J. Lee Greene

J. Lee Greene: On "White Things"

[W]hat caused her to put the poem on paper was her reading in Monroe Work’s Negro Year Book the account of a pregnant black woman who was seized by a lynch mob and cut through the abdomen to kill her and her unborn child. The incident to which she referred probably was the one reported in Work’s Negro Year Book for 1918 (which gives a clue to the approximate date "White Things" was composed). Work mentions the lynching, but does not record the specific details Mrs. Spencer recounted to me. Though the story was reported by several journalists in many publications, it just might be that she read Walter White’s account of this same lynching, published in Thirty Years of Lynching in the United States (1919):

Georgia, 1918

Hampton Smith, a white farmer, had the reputation of ill treating his Negro employees. Among those whom he abused was Sidney Johnson, a Negro peon, whose fine of thirty dollars he had paid when he was up before the court for gaming. After having been beaten and abused, the Negro shot and killed Smith as he sat in his window at home He also shot and wounded Smith’s wife.

For this murder a mob of white men of Georgia for a week, May 17 to 24, engaged in a hunt for the guilty man, and in the meantime lynched the following innocent persons: Will Head, Will Thompson, Hayes Turner, Mary Turner, his wife, for loudly proclaiming her husband’s innocence, Chime Riley and four unidentified Negroes. Mary Turner was pregnant and was hung by her feet. Gasoline was thrown on her clothing and it was set on fire. Her body was cut open and her infant fell to the ground with a little cry, to be crushed to death by the heel of one of the white men present. The mother’s body was then riddled with bullets. The murderer, Sidney Johnson, was at length located in a house in Valdosta.

The house was surrounded by a posse headed by the Chief of Police and Johnson, who was known to be armed, fired until his shot gave out, wounding the Chief. The house was entered and Johnson found dead. His body was mutilated. After the lynching more than 500 Negroes left the vicinity of Valdosta, leaving hundreds of acres of untilled land behind them.

White’s account corresponds in detail here to what Mrs. Spencer told me about the incident which precipitated "White Things."

The poem follows her usual structural scheme, but in reverse; it moves from a quiet, positive tone to one of defiance and determination, climaxing in a powerful statement of its theme. She uses the traditional connotations of white and black (good and evil, positive and negative), only to reverse these connotations through imagery and language and thus retrieve the poem from that category of so many racial protest poems which are rendered ineffective as time passes either because of their racial romanticism (melodramatic laments about the plight of blacks in America or sentimental longings for a remote African past) or because such poems are mere rhetoric clothed in seemingly contrived tones of anger and indignation. A finely executed protest poem, and perhaps one of her best poems, "White Things" closely interweaves natural scenery with motifs of freedom and human frailties, with religious overtones.

[quotes poem]

One of the basic statements of the poem comes in the second line: "Black men are most men, but the white are free." The first stanza proposes through images of natural scenery that white men have erected a human hierarchy based on whiteness. Perhaps alluding remotely to Scandinavian military history and the conquest of western European nations, and referring more specifically to the spread of western European civilization in the Americas, the poem’s first stanza asserts that whites "stole from out a silvered world—somewhere" on their imperialistic quest, and "Finding earth-plains fair plains, save greenly grassed, / They strewed white feathers of cowardice, as they passed." Their violation of nature prefaced their destructive campaign to subjugate human nature and deprive other men of the human right to be free. Continually narrowing its scope from the general (black men referring to the dark-skinned peoples of the world) to the more specific (black Americans), the poem does not limit its reference in the first stanza to the dominance of white over black, but through color imagery includes the red man among the "colorful things," and, therefore, begins to develop more specific implications for American civilization.

The fundamental analogy in the first stanza is one between nature and men of color. Both have been violated and subjugated by white men’s "lances fine " With a maniacal drive to wield power and spread whiteness, white men have blanched "The hills all red and darkened pine . . . / And turned the blood in a ruby rose / To a poor white poppy-flower."

The structural device of general to particular shows a careful balance and transition between the two stanzas, the metaphors and images easily and smoothly giving way to the more specific message of the poem, unveiled in the second stanza. Stanza two decries the white race’s hostility in America toward the black race. The old phrase "the only good nigger is a dead nigger" (a slight modification of the phrase used for the red man) is dramatized in this stanza, because only after the black man’s destruction does the white man see him in any favorable light. After the lynching, after the burning, "Laughing, a young one claimed a skull, / For the skull of a black is white, not dull, / But a glistening awful thing." The claiming of the skull recalls the practice of whites collecting souvenirs from their victims during the usually festive atmosphere of a lynching scene. At the same time the lines suggest the likeness of men ("For the skull of a black man is white, not dull") in that all men are men and are basically alike in the eyes of God. Important is the irony in this stanza: the "ghoul" is attracted to his victim only after the victim’s blackness has been "pyred" into "ashes white." The overwhelming paradox of the first lines of this stanza (and in the poem as a whole) is that to destroy the symbol of the black man’s spirituality, his color, is to destroy his essence. The objective of whiteness is to reign supreme, and necessarily subjugate or destroy all in its path.

The concluding four lines of the poem take a sharp twist and reverse the universal connotations of black and white, for the young white man who "claimed" the skull is the "ghoul." And though he is attracted only to the whiteness of the skull, at this point white itself is negative. The lines suggest that the psychological sustenance for whites is in destroying blackness. The last four lines, which contain the essential meaning for the entire poem, must be read together to grasp the continuity of their meaning.

The concerns of the two stanzas culminate in the last four lines. In the first stanza the white man has tried to dominate nature—both physical objects and human beings. God is nature, and in trying to control nature the white man has endeavored to control God, which the concluding lines of the second stanza reiterate. Destruction of the black man is a destruction of God’s works, and in doing so the white man with his "wand of power" has defied God and damned the majority of His creations—"colorful things." In his obsession with whiteness the white man is essence has demanded: "Man-maker, make white"; that is, that white things be the only things of worth in this world.