Monday, July 29, 2013

Monday's Poetry: Lynchings, Then and Now

by Pa Rock
Poetry Appreciator

It’s been nearly a century since the practice of lynching ended in the United States.  Well, at least in theory.  The summary execution of black Americans by vigilantes and members of hate groups, including some who believe they are doing the Lord’s work, continues to this very day.  It’s just that now it has shifted away from the use of ropes – at least for the most part.

The outrageous acquittal of George Zimmerman, a racially focused vigilante who fatally shot and killed an unarmed black teenager, is an obvious example justice being corrupted by race.   Then there was the  Fruitvale Station murder of Oscar Grant, another young black man, by a subway cop in Oakland – as Grant was lying face down on the pavement in handcuffs .  His killer was taken a bit more seriously than George Zimmerman (primarily because bystanders filmed the entire incident - making it impossible for police to rewrite the account of what happened) and had to serve eleven months in prison for willfully taking a human life. 

Having just seen Fruitvale Station yesterday and with President Obama’s remarks about the difficulties facing young black men due to continuing racial prejudice still ringing in my ears, I set out to find a poem about lynching for today’s posting.  Unfortunately it was not an easy task – because there so many from which to choose.

There were three by Langston Hughes that fit the bill:  two dealing with the killing of 14-year-old Emmett Till by members of the Klan (Mississippi – 1955 and The Money Mississippi Blues),  and another (Birmingham Sunday) that focused on the Birmingham church bombing of 1963 that killed four young black girls.   Gwendolyn Brooks, another important black writer, penned a deeply moving poem about Emmett Till entitled A Bronzeville Mother Loiters in Mississippi.  Meanwhile, a Mississippi Mother Burns Bacon.

The two that I found most moving, however, were The Lynching by Claude McKay (one of my very favorite writers and a member of the Harlem Renaissance back in the 1920’s), and jasper texas 1998 by Lucille Clifton.  Ms. Clifton’s poem is related to the killing of James Byrd, Jr, a black man who was tied to the bumper of a pick-up truck and dragged to death.  The two poems bridge the gap between lynchings, then and now.

The Lynching
by Claude McKay

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 awful sin remained still unforgiven.
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.
Day dawned, and soon the mixed crowds came to view
The ghastly body swaying in the sun
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.

jasper texas 1998
by Lucille Clifton

for j. byrd

i am a man's head hunched in the road.
i was chosen to speak by the members
of my body.  the arm as it pulled away
pointed toward me, the hand opened once
and was gone.
why and why and why
should i call a white man brother?
who is the human in this place,
the thing that is dragged or the dragger?
what does my daughter say?
the sun is a blister overhead.
if i were alive i could not bear it.
the townsfolk sing we shall overcome
while hope bleeds slowly from my mouth
into the dirt that covers us all.
i am done with this dust.  i am done.

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