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
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.
|Title||Pontheolla T. Williams: On "Night, Death, Mississippi"||Type of Content||Criticism|
|Criticism Author||Pontheolla T. Williams||Criticism Target||Robert Hayden|
|Criticism Type||Poet||Originally Posted||14 Jun 2020|
|Publication Status||Excerpted Criticism||Publication||Robert Hayden: A Critical Analysis of His Poetry|
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