The Lynching

The Lynching Study Guide

First published in 1920, Claude McKay's "The Lynching" stands as a powerful condemnation of one of the most horrific chapters of American history. A form of unlawful killing carried out by mobs, lynchings increased in the years after Reconstruction as whites attempted to spread terror and maintain their social, political, and economic dominance. In the year before McKay published "The Lynching," 76 black men and women were lynched, the highest number in 15 years, and records suggest that 4,743 people—3,446 of them black—were lynched between 1882 and 1968, though many lynchings also went unreported. This level of extreme violence shocked the Jamaican-born McKay when he arrived in the U.S., and he wrote several years before publishing "The Lynching" that "I had heard of prejudice in America but never dreamed of it being so intensely bitter . . . In the South daily murders of a nature most hideous and revolting, in the North silent acquiescence, deep hate half-hidden under a Puritan respectability, oft flaming up into an occasional lynching." As part of McKay's response to "this ugly raw sore in the body of a great nation," "The Lynching" confronts the problem of race more explicitly than some of McKay's other poems, especially his famous sonnet "If We Must Die."

While vigorous anti-lynching campaigns were already underway well before McKay had arrived in the United States, "The Lynching" was a crucial early example of the anti-lynching poems produced during the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s. Unlike other Harlem Renaissance poets like Jean Toomer and Langston Hughes, however, McKay uses the highly traditional sonnet form to stage his protest, drawing on the association of the sonnet with love poetry to comment on the perverse love of lynching in the United States. While this use of a traditional English form—however ironic or radical of a use it may be—clearly distinguishes McKay from many of the "high modernist" writers of his time, McKay's work is actually more politically radical than many poems from the "traditional" modernist canon, for McKay’s pessimism in "The Lynching" is not a nostalgic, elitist longing for a lost sense of meaning and cultural cohesion but a protest against the real alienation, oppression, and death caused by racial injustice in America.