Cary Nelson: On "Christ in Alabama"

 The red-baiting of Hughes is part of a larger phenomenon that includes as well the long-term red-baiting of the civil rights movement. One of its effects has been to keep not only Hughes's more radical poems about class injustice out of print but also to keep many of his most radical and challenging poems about race either out of print or out of anthologies. "Christ in Alabama" is a case in point . . . . For nearly half a century this poem went virtually unremarked in academic literary studies, the only exceptions I know of being a misguided commentary by Stanley Shott in 1974 and a useful passage, quoted below, by Onwuchekwa Jemie two years later:

"Christ is a nigger" in two senses: in the historical sense as a brown-skinned Jew like other Jews of his day, with a brown-skinned mother—both later adopted into the white West and given a lily-white heavenly father; and in the symbolic sense of Jesus as an alien presence, preaching an exacting spirituality, a foreign religion as it were, much as the black man, with his different color and culture, is an alien presence in the South. Each is a scapegoat sacrificed for the society's sins. In particular, the white sin of lust has created a mongrel mulatto race ("most holy bastard") with black slave mothers ("Mamy of the South") and white slavemaster fathers ("White Master above"). And, once created, this race is cast out, disinherited, crucified . . . The cryptic simplicity of "Christ in Alabama" exhibits Hughes at his best . . . There is no decoration or pedantry. The poem is so stark it could almost have been written by a child.

Jemie goes on to say that the poem "evokes the feeling that great art so often evokes: that it could not have been done in any other way." In one sense Jemie is right. "Christ in Alabama," like many other great short poems, possesses an absolute and impeccable economy. No word could be taken away without losing a great deal. It is a miracle of condensation. Yet as Hughes himself would prove, there was indeed another way of presenting the text.

Two hundred years of racial trauma are driven full force into this thirteen-line, forty-seven word poem. It combines this astonishing historical compression with a remarkable level of rhetorical confidence and urgency. Each of the first three stanzas opens and closes in the same way: a concise, riveting definition ("Christ is a Nigger," "Mary is His Mother," "God's His Father") is balanced by an italicized plea or declaration—"O, bare your back," "Silence your mouth," "Grant us your love."

Written in 1931 in response to a request for a poem about the Scottsboro case, circumstances which have been most ably analyzed by Michael Thurston, the poem turns the false accusation of rape lodged against nine young black men back on the South's dominant culture of white privilege and power. The South's real sexual violence, Hughes insists, is the historical violence white men have carried out against black women.

But no prose summary can match the fervor of Hughes's vivid declarations. "Christ is a Nigger" Hughes announces in the opening line, and in that one line a whole ideological field realigns itself to open a new vista on American history. Cast out, vilified, and crucified, the historical Christ returns to earth in serial fashion——in the person of every black man "beaten and black," every slave, every lynching victim, every post-Civil war black denied the full rights of citizenship. The black Christ was, of course, a common enough figure in the preceding decade. Countee Cullen published a long poem with that title; its frontispiece is still one of the notable graphic works of the period [Fig. 20]. But Hughes's bold gesture——linking Christ with America's most notorious racial epithet——makes a more powerful claim. It asks a contemporary American reader to understand the black man as the Christ of our time. Those who crucified Christ are thus linked with every racist white in the modern South. Contemporary Christians do not honor Christ, we may conclude; they gather like Pontius Pilate's Romans to murder him over and over again. The black man in the South serves the same social function as Christ did nearly 2,000 years ago.

Of course the archetypal black victim is the product of rape, especially the white rape of a black woman, for then the white father can repress his paternity by murdering his own son. William Maxwell has recently captured this drama succinctly:

the stock emblem of the crucified lynch victim is draped over four stanzas framing an apocryphal Christian trinity: a Scottsboro boy turned "Nigger Christ" with "bleeding," not blood-red painted, mouth; a black mother Mary enjoined to "silence," "Mammy" of this reviled son; and a white master/God-father without pity or love. The evident, iconoclastic political moral of the ensemble is that the South's champion miscegenationist—"White Master above"—has fingered his black sons for his own sins and chastised them in Scottsboro . . . we end with a black Christ on the cross and the three-way standoff of a frozen family romance, unable to speak its interracial name.

It is that historical family, sanctified only by violence, who enter in stanzas two and three. The South's omnipresent and universally denied trinity—white father, black mother, and ostracized black son—form the background for the South's repeated crucifixion scene: "Nigger Christ / On the cross of the South." There is a Calvary in every southern hamlet, the bleeding, ritualized product of denial and repression.

So much, at least, can be gleaned from the version of the poem Hughes reissued in The Panther and the Lash decades later in 1967. Yet in a very real sense Hughes never actually reprinted the poem. He finally issued a revised—and seriously weakened—version that converts the seven italicized lines to Roman type, thereby undercutting the poem's counterpointing dialogue; drops the capitalization of "Nigger," "Mother," and "Father" at the ends of lines 1, 4, and 7, reducing the parallelism in the definitions; and changes "Grant us your love" to "Grant Him your love," the last change arguably an easier and less complexly compromising plea.

The call and response quality of the original version will be apparent to any reader. The equal mix of Roman and italicized lines turns the poem into a mass choral dialogue. All the participants in the social drama of American race relations call out to one another in pleas and commands of uncanny power. I have divided a large class in half and had, say, the men read the lines in Roman type and the women the italicized lines. The effect is extraordinary, as if the poem were being performed by a Greek chorus, but also substantially unstable and open-ended. For Hughes does not tell us what groups should have responsibility for speaking these lines. Though the poem's general cultural indictment could not be stronger, it isn't easy to apportion or limit responsibility. Karen Ford has written eloquently about the early version of the poem:

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 version. 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.

That is finally what is so uncanny about "Christ in Alabama." It is a poem of searing truths uttered by ambiguous speakers. It is the reader's responsibility to sort through the poem's mobile indictments and negotiate a relationship to them and a level of personal and social responsibility. Just who, for example, utters the commands that conclude the first three stanzas? Who is it who calls on the black Christ to "bare your back" to the slaver's whip and centuries of oppression? Who cries out to the black "Mammy of the South" and urges, warns, orders, or pleads with her "Silence your mouth"? Are these the explicit commands of those in power? Are they, as Ford asks, the counsel of fellow blacks? Are they the implicit laws built into a culture so omnipresent and inexorable they need not be spoken aloud? Are these lines rife with anger or resignation? Are the speakers black or white? As each of the players in this historical tragedy steps forward to claim these lines, the words resound with equal power.

The brevity of the lines gives them the rhythm of refrains in spirituals or work songs, or, as Jemie implied, the simplicity of nursery lines. And the alternation of Roman and italic lines adds a haunting intensity to the poem's lyricism. "Christ in Alabama" is at once a protest against the legacy of slavery and a testament to its inexorable logic. It echoes at once with the sound of the lash and with lamentation.

As the poem proceeds, its referents become, if anything, increasingly less stable. For by the third stanza "Christ in Alabama" is still more powerfully dual—at once hieratical and secular. Its powerful critique cuts two ways, unmasking the faux divinity of white masters, politicians, and fathers and exposing the vulnerable logic of Christian symbolism. For the racialized logic of our secular hierarchies has corrupted Christian images of divine authority. "White Master above / Grant us your love." The lines are directed simultaneously to a human and a divine father; the two destinations are mutually corrupting. No wonder the editors of Contempo, where the poem was first published, instinctively realized the poem was explosive. Its equations depict Christianity as a form of tyranny.

Yet the poem also makes a claim for the spiritual power of black suffering. If Alabama blacks are modern Christs, their mothers modern Marys, then each cast out child is a "holy bastard," sacramental offspring of a brutal social ritual. And every utterance of a racial epithet is a worldly sacrament as well. "Nigger" is always "Nigger Christ," whether or not the sacred name is spoken, or so the poem insists in its fourth and final stanza.

Four lines long in its first published version (Hughes later changed it to five to offer a misleading visual form of resolution), the last stanza takes the form of a final definition that reiterates and solidifies the poem's consistent reasoning. It offers neither resolution nor consolation but rather inescapable confirmation. It reaches out spatially and temporally to name the geography and history of America's longest-running tragedy—"Nigger Christ / On the cross of the South." "Christ in Alabama"'s equivalent stanzas make for a poem of reiteration and intensification. It is an act of witness to the serial repetition of a public nightmare. Held up to us like a declaration and a mirror, it bars the way to the future, demanding that we recognize ourselves before we move on.

The emblematic silhouette by Hughes's longtime companion Zell Ingram above the poem serves much the same function [Fig. 21]. Wounds bared, the black Christ bars our way. We cannot pass beyond him to any alternative resolution. He is at once a victim and a herald. As Michael Thurston writes,

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 again 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 featureless face atop the poem substitutes for Christ's uniqueness the ubiquity of black suffering.

In this powerful illustrated form, with its mixture of Roman and italic lines cutting back and forth across the space of American history, "Christ in Alabama" remained largely unknown for decades, though Hughes's now rare 1932 pamphletScottsboro Limited prints the poem with the same use of italics and thus confirms Hughes's original intentions. There, however, it is accompanied by a Prentiss Taylor illustration that images the nine Scottsboro boys. Arnold Rampersad's 1993 edition of Hughes's Collected Poems unfortunately reprints the modified version from The Panther and the Lash, citing the December 1931 publication in Contempo but taking no note of Hughes's revisions. It is the original version that makes the strongest claim on our attention. Indeed it is one of the most compelling poems in American literature.

From Cary Nelson, Revolutionary Memory: Recovering the Poetry of the American Left, Copyright © Routledge 2001.


Title Cary Nelson: On "Christ in Alabama" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Cary Nelson Criticism Target Langston Hughes
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 28 Sep 2015
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication Revolutionary Memory: Recovering the Poetry of the American Left
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