Over the years, I have covered many examples of mob scenes–of instances of violent Othering and mass misbehavior–in film, television, and fiction. But as Claude McKay’s 1920 poem “The Lynching” (collected in Harlem Shadows) illustrates, the mob scene also has its place in American verse.
Written as a Shakespearean sonnet, “The Lynching” jars with its deliberate dissonance between the elegant poetic form and the particularly ugly subject matter treated here. Evincing a Gothic sensibility, McKay’s lines record sadistic impulses (the victim of the titular crime has died “by the cruelest way of pain”) and present horrific images (hung and burned, a black man has been reduced to a “swinging char”). The poem, though, hits hardest in its sestet section: the last six lines describe the crowd of morbidly curious gawkers that has gathered the next day “to view / the ghastly body swaying in the sun.” McKay is unsparing in his indictment, as the foulness of the allegedly fairer sex is highlighted by the complete absence of “sorrow” in the “steely blue” eyes of the women who “thronged to look” at the corpse. The concluding couplet makes for a devastating clincher, marking a perversion of public celebration and foreboding a dark generational legacy to such scene: “And little lads, lynchers that were to be, / Danced round the dreadful thing in fiendish glee.”
McKay’s opening octave alludes strongly to the Crucifixion (ostensibly the quintessential example of execution-as-public-spectacle). But whereas Christ died to take away the sins of the world, “The Lynching” points in a more pessimistic direction. “The awful sin remained still unforgiven,” McKay writes, referencing an innocent man’s crime of possessing black skin in a racist white society. This line also resonates with Gothicism, though, suggesting a problematical impingement of the past, the continuously haunting impact of ignominious history.
The racial underpinnings of American Gothic is well- and long-established in literary criticism (cf. Leslie Fiedler’s oft-cited remark in Love and Death in the American Novel: “The proper subject for American gothic is the black man, from whose shadow we have not yet emerged”). Perhaps this aspect of the genre is sometimes seized too readily upon by academics, but a poem such as McKay’s “The Lynching” clearly requires no critical stretch to grasp its concerns with black-white relations and racial violence in this country.
[Note: for an excellent overview of this subject, see Hollis Robbins’s essay (which covers McKay’s poem) “The Literature of Lynching.”]