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

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Title Jaime Brunton: On "Night, Death, Mississippi" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Jaime Brunton Criticism Target Robert Hayden
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 14 Jun 2020
Publication Status Original Criticism Publication No Data
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