Robert Shulman: On "Justice"

Hughes put together four of his Scottsboro poems and the verse play in a booklet, Scottsboro Limited, to raise money for the Scottsboro Defense Fund. The copy I used in the Berkeley library is inscribed to another political prisoner, Tom Mooney, the radical who had probably been framed, who had been imprisoned since 1916 for allegedly bombing the Los Angeles Times, and who was the object of repeated "Free Tom Mooney" campaigns. The copy is signed "Langston Hughes."

The collection opens with a four-line poem, "Justice" . . . .

The surface is moderate as Hughes quietly subverts the commonplace about Justice as a blind goddess impartially adjudicating. Instead, "we black[s] are wise" to exactly how blind justice is. Unlike "Letter to the Academy," where the "we" are those in the revolutionary new movement, in "Justice" race is central. Even the apparent typo, "black" instead of "blacks," emphasizes race. Some of Hughes's feelings about southern justice Scottsboro style emerge in the powerful image of the "two festering sores / that once perhaps were eyes." The qualification, "perhaps," opens up an endless prospect of disease, a connotation Hughes underscores in his view of "Dixie justice blind and syphilitic." This prose gloss on the central images of the "blind goddess" and the "festering sores" is from Hughes's Scottsboro essay, "Southern Gentlemen, White Prostitutes, Mill Owners and Negroes," which he wrote at the same time as the republication of "Justice." In the context of Scottsboro is there a subtext in "Justice," a sense that the goddess is not only blind but also white, a white woman with festering syphilitic sores? Has Hughes applied to the deified southern white woman or at least to white justice the stigmata of two of the accused, blindness and syphilis?

For me, "Justice" loses some of its disturbing, subversive power when it is removed from the context of the animating passions and particulars of the Scottsboro case. When Hughes reprinted "Justice" in A New Song, published by the International Workers Order (IWO) in 1938, he did not mention Scottsboro. He did not even connect the poem with Tom Mooney, whose experience deepens the poem, although two pages later Hughes did include his "Chant for Tom Mooney." He also shifted the emphasis from race to class by changing one word: "black" becomes "poor" in A New Song. In the process, we lose the subtext of blind, syphilitic Dixie justice and the specific resonances of Scottsboro, a major instance inspiring and validating the vision of the poem.

"Justice" could usefully be taught along with a group of Hughes's radical poems. This conveniently short, deceptively moderate poem raises the key issue of the importance of historical-political context, of language and energy streaming in from events and circumstances, to paraphrase Josephine Herbst. Scottsboro, the particular historical-political event, is a significant part of what for most students is still the suppressed history of America. In the context of Scottsboro and its suppression, the title, "Justice," invites a complex response. More technically, reading "Justice" in A New Song as part of the sequence "Let America Be America Again" (the 1938, not the usually anthologized version), "Justice," and "Park Bench," gives us a significantly different poem than the one in Scottsboro Limited. Working with the two versions raises the general issues of textual reliability ("black"/ "blacks"?) and textual change (from "black" to "poor") and the particular issue of why or to what effect Hughes made the change. In Hughes's case these technical matters are inseparable from the dynamics of the shifting relations of race and class in 1930s left politics generally and the Popular Front in particular. We will return to these concerns when we look more closely at A New Song.

"Justice" poses still another interpretive issue, because Hughes first published it in 1923 and thus originally Scottsboro was not involved in the meaning of the poem. Placed in its new context in Scottsboro Limited, however, is "Justice" open to the interpretation I have been suggesting or do we ignore the redefinition Scottsboro makes available? How fixed is the meaning of the poem? How do we deal with the different historical contexts, 1923, 1931, 1938? And what role does the interpreter play?

From The Power of Political Art: The 1930s Literary Left Reconsidered. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000. Copyright © 2000 by The University of North Carolina Press.