Night, Death, Mississippi

“Night, Death, Mississippi”

By Robert Hayden

I.
A quavering cry. Screech-owl?
Or one of them?
The old man in his reek
and gauntness laughs —

One of them, I bet —
and turns out the kitchen lamp,
limping to the porch to listen
in the windowless night.

Be there with Boy and the rest
if I was well again.
Time was. Time was.
White robes like moonlight

In the sweetgum dark.
Unbucked that one then
and him squealing bloody Jesus
as we cut it off.

Time was. A cry?
A cry all right.
He hawks and spits,
fevered as by groinfire.

Have us a bottle,
Boy and me —
he’s earned him a bottle —
when he gets home.

II.
Then we beat them, he said,
beat them till our arms was tired
and the big old chains
messy and red.

O Jesus burning on the lily cross

Christ, it was better
than hunting bear
which don’t know why
you want him dead.

O night, rawhead and bloodybones night 

You kids fetch Paw
some water now so’s he
can wash that blood
off him, she said.

O night betrayed by darkness not its own

From Pontheolla T. Williams' Robert Hayden: A Critical Analysis of His Poetry:

“The poem is Hayden’s most devastating attack on lynching as what was, even in the sixties, an integral part of southern society. The poem reveals how the neo-chivalric elements in southern society and the deep-seated theoretical and pragmatic aspects of lynching have become pervasive – a way of life – at the level of the common redneck who participates in a treasured spectacle that relieves the monotony of his dull and empty life.”

Video Clip from the Movie “Mississippi Burning”:
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Taking Control Of Identity: Sarah Kay’s “The Type”

The following is a poem written and spoken by Sarah Kay:


The Type

 

Everyone needs a place. It shouldn’t be inside of someone else. -Richard Siken

 

If you grow up the type of woman men want to look at,
you can let them look at you. But do not mistake eyes for hands.

 

Or windows.
Or mirrors.

 

Let them see what a woman looks like.
They may not have ever seen one before.

 

If you grow up the type of woman men want to touch,
you can let them touch you.

 

Sometimes it is not you they are reaching for.
Sometimes it is a bottle. A door. A sandwich. A Pulitzer. Another woman.

 

But their hands found you first. Do not mistake yourself for a guardian.
Or a muse. Or a promise. Or a victim. Or a snack.

 

You are a woman. Skin and bones. Veins and nerves. Hair and sweat.
You are not made of metaphors. Not apologies. Not excuses.

 

If you grow up the type of woman men want to hold,
you can let them hold you.

 

All day they practice keeping their bodies upright–
even after all this evolving, it still feels unnatural, still strains the muscles,

 

holds firm the arms and spine. Only some men will want to learn
what it feels like to curl themselves into a question mark around you,

 

admit they do not have the answers
they thought they would have by now;

 

some men will want to hold you like The Answer.
You are not The Answer.

 

You are not the problem. You are not the poem
or the punchline or the riddle or the joke.

 

Woman. If you grow up the type men want to love,
You can let them love you.

 

Being loved is not the same thing as loving.
When you fall in love, it is discovering the ocean

 

after years of puddle jumping. It is realizing you have hands.
It is reaching for the tightrope when the crowds have all gone home.

 

Do not spend time wondering if you are the type of woman
men will hurt. If he leaves you with a car alarm heart, you learn to sing along.

 

It is hard to stop loving the ocean. Even after it has left you gasping, salty.
Forgive yourself for the decisions you have made, the ones you still call

 

mistakes when you tuck them in at night. And know this:
Know you are the type of woman who is searching for a place to call yours.

 

Let the statues crumble.
You have always been the place.

 

You are a woman who can build it yourself.
You were born to build.

In this poem, the speaker’s address to woman comes as a call of arms. Throughout, the poem places the ‘you’ as the direct agent of the verb, the subject that is acting. Thus, the poem strains against the objectification and mistreatment of women, while simultaneously striving to give identity to women that is not limited to ideas of victimization. The final lines emphasize this call to action, taking a typical anecdote and twisting the meaning; men usually are the ones who are associated with building things, but here, it is the woman who does not need to rely on man in order to build, she is just able to build by herself. This is played out in the poem’s agency. The woman can ‘let’ the man look at her, but it is a choice, an action. This claiming of agency makes this poem very much rooted in defining an identity. Similarly, it brings to play a social topic of sexuality and the idea of equality between men and women. The call for action places this poem directly under the realm of social action.

Christ in Alabama

Langston Hughes stirred up quite a bit of controversy with the poem, due to the implications of the entire poem and allegations of blasphemy.

Christ is a nigger,

Beaten and black:

Oh, bare your back!

Mary is His mother:

Mammy of the South,

Silence your mouth.

God is His father:

White Master above

Grant Him your love.

Most holy bastard

Oh the bleeding mouth,

Nigger Christ

On the cross of the South

First, this poem takes the Christian identity, the predominant religion of America’s majority white population, and draws parallels to the struggle of African Americans in history.  The comparison depicts black males as beaten, black females as voiceless, and white males as omni-potent. The poem was clearly thought out, from the important biblical figures to the symbol of the cross. In Christianity the cross represents the punishment Jesus took from the Romans for the sins of humanity. So when Hughes writes “On the cross of the South” he means “How much more punishment must we endure?” Almost as important to the allusion of redemption is the lack of Easter.  This poem has no newly risen hero, but a long suffering victim.  The poem uses simple words and structure, but opens the eyes of its audience by reminding them that the near blasphemy of the poem isn’t nearly as horrifying as the contextual history. One of the most effective blasphemies in the poem is the beginning of the last stanza “Most holy bastard of the bleeding mouth.” It reminds the audience that Jesus had no father on Earth to claim him, as no plantation owner would claim a slave child his own. The bleeding mouth is particularly jarring because it alludes to speaking and being punished for it. Hughes points at the social injustices that continue in the South through biblical comparison, and leaves the audience to wonder how long the crucifixion must last before there will be salvation.

On the 50th Anniversary of President Kennedy’s Assassination

Today we remember the assassination of John F. Kennedy, President and poetry advocate. Less than one month before his death, he gave a speech at Amherst College to honor poet Robert Frost. The following quotations are excerpts from his speech.

A nation reveals itself not only by the men it produces but also by the men it honors, the men it remembers …

The men who create power make an indispensable contribution to the nation’s greatness, but the men who question power make a contribution just as indispensable, especially when that questioning is disinterested, for they determine whether we use power or power uses us …

When power leads man toward arrogance, poetry reminds him of his limitations. When power narrows the areas of man’s concern, poetry reminds him of the richness and diversity of his existence. When power corrupts, poetry cleanses, for art establishes the basic human truths which must serve as the touchstones of our judgment.

If sometimes our great artists have been the most critical of our society, it is because their sensitivity and their concern for justice, which must motivate any true artist, make them aware that our nation falls short of its highest potential.”

A Poem on Death, Grief, and Social Injustice:
From Robert Hayden’s “Words in Mourning Time”

For King, for Robert Kennedy,
destroyed by those they could not save,
for King for Kennedy I mourn.
And for America, self destructive, self-betrayed.

I grieve. Yet know the vanity
of grief – through power of
The Blessed Exile’s
transilluminating word

aware of how these deaths, how all
the agonies of our deathbed childbed age
are process, major means whereby,
oh dreadfully, our humanness must be achieved.

 

The Spoken Word Legacy: Patrick Rosal and Sarah Kay

As a major re-birth of the oral aspect of poetry, the effects of slam poetry can be seen in many living poets today. Two poets with different backgrounds offer insight into how claiming an identity and interacting directly with an audience has shaped contemporary social justice poetry.
The son of Philippine immigrants, Patrick Rosal has published three books of poetry: Boneshepherds, My American Kundiman, and Uprock Headspin Scramble and Dive. He has received many different awards and fellowships such as a Fulbright Fellowship to the Philippines. 

Sarah Kay is the co-director and founder of Project VOICE, an initiative to bring poetry to youth. The author of the book B, she works as an editor for Write Bloody Publishing and has given many talks about poetry including one presented at the 2011 TED Conference. In 2006, she was the youngest poet competing at the National Poetry Slam.

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“The Confines of Labels”: Hayden’s Rejection of the “Black Poet”

Robert Hayden was born Asa Bundy Sheffey on August 4th, 1913. He was raised by poor and uneducated foster parents. Extreme nearsightedness limited his participation in athletics, so he turned to literature.

“He loved books because they took him out of his environment, partly because they fed his imagination with experiences he had never know, but mostly, perhaps, because he was beginning to love the words themselves” (Hatcher 8-9).

Family relationships during his childhood were difficult due to the tension that he was not his adoptive parents’ real son, and that his artistic desires challenged their views of his masculinity. Later, as an adult and a poet, Hayden would reflect on how these experiences shaped his life.

Hayden enjoyed, studied, and was inspired by Countee Cullen, Carl Sandburg, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and Langston Hughes, as well as other aspiring poets of the time. He studied under the direction of W. H. Auden while pursuing his master’s degree.

Hayden was a professor of creative writing and English literature at Fisk University (Nashville, Tennessee) for 23 years, and then taught at the University of Michigan for 11 years.

Though often writing in poetic form, Hayden still managed to remain original. He employed many personas and voices, such as “black folk speech” and sparse yet brash diction, for an overarching chilling effect. His poetry is not considered confessional because it explores the larger implications of personal events.

Robert Hayden began associating with social justice writers in the late 1930s; during this time, he also began in-depth research on American and black history.

Even though most of his poetry relates to or draws from African American history and the black experience, Hayden distanced himself from the label of a “black poet,” which led to accusations that he was rejecting his racial heritage during the tumultuous 1960s. Hayden “became convinced that he could not work easily within the confines of labels” (Hatcher 13).

He fiercely believed that “the work of black writers must be judged wholly in the context of the literary tradition in English, rather than within the confines of the ethnocentrism that is common in contemporary literature written by blacks” (http://www.poetryfoundation.org/bio/robert-hayden).

Hayden felt that the label of “black poet” confined his poetry and restricted his identity. He wanted readers, critics, and the general public to think of him instead as an American poet.