Song for a Dark Girl Summary
We know from the title that the speaker of this poem is a black girl. She's singing, and we're going to guess that she's singing something like the blues.
She uses the refrain, "Way Down South in Dixie," so she's somewhere in the Deep South, maybe Louisiana or Georgia. But then we get these weird parentheses, which let us know that someone or something is breaking our speaker's heart. In other words, keep the Kleenex close.
We find out that her heart is breaking because her lover, who is also black, has been lynched. He's hanging from a tree that's in a crossroads, so people can see him as they pass.
The refrain repeats, and then we get an image of the brutality of the lover's death—he's been beaten up and is hanging high in the air. Our speaker is so upset by his death that she wonders, what's the use of praying to a white Jesus?
Then, in the last stanza, we return to the same first two lines as the first stanza. After we're reminded that the speaker's heart is broken, way down South, she give us the metaphor to end all metaphors. Love is a shadow—a naked one, on a gnarled and naked tree.
Way Down South in Dixie
- This line is a reference to location—Dixie is a colloquial term for the southern United States, but it's also a reference to the Confederate Army. During the Civil War, the unofficial anthem of the Confederacy's refrain and last line was "Away down south in Dixie."
- In that sense, we might expect to hear it from an old Southern man, yearning for the old glory days in Dixie, and not from a girl whose lover has just been brutally lynched by a mob of such Southern men. When heard from the girl's lips, the song that represented Southern pride to some becomes an indictment of Southern racism and violence. There's a deep sense of irony here, and it's pretty scathing.
- This line sets us up for the song-like nature of this poem. It has a sway and a swing. But this poem is so sad that the rhythm is bluesier than sing-song. If you're reading it aloud, try it slow, so that each word hangs on your tongue.
- Notice anything else? Shmoop does—the fact that this line has six syllables. We can't tell if there's any meter or rhyme yet, but you can bet we'll be keeping any eye out, especially since this poem is called a song.
(Break the heart of me)
- Throughout the poem, the second line of each stanza is in parentheses. This line repeats twice, here, in the first stanza, and again in the last stanza.
- Normally, when you see a parenthesis around something it means it's an aside. Whatever is hiding out in the parenthesis usually is just a little extra info for the readers.
- We don't think that this line is an extra at all, though. Instead, the parentheses seem to draw attention to the line, as if they're saying, look at me! Look at me! In a way, the parenthesis make the line seem even more important.
- That means we've got to pay extra close attention to what's going on here. Notice that the girl doesn't say "break my heart," or "it broke my heart," both of which would be kind of cliché. Instead, she uses the strange turn of phase—"Break the heart of me."
- In a way, it almost sounds like she's telling someone to break a heart. Then the "me" at the end of the line makes it really clear whose heart that is—hers.
- The phrasing of this line also gives the poem a bluesy rhythm and slow Down South feel. She's in no rush to make her point, but is singing about it slowly and sadly, beat by beat by bluesy beat.
- So, why would she put this in parentheses? Maybe it breaks her heart so much that she doesn't have the strength to say it plain; or maybe she intends it as an aside to go along with the first line, "Way Down South in Dixie," taking the anthem's joyous line and turning it into a lament.
- Either way, the parentheses make this line creep into our mind—we feel it, rather than read it.
- And who exactly is breaking her heart? Is she referring to Dixie? Did Dixie break her heart? That seems like a pretty good theory at this point.
They hung my black young lover
- Now we get to the meat, the event, of the poem. We find out why the dark girl's heart is broken, way down South: because her lover has been lynched.
- Well that'll break anyone's heart, right?
- Note the arrangement of this line: it reads "black young lover," rather than "young black lover," which puts emphasis on his color, not his age.
- She also doesn't accuse anyone specific of hanging her lover, just "they."
- What's up with that? It seems to suggest that society in general, or at least a large mob, lynched her husband. Maybe the racist Ku Klux Klan was involved, maybe it was just any old lynch mob, but the point here is plain.
- The blame in this poem is being taken by an ambiguous "they." There are multiple folks involved, and this girl might not even know who they actually are. She might never know.
To a cross roads tree.
- This line gives us a location more specific than the South. The lover is hung to a cross roads tree, or, at an intersection. So, this man is hung at a place where there are probably a lot of passers-by. We're guessing a crowd could easily gather there, to grieve and wonder about this man's fate, or to cheer on his death for the more bloodthirsty members of the mob.
- But, this line has a little something hidden, too. There is a space between the word "cross," and the word "road." Isn't crossroads normally one word?
- This makes us think of another person who was executed by an angry mob—Jesus. Though, as this line alludes to, Jesus hung from a cross, not a tree (but to be fair, the thing was made of wood). We'll see how Jesus comes to play in more obvious ways later in this poem.
- Finally, now that we've finished a stanza, this is a good place to check in with the form.
- Is there a meter here? Yes indeedy. Each line has (about) six syllables, which means that there are probably three stresses, or beats, in each line. That makes this puppy trimeter.
- Plus, we've got that rhyme—"tree" and "me." So as you read the rest of the poem, look for similar rhymes in the second and fourth lines of each stanza.
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.
Way Down South in Dixie
(Break the heart of me)
- Ah, we've come full circle, folks. Ain't that nice?
- Here, we return back to the same first two lines as in the first stanza—the refrain. This brings our poem back around to the beginning. It shows us again the speaker's broken heart after we've learned why she has one in the first place.
- Without knowing what was coming, we may have read the first line, "Way Down South in Dixie," with an upbeat swing, but now we know the line is slow and sad.
- When we hear the speaker say "break the heart of me" this time, we know that she's got a major reason to have a broken heart.
- The whole poem has built to this moment. Her lover's been beaten and killed and she's seen his body hanging high in the air. She feels that she, and perhaps her entire race, can get no help from a white Jesus.
Love is a naked shadow
On a gnarled and naked tree.
- But this poem doesn't just want to come full circle. It wants to make a point, too.
- So the speaker gives us this metaphor. Love is a shadow on a tree.
- She describes this shadow and this tree in a way that is very specific to how the events in this poem have made her feel about love.
- When she says that love is a naked shadow, she's probably referring to the body of her lover. Her lover's dead body now represents love. Um, that's not good.
- Either he's become just a shadow to her because she's traumatized at the sight of him, or she can only bear to look at his shadow on the tree and not his actual body.
- Not only has her main squeeze been beaten and hanged, all of his clothes have been taken off, which makes his death even more humiliating.
- This whole event—her dead lover, her loss of faith—is so devastating that even the tree that her lover is hanging on is gnarled—warped, distorted—and, like him, naked.
- We don't know about you, but Shmoop just got the chills.