Thierry Ramais: On "Night, Death, Mississippi"

In "Night, Death, Mississippi", Robert Hayden presents us with a dark, anecdotal account of KKK violence against the African-American community. As the poem starts, we are presented with the description of an old, apparently sick man waiting in his house, listening to the sounds of the outside and hearing the cries and screams of a black person being beaten outside, beyond the woods, by white extremists. Leaving the inside of his house to get a better sense of hearing, he then waits their return, in a mixture of enjoyment and nostalgia of not being able to take part in the "action". In the second part of the poem, we are then presented with the account of the extremist friends/members of family who have come back home, enjoying their sense of power over their obviously helpless victim.

In the beginning of the poem, it is through the ears of the old man that we, readers, have to make sense of the action: "A quavering cry. Screech-owl? / Or one of them?" Like the old man, who obviously belongs to "white trash" ("The old man in his reek and gauntness laughs"),we do not know what these sounds outside mean and it is only later that we, as readers, realize the sounds of beating are what this old man was actually looking for. His questions are thus our questions, but the process of identification takes a sudden different twist when the old man speaks; as we discover the nature of his abject feelings and wishes, we are meant to toss any sympathy away and become spectators of his heartlessness ("A cry? A cry alright") and the extent of his romanticized fanaticism becomes more apparent ("Time was. Time was. / White robes like moonlight / in the sweetgum dark").

What is unusual about this first part of the poem is of course the fact that, unlike many other poem about the topic, we are asked by the poet to perform the difficult exercise to actually adopt the perspective of the persecutors rather than the victims. The African-American is actually, from the very start, presented as "other", as distant, as "one of them", that is, not one of "us". As he describes atrocities performed on one of his former victims, "that one", he makes no effort to humanize his description. The victim is the other, "one of them", "squealing", "quavering" like the present one. Interestingly, however, we are not given a clear description of that old man himself, of the auditors (whose perspective we are invited to adopt), of the family or friendship bonds uniting him to the persecutors coming back from the wood, so that, if the victim retains the form of a distant "concept" for us, we, as readers, still have a difficult time adequately adopting the point-of-view of this old persecutor and his clique.

This goes on in the second part of the poem, as the recently returned KKK members recall, not without some pride, their latest "achievement". We know about them only through what they say (and what they say is likely to shock readers), in the same way as we know nothing about the old man except for his description of himself as a persecutor. Interestingly, even though we are thus given some "inside view" into a "family" or small "clan-like" distribution of KKK members, these remain as "faceless" as when they are wearing their robe (the only exception to this being that we know one of them is called "Paw" (which interestingly relates to the animal imagery mentioned earlier in the poem ("it was better / than hunting bear / which don't know why / you want him dead"), but do reverse it (the hunter being given an "animal-like" quality). I also believe that the combination of gruesome stories about the beating and of prayer-like appeals reinforces the animal-like inhumanity of the speakers by contrasting the use of the word "Christ" as an incantation ("O Jesus burning on the lily cross") and as a swear word/interjection ("Christ, it was better than hunting bear") (here "Christ" is almost to be understood as "damn" or "fuck"), and by obviously comparing the sufferings of their African-American victim to those of a Christ-like figure.

 

Copyright © 2004 by Thierry Ramais

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