On "A Communication to Nancy Cunard"
"A Communication to Nancy Cunard" emerges from the events surrounding the fourth time the state of Alabama placed on trial some or all of the nine black men and boys (two of whom were thirteen) summarily arrested in 1931 and accused of gang-raping two white women. One trial after another kept exposing newer and deeper fault lines in American racial relations. New York papers were scandalized by a judicial process that was rapid, one-sided and rife with bias, but Alabama newspapers saw as a genuine sign of progress the fact that the defendants had any kind of a trial at all--in the past, they simply would have been lynched. As the trials continued into the 1930s, they became a lightning-rod for committed artists. The appearance of Boyle's poem in the June 9, 1937, issue of the New Republic, for example, prompted a young Miriam Gideon, not yet the acclaimed atonal composer and still a student with Roger Sessions, to set the text to music, with three separate choral societies in New York ready to perform the final work.
It is fitting the poem is addressed to Nancy Cunard, a long-time friend who was given one of the first copies of the poem in February 1937 and who also translated the poem into French in 1948 (as indicated by material in the Boyle Archives at the Southern Illinois University at Carbondale supplied by David Koch). For her Negro Anthology Made by Nancy Cunard, 1931-1933 (1933), she had produced "Scottsboro--and Other Scottsboros," a detailed documentary account, with numerous quotations, of the events leading up to the first trials in 1931-32. Boyle's poem, then (which carries the subtitle "Scottsboro, 1937" in two typescripts), continues and updates the act of witnessing begun by Cunard--as Cunard seems to have recognized when she added a comment in her own hand to her typescript of the poem: "... in this superb poem every word she wrote is factual truth."
Boyle's poem extends further Cunard's documentary approach. In a footnote to the first publication in The New Republic Boyle acknowledges that "much of the detail in this poem is due to Carleton Beals." Beals's coverage of the fourth trial in January 1936 appeared in The Nation (February 5, 1936, with an addendum on February 12). Beals is Boyle's authority for a detail such as the "Sheriff with the gold pin," for the openly racist comments by one of the members of the jury, and for the remarks by the "Sunday-school teacher ... who addressed the jury" (Malvin Hutson, the county's prosecuting attorney). Beals also reported the uncooperative denial ("I cain't remember") by Victoria Price--the woman who refused to drop her charge even though her companion had since testified that the story had been entirely fabricated.
Given this documentary base, it is highly appropriate that the statements by Haywood Patterson that Boyle so carefully reproduces with their spelling and grammatical errors intact originated in correspondence with him. Patterson had learned to read and write in the Alabama prison system after his arrest, and trial coverage by the Daily Worker in 1931 and again in 1936 featured letters by him and other defendants. In the months before the poem was written, as Life points out, Patterson was communicating with Boyle and her family through the mail. An October 20, 1937, letter from Patterson to Boyle's daughter refers to previous exchanges with "Mother Vail" (Boyle was then Mrs. Lawrence Vail). Boyle directed her literary agent to send a check for $7 to Patterson (the same invoice shows her $25 payment from the New Republic for the poem), acknowledging use of his words. Boyle almost certainly had before her an actual letter from Patterson when, in the south of France in early 1937, she composed this poem.