How does Langston Hughes attempt to reconstruct modernism in the service of radical politics and vision in "Song for a Dark Girl"?

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vangoghfan | College Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

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Langston Hughes’s poem “Song for a Dark Girl” does not seem an especially “modernist” work, at least according to standard definitions of that term.  It is not, for instance, as experimentaal as T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land or Ezra Pound’s The Cantos or many of the poems in Wallace Stevens’ Harmonium. It is not difficult to read or comprehend, as some of those poems often are, nor is it wildly untraditional in form. It consists of three quatrains, and in each case the second line rhymes with the first. The rhythms of the lines are not entirely predictable (especially in the fourth lines of each stanza), but the diction is basically clear and straightforward. All these factors help make the poem seem less a strikingly “modernist” text than various other works by Hughes one might easily name.

The opening line of each stanza alludes to the famous confederate song titled “Dixie,” which begins, “Away down South in the land of cotton.” Hughes is clearly treating this song, with its idealized version of life in the South, with a great deal of irony, and irony was indeed a characteristic of many modernist poems. Rather than being ironic for the sake of irony, though, Hughes uses irony to emphasize a key political point: that the real South and the idealized South are far from the same.

Similar irony can be heard, for instance, in lines 3-4, in which the speaker says,

They hung my black young lover 
 To a cross roads tree.

On the one hand, the reference to a “cross roads tree” can seem simply factual.  Lynchings were often performed on trees that were highly visible on well-traveled routes. The purpose of using such trees was to make the lynched person a spectacle for as many people as possible, so that others might learn not to risk being lynched themselves. Yet the reference to a “cross” roads tree is also part of a motif in African American literature – the idea that the lynching victim resembles the crucified Jesus. Countee Cullen would explore this motif at length in his poem titled “Black Christ,” but it was a very common image in many poems by black poets of this era. In this sense, then, the word “cross” can be read as yet another contribution to the irony of the poem.

Another way in which this poem might conceivably be considered modernist in spirit, if not in style and form, involves its willingness to challenge Christianity. Consider, for instance, lines 7-8:

I asked the white Lord Jesus 
 What was the use of prayer.

These lines would have seemed shocking to many staid, conventional readers of Hughes’s day; they raise, literally, a highly uncomfortable and paradoxical question about Christianity: how can God allow lynchings to take place and to continue? Notice that the speaker specifies that Jesus is “white,” thus not only raising the philosophical "problem of evil" but also casting it in explicitly racial terms. Is Jesus racist too (the poem seems to ask)?

Thus, although the poem does not seem especially “modernist” in technique or style, it might be called “modernist” in the way it is willing to challenge and subvert traditional ways of thinking.


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