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On "Communication to Nancy Cunard"

A Note on "Communication to Nancy Cunard"

"A Communication to Nancy Cunard" emerges from the events surrounding the fourth time the state of Alabama placed on trial some or all of the nine black men and boys (two of whom were thirteen) summarily arrested in 1931 and accused of gang-raping two white women. One trial after another kept exposing newer and deeper fault lines in American racial relations. New York papers were scandalized by a judicial process that was rapid, one-sided and rife with bias, but Alabama newspapers saw as a genuine sign of progress the fact that the defendants had any kind of a trial at all--in the past, they simply would have been lynched. As the trials continued into the 1930s, they became a lightning-rod for committed artists. The appearance of Boyle's poem in the June 9, 1937, issue of the New Republic, for example, prompted a young Miriam Gideon, not yet the acclaimed atonal composer and still a student with Roger Sessions, to set the text to music, with three separate choral societies in New York ready to perform the final work.

justice.jpg (74486 bytes)It is fitting the poem is addressed to Nancy Cunard, a long-time friend who was given one of the first copies of the poem in February 1937 and who also translated the poem into French in 1948 (as indicated by material in the Boyle Archives at the Southern Illinois University at Carbondale supplied by David Koch). For her Negro Anthology Made by Nancy Cunard, 1931-1933 (1933), she had produced "Scottsboro--and Other Scottsboros," a detailed documentary account, with numerous quotations, of the events leading up to the first trials in 1931-32. Boyle's poem, then (which carries the subtitle "Scottsboro, 1937" in two typescripts), continues and updates the act of witnessing begun by Cunard--as Cunard seems to have recognized when she added a comment in her own hand to her typescript of the poem: "... in this superb poem every word she wrote is factual truth."

Boyle's poem extends further Cunard's documentary approach. In a footnote to the first publication in The New Republic Boyle acknowledges that "much of the detail in this poem is due to Carleton Beals." Beals's coverage of the fourth trial in January 1936 appeared in The Nation (February 5, 1936, with an addendum on February 12). Beals is Boyle's authority for a detail such as the "Sheriff with the gold pin," for the openly racist comments by one of the members of the jury, and for the remarks by the "Sunday-school teacher ... who addressed the jury" (Malvin Hutson, the county's prosecuting attorney). Beals also reported the uncooperative denial ("I cain't remember") by Victoria Price--the woman who refused to drop her charge even though her companion had since testified that the story had been entirely fabricated.

Given this documentary base, it is highly appropriate that the statements by Haywood Patterson that Boyle so carefully reproduces with their spelling and grammatical errors intact originated in correspondence with him. Patterson had learned to read and write in the Alabama prison system after his arrest, and trial coverage by the Daily Worker in 1931 and again in 1936 featured letters by him and other defendants. In the months before the poem was written, as Life points out, Patterson was communicating with Boyle and her family through the mail. An October 20, 1937, letter from Patterson to Boyle's daughter refers to previous exchanges with "Mother Vail" (Boyle was then Mrs. Lawrence Vail). Boyle directed her literary agent to send a check for $7 to Patterson (the same invoice shows her $25 payment from the New Republic for the poem), acknowledging use of his words. Boyle almost certainly had before her an actual letter from Patterson when, in the south of France in early 1937, she composed this poem.

Ellen McWhorter

Kay Boyle’s "A Communication to Nancy Cunard" in many ways encourages readers to suspend disbelief in the ability of a political poem written by a white bourgeois female to avoid speaking for anyone; an interpretation invested in indicting Boyle for speaking "for" might devolve too easily into a dismissive discussion of the poet’s appropriation of voices in the poem. Indeed, Boyle makes clear that "communication" can work in far more complex ways. The poem benefits from being read as self-consciously working through what can and cannot be put into words, how historical atrocities can be represented and by whom, who can and cannot use language and why, and in what forms/genres they are permitted to speak or remain silent. If we take Boyle to be telling the story for those who cannot tell it themselves, due to numerous circumstances beyond their control (ranging from physical imprisonment to race and class), we downplay her obvious concern with how one represents Scottsboro when one is writing a poem and her obvious acknowledgement of poetry’s problematic relationship to political activism. Further, we risk foreclosing a discussion of the poem’s experimental modes of representing events like Scottsboro under the aegis of a problem with appropriation, a problem which I believe Boyle fairly straightforwardly anticipates and tries to address. At bottom, even if one reads Boyle’s foremost agenda as that of raising political awareness of the Scottsboro goings-on and sympathizing with those wrongly convicted, the poem’s title (and first stanza especially) suggest a simultaneous adjustment or expansion of Cunard’s poetics regarding these subjects, from which a reader might tease out some strand of Boyle’s sense of her own position/empowerment as political poet/activist.

Boyle’s poem is framed in part by its repeated invocation of a distinction between who the poem is "for" and who the poem is "not for." Indeed, "These are not words set down for the rejected/ Nor for outcasts cast by the mind’s pity/ Beyond the aid of lip or hand or from the speech" because, perhaps, pity in some forms can be patronizing. Individuals (poetry readers?) content in merely pitying those wrongly convicted thus participate to some degree in their marginalization, that is if pity is no more than an initial response to the event. When pity ceases to incite the poetry reader to become involved in remedying the Scottsboro sentences, and their logical extensions into early 20th c. race dynamics, it merely reinforces the division between leisure and immediate need that some forms of racism were (and still are) predicated upon. Moreover, Boyle suggests, the efficacy of words as a vehicle for political dissemination and resistance to racism comes to an end, while real people still inhabit a wounded, outcast "beyond." By signposting in this way who she intends (or expects) as her audience, and by announcing at the outset the limitations of messages wrapped in a poetic form, Boyle implicitly critiques armchair theorizing about racial politics, including a critique of poets who do not acknowledge the limitations of working in a medium so fraught with abstract and tangible privilege. The "abandoned" in line 6, which come to include Ozie Powell, Haywood Patterson, and Victoria Prince among others--these variously exploited scapegoats set against Sheriffs Sandlin and Blacock, the jury venireman, and the Sunday school teacher--are not intended/expected to hear the poem.

The second stanza of Boyle’s poem begins to specifically chronicle the Scottsboro case, and to hint at the circumstances that brought the nine convicted men/boys into the railcar in the first place. An unidentified speaker, likely one of the previously mentioned women, from within the boxcar says: "‘Christ, what they pay you…don’t/ keep shoes on your feet./ Don’t feed you. That’s why we’re shoving on’" (lns 15-7). Later, in what appears to be part of one of his trial testimonies, or perhaps part of a letter written to Boyle, Haywood Patterson recalls: "The depression ran me away from home, I was off on my way to try my very best to find some work." Lack of a living wage, then, alongside broadly strewn racism and sexism, brings together the boxcar riders, which include black men and white women. Towards the end of the poem, the speaker incorporates the "for" and "not for" structure which began the poem into a final extended explanation of who was in the boxcar on the fateful day and why:

Not the old or the young on it [the train], nor people with any difference in
    their color or shape,
Not girls or men, Negroes or white, but people with this in
People that no one had use for, had nothing to give to, no place to
    offer     (lns 92-4)

Here, the earlier suggestion that the depression forced lesser-paid workers to relocate takes on greater proportions: these men (and to a lesser extent women) garnered a use-value as scapegoats for racist atrocities that they could not commit in the social climate and hierarchies of early 20th c. North America. The nine black men who were falsely convicted of raping the two white women served the purpose of maintaining a boundaried national white identity in a collective white social consciousness; because of race, class, and the depression, the poem suggests, they were excluded from serving another more materially capitalistic purpose for a society powered largely by privileged white men.

Stanzas four and five simultaneously paint an extremely detailed picture of those whom the poem is "for" and offer two specific privileged white male perspectives on the status of black/white race relations during the Scottsboro trial. The jury venireman (ln 17), whom the poem is for, first pridefully refers to his own successful ability to "think things out" (ln 19), and then proceeds to offer a horrendously racist and illogical account of "how the nigger race begun" (ln 27) which calls upon the widely disseminated myth of a white human and an ape coupling. The Sunday-school teacher (line 28), whom the poem is also for, continues the conflation of black men and beasts, but also offers a perspective on the intersection of gender and race relations. He says in testimony:

There is a law reaching down from the mountaintops to the
    swamps and caves—
It’s the wisdom of the ages, there to protect the sacred parts of the
    female species (lns 34-5)

Given the fact that the accused men did not rape the white women involved, and given that the story was fabricated by white men, one might read the teacher’s remarks as revealing an anxiety over who has access to "the sacred parts of the female species," which might in turn be read as another attempt to preserve a sense of a boundaried national white identity in a collective white social consciousness. Notably, those intent on preserving their racial "claim" to the bodies of the women willingly submit the female body to a bogus (and albeit immaterial) rape, and in so doing reemphasize the fact that the accusations serve primarily to reinforce racial boundaries and not to "protect the sacred parts of the/female species."

One gets a clearer sense of exactly what social position the teacher perceives himself to occupy when he calls upon lofty laws and "the wisdom of the ages." To put this another way, the teacher accesses and aligns himself with these abstract modes of control and righteousness, that is with a logic of necessity. Haywood Patterson, on the other hand, explains his conviction in the following manner: "…misfortune befalled me without a moving cause. For it is events and misfortunes which happens to people and how some must whom are less fortunate have their lives takes from them and how people die in chair for what they do not do." In contrast to the teacher’s confidence in a longstanding and causal "wisdom of the ages," Patterson perceives himself to be the arbitrary victim of misfortune, which falls upon the "less fortunate," which could mean the lower classes, the racially disprivileged, or simply those unfortunate people upon whom misfortune falls. In any case, the jury venireman and the Sunday-school teacher call upon the effects of fundamentally rule-governed universe (even if it is obvious that their arguments work by illogic) which they are in line with, whereas Haywood Patterson senses the arbitrariness of fortune, that is a logic of contingency, which discriminates against him.

But this is not only discrimination within the realm of abstract causes, or organizing principles of the universe (i.e., "logics," or the level of thought preferred by armchair theorists), as Boyle goes on to suggest. The section of the poem entitled "The Testimony" consists of an explicit comparison of the ways language-use privileges and disprivileges certain speakers in certain social circumstances. Haywood Patterson’s apologetic plea for patience appears directly beside Victoria Prince’s virtually contentless testimony. A reader familiar with the outcome of the case would no doubt sense the irony of Boyle’s juxtaposition. Haywood Patterson requests:

…be patiene with me
        and remember
Most of my English is not of
        much interest
And that I am continually
Stopping and searching for the
        word (lnes 49-53)

while Victoria Prince repeats " I cain’t remember." In the Scottsboro case, Boyle suggests, a white woman’s inability to remember and thus articulate the circumstances of her rape, likely because the rape was invented, collided with the black man’s seemingly genuine attempt at articulation. Within the judicial sphere, Price’s silence and Patterson’s uneven speech both serve to convict him; she did not need to speak in order for him to be convicted, and nothing he could have said could have prevented him from being convicted.

Returning finally to the issue of voice in "A Communication to Nancy Cunard," I would like to suggest that each of the instances discussed above points toward Boyle’s primary concern with the intersection of race, gender, and language-use, which problematizes a reductive reading of the poem on the grounds of "appropriation." On one level, her poem attempts to raise social/poetic awareness of political/racial atrocities being committed contemporaneously, but this attempt also includes a critique of politically inactive theorizing that a poetry reader might be inclined towards. On another level, her poem distinguishes between a disprivileged audience beyond the aid of words, and thus in large part beyond the poem’s sphere of influence, and the audience empowered by whiteness, maleness, universal "wisdom," and/or mastery of language (and silence). "Communication" as such radically interrogates the intersection of words and politics of race, class, and gender.

Copyright 2001 by Ellen McWhorter

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