"Contempo: A Review of Books and Personalities" (Volume 1, Number 13)
Background and Overview
Contempo, subtitled “A Review of Books and Personalities,” was a monthly social and literary periodical published in Chapel Hill, North Carolina from 1931 to 1934 (Bledsoe 248). Archival holdings suggest that the paper had a relatively small but nonetheless widespread distribution in the United States outside of North Carolina. Part of the tradition of “little magazines,” this publication dealt regularly with current events and social issues, recent literary releases, and even published new poetry by well-known contributors. This particular issue, Volume 1, Number 13, was published December 1, 1931 and cost 10 cents per copy (or $1.50 for a yearly subscription). The issue is printed on one 25 ½ inch by 19 ½ inch sheet of paper, double sided, and folded in the middle to create four 19 ½ inch by 12 ¾ inch pages. Thus, despite being called a journal or magazine by most sources, the publication most closely resembles what one would expect from a small newspaper. This particular copy is evidently well used, with bends down the edges, tears at the two inner corners, a fingerprint at the beginning of the first article, and heavy creases down the center where the paper had been folded.
This special issue deals with what has become known as the Scottsboro Case, where nine male African-American teenagers were accused of raping two white women on a train in Alabama on March 25th, 1931. Despite a lack of evidence, all of the young men were sentenced to death. After a series of appeals (including the Supreme Court case Powell v. Alabama) and retrials, four of the nine defendants were acquitted. The other five were either released or escaped prison within fifteen years of the alleged crime. With the initial sentence of death by electric chair pronounced on April 9th, 1931, this issue of Contempo appears several months after the first trials had already taken place. Intercession by the NAACP and Communist Party prevented the death sentences from being carried out and allowed legal challenges and public debate to continue, as it does in the pages of this issue (Bynum 1896-1897).
University of North Carolina students Milton Abernethy and Anthony Buttitta founded Contempo as a radical journal meant to engage with political, academic, and social controversy. Despite being founded by UNC students, the periodical was not associated with the university (Bledsoe 248). As the content of this issue demonstrates, Contempo contained much more concentrated radical content in comparison to many of its contemporaries; for instance, it devotes the front page of its special issue to the Scottsboro case in late 1931, while The Daily Tar Heel, another independent student-run publication in Chapel Hill, apparently first mentions the case nearly two months later, and only in a brief notice about an upcoming forum about the controversy. Front-page headlines which appear in The Daily Tarheel on the same date as this special issue of Contempo include the much less controversial “Bells of Tower Heard in Durham,” “Pastor Delivers Initial Sermon,” and “Simple Living is Secret of Long Life Says Bell.”
Content and Analysis
Contempo does not shy away from foregrounding its most disturbing and controversial material. The most striking element of the paper is Langston Hughes’s poem “Christ in Alabama,” centered near the top of the front page, with a graphic featuring a black silhouette with white holes in the hands and on the chin, and barely discernible facial features in the darkness. The now famous poem depicts the brutalization and silencing of black men and women in the South, and suggests that lynch victims are Christ-like figures, scorned and beaten by society despite their innocence. While the Jews demanded Christ be killed for supposed political crimes, black Americans were killed by other Americans largely to intimidate them and stop their political advancement. Like many of the blacks killed without a fair trial, Christ was executed despite the fact that he was innocent. Although it does not appear at the top of the first column, the poem and graphic are easily the most iconic and attention-grabbing elements of this issue. They set the tone for the whole paper—a tone that is frank about the brutal treatment of blacks in the South, indignant to the injustices, and desperate for change.
Indeed, the outside pages, or front and back of the paper, are where the journal foregrounds practically all of its Scottsboro content. Lincoln Steffens, Langston Hughes, and Carol Weiss King each contribute articles dealing with the Scottsboro Case. Within these articles, themes of “legal lynching” and Southern pride are the primary concern. King, the defense attorney for the black boys convicted in Scottsboro, frames his article as providing facts about the case, and he sticks to substantiated evidence while questioning the legitimacy of the uncorroborated testimony that seems to have influenced the convictions in the case. King’s article is focused primarily on the dynamics of the case inside the courtroom, and proving why the conviction was unjustified.
Steffens and Hughes, meanwhile, are primarily interested in the implications of the case on American society, and utilize the idea of Southern pride in an attempt to mobilize Southerners against injustice. Steffens’ main argument is that, although the South has avoided an extralegal lynching, it is merely adopting a form of lynching common in the North by unjustly punishing these black boys—namely, “legally lynching” them by hurrying justice to please the mob of public opinion. This capitalizes on a sense of Southern pride and identity by comparing the region’s new system of injustice to that of the rival North. The South, Steffens concludes, should instead stick to their “oldest ideal of pride, and do something, no other part of the United States does: Be Fair. Be just. Be different… That would shame the whole world into learning something—from the South.” This final sentence suggests that the reputation of the South has been sullied by its unjust treatment of blacks in the past. The use of the hyphen physically on the page and verbally though its tone alienates the South from the teaching that is indicated in the rest of the sentence, suggesting that Steffens believes the world would be surprised to learn something about justice from this region. In a sense, this insults the pride of Southerners by implying that their region is backward, but it also positions it as easily redeemable, if only they would stand for justice in this case, and prevent the legal lynching of capital punishment.
Langston Hughes’ article is the shortest, but perhaps the most passionate of the issue. He indicates that injustices exists on multiple sides of the Scottsboro Case—not only for the black boys who are accused of the crime, but also for the white women who are forced by their economic circumstances into prostitution, because they are underpaid at the mills where they work. Like Steffens, Hughes insults Southern pride in an effort to instigate change. He calls on the “sensible citizens of Alabama (if there are any)” to improve education for blacks and wages for women, and then points out “I never knew until now that white ladies (the same color as Southern gentlemen) travelled in freight trains … Did you, world?” By drawing attention to inconsistencies in white regional pride, and how problems such as these put them on display to the world, Hughes shows how profoundly social injustices are affecting Southern society, and demonstrates why change is needed even if only to preserve the vestige of Southern pride. One way in which Hughes differs from Steffens in his article is in the way he calls for a broader national identity which is inclusive to blacks by pointing out that the prisoners, jury, and judge, are all Americans, and thus it is broader American justice that is at stake.
Interestingly, Hughes evokes the aesthetics of a lynch mob as a protest of the Scottsboro legal lynching. After calling for whites to use their influence in organizations to protest this injustice, he presses the black Americans living in the region to “raise such a howl that the doors of Kilbee Prison shake until the 9 youngsters come out, (and I don’t mean a polite howl, either).” This howling at the doors of a prison and demanding for the turning over of prisoners is eerily reminiscent of lynch mobs demanding black prisoners, but here the power of the mob is appropriated to ensure justice against an unjust government. If the Southerners, black and white, do not move for justice, Hughes says that they might as well “let Alabama’s Southern gentlemen amuse themselves burning 9 young black boys till they’re dead in the State’s electric chair,” which suggests that if those sympathetic to justice don’t take a stand, they deserve the injustice that will inevitably continue to plague their society.
Content not related to the Scottsboro case is buried in the interior pages. Pages two and three deal mostly with recent literary and cultural reviews, including a review of the play Mourning Becomes Electra by Barrett H. Clark, and reviews of recent poetry including Wings Against the Moon by Kathleen Millay, and novels and critical works like The Negro Year Book, an encyclopedia of black culture. Along with letters to the editors dealing with the magazine’s political bent, which is too communistic according to Benjamin DeCasseres, and a reader’s weighing in on a debate about Upton Sinclair published in a previous issue, these reviews are buried within the issue. For such a small publication, they represent the slightly more than half of content which was deemed unimportant enough to omit from the front page, as all the articles on the rear page are continuations of those started on the front. Most of the content on page three, mainly book reviews, is printed in noticeably smaller font. The only book review to be included on the front page is Louis Adamic’s “Revolts and Rackets.”
The only text appearing on the inner pages which we might directly relate to the broader focus of this special issue is Countee Cullen’s “Sleep” poem, which appears on page two. Comparing sleep to the pouncing of a cat and the sharp blades of its claws, the poem demonstrates a connection between sleep and complacency; of turning away from difficult issues and allowing them to fester and grow. However, the final stanza also implies that a permanent sleep of death may be the only way to truly find peace, which is quite a dark and almost hopeless outlook, especially with the backdrop of the unjust legal lynching the rest of the paper is dealing with. In this context, the poem seems to suggest that the unjust systems are inescapable, at least if society continues to prefer complacent sleep to serious action.
Despite these themes, the texts dealing with lynching in this issue are situated among other smaller sections like “Notes from Nowhere,” which is a collection of short, sometimes humorous local news and culture items, and the paper’s various advertisements for restaurants, book stores, and publications. Recalling the radical reputation of Contempo, it does not seem particularly surprising that these lynching-related items would be printed amid the mundane notices of everyday life and commerce; for this audience, the topics of legal lynching are not to be shied away from, but rather engaged with head-on. With that said, the use of this medium to debate the Scottsboro Case, and the integration of the mundane with the horrors of lynching, demonstrate how pervasive the topic was in everyday life at this time.
This copy of Contempo is held in the Wilson Library North Carolina Collection at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Unfortunately, no information is on file as to the provenance of this specific copy, though (as discussed earlier) it appears to be well-worn in contrast to other bound copies the library holds. It is thus logical to speculate that it was a circulated copy stored by a reader of the journal.
Further Reading and Bibliography
Bledsoe, Erik. “Contempo.” Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance, edited by Cary D. Wintz, Fitzroy Dearborn Publishers, 2004, p. 248.
Bynum, Leon James. “Scottsboro Boys Trials.” Multicultural America: A Multimedia Encyclopedia, edited by Carlos E. Cortez, SAGE Reference, 2014, pp. 1896-1897.
The Scottsboro Boys in Their Own Words: Selected Letters, 1931-1950, edited by Kwando M. Kinshasa, McFarland & Company, 2014.