- The Enigmatic Career of Hernton's Scarecrow
The late Calvin Hernton's sociological and critical works—especially Sex and Racism in America (1965) and The Sexual Mountain and Black Women Writers (1987)—tended to overshadow his poems and his novel. The following interview transcripts are presented in an attempt to correct this situation by calling readers' attention to the richness of polyvocal resonance and the erudite counterpoint of layered meanings in his fiction and poetry.1 In the interviews Hernton focused upon a figure that reappears throughout his work—the strangely authoritative and enigmatic scarecrow.
The scarecrow makes an early appearance in the poem "Scarecrow" (1962?). In the poem's desolate and loveless urban wasteland, the scarecrow's present "rotten rag and dead corn silk . . . death in sawdust and brittle semen" contrasts with a lost pastoral, prelapsarian time in which a woman had brought him "countryside and milk." Paired images—"stone-webbed ears"/ "elephant ears"; magnolia/chrysanthemum; "bones of spiders"/ "skeletons of rat's claw"; "iron teeth grind[ing] up earth"/ "obsolete locomotives"—juxtapose earlier with later times to unify the poem (Medicine Man 41). The scarecrow appears briefly in other poems of this period, again playing a major role in The Coming of Chronos to the House of Nightsong: An Epical Narrative of the South (1964). Here, he is the mixed-race child of Eleanor Nightsong, a racist plantation owner with multiple personalities who embodies the South's teeming animal and botanical fertility; pigeons once roosted in her hair. But as a result of the Civil Rights Movement, Eleanor finds "the mysterious scarecrow of my conscience [. . .] the mysterious scarecrow from the field," who used to knock on her door at midnight, has abandoned her house and bolted all its doors.
Scarecrow and Eleanor belong to the group of mixed couples whose relations Hernton dissected in the famous Sex and Racism in America. In the volume, Hernton used his training as a sociologist to report on heterosexual attitudes and relations across the color line. His unstated thesis: the repression of sexual desire between black and white people led to a mixture of shame, guilt, fear, hatred, and jealousy that held racism in place or made it worse. The principal characters in the novel Scarecrow (1974) seem to have been developed partly from this material.2
The novel tracks Scarecrow, a writer, who has just strangled his white ex-wife and brought a trunk with her dismembered body aboard a ship bound for England. He pursues a passionate shipboard romance with a black woman, Maria, who has left her white husband. Scarecrow is also attracted to Hellos, a psychic, disturbed white woman. Maria, Scarecrow, and Hellos are surrounded by a bevy of drunken beatnik poets, junkie models, and racist crackers. Dr. Yas, an "existential psychiatrist specializing in schizophrenia," performs therapy on some of these characters, perhaps the only stable person among [End Page 608] them. From time to time, Scarecrow throws pieces of his ex-wife's body into the sea. The two jealous women, Maria and Hellos, generate too much tension for Scarecrow to withstand—he jumps overboard himself. Once rescued, he accidentally takes LSD and passes through dreamlike hallucinations. Then Hellos disappears, and a Dutch police inspector named Cederberge comes aboard to investigate. Scarecrow is the suspect; a crippled dwarf named Euston, the terrified witness. Before Scarecrow can be arrested, however, he gets into a knockdown, drag-out wrestling match with Maria, a powerful woman. The two inflict fatal wounds, and so the novel ends.
Clearly, Hernton meant to inscribe Scarecrow in the tradition of Richard Wright's Bigger Thomas, and transpose the Native Son narrative to an interracial cultural scene, such as might be found in New York's Lower East Side in the 1960s. But Scarecrow also has violent psychotic episodes associated with internal glass walls and mirrors (partly the result of a childhood marked by racism). He is a figure in an allegorical world populated by other mythical figures, black and white, who have been condemned to repeat their baleful roles in the history of human oppression. In the interviews, Hernton explains that he has written about the scarecrow...