William J. Maxwell: On "Christ in Alabama"

Here, the stock emblem of the crucified lynch victim is draped over four stanzas framing an apocryphal Christian Trinity: a Scottsboro boy turned "Nigger Christ" with "bleeding," not blood-red painted, mouth; a black mother Mary enjoined to "silence," "Mammy" of this reviled son; and a white master/God-father without pity or love. The evident, iconoclastic political moral of the ensemble is that the South’s champion miscegenationist--"White Master above"--has fingered his black sons for his own sins and chastised them in Scottsboro. Behind this, however, the poet’s enterprise is to build a point-for-point alternative to the anti-rape-lynch triplet of Hughes's Scottsboro drama. "Christ in Alabama" describes an interracial triangle founded on the systematic sexual use of black women by white men, a triangle whose sheer southern pervasiveness was dimmed by the debate over lynching. It thus describes a figure that does not pivot on white women, banish black women, or even successfully triangulate among its three parties. Though a hushed black mother is placed between lines devoted to her white lover and her black son, she is no go-between. Unresolved tension clamps each member of the poem's trio into isolated stances and stanzas. Instead of a homosocial alliance clinched over white women scorned, we end with a black Christ on the cross and the three-way standoff of a frozen family romance, unable to speak its interracial name. The poem's silence on Scottsboro's Two White Women was probably not intended to mollify white Southerners who objected to Communist reports of a frame-up by prostitutes; "Christ in Alabama" stops just short of picturing white southern Christians as a deicidal people. Its substitute triangle may instead have been aimed toward and by radical black women, one of whom--Louise Thompson--guided Hughes to the Soviet Union and passed him early information on the Scottsboro case.

From New Negro, Old Left: African-American Writing and Communism Between the Wars. Copyright © 1999 by Columbia University Press.


Title William J. Maxwell: On "Christ in Alabama" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author William J. Maxwell Criticism Target Langston Hughes
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 28 Sep 2015
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication New Negro, Old Left: African-American Writing and Communism Between the Wars
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