Night, Death, Mississippi

Robert Hayden

‘Night, Death, Mississippi’ by Robert Hayden is a historical narrative told mostly from the perspective of a Klansman. In the poem, the Klansman lauds his son for lynching black men while telling of the days he himself participated in the perpetration of racial violence.

Robert Hayden

Nationality: American

Robert Hayden was an American poet born in 1913 in Detroit.

He was the first African American to be appointed as a Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress.

Key Poem Information

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Central Message: Like many inheritable features, bigotry can be passed down

Themes: Death, Identity, Religion

Speaker: A Klansman and a grieved voice

Emotions Evoked: Enjoyment, Excitement, Grief

Poetic Form: Free Verse

Time Period: 20th Century

'Night, Death, Mississippi' by Robert Hayden is a short narrative about racial violence. It is told majorly from the perspective of a white supremacist who delights in killing black men.

Night, Death, Mississippi’ by Robert Hayden is a narrative poem telling of an American family with a tradition of lynching black people. The predominant poet persona is the father of this family and an evident member of the Ku Klux Klan who romanticizes the killing of African Americans. This poem speaks of hate and bigotry and how both are passed down through generations.


Night, Death, Mississippi’ by Robert Hayden is a poem about racism and racial violence and how both are passed down through generations.

Night, Death, Mississippi’ begins with a man, the poet persona, listening for a sound. At first, he is unsure what to make of the sound he hears, but later on, readers learn that it is the laughter of an old black man. This laugh later turns to a cry as the speaker’s son lynches this man.

Nonetheless, the persona remains unbothered. In fact, his son’s actions trigger nostalgia. The speaker reflects wistfully on the time he was well enough to lynch other black men in the neighborhood of Mississippi. When the speaker’s son comes home, he gives him a “bottle” to celebrate his “kill.” The speaker is happy to hear the son narrate how he beat up African Americans that night.

The son’s narration is interspersed with the voice of another speaker. The new persona is the voice of grief, wailing at the atrocities this southern family commits. ‘Night, Death, Mississippi’ does not end on a redeeming note, as the mother in the house is only concerned with washing the blood off her son. She is unbothered by the violence he has committed.


Night, Death, Mississippi’ by Robert Hayden comprises two sections. The first section is composed of six quatrains. The second section comprises six stanzas, three of which are quatrains; the other three are monostich. ‘Night, Death, Mississippi’ is a free verse. It does not have a consistent rhyme scheme and meter.

The poem is also an unconventional free verse in that it is firstly arranged according to sections. In addition, there is no symmetry in the division of its sections. Though both sections contain six stanzas, the composition of the second section differs from the first. Its quatrains are interspersed with monostichous from another poet persona.

Regardless, Hayden maintains a fairly consistent rhythm with a line length not exceeding ten syllables. He also uses punctuation to influence the speaker’s and reader’s pitch as well as indicate a pause or the end of a thought.

Literary Devices

  • Irony: The situational irony is evident in the second section, where both speakers call on the name Jesus Christ. Both are believers in Christianity, yet their actions stemming from this belief are extremely different.
  • Allusion: The Klansman reveals himself to be so with the allusion to “white robes.” Other phrases like “sweetgum” allude to real African Americans like John Hartfield, who suffered due to the Klan’s ideologies.
  • Imagery: The poem is rich in visual and sound imagery. Courtesy of Hayden’s use of language, words like “screech” and “cry” are as loud as a real screech and cry in the reader’s mind. The poet also stylishly employs colors to paint the atmosphere of the poem. With phrases like “sweetgum dark,” “groinfire,” “bloody Jesus,” and “big old chains/messy and red,” the colors black and red flash across the reader’s minds. These colors paint a gloomy and violent atmosphere, which matches the overall theme of the poem.
  • Caesura: The poet often introduces a caesura in the middle of a line. The comma and period are the punctuations responsible for these pauses.
  • Repetition: The poet persona repeats the phrase “Time was” to emphasize “sweet” nostalgia. One can tell through his repetition that he wishes to go back to his lynching days. Variations of the word “blood” are also repeated to emphasize the theme of violence.
  • Rhetorical Question: The Klansman asks a good number of rhetorical questions in the poem. These questions revealed his prejudice and frank pleasure in lynching.

Detailed Analysis

Section One

Stanza 1-3

A quavering cry. Screech-owl?
Or one of them?
The old man in his reek
and gauntness laughs –

One of them, I bet –
and turns out the kitchen lamp,
limping to the porch to listen
in the windowless night.

Be there with Boy and the rest
if I was well again.
Time was. Time was.
White robes like moonlight

Night, Death, Mississippi’ opens with strong visual and sound imagery. It also introduces certain disturbing characteristics of the poet’s persona. Going by the poem’s title, the physical setting is a neighborhood in the southern town of Mississippi. The temporal setting is, of course, night (stanza 2, line 4).

In stanza one, the speaker’s prejudice is first noted when he says “one of them” before proceeding to describe an old man. The second hint of the speaker’s prejudice comes in his description of this old man whom he watches from the comfort of his home.

Though we are not given a clear reason for the persona’s prejudice in these stanzas, the last line in stanza three and the clues from the poem’s title hint at one possible reason: bigotry. “White robes,” back in the early twentieth century, were representative of the second Ku Klux Klan.

This Klan would wear these white robes to symbolize some form of superiority as they attacked black people and anyone else who did not fit their standard of morality. As the title of the poem indicates, the Klan was particularly active in southern American states like Mississippi. With that said, and considering that Hayden’s poems usually revolved around black people, one can assume the “old man” is black.

The last line, therefore, sets a gloomy atmosphere for the rest of the poem, contrary to the expectation for using the word “white.” Stanza three also hints at some form of activity the speaker’s son (as the word “Boy” indicates) is about to do. Given the likely assumption that our speaker is a Klansman, one cannot expect this activity to be good. The phrase “Time was” signals to us that the speaker is reminiscing his past. Considering the premonition, one cannot expect the coming narrative to be good either.

Stanza 4-6

In the sweetgum dark.
Unbucked that one then
when he gets home.

As expected, the speaker’s story in stanzas four and five confirms not only his prejudice but also his past. In almost sickening nostalgia, the speaker describes racial violence. In early twentieth-century America, this was not uncommon in the South, especially with the activities of the Klan so bold.

“Sweetgum” in stanza four may allude to the type of darkness and even romanticize it given the speaker’s tone, but it also refers to something more. The “sweetgum” tree brings to mind a man named John Hartfield, a black man who was hung on the tree in Mississippi for dating a white girl. History reports that the Klansmen lynched many black people in a similar manner.

In ‘Night, Death, Mississippi,’ however, the speaker tells of a different form of lynching: death by castration. He reminisces about killing black people in his time while the “laugh” of the “old man” earlier described turns into a “cry.” The Klansman describes the torture of this man under his son using the sexual term “groinfire.” One can easily tell, therefore, that our speaker derives some sort of sexual gratification from lynching black people.

The last stanza underscores the overarching theme of the poem: generational hate. The speaker rewards his son with alcohol to say he has done a good deed. The “Boy” would most likely grow up initiated into the thought that he did a good deed indeed. With a parenting system like this, the father has passed down his prejudices to his son.

This is one of the ways through which the Second Klan expanded to include millions of members. It is also one way many people end up harboring prejudices of any kind: through their upbringing. In many ways, this theme makes ‘Night, Death, Mississippi’ a universal and relatable poem, not only for black people.

Section Two

Stanza 1-3

Then we beat them, he said,
you want him dead.

The second section is more of the speaker reporting the words of the people around him. In this section, the Klansman reports how elated his son felt lynching black people. It turns out the speaker’s son and his friends had lynched more black people than the old man.

The Klansman’s son is clearly already indoctrinated into this practice, considering how he tells a story of racial violence like it is a bedtime story. The ease with which he relates it also reveals that this practice has become a tradition the family is used to.

This section also features a different speaker whose voice cuts across the Klansmans. Their voice is indicated by the italicized monostiches in this section. Though it is unclear whose voice this belongs to, one can tell it most likely belongs to the old man or the group of black people the first speaker’s son had lynched.

In the first three stanzas, especially, this voice introduces irony. Readers see this when both the speaker and the Klansman’s son call the central figure in Christianity Jesus Christ. History tells us that the Ku Klux Klan performed all their violent acts to uphold “true Christianity.”

With that said, one may say that both the perpetrators and victims believe in Jesus. Yet, irony materializes where the actions stemming from the belief of both perpetrators and victims of violence differ. Nonetheless, Hayden stylishly points towards the practitioners of true Christianity in these stanzas by giving more weight to the victim’s cry: “O Jesus.”

Stanza 4-6

O night, rawhead and bloodybones night


O night betrayed by darkness not its own

The last three stanzas offer no redemption to ‘Night, Death, Mississippi. The fifth stanza focuses on the mother of this white American family. Though one may naturally expect a mother to be more soft-hearted or at least concerned by her son’s and husband’s violence, this mother is clearly unbothered by it.

Rather, her son, whom she refers to as “Paw,” being covered in blood, concerns her more. She remains passive but complicit in her family’s violent traditions. This reflects the stance of many white female supremacists before the Civil Rights Movement.

The second voice draws attention to the night, wailing for the atrocities committed in it. This voice condemns racial violence, calling it the true “darkness” of the night. In this sense, one may call this second voice that of Hayden and many activists alike, for without it, one may have assumed Hayden himself condoned racial violence. However, with the second persona, we hear the voice of the victims, the voice of activism against racial violence, and the voice of empathy.


What inspired the poem ‘Night, Death, Mississippi?’

Robert Hayden wrote and published ‘Night, Death, Mississippi’ at the height of racial tensions in the United States. Not only was race a debated political issue everywhere, the third Klan was also reforming. All these took part in inspiring Hayden to write the poem.

When and where was ‘Night, Death, Mississippi’ published?

The poem was published in Hayden’s fifth poetry collection, A Ballad of Remembrance, in the year 1962. This poetry collection went on in 1966 to win Hayden the Grand Prize for Poetry at the first World Festival of Negro Arts.

What is the tone and mood of the poem?

The overall tone of the poem is wistful. For most of the poem, the Klansman reminisces about killing black people while his son heads out to continue his tradition. His wistfulness, stemming from this nostalgia, soon turns to excitement from hearing his son’s stories. Meanwhile, courtesy of this narrative of racial violence, readers remain gloomy throughout the poem.

What are the themes in the poem?

The highlight of ‘Night, Death, Mississippi’ is race, racism, and racial violence. But most importantly, this poem underscores how the prejudice behind these highlights passes down from generation to generation. This narrative gives insight into the way most people with prejudices of whatever kind have been raised. Beyond these themes, however, lies the themes of grief and empathy as voiced by the second persona.

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Poetry+ Review Corner

Night, Death, Mississippi

Enhance your understanding of the poem's key elements with our exclusive review and critical analysis. Join Poetry+ to unlock this valuable content.
Robert Hayden (poems)

Robert Hayden

'Night, Death, Mississippi' is one of Hayden's more popular poems. It tackles the very sensitive and even dangerous issue of the Ku Klux Klan, especially at a time when a third generation of the Klan was still reforming. Hayden's bravery in not only writing this poem but also in taking on the voice of a Klansman as a black person cemented this poem in the hearts of its readers and, as it appears, in history as well.
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20th Century

'Night, Death, Mississippi' is relevant to the 20th century. This is because it touches on many aspects of black history in the United States at that time. Twentieth-century America was a very sensitive time, considering the number of political debates about race. This poem remains one of the many that, in one form or another, contributed to the literature on the struggles of African Americans then and even now.
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This poem rose to fame not only among white and African Americans but also among Africans when the collection in which it was published, A Ballad of Remembrance, won the Grand Prize for Poetry in Senegal. If anyone in America had not heard of it, then 'Night, Death, Mississippi' went on to reappear in several anthologies afterward, making it hard for any American in any literary circle to miss this poem.
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Death born from racial violence is a major theme in this poem. It is so prevalent that it even appears in the title of the poem. In 'Night, Death, Mississippi,' the Klansman reminisces about castrating black people to death. When his son returns from killing even more black people, he is elated to tell his father how he beat them until his chains were "messy and red."
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Though identity is not explicitly mentioned, it remains a major theme in this poem. The underlying reasons for the white supremacist's violence throughout the poem are tied to the victim's race. The white American family cannot stand black people. This prejudice leads to racism and, eventually, racial violence.
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Though religion is mentioned in the poem, it is only mentioned in passing to create irony. Both the perpetrators and victims are known and shown believers in Christianity. Yet, the actions produced by this belief differ greatly from one believer to another. This is ironic since the message of Jesus Christ is one of love and should have, therefore, produced an action similarly born from love, not the lynching this white supremacist family is involved in.
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Enjoyment as an emotion makes a notable appearance in the poem. One can tell that hunting down and lynching black people was a source of enjoyment for the Klansman. He likens black people to animal sport, "bear," to be specific, and only they know why the Klansman wants them dead. The man even hints at gaining sexual gratification from lynching them.
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The Klansman's son's excitement on returning from his "hunt" is evident in the second section of the poem. The "Boy" has been fully initiated into the family tradition of lynching. The Klansman has passed down his prejudices and bigotry to his son.
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The grief from the loss of the victims is present in the second section of the poem. This emotion is evident in the voice of the second speaker. The speaker, in many ways, represents Hayden and the many activists who are against racial violence. The speaker may also represent the audience who feels empathetic or sympathetic to the senseless loss of lives in the poem.
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African Americans

'Night, Death, Mississippi' does not mention African Americans specifically. However, courtesy of Hayden's allusions, one can tell that African Americans are the "them," the victims in Hayden's historical narrative. He even alludes to specific African Americans like John Hartfield who was hung for dating a white girl.
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'Night, Death, Mississippi' shows how culture is created. In this poem, the white American family has a culture of lynching black people at night. The poem shows how the father in this family initiates his son into the culture. By the time we hear the son's voice, though reported in the second section, he has fully imbibed his father's prejudices, desensitized to the concept of racial violence.
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Racism is the overarching theme in the poem. Though the speaker and even Hayden himself do not mention it explicitly, Hayden's fascination with the concept of race and the allusions to the infamous lynching in 20th-century Mississippi and the KKK tell readers what to name this Klansman's prejudice: racism.
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Racial violence is a recurring topic in this poem. Throughout, Hayden takes on the voice of a Klansman and romanticizes racial violence. The Klansman is wistful and nostalgic. He wants to relive his days of putting on his white robes and lynching black people at night. His son carries on that family tradition now, elated to relate to his dad and how he beat them to death. It is not pretty imagery, but the violence does convey the message of what African Americans suffered at the hands of the KKK.
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Free Verse

'Night, Death, Mississippi' is one of the unconventional free verse poems. It harbors some elements of prose, as is common with most of Hayden's free verse poems, being divided into sections before stanzas. However, it still retains the traditional elements of having an inconsistent rhyme scheme and meter.
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Anastasia Ifinedo Poetry Expert
Anastasia Ifinedo is an officially published poet. You can find her poems in the anthologies, "Mrs Latimer Had A Fat Cat" by Cozy Cat Press and "The Little is Much" by Earnest Writes Community, among others. A former poet for the Invincible Quill Magazine and a reviewer of poems on several writing platforms, she has helped—and continues to help—many poets like her hone their craft.

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