As we continue our 2023 Black History Month encounter with the young Harlem New York based writers in the 1926 issue of Fire!! we reach a much less familiar name: Helene Johnson. Our lead-off poet Countee Cullen was a mere 3 years older than the 20-year-old Johnson when Fire!! was published, but Cullen had already published two books and had two more in the works. Johnson had published mostly though successful writing contest entries. In the upcoming year she’d publish a poem in Vanity Fair. And then? Well, not much.
None-the-less, her poem in Fire!! “A Southern Road” is as strong as any included. I’m going to try to be brief in discussing the poem’s craft — though the poem exhibits those skills — because discussions of meter and imagery against the poem’s subject seem disproportionate to my heart’s response. And let me be clear at the start of this discussion: “A Southern Road” is a lynching poem, and in the last decade called The Twenties most Black American poets assayed a poem on the terroristic acts against Afro-Americans that were then an occurrence as common as mass shootings or questionable police killings are today.* And like those things we experience today, lynchings and other acts of anti-Black violence were both a cause for political organizing and an ongoing hurt that the country seemed incapable of correcting. Let that sink in for cause of sorrow and information: around 100 years ago, in the lifetime of people in our lifetimes, it was considered an insolvable problem that American communities would torture, mutilate, and summarily execute fellow citizens as a public display of their power and the executed’s lack of it. Read that sentence again. Read it once more after that. This level of savagery was thought something that couldn’t be stopped, something inevitable.
Can I appropriately introduce an odd sort of hope into this horrendous history? Yes, the heart and head may be confused on that. Still, people, Black and white Americans, dealing with a nation that collectively thought this just had to continue, eventually made lynchings rare. There’s a long and likely necessary analysis on why this happened that would include how the same hatefulness mutates into new forms, I won’t get to that here. I’ll just say to our current, crucial, Greatest Generation (because, like the last given that name, they’ll have to be great) that pervasive “This can’t be changed. Any solution would be ineffective and worse than the disease” statements about present horrors can be reflexes not reflective of history.
As the poem appeared in Fire!! The Internet has some mistranscriptions likely due to OCR errors.
Did Johnson’s poem make this change come about? No, it’s not even well-known as a poem— not even well-known as an African-American Harlem Renaissance poem — but poetry works in each reader and listener, one-by-one. A little over a decade later Abel Meeropol’s song “Strange Fruit” was powerfully realized by Billie Holiday, but Johnson’s earlier work was similarly skillful in giving us a portrait of evil. Even more than “Strange Fruit,” “A Southern Road” is cast as a cold pastoral. “A Southern Road” opens with a somewhat specific yet mysterious image: a dry yellow tongue. A metaphoric rural clay road? A parched leaf? From the poem’s generalized title we don’t know. I think the following “little tune” image developed over the next few lines is birdsong, and our dry forest pastoral ends unexpectedly with a line “Pregnant with tears.”
Johnson’s next sentence spread over four lines is part of why I think the tune, a melody that is a “streaming line of beauty” is birdsong, as there’s a nest that’s been flung down by some indifferent god/fate, before the Sabbath. We are to worship that god? We are to puzzle at a beautiful song despite loss?
The poem’s final five lines have us reassessing the poem’s portion before them. Several antique words are used here, perhaps a conscious choice to make this horror that was contemporary to her time in a way more timeless and generalized. A tree is described as a “predella,” the platform of an alter. We can next tell that the metaphoric altarpiece in this case depicts a crucifixion of a kind, a lynched person. “Sacrificial dower to raff” is near-Chaucerian in language. “Dower” is the inheritance of a dead person, raff is Middle English for rubbish, akin to the slightly less out-dated term “riff-raff.” The sacrificed body does not seem like much of an inheritance, any more that Christ on the cross seems much like a godhead, but I think Johnson is using raff/riff-raff in this line also to refer to the lynchers and their hate’s inheritance.
The poem ends with the tortured body suspended in the air, which I believe the poem compares to a plausible reader’s opinion on this matter: suspended?
There, I said I would keep my account of how we might encounter and understand this poem’s craft brief. I’ve compared “A Southern Road” above to “Strange Fruit,” and so I took it as my job to give Helene Johnson’s poem some further equivalence, albeit with what I could create for music and with a less masterful singer. I needed to put the music together fairly quickly again, but despite having three guitars and an electric piano over the bass and drums it worked spontaneously, as it needed to. You can hear it with the player you may see below, or with this alternative highlighted link.
*There’s a figure easily found in web searches that more than a thousand lynchings occurred between 1900 and 1914. The later year 1919 (not included in that selection of years) was notorious for white riots and other forms of violence. US population at the time of today’s poem was roughly 1/3 of what it is today if you’d like to adjust figures. It’s plausible that numbers were not easily gathered for other years — after all, in our century there were no figures on the number of people killed in police encounters until recently. And anyway, technical arguments about collection and accuracy of numbers, like metrical scans of this poem’s lines don’t get at the overall effect of this: that people are going to terrorize and kill you and not enough are going to care about it.
One thought on “A Southern Road: a lesser-known poem comparable to the more famous “Strange Fruit.””
I love this poem and Helene Johnson’s work, which I didn’t even know until being asked to review her collected poems and letters, some years back. It should be in anthologies more often, and generally better known.
LikeLiked by 1 person