23 pages 46 minutes read

Robert Hayden

Night, Death, Mississippi

Fiction | Poem | Adult | Published in 1966

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Summary and Study Guide


Published in 1962 when America was confronting the implications of the bloody street birth of the African American civil rights movement, Robert Hayden’s stark “Night, Death, Mississippi” relates the disturbing narrative of a rural Southern white family the night a white-robed Klan mob beats with heavy chains a number of innocent Black men. Hayden, himself Black and at the time one of the most respected poets of his generation, known for continuing the dense formal experiments of the early century’s Modernist movement, relates the harrowing story through the shifting perspectives of a Southern farmer who regrets now being too old and too sick to be part of the Klan’s night, his son who returns from the attack invigorated, and his wife who worries more about how to clean their son’s bloodied shirt than about what the Klan, and their son, have done. The old man considers his son’s participation in the killing of the Black men a rite of passage to be celebrated.

The poem, thus, does not only decry the brutal racism of the mid-century South but looks into the psychology of bigotry and how one generation passes that hate to the next. Unlike other African American poetry written during the battle for civil rights, Hayden’s poem does not deal in angry, incendiary rhetoric. Rather Hayden allows the racist family members to speak for themselves, their every chilling word indicting them as vicious and unrepentant bigots.

Poet Biography

Robert Hayden was born Asa Bundy Sheffey on 4 August 1913 in Paradise Valley, then one of the poorest Black neighborhoods in central Detroit, Michigan, the result of a generation of Black workers who migrated from the South looking for employment opportunity. The neighborhood was known for its gambling, speakeasys, and prostitution. Because his parents did not stay together, Hayden was in and out of the city’s foster care system where, for more than 10 years, he was raised by the Haydens, a volatile and often violent family. Hayden had few friends, and because he was short for his age and wore thick glasses, he was the target of much bullying. Books were his consolation.

He briefly attended Detroit City College (now Wayne State University) to major in literature. In the midst of the Depression, Hayden could not afford to stay in school. Rather, from 1936-1940, he worked in the government-sponsored organization, the Federal Writers’ Project, which provided meaningful work for aspiring writers, academics, and artists as well as librarians and journalists. In that capacity, Hayden had the opportunity to delve into the African American history in the South, particularly the antebellum freedom network known as the Underground Railroad. During this time, Hayden published his first volume of poetry, Heart-Shape in the Dust. He married the same year, his wife instrumental in introducing Hayden to the Baha’i faith, a mystical religion that envisions the ultimate unification of humanity, all religions, in fellowship, love, and trust as the goal of creation.

Despite not having a Bachelor’s degree, on the strength of his published poetry, Hayden, then 28, was accepted for graduate work at the University of Michigan. Over the next four years, under the guidance of the university’s Poet in Residence W. H. Auden, Hayden developed his sense of poetic lines at once dense and complex. After completing his graduate work at Ann Arbor and a brief stint teaching there, Hayden accepted a professorship at Nashville’s Fisk University, one of America’s most prestigious Historically Black Universities. Hayden would remain for more than 20 years before returning to Ann Arbor.

Hayden published nine volumes of poetry in his lifetime, recognized as much for his exploration of Black identity in a changing and often violent America as for his willingness to expand the concept of poetic form by crafting complex poems that reflected his fascination with point of view as well as complex conceptions of the functions of rhythm and rhyme, often using the vernacular of colloquial speech. Hayden was always candid in essays in identifying himself as a poet who happened to be Black rather than a Black poet, and he never aligned himself with the radical expressions of Black identity in the arts of the 1950s and 1960s. In 1976, the Bicentennial year, Hayden accepted the two-year appointment as Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress, the first Black poet to be so honored, a position that would later become the Poet Laureateship. On 25 February 1980, Hayden died in Ann Arbor. He was just 66. His simple marker reads “This man superb in love and logic,” a line taken from his own poem on Frederick Douglass.

Poem Text

Hayden, Robert.Night, Death, Mississippi.” 1962. Poetry Society of America.


The poem’s narrative action takes place in two sections, two acts as it were, the first told through the perspective of an aging rural Southern white man, a family man, a God-fearing Christian, who relishes the screams from Black men being beaten by a Klan mob near the farm; the second section is told from the shared perspectives of the old man’s son, who returns from the attack bloodied but exuberant, and the his wife, who fusses over how best to clean their son’s bloody shirt. All of the drama is played out in front of the son’s own children, who watch without comment, without reaction, without questions.

The poem begins with the sound of a “quavering cry” (Line 1) in an otherwise quiet rural night. An old farmer in his kitchen hears the piercing sound and thinks perhaps it is a screech-owl. Or maybe he thinks, cryptically, it is one of “them” (Line 2), which only makes him laugh. The anguished cries continue, and the man then understands exactly what they are and heads out, limping, to the porch “to listen” (Line 7) in the cloaking darkness. He relishes the sheer agony of the screams from Black victims, he is sure, of the Klan’s rage. His boy, he says, is with “the rest” (Line 9); indeed, the old man curses his decrepitude, his bad limp, and his weak eyes, and wishes he could be there with them. “Time was. Time was” (Line 11), he thinks ruefully. As he listens to the screams, he recalls with unseemly specificity being part of a mob that had beaten and then castrated (“unbucked”) a Black man, “him squealing bloody Jesus / as we cut it off” (Lines 15-16).

He romanticizes the memory, recalling how the white robes shimmered like “moonlight” in the “sweetgum” dark (Lines 12, 13), that is the dark of night further darkened by the ring of trees. Delighted by the gruesome memory, the old man spits excitedly, the memory alone arousing him, exciting him. He’s alone in the dark listening to those helpless Black men’s screams, feeling as if “fevered by “groinfire” (Line 20). The old man, a veteran of such attacks, knows his boy will be returning soon, and that the boy’s participation in the beating deserves a celebration: “[H]e’s earned him a bottle” (Line 23).

In the second stanza, the boy himself speaks, still excited and flushed from the attack. The Klan mob has beaten the helpless (and innocent) Black men “till our arms was tired” (26). He shares with his father the sight of the “big old chains / messy and red” (Lines 27-28). The boy is unrepentant, nonplussed by the experience. “Christ,” he exhorts through his excitement, “it was better / than hunting bear” (Lines 30-31). In his logic, beating and killing Black men is far superior to tracking and killing a bear because the bear “don’t know why / you want him dead” (Lines 32-33). Presumably, the Black men do—they need to be dead by the cold logic of racism simply and exactly because they are Black men in the white South. The mother then speaks and directs her grandchildren, there watching and listening to the entire scene unfold, to

fetch Paw
some water now so’s he
can wash that blood
off him (Lines 35-38).

In between stanzas in the second section are three italicized lines, each, compared to the undecorated documentary realism of the poem, are lyrical, evocative, and cryptic. The lines speak in turn of the redemption represented by Jesus on the cross, of the dank humid Southern night now drenched in innocent blood, and how that evil night and the events will never be discovered, never be brought to light.