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Langston Hughes and American Lynching Culture by W. Jason Miller (review)

From: College Literature
Volume 41, Number 2, Spring 2014
pp. 148-150 | 10.1353/lit.2014.0020

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W. Jason Miller’s Langston Hughes and American Lynching Culture opens with this observation: “Langston Hughes never lived in an America where the very real threat of lynching did not exist” (1). Despite this fact, an in-depth study of Hughes’s relationship to these gruesome events that marked his lifetime has not been undertaken until now. While often acknowledged as a prevalent theme, no one has previously shown how the violence of lynching fundamentally shaped this titanic twentieth-century writer. Miller’s argument is similar to Abdul R. JanMohamed’s The Death-Bound Subject (2005), which analyzes how the constant “imminent threat of death” determined the work of Richard Wright. Miller, however, employs different methodologies. With thick descriptions of social contexts and nuanced close readings, he combines cultural studies, biography, and textual criticism in order to trace the lines of connection between Hughes’s literary production and the cultural formations engendered by lynching. The result not only illuminates a (if not the) defining aspect of Hughes’s oeuvre but also offers a model for analyzing the relationship between violence and the literary arts.

Miller’s is a tightly constructed study that draws on a range of fields to tell the story of Hughes’s “lifelong commitment to singing out against lynching” convincingly (67). It builds on recent work on lynching culture in American modernity. For instance, it is indebted to Jacqueline Goldsby’s A Spectacular Secret (2006), a work that brilliantly details the “cultural logic” of lynching, and Adam Gussow’s Seems Like Murder Here (2002), which examines the intimate relationship between racialized violence and African-American expressive forms. However, aspects of Miller’s conceptual framework could have been more fully articulated in order to flesh out how Hughes negotiated lynching culture. Some key terms—such as “passing,” to discuss Hughes’s work during the 1950s, and “topophobia,” to discuss the relationship between race and the environment—were highly suggestive but would have benefited from more sustained engagement. At times, this study also moves too quickly. For instance, in the third chapter, Miller begins to examine the relationship between jazz and violence in Hughes’s poetry, but then the focus suddenly shifts to the idea of photographic montage. The jazz-violence relationship is never fully explicated. Despite these slippages, Miller successfully demonstrates the necessity of an interdisciplinary approach to the study of the intersections of violence and cultural production.

Proceeding chronologically, the book opens with Hughes’s first published poem, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” reconsidering it as part of a swirl of concerns—personal experience, news-media messages, and a bloody social landscape—overdetermined by lynching. This canonical poem, as Miller explains, is a “meditative lyric” about how African Americans have survived on and near rivers (38). Miller crucially establishes lynching as the larger context for this meditation. He recontextualizes this standard reading, showing how Hughes reclaims riverscapes where lynching took place and battered Black bodies were displayed from bridges. With careful attention to historical records, this chapter convincingly reimagines this poem’s scene of composition in the wake of the Red Summer of 1919 while Hughes passed through the South on a train, crossing river after river. Hughes traveled through Texas shortly after a young man about his age, Lige Daniels, was brutally murdered. The chapter includes a photograph of this horrifying event, reminding us that images of mutilated black people freely circulated in the media throughout Hughes’s lifetime. In fact, as Miller explains, from a very young age Hughes regularly encountered such images and reportage of the perverse spectacles that often accompanied lynching.

After establishing the ways in which a young Hughes worked through the terrors of “mob” and “spectacle lynching” in the 1920s, the second chapter focuses on “legal lynching.” Revisiting the Scottsboro case through historiography and Hughes’s lesser-known poems, essays, and personal correspondence, Miller builds a context to reconsider “Christ in Alabama.” Miller resituates this poem, which engages with a long tradition of the Black Christ in African-American culture, as part of Hughes’s campaign against lynching. Initially, this reframing seems to point out the obvious—that Hughes is dealing with social justice—but it does more than that: similar...

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