Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Scottsboro, Too, Is Worth Its Song

Taking an American Multicultural Literature class this Summer. In the first class we discussed Countee Cullen's poem, Scottsboro, Too, Is Worth Its Song. (pdf)

The poem is a reaction to the lack of outcry against the infamous multiple trials and convictions of the "Scottsboro Boys" in Alabama in the early 1930s.

The heart of the story is retold in an appropriately slowly paced film, Heavens Fall (2006), starring Timothy Hutton and David Strathairn. The title of the film is from the quote, "Let justice be done, though the heavens fall." While not heavy-handed, the movie is definitely a morality play that casts a spotlight on our racist and prejudicial past. The acting is strong, the story well-told, and the outcome tragic. Despite the suspect witnesses (one recants) and lack of clear evidence, the men are convicted and sentenced to death for raping two white women in 1931.

Countee Cullen's poem (below) questions why the poets of the day (usually advocates for the downtrodden) were not raising this issue to the level of indignation that surrounded the Sacco and Vanzetti trial.

Scottsboro, Too, Is Worth Its Song
A poem to American poets
by Countee Cullen, 1934
I said:
Now will the poets sing, -
Their cries go thundering
Like blood and tears
Into the nation's ears,
Like lightening dart
Into the nation's heart.
Against disease and death and all things fell,
And war,
Their strophes rise and swell
To jar
The foe smug in his citadel.

Remembering their sharp and pretty
Tunes for Sacco and Vanzetti,
I said:
Here too's a cause divinely spun
For those whose eyes are on the sun,
Here in epitome
Is all disgrace
And epic wrong.
Let wine to brace
The minstrel heart, and blare it into song.

Surely, I said,
Now will the poets sing.

But they have raised no cry.
I wonder why.
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