The three stanzas of Langston Hughes’ poem titled “Cross” might be paraphrased as follows:
- STANZA ONE: In line 1, the speaker announces that his father is white; in line 2, he announces that his mother is white; in lines 3 and 4 he says that if he ever in the past condemned his father, he now withdraws that condemnation.
- STANZA TWO: In lines 5 and 6 he announces that if he ever in the past condemned his mother and “wished she were in hell,”
I'm sorry for that evil wish
And now I wish her well. (7-8)
- STANZA THREE: In line 9, the speaker announces that his father passed away in a nice white house. In line 10 he announces that he mother passed away in a small, run-down hovel. In lines 11-12 he wonders where he himself will pass away, since he belongs entirely neither to the white race nor the black race.
More interesting than the plain meaning of the poem, however, are some of its possible implications. For example, the phrase “old man” in line 1 at first seems figurative (meaning “father”) but may also be literal (“an aged male”). The fact that both the father and mother are described as old prepares us for the eventual references to their deaths. In the first stanza, however, the speaker refers to them as if they were still living, so that the later references to their deaths come as a bit of a shock.
In lines 3 and 4, the speaker invites us to wonder why he may have “cursed” his “old man.” Did he curse his father because of natural tensions between father and son? Or, since the differing races of the father and mother have been mentioned and emphasized explicitly, did the son curse his father for making the son a mulatto, so that he belonged securely to neither race?
Similar questions are raised by the second stanza, but note that the emotions implied in this stanza are far more intense than the emotions implied in stanza one. The speaker may merely have “cursed” (5) his father, but apparently he wished his mother “were in hell” – a wish he now acknowledges was “evil” (7). Ironically, his very willingness to condemn himself for “evil” thoughts in the past makes him now seem morally attractive. The second halves of the first two stanzas imply the speaker’s sense of conscience. He has apparently felt as conflicted in his emotions (torn between anger and forgiveness) as he is divided in his racial backgrounds.
From stanza three, it appears that the speaker’s father was wealthy and that his mother was poor. This fact leads us to wonder how, exactly, this man and this woman came together to produce their son. Did the father take advantage of the mother? Did the mother offer herself (perhaps for pay) to the father? Were they in love but prevented by social prejudice from acknowledging their love?
Apparently the father and mother never married (which would have been difficult in the early twentieth century). Presumably the son was raised by the mother. Ironically, did his physical closeness to her make him all the more bitter toward her? In any case, by the end of the poem the speaker is left alone. Both of his parents have passed away, and he is left to wonder how he will make his way in a society he knows is racist – a society in which mulattos may be fully accepted neither by whites nor by blacks.
Although Hughes’ poem does not tell a detailed or complicated story, it certainly implies such a story, thereby provoking readers’ curiosity and their thoughts.