“Like a violin for the wind to play”: lyrical approaches to lynching by Hughes, Du Bois, and Toomer
Langston Hughes, W. E. B. Du Bois, and Jean Toomer experiment stylistically in their representations of lynching. The event of lynching can be understood both as an act existing within a symbolic system created by white people and as a moment within a trajectory of advancement pursued by black people. Within a system where black people attempt to make sense of the meaning of lynching, their symbolic understanding of the event is very different from that of its white participants. Schematizing lynching into black and white symbolic values highlights lynching as an act that polarizes groups and establishes rigid boundaries. Such schematization enables me to discuss literary repetition among black male writers and elucidate differences among these writers.
Critics have tended to focus on representations of lynching in the late-nineteenth and mid-to-late twentieth centuries. In Exorcising Blackness, Trudier Harris discusses efforts by Richard Wright, John Widemann, Toni Morrison, and David Bradley to rewrite the lynching ritual. More recently critics such as Sandra Gunning and Erika M. Miller have concentrated on the importance of women writing about lynching in the post-Reconstruction period, and in their collection Strange Fruit: Plays on Lynching by American Women, Judith L. Stephens and Kathy A. Perkins also focus on women’s representations of lynching. But despite the increasing interest in representations of lynching in literature, very few scholars have focused on the early twentieth century. Stephens asserts that “lynchings reached their peak in 1892 when 255 individuals (155 black victims, 100 white) were killed by lynch mobs” (8). Harris makes the point that “as lynchings decreased–in a general way, though there were periodic rises–in the twenties, thirties, and forties, and as black writers searched for a distinct tradition and symbolism of their own, lynching and burning scenes reflect stylistic experimentation, symbolic language, and multiple levels of interpretation” (71). Barbara Foley complicates Harris’s explanation of experimentation in the early twentieth century by highlighting the fact that “the early 1920s signaled if anything an increase in economic exploitation and racial violence: Throughout the South there were in 1921 more lynchings than there had been in any year since 1909” (190). Thus, writers like Hughes, Du Bois, and Toomer did not experiment because the threat of lynching was no longer tangible. Rather, their efforts are consistent with the increasing interest in literary style in the early twentieth century, and these experiments with lyricism enabled them to affirm the humanity of the lynching victim while also illustrating the brutality of the lynch mob. Lyricism shifts the symbolic importance of lynching from the perpetrators to the victim and restores his/her humanity.
Hughes, Du Bois, and Toomer explore conflicts that precipitate lynching. In doing so, they de-emphasize their male characters’ sexual desire for white women and focus instead on their desire for social and economic advancement. Barbara Foley has challenged the long-standing impression of lynching by asserting that, “contrary to popular belief, the great majority of lynchings (more than seventy-five percent) were committed not in response to allegations of the rape of white women by black men, but in reaction to black acts of defiance against white abuse, both physical and economic” (187). In “Home,” Langston Hughes focuses on the musical attainment of Roy Williams as a classical violinist. In “The Coming of John,” W. E. B. Du Bois emphasizes John Jones’s attainment of a liberal education. Finally, in “Blood-Burning Moon,” Jean Toomer highlights Tom Burwell’s desire for land and a family. The protagonists of “Home,” “Of the Coming of John,” and “Blood-Burning Moon,” respectively, struggle against economic and educational constraints. The act of lynching highlights the inconsistency of punishing a man because he strives for improvement. All three protagonists meet the same end because they struggle instead of being satisfied with their proscribed social place.
I have organized this article into three sections: the dream, the return, and the denial of community. The dream section explores the desires and aspirations of each protagonist in terms of his aspirations for economic and educational advancement. Hughes, Du Bois, and Toomer refute the assertion that black men are driven by animal instincts and individualize their motivations. In doing so, they represent a spectrum of black masculinity. This spectrum de-sexualizes black masculinity. Racial obstacles forestall the realization of the protagonists’ dreams. Each protagonist seeks to surmount obstacles to advancement by returning to a community or to origins, whether that community is literally one of a geographical home or figuratively one of a familial home. The return is complicated by the fact that each protagonist hopes to accomplish something new through the return. Each brings his dream of economic and/or educational advancement back to the community in hopes of transforming it. The return is not so much a return to place as a replacement and repositioning that would allow each protagonist to realize his dream. The return belies the promise of a change in geography. Acquiring an education, working the entertainment circuit, or working a brutalizing job demands that each protagonist leave a geographical safety zone. However, when they return home, what was once a geographical safety zone is no longer safe. The return is meant to fulfill a promise rather than recreate the past. Each protagonist is unable to fulfill his dream through the return, which produces a denial of community. The denial is not an absolute denial, which would mean isolation. Rather, the local black community is unable to assimilate the protagonist’s ideas about change, whereas the local white community refuses to accept the protagonist’s change in social status. And because of the local white community’s refusal, each protagonist is lynched.
Presumably the lynching eliminates the protagonist’s different social status and affirms the distance between the protagonist and the local black community. However each protagonist’s attempt to fulfill his dreams through a return underscores a continual process of social negotiation. Although each local black community does not accept the protagonist’s ideas about social change, they are willing to argue and struggle about those ideas. Therefore, in the representations of lynching by Hughes, Du Bois, and Toomer, the social act of lynching, as an act of terror directed toward a local black community, fails to forestall the social change, the danger each protagonist represents. The act of lynching does not eradicate the debates about social change that the protagonist instigates. In other words, the social act of lynching does not rob the protagonist of his humanity; indeed, by making the lynching a lyrical moment, Hughes, Du Bois, and Toomer contrast the protagonist’s humanity against the inhumanity of the mob.
Each protagonist from the short stories by Hughes, Du Bois, and Toomer articulates his dreams in terms that retain his humanity. In Hughes’s short story, Roy sees his ability to play classical music as a contribution to a global cultural exchange in which black men are equal and valued participants. Du Bois’s John also sees himself participating in a global cultural exchange. He envisions such participation in terms of audience. He can be transported and whole listening to Wagner’s music. While Tom in Toomer’s short story does not participate in a global cultural exchange, he envisions a geographical, social, and familial space off limits to the economic and social inequalities and injustices he must face on a daily basis. Hughes, Du Bois, and Toomer draw the reader into each protagonist’s dream because each one is fairly rational and reasonably sought.
Roy’s choice of the violin and classical music is significant as a source of inspiration and hope to bridge racial exclusiveness. Not long after his return to Hopkinsville, Missouri, from Europe, Roy gives a classical concert at his mother’s home church, Shiloh Church, which offers segregated seating: “Poor white folks” pay fifty cents and sit in front, and “even poorer Negroes” pay twenty-five cents and sit behind them. Such an environment is the antithesis of Roy’s dream. Section five of the short story, which reveals his tumbling into despair, is a mixed reflection on how he got away from Hopkinsville and the situation he finds himself in now. His dream of Carnegie Hall and Salle Gaveau is contrasted with the present reality of Shiloh Church. Roy hears a performing voice in his head as he plays his concert. This internal voice allows Hughes to register Roy’s split in consciousness as it occurs. Roy still attaches the same energy and hope to his music although it has changed locations. The opening line of the section, “Hello, Mr. Brahms on a violin from Vienna at a colored church in Hopkinsville, Missouri” (39), suggests an announcer’s voice rather than a personal reflection. It also reinforces Roy’s distance from his own performance at the moment. Roy plays the meditation from “Thais” by Massenet to reflect “the broken heart of a dream come true not true” (40). Through his selection, he expresses the distorted way a dream can come true and nevertheless be false. Roy plays out his despair to an audience insensitive to the significance of his music. The only connection that his music makes with the audience comes through the music teacher, Miss Reese. Roy sees her as “the white woman in the cheap coat and red hat who knows what music’s all about.” At the end of the concert, instead of exultation, Roy feels acute sickness. He “was shaking a little and his eyes burned and he wanted terribly to cough. Pain shot across his shoulders. But he smiled his concert-jazz-band smile…. And he held out a feverish hand” (42). Roy finds refuge in the role of performer and at least feels some satisfaction in Miss Reese’s understanding. He vaguely hopes that his performance in Hopkinsville will bridge a social gap it was unable to bridge in Europe.
There is a gap between his dream of his success and his present reality back in Missouri, which creates nightmarish effects, culminating in his lynching. Considering that the short story is an elaboration of Hughes’s dream poetry, it is surprising that “Home” has not been discussed more carefully in the criticism. Roy addresses his performance to “Mr. Brahms,” who is able to reach a wide variety of people through his composition “Thais.” However Roy feels limited in his ability to reach people through his interpretation of that composition. Mr. Brahms can realize his dream through virtual travel to Hopkinsville, Missouri, but Roy’s dream dies in his interpretation of the music to the audience there. The realization of Roy’s dream would have occurred through his presentation of the music to a sophisticated European or American audience. Such an audience would have appreciated not only Roy’s technical skill, but also his transgression of social boundaries by being a black musician playing classical music very well. In particular, Roy plays Thais’s meditation and addresses it as “body of life and love with black hands and brown limbs and white breasts and a golden face with lips like a violin bowed for singing” (40). Roy would like to be able to travel across cultures and racial boundaries in the same way Brahm’s music reaches across the Atlantic Ocean. The movement across racial boundaries is particularly important in the figuration of the music as black, brown, white, and golden. The image of white breasts replaces the use of the white female in classic lynch narratives with the image of a cultural artifact. German music is designated European, and when it travels to the United States it becomes white. This particular negative, racial translation puts Roy in danger. His desire to play the violin originates in another kind of cultural translation that occurs through the records of Fritz Kreisler. Kreisler’s record spurs Roy to want to learn the violin in Berlin.
When Roy notices the music teacher in the audience, he asks, “‘What is it you want the music to give you? What do you want from me?'” (42). Roy does not become as powerful as the music in his interpretation of the music. He cannot extend its reach to remedy the segregated seating at Shiloh Church. Even as Miss Reese understands the power of Brahms, she has trouble accepting Roy as a vessel. She shakes Roy’s hand, but her compliment is limited: “… she spoke of symphony concerts in St. Louis, of the fact that she was a teacher of music, of piano and violin, but that she had no pupils like Roy, that never in the town of Hopkinsville had anyone else played so beautifully” (43). Her frame of reference is limited compared to Roy’s. Miss Reese can only speak of one of Missouri’s big cities. Rather than complimenting Roy in terms of the performers in St. Louis, she compliments him in terms of Hopkinsville, where there is no question of rivalry since Roy is unique in his interests and attainments. Even with the guarded nature of her compliment, Roy appreciates her understanding of music, which is also unique and unparalleled in Hopkinsville.
Where Hughes reveals Roy’s dream through its displacement in Hopkinsville, Du Bois emphasizes John’s dream in “In the Coming of John” through its development away from his hometown. John comes to realize his potential, only to have that realization undercut by a subsequent realization that few opportunities exist for black men to excel. When John leaves for school, “full half the black folk followed him proudly to the station, and carried his queer little trunk and many bundles. And there they shook and shook hands, and the girls kissed him shyly and the boys clapped him on the back…. he pinched his little sister lovingly, and put his great arms about his mother’s neck” (246-47). There is a clear affection and affinity between John and those he leaves, but this affinity is worn away over the years of John’s absence. While he is unsuccessful in school, he remains unchanged from when he first left his hometown. Once he is suspended for a semester and works in the city, he attacks his studies with more determination and earnestness and becomes successful. With this success his hometown comes to represent “the choked and narrow life” (250-51). Such a major transformation in John’s perspective leads him away from the jovial and good-natured boy he was to the serious and contemplative man. To the same degree that Hughes defines manhood through compassion, Du Bois defines manhood through intellectual curiosity. With the attainment of manhood, John is no longer fit for life in his hometown.
One of the central questions of the short story is how the intellect confronts the irrationality of racial violence. Gavin Jones suggests that articulation of racial violence is the answer because it is only through articulation that self-consciousness can occur. At the same time, he argues that articulation must be ambiguous if it is to address the paradoxes of the color line. Language does not provide the range of ambiguity provided by music, which offers a different grammar of articulation. Language can illuminate the inconsistencies that accompany racial violence without providing a method for eradicating the violence. If racial violence is illogical, then its challenge and refutation must also be illogical, which paves the way for the importance of music and lyricism as representations of lynching. Although John begins to satisfy his intellectual curiosity at the Wells Institute, it is only in New York at the performance of Wagner’s music that he realizes the potential within the world: “The infinite beauty of the wail lingered and swept through every muscle of his frame, and put it all a-tune…. A deep longing swelled in all his heart to rise with that clear music out of the dirt and dust of that low life that held him prisoned and befouled. If he could only live up in the free air where birds sang and setting suns had no touch of blood!” (252). Music provides the momentary imaginative realization of an ideal that is thwarted from social realization. Music transports John away from illogical racial boundaries, supposedly boundaries of blood, to an equalizing spiritual plane.
In Toomer’s “Blood-Burning Moon,” Tom Burwell does not try to transcend social restrictions. He believes that the separate social arenas for black and white people can be equal. Unlike Roy, who finds his dream displaced in Hopkinsville, or John, who finds no room for the realization of his dream, Tom attempts to make the social fiction of “separate but equal” apply to his employer Bob Stone. Tom would like to build a life with Louisa as his wife. Louisa is ambivalent about Tom because she puts that relationship on a par with her relationship with Bob Stone. Since Bob Stone is white and has inherited the legacy of being plantation master, his relationship to Tom is structured by his control over Tom’s desire for a plot of land to sharecrop. Tom seeks to divorce his economic relationship to Bob from his position of romantic rival for Louisa’s affections. Tom tells Louisa that a day will come when “‘my bales will buy yo what y gets from white folks now'” (30). He believes that he will have a level economic playing field once he can farm a plot of land.
One of Tom’s co-workers explains that “‘Tom Burwell’s been on th gang three times fo cuttin men'” (32), and Tom’s connection to his knife emerges as an obvious synecdoche. When his friends tease him about Louisa and Bob Stone, he “whip[s] out a long knife and would have cut them to shreds if they hadnt ducked into the woods” (29). Tom’s ultimate self-expression occurs through his knife, which reflects his limited options. Tom forms community with the men around the stove, but that community is fragile, as represented by his willingness to start a knife-fight. Because Tom is both working-class and inarticulate in “Blood-Burning Moon,” Peckham sees his character as stereotypical. What marks Tom as in danger of being stereotypical is his Bad Man status in the community, someone who fights and totes a knife, willing to cut anyone who crosses him. This mythological image is called into question through Tom’s relationship to Louisa. The Bad Man provides occasions for eruptions of racial conflict. However Tom’s relationship with Louisa provides an occasion for racial conflict that lacks provocation. Tom’s desire for Louisa also contributes to his conflict with Bob because it puts him on equal status with Bob. Ironically, it is Bob who is the first to pull a knife during their fight, which reinforces the similarity between the two characters rather than their difference. For a black man to be a “Bad Man,” he seeks equality with powerful white men.
The individual struggles of Roy Williams, John Jones, and Tom Burwell are representative of various ways black men seek social equality. Roy Williams believes that by learning the violin and becoming a concert violinist interpreting Brahms that he will be able to bridge both socio-economic and racial divides. His inability to serve as an absolute and complete bridge weakens him physically. He would like his music to build a common community as an antidote to the community of the lynch mob. John Jones hopes to bridge the racial divide through his status as a teacher. John sees becoming a teacher in his hometown as a consolation for being unable to participate in the wider world, represented by Wagner’s Lohengrin. John hopes to serve as a bridge between that wider world and his students. Tom Burwell is in a position of public prominence because he carries a knife and has been on the chain gang. Black men in “Blood-Burning Moon” watch him with anticipation because they know his girl friend Louisa is also seeing the white Bob Stone. Despite Tom’s experience of Georgia justice, he needs to believe in the possibility of farming his own land and raising his family without interference from white people. Tom identifies a private sphere that is off-limits to white people. This private sphere includes not only Louisa, but also his livelihood, farming. Tom challenges the racist logic that makes every aspect of black people’s lives open to the master’s scrutiny. These protagonists challenge fundamental relationships between black and white people.
For each protagonist, the return home highlights how his dream clashes with social reality. The premise of human equality on which each protagonist’s dream is based is a premise denied in social reality. Roy might play Bach and Mozart beautifully, but his performance is reduced to the performance of a “nigger,” code for nonhuman, and his music interpreted as “funny pieces.” John might present an eloquent statement of the commonalities among humankind, but in doing so he relativizes the importance of Christianity and religion, thereby alienating his audience, who subsequently holds him up to scorn. Tom might represent the proverbial white knight in shining armor in his defense of Louisa against Bob, but his courage to confront Bob comes to be interpreted as insolence, punishable by death. Instead of the ugly evil monster, Bob is the (despicable?) king. The terms in which each protagonist articulates his dream are perverted for competing political aims, and these subversive dreams are demonized through such reinterpretation.
In “Home,” Roy Williams is a prodigal son who comes home to die. Instead of the jubilant return garnered to the son in Jesus’ parable, Roy faces a familial and racial legacy of enslavement and segregation. Roy has held a higher social status than that held by all other Hopkinsville residents, but his greeting in Hopkinsville is from white loafers surrounding the train platform who make it clear that he is not wanted. They ask a series of questions, such as, “‘Where you been, boy?,'” “‘What’d yuh come back for?,'” and “‘I hope [your mother’s] gladder to see yuh than we are'” (36). Roy says nothing in response, but “he fe[els] dizzy and weak” and attributes the increasing vehemence of his cough to “the smoke and dust of travel” (37). The inability to respond to these latent threats makes Roy internalize them and grow weaker.
Hughes, Du Bois, and Toomer explain the phenomenon of lynching within the racial legacy of enslavement and segregation. What should have been Roy’s triumphant return from Europe becomes like John’s homecoming in W. E. B. Du Bois’s “Of the Coming of John”–an occasion for increasing tension and hostility. In Du Bois’s story Judge Henderson tells John Jones that “‘by God! We’ll hold them under if we have to lynch every Nigger in the land'” (258). The ideas of home and home-coming that are so crucial to each short story ironically reinforce the displacement of the black male characters. They are returning home, but it is a home to which they will never belong because they have lost their places by leaving. Like John, Roy can neither become reincorporated into the local black community, nor can he assume a higher position in a hierarchy that always restricted black people to the lowest rungs of the social ladder. John returns home, but he compares his position to that of Esther before the king begging for the salvation of the Jews. Like in Esther 4:16, John thinks, “I will go in to the King, which is not according to the law; and if I perish, I perish” (254). Embedded in this passage is the sentiment that both the law and those who make and/or enforce it can be unjust. Such injustice must be challenged at any cost.
Such a sense of injustice can be applied to the process of interpretation. The turning point in “Home” is Roy’s performance for Miss Reese’s students at the local white high school. Miss Reese has been instructing them on classical music, and Roy is invited to the white high school to make that music come alive. The narrator explains that “Roy played. But it was one of those days when his throat was hot and dry, and his eyes burned. He had been coughing all morning and, as he played, his breath left him and he stood covered with a damp sweat. He played badly” (44). At the white high school, Roy is no longer able to play the music he loves with gusto, considering the context in which he plays. His music loses its ability to salve the gap in understanding between black and white in the town of Hopkinsville. While Miss Reese bravely cheers his work, he no longer feels as though he is communicating through his art. The narrator reflects on the children’s responses, thereby confirming the alienation and even hostility of his audience:
The students went home that afternoon
and told their parents that a
dressed-up nigger had come to school
with a violin and played a lot of funny
pieces nobody but Miss Reese liked.
They went on to say that Miss Reese
had grinned all over herself and cried,
“Wonderful!” And had even bowed to
the nigger when he went out! (44)
Instead of an artist, Roy is simply a “nigger” who incongruously for them was dressed up. His music is no longer music and only “funny pieces” that none of them understands or wants to. Yet the woman who Roy’s mother identifies as “an old maid musicianer” (43) not only liked these pieces but lost control of herself by smiling indiscriminately and bowing to Roy as another human being. Whereas during Roy’s concert at Shiloh Church, his survey and reaction to the audience are given through the detail of prose poetry, his performance at the school is not given an interior perspective and does not register his consciousness of student activity. Failure to register both Roy’s and the audience’s consciousness at the moment of performance reinforces the lack of communication between them.
Both John and Roy are expected to assume minstrel masks, one function of which is the assurance of predictability. Yet upon their returns, neither John nor Roy acts in a predictable fashion. When John arrives in Altamaha, Georgia, the town is perplexed by his preoccupation. He does not take the time to gossip and chat with everyone who meets him at the station. The white townspeople are suspicious of John from the beginning, shaking their heads each time someone refers to his education. When he arrives at Wells Institute, he is described as “loud and boisterous, always laughing and singing, and never able to work consecutively at anything” (248). Du Bois equates John’s good-spirited nature with a lack of consciousness, and, for both Du Bois and Toomer, lynching is part of a process of what Toomer labels “southern awakening” (33). Rather than lynching’s signifying the end of consciousness, it marks a new awakening that others attempt to defer and subvert. In “Home,” when Roy arrives in Hopkinsville in his own private Pullman car, the local white men are sorry to see him come. Hughes makes a clear distinction between the first paragraph, in which he refers to the main character as “the boy,” and the second paragraph, which specifies the name Roy Williams. In his performance at the black church, Roy plays a selection from Massenet, and at his performance at the white high school, he plays selections from Bach and Mozart. His selections of music, combined with his habit of wearing a formal tuxedo on the street, signal that he is out of his place as a black man because he is more educated and cultured than Hopkinsville’s other residents. His assumption of a concert performance identity, learned and developed in Europe, has permanently replaced the minstrel performance that at one time he knew by heart, but discarded. In contrast to the minstrel performance, Roy’s social performance upon his return to Hopkinsville is in many ways a kind of grand finale performance to his life.
For Du Bois to define manhood intellectually, John must dissociate himself from his schoolmates to the same extent that he sought their company before the change, for manhood requires solitary reflection and contemplation. The transformation in intellect brings a transformation in how John sees the world around him, and particularly the color line. A number of changes occur in John’s outward perception: “He first noticed now the oppression that had not seemed oppression before, differences that erstwhile seemed natural, restraints and slights that in his boyhood days had gone unnoticed or been greeted with a laugh” (250). In addition to gaining seriousness, the genial, good-natured boy becomes a sarcastic and bitter man. John grimly sets his teeth to accept the work of transforming the black children of Altamaha into responsible citizens. His dream is the attainment of the sort of citizenship embodied in the equality, fraternity, and liberty of the French Revolution.
Du Bois shows John’s solitary struggle for self-development, a struggle against restrictions that transforms him into a man, as a prelude to his lynching. Upon John’s return to Altamaha, local white men want to remind John of his boyhood status. The estrangement accompanying John’s return is similar to the estrangement that accompanies Roy’s return to Hopkinsville, but John is also estranged from the black community. When John arrives at the station, he is preoccupied with the Jim Crow accommodations. Immediately the “sordidness and narrowness of it all seized him.” As a result, “he looked in vain for his mother, kissed coldly the tall, strange girl who called him brother, spoke a short, dry word here and there; then, lingering neither for hand-shaking nor gossip, started silently up the street, raising his hat merely to the last eager old aunty, to her open-mouthed astonishment” (255). The disaster of his arrival is compounded by his speech at the Baptist Church. He wants the audience to move beyond religious differences and even the importance of religion itself. As a result, an old religious gentleman from the community holds John up to scorn “for trampling on the true Religion, and he realized with amazement that all unknowingly he had put rough, rude hands on something this little world held sacred” (257). Because Du Bois isolates John from the black community, lynching becomes an anomaly not only because very few black people could gain an education, but also because only someone educated would dare confront the system and be conscious of its injustice. However there is hope that John has influenced his sister Jennie and the students of his school.
Articulation, in the form of intellectual and cultural attainment, does not doom John, but it is a problem in “Of the Coming of John” insofar as it fails to solve the race problem. Racial violence, since it is not logical, will not yield to the logic of articulation. Arnold Rampersad has argued that “the finest achievement of the story is its rendition of the emotional and spiritual paralysis that overtakes John from the beginning of his education” (76). But John very admirably negotiates the expectations of his teachers at the Wells Institute, as his emotional and spiritual center shifts to classical literature and classical music. Ronald Radano argues that, “while holding the secrets to power and knowledge, culture can also–as the reason behind a history of enslavement–turn against its possessor” (78). John comes to recognize the power of the irrational while attempting to teach in the South. Indeed, it is the force of the irrational that makes him realize that he should leave for the North. And his intellectual training serves him well as he negotiates the Southern racial system, pushing against its vulnerable points. Thus, rather than representing a “deathly trance” (Posnock 339), John’s return to Wagner at the end of the short story ironically expresses hope and faith in the American ideal of equality. Rather than representing paralysis or death, John’s turn to classical music is a turn to a spiritual reserve of strength.
Toomer’s representation of lynching challenges Du Bois’s strong class-based notion of understanding injustice. Tom Burwell is a member of the working class, and he believes he has the right to have a relationship with a black woman without anyone, white or black, interfering in that relationship. Tom is just as much an outsider as John, not because of his education but because of his propensity to fight. Just as members of the Altamaha community cannot relate to John’s intellectual achievement, members of Toomer’s rural Georgia community cannot relate to Tom’s aggression and sense of outrage. The sense of justice that seizes Tom is not rooted in Louisa’s desires. Kathie Birat compares Tom’s and Bob’s fantasies of Louisa and concludes that Tom’s words “prove his superiority” (127). However, his desire, expressed with “‘Ise carried y with me into th fields, day after day, an after that, an I sho can plow when yo is there, an I can pick cotton'” (30), only heightens the difference between forms of violence committed toward women and men. Tom is forced to labor in the fields without adequate recompense or a way to seek such recompense, whereas by working as a domestic in the Stone household, Louisa is subject to both economic and sexual exploitation. Yet another kind of violence is committed when Louisa cannot discuss her sexual exploitation as such and seek protection from such violation. Readers who want to make Tom into “a true black man” (Solard 556), a harmless peasant, blunt the danger that he represents. Tom is not able to articulate his desire for Louisa or his sense of outrage when he thinks of Bob Stone. When Tom asks Louisa if the rumors about her and Bob are true, he does not challenge her expression of naivete; he simply affirms that the rumors are a lie. He explains that “‘white folks aint up t them tricks so much nowadays. Godam better not be. Leastawise not with you. Cause I wouldn’t stand f it. Nassur'” (30). The inevitable is constantly deferred until the moment of confrontation is determined to lead to death. Tom cannot let awareness of his economic exploitation blur into an understanding of Louisa’s sexual exploitation. And when he does understand the connection between the two, he attempts to function as Louisa’s protector.
Although Louisa, Tom, and Bob are supposed to represent a love triangle, the triangle is complicated by Louisa’s lack of attachment to either suitor. In his discussion of identity in Cane, Jeff Webb explains that there is “a division that argues for a basic equivalence between the social forces that would transform him into ashes and linguistic or literary forces that transform her into metaphors. The social and the linguistic, in other words, are twin emblems of the destruction of identity in “Portrait in Georgia'” (211). Webb’s observations about this poem extend into the story that follows it, “Blood-Burning Moon.” Louisa, like so many of Toomer’s black women characters, is constructed as a blank slate that men project their desires onto. Rather than being separate from the parts of Cane that focus on portraits of women, Toomer’s exploration of lynching is a way of exploring equally violent forms of desire. Linda Wagner-Martin makes the point that “Toomer uses the erotic to approach the political” (26). The first section of the story, Louisa’s, explains that, “by measure of that warm glow which came into her mind at the thought of [Bob Stone], he had won her … [yet] the fact was that [Tom Burwell] held her to factory town more firmly than he thought. His black balanced, and pulled against, the white of Stone, when she thought of them” (28). Ironically, Toomer is able to represent Louisa as both demur and hyper-sexual within the same passage. And she is able to be both because she is indifferent to which one she is.
The idea of familial return that Toomer uses in “Blood-Burning Moon” complicates ideas around geographical return. If the geographical return is an attempt to fulfill a new dream in an old place, then the familial return is an attempt to produce new familial relationships by discarding the distanced intimacy fostered during slavery. The danger is that the new family form will reproduce the dynamics of the master-mistress relationship. Unlike Carma in Toomer’s story of the same name, Louisa does not negotiate with men for freedom and security. Louisa naively enjoys the fact that Bob’s whiteness pulls against Tom’s blackness. After Tom’s death, Louisa loses her naivete and seeks to build community around a conscious understanding of racial violence. Louisa’s transformation over the course of the short story throws Tom’s relationship ideal into question. Each of them seeks a relationship that has no models. Tom only knows that Bob’s presence mires their relationship in patterns of slavery, whereas Louisa is initially unaware of such a pattern. Tom seeks to alter the terms by which black men and women relate to one another, and his efforts eventually transform Louisa’s understanding. In contrast to the myth of black men raping white women, Tom dies in order to foster new, mutual, long-term relationships between black men and women.
Both Toomer and Du Bois emphasize the importance of white men losing the power associated with being the master of a plantation to explain the occurrence of lynching. Toomer is more explicit about this transition as he describes Bob’s shift in consciousness as becoming “consciously a white man’s” (31). Through this consciousness, Bob envisions his power to rape Louisa during the days of slavery, thereby establishing his current relationship to Louisa as parallel to the one before Emancipation. Bob conceptualizes his relationship to Louisa in terms of violence, specifically rape. He understands her as a “nigger gal” (32) in order to heighten his sense of power over her and her exoticism. He thinks that “no nigger had ever been with his girl. He’d like to see one try. Some position for him to be in. Him, Bob Stone, of the old Stone family, in a scrap with a nigger over a nigger girl” (32). Bob recognizes that he is entering uncharted territory by articulating his relationship to Louisa as one of both violence and mutuality. Louisa is both his victim and his girlfriend. While asserting the power to claim a black man’s girlfriend, he also claims an exclusive relationship with Louisa. John Henderson’s attempt to rape Jennie in “Of the Coming of John” is not so fully articulated as Bob Stone’s relationship with Louisa. John Henderson has a similar family background to Bob Stone, and this unspoken background enables Du Bois to take the racial history in the South for granted. The attempt to assert an exclusive relationship betrays a change in power dynamics. Stone’s exercise of power is excessive as a response to his loss of power over black people’s everyday movements.
Denial of Community
Lynching serves as the climax to each of these short stories, and the stories themselves try to establish a context for understanding lynching, how and why it happens. None of the protagonists in these stories lets the threat of lynching outweigh his sense of moral responsibility. Once Tom cuts Bob across the throat and he staggers away in search of help, Tom waits by the factory door for the mob. When the black John Jones kills the white John Henderson in Du Bois’s short story, Jones waits on the tree stump for the mob. There is a grand sense of responsibility with both characters in that they will not sacrifice their sense of moral responsibility to save their lives. Once they protect themselves or their female lover or sister, they await the immoral consequences. Such a sense of unjustly dying for the sake of justice is highlighted in Toomer’s title Cane. Wagner-Martin calls attention to the fact that “the noun cane also is a homonym for the Biblical Cain, whose character suggests the bloody destruction of brotherhood and introduces the concept of immoral violence” (19). The title’s echo also suggests that retribution will come in future generations. Thus, lynching is an unjust punishment that the protagonists of these short stories nonetheless accept. Toomer expresses Tom’s immortalization by describing “only his head, erect, lean, like a blackened stone” (34) over the flames consuming his body. Tom is just as implacable in his resistance as is Bob in his assertion of domination. Ultimately it is the lynch mob that must face retribution.
The importance of white young men asserting domination is also important in Hughes’s story “Home.” Roy’s final encounter with Miss Reese is late at night on the main street of the town. Since Roy is accustomed to staying up late and going to bed at dawn, he has trouble sleeping at night, so he develops the habit of dressing up for a performance and walking the streets of Hopkinsville alone. On the night of his lynching, he runs into Miss Reese as she emerges from a drug store. The narrator explains that “forgetting he wasn’t in Europe, he took off his hat and his gloves, and held out his hand to this lady who understood music. They smiled at each other, the sick young colored man and the aging music teacher in the light of the main street” (47). The term forgetting is ingenuous in its use, for it echoes the accusation that someone is “forgetting his/her place.” In fact, Roy extends his hand because he remembers his place as a human being, but the town’s residents are unable to see either Roy or Miss Reese as people–one is a “nigger” and the other an “old maid”–and this makes it inevitable that they would want to destroy their relationship. Since Roy and Miss Reese recognize one another as equals, the town must reconfigure Roy’s status so that he understands his inferiority. Young men emerging from the local theater spot Roy Williams and Miss Reese talking across the street and immediately assault Roy. The crowd “objected to a Negro talking to a white woman–insulting a White Woman–attacking a WHITE woman–RAPING A WHITE WOMAN” (47-48). Not only does the crowd project its violence into the interaction between the black man and the white woman, Miss Reese becomes white in the passage. In other contexts, she is only an old maid and subjected to derision, but because she and Roy have developed a relationship of mutual respect, she becomes white and someone to be revered if only to more securely identify Roy as a symbol, the source of a warning to other black people in town. As the “white young ruffians with red-necks, open sweaters, and fists doubled” (47) continually knock Roy down, “his mouth was full of blood and his eyes burned” (48). This description is not very different from the image of him “shaking a little and his eyes burn[ing] and he want[ing] terribly to cough” (42) or the image of him with “throat … hot and dry” and “eyes burn[ing]” (44). The constant cough suggests not only the hot dry throat but also the phlegm and other bodily fluids that are purged through the mouth in sickness. The mouth full of blood is a release for the dry cough. The similarity between the physical violence of the mob and the economic violence toward the poor in Europe is highlighted through the similarity in Roy’s response.
The white mob hangs Roy from a tree, but the final paragraph of the short story suggests he died otherwise. The narrator explains that he “began to choke on the blood in his mouth” (49). The importance of the choking is larger than the lynching. Roy had been dying slowly in various ways since Vienna. When compared to the passive violence of watching people starve, the final physical violence of the lynching is a relief. In coming home maybe Roy sought the violence of the South rather than the impersonal violence of major cities. Given the insulting reactions of white men on his arrival in town, Roy knows wearing eveningwear every night on his walks about town will prompt violence. Roy hears the mob as “the roar of their voices and the scuff of their feet were split by the moonlight into a thousand notes like a Beethoven sonata” (49). In other words, Roy hears the music that he loves in the very sounds of the people who are going to kill him. The final image of Roy’s body is the image of his instrument, the violin: “His brown body, stark naked, strung from a tree at the edge of town” is intended to serve as a warning to other black people in Hopkinsville as well as white single women, especially educated women like Miss Reese. But the second half of the sentence claims something else. Roy’s body “hung there all night, like a violin for the wind to play” (49). His body becomes the vessel for his song. Critic Susan Koprince describes how “the final image of the story … combines both violence and beauty, both horror and mystic calm. Similarly, the moon serves to create an ironic background of beauty against which the violence of the white mob stands in relief” (17). Yet this moon imagery works in conjunction with images of Roy’s physical illness and his relationship to his music. These various images reinforce one another and affirm the release of death and beauty of life for Roy, compared to the brutal hatred that compels the mob to take his life.
The final image in Du Bois’s “Of the Coming of John” is equally majestic. Judge Henderson decides to close John’s school after hearing about his teaching the French Revolution. His son then relates the story of John sitting in the orchestra at a show in New York City. After his school is abruptly closed in the middle of a lesson, John walks the town. Du Bois then establishes the calm of the environment: “The great brown sea lay silent. The air scarce breathed. The dying day bathed the twisted oaks and mighty pines in black and gold. There came from the wind no warning, not a whisper from the cloudless sky” (262). John hears cries from his sister Jennie and sees her struggling in John Henderson’s grasp. He stills the grasp with the blow of a tree limb. He walks his sister home and tells his mother that he is going north. Once John returns to the sight of killing John Henderson, north becomes symbolic of freedom after death. Similar to the music of the mob in “Home,” John hears the music of Lohengrin’s swan in the mob’s approach. The swan echoes Toomer’s invocation of a swan’s song in the South and Hughes’s use of violins to express the paradoxical way a dream can come true and remain unrealized. For John in the concert hall, “when at last a soft sorrow crept across the violins, there came to him the vision of a far-off home, the great eyes of his sister, and the dark drawn face of his mother. And his heart sank below the waters, even as the sea-sand sinks by the shores of Altamaha, only to be lifted aloft again with that last ethereal wail of the swan that quivered and faded away into the sky” (253). John harks back to this moment as he waits for the mob.
As John waits and “as the sheen of the starlight stole over him, he thought of the gilded ceiling of that vast concert hall, heard stealing toward him the faint sweet music of the swan. Hark! Was it music, or the hurry and shouting of men? Yes, surely! Clear and high the faint sweet melody rose and fluttered like a living thing, so that the very earth trembled as with the tramp of horses and murmur of angry men.” John hears the music in his head as counterpoint to the galloping horses. When the judge leads the pack with the rope, John only pities him. John closes his eyes, turns toward the sea and “the world whistle[s] in his ears” (263). It is the world of the opera and the music and New York City, a world which represents possibilities to John and contrasts with the racism and hatred of the judge. John positions himself as superior at the moment of his death if only because he is willing and working to achieve justice and equality.
Unlike in “Home” and “Of the Coming of John,” where the protagonist experiences both the pain of lynching and the victory of artistic sublimation, those two ideas are separately characterized in “Blood-Burning Moon.” Although Tom waits at the well, with the approach of the mob, he understands that he is prey to be captured, bound, and roasted. Both the stench of burning flesh and the roar of the crowd waft over to Louisa as she reaches the steps of her home. Based on the way the other two stories resolve the relationship between lynching and art, Louisa is confirmed as Tom’s counterpart at the end of the story. Both his burning and the crowd’s yells call to her, and she awakens to the consequences of her relationship with Bob Stone in a way that was not possible in the first section of the short story. That her awakening is in response to Tom rather than the crowd is made clear with the information that Louisa “did not hear [the ghost of a yell], but her eyes opened slowly” (35). This awakening is not the romantic awakening to the scent of cane. Barbara Foley explains that “the scent of cane suffuses the landscape and sweetens its inhabitants, transmuting their suffering into beauty and signaling their fusion with nature” (185). Such an understanding of the power of the cane is undermined and mocked in “Blood-Burning Moon,” where the scent of cane is substituted with the scent of burning flesh. The substitution belies the calmness and innocence of existence in the South.
At the story’s beginning, Louisa sings to ward off an omen, like other black women. Louisa is mentioned by name but she holds no separate identity. At the end of the story, the full moon is still an omen, but unlike the “Negro women [who] improvised songs against its spell” (28), Louisa asks “where were they, these people?” (35). These people disappeared after they witnessed Tom cutting Bob’s throat. This sense of witness and complicity disappears in “Home” and “Of the Coming of John.” Both Miss Reese and Jennie are not mentioned once the crowd attacks Roy and John kills John Henderson. In “Blood-Burning Moon,” the witness is uncomfortable: “Negroes who had seen the fight slunk into their homes and blew the lamps out” (33). Louisa actually waits at the well with Tom. When the mob comes, “Louisa [i]s driven back” (34). Why Louisa is driven back is enigmatic and is meant to be enigmatic because she could have been lynched with Tom since it was common knowledge that Tom, Louisa, and Bob formed a triangle. Once Louisa reaches home, “she’d sing, and perhaps they’d come out and join her” (35). She sings to her black neighbors who hide in fear. She sings with the courage of Tom Burwell, although he is dead. Her singing reflects the dual message of his death, which is to be afraid of inequality and to be emboldened and fight for equality. Louisa is still singing at the end of the short story and that she sings alone highlights the problem of the omen. The omen has not been fulfilled through Tom’s death. Rather, the omen will be fulfilled through the black people hiding in their houses with the lights turned out. The refrain
Red nigger moon. Sinner!
Blood-burning moon. Sinner!
Come out that fact’ry door.
ends each of the three sections of the story. Its presence at the very end of the tale still calls out for someone to “come out that fact’ry door.” Louisa thinks that “perhaps Tom Burwell would come” (35). Such a hope points to the importance of his legacy. His coming is not literal, only figurative. The literal coming is embodied in the members of the mob which lynches Tom. Of course, it is only within an imaginative space that a vision can exist of mob and witnesses coming together. Unfortunately, they come together through their representatives Tom Burwell and Bob Stone, whose antagonism remains unresolved at the end of the story even as Louisa’s ambivalence has shifted. No longer does she simply confuse Tom and Bob in her mind, but she calls out to the communities they laid claim to. She remains the center of a communal circle fraught with tension and friction.
Interpretation is clearly a politically motivated act in each short story. Each protagonist’s dream is spelled out in explicit detail. Upon each protagonist’s return to his hometown, local men reinterpret their dreams in such a way that the local white and black communities feel threatened. Such reinterpretation denies the protagonists’ attempts to achieve justice and equality. However the ending of each short story is unsettling, not only in its representation of lynching, but also in its charge to interpret lynching. The decision to represent lynching in lyrical terms prompts readers to see lynching as a loss of social power. Lynching is a desperate social act, instigated through fear of social equality.
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Kimberly Banks is Assistant Professor of English at the University of Missouri-Kansas City where she teaches courses in twentieth-century American literature and a range of courses in African American literature.
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