Three Poems of Lynching

On October 6, 2011 by admin

 

 

 

Robert Hayden

Night, Death, Mississippi
1
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.

2
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

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Claude McKay

The Lynching

 His Spirit in smoke ascended to high heaven.

His father, by the cruelest way of pain,

Had bidden him to his bosom once again;

The awful sin remained still unforgiven.

All night a bright and solitary star

(Perchance the one that ever guided him,

Yet gave him up at last to Fate’s wild whim)

Hung pitifully o’er the swinging char.

Day dawned, and soon the mixed crowds came to view

The ghastly body swaying in the sun

The women thronged to look, but never a one

Showed sorrow in her eyes of steely blue;

And little lads, lynchers that were to be,

Danced round the dreadful thing in fiendish glee.

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Paul Laurence Dunbar

The Haunted Oak

    PRAY why are you so bare, so bare,
        Oh, bough of the old oak-tree;
    And why, when I go through the shade you throw,
        Runs a shudder over me?

    My leaves were green as the best, I trow,
        And sap ran free in my veins,
    But I saw in the moonlight dim and weird
        A guiltless victim’s pains.

    I bent me down to hear his sigh;
        I shook with his gurgling moan,
    And I trembled sore when they rode away,
        And left him here alone.

    They’d charged him with the old, old crime,
        And set him fast in jail:
    Oh, why does the dog howl all night long,
        And why does the night wind wail?

    He prayed his prayer and he swore his oath,
        And he raised his hand to the sky;
    But the beat of hoofs smote on his ear,
        And the steady tread drew nigh.

    Who is it rides by night, by night,
        Over the moonlit road?
    And what is the spur that keeps the pace,
        What is the galling goad?

    And now they beat at the prison door,
        “Ho, keeper, do not stay!
    We are friends of him whom you hold within,
        And we fain would take him away

    “From those who ride fast on our heels
        With mind to do him wrong;
    They have no care for his innocence,
        And the rope they bear is long.”

    They have fooled the jailer with lying words,
        They have fooled the man with lies;
    The bolts unbar, the locks are drawn,
        And the great door open flies.

    Now they have taken him from the jail,
        And hard and fast they ride,
    And the leader laughs low down in his throat,
        As they halt my trunk beside.

    Oh, the judge, he wore a mask of black,
        And the doctor one of white,
    And the minister, with his oldest son,
        Was curiously bedight.

    Oh, foolish man, why weep you now?
        ‘Tis but a little space,
    And the time will come when these shall dread
        The mem’ry of your face.

    I feel the rope against my bark,
        And the weight of him in my grain,
    I feel in the throe of his final woe
        The touch of my own last pain.

    And never more shall leaves come forth
        On the bough that bears the ban;
    I am burned with dread, I am dried and dead,
        From the curse of a guiltless man.

    And ever the judge rides by, rides by,
        And goes to hunt the deer,
    And ever another rides his soul
        In the guise of a mortal fear.

    And ever the man he rides me hard,
        And never a night stays he;
    For I feel his curse as a haunted bough,
        On the trunk of a haunted tree.

 

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