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' feelingsā€”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 theĀ American heart.


Title John F. Callahan: On "Night, Death, Mississippi" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Criticism Target Robert Hayden
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 14 Jun 2020
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication The Oxford Companion to African American Literature
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