Christ in Alabama
By Langston Hughes
Christ is a nigger,
Beaten and black:
Oh, bare your back!
Mary is His mother:
Mammy of the South.
Silence your mouth.
God is His father:
White Master above
Grant Him your love.
Most holy bastard
Of the bleeding mouth.
On the cross
Of the South.
The overall theme of this poem is black people being senselessly killed simply because they are different. This is like Christ, because he was killed for his beliefs, they were different. However, black people cannot change what is different about them, their skin color.
A few poetic devises used are the extended metaphor of Christ as the black population and the slang and “normal” sounding words used, like “Mammy” in line 5.
The title has a lot of importance. Christ represents everyone who has died without reason, people who have died for their beliefs or from something like skin color, religion and so on. Alabama is a place where many blacks have been killed and therefore is a good place to have this poem about blacks being killed to be set, because the type of thing he talks about happens there. This title really sets the tone of the poem and lets the reader know what it’s going to be about.
The poem doesn’t have an explicit voice, its more third person that anything else. It is mostly someone commenting on a social problem that they see.
The poem has four stanzas, three of which have three lines and the fourth, which has five lines. In the fourth stanza, the last three lines are all short and could, conceivably be one line. If you look at the poem that way, there is a definite rhyme scheme, the last word of the second and third line rhyme, as in “black” and “back” in lines two and three. Hughes uses a lot of punctuation according to the rules of English grammar. Hughes made the choice to make the last stanza five lines instead of three like the rest to make a point. The last three lines are all hitting the point of the poem home; blacks are being killed for no good reason. The 13th line especially, “On the cross” would have been less effective if it was part of a longer line. The stanzas all represent one idea, or one point, individually, but when put together, they make up “Christ”. The first stanza talks about Christ as being black, the second talks about Mary, the third God and the fourth the cross. When reading all the stanzas together the reader gets the full picture.
Hughes uses repetition to make sure some of his points are made clear. He repeats Christ, the extended metaphor in the poem twice in the body of the poem and it is used in the title. Hughes also repeats South twice in the poem. Mouth is also repeated twice in the poem, once in the stanza about “Mary” in line six, in which Hughes is making the point that blacks in the South are supposed to be seen and not heard. Later, in line eleven; Hughes talks about “the bleeding mouth” in the stanza about Christ on the cross. Hushes uses this repetition of mouth to show what happens to blacks in the South when they don’t keep their mouths shut and ideas to themselves.
Hughes made very deliberate word choice in this poem by choosing to use the word nigger twice. Nigger carries such a large social stigma with it, it is such a derogatory term that Hughes uses it to show that people in the South make the blacks go through every day. He also uses one word of slangish, cultural tongue, “Mammy” in line five. This ties his poem into the reality of black life verses the white life.
The whole poem is a big metaphor. Blacks, as a group, are like Christ, killed for no good reason. Hughes also makes other connections, Mary to “Mammy”, God to the white master, the person “above” who does what they want. Looking deeper into the metaphor, the reader gets the feeling that Hughes is talking about a child of mixed race with a black mother and a white father. These children were usually considered bastards, just like Christ, only he was a “holy bastard” (10).
The first and last lines work well in the poem. The first line, “Christ is a nigger” sets the tone in a way nothing else could. Hughes is letting the reader know that the poem will not be a nice, happy poem but a poem that isn’t afraid to tell things like they are. The last line, “Of the South” sums everything up. All of the things Hughes talks about happen in the South, and usually exclusively in the South.
The tone of the poem is slightly angry, the speaker isn’t happy about what’s going on, but the speaker is mostly trying to make people see what is happening, not trying to combat it. The speaker, it seems, knows that this is reality and you can’t really change it. There is a slight touch of optimism in the poem however, Christ did go and free his people. Hughes might have been trying to say that someday Christ will come and bring the blacks out of the South, but until then the blacks must be like Christ and be martyrs.
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