Get out the microscope, because we’re going through this poem line-by-line.
Way Down South in Dixie
- It's official, ladies and gentlemen. We have ourselves a refrain. The repetition of this line reminds us of the woes of our speaker and of her home in the South.
- Plus, now that we know what has happened to her lover, this refrain packs an extra dose of irony. Each time we hear it, it becomes darker and sadder.
(Bruised body high in air)
- After the repetition of the first line, we'd expect a repetition of the second as well, especially because the parentheses themselves repeat.
- But this new line catches us by surprise. Instead of hearing what the speaker's emotions are like, we see what her lover looks like. His body is hanging from the tree, high in the air. He's bruised because he was probably beaten before he was lynched.
- As disturbing as it is, this line could be a lot more graphic. Instead of going on and on about very gruesome details, the line just sneaks in there, all parenthetical-like. It's almost as if the speaker can hardly look, or write, about her lover's grizzly fate. She talks about it quickly and then changes the subject.
- Also, this line just refers to a body—it doesn't connect the body to the man, or the lover. Now that he is dead, he is just a brutalized body, no longer a lover. We'll see later that his body is so ghastly that he seems like just a shadow.
- And keep in mind that this bruised body doesn't necessarily have to refer to her lover—it could be talking about the subject of the next two lines, Jesus.
- Now, remember that the second and fourth line of the first stanza rhymed. So keep the sound of "air" in your ear when you get to line 8 of the poem. See if it rhymes.
I asked the white Lord Jesus
- This line may seem to be a clear-cut introduction to a question posed to Jesus, like a normal prayer, but it's definitely more that that. Just like the emphasis in line three was that the speaker's lover is black, this line emphasizes that Jesus is white.
- So, now we've got two characters who've been victimized: a black man hung by a mob to a tree at a cross roads, and a white man nailed, by a crowd in a similar fury, to a wooden cross.
- Even though Jesus, as a white man, may seem different to the speaker, he, just like her black lover, was a victim of an unjust, public murder.
- Despite their difference in skin color, Jesus is still the speaker's Lord. She believes in him, at least it seems.
What was the use of prayer.
- We see here what the speaker is asking Jesus—why pray?
- What use, she's saying, is a black girl praying, for a black man, to a white God?
- She has reached a point of desperation, as if she's wondering, if humans can do things like this, then why trust the God who allowed it to happen? Why ask for help?
- And there's that rhyme again. This time we get "prayer" and "air," which is a fitting connection to make, given the fact that our speaker thinks prayers just might be useless. To her, they're empty—as air.