellison, in his 1985 essay “The Extravagance of Laughter,” repeats a story that was frequently rehearsed during his time at Tuskegee in the 1930’s that offers insight into the problematic opened up by Hughes’s poem. On their way back to campus, a group of Tuskegee students had been pulled over by two policeman, who “learned during the course of routine questioning that one of the group, a very black-skinned young man, bore the surname of ‘Whyte’” (Ellison 168). The policemen were indignant—“’Cause it stands to reason that there’s no way in the world for a nigra as black as that to pretend that his name is ‘White.’ Not unless he’s blind-staggers drunk or else plum out of his nappy-headed cotton-pickin’ mind!” (169). The two officers were even more indignant when they learned how Whyte spelled his name—“They made him write it down on a pad and then they made him spell it out—and I mean out loud!” (170). As Ellison explains, the story is humorous in a complicated way. A dangerous situation at the time, it was nonetheless comical in retrospect. Repeatedly retelling the story seems to have served a kind of ameliorating social function, offering the students a site of political resistance. Yet the retellings nonetheless “did nothing to change the Phenix [sic] City police, and probably wouldn’t have even if they heard the recitation” (171). Moreover, retelling the story “didn’t cancel out the unpleasantness or humiliation. Thus, back on campus we were compelled to buffer the pain and negate the humiliation by making grotesque comedy out of the extremes to which whites would go to keep us in what they considered to be our ‘place’” (171).
Ellison’s story illustrates that absurdist narratives of racialized violence have two functions for the communities in which they are told. They are on one level ameliorating narratives, offering both story-teller and audience an absurdist vision of everyday life. The real-life versions of the scenarios depicted by these narratives are violent and dangerous. Indeed, as Ellison observes, the specter of the Scottsboro trial was at the back of the story involving the two policemen, and the students at Tuskegee lived with the constant fear that every highway patrolman in the South still carried “a violent zeal” informed by a sense of justice having not been served by the trial’s outcome (167). Retelling a narrative about the possibility of racial violence as an absurdist event—and, indeed, abstracting the narrative beyond the particulars of the originally dangerous event—allows the students to create an alternative rhetorical community. In retelling the story, they alienate themselves from the all-too-real everyday and recast ordinariness of violence as exceptionally ridiculous.
However, as Simon Critchley notes, humorous narratives often work as “(un)timely reminder[s] of who one is, and the nature of what Heidegger would call one’s Geworfenheit, or thrownness. If humour returns us to our locale, then […] it can do this in an extremely uncomfortable way, precisely as thrown into something I did not and would not choose” (74-5). The very ambiguity that allows the narrative about the two highway patrolmen to be an absurdist escape from ordinary violence prevents the comedy from every fully eradicating the presence of that violence. In enstranging the ordinariness of racial violence, these narratives somehow manage to always remind one of just how ubiquitous that violence is. As Ellison observes, the students were fully aware of a certain futility implicit in the retelling of the story. Casting the event as humorous has no real impact on the actual practices of the highway patrolmen.
Hughes would certainly have been aware of the practice of telling absurdist narratives about racial violence, and he engages with this tradition by framing “Ku Klux” as a personal narrative about racial violence, one that from its very title seems to signal a comic vision. Moreover, the Klansman’s clumsy negotiation of language fits into the framework of a humorously strange-sounding language set out by the poem’s title. Like the story told by Ellison, the events described in “Ku Klux” center upon a white authority figure mishearing or misunderstanding a well-spoken African-American. Yet, unlike Ellison’s story, the poem never clarifies whether or not the poetic persona’s response is meant to mock or plead. Starting with the third stanza, Hughes begins the play with the framework of the absurdist narrative. The poem itself offers a reading of the persona’s otherwise ambiguous response in the form of the Klansman’s question, “Boy, / Can it be / You’re a-standin’ there / A-sassin’ me?” (“Ku Klux” 9-12). If the Klansman’s first question seemed to imply ritualized language, then the fact that the poem ends with the same belabored phrase becomes significant. The chant-like nature of the original question (“Do you believe / In the great white race?” (3-4)) and the utter confusion and anger of the Klansman at his victim’s well-phrased response suggests that asking the question is not about getting any other answer than silent fear or a simple “yes.” Any other answer simply does not fit the ritual. The poem ends, not with a “response” stanza, but with the repeated question, this time without an answer of any sort.
Though “Ku Klux” begins as a personal narrative that looks like the kind of absurdist narratives described by Ellison, by stanza three the poem shifts to an interpretive and structural framework dominated by the hegemonic power of white supremacy. Through this shift, Hughes places the poetic persona’s response to the first question in an odd position. If it actually is a joke, then it seems to have been an ill-advised one. Within the structural space of the poem, it is a form of political resistance that seems only to have incited further violence. More importantly, however, Hughes chooses to allow the persona to be reminded of this fact through the comparatively clumsy voice of the Klansman. If the response is a joke, then it recalls the inescapable “thrownness” of the persona’s world insofar as the joke is called ill-advised by the very person about whom the joke was made in the first place. Yet, if the response is not a joke, then the poem gives us an example of a situation in which a victim of racial violence is faced with the comically horrifying face—or, rather, jumbled words—of racism and chooses to respond with sincerity. In this second reading, sincerity never gets around the possibility of being read as a joke, as his attackers read his response as sarcasm nevertheless.
Hughes’s poem offers us two alternative readings. Laughter might be a political weapon, though if it is it hardly seems effective. Alternatively, laughter might be a rhetorical fantasy perpetuated by absurdist narratives that only momentarily deflect the very real violence of racial oppression, and yet it is a fantasy framed within the way that the lynch mob reads the victim’s response and thus, in some way, an inescapable framework of white hegemony. Yet, the poem does not reduce to either reading. The ambiguity arises from the fact that we cannot hear the tone of the poetic persona. As readers, we only know that the Klansmen hear the speaker’s words in a particular way, detecting sarcasm in words that, without the added element of tone of voice, could just as easily be read as sincere.
As in Sterling Brown’s “Sharecroppers,” so much depends in this poem on how we hear the voice of the victim through the violence of figures of white hegemonic authority. In “Sharecroppers,” the sharecropper’s laughter appears well before the lines in which he actually speaks, and so Brown’s readers hear the laughter first without hearing its particular tone. As Matthew Lessig observes, “Sharecroppers” differs from much of Brown’s poetry in that it “conserves black dialect for the direct discourse of its martyred hero’s dying words, thereby postponing a race conscious reading until it can be subsumed within the poem’s class conscious closing appeal” (MAPS). While it is always a possibility that the sharecropper is African-American, the fact that we do not hear his dialect until the last two lines underscores the fact that though we are told that he laughs, we never actually hear his laughter. The dialect evident in the final two lines of the poem not only racially identifies the sharecropper, but also illustrates that there is a sonic dimension to his laughter that, though inaccessible to a reader, nonetheless played a significant role in the events described in the poem. That is to say, when the sharecropper’s laughter is described in the poem, the lynch mob hears something that we, as readers, cannot. The dialect of the final lines suggests that sharecropper’s laughter would be similarly toned by a kind of laughter-dialect.
Chasar argues that the desire “to manage the increasingly public sounds of black laughter” on the part of white Americans was driven by the anxious belief “that the constant supervision of, and rhetorical attention to, this noise was perceived as crucial for the maintenance of white superiority” (65). Shooting the sharecropper in the side is an example of such attempts at controlling the noise of black laughter. Brown stages the attempt to control black laughter in the formal technique of the poem. Laughter is narrated, not heard, and yet the noise of black laughter nonetheless plays a central role in determining the actions of the lynch mob. In a certain sense, the final two lines of the poem allow the reader to hear the particular tone of the sharecropper’s laughter. Without the dialect, it is possible to read the sharecropper as white—and thus, read the mob violence as solely about union organizing. Yet, the addition of the African-American dialect racializes the encounter, and so the act of shooting the sharecropper in the side becomes also a response to the sound of black laughter, the aural reminder that unionization is taking place across color lines and so all the more threatening to the hegemonic power of the landlord.
The difference between “Sharecroppers” and “Ku Klux” is the difference between inarticulate sound and articulated response. In “Sharecroppers,” there is only one way for the lynch mob to read the sharecropper’s laughter, and we have to read that laughter through their immediate response. In “Ku Klux,” however, the poetic persona’s clearly-articulated response is somehow more ambiguous than the sharecropper’s laughter. The difference may be that even if Hughes’s poetic persona’s response is meant as an aggressive retort (accompanied perhaps by a bit of sly laughter) the way that Hughes litters the rest of the poem with comical language suggests that the man’s response is not quite the humorless laughter described by Chasar and staged by Brown. If the man in “Ku Klux” makes a joke, he is most definitely laughing at the Klansman. If he does not, the joke seems to frame his fate nonetheless.
Brown, Sterling A. “Sharecroppers.” 1939. Anthology of Modern American Poetry. Ed. Cary Nelson. New York: Oxford U P, 2000. 483-84. Print.
Chasar, Mike. “The Sounds of Black Laughter and the Harlem Renaissance: Claude McKay, Sterling Brown, Langston Hughes.” American Literature 80.1 (March 2008): 57-81. Print.
Critchley, Simon. On Humour. New York: Routledge, 2002. Print.
Ejxenbaum, Boris M. “The Theory of the Formal Method.” Readings in Russian Poetics: Formalist and Structuralist Views. 1971. Ed. Ladislav Matejka and Krystyna Pomorska. Chicago: Dalkey Archive, 2002. 3-37. Print.
Ellison, Ralph. “An Extravagance of Laughter.” Going to the Territory. New York: Random House, 1986. 145-197. Print.
Hughes, Langston. “Ku Klux.” 1942. Anthology of Modern American Poetry. Ed. Cary Nelson. New York: Oxford U P, 2000. 520-21. Print.
Lessig, Matthew. “Sharecroppers.” Modern American Poetry Site. Web. 9 November, 2010.
Copyright © 2010 by John Moore.