The Lynching

Nilay Gandhi: On "The Lynching"

"The Lynching" speaks to the cultural cancellation of the African-American race in the 1920s. Its form is a striking variation on the Italian sonnet. Much of the Italian sonnet's aesthetic appeal is its ability to go slowly, cruise the reader through a description and then a calm conclusion, in contrast to the quick abab rhymes and epiphany of  the final couplet (gg) in a Shakespearean (or the variant Spenserian) sonnet. Accordingly, the octave in this poem follows the traditional Italian form, rhyming abbacddc. The concluding sestet breaks form, rhyming effegg. The embedded third quatrain makes the poem mimic a Shakespearean sonnet (three quatrains and a couplet). Because of  this formal duality, it might be difficult to call "The Lynching" Italian or Shakespearean; the key is the poetic pace -- the reflective tone is more indicative of an Italian sonnet and so the poem can be primarily characterized as such. It largely follows the Italian rhyme scheme but has Shakespearean organization.

The Italian form rhetorically draws out both quatrains, forces the reader to mull over the event and not get caught up in verse. The octave's slow pace works well in describing the lynched man and his death. Line four, "The awful sin remained still unforgiven," is end-stopped with a period. Thus, we have the slight pause of the line's end together with  the full stop, a longer caesura. This technique is repeated in the second quatrain, and in the third with a semicolon. These "hypercaesurae," caused by combining natural rhythmic breaks and punctuation, allow us to read the quatrains independently. The reader is forced to consider each quatrain for a moment, and then move on with the poem. We are made to read and evaluate simultaneously.

The first eight lines offer a description of the lynched man's general oneness with the night, Heaven, and his own culture. In line one we see him ascend to Heaven. In the second quatrain, the "bright and solitary star" (5) may represent the North star which slaves were told to follow when running away from their masters, "Perchance  the one that ever guided him" (6). The use of "ever" would suggest a universal  struggle for the African-American, positing this early 20th century lynching as a remnant of slavery itself. While this content offers an interesting notion of the separation between the blacks' heritage and whites' continuous present (always existing in the domination of  a moment), it is all again intensified through form. The two-line space between the primary rhymes (aa and cc) adds pause to the hypercaesura, poignantly draws out each image, and heightens the despair.

The subject of the poem is hanged at night and related to the star that does not shine during the day. The relation between the man and night is emphasized at the poem's ninth line, the traditional turning point (volta) in an Italian sonnet. The sestet opens with "Day dawned" (9). The new day occurs simultaneously with the introduction of  "the mixed crowds [that] came to view" (9). We have, therefore, a juxtaposition of the unnatural and the natural: death/night against life/day. Whereas the octave describes logistically unreal events of a spirit's ascension, the sestet focuses on the tangible and earthly. The speaker creates a disparaging oneness between the racist and the  world. It is not only that these people are evil but that the world itself is evil. While the women's eyes in line 12 may very well be blue, the introduction of the day suggests an implicit parallel between the eyes and the color of the sky, between the racist and Nature. It is a hyperbole meant to demonstrate the power of the lynchers, that they could even control the uncontrollable. The body is "ghastly" (10) and later it is a "dreadful thing" (14). It loses any sense of human identification. Contrastingly, the crowds seem normal; the speaker offers no negative description through line 12. Lynching becomes not only  accepted but natural.

This is why McKay breaks the Italian form. The added quatrain and lengthened pauses have us pensively consider the descriptions. The couplet is a way of saying nothing that preceded it makes sense. In describing the children as "fiendish" dancers (14), the lynchers are at last presented as wholly evil and so Nature and Fate (7) are evil.  Through the dominance of a people, whites dominate the order of things. The redemption the man receives in the afterlife, a parallel drawn between the lynched and the Holy Spirit (1) and his dead father and God (2), combines with the rest of the poem to provide a political statement: the oppressor may own the world but the oppressed are the children of God. The final couplet negates the black race's societal worth. The children are born with evil spirits, "lynchers that were to be" (13). Unlike McKay's "The White City" which presents economic problems that can be fought, the link between the racist and the world in "The Lynching" demonstrates how ingrained racism is in the  American society. It leaves no hope outside of the afterlife. Racism is the greatest of all troubles, as natural as the day; one so rooted in the culture that the blacks cannot overcome it. They are the hopeless.

Copyright © 2003 by Nilay Gandhi

Joshua Eckhardt: On "The Lynching"

“The Lynching” opens with the ascension of the victim’s “Spirit” to his “father” in “high heaven.” It continues in this vein to offer what most readers (including McKay himself) would consider a patently inadequate explanation for the lynching:

His Spirit in smoke ascended to high heaven.

His father, by the cruelest way of pain,

Had bidden him to his bosom once again; 

                            (“The Lynching” ll. 1-3)

God the father himself has called the victim to heaven. While this religious account of lynching may explain the roles of the victim and his heavenly father in the event—and do so to the frustration of the lynchers—it does not explain away the lynching itself; it does not alleviate the guilt of the lynchers. Indeed, the poem continues to affirm their guilt and to deny them any means of forgiveness: “The awful sin remained unforgiven” (l. 4). This effectively refuses lynchers any access to the divine-human relationship highlighted in the opening lines. The force of this line draws on the conventional association of lynch victims with the crucified Christ, made explicit in Countee Cullen’s book jackets and Langston Hughes’ “Christ in Alabama.” This association is hinted at in the opening lines, which sound rather Christian with the father welcoming the son ascending, &c. But the association between the lynch victim and Christ is even more central when the analogy would seem to break down in line 4. If “[t]he awful sin remained still unforgiven,” this is not simply because, unlike the crucifixion, the lynching is not adequate to atone for sins. Line 4 is quite clear that the lynchers’ sin is not forgiven by any means, Christ’s crucifixion included. Neither the lynch victim’s nor Christ’s murder is capable of forgiving unrepentant lynchers, viewing the body without sorrow, dancing around it in glee. They remain unforgiven.

In so far as “The Lynching” refuses racists any access to God, it participates in the same move made in the second half of “To the White Fiends.” After turning racist associations of blackness and savagery against racists, “To the White Fiends” also asserts God’s particular love for the persecuted African American before his enemies. The result is that whether the “white fiends” subscribe to the confused notions of black savagery in the first half of the poem, and/or the vaguely Christian framework in the second, they are restricted from their own ideological apparatus. In the second half, the speaker claims that the “Almighty” has created the former’s soul out of “darkness” and set him on earth to be, paradoxically, a light.

But the Almighty from the darkness drew

My soul and said: Even thou shalt be a light

Awhile to burn on the benighted earth,

Thy dusky face I set among the white

For thee to prove thyself of higher worth;

Before the world is swallowed up in night,

To show thy little lamp: go forth, go forth! 

                            (“To the White Fiends” ll. 8-14)

The speaker only needs to answer this divine commission, and the savage fiends of the first half of the poem will have to run from his divine light. Understandably, this is a more optimistic ending than that of a poem about lynching. In “To the White Fiends,” whether the speaker emphasizes his African lineage or his divine favor, he promises to confront the white fiends with forces inaccessible to them. “The Lynching” cannot be so optimistic. The lynch victim has clearly not been kept from the savagery of the white fiends by either “Afric” or “the Almighty.” And so, to continue reading “The Lynching” in terms of “To the White Fiends,” God has lost another light, as the world is increasingly “swallowed up in night.” In other words, as the victim’s spirit departs from the world in “The Lynching,” it would seem that the divine light of “To the White Fiends” departs with him. Indeed, in the second quatrain of “The Lynching,” the only light is far above the earth.

All night a bright and solitary star

(Perchance the one that ever guided him,

Yet gave him up at last to Fate’s wild whim)

Hung pitifully o’er the swinging char. 

                            (“The Lynching” ll. 5-8)

The rest of the poem is dominated by the unrepentant on-lookers who ensure the lineage of white fiends:

The women thronged to look, but never a one

Showed sorrow in her eyes of steely blue.


And little lads, lynchers that were to be,

Danced round the dreadful thing in fiendish glee.

                            (“The Lynching” ll. 11-14)

These generations of lynchers would seem to have defeated both the African and the religious forces brought against them in “To the White Fiends.” The divine light that God set aggressively upon the earth in “To the White Fiends” has given the lynch victim over “to Fate’s wild whim.” And God is reduced to a father welcoming his returning son far off.

Copyright © 2001 by Joshua Eckhardt