Poem of the Week | September 14, 2010

This week, our Poem of the Week is “A Photograph Taken in Duluth,” by Sean Hill. It originally appeared as a Poem of the Week in September of 2010, and the author note following the poem is from that same time.

Born and raised in Milledgeville, Georgia, Sean Hill is the author of Dangerous Goods, awarded the Minnesota Book Award in Poetry, (Milkweed Editions, 2014) and Blood Ties & Brown Liquor, named one of the Ten Books All Georgians Should Read in 2015 by the Georgia Center for the Book, (UGA Press, 2008). He’s received numerous awards including fellowships from Cave Canem, the Region 2 Arts Council, the Bush Foundation, Minnesota State Arts Board, The Jerome Foundation, The MacDowell Colony, the University of Wisconsin, a Stegner Fellowship from Stanford University, and a Creative Writing Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. Hill’s poems have appeared in Callaloo, Harvard Review, The Oxford American, Poetry, Tin House, and numerous other journals, and in over a dozen anthologies including Black Nature and Villanelles. He is a consulting editor at Broadsided Press, a monthly broadside publisher. Hill has also served as the director of the Minnesota Northwoods Writers Conference at Bemidji State University since 2012. (Updated: 6/15/20)

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.

Author’s Note

“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.”