Night, Death, Mississippi

Jaime Brunton: On "Night, Death, Mississippi"

Robert Hayden's "Night, Death, Mississippi" (1966) figures the rural, white, Southern family it depicts as a space of complicity and indoctrination in racism and racist violence. Through the use of characters that are vocal, vivid, and, at the same time archetypal, Hayden creates a familial landscape that is, disturbingly, both nightmarish and believable. This effect is achieved by way of an unsettling proximity to the poem's Klansman storyteller, whose sexualized descriptions of participation in the castration of a black man reveal how racist violence is a community-building act, structuring and strengthening both homosocial and familial bonds.

As Thierry Ramais (MAPS) notes, the poem begins by positioning the reader in close proximity to the perpetrator of brutal KKK violence. Listening with him in the dark, close enough to smell the "reek" of his laughter, "His questions," as Ramais points out, become "our questions." The poem begins with the voice of an outside narrator, and quickly switches to the voice of the Klansman and back again. The lack of quotation marks or italics suggests a kind of channeling of this old man by the narrator:


A quavering cry. A screech-owl?

Or one of them?

The old man in his reek

and gauntness laughs -- (l. 1-4)


Rather than passively ingesting a story at two removes from the action, we are forced into a conversation of sorts with the Klansman -- one we can neither escape from nor contribute to. One effect of this proximity is to heighten the textual violence; because the story is channeled rather than quoted, the violence is re-enacted by the reader as performer. Reading the poem aloud, one inhabits a schizophrenic space, alternating between the voice of the Klansman and the unobtrusive voice of an unidentified narrator, with only a change in diction to indicate a shift in speaker. This effect is disorienting and troubling, for it requires an uncomfortable degree of identification with the old man. How can any reader inhabit such a distasteful character? How do we know how to read in his voice?

Hayden's occasional lyricism and depictions of familiar emotions and desires make this unnerving identification with the Klansman possible. The character longs to be part of a community; he desires a ritualistic mode of interaction with other men and with his son. All of these desires though, however lyrically rendered, are shot through with, and enabled by, both racism and unchecked sadism. The old man's tale begins with an expression of longing for the past, which he could relive "if I was well again." This longing is specifically for male bonding ("with Boy and the rest") as well as for what he perceives as the natural beauty of the ritual, which he recalls lyrically as "White robes like moonlight / In the sweetgum dark." This aestheticized image is followed immediately by his description of castrating a victim who is "squealing bloody Jesus / as we cut it off" -- making explicit the "cry" the speaker hears in line one. The speaker then takes the entire fifth stanza to savor those cries, reliving his sadistic pleasure -- in a most Sadean way -- through the act of storytelling. The final stanza of section one links this violent act back to the bonding ritual, telling how "Boy" has, through his participation, "earned him a bottle" that he and the old man will share as a way to strengthen their bond.

The first stanza of section two is more straightforward than lyrical in its recounting of the violence, following a subject-verb-object syntax structure to indicate a frenzied pace, both of the actual event and the old man's speech. The stanzas of this section are separated by italicized lines that one might read (as Ramais does) as "incantations" from the victim. Whereas this voice calls out to Jesus for help, the perpetrator, says Ramais, uses "Christ" as a "swear" or "interjection" in his fantasy re-telling. This interjection points to the specifically pleasurable nature of the brutality:


Christ, it was better

than hunting bear

which don't know why

you want him dead. (l. 30-33)


It is an act both premeditated and savored after the fact through its retelling. One imagines the storyteller passing this on to children and grandchildren (as certainly he has passed it on to "Boy"). Indeed, this section of the poem offers us more of a glimpse into the role of the family in the act. Moving from the dark forest of sweetgum to the interior space of the Klansman's home, the narration switches abruptly from the Klansman, to an unidentified (italicized) cry, and then to, presumably, the Klansman's wife:


You kids fetch Paw

some water now so's he

can wash that blood

off him, she said. (l. 35-38)


The family is the space where such violence is learned and upheld, with both the wife and the Klansman's children playing supporting roles. This theme is doubly emphasized by the names "Paw" and "Boy" -- the archetypal father and son who will pass on this lust for racially based hatred and violence generation after generation. The family does not question the acts of the father; the violent acts of castration and beating, with their overtones of sadistic homoeroticism, are treated as ordinary. Furthermore, insofar as participation in the KKK violence is considered a rite of passage into manhood, racism actually constitutes Boy’s subjectivity. Racial violence is thus normalized and reproduced in this setting, making the family the literal breeding ground for racism. 

The three italicized lines in between each stanza in section two, which do not clearly belong to anyone, function as commentary on the violence, and remove us for a few brief moments from the claustrophobic identification with the Klansman. After the old man's depiction of beating the victim, this disembodied voice cries: "O Jesus burning on the lily cross." Is this the victim? Someone sympathetic to him? We can't be entirely sure. The "Jesus" in this line is joined to “Christ” spoken by the old man in the next line: "Christ, it was better / than hunting bear." The contrast between calling to Jesus for help and using "Christ" as an interjection to indicate extreme pleasure clearly casts judgment on the Klansman. This ability to judge allows the speaker a more comfortable space of identification.

These lines also remind us of a world outside of the space of the racist home. Together they constitute a floating voice out there in the night, with no clear attachment to a community or a family, although one might read into their song-like quality a chorus of voices. Ultimately, the poem asks us to question the desirability of bonds of blood -- both the male homosocial bond created through the spilling of the black man's blood and the bond of the biological nuclear family. Trapped for a time in both of these bonds, we are forced to reckon with desires for attachment and belonging taken to perverse and bloody ends. Insulating oneself in one's community and family, which has traditionally been figured as a benign, apolitical choice, here becomes a grotesque act, and, furthermore, points to the ubiquitous and deep psychological attachments to white racism in the US. These spaces are safe only insofar as they protect and nurture perpetrators of violence, and thus the most desirable space in the poem becomes not the home, but the nebulous outside occupied by the speaker or speakers who interrupt that space.


Copyright © 2007 by Jaime Brunton

Thierry Ramais: On "Night, Death, Mississippi"

In "Night, Death, Mississippi", Robert Hayden presents us with a dark, anecdotal account of KKK violence against the African-American community. As the poem starts, we are presented with the description of an old, apparently sick man waiting in his house, listening to the sounds of the outside and hearing the cries and screams of a black person being beaten outside, beyond the woods, by white extremists. Leaving the inside of his house to get a better sense of hearing, he then waits their return, in a mixture of enjoyment and nostalgia of not being able to take part in the "action". In the second part of the poem, we are then presented with the account of the extremist friends/members of family who have come back home, enjoying their sense of power over their obviously helpless victim.

In the beginning of the poem, it is through the ears of the old man that we, readers, have to make sense of the action: "A quavering cry. Screech-owl? / Or one of them?" Like the old man, who obviously belongs to "white trash" ("The old man in his reek and gauntness laughs"),we do not know what these sounds outside mean and it is only later that we, as readers, realize the sounds of beating are what this old man was actually looking for. His questions are thus our questions, but the process of identification takes a sudden different twist when the old man speaks; as we discover the nature of his abject feelings and wishes, we are meant to toss any sympathy away and become spectators of his heartlessness ("A cry? A cry alright") and the extent of his romanticized fanaticism becomes more apparent ("Time was. Time was. / White robes like moonlight / in the sweetgum dark").

What is unusual about this first part of the poem is of course the fact that, unlike many other poem about the topic, we are asked by the poet to perform the difficult exercise to actually adopt the perspective of the persecutors rather than the victims. The African-American is actually, from the very start, presented as "other", as distant, as "one of them", that is, not one of "us". As he describes atrocities performed on one of his former victims, "that one", he makes no effort to humanize his description. The victim is the other, "one of them", "squealing", "quavering" like the present one. Interestingly, however, we are not given a clear description of that old man himself, of the auditors (whose perspective we are invited to adopt), of the family or friendship bonds uniting him to the persecutors coming back from the wood, so that, if the victim retains the form of a distant "concept" for us, we, as readers, still have a difficult time adequately adopting the point-of-view of this old persecutor and his clique.

This goes on in the second part of the poem, as the recently returned KKK members recall, not without some pride, their latest "achievement". We know about them only through what they say (and what they say is likely to shock readers), in the same way as we know nothing about the old man except for his description of himself as a persecutor. Interestingly, even though we are thus given some "inside view" into a "family" or small "clan-like" distribution of KKK members, these remain as "faceless" as when they are wearing their robe (the only exception to this being that we know one of them is called "Paw" (which interestingly relates to the animal imagery mentioned earlier in the poem ("it was better / than hunting bear / which don't know why / you want him dead"), but do reverse it (the hunter being given an "animal-like" quality). I also believe that the combination of gruesome stories about the beating and of prayer-like appeals reinforces the animal-like inhumanity of the speakers by contrasting the use of the word "Christ" as an incantation ("O Jesus burning on the lily cross") and as a swear word/interjection ("Christ, it was better than hunting bear") (here "Christ" is almost to be understood as "damn" or "fuck"), and by obviously comparing the sufferings of their African-American victim to those of a Christ-like figure.


Copyright © 2004 by Thierry Ramais

Pontheolla T. Williams: On "Night, Death, Mississippi"

"Night, Death, Mississippi" is concerned with interracial male-female relations. Unlike the Sue Ellen poem, however, here the most rigid of the racial taboos has been broken--that is, the black man/white woman taboo. "Night, Death, Mississippi" is about the penalty imposed on the black man for breaking this taboo as well as the moral and psychological involvement of the victim's executioners. Hayden chooses to avoid the graphic treatment of the lynching victim that he gave in "Figure"; instead he frames the grisly episode in the imaginings and the physical and psychological responses of an old white man. The cry of a "screech owl" interwoven with what might be the victim's outcries introduces the problem of reality vis-à -vis appearance that is not resolved until the last stanza, when "Boy," whom the old man awaits, returns home from the lynching and "Maw" matter-of-factly says to the children:


You kids fetch Paw

some water now so's he

can wash that blood

off him.


What motivates Paw and his clan is indicated in Hayden's oblique but telling allusion to William Faulkner's "The Bear." However, whereas Old Ben is such an admired and loved symbol of the wilderness, of freedom and courage, and of the fruitful earth that Sam Fathers and the McCaslins sham-hunt him for years and destroy him only when he turns on the exploiters of the earth, Hayden's hunters kill their prey out of vengeance and the grisly thrill of blood-letting:


Christ, it was better

than hunting bear

which don't know why

you want him dead.


The old man, reminiscing about past lynchings that he has been a party to, recalls with pleasure an occasion when they "unbucked . . . one"--a graphic description of the physical emasculation of the victim--and plans a macabre celebration:


Have us a bottle,

Boy and me--

he's earned him a bottle--

when he gets home.


The poem is Hayden's most devastating attack on lynching as what was, even in the sixties, an integral part of southern society. The poem reveals how the neo-chivalric elements in southern society and the deep-seated theoretical and pragmatic aspects of lynching have become pervasive--a way of life--at the level of the common redneck who participates in a treasured spectacle that relieves the monotony of his dull and empty life.

John F. Callahan: On "Night, Death, Mississippi"

. . . almost all representations of actual or aborted lynchings in African American literature show such plans and deeds done at the cost of the humanity of victim and perpetrator alike.

A chilling exception is Robert Hayden's "Night Death Mississippi." Written in the 1950s, the poem is an arresting work of initiation in which Hayden presents the action from the point of view of the grandfather, father, and young son in a family of apparently ne'er-do-well white folks. (Subtly, Hayden gives voice to the victims of the lynching violence in the form of anonymous unspoken but perhaps sung lines like "O night, raw head and bloodybones night." Through such calls to folklore the victims' feelings—their pain and loss and grief--are heard and made visible.) Nonetheless, Hayden, without comment or explicit judgment, without putting his thumb on any moral scale, presents the lynching participants' views with such matter-of-factness as to be terribly believable. Worst and most convincing of all is the extent to which the element of initiation is realized. By focusing on the lynchers' point of view, Hayden gets near the core of how such ritual terror could not only be practiced but handed down to the next generation. All in the household are conditioned to treat the returning lynching father with the reverence due a hero whose words and actions protect the tribe.

Hayden's cri de coeur is not polemical but profoundly spiritual; the lynching alluded to is horrifyingly conventional and acceptable to the white family involved. And therefore Hayden's poem interprets lynching as a creation, however terrible, of the human heart. In so doing, he makes his poem a witness that is all at once a condemnation, an exorcism, a purification, and a timeless warning. For Hayden and African American literature in general, enactments of lynching are not mere obscene vestiges of the past but conscientious reminders of racial terrors dormant but not extinguished from the American heart.

John Hatcher: On "Night, Death, Mississippi"

Hayden uses a family of lychers in this poem to illustrate . . . the possibility of inherited evil becoming 'diastole, systole,/ reflex action'. Returning home at night after mutilating Black men, this rural father jovially relates to the mother how it went:


Then we beat them, he said,

beat them till our arms was tired

and the big old chains messy and red.


In dehumanized logic, the lyncher analyzes the thrill he experiences from this debased act:


Christ, it was better

than hunting bear

which don't know why

you want him dead.


The invocation to Christ here ironically recalls the crucifixion, and the whole tone of the narration implies that this sanctioned perversity is, like the mentality at the death camp, a reversal of affirmative conviction and a clear index to the depth of the diver's descent into darkness.

Janice Harrington: On Robert Hayden’s “Night, Death, Mississippi”

Although its topic is difficult, Hayden's "Night, Death, Mississippi" provides a model of spareness, restraint, and writing that trusts readers.

It's night, when creatures whose vision depends on light are the most vulnerable.  It's Mississippi, where screech-owls are the ominous harbingers of death.

Pulled into the poem by its opening questions, readers overhear an old man wondering about a sound in the night.  They hear his bet that the "cry"comes from an eerily unseen "them." Readers aware of Mississippi's history of racial conflict already suspect the cry's source. The old man, wanting certainty, "turns out the kitchen lamp" and steps into the night. He requires and chooses darkness. In the first section of the poem, Hayden uses an exterior narrator to sketch the old man's character, past, and empty Christianity.  Hayden shows us a man left behind,  who uses drink to celebrate male camaraderie, racial violence,  and the agony of hatred's victims.  The old man is also disappointed and grieves for his lost youth and his inability to take part in the blood-sport.  Hayden describes a gaunt elderly man who is dying or at least represents the living death of racial violence. Yet Hayden suggests that more horrifying than the old man or than what is happening in Mississippi is the romanticization of racial violence: "White robes like moonlight / In the sweetgum dark."   The old man's dreamlike memories of the Klan and the lynching tree seem disconcertingly out of place.

In the poem's second section,  the old man's storytelling grows expansive.  He is ill and lame but not passive.  Instead, through storytelling, he joins in the off-stage drama of a black man's death.  He testifies, makes theatre, and waits to greet the returning "Boy" with fitting gifts: a father's approval and hard liquor.

The old man has passed on racial hatred and violence to his son.  Perhaps he himself was trained in much the same way.  Referring to his son, the old man says "he's earned him a bottle," seeing violence as labor and its wages as alcohol, shared history, communal acceptance, "manhood," and the bonding of fathers and sons. But Hayden shows that the wages of violence are also the old man's broken body and sickness. Violence is both their cause and their result.

The horror is not only what the old man has done, or what his son is doing, but also that neither acts alone.  For the old man's family, racial violence is the family's industry.  They listen to the stories.  They wash the blood. They call the perpetrator "Paw." The woman is not hysterical or disgusted at the sight of another man's blood on her husband's body. What could be more banal to her than killing or death or the murder of a black man?  Fetch water, she says.  Wash off the blood.  Hayden writes wash, not clean.  They can never remove murder's stain.

In the second section, as well, Hayden interjects his voice or the voice of an African-American chorus not only to sing, but also to pass judgment. The lyrical passion of the voices makes their argument against racial violence.  The word lily rescues the cross from the burning white cross of the klan.  Racial violence is old.  From folklore, the voices raise the specter of "rawhead and bloody bones," which for African Americans includes the night rider, the grave robber, and the night's fearsome boogeyman. The voices also argue that racial violence is not a natural product.  The Mississippi night is dark and black, but not evil.  The night is betrayed and all things black are betrayed by a darkness in the minds of the hateful.  The racial violence erupts in an old man's mind, his memory, and his body. We listen to an old man's words, a woman's words, a chorus of voices, and finally we listen to that terrible human cry, which may in some way match our own.