*This post contains vivid imagery beftting its topic and may not be suitable for more gentle readers.
By W. Jason Miller, author of Langston Hughes and American Lynching Culture
We deserve to be heard when we’ve listened first. Black History Month provides an opportunity to hear about the subject of lynching. Lynching challenges many listeners’ assumptions about America.
Lynchings sometimes lasted for five hours. They often included brutal beating, castration, and burning. Lynch mobs often used chains rather than rope. This prevented the noose from burning over the long course of torture. As a result of heat, eyes exploded. Small children took fingers, teeth, and toes home as souvenirs.
Justice was blind to these events. The term lynching, unlike hanging, means that the murders were committed without juries, testimony, or evidence.
Throughout the twentieth century, the main targets were African Americans. Thousands of these victims were innocent. They were the sons, brothers, sisters, or mothers often killed when the accused could not be located. Or, they were killed for whistling. Those who committed these murders went unpunished even after they posed in broad daylight for photos with their victims. By 1909 sales from lynching postcards featuring these photos reached the staggering sum of $50 million. These were stamped and mailed.
Lynching cannot be a assigned to America’s frontier past. The last officially recorded lynching took place in 1968. In 1998, James Byrd, Jr. was dragged to death by a rope attached to a truck bumper. In 2002, three deaths by hanging were labeled as suicides despite each family’s adamant denials of the investigation’s forensic evidence.
In 2002, a 1.82 million dollar lawsuit was brought against a Chicago company when employees displayed nooses, and another similar $1 million suit was filed in Miami. A total of thirteen different nooses were uncovered between 1998 and 2004 at the Atlanta based Georgia Power company. A noose appeared on the campus of N.C. State University in 2007. In 2008, the desire to lynch Barack Obama was written in spray paint. No one should regard these as trite pranks. The cultural record emphatically reminds us that a noose has nothing to do with political incorrectness. A noose resurrects threats of sadistic murder. The target is African Americans.
Why are there still news stories about the Jena 6? Shouldn’t education have ended this already? Perhaps it might have if the subject of lynching was taught consistently in our institutions. It is not. Lynching is often deemed too graphic for high school students who now won’t even encounter the “n word” when they read Huck Finn. Yet, we wonder, why aren’t there photographs of lynchings in the same textbooks that so willingly present images of Nazi holocaust victims? Not every teacher can be an expert on how to address racism. But, when relevant, most can discuss murder.
College courses sometimes address this issue, but how many engineers, scientists, and businesswomen will take more than the bare requirements of humanities courses? Thus, after seventeen years of formal schooling, many students still picture a hanging scene from a western movie when they hear the word “noose” rather than recall Emmett Till, Ernest Green, or Harry Moore.
Poetry has the power to change this.
No poet spoke about lynching more than Langston Hughes. Behind many of his best poems, the ghosts of lynch victims hover like watermarks on bonded paper.
His anti-lynching poem “Christ in Alabama” was so controversial that Hughes’s appearance at UNC-Chapel Hill on the first day of its publication in 1931 required that a police guard be stationed outside Gerrard Hall for his public reading. Advertizing spots in the magazine where the poem was published immediately dropped from ten to a mere one ad by the very next issue. Addressing lynching was not easy for Hughes or his publishers.
Despite facing intense censorship, Hughes kept responding to lynching throughout his lifetime. His “Dream Deferred” is one the world’s most well-known poems. Here he quietly but assertively interrogated equal opportunity in America by using lynching as a coded analogy. He reactivated the idea of fruit made famous in Billie Holiday’s song “Strange Fruit.” Where Holiday sang of fruit “for the sun to rot,” Hughes updated the metaphor by asking if dreams “dry up like a raisin in the sun?” His poem is America’s most memorable record of the emotional scars left by lynching. Hughes used stealthy imagery to suggest that dreams could be figuratively added to the list of things that could be lynched.
Hughes’s poems move small truths across the waters that divide head from heart. They turn what students didn’t even know into something they can feel. And though a classroom is a small court, it is a place where lynch victims can get a hearing.
Literature is news that never goes out of print: it’s in constant circulation and perpetual demand. After reading Hughes, students get racism. So, we save the humanities because its humanitarians work to make us human.
We cannot fear the Neuse only when it floods.
Jason Miller is a Professor of English at North Carolina State University. He is the author of Langston Hughes and American Lynching Culture and Origins of the Dream: Hughes’s Poetry and King’s Rhetoric.