The Blues I'm Playing Analysis

Historical Context

Harlem
At the beginning of the twentieth century, African-Americans were still fighting an uphill battle against the prejudices and social forces that had kept slavery alive until the 1860s. Most African Americans still lived in the rural south, trying to earn a living from agricultural labor. Now technically free to go where they wished, however, they began moving to the cities of the northeast, where black neighborhoods like Harlem took root. Although discrimination and hardship still limited their opportunities and economic well-being, the 1920s brought with it a spirit of optimism that blossomed with the Harlem Renaissance. The black intellectuals and artists who comprised this movement believed that their works, which displayed traditional erudition and talent, would compel white Americans to see African Americans in a new—and equal—light. For a time, it seemed to work: white critics and patrons directed their attention and money to black artists, making possible once unimaginable exhibits and integrated social gatherings. Furthermore, Harlem itself was in vogue among white New Yorkers: a Saturday night on the town might consist of bar-hopping from one Harlem nightclub to another, taking in shows that featured jazz musicians and black dancers. The vogue was not, however, necessarily anti-racist: many of the clubs that catered to white patrons and featured black entertainers refused to allow entrance to black patrons.

There was,...

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The Blues I'm Playing Literary Style

Narrator
In many ways, the narrative voice of ‘‘The Blues I'm Playing’’ is not likely to strike the contemporary reader as radical. This third-person voice uses simple and clear prose, providing very direct exposition-explanation about the characters' backgrounds and feelings. Nonetheless, when Hughes was writing in the 1920s and 1930s, both his short fiction and his poetry challenged many readers' expectations. First, the language was too direct, in explicit opposition to the prevailing standards of the era. These had been greatly influenced by turn-of-the-century writers like Henry James, who held to the practice of ‘‘show, don't tell.’’ Hughes, however, often tells. Second, this voice borrows from black dialect, more at some times than at others. This use of colloquialism is not exaggerated to the point of caricature; Hughes presents the phonic beauty of oral language, rather than making a joke of it. Third, as the narrative voice allies itself with Oceola and black characters in general, it places the reader in a position that was quite novel for the time: looking at the white world from a black perspective. This would have been a new experience to both black and white readers, in different ways.

Irony
The gaze that Hughes' s narrator directs at the white world is marked by a powerful irony. It is in this sense that Hughes achieves a "deceptive and profound simplicity,’’ in the words of Hoyt W. Fuller. The...

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The Blues I'm Playing Ideas for Group Discussions

In "The Blues I'm Playing," Hughes explores race relations, blues and jazz, and the black artist's experiences in the white dominated world of modern art.

1. House parties initially provide Oceola with income and later with an important link to Harlem. Using books and other sources about the history of black life in New York City, write a description of a Harlem house party or rent party.

2. Oceola takes a rather unconventional approach to planning her wedding. Find the description of it and speculate about its significance in relation to her character and the story's meanings.

3. Did you find that your feelings about any of the characters changed significantly as you read the story? If yes, try to locate and explain the passages that influenced you.

4. Oceola's stepfather played in a minstrel show, which was a very popular form of entertainment at the turn of the century. Do a short research paper on minstrel shows, looking especially at the images of African Americans they projected.

5. If Oceola has triumphed at the end of the story—as most critics agree—why does Mrs. Ellsworth have the last line?

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The Blues I'm Playing Social Concerns

Langston Hughes is a major figure on the landscape of American poetry and probably the best-known African-American poet. One of his best-known short stories, "The Blues I'm Playing," characterizes Hughes' writing style, which is frequently ironic, direct, and flavored with various dialectical words. More importantly, however, "Blues" conveys powerful messages about race relations, the beauty of blues and jazz, and the black artist's experiences in the white-dominated world of modern art. The story of a young black pianist, Oceola Jones, and her conflict with her self-appointed white patron, Dora Ellsworth, "The Blues I'm Playing" embodies Hughes' belief in the fortitude and dignity of black Americans.

To fully understand Oceola's experiences and her conflict, it is important to have some background in the history of race relations in the United States. At the beginning of the twentieth century, African Americans were still fighting an uphill battle against the prejudices and social forces that had kept slavery alive until the 1860s. Most African Americans still lived in the rural south, trying to earn a living from agricultural labor. Technically free to go where they wished, many began moving to the cities of the northeast, where black neighborhoods, such as Harlem, took root. Although discrimination and hardship still limited their opportunities and economic well-being, the 1920s brought with it a spirit of optimism that blossomed with the Harlem Renaissance. The black intellectuals and artists who comprised this movement believed that their works, which displayed traditional erudition and talent, would compel white Americans to see African Americans in a new and equal...

(The entire section is 690 words.)

The Blues I'm Playing Compare and Contrast

1933: Lynch mobs kill forty-two blacks as lynchings increase in the southern U.S. states.

1991 and 1992: Los Angeles police officers beat unarmed Rodney King, and the following year the officers charged in connection with the beating are acquitted. The worst riot for violence and looting in U.S. history follows the verdict.

1948: Nationalist Afrikaner bloc wins the election in South Africa on an apartheid platform that favors the separation of the white and black races with the whites in power.

1992: South African whites vote 2 to 1 to give a mandate to the president of the country to end white-minority rule. 1939: The Daughters of the American Revolution refuse to rent Constitution Hall to Marian Anderson because of her race, although Anderson had been proclaimed as the world's greatest contralto by European critics. An audience of 75,000 gathered at the Lincoln Memorial to hear Anderson on Easter Sunday.

1987: Popular black soul and Rhythm and Blues singer Anita Baker makes a music video of her performance ‘‘One Night of Rapture’’ at Constitution Hall.

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The Blues I'm Playing Literary Precedents

The Ways of White Folks and "The Blues I'm Playing" established Hughes' reputation as a short story writer on their publication. He was already known as a poet, having gained celebrity with several publications in the 1920s, during the height of the Harlem Renaissance, a movement fostered by black artists and intellectuals. A volume that had considerable impact on Hughes, and one that may have convinced him that short fiction could be a valuable genre, was a book of short stories by British author D. H. Lawrence, The Lovely Lady. In this work, Lawrence confronts the reader with undisguised social critiques.

Hughes' short fiction, like the poems that preceded it, was, in context, daring and controversial....

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The Blues I'm Playing Related Titles

An early and central argument for racial equality in the United States was W. E. B. DuBois's The Souls of Black Folk, 1903, a fundamental work for the Harlem Renaissance because it presented a vision of African Americans raised up through intellectual and artistic achievements. Hughes' own autobiography, The Big Sea, 1940, is similar to "Blues" in that it describes his relationship with his patron, Charlotte Mason; Hughes has since acknowledged that his dynamic with Mason was the model for "Blues."

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The Blues I'm Playing What Do I Read Next?

An early and central argument for racial equality in the United States, W. E. B. DuBois's The Souls of Black Folk was also fundamental to the Harlem Renaissance and its vision of African-Americans raised up through intellectual and artistic achievements.

An influential book of short stories by British author D. H. Lawrence, The Lovely Lady confronts the reader with undisguised social critiques. The volume had a considerable impact on Hughes, convincing him that short fiction could be a valuable genre.

Hughes' s autobiography, The Big Sea, describes in detail his relationship with his patron, Charlotte Mason; that dynamic was, he acknowledged, the model for ‘‘The Blues I'm...

(The entire section is 108 words.)

The Blues I'm Playing Bibliography and Further Reading

Sources
Bruck, Peter. ‘‘Langston Hughes: 'The Blues I'm Playing,'’’ in The Black American Short Story in the 20th Century, B. R. Gruener Publishing, 1977, pp. 71-84.

Patterson, Linda. Quoted in "(James) Langston Hughes,'' in Contemporary Authors Online, The Gale Group, 1999.

Ostrom, Hans."The Ways of White Folks," in his Langston Hughes: A Study of the Short Fiction, New York: Twayne Publishers, 1993.

Further Reading
Emanuel, James A. Langston Hughes, New York: Twayne Publishers, 1967.
An authoritative, early study of ‘‘The Blues I'm Playing'' that analyzes the story in terms of thematics.

Gates, Henry Louis, Jr....

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