Academic journal article African American Review

"Like a Violin for the Wind to Play": Lyrical Approaches to Lynching by Hughes, Du Bois, and Toomer

Academic journal article African American Review

"Like a Violin for the Wind to Play": Lyrical Approaches to Lynching by Hughes, Du Bois, and Toomer

Article excerpt

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. …

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