The Lynching

May 16, 2023
1 min read
Cover, first edition of Spring In New Hampshire and Other Poems with signed frontispiece photo of McKay (source ABE Books). Image credit: NY1920's

His spirit in smoke ascended to high heaven.

His father, by the cruelest way of pain,

Had bidden him to his bosom once again;

The awful sin remained still unforgiven.

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)

Hung pitifully o’er the swinging char.

Day dawned, and soon the mixed crowds came to view

The ghastly body swaying in the sun:

The women thronged to look, but never a one

Showed sorrow in her eyes of steely blue;

And little lads, lynchers that were to be,

Danced round the dreadful thing in fiendish glee.

This 1930 photo shows the lynching of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith in Marion, Indiana. Shipp and Smith were lynched in the town center of Marion, for allegedly murdering a white factory worker, Claude Deeter, and raping his companion, Mary Ball. Lawrence Beitler took what would become the most iconic photograph of lynching in America. Image:


The Lynching” by Claude McKay (1889-1948) illustrates an eerie image of lynching and narrates the story of a Black man unjustly hanged by a white mob, with the poem beginning at the moment of his death.

The sonnet was a timely indictment of the heinous killings carried out against African Americans by white Americans. It was published after slavery was abolished in the United States but was still a period that saw continual violence against the Black community. McKay’s sonnet was released at a time when the Harlem Renaissance and anti-lynching movements began to expose the horrific brutality of lynchings in the US.

The poem covers not just the atrocities of the early to mid-1900s, but also how prejudice, ignorance, and violence are passed down the generations. The poem, therefore, continues to be relevant today with institutional racism widespread in the US and violence against African Americans persisting.

The body of 32-year-old Rubin Stacy hangs from a tree in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., as neighbors visit the site July 19, 1935. Stacy was lynched by a mob of masked men who seized him from the custody of sheriff’s deputies for allegedly attacking a white woman. Image: Associated Press

“The Lynching” first appeared in the Summer 1920 issue of Cambridge Magazine, a British literary journal. It was included in McKay’s Spring In New Hampshire and Other Poems (1920) and was republished in the It was republished in James Weldon Johnson’s anthology The Book of American Negro Poetry (Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1922). McKay was born Festus Claudius McKay in Jamaica and used the money from his first book of poetry, Songs of Jamaica and Constab Ballads, to move to the US.

This poem is in the public domain.

Claude McKay

Born in Jamaica in 1889, Claude McKay wrote about social and political concerns from his perspective as a black man in the United States, as well as a variety of subjects ranging from his Jamaican homeland to romantic love.

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