Poem of the Week | September 14, 2010

Born and raised in Milledgeville, Georgia, Sean Hill has an MFA from the University of Houston. He has received fellowships and grants from Cave Canem, the Bush Foundation, The MacDowell Colony, the University of Wisconsin, Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, the Jerome Foundation, and most recently a Stegner Fellowship from Stanford University. His poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Callaloo, Ploughshares, Pleiades, Crab Orchard Review, DIAGRAM, The Oxford American, Tin House and other literary journals, and in the anthologies Blues Poems, Gathering Ground, The Ringing Ear, and the forthcoming Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry. His first book, Blood Ties & Brown Liquor, was published by the University of Georgia Press in 2008. He lives in Bemidji, Minnesota. More information, as well as poems, can be found at his website: www.seanhill.org.

Sean Hill writes: “‘A Photograph Taken in Duluth’ is fairly new, but I’ve been thinking about the Duluth lynching and the photograph for several years. Born and raised in the South, I knew about lynchings in the South and race riots in larger Northern cities but was surprised to find that a lynching took place in Duluth, Minnesota. I’d written another poem about the lynching of those three men in Duluth, but that poem circled the lynching rather than look right at it, so I was still haunted by this image. It was only after thinking about trying to talk to my grandmother about this specific heinous crime, this particular horrific event and the picture that was taken and the postcard that was made, that I could write directly about this image and look at the lynching. Though the agitation of the mob and the gathering of the crowd and the laying siege to and storming of the jail started earlier in the evening, the hanging of the men happened after sunset, so the photograph had to be lit by a car searchlight which lit up the faces of the mob and spectators and the hanged men, leaving the background mostly in shadow, which somehow makes this already disturbing scene even more disturbing.”

A Photograph Taken in Duluth

My grandmother says Beg Pardon when she hasn’t heard
        what you’ve said or is certain
you can’t have meant what she heard like I think the moon must
       have squinted at the dim light
of that gas lamppost and the three men that hung from it.
       What I mean is three men black,
in town with the circus, accused of the usual
       lynch-law crime were chosen from
six and dragged from jail one by one by men who’d formed a
       mob, propped up by thousands of
bystanders who didn’t join in with the hoisting of
       these black men up the lamppost
for allegedly violating a white woman
       but registered approval
with fists and feet while they made way for the black men or
       didn’t stop the hand or foot
of the woman or man next to them, so three beaten
       bodies violently shook,
shuddered, sputtered blood on those close by and came to rest.

My grandmother says Hush when
       she’s heard what you’ve said and doesn’t want to believe it.
But I have a photograph–
       proof of what happened in Duluth. For that I must say
Thank you kindly (that’s how my
       grandmother always says it) to a photographer
from just across the bay in
       Superior, Wisconsin, on hand with the thousands
of other souls crowding downtown
       Duluth that June evening. I know he didn’t take it
for me. My grandmother says
       Have mercy when she’s heard a burdensome truth such as
the photograph was quickly
       made into a postcard that sold quite well in local retail
outlets as a memento.

My grandmother didn’t know these men; she wasn’t born
       yet, but doesn’t need to be
shown this photograph to know the crowd of white faces
       staring into the searchlight.
Some lean forward and stretch their necks to make certain they’re
       in the picture, one smiles while
Elias Clayton’s body lies face down at his feet
       (hung so high they had to cut
him down to be in the shot) and Isaac McGhie and
       Elmer Jackson hang with their
necks stretched, heads lolled to the side, faces turned as if they
       should be the ones bearing the
shame or regret. This photo isn’t necessary
       for my grandmother to know
that this happened, and can still happen. And that’s why my
       grandmother sighs and says Hush.