- Culture, Memory, and the Legacies of Lynching
More than fifteen years have passed since the 1997 publication of Joel Williamson’s “Wounds Not Scars: Lynching, the National Conscience, and the American Historian.” In this controversial essay, Williamson confessed to readers of the Journal of American History that he “learned about white people massively lynching black people only as a scholar in the middle years of the 1960s,” and “learned about it by accident” while he was “looking for something else”: the origins of segregation. According to Williamson, “Nothing in my living experience as a southerner and an American, nothing in my training and practice as an historian and a professor, had prepared me for this.” Much has changed in the fifty years since one of the South’s leading historians stumbled upon lynching by accident. Seminal works by Jacqueline Dowd Hall, Trudier Harris, Fitzhugh Brundage, James Allen, and Jacqueline Goldbsy—to name just a few—require that any good training in the field of American studies will acknowledge lynching’s deep and lasting impact upon our national conscience. That impact, of course, is varied and contested, and two recent studies by W. Jason Miller and Julie Buckner [End Page 127] Armstrong indicate that the field continues to attract original and creative voices intent upon expanding our understanding of lynching’s complex legacies.
According to Miller, Langston Hughes and American Lynching Culture is “first full-length study devoted solely to any one writer’s lifelong responses to the subject of lynching.” Ranging widely over Hughes’s career, Miller focuses mainly on seven poems, placing each in the context of what he terms our national “lynching culture,” shorthand for the “varying inflections of lynching that saturated the literal and cultural landscape of the United States throughout the twentieth century.” Attuned thus, Miller persuasively argues that Hughes’s poetry serves as “an important reminder” of how art can respond creatively to “a culture that invented new ways to defer delivering on its promises of equality, free speech, integration, and social justice.” In his opening chapter, Miller reminds us that Hughes composed his first published poem, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” while riding on a train headed south during the Red Summer of 1919. That Hughes discovers his affection for rivers while crossing the Mississippi, and that he does so during a summer of heightened racial violence, requires that we re-interpret the poem “within the context of spectacle lynching.” Understood as such, the poem’s insistence on “reclaiming beauty by overcoming the dangers associated with American riverscapes” allows it to emerge as Hughes’s “first record of personal resistance against the threats of lynching.” This resistance is explored more fully in Miller’s most impressive chapter, a sustained reading of “Christ in Alabama” and “Bitter River” in the context of Scottsboro and the failed anti-lynching legislation of the 1930s and 40s. In an astute reading of the publication history of “Christ in Alabama,” Miller shows how both Hughes and his publisher, the liberal-leaning southern journal Contempo, “paid a dear price for carrying the flag to the field in this particular battle.” Undeterred, Hughes increased his efforts; as Miller notes, Hughes “addressed lynching during this time period [1941–1950] in more poems than he did in the previous two decades combined.” Although lynchings had decreased dramatically during the 1940s, Hughes was outraged by the hypocrisy of fighting a war against racism abroad while ignoring such injustices at home, and fueled by a “passionate desire to keep the subject of lynching alive in the nation’s consciousness,” he crafted some of his most important poems, including his longest meditation on lynching, “Bitter River.”
In his third and fourth chapters, Miller argues that the cultural climate of the 1950s, marked by “blatant censorship and repeated accusations of communism,” forced Hughes “to discover new strategies for responding to lynching in his poetry.” Hughes...