- Langston Hughes and American Lynching Culture by W. Jason Miller
W. Jason Miller’s Langston Hughes and American Lynching Culture is an important contribution to recent scholarship attempting to understand lynching within [End Page 675] a broad American context. Most analysis of lynching and literary responses to it focuses on the period between 1880 and 1920, when the number of lynchings in the United States was highest. Unlike other scholars, Miller’s analysis starts around 1920 with Hughes’s poem “The Negro Speaks of Rivers.” By focusing on Hughes and his commentary on American lynching culture, Miller demonstrates how such a culture has had and continues to have an enduring legacy. Hughes’s marginalization within discussions of literary contributions to American lynching culture has persisted even within the recent scholarship. In addition to historical period, such persistence can be explained through relatively narrow definitions of “lynching.” Miller expands on received definitions, and explains that “American lynching culture” suggests “that lynching is a uniquely American practice that was enacted, sustained, and tolerated by a complex interplay of socioeconomic, psychological, racial, sexual, and political motives” (4). Miller offers his most provocative analysis in his latter chapters, when he incorporates visual culture into his analysis and argues for understanding domestic terrorism as part of American lynching culture. The other three types of lynching framed in Miller’s analysis are spectacle lynching, legal lynching, and mob lynching. He highlights the following works: “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” Scottsboro Limited, “Christ in Alabama,” “The Bitter River,” “Not for Publication,” “Dream Deferred,” “The Negro,” and “Mississippi.”
In chapter one, through Hughes’s 1919 poem “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” Miller argues that Hughes reclaims an African American pastoral tradition through riverscapes. For African Americans, rivers were sites of terror because black bodies were usually hung and left as warnings under bridges. Once acknowledging this historical reality, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” reinterprets rivers to provide assurance to Hughes and other African Americans as they travel. Hughes had to pass through Texas in the summer of 1919 to spend time with his father in Mexico. As Miller reminds us, in Hughes’s youth, black teenage boys were regularly lynched, and Texas led the nation in lynchings. One of the state’s most infamous “spectacle lynchings” took place on May 15, 1916 with the death of seventeen-year-old Jesse Washington. In its extensive coverage in Crisis, the NAACP labeled the lynching the “Waco horror.” Although Hughes passed through Texas before Washington’s lynching, the state was well known for the violence that could take place. Miller argues that Hughes’s sense of vulnerability as a teenager informed his political identification with black boys subjected to such terror their entire lives.
In chapter two, we see further evidence of such concern and affiliation in “Christ in Alabama” (1931) and Scottsboro Limited (1932). Miller points out that Hughes uses a novelization technique in “Christ in Alabama,” a technique that through its focus on more than one voice provides Hughes with an effective way to reach multiple audiences. Miller cites the Scottsboro case as an example of “legal lynchings.” On March 25, 1931, nine young black men riding a freight train were arrested and charged with raping two white women also on the train. Evidence proves both women lied. Despite such evidence “these men spent at least six and a half years in prison for a crime they clearly did not commit. Two men spent more than seventeen years in jail” (43-44). Miller situates this lynching within the classic lynching narrative, where white communities needed to protect a white woman’s honor. Usually, a black man’s punishment for such violation would be a torturous death. Hughes’s work consistently challenges that narrative by positioning black men as Christ-like figures. Prentiss Taylor’s last lithograph cover for Scottsboro Limited also uses crucifixion imagery. While Hughes’s poem caused an uproar the morning it appeared in Contempo magazine, the public allowed him much more latitude when it came to nonpoetic expression, as with the drama Scottsboro Limited...