What Is the Theme of the Poem "The Lynching" by Claude McKay?
"The Lynching" by Claude McKay was published in 1922, after the end slavery but still during a period that saw violence against African-Americans. The poem paints a disturbing picture of a lynching and reveals much about the darkest elements of humanity. Several themes can be drawn from the poem: religion, slavery, human cruelty and the passing of harmful traditions from one generation to the next.
Religion and Spirituality
McKay writes: "His spirit is smoke ascended to high heaven / His father, by the cruelest way of pain, / Had bidden him to his bosom once again." Using the words "spirit," "heaven" and "father," the poet shows his religious interpretation of the post-death experience in which a person's spirit returns to God in heaven. The theme of religion and spirituality provides a kind of haven in the terror of such violence. It is a refuge that does not reduce "the cruelest way of pain" but possibly heals it and protects it afterward.
Freedom and Slavery
McKay writes: "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)." The poem make reference to the North Star that slaves in the South used as navigational guidance when trying to escape to the North. When McKay states that the star is perhaps the only one that has ever guided him, he is also making reference to the man's life conditions prior to being lynched. A common practice in slavery was breaking up families. This meant children were separated from parents at a young age, wives and husbands were sold to different plantations, and siblings were broken up at a whim, whether for punishment or for financial gain for the slave owners. Therefore it is likely that the man had no family left and only the North Star to guide him.
The theme of human cruelty is revealed not only through the evidence of the lynched man but also through the observing crowd's reactions. McKay writes: "The women thronged to look, but never a one / Showed sorrow in her eyes of steely blue." This means that despite that fact that an innocent man was lynched, not only did the women feel no compassion and love for their fellow man, but they took interest in the cruelty and barbarism of the victim, as if his corpse were an entertaining spectacle.
Passing the Torch
McKay's poem addresses not only the cruelty of the early to mid 1900s but also the way in which racism, ignorance and violence is passed from one generation to the next. He writes: "And little lads, lynchers that were to be, / Danced round the dreadful thing in fiendish glee." These little lads are children of the adults who have committed this atrocious act; the children are learning by example and might be inclined to grow up to inflict the same savage violence they learned from their parents.
Soheila Battaglia is a published and award-winning author and filmmaker. She holds an MA in literary cultures from New York University and a BA in ethnic studies from UC Berkeley. She is a college professor of literature and composition.