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SOURCE: "The American Dream of Langston Hughes," in Southwest Review, Vol. 48, No. 4, Autumn, 1963, pp. 380-86.
[In the following essay, Presley looks at the theme of the American dream in Hughes's poetry, drama, prose, and nonfiction.]
One summer in Chicago when he was a teen-ager Langston Hughes felt the American Dream explode in his face; a gang of white youths beat him up so badly that he went home with blacked eyes and a swollen jaw.
He had been punished for cutting through a white neighborhood in the South Side on his way home from work. That night as he tended his injuries young Hughes must have mused disturbed thoughts about fulfilment of his American dream of freedom, justice, and opportunity for all.
A few years after that traumatic Chicago afternoon Hughes inaugurated a prolific and versatile writing career. Over the four decades separating then and now, his reaction to the American Dream has been one of his most frequently recurring themes. For many years Hughes, often hailed as "the poet laureate of the Negro people," has been recognized by white critics as an author-poet of the protest genre. Others, more conservative and denunciatory, have assailed Hughes as radical and leftist, to mention the more polite language. In both instances the critics referred to Hughes's treatment of imperfections in the American Dream that we, as a nation, hold so dear.
The American Dream may have come dramatically true for many, Hughes says, but for the Negro (and other assorted poor people) the American Dream is merely that—a dream. If the critics and would-be censors had read further they would have noted that for Hughes the American Dream has even greater meaning: it is the raison d'être of this nation. Nevertheless, Hughes was still a regular target for right-wing barbs as recently as the 1960's, having been anathema to the right wing for decades.
Long before the Chicago summer during World War I Hughes had experienced the plight of the Negro in America. Although he was not born in the South where conditions probably were worse, the boy Langston had faced the practical prejudices of the Middle West and the North. In Topeka, Kansas, he was to have been dispatched across town to a Jim Crow school, but his determined mother complained so vigorously to the school board that Hughes was enrolled, the only Negro pupil, in the elementary school nearest his home. And there the American Dream of equal treatment for everyone shone through almost perfectly. But a shadow fell: while most of the teachers were kind to him, one kept referring to his color in the classroom. On occasions when the teacher had singled him out for his brownness, several of his classmates would climax the day by throwing stones or epithets at him. There was a great stain on the American Dream.
All was not stain, though. While one teacher exercised her prejudices and some classmates poked fun and more tangible objects at him, other classmates championed his cause. Consequently the youth Langston was never completely alienated, and despite his poverty and darkness in a sea of white he was to know that there were others who believed in equality and justice for him too. Later on, in integrated Cleveland, Ohio, he was named poet of his high school class. Ever since those moments out of a sensitive childhood the future poet has maintained his faith in the American Dream, while confirming his enmity to the stifling and transmogrification of it. In pursuing the Dream, Hughes has followed a course very similar to...
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that of the American Negro in general: the Dream is fine—if realized.
Langston Hughes was born February 1, 1902, at Joplin, Missouri. The three races of America—Indian, Negro, and Caucasian—contributed to his bloodlines: slaves, warriors, planters. His cultural heritage was a proud and lively one. His earliest memories were of his grandmother, a copper-skinned woman of strong Indian ancestry, sitting on the same platform with President Theodore Roosevelt at a public commemoration of the Harper's Ferry raid. She was the last surviving widow of John Brown's historic raid. Her husband, a free Negro, had been one of the first to die in the raid. Young Langston at an early age learned to prize freedom highly.
As a child of separated parents Hughes grew up in many different places in the heartland of America—Kansas, Illinois, Ohio, Missouri, Colorado—and began his globetrotting life with a visit to his father in Mexico where the elder Hughes had fled to escape Jim Crow.
After an interlude at Columbia University in the early 1920's Hughes signed on a freight steamer and saw Africa and Europe. In 1925 he worked for Dr. Carter G. Woodson, editor of Journal of Negro History, and in 1926 his first book of poetry, The Weary Blues, appeared. As a student at Lincoln University that year he won the Witter Bynner undergraduate poetry prize; he graduated from Lincoln in 1929.
As the depression reached its depth in the early 1930's he had to scratch for new means of earning his living, but he found the perfect way by making poetry pay: he organized a public reading tour of the South. Subsequent travels in the 1930's took him around the world in connection with a movie-making project which never made it to the screen. A Negro company had gone to Russia to film Porgy and Bess under the auspices of the Soviet government. Hughes went as a writer. When the Soviets delayed and delayed so that the movie was never made Hughes converted the opportunity into one to see as much as he could of Russia. When the Spanish Civil War broke out a few years later Hughes covered it for the Baltimore Afro-American. By the time the realities of World War II reached America, Hughes was in his forties and an established Harlem figure busily producing volumes and volumes of poetry, newspaper columns, anthologies, books for juveniles, novels, short stories, and plays.
As might be expected Hughes has written most frequently, though not exclusively, of Negro characters. Consequently the importance of the color line in America is frequently reflected in his work. The effect of the color line on the American Dream is therefore an integral part of his protest. In one of his biographies for young people, Famous Negro Music Makers (1961), Hughes quotes musician Bert Williams as saying: "It is not a disgrace to be a Negro, but it is very inconvenient." In viewing the string of "inconveniences" vitally affecting the dignity of black Americans Hughes voices his reactions to shriveled freedom, dwarfed equality, and shrunken opportunity—blemishes on the essential ingredients of the American Dream. His poetry and prose echo protest and, usually, hope.
Two poems especially reflect his theme of protest and hope. "Let America Be America Again," published in Esquire and in the International Worker Order pamphlet A New Song (1938), pleads for fulfilment of the Dream that never was. It speaks of the freedom and equality which America boasts, but never had. It looks forward to a day when "Liberty is crowned with no false patriotic wreath" and America is "that great strong land of love." Hughes, though, is not limiting his plea to the downtrodden Negro; he includes, as well, the poor white, the Indian, the immigrant—farmer, worker, "the people" share the Dream that has not been. The Dream still beckons. In "Freedom's Plow" he points out that "America is a dream" and the product of the seed of freedom is not only for all Americans but for all the world. The American Dream of brotherhood, freedom, and democracy must come to all peoples and all races of the world, he insists.
Almost invariably Hughes reflects hope, for that is part of his American Dream. However, some of his poems, apparently written in angry protest, are content to catch the emotion of sorrow in the face of hopelessness and gross injustice. One of his most biting is a verse in Jim Crow's Last Stand (1943). Aimed at southern lynch law which had just taken the lives of two fourteen-year-old Negro boys in Mississippi, and dedicated to their memory, the poem cried that "The Bitter River" has
… strangled my dream:The book studied—but useless,Tools handled—but unused,Knowledge acquired but thrown away,Ambition battered and bruised.
In one of his children's poems, "As I Grow Older," the poet looks at the Dream again. He had almost forgotten his dream; then it reappeared to him. But a wall rose—a high, sky-high wall. A shadow: he was black. The wall and the shadow blotted out the dream, chasing the brightness away. But the poet's dark hands sustain him.
My dark bands!Break through the wall!Find my dream!Help me to shatter this darkness,To smash this night,To break this shadowInto a thousand lights of sun,Into a thousand whirling dreamsOf sun!
On a similar theme, one of the concluding poems in his child's book, The Dream Keeper (1932), treats of the Dream. In "I, Too," the "darker brother" of America eats in the kitchen when company calls. But tomorrow, he says, he'll eat at the table; nobody will dare tell him to eat in the kitchen then.
Besides,They'll see how beautiful I amAnd be ashamed—I, too, am America.
In Montage of a Dream Deferred (1951) Hughes might have been thinking of the wall which blackness had erected in the child's poem. Montage's background is Harlem. There is a wall about Harlem, and the American Dream, as a reality, exists outside Harlem. Harlem (and, one can just as well add, the world of the American Negro) is a walled-in reality where dreams are deferred. The faded Dream pierces black New Yorkers to their hearts. Things which "don't bug … white kids" bother Harlemites profoundly. White boys cling to the stimulating dream that any American may grow up to be President of the United States. The Negro boy knows better. He also knows that the liberty and justice of the Pledge to the Flag are inherent rights only of white folks. Even in Harlem, the capital of the North which Hughes once described in a novel as "mighty magnet of the colored race," the American Dream is frayed and ragged.
Probably the greatest portion of Hughes's poetry does not refer specifically to the American Dream, despite the habit of many critics' labeling him a protest writer primarily. But in Ask Your Mama: 12 Moods for Jazz (1961) he returns to the Dream, in jazz tempo with barbs appropriate for a dream too long deferred. With an impish introduction of the melody "Dixie" in the background, the poet combines dreams and nightmares to produce a mural of black power in the South; he dreams the Negroes have voted the Dixiecrats out of office. As a result Martin Luther King becomes governor of Georgia and high posts go to other Negro patriots. The remainder of the passage reflects the opposite of the southern power structure for the past hundred years or so. Negroes relax on the verandas of their mansions while their white sharecroppers sweat on the plantations. The reverse pattern of historical reality is carried out even to the extent of Negro children having white mammies, of which there are Mammy Faubus, Mammy Eastland, and Mammy Patterson. (And, if he had written later, Mammy Wallace, one thinks.) The patronizing air of the plantation white bourbon is reproduced as the poet notes that the "dear darling old white mammies" are sometimes even buried with the family!
But the grandiose dream sequence, itself reflecting how onesided the American Dream has been in the South, is short-lived. The poet returns to the pessimistic here and now. The Negro can't keep from losing, even when he's winning, he moans in blues tempo. Ask Your Mama relates to the vast spectrum of the American Dream, as it affects Negroes. There are the hardships of blockbusting, or integrating a white residential area, the bitterness of Negro artists, the stereotyped attitudes of whites toward Negroes, the hope of a better material world for ambitious Negroes, and the eternal suspicions cast upon any Negro who does anything worthwhile or, often, anything that is ordinary for white folks to do.
As effectively as Hughes's poetry presents the unfulfilled fraction of the American dreamers, the Simple stories of his prose elaborate the most telling criticism of racial discrimination. Social criticism and humor travel hand in hand as his character, Jesse B. Semple, depicts the America of discrimination in an intimate, personal manner. Although Simple, as his friends call him, lives in Harlem, the loquacious Negro comments pithily on prejudice he has experienced in the South and in the Army. Jim Crow is his personal devil.
One of the several features of American life that especially disturbs Simple is that Jim Crow gives little or no respite to the Negro. Even a foreigner just off the boat from Europe can Jim Crow the Negro who has been following the Dream for generations. "He starts on top of my head," moans Simple. Jim Crow is the despoiler of the American Dream, and Simple reserves his most stinging venom for the southern way.
In a piece, "Jim Crow's Funeral" from the book Simple Stakes a Claim (1957), one of three books filled with Simple stories, the Harlemite preaches Jim Crow to his reward. He summarizes his emotions:
It gives me great pleasure, Jim Crow, to close your funeral with these words—as the top is shut on your casket and the hearse pulls up outside the door—and Talmadge, Eastland, and Byrnes wipe their weeping eyes—and every coach on the Southern Railroad is draped in mourning—as the Confederate flag is at half-mast—and the D.A.R. has fainted—Jim Crow, you go to hell!
Jesse B. Semple is a bitter man much of the time. He has been segregated, underpaid, underhoused. When a Negro experiences injustice anywhere, North or South, Simple feels it too. In one selection Simple refers to Jim Crow and lynching of Negroes in the South. "But these are Christian white folks that does such things to me," he says. "At least, they call themselves Christians…. They got more churches down South than they got up North. They read more Bibles and sing more hymns." Another time Simple pleads for a game preserve for Negroes, where the government would protect them from lynching and beatings. "Colored folks rate as much protection as a buffalo, or a deer," Simple says somberly.
Eventually Simple discusses all aspects of the social system which frustrates completion of the American Dream. The white folks who say they love the Negro people do not really know how the Negro lives in America, he says. They haven't slept in colored hotels or eaten in colored restaurants, they haven't sent their children to a segregated Negro school, and they haven't used a Jim Crow toilet in a bus station. "White folks has got a theoretical knowledge of prejudice. I want them to have a real one," Simple says. "I know I am equal. What I want is to be treated equal." Therein he touches the heart of the failure of the American Dream to date: the transition from theory to practice has not been made. White folks, insists Simple, would not put up with Jim Crow if they had experienced the unique system themselves. They need to know what it means to Negroes.
Despite the many crosses the Negro has to bear, though, he is durable, Simple believes. In "Radioactive Red Caps" Simple discusses the atomic bomb and his expectation of living through a nuclear war. "If Negroes can survive white folks in Mississippi," he said, "we can survive anything."
Hughes's other prose—his novels and short stories, his juvenile histories and biographies, his two autobiographical books—is less laden with reflections on the American Dream deferred, though his personal accounts, The Big Sea (1940) and I Wonder as I Wander (1956) draw in some detail his encounters with Jim Crow and even with threats of violence as a result of his being on the darker side of the color line in the South. Of his plays, his earliest, "Mulatto" (1931), deals intimately with the Negro end of miscegenation on a southern plantation. The play concerns the consequences which follow relentlessly and brutally when a planter's mulatto son asserts himself as the Colonel's heir. The results are tragic; the Dream is squashed. Hughes's history of the NAACP, Fight for Freedom (1962), of course, is directly concerned with that organization's attempts to realize the American Dream for all Negroes.
Among his novels, Not Without Laughter (1930) indicates the effect of the American Dream on the boy Sandy, growing up in a small Midwestern town. The boy Sandy, as perhaps the boy Langston might have done years before, contemplates the color situation in America. "Being colored is like being born in the basement of life, with the door to the light locked and barred—and the white folks live upstairs," Sandy thinks. It was a white folks' world, Sandy was inclined to believe; it was one in which an unhappy run-in with a Southern white cost him his job in a hotel. An ambitious lad, Sandy wanted to be a railroad engineer when he grew up, but his aunt told him there were no colored engineers.
The characters in Not Without Laughter display divergent views toward white people. Tempy, Sandy's aunt, tries to emulate whites. His other aunt, Harriett, hates them. His grandmother retreats to religion, waiting for the other world to relieve her of the burden of this world's shattered Dream. Sandy's mother, Annjee, is long-suffering but hopeful. His father, Jimboy, echoes the anguish of being Negro in a white dominated world. One of Sandy's light friends, Buster, intends to realize the Dream by passing for white when he grows up and leaves town. Yet Sandy does not single out any one view of his relatives and seize it as his own. His view of the American Dream comes empirically, as he sees (as did Langston Hughes) that there is both good and bad emanating from the white society. Sandy's eyes are wide open, and busily recording.
The boy Sandy doubtless views the Dream as Hughes had. Sandy saw the evils behind the Dream's façade, but he also knew of the good there. In spite of his sorrows and hardships Sandy had hope, pride, and ambition. He had the will to fight on, to achieve his dream. Hope is implicit in most of Hughes's work. In one of his short stories from Laughing to Keep from Crying (1952), "One Friday Morning," in which a Negro girl has been deprived of an art prize because of race prejudice, her sympathetic Irish teacher urges the girl to keep faith. Speaking of the obstacles which the Irish had to overcome after they came to America and were discriminated against, the teacher says: "… we didn't give up, because we believed in the American dream, and in our power to make that dream come true." The theme is a recurring one with Hughes: the Negro's bed has been lined with injustices, but eventually the American Dream will triumph.
Throughout Hughes's life—and his literary expression—the American Dream has appeared as a ragged, uneven, splotched, and often unattainable goal which often became a nightmare, but there is always hope of the fulfilled dream even in the darkest moments. During World War II Hughes, commenting on the American Negroes' role in the war, recognized this. "… we know," he said in a 1943 speech reprinted in The Langston Hughes Reader (1958),
that America is a land of transition. And we know it is within our power to help in its further change toward a finer and better democracy than any citizen has known before. The American Negro believes in democracy. We want to make it real, complete, workable, not only for ourselves—the fifteen million dark ones—but for all Americans all over the land.
The American Dream is bruised and often made a travesty for Negroes and other underdogs, Hughes keeps saying, but the American Dream does exist. And the Dream must be fulfilled. In one of his verses he put it more plainly. He might have been speaking to his harshest political critics or to the white youths who beat him up on that long-ago summer day in Chicago.
Listen, America—I live here, too.I want freedomJust as you.
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Langston Hughes 1902–1967
(Full name James Mercer Langston Hughes) American poet, dramatist, novelist, nonfiction, and short story writer.
The following entry presents an overview of Langston Hughes's career through 1995. See also Langston Hughes Criticism (Volume 1) and Volumes 5, 10.
Langston Hughes is one of the best known African-American writers of the twentieth century and a figure at the forefront of the Harlem Renaissance. Through his poetry Hughes expressed the voice of many African Americans, capturing the language, experiences and strength of common people. While Hughes is known as the poet laureate of Harlem, he has also been recognized for his depictions of the African-American struggle in his prose, plays, and literature for children.
Hughes was born February 1, 1902, in Joplin, Missouri. While he was an infant his parents split and he moved to Lawrence, Kansas where he was cared for by his grandmother. His mother worked in Kansas City as an actress and his father practiced law in Mexico. When Hughes's grandmother died he moved briefly to Illinois before settling in Cleveland, Ohio where he attended Central High School. There he ran on the track team and was the class poet, publishing poems in the school newspaper. After he graduated he lived for a year with his father in Mexico and then attended Columbia University for one year. Hughes took various jobs and traveled the world. In 1926 he published his first book of poems The Weary Blues. He attended Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, earning a B.A. in 1929. In 1930 his first novel Not Without Laughter won the Harmon gold medal for literature and Hughes decided to pursue a career in writing. He lectured across the country and lived in New York City, writing prolifically. Throughout the 1930s Hughes became involved with the political Left and in 1953 he was investigated by the Senate subcommittee chaired by Joseph McCarthy for his alleged involvement in selling books to libraries abroad. Hughes died in New York City May 22, 1967.
Hughes published works in many genres but was primarily known as a poet. He published his first collection of poems The Weary Blues in 1926, containing one of his most famous poems "The Negro Speaks of Rivers." Other important volumes of poetry are Fine Clothes for the Jews (1927), Montage of a Dream Deferred (1951), Selected Poems of Langston Hughes (1959), and Ask Your Mama: 12 Moods for Jazz (1961). In his poetry Hughes renders the voices, experiences, emotions, and spirit of African Americans. In his attempt to capture the lives of everyday African Americans he deals with subjects like prostitution, racism, lynchings, and teenage pregnancy. Hughes is well known for the influence of jazz and bebop music in his poetry, both as a subject matter and as a structure. Critics have noted his skill in imitating the sound, cadence, and rhythms of the blues style as well as capturing the humor, despair, and loneliness depicted in the music. Hughes's most famous fiction involved a character named Jesse B. Semple, often called Simple. These short stories provided Hughes with another opportunity to showcase the problems facing African Americans. In Hughes's many plays he captures the vernacular of African Americans and is able to employ such innovative techniques as theatre-in-the-round and audience participation.
Throughout his career, Hughes encountered mixed reactions to his work. Many black intellectuals denounced him for portraying unsophisticated aspects of lower-class life, claiming that his focus furthered the unfavorable image of African Americans. However, other critics have noted the uneven quality of his writing. Critics agree that Hughes is at his best when he depicts the everyday experiences of African Americans and that these depictions are often their best in his most simple and direct poetry. Critics also praise Hughes's innovative ability to imitate the sounds and the mood of jazz and the blues. Reviewing Fine Clothes for the Jews, Julia Peterkin writes, "He has taken the joys and woes of dishwashers and bell-hops, crap-shooters and cabaret girls, broken women and wandering men, and, without losing their strong racial flavor, he has molded them into swift patterns of musical verse." Later in life, Hughes was criticized for failing to address controversial issues and to reflect the more militant fight for civil rights. However, later critics note that Hughes remained constant in his focus on the problems of racism and the failure of African Americans to realize the American Dream. James Presley argues that Hughes promoted the idea that "the Negro's bed has been lined with injustices, but eventually the American Dream will triumph."
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SOURCE: "The Black Woman as a Freedom Fighter in Langston Hughes's Simple Uncle Sam," in CLA Journal, Vol. 18, No. 2, pp. 273-83.
[In the following essay, Dandridge explores the portrayal of women as active civil rights freedom fighters in Simple Uncle Sam.]
Despite her historical significance, the black woman as a fighter for the liberation of her people from racial injustice is just beginning to emerge as an important character in the literature of black American writers. She appears as a devoted Negro maid who becomes a revolutionary killer in Ed Bullins' play, "The Gentleman Caller" (1968). In Ted Shine's play, "Contribution" (1968), Mrs. Love, who is in her seventies, befriends whites opposed to the black man's struggle for freedom and then poisons them by putting "special seasoning" in the food she gives them. Nettie McCray's play, "Growin' into Blackness" (1969), introduces Pearl, an articulate black nationalist, who urges her girlfriends to fight against the genocidal tactics of the white man by having babies in order to build a strong black nation for the future. The final pages of Ernest Gaines' novel, The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (1971), focus on Miss Jane, a one-hundred-and eight-year-old ex-slave, who protests with others in her community the jailing of a black girl who drank from a water fountain intended for whites only.
Although the black woman as a freedom fighter has begun to get her due in the literature of black American writers, the most strikingly realistic descriptions of black female freedom fighters remain those of Langston Hughes in Simple's Uncle Sam. This is no accident because Hughes was consciously aware of the important role of the black female freedom fighter to whom he has paid tribute in several of his works. He includes a biographical sketch of Harriet Tubman, whom he calls "the Moses of her people," in Famous American Negroes (1954). Biographical sketches of Harriet Tubman and Ida B. Wells appear among those of advocates of freedom in Famous Negro Heroes of America (1958). In Fight for Freedom (1962), he weaves biographical sketches of Daisy Bates and Lillie Jackson into the historical narrative of the NAACP. In 1967, he dedicated his last volume of verse, The Panther and the Lash, to Rosa Parks, who, in refusing to give up her seat on a bus to a white man, precipitated the boycott of the Montgomery buses in 1955.
Aware then of the black woman's historical significance, Hughes was able in his fiction to show that black women, no less than black men, have fought racial injustice in a variety of ways. We see this particularly in his novel, Simple's Uncle Sam, where the female relatives of the main character, Jesse B. Semple (commonly called Simple), include an accommodationist, a non-violent integrationist, and a militant black nationalist. The tactics they employ as freedom fighters enable Joyce, the accommodationist; Lynn Clarisse, the non-violent integrationist; and Minnie, the militant nationalist; to function as counterparts to Booker T. Washington, Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, respectively. By including the stratagems used by these females, Hughes is able to bring into focus the various approaches to racial equality taken by black men and black women for more than half of the twentieth century.
Simple's wife, Joyce, is the first female freedom fighter encountered in Simple's Uncle Sam. She is a modern, urban counterpart of Booker T. Washington, the leading spokesman of his race at the turn of the twentieth century. Seeking to transcend the limited existence imposed upon her as a poor black woman living in the ghetto of Harlem, Joyce uses Washington's accommodationist approach to racial justice. She diligently prepares herself by hard work and self-help to be accepted by white America. She educates herself, saves her money to buy a home and tries to get her black neighbors to better themselves. By her actions she closely resembles Washington, who believed in and lived by his saying that "Brains, property, and character for the Negro will settle the question of civil rights. The best course to pursue in regard to the civil rights bill in the South is to let it alone; let it alone and it will settle itself."
Both Washington and Joyce stress the importance of an education related to the world in which they live. Not wanting to be an illiterate in a society of literate men, Washington taught himself how to read and write, went to free schools when he was not working in the salt furnaces and coal mines of West Virginia and then worked his way through Hampton Institute, where he received a liberal education. As an educator at Tuskegee Institute, he prepared his Southern black students to meet the challenge of their rural environment by training them to be farmers, craftsmen and teachers. An urbanite, living within the cultural capital of America, Joyce educates herself by developing her aesthetic interest. Despite her job outside the home and her numerous household chores, she still finds time to read librettos of operas and then drags Simple downtown to Carnegie Hall to operatic performances. She also attends lectures on various subjects and takes an avid interest in painting. Though Washington emphasized the practical and utilitarian aspect of education while Joyce stresses the aesthetic, both are similar in that they apply themselves to acquire the knowledge which will enable them to make a meaningful adjustment in their surroundings and win the respect of the larger environment.
For Joyce, as it was for Washington, an education includes developing character. She is particularly anxious to improve the behavior of her neighbors, the "unurbanized Negroes" who have migrated to Harlem from the South, just as Washington was interested in improving the morals of the rural Southern black who lacked standards by which to mold his character. She reminds Simple that "To act right yourself is not enough. You must also help others to act right". Weary of the "unurbanized Negro … throwing garbage out the window, sweeping trash in the street, fussing on the stoop, and cussing on the corner," Joyce joins the women's auxiliary of the Urban League, "which has done much to help transpose the rural Negro to big-city ways". She spends long hours in the library gathering information for her Club's project on "how to take the country out of the Negro," and after completing her library research, she solicits Simple's aid in forming a Block Club to keep her block in Harlem clean. Joyce's efforts to improve the social behaviour of her neighbors parallel Washington's attempts to socially uplift blacks by emphasizing cleanliness, good conduct, self-discipline and respectability, all of which, he felt, are necessary for the black man to be accepted by white America.
The extreme manifestation of Joyce's desire to overcome racial inequality is her adept managing of household finances. Just as Washington cautioned blacks to be thrifty, Joyce urges Simple not to spend so much money for beer, and she refuses to include as little as a dollar in the budget for his beer habit. Instead, she saves her money for a home in the suburbs—a home away from the rat-infested tenements of black Harlem, a home with "wall-to-wall carpets and a chandelier … a porch and a porch swing…". She tells Simple that "America has got two cultures, which should not be divided as they now is, so let's leave Harlem". Similar to Washington, Joyce looks upon the acquisition of property as a means of advancing her social status, and her emphasis on thrift to improve her living condition echoes Washington's insistence that the advancement of the black man in various areas of life depends upon his economic progress.
As an accommodationist constantly improving herself and trying to get others to do the same in order to be accepted by the white world, Joyce, as Washington was, is a very tactful person, careful to avoid any friction between the two races. On the delicate issue of mixed marriage, for instance, she is quick to voice her dislike for marriages between blacks and whites: "It is living in sin for a colored man to marry anybody related to Talmadge, Eastland, Wallace, Sheriff Clark, and Satan—and all white folks bears kinship". Her professed opposition to intermarriages seems a modern version of the firm stand against the socializing of the two races held by Washington in his Atlanta Exposition Address. Washington said, "In all things that are purely social we can be as separate as the fingers, yet one as the hand in all things essential to mutual progress." Even Simple fails to understand the reasoning of his wife, who gives money to CORE and the NAACP and "Yet get mad when she sees integration [a mixed couple] in action". He is unaware that Joyce's motive for working behind the scenes (as Washington often did) donating money to end segregation and her refusal to condone a defiant display of race mixing are to avoid any public indiscretion that would bring disagreement between the races. Though a very proud woman, she is yet a paradoxical one who, similar to Washington, implies by her actions that the policy of conciliation will gain more for her race in the long run than anything else and that upward striving rather than social conflict is the key to racial justice.
Hughes's second female freedom fighter is Lynn Clarisse, Simple's cousin and a counterpart of Martin Luther King, who was catapulted into national prominence as a civil rights leader in the middle 1950's when he successfully organized and led a boycott of the segregated buses of Montgomery, Alabama. Both Lynn Clarisse and King have middle-class backgrounds. Lynn Clarisse is the daughter of a wealthy Virginia mortician; King was the son of a respected and well-to-do Georgia preacher. Both are products of elite Southern black colleges. Lynn Clarisse is a Fisk University student; King matriculated at Morehouse. More important to this discussion, however, is that, in briefly depicting her as a female King, Hughes appropriately draws Lynn Clarisse from the mass of black college students who were influenced by King and protested in the early 1960's, via sit-ins, freedom rides and mass marches their dissatisfaction with the progress of desegregation in Southern facilities.
Similar to King, Lynn Clarisse firmly believes in equal justice for black and white Americans and employs the tactic of non-violent persuasion to achieve this end. She participates in freedom rides, one of which in Alabama leaves her with a broken shoulder and scarred neck, after she is beaten with a policeman's billy club (p. 84). Despite the temporary setbacks of her struggle for racial justice, Lynn Clarisse, like King, who was a victim of threats, beatings and mob violence, never allows her courage to dissipate. She steels herself to meet the challenge of the next demonstration. In this novel, she looks forward to protesting against the South's denial of political rights to blacks by participating non-violently in voter registration drives.
Lynn Clarisse's passive endurance of the blows inflicted upon her in the Alabama freedom ride and her benevolent desire to face the possibility of similar harassment in a voter registration drive call to mind the two sources which inspired King as a freedom fighter—Gandhi's passive resistance and Christian motivation. By manifesting goodwill and brotherly love in her non-violent struggle for freedom, Lynn Clarisse, similar to King, is able to dramatize the grievances of her race, show the wrongdoings of white Southern racists against blacks to be unjustifiable and allow her oppressors ample opportunity to correct their wrongdoings. Her willingness to suffer the pain inflicted upon her by white racists suggests a faith in man similar to that held by King, who said, "There is within human nature something that can respond to goodness." Moreover, by holding no grudges against those who mistreat her, she gives direction to what Martin Luther King considered to be the ultimate solution to racism:
Desegregation will break down the legal barriers and bring men together physically, but … fears, prejudice, pride and irrationality, which are barriers to a truly integrated society … will be removed only as men [black and white] are possessed by the invisible law which etches on their hearts the conviction that all men are brothers and that love is mankind's most potent weapon for personal and social transformation.
When Lynn Clarisse goes to New York City for a cultural visit during the summer, it becomes evident that her freedom of movement there is what she has been fighting for in the South. She independently moves into Greenwich Village and becomes an accepted resident there. She freely associates with all the artists "white and colored, and the jazz peoples and the writers". She takes advantage of the opportunity to see her people perform in plays which, she says, "will hardly be touring down South". Her unhampered mobility in the large city, which she has never visited before, seems intended by Hughes to be representative of the black man's ultimate exemption from the restrictions placed on his civil rights which Martin Luther King dreamed of.
Lynn Clarisse is succeeded by Minnie, the most developed of the three females and a counterpart of Malcolm X, the self-appointed black nationalist spokesman, who emerged during the militant black liberation movement of the 1960's exhorting black Americans to unite in fighting for the common goal of liberation and the control of the economic, social and political forces in their communities. Minnie and Malcolm have similar backgrounds preceding their conversions to militant activism. An illiterate Southern transplant who migrates North looking for freedom, Minnie discovers that once in Harlem, the black Mecca, she is still a victim of racial oppression and can find employment involving only menial tasks. The young Malcolm, ill-prepared to do more than servant's work, also migrated to Harlem, via Boston, after living in Lansing, Michigan, where his family originally moved from Omaha, Nebraska, in search of freedom, but where his father was allegedly murdered by white racists and his mother was declared insane by white welfare agents and the courts. Seeking a way to cope with the difficult circumstances of life, Minnie eventually becomes a hustler, who lives off the money she sweet-talks from her various Harlem boyfriends and works only when it is necessary "to keep her head above water". A clever and conniving woman, she maintains friendship with one man until his money runs out, and then she leaves him and searches for another "kind of lifeboat or lifeguard." By fleecing her unsuspecting boyfriends for survival, Minnie is comparable to Malcolm, who, discovering himself to be a victim of racial oppression while living in Harlem, economically exploited blacks as a thief, pimp, and dope peddler. Trying to keep up her courage, Minnie frequents bars and drinks heavily, just as Malcolm stayed high on narcotics. Both emulate whites, who instill in them the values of a racist society: Minnie crowns her head with an expensive blond wig, which she thinks makes her look like a movie star, and Malcolm wore his hair processed. Observing Minnie closely and disgustingly, her cousin, Simple, concludes that she is "a disgrace to the race."
After spending six years of a ten-year term in jail, where he discovered Allah and the religion of Islam, and after living a few years in Detroit as a Black Muslim minister, Malcolm undergoes a second transformation; he becomes a militant black nationalist. Comparably, Minnie undergoes metamorphosis after living in Harlem for ten years, where she becomes more and more disillusioned and frustrated by the unfulfilled promises of freedom. She ceases being a helpless character and explodes into a militant activist. In their new roles as black nationalists, Malcolm and Minnie wear their hair au natural (an affirmation of their true and beautiful black selves), and both become concerned with the oppressive conditions of the black community. Both attack the most visible sign of white oppression in Harlem—the policeman. Malcolm opposed policemen who perpetuate social degradation by accepting graft from persons involved in gambling, prostitution, and dope peddling. During a Harlem riot protesting the killing of a fifteen-year-old black boy by a white policeman, Minnie attacks a white cop beating a defenseless old black man who does not move on fast enough when ordered to. Though she accidentally receives a head wound from a flying bottle not meant for her and is taken to Harlem Hospital to be treated, she later tells her friends that "It is a good thing that bottle struck me down, or I would of tore that cop's head every way but loose."
Minnie believes in being non-violent "when the other parties are non-violent, too,…" but says, "I did not come to Harlem to look a white army of white cops in the face and let them tell me I can't be free in my own black neighborhood on my own black street in the very year when the Civil Rights Bill says you shall be free." She implies that the use of violence is necessary to achieve justice for the black man when the tactic of non-violence fails, and in this respect she echoes Malcolm, who said:
I am for violence if non-violence means we continue postponing a solution to the American black man's problem—just to avoid violence. I don't go for non-violence if it means a delayed solution. To me a delayed solution is a non-solution. Or I'll say it another way. If it must take violence to get the black man his human rights in this country, I'm for violence … no matter what the consequences, no matter who was hurt by the violence.
Similar to Malcolm, Minnie is willing to lay her life on the line for freedom. She says, 'I would gladly die for freedom and come back to haunt white folks."
Not only does Minnie want police brutality stopped in her community, but she also wants political oppression to cease. She and Malcolm X consider the chief political opponents to the progress of the blackman's freedom to be Negroes acting as political stooges for a corrupt democracy. Showing scorn for such persons, Malcolm said:
So America's strategy is the same strategy as that which was used in the past by the colonial powers: divide and conquer. She plays one Negro leader against the other. She plays one Negro organization against the other. She makes us think we have different objectives, different goals. As soon as one Negro says something, she runs to this Negro and asks him what do you think about what he said. Why anybody can see through that today—except some of the Negro leaders.
Minnie censures Negro leaders who cater to the whims of whites by "advising Harlem to go slow" in attaining its freedom. Unalterably opposed to the stratagem of gradualism advocated by some Negro leaders, she attacks these leaders by first pointing out that whites never told her to go slow at cotton-picking time:
When I was down South picking cotton, didn't a soul tell me to go slow and cool it. "Pick more! Pick more! Can't you pick a bale a day? What's wrong with you?" That's what they said. Did not a soul say, "Wait, don't over-pick yourself." Nobody said slow down in cotton-picking days. So what is this here now? When Negroes are trying to get something for themselves, I must wait, don't demonstrate? I'll tell them big shots. How you sound?
And then she says that whites were never told to go slow when they brought harm to blacks:
Did not a soul tell that man who shot Medgar Evers in the back with a bullet to be cool. Did not a soul say to them hoodlums what slayed them three white and colored boys in Mississippi to cool it. Now they calling me hoodlums up here in Harlem for wanting to be free. Hoodlums? Me, a hoodlum? Not a soul said "hoodlums" about them night riders who ride through the South burning black churches and lighting white crosses. Not a soul said "hoodlums" when the bombs went off in Birmingham and blasted four little Sunday School girls to death, little black Sunday School girls. Not a soul said "hoodlums" when they tied an auto rim to Emmet Till's feet and throwed him in that Mississippi River, a kid just fourteen years old…. Yet them that's supposed to be my leaders tell me, "Give up! Don't demonstrate! Wait!" To tell the truth, I believe my own colored leaders is ashamed of me. So how are they going to lead anybody they are ashamed of? Telling me to be cool. Huh! I'm too hot to be cool—so I guess I will just have to lead my own self—which I will do. I will lead myself.
The militant tone, historical references and informal and impromptu style of Minnie's speech are immediately recognized as characteristics of Malcolm's discourses. And her decision to lead herself is a helpful pointer to Malcolm's idea that Negroes should seek political freedom by organizing independent political parties because the capitalist parties and the two-party system, which put Negro stooges in office, are their enemies. But more significantly, her decision to lead herself is a reminder of the self-help tenet of Malcolm's black nationalist philosophy: "A race of people is like an individual man; until it uses its own talent, takes pride in its own history, expresses its own culture, affirms its own selfhood, it can never fulfill itself."
Langston Hughes's brief descriptions of Joyce, Lynn Clarisse, and Minnie attest to his social awareness that the black woman has not sat on the sidelines during the black liberation struggles of the twentieth century, but has been actively engaged in the fight for her race's freedom. His inclusion of female figures, instead of male ones to serve as counterparts to Washington, King and Malcolm X, enables him to make amends for the oversight of black writers in general who have failed to depict the black woman as a freedom fighter and to assert with a non-chauvinist attitude that the female is just as much needed as the male is in the liberation struggles. Moreover, since Hughes severs his females from the traditional role of black matriarch and engages them in battles for racial justice, they give solidarity to the freedom struggles and aid in creating a sense of urgency to the appeals of the freedom fight. As a social commentator, carefully observant of and objectively reporting on the racial situation in America, Hughes deserves a round of applause for his treatment of the black female freedom fighter who unquestionably represents a powerful force in past, present and future struggles for racial equality in America.
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The Weary Blues (poetry) 1926Fine Clothes to the Jew (poetry) 1927Not Without Laughter (novel) 1930Dear Lovely Death (poetry) 1931The Negro Mother and Other Dramatic Recitations (poetry) 1931The Dream Keeper and Other Poems (poetry) 1932Scottsboro Limited: Four Poems and a Play in Verse (poetry and drama) 1932Popo and Fifina: Children of Haiti [with Arna Bontemps] (juvenilia) 1932A Negro Looks at Soviet Central Asia (nonfiction) 1934The Ways of White Folks (short stories) 1934Mulatto (drama) 1935Little Ham (drama) 1936When the Jack Hollers [with Arna Bontemps] (drama) 1936Don't You Want to Be Free? (drama) 1938A New Song (poetry) 1938The Big Sea: An Autobiography (autobiography) 1940Shakespeare in Harlem [with Robert Glenn] (poetry) 1942Freedom's Plow (poetry) 1943Jim Crow's Last Stand (poetry) 1943Lament for Dark Peoples and Other Poems (poetry) 1944Fields of Wonder (poetry) 1947One-Way Ticket (poetry) 1949Troubled Island (libretto) 1949Simple Speaks His Mind (short stories) 1950Montage of a Dream Deferred (poetry) 1951Laughing to Keep from Crying (short stories) 1952The First Book of Negroes (juvenilia) 1952Simple Takes a Wife (short stories) 1953The Glory Round His Head (libretto) 1953Famous American Negroes (juvenilia) 1954The First Book of Rhythms (juvenilia) 1954The First Book of Jazz (juvenilia) 1955The Sweet Flypaper of Life [with Roy DeCarava] (nonfiction) 1955The First Book of the West Indies (juvenilia) 1956I Wonder As I Wander: An Autobiographical Journey (autobiography) 1956A Pictorial History of the Negro in America [with Milton Meltzer] (nonfiction) 1956Simple Stakes a Claim (short stories) 1957Simply Heavenly (drama) 1957Famous Negro Heroes of America (juvenilia) 1958Tambourines to Glory (novel) 1958Selected Poems of Langston Hughes (poetry) 1959The First Book of Africa (juvenilia) 1960The Best of Simple (short stories) 1961Ask Your Mama: 12 Moods for Jazz (poetry) 1961The Ballad of Brown King (libretto) 1961Fight for Freedom: The Story of the NAACP (nonfiction) 1962Something in Common and Other Stories (short stories) 1963Tambourines to Glory (drama) 1963The Prodigal Son (drama) 1965Simple's Uncle Sam (short stories) 1965The Panther and the Lash: Poems of Our Times (poetry) 1967Black Magic: A Pictorial History of the Negro in American Entertainment [with Milton Meltzer] (nonfiction) 1967Black Misery (nonfiction) 1969Good Morning Revolution: Uncollected Social Protest Writings by Langston Hughes (nonfiction) 1973The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes (poetry) 1994The Sweet and Sour Animal Book (juvenilia) 1994
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SOURCE: "'Wondering About the Art of the Wanderer': Langston Hughes and His Critics," in The Langston Hughes Review, Vol. 5, No. 2, Fall, 1982, pp. 19-23.
[In the following excerpt, Hodges explores the issue of consistency in Hughes's writing, and critical reaction to his work.]
Me, I always been all tangled up in life—which ain't always as sanitary as we might like it to be …
The Sweet Flypaper of Life
One of the most prolific and versatile writers of the twentieth century, James Mercer Langston Hughes, produced, during his literary career of over forty-five years, a corpus as impressive in its range as in its sheer quantity. He experimented in all the major forms of literary art, from poetry to the novel and from autobiography to literary criticism. Perhaps it should not be at all surprising that such an enormous and multifarious body of literature would, in turn, generate a body of criticism equally as diverse and varied in its range. Countee Cullen and James Baldwin criticized Hughes for failing to exercise discipline and control in certain of his writings, while Sterling Brown and Richard Wright praised him for his versatility and range. To some of his contemporaries Hughes was "the poet laureate of the Negro people"; to a few others, "the poet low rate of Harlem."
These kind of contradictory antithetical comments on Hughes are not uncommon, and are quite often expressed by the same critic viewing his work at different times. What this reveals, it seems to me, is something about the elusiveness of an individual whose writing often exhibited a surface simplicity that belied its true complexity. In fact, the more one learns about Hughes, both through his corpus and through critics' views of his works, the more one finds how truly enigmatic and paradoxical he really was.
The elusiveness of Hughes may be attributed, at least in part, to the same reason that he has not, heretofore, enjoyed the critical success of a Richard Wright or a Ralph Ellison. It is difficult for critics to point to a single work as providing the key to Hughes's art, in the same way that we may point to Native Son or Black Boy in the case of Wright, or Invisible Man in the case of Ellison. To which work do we turn as providing the key to Langston Hughes—The Weary Blues or The Panther and the Lash, The Big Sea or I Wonder as I Wander? Nor can Hughes be identified, definitely, with any period, theme, or character—although there have been some rather interesting claims made in this regard.
Critics, of course, who make a business of attempting to find connecting threads in the fabric of an author's work, may view this as disconcerting and frustrating news. But Hughes's corpus does not lend itself to any such neat critical formulae. The comment by the narrator in DeCarava's and Hughes's The Sweet Flypaper of Life, accounting for why her house is not as clean and orderly as her neighbor's, may well have expressed Hughes's own view of his literary career: "Me, I always been all tangled up in life—which ain't always as sanitary as we might like to be." Thus, as the late George Kent once surmised: "[U]pon entering the universe of Langston Hughes, one leaves at its outer darkness that type of rationality whose herculean exertions are for absolute resolution of contradiction and external imposition of symmetry."
J. Saunders Redding, who, as Faith Berry claims in an article in this issue, was generally favorable of Hughes's work, nevertheless found, in 1951, that Hughes's penchant for experimentation seemed to be at the heart of his failure to settle on a unique idiom and voice in his writing. Thus, he says:
it seems to me that Hughes does have a too great concern for perpetuating his reputation as an 'experimenter.' That he was this cannot be denied…. But experimentation is for something: it leads to or produces a result. One would think that after twenty-five years of writing, Hughes has long since found his form, his idiom and his proper, particular tone. If he has, let him be content with the apparatus he has fashioned, and let him go on now to say the things which many readers believe he, alone of American poets, was born to say.
What Redding intends as a criticism of Hughes could be taken as a compliment. It is not so much that Hughes had not found "his own idiom or tone," as it is that he realized no one single tone or idiom could adequately portray the lives of those "up today and down tomorrow, working this week and fired the next, beaten and baffled, but determined not to be wholly beaten…." What was needed was a flexible and dynamic idiom and tone to deal with the many inconsistencies, paradoxes, and wide mood swings in the lives of the people he celebrates in his various writings.
The forty-five years plus of Hughes's literary career stretched from the Harlem Renaissance, through the Depression, the McCarthy era, and the period of Civil Rights and protest. These were years of such great change and upheaval, with a number of countervailing forces at work, that it was nigh impossible to adopt a consistent tone or voice throughout the entire period. His contribution lies, therefore, not so much in any kind of unified vision his writing may or may not evince, but, rather, in the relevance of that vision for the climate of the times. It may be said of Hughes what DuBois once said of himself: that he "flew round and round with the Zeitgeist, waving [his] pen and lifting faint voices to explain, expound and exhort…." It is precisely Hughes's attempt to fashion a special tone and idiom, in short, to adapt his art in response to the issues appropriate to the prevailing climate that presents his critics with such a challenge. How different, in tone and theme, for example, is The Weary Blues, his first published book of poetry from The Panther and The Lash, his last.
When we turn to Hughes's own literary theory, we find even less evidence of a consistent or unified vision. Although Hughes seemed certain that the Black artist needed to assume a social role, he seemed less certain about how this task was to be undertaken. As Baldwin has suggested, Hughes found "the war between his social and artistic responsibilities all but irreconcilable." There remained in Hughes's poetry and fiction as well as in his own literary theory something of what DuBois spoke of as double consciousness. He seemed to be uncertain about the role of the black writer at once as an artist and as a propagandist for social reform for his race. This has led Hughes to appear, at times, to contradict himself. In his famous manifesto of 1926, "The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain," he could advocate a self-conscious black art in his advice to the young poet who wanted to be considered a writer, not just a Negro writer. Yet by the late 1950s, he had begun to modify his position. He would now claim that
Color had nothing to do with writing as such. So I would say, in your mind don't be a colored writer even when dealing in racial material. Be a writer first / Like an egg: egg; then an Easter egg, the color applied.
Wilson Moses, writing in the Spring 1985 issue of The Langston Hughes Review, speaks to the matter of inconsistency between Hughes's thought and his actions, when he says that, "at times, like most artists, Hughes did not heed his own advice. Like the very artists he had criticized, Hughes could stumble into some of the pitfalls of Western artistic consciousness." And Aaron Gresson, writing in the same issue, speaks more pointedly of seemingly contradictions in Hughes's critical theory:
Hughes … sometimes talked as if race were primary and, at others, as if it were secondary. Hence, he writes, "Be a writer first, colored second." And further: "Step outside yourself, then look back and you will see how human, yet how beautiful and black you are. How very black—even when you're integrated."
How can we account for this apparent about face? Could it be that in the years between 1926 and 1960, the time between these two statements, Hughes had become much more aware of the white audience's influence on black art?
More and more, Hughes seemed to have realized the pressure of racial prejudice at work in the literary marketplace. But, to his credit, it was a position that he came to only after his own financial situation had begun to deteriorate. (Hughes, for example, depended wholly on his publications and lectures for his livelihood.) So, the latter statement comes more as a concession than as a deeply felt aesthetic principle. He noted, for instance, that in the late 1950s there was no black publishing company. When Johnson Publications began to publish works on black American life, Hughes would see this as a step in the right direction that would ultimately lead to greater freedom for the black artist.
But the impact of Hughes's financial problems on the quantity and quantity of works produced from the 1930s on is an issue to which critics need to give even greater consideration. If, indeed, there is a decline in his artistic vision during this period, as some have claimed, to what extent could this be attributed to Hughes's concern with achieving commercial success? There is little doubt that during the decades of the 1940s and 1950s, Hughes kept at least one eye focused squarely on the literary marketplace, as is revealed in the interesting exchange of letters with his life-long friend and confidant, Arna Bontemps. In his letter to Bontemps of July 17, 1954, for example, Hughes notes, in regard to his second autobiography, I Wonder, that "if publishers want a really documented book, they ought to advance some documented money—enough to do nothing else for two or three years." Here, as elsewhere in the Letters, he reiterates his determination not to become a "literary sharecropper for short rations."
We know, of course, that throughout Hughes's career, he, not unlike any other professional writer, was called upon to make concessions to publishers and agents. Concessions are not unusual in the publishing business. But one wonders, in Hughes's case, if the extra-literary considerations—whether financial, as with the production of the play Mulatto (1935), or political, as with the publication of First Book of Negroes (1952)—seriously impaired his vision or weakened his voice as a writer with an avowed strong social commitment. Though the issue is still open for debate, Faith Berry's publication of Hughes's uncollected protest writings has gone a long way toward resolving the issue in his favor.
The point I am making here is that Hughes's works, perhaps more so than those of any other writer, must be examined in their proper historical context. I take it that Richard Barksdale has something of this in mind when he observes that Hughes's "was a poet who immersed himself in the contemporary and current and often wrote poems to explicate social and emotional reactions." Whether or not this characteristic was a major failing in Hughes's writing is a question on which there is not likely to be any unanimity of opinion. But Hughes's voice was strongest, it seems to me, when he not only reported on the issues of his day but also attempted to analyze and shape them. This is why I think his social protest writings should be given greater consideration.
As I stated above, critics themselves often speak of his work with a certain ambivalence, offering different interpretations depending on their own perspective and on the historical climate at the time. To this, the articles in this issue by Berry, Harper, and Rampersad give powerful testimony, though it may or may not be a claim that any of them is prepared to make.
Faith Berry points out that Saunders Redding was one of Hughes's most consistent critics and often praised his writings in the pages of the Afro-American and other publications. But, as Berry goes on to say, this did not mean that Redding could applaud all of Hughes's efforts. He found, for example, that Hughes could, at times, be "jejune and iterative," as in his volume of poetry, One Way Ticket. Certainly, much of Reddings' ambivalence toward Montage is evident when he says that Hughes's "images are again quick, vibrant and probing, but they no longer educate. They probe into old emotions and experiences with fine sensitiveness … but they reveal nothing new." It is this kind of thoroughgoing criticism of Hughes, by one who had long carefully charted his growth and development, that lends valuable insights into the man and his art.
Akiba Harper focuses on the interesting relationship between Hughes, the spokesman for the common man, and DuBois, the apostle of high culture. Indeed, that these two individuals, so different in outlook and temperament, could meet on mutual terms of admiration is a credit to the magnanimity of both. Harper argues that DuBois praised much of Hughes's poetry and was willing to defend him, as he did at least on one occasion, in the pages of the Crisis. And Hughes's own high regard for DuBois and his book The Souls of Black Folk is clearly stated in The Big Sea. She is careful, however, to focus her discussion on the years from 1923 to 1933, for some years later there seems to be some evidence, according to Rampersad and others, of a rift in their relationship.
Rampersad treats what is perhaps the most problematic aspect of Hughes's literary career: "socialist" writings and his relationship to left-wing critics. His relationship with these critics was a puzzling one. Originally, Rampersad observes, The Liberator rejected all of Hughes's works, and they did not appear in any major white leftist publication until his reputation was firmly established. This reveals more about those critics than about Hughes himself. It seems clear that they had their own axes to grind. But what is even more puzzling and disturbing is Hughes's reaction to their criticism of his work. Why, for example, did he not include some of the pieces in his Selected Poems? And why did he omit Robeson and DuBois from his First Book of Negroes (1952)?
These and other similar questions are raised in these papers. Indeed, the best works of criticism on Hughes will seek answers to certain questions while posing a number of others. But it is only in this way that we may begin to approach an understanding of an individual for whom wondering while wandering was both act and art.
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SOURCE: "Langston Hughes and His Critics on the Left," in The Langston Hughes Review, Vol. 5, No. 2, Fall, 1986, pp. 34-40.
[In the following essay, Rampersad argues that the Leftist critics failed Hughes.]
Radicalism is one of the main points of pressure in Langston Hughes's reputation, like—for example—the question of whether or not he believed in God, or whether or not he was a communist. The matter of radicalism has left a specific wound, one never to be healed completely, on his reputation. His virtual surrender before Senator Joseph McCarthy's committee lingers uncomfortably in the mind, as well as his omission of W.E.B. DuBois and Paul Robeson from certain of his writings later in his life, in the aftermath of his encounter with McCarthy. My purpose here is to look at one aspect of Hughes and radicalism between roughly the start of his adult career and 1940, the year of his autobiography The Big Sea. That aspect concerns Hughes's reception by literary critics of the left. How was he treated by them? Did this reception have an impact on his work? In trying to answer these basic questions, perhaps we can learn something more about the art of Langston Hughes, as well as something more about the practice of literary criticism among certain radicals.
If this analysis involves the adverse criticism of some literary figures on the left at one point in Hughes's career, I hope it will not be construed as an attack upon leftist critics in general, or—even more undeserved—an attack upon progressivism or radical socialism in general. Certainly that is not my purpose here.
The approval of the left was something Langston Hughes craved virtually from the start of his writing career. In The Big Sea, he claimed that he was introduced to the left by his Jewish classmates at Central High School in Cleveland between 1916 and 1920. They "lent me The Gadfly and Jean-Christophe to read, and copies of the Liberator and the Socialist Call. They were almost all interested in more than basketball and the glee club. They took me to hear Eugene Debs. And when the Russian Revolution broke out, our school almost held a celebration." What these young leftists thought of Hughes's poetry in the Central High School Monthly is impossible to say; however, the three short stories he either published in the Monthly or wrote about this time ("Those Who Have No Turkey," "Seventy-five Dollars," and "Mary Winosky") show unmistakably the influence of socialist passion and even of socialist logic. Together, they depict human beings oppressed by hunger, poverty, war, and urban impersonalism. Clearly, from the outset of his literary career Hughes identified the function of the artist with a certain socialist outlook and conscience.
Hughes remembered sending poems from Cleveland to Floyd Dell at the Liberator, which had revived Masses magazine (banned during the war and edited previously by Dell, Max Eastman, and John Reed). "I learned from [the Liberator] the revolutionary attitude toward Negroes," he said of the magazine. "Was there not a Negro on its staff?" The Negro was Claude McKay—but McKay did not join the Liberator staff until April 1921, some months after Hughes left Central High. The dates here are important. All evidence indicates that Hughes did not begin to break into predominantly white magazines until after his success with W. E. B. DuBois, Jessie Fauset, and A.G. Dill's Brownies' Book and Crisis magazine—or until after the middle of 1921. The point here is that Hughes probably did not try the Liberator before he had reached a certain proficiency as a poet. The leftists at the Liberator, however, made clear what they thought of his work by rejecting all of it; although Dell once wrote to say he liked one poem most of all, he added that "none moves us deeply." Either young Langston Hughes was offering them unusually poor verse, or the Liberator editors could not recognize good poetry that was different. In some respects, this is the recurring puzzle arising from Hughes's relationship to his critics on the left.
For whatever reason, Hughes did not publish in a socialist magazine until 1924, when his verse appeared in A. Philip Randolph and Chandler Owen's Messenger: The World's Greatest Negro Monthly. But when we recognize that the poetry and fiction in the Messenger, unlike its editorials and essays, were ideologically indistinguishable from, say, the Crisis or Opportunity, we see that Hughes's debut in a bona fide radical journal came only in March 1925, after four years of publishing. In March 1925, the Communist Workers Monthly brought out three of his poems, followed by others the following month. Did Hughes's poetry suddenly improve? Or was the Workers Monthly simply getting on the Hughes bandwagon? After all, March 1925 saw the appearance of Alain Locke's edition of the historic special number of the Survey Graphic that became The New Negro. From that point, Langston Hughes was a poet of some note. We come perhaps upon an unfortunate truth about so many radical socialist magazines in the twenties and thirties and perhaps always; they seem to be almost incapable, in general, of recognizing and nurturing young talent independent of the bourgeois magazines they scorn. Established names can be drawn to the leftist journals; for reasons that are probably not hard to understand, the journals themselves often seem incapable of growing their own.
If at the heart of this disturbing thought is the attitude of many radical critics to the artist, then Hughes's experience with his first book, The Weary Blues, is a case in point. New Masses, the successor to Masses and the Liberator, appeared on the scene in 1926, only months after the publication of The Weary Blues. Reviewing the book in October, the radical poet James Rorty opened his essay by reviling the "white, death-house silence" of greedy capitalistic New York, a silence "that aches to be filled." As blacks poured into Harlem, "the sharp Jews and Nordics who run the cabarets have found a new decoy—painted black—and how it does pay!" Blacks are Broadway, there is a "Negro renaissance," and "New York is amused. But how about the Negro in all this? I, for one, am sick of black-face comedians, whether high-brow or low-brow. I am sick of the manumitted slave psychology…. I want the Negroes to stop entertaining the whites and begin to speak for themselves. I am waiting for a Negro poet to stand up and say 'I—I am not amused.'"
Langston Hughes doesn't say anything like this. Nothing as bitter, nothing as masterful, nothing as savage. Why not?… Are Negroes really savages? One hopes so, but one doubts…. Nevertheless, Hughes is a poet, with a curiously firm and supple style, half naive and half sophisticated, which is on the whole more convincing than anything which has yet appeared in Negro poetry.
Quoting "When Sue Wears Red" in its entirety, Rorty called it startlingly effective. However, when the persona in another poem mourns, "I am afraid of this civilization—/ So hard, / So strong, / So cold," Rorty attacked: "I hope and trust Hughes doesn't mean this. If he does, I'd rather have Garvey, who may not be intelligent, but who at least seems more angry than afraid." We see in Rorty's review certain admirable traits of the radical reviewer, especially its decisive penetration of dishonesty in the national culture. However, there are other, less admirable aspects to note. In poetry, the quiet voice is mistrusted; irony is almost treasonable. "I am afraid of this civilization," the poem says—so Rorty deduces that the poet himself must be afraid. Mood and tone must exist not subtly but under a glaring political spotlight, because—apparently—the reader cannot be trusted to notice their deviant aspects. And no matter how radical the author is, seldom is he or she radical enough. The reviewer's radicalism overwhelms the poet—and often overwhelms poetry itself. Rorty's review takes up two columns of equal length, but one is finished and the other in its tenth line before the name Langston Hughes is mentioned. We are past line thirty of the second column before the first word of poetry is quoted; and the last comment is a reprimand. One wonders how, under such harsh conditions, any poetry gets written.
As far as I know, Fine Clothes to the Jew, published the following year, was not reviewed immediately in the radical press. Considering the drubbing that Hughes received in the black press for the volume, perhaps that is well. (Later, however, the book was reviewed by the left; we shall see how.)
Published in 1930, Not Without Laughter drew one private response from the left on which I would like to concentrate here. On March 14, 1931, an American radical, Agnes Smedley, wrote to Hughes from Shanghai about his novel. To Smedley, Not Without Laughter was a good book, but one with a central failing: "It still does not picture the existence of your people." Hughes must "show us the fate of the Negro masses. Such a fate is not happy—but is beaten and debased by [the] condition of beastly subjection. Try to show us in the life of Negro proletarians … men who work … and are defeated and must be defeated until they organise and fight on a revolutionary basis." In Hughes's depictions of blacks singing and dancing, "I feel too much technique of writing, too much colour photography shown on a broad screen. The picture has value only if shot through with something that explains the cause. I cannot get my hands on you and explain what I mean—but your book lacks intensity…. There was great suffering, perhaps hopes, dreams that were smashed,—and we get but a faint idea of it. If Not Without Laughter is partly autobiographical, she continued, then it is clear that "you were always on the outer edge of your class—of the working class. In other words, of petty bourgeois up-bringing, and later, an intellectual."
It is obvious that Smedley, who had never met Hughes, evidently could tell something startlingly accurate about his background through a radical Marxist analysis of his fiction; the radical critique certainly can be penetrating. And her criticism, like most radical criticism, was linked to genuine political problems. For example, Smedley's last words in her letter were not about literary theory, but about life and death: "Ten days ago the Chinese authorities arrested 23 more Communists, among them 4 more left writers; they made them dig their own graves, and then mowed them down with machine guns." Still we must ask, was her criticism of Hughes and Not Without Laughter justified? How does it jibe with the tremendous groundswell of applause from all the black reviewers, who hailed the book as a landmark in its representation of the ordinary truths of black life. These reviewers may have been bourgeois, but even the most bourgeois of blacks have been hypersensitive about the depiction of the race and politics, of accommodationism and resistance.
In any event, by the time Smedley wrote her letter in 1931 Hughes was at the start of a tremendous swing to the left, one that would result in the composition of some of the most radical pieces of verse ever penned by an American. So complete was his transformation that when he received in 1933 his most thorough literary examination from a leftist point of view, by Lydia Filatova in an article in International Literature, "LANGSTON HUGHES: American Writer," he came away, in her final analysis, with flying colors—but not before sharp rebukes for his previous work. So sharp, in fact, that one wonders about Lydia Filatova's candor, for want of a better word—not the first or last time one is forced to ask this question about radical socialist critics. In the Harlem Renaissance, and in particular in his landmark essay "The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain," Hughes had advanced "a theory of bourgeois estheticism, the right of the artist to hold aloof from social themes, to be indifferent to the day's racial and social problems." This is a bizarre reading of an essay that asserts the power of racial feeling in the face of the black and the white bourgeoisie. To facilitate her reading, however, Filatova cites as its title not "The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain," which was how it was called from its first appearance in the Nation in 1926, but simply "The Negro Artist."
In The Weary Blues, according to Filatova, Hughes "almost ignores the question of racial oppression." When he acknowledges racial oppression, he fails to understand it from a class point of view. More often, however, he "shuns reality and varnishes it with romantic illusions. Tomorrow is to bring liberation; but the poet's dreams about the better future are hazy and nebulous. His protest against the surrounding realities is an abstract one. It resolves itself into a vague striving toward sunshine, toward the exotic." In Fine Clothes to the Jew, Hughes is not yet "a revolutionary artist," but gives promise of "future growth." One should notice the five poems quoted or mentioned by Filatova. Not one poem is in the blues form; in fact, in reviewing a book defined by the blues, the word "blues" is never even mentioned. Yet we note that the black reading public took deeply to heart certain racial poems in The Weary Blues and what Hughes did there and in Fine Clothes with the blues form was certainly revolutionary from an artistic and social—and political—point of view. As for the poems about religion in the latter volume, Filatova writes inexplicably: "The soporific action of religion, with its gospel of non-resistance, largely accounts for the difficulty of spreading Communism among the masses of Negro toilers. Hughes in religious ecstasy complains to heaven, sings about white wings of angels, and seeks solace in prayer."
In Not Without Laughter, Hughes "breaks with the Harlem tradition. He now becomes a realistic writer." But he is "still swayed by the theory that the Negroes can attain social equality only through education, through demonstrating the creative abilities of the Negro people. Hughes still fails to see the illusory nature of such theories, that the real cause of racial inequality is capitalism, and that only through revolutionary struggle against the capitalist system will the Negro gain complete emancipation. Culture and talent will not solve the problem." He also fails to see whites as other than "an undifferentiated hostile mass," and ignores the class issue.
Needless to say, Filatova took Hughes's most recent poetry (for example, "Good Morning Revolution," "Goodbye Christ," "Letter to the Academy," "An Open Letter to the South," and "Tom Mooney") as evidence of his emancipation as a writer. "His new poetical credo is the total negation of his former creative position." There was, however, one "blot" on Hughes's recent revolutionary record—Popo and Fifina, the children's book set in Haiti and written with Arna Bontemps. "Does this soothing syrup," Filatova asks, "represent the author's conception of children's literature? Does the method of the complete elimination of contradictions of life, such varnishing of reality, help to forge fighters for communism, to increase the membership of the Negro Komsomol? Works of this kind detract from the revolutionary value and importance of Hughes's creative work."
Hughes evidently accepted, at this point in his career, Filatova's analysis of his work. To his friend and collaborator Prentiss Taylor, he sent home a solemn pledge: "Never must mysticism or beauty be gotten into any religious motive when used as a proletarian weapon." When he sent his poems home to his publisher Blanche Knopf and her advisor, Carl Van Vechten, he assured them that the verse had been vetted in Moscow—and presumably found radically kosher. Blanche Knopf refused to publish the collection, and Van Vechten concurred: "The revolutionary poems seem very weak to me: I mean very weak on the lyric side. I think in ten years, whatever the social outcome, you will be ashamed of these." He did not like Diego Rivera's radical politics, he insisted, but he admired Rivera's revolutionary murals. Hughes's radical verses, however, were "lacking in any of the elementary requisites of a work of art."
I do not believe that Hughes was ever ashamed of having written those poems, but it is at least interesting that his Selected Poems, which he chose himself, would contain not one of the poems in the radical collection.
The year 1938 saw two significant efforts by Hughes in radical literature. The first was Don't You Want to be Free?, a play produced by the Harlem Suitcase Theatre, which he founded that year, and the second was the appearance of a collection of radical poems, A New Song. In a review of the play, at least one leftist critic showed not only broad understanding of the nature of literature, but also a degree of sympathetic insight into Hughes's aims and ability as an artist.
Writing in the Crisis (no radical journal!) about Don't You Want to be Free?, the white leftist poet Norman Macleod went to the heart of the dilemma—as he saw it—facing Hughes as a black writer who wanted to speak at one and the same time on behalf of his race and on behalf of the left. Citing two lines in which blacks say, "Let the black boy swing / But the white folks die," and contrasting the statement to Hughes's more universal socialist aims expressed forcefully elsewhere in the play, Macleod saw it as exemplifying "the unresolved conflict in Langston Hughes's writing. He feels the Negro as his race, but only thinks himself (at least, in this work) a member of a white and black working class. And because of this, the scenes which are treated poetically and which deal primarily with the problems that are purely 'race' are moving and good entertainment as well. In the later scenes which introduce argument he is not as good."
Perhaps because he was writing for the Crisis, perhaps because his own attitude toward the left was changing, Macleod concluded that Hughes should stick more to writing that derived from his "feeling," rather than to writing that derived from his "thinking." Hughes, he declared, "is essentially a poet—a very fine poet with an ear for racial rhythms and folk speech—and it is as a poet we like him most—whether or not his poetry appears in a novel or in a play or in a poem makes little difference."
The same year, 1938, Hughes's A New Song appeared. The poems were published by the International Workers Order, the well-organized and widely influential Communist-organized benevolent association which had also sponsored the Harlem Suitcase Theatre. Like the play, the appearance of A New Song followed a sharp revival of Hughes's own radicalism after months in war-torn Spain. Obviously Hughes was not yet "ashamed" of the poems, as Van Vechten had said he would be. Mike Gold, a lion of the literary far left in America, wrote an introduction to this collection of radical verse. In these poems, which were the fruit of a decade of experiment and radical experience, Gold saw no "unresolved conflict" (to quote Macleod). "Many young writers have lost their way in this period, mistaking some dazzling skyrocket of a aesthetic theory for a star," Gold declared. But not Langston Hughes. "He has expressed the hopes, the dreams, and the awakening of the Negro people. He has done it naturally, like a bird in the woods; but in choosing this theme, he has been led on and on, until he has also become a voice crying for justice for all humanity. The Negroes are enslaved, but so are the white workers, and the two are brothers in suffering and struggle. This is his message today."
Written hardly one year later, however, Hughes's autobiography The Big Sea documents a strange turn of events—strange even if one considers the demands of bourgeois is publishers. Walt Carmon, once an editor at New Masses and a friend to Hughes in Moscow, was shocked to notice "not a single mention of a radical publication you've written for or a single radical you have met or has meant anything to you." In The New Republic, the black radical Richard Wright praised Hughes as a "cultural ambassador" and for having carried on "a manly tradition" when other writers "have gone to sleep at their posts." But in using the term "ambassador," Wright invited recollection of the opening of his "Blueprint for Negro Writing," where he had scorned past black writers as the "prim and decorous ambassadors," The "artistic ambassadors" of the race, "who went a-begging to white America … in the knee-pants of servility." And in the Negro Quarterly, Ralph Ellison, then also a radical, complained that "too much attention is apt to be given to the aesthetic aspects of experience at the expense of its deeper meanings," and questioned whether the style was appropriate to "the autobiography of a Negro writer of Hughes's importance."
Why did the bottom fall out, as it were, of Hughes's radical aesthetic? For possibly many reasons, including events on the international scene, notably the disastrous (certainly for the American left) Nazi-Soviet pact of non-aggression. One thing is clear, however; Hughes owed very little or nothing to literary critics from the left. Scholar-critics, either as writers or in teaching, should never forget that they perform a vital function in the literary process, even if artists sometimes ungratefully regard us as parasites. In this case, on the other hand, the leftist critics in general performed weakly where Hughes was concerned because their reviews were generally poor in quality—reductive, intolerant, and philistine. I need only add here the obvious: Marxist criticism has come a long way since the twenties and thirties; as a reminder of what Hughes experienced, however, if one looks at much Soviet literary criticism today, one would probably conclude that, at least in some quarters, it has not yet come far enough.
Under the communist aesthetic as interpreted by these reviewers, the greatest of Hughes's poems, which all have to do with race—"The Negro Speaks of Rivers," or "Mother to Son," or "The Weary Blues," or "Jazzonia," or "Dream Variation"—could not have been written. What the left took to be petty bourgeois ambivalence was Hughes's continual attempt to arbitrate between rage at racism, on one hand, and the uncontaminated love of his people, on the other. In the most radical work, the process of arbitration is shortcircuited; rage is shaped according to ideology, and what often results is not a poem but ideology tempered and sharpened into slogans. In the process, much is lost, including Hughes's essential identity. Only Hughes could have written "The Negro Speaks of Rivers" but—given the right mixture of radical rage and literary adroitness on the part of a writer—"Good Morning Revolution" could have been written by almost anyone. Many literary radicals, especially those who are also back or who are interested in recruiting blacks, have not learned how to deal with the theoretical problem behind this last statement. The problem, however, is mainly theirs, and not Langston Hughes's.
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Anderson, Sherwood. "Paying for Old Sins." The Nation 139, No. 360 (11 July 1934): 49-50.
Considers The Ways of White Folks a worthwhile book but believes Hughes's writing is hurt by his hatred for whites.
Davis, Thadious M. "Reading the Woman's Face in Langston Hughes's and Roy De Carava's Sweet Flypaper of Life." The Langston Hughes Review XII, No. 1 (Spring 1993) 22-8.
Discusses the role of change in Sweet Flypaper of Life.
Dodson, Owen. "Carousels and Rain." Poetry 71 (1948): 279-81.
Favorably reviews Fields of Wonder.
Evans, Nicholas M. "Langston Hughes as Bop Ethnographer in 'Trumpet Player: 52nd Street'." Library Chronicle of the University of Texas 24, No. 1-2 (1994): 119-35.
Analyzes Hughes's portrayal of the jazz subculture in his poetry.
Ford, Karen Jackson. "Do Right to Write Right: Langston Hughes's Aesthetics of Simplicity." Twentieth Century Literature 38, No. 4 (Winter 1992): 436-56.
Argues that Hughes's strength lies in his simple poems.
Harper, Donna Akiba Sullivan. "'The Apple of His Eye': Dubois on Hughes." The Langston Hughes Review 5, No. 2 (Fall 1986): 29-33.
Argues that DuBois was impressed with Hughes because Hughes portrayed life truthfully.
Hutchinson, George B. "Langston Hughes and the 'Other' Whitman." In The Continuing Presence of Walt Whitman: The Life after the Life, edited by Robert K. Martin, pp. 16-27. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1992.
Chronicles the influence of Walt Whitman on Hughes.
McLaren, Joseph. "Early Recognitions: Duke Ellington and Langston Hughes in New York, 1920–1930." In The Harlem Renaissance: Revaluations, edited by Amritjit Singh, William S. Shiver, and Stanley Brodwin, pp. 195-208. New York: Garland Publishing, 1989.
Compares the careers of jazz musician Duke Ellington and Hughes, arguing that they fit into both "high" and "low" art.
Neal, Larry. "Langston Hughes: Black America's Poet Laureate." In American Writing Today, edited by Richard Kostelanetz, pp. 61-72. Troy, New York: Whitston Publishing Co., 1991.
Provides an overview of Hughes's poetry.
Peterkin, Julia. "Negro Blue and Gold." Poetry 31 (October 1927): 44-7.
Praises the rhythms and diversity of subjects in Fine Clothes for the Jew.
Sanders, Leslie Catherine. "'Also Own the Theatre': Representation in the Comedies of Langston Hughes." The Langston Hughes Review 11, No. 1 (Spring 1992): 6-13.
Chronicles the difficulties Hughes faced in presenting his vision of African-America on stage.
Shields, John P. "'Never Cross the Divide': Reconstructing Langston Hughes's Not Without Laughter." African American Review 28, No. 4 (1994): 601-13.
Illustrates how Hughes altered Not Without Laughter to meet with the approval of his patron Charlotte Mason.
Walker, Alice. "Turning into Love: Some Thoughts on Surviving and Meeting Langston Hughes." Callaloo 12, No. 4 (Fall 1989): 663-66.
Discusses the impact Walker's friendship with Hughes had on her career.
White, Jeannette S. and Clement A. White. "Two nations, One Vision. America's Langston Hughes and Cuba's Nicolás Guillén: Poetry of Affirmation: A Revolution." The Langston Hughes Review XII, No. 1 (Spring 1993): 42-50.
Compare the works of Hughes and Nicolás Guillén, arguing that Hughes served as a muse for Guillén.
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SOURCE: "Religion in the Poetry of Langston Hughes," in Phylon, Vol. 48, No. 3, pp. 240-45.
[In the following essay, Culp asserts that Hughes's poetry emphasizes the diverse role that religion plays in the African- American community.]
Langston Hughes lived basically in terms of the external world and in unison with it, making himself one with his people and refusing to stand apart as an individual. His poetry reflects collective states of mind as if they were his own, merging the poet's personality with his racial group. He as sumes various personae—sometimes he is the spirit of his race, at other times he is a spittoon polisher, a black mother, a prostitute, a black man without job or money—but there is a commonality among the various experiences presented in his poems which gives them a kind of consistent persona.
As a folklorist Hughes sought to capture the essence of every aspect of black culture, including its religion. Religious feeling is always interdependent with racial feeling in his poetry. He views religion in the larger context of black culture, presenting it variously as a source of strength for the oppressed, an opiate of the people, the religion of slavery, and an obstacle to emancipation. When asked in an interview about his own religious views, Hughes responded:
I grew up in a not very religious family, but I had a foster aunt who saw that I went to church and Sunday School … and I was very much moved, always, by the, shall I say, the rhythms of the Negro church … of the spirituals … of those wonderful old-time sermons…. There's great beauty in the mysticism of much religious writing, and great help there—but I also think that we live in a world … of solid earth and vegetables and a need for jobs and a need for housing …
In his autobiography The Big Sea, Hughes describes his "conversion" at the age of thirteen. It happened on a hot night during a revival meeting at his aunt's church in Lawrence, Kansas. Hughes and another boy were waiting alone on the mourner's bench to see the light of Jesus, while "the building rocked with prayer and song." Finally the other boy whispered to Langston, "God damn! I'm tired o'sitting here. Let's get up and be saved," and he went forward. Langston waited in vain to see Jesus, but finally, amid the praying and sobbing and singing of the congregation he, too, went forward, "to save further trouble." Hughes concludes his description of this incident as follows:
That night, for the last time in my life, but one … I cried. I cried, in bed alone, and couldn't stop. I buried my head under the quilts, but my aunt heard me…. She … told my uncle I was crying because the Holy Ghost had come into my life, and because I had seen Jesus. But I was really crying because I couldn't bear to tell her that I had lied, that I had deceived everybody in the church, that I hadn't seen Jesus, and that now I didn't believe there was a Jesus any more, since he didn't come to help me.
In the only poem in which Hughes speaks of religion in his own voice and not that of a persona of his people, he states:
In an envelope marked:Personal God addressed me a letter. In an envelope marked:Personal I have given my answer.
In the remainder of his more than sixty poems containing religious references, Hughes captures the essence of religious feeling in the black culture through his use of language, rhythm, and form. The simplest of these is a group of six lyrics and songs composed between 1926 and 1964, celebrating the story of the Christ Child. Another group, including "Judgment Day" (1927); "Prayer Meeting" (1923); "Sinner" (1927) and "Acceptance" (1957) reflect the simple faith of blacks in settings reminiscent of Hughes's childhood experiences. "Judgment Day" dramatizes the imagination of a simple black person whose soul has gone "flyin' to de stars and moon / A shoutin' God I's comin' soon!"
Among Hughes's poems which suggest that religion has been valuable to black people in toughening a certain life force within, one of the most popular is "The Negro Mother" (1931). The archetypal speaker says:
I am the one who labored as a slave, Beaten and mistreated for the work that I gave
Three hundred years in the deepest South: But God put a song and a prayer in my mouth. God put a dream like steel in my soul.
Here the religion of the slavemasters has become resolution in the mind of the slaves.
Other of Hughes's poems with religious references are predominantly celebrations of life, short though it may be. These include "Sylvester's Dying Bed" (1931); "Saturday Night" (1926); "Fire" (1927); and "Sunday by the Combination" (1951), all concerning good-timing sinners who lived robustly until "the Lawd put out the light." In "Madam and the Number Writer" (1943) Hughes's well-known character Madame Alberta K. Johnson whimsically swears off playing the numbers in Harlem in favor of heaven's "golden streets / Where the number not only / Comes out—but repeats!" In "Tambourines" (1959) the speaker celebrates life with "A gospel shout / And a gospel song: / Life is short / But God is long!"
The influence of jazz is seen in many of these poems. There is a similarity between religious exaltation and the exaltation of human nature that finds an outlet in jazz. Wagner has pointed out that "in both establishments [church and dance hall] the shouts and rhythms are the same and human beings find means of release and forgetfulness, whether profane or sacred."
Perhaps the most powerful of Hughes's poems with a religious reference, however, are those which use Christ as a central figure. In the poetry of Hughes, as well as other black poets, Christ is sometimes white, symbolizing the oppressors and acting as their accomplice; at other times he is black, the image and friend of the lynched Negro, and one who suffers with him. With the black-white Christ symbol black poets have represented the contradictory elements of the religion of whites which was passed on to the slaves.
In the original version of "A New Song" (1932) the poet expresses regret that the Negro has never really shared in the Christian community; he denies that Christ's sacrifice took place on behalf of black people, and asserts that the blacks must redeem themselves.
Bitter was the day When … … only in the sorrow songs Relief was found— Yet no relief, But merely humble life and silent death Eased by a Name That hypnotized the pain away— O, precious Name of Jesus in that day! That day is past. I know full well now Jesus could not die for me— That only my own hands, Dark as the earth, Can make my earth-dark body free.
"Goodbye, Christ!" (1933) spurns the Christ of white supremacy and reflects an attraction to Communist ideology, although Hughes later declared he had never shared the views expressed in this poem.
Listen, Christ, You did alright in your day, I reckon— But that day's gone now. They ghosted you up a swell story, too, Called it Bible— But it's dead now. The popes and the preachers've Made too much money from it. They've sold you to too many Kings, generals, robbers, and killers— Goodbye, Christ Jesus Lord God Jehova, Beat it on away from here now. Make way for a new guy with no religion at all— A real guy named Marx Communist Lenin Peasant Stalin Worker ME.
As a result of this poem the poet was barred from speaking at a Los Angeles YMCA in 1935, was picketed by the America First Party while speaking at Wayne State University in 1942, and fifteen years later was still explaining that the poem was an "ironic protest against racketeering in the churches."
In other poems, Christ is seen as the archetype of suffering blacks. A comparison between the fate of Jesus and the revilement of black people appears in Hughes's poetry both early and late. In "Ma Lord" (1927) an anthropomorphic Christ is pictured. The second stanza reads:
Ma Lord knowed what it was to work He knowed how to pray Ma Lord's life was trouble, too Trouble ever day.
The fusion of Christ and black people has a long tradition, reinforced by the influence of black ministers who drew comparisons between Christ's martyrdom and the debasement of black people. In his short story "Big Meeting" Hughes describes a typical sermon in which this identification is apparent. The sermon on the crucifixion is divided into three parts. In the first, the preacher talks about the power of the lowly, represented by Christ; then about the ability of a man to stand alone like Jesus, who told his weakening disciples to "sleep on." The congregation chants, "sleep on, sleep on." The second part of the sermon turns to images of violence. The minister recalls that Jesus "saw the garden alive with men carrying lanterns and swords and staves, and the mob was everywhere." Other images of violence which the preacher supplies are handcuffs, prisoner, chains, trail, lies. Then the minister closes the gap between Christ and the congregation. The picture of the crucified Jesus is finished:
Mob cussin' and hootin' my Jesus! Umn! The spit of the mob in His face! Umn! His body hangin' on the cross! Umn! That's what they did to my Jesus! They stoned Him first, they stoned Him! Called Him everything but a child of God. Then they lynched him on the cross.
The word mob begins the Negro identification with Christ; the word lynched seals it. The sermon is almost a poem itself. In it one can see the "rhythms of the Negro church" to which Hughes referred in the interview cited.
The poem which is the strongest statement of this theme is "Christ in Alabama" (1931).
Christ is a nigger, Beaten and black Oh, bare your back! Mary is His mother: Mammy of the South, Silence your mouth. God is His father: White Master above Grant Him your love. Most holy bastard Of the bleeding mouth, Nigger Christ On the cross Of the South.
Hughes's first reading of the poem at the University of North Carolina on November 21, 1931, caused threats of violence from whites. The poem itself was written to protest violence against blacks which was weighing heavily on Hughes's mind. While on his reading tour of the South, he had learned that a recent graduate of Hampton Institute had been beaten to death by an Alabama mob for parking his car in a white parking lot. In the same week he learned of the death of Juliette Derricotte of Fisk University, who had been involved in an automobile accident in Georgia and had been refused treatment in a white hospital. In addition, the Scottsboro case had affected Hughes deeply. Nine Negro youths were in Kilby prison in Alabama, accused of raping two white prostitutes in a coal car traveling through the state. In his autobiography I Wonder as I Wander, Hughes describes these events and their repercussions in his typical low-key, wry manner. He relates the reaction of a local politician in Chapel Hill to the poem: "It's bad enough to call Christ a bastard … but to call Him a nigger—that's too much!" In an article in the Atlanta World of December 18, 1931, Hughes said of the poem:
Anything which makes people think of existing evil conditions is worthwhile. Sometimes in order to attract attention somebody must embody these ideas in sensational forms. I meant my poem to be a protest against the domination of all stronger peoples over weaker ones.
The word protest may have diminished the artistic merit of the poem in the eyes of many. Although Jean Wagner considers it "shocking rather than profound," James Emanuel thinks it noteworthy for the economy of its phrasing and its acrostic flair.
A less shocking poem using the crucifixion theme is "The Ballad of Mary's Son" (1954), which merges the persons of "Mary's boy," a young black man lynched during the Passover, and Christ, "Mary's son," in a shared spiritual tragedy. The first two stanzas establish the relationship:
It was in the Spring The Passover had come. There was feasting in the streets and joy. But an awful thing Happened in the Spring— Men who knew not what they did Killed Mary's Boy. He was Mary's Son, And the Son of God was He— Sent to bring the whole world joy. There were some who could not hear, And some were filled with fear— So they built a cross For Mary's Boy.
Perhaps Hughes's finest poem using the crucifixion theme is "Song for a Dark Girl," written in 1927.
Way Down South in Dixie (Break the heart of me) They hung my black young lover To a cross roads tree. Way Down South in Dixie (Bruised body high in air) I asked the white Lord Jesus What was the use of prayer. Way Down South in Dixie (Break the Heart of me) Love is a naked shadow On a gnarled and naked tree.
In this poem, protest has given way to grief. The irony of the gay Dixieland tune juxtaposed on the heartbreaking refrain gives the poem impact, as does its simple imagery and symbolism. In the first stanza the black young lover is the Christ figure, hung to a cross roads (divided for emphasis) tree. In the second stanza the speaker addresses the white Christ, expressing the frustration of the black religious experience in America. In the third stanza the two Christ figures, representing love, are fused into "a naked shadow / On a gnarled and naked tree."
In these poems, as in all his works, Langston Hughes's primary purpose was to reveal the folk expression of his people in all its diversity. He shows the folk inside and outside the church, happy and sad, in states of grace and of sin. Although he wrote with emotional strength of the oppression of his people, he was primarily a folklorist who created his art out of the stuff of common black experience. Arna Bontemps has rightly called him a minstrel and a troubadour in the classic sense.
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SOURCE: "'Midnight Ruffles of Cat-Gut Lace': The Boogie Poems of Langston Hughes," in CLA Journal, Vol. 32, No. 1, September, 1988, pp. 55-68.
[In the following essay, Tracy analyzes Hughes's use of the boogie-woogie form in five poems from Montage of a Dream Deferred.]
The influence of the blues tradition on Langston Hughes's poetry is by now an oft-discussed and readily accepted fact, although the depth and breadth of his employment of the tradition has not often been discussed with a similar depth and breadth. A close examination of a related sequence of Hughes's blues poems offers the opportunity to explore his fusion of oral and written traditions and to examine his tremendous skills as a literary-jazz improviser. That is not to suggest that Hughes's poems are spontaneous creations. Improvisation is normally thought of as a spontaneous act, but the jazz or blues musician's improvisations are in fact bounded by several things: the musician's "vocabulary"—style, patterns, techniques, and riffs; the accepted conventions of the specific genre (even if those conventions are deliberately violated, they are, in a large sense, at work); and the boundaries of the individual piece being performed. For example, boogie-woogie pianist Pete Johnson, in his 1947 version of "Swanee River Boogie," performs the melody of the song to a boogie-woogie beat, thereafter improvising solos built around the song's chord changes, the boogie-woogie beat, and variations on the melody of the piece, combined with his arsenal of boogie-woogie riffs and performed in his inimitable style. Hughes, in his 1951 collection, Montage of a Dream Deferred, generated a set or sequence of six "boogie" poems—"Dream Boogie," "Easy Boogie," "Boogie 1 a.m.," "Lady's Boogie," "Nightmare Boogie," and "Dream Boogie: Variation"—that have in common much more than the "boogie" of the titles. The poems comprise an intricate series of interwoven "improvisations" over a set boogie-woogie rhythm, with Hughes modulating and modifying rhythm, words, imagery, moods, and themes, and constructing a complex interrelationship between music, the musical instrument, the performance, and a set of attitudes exemplified by them.
Structurally, Hughes's six boogie poems share the exciting, rushing rhythms of boogie-woogie: Hughes at work on his poems, pounding out rhythms on his typewriter keyboard. Briefly, boogie-woogie is a form of Afro-American music, normally performed on the piano, that emerged as a recognizable genre in the 1920s. As blues researcher Karl Gert zur Heide points out, "the theme of boogie is the blues, some features derive from ragtime, and the rhythmic interplay of both hands can be traced back to African roots." In boogie-woogie, the improvisations executed by the pianist's right hand on the treble keys of the piano are set off against the ostinato or repeated phrases of the left hand on the bass keys. Characteristically boogie-woogie follows the twelve-bar blues chord change pattern—in the key of C, CFC GFC—employing a repeated bass pattern recognizable most often for its eight beats to the bar and performed at a medium-to-fast tempo that builds an explosive drive and swing appropriate to the dance step after which it was named. Besides identifying a dance step and a type of music, however, the term "boogie" functions in other contexts: to boogie is to raise a ruckus or act wildly or uninhibitedly; it also has sexual connotations:
I'm gonna pull off my pants and keep on my shirt, I'm gonna get so low you think I'm in the dirt. I'm gonna pitch a boogie-woogie, Gonna boogie-woogie all night long.
In this tune, singer Big Bill Broonzy has taken a boogie-woogie beat suitable for dancing and provided both the "wild acting" and sexual connotations that go with it. In the tradition, the word carried these connotations, and typically Hughes tried to capture the ambience of the tradition.
Hughes demonstrated his knowledge of boogie-woogie in The First Book of Jazz, in which he and his coauthors identified among the outstanding exponents of boogie-woogie "Pinetop" Smith, Jimmy Yancy, Meade Lux Lewis, Albert Ammons, and Pete Johnson—all important and generally recognized masters. It was the spirited, exuberant, danceable, and often rhythmically complex and intricate music of performers like those men that provided the basis for Hughes's boogie poem rhythms and the connotations of the word and the tradition that he tried to capture in his poems.
Hughes obviously wanted us to hear the boogie rhythms in these poems: the first four poems in the boogie sequence ("Dream," "Easy," "1 a.m.," and "Lady's") are very "aural"; the words "hear" and "heard" are employed repeatedly, both in a question—
Ain't you heard The boogie-woogie rumble Of a dream deferred?
and an assertion—
I know you've heard The boogie-woogie rumble Of a dream deferred.
The incessant rhythm and rumbling of boogie-woogie becomes in the poems symbolic of the dream he had delineated in his earlier poem "Dream Variations":
To fling my arms wide In some place of the sun, To whirl and to dance Till the white day is done Then rest at cool evening Beneath a tall tree While night comes on gently, Dark like me— That is my dream!
Hughes is trying to get black people to recognize that the deferment of that dream is a large part of their lives, both by questioning and by asserting the "obvious." If they hadn't heard that boogie-woogie rumble, they could certainly hear it in the rhythms of Hughes's poems; for example, if one were to treat "Dream Boogie," the first poem of the sequence and therefore a prototype for the other poems in the sequence, as if it were a lyric to be sung to boogie-woogie music, and identify the beats and chord changes as they relate to the words, the annotation would look as follows:
C 1 2 34 567 8 Good morning, daddy! 1 2 34 5 6 7 Ain't you heard 8 12 34 56 The boogie-woogie rumble 7 8 12 34 56 7 8 Of a dream deferred? F 1234 567 Listen closely: 8 12 34 5678 You'll hear their feet C 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 Beating out and beating out a— You think It's a happy beat? G 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 Listen to it closely: F 1 2 3 4 5 6 78 Ain't you heard C 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 Something underneath like a— What did I say? Sure, I'm happy! Take it away! Hey pop! Re-bop! Mop! Y-e-a-h!
What Hughes has done is create a twelve-line, twelve-bar boogie-woogie poem, annexing an exclamatory "tag" ending like those occasionally employed in music. Here, though, Hughes has manipulated the form and rhythm: stanzas two and three are jarred by the dramatic insertion of disturbing questions that achieve their impact by rewording the line we would expect in the normal rhythm and progression of thoughts into a question. Thus, in stanza two, "Beating out and beating out a happy beat" becomes:
Beating out and beating out— You think It's a happy beat?
Just as Hughes shifts to the interrogative and separates those questions from their normal stanzaic group, he just as surely upsets the boogie-woogie rhythm, eventually violating even the rhyming pattern in stanza three. This is significant because stanza three draws on the first two stanzas for a repetition of important lines: "Listen closely" of stanza two becomes "Listen to it closely" (Hughes employs a common characteristic of blues lyrics, building slightly modulated lines around loose formulaic patterns) in stanza three, while "Ain't you heard" of stanza one is lifted verbatim. Stanza three, however, becomes deliberately vague—"Something underneath"—in order to force the audience to answer the subsequent question, "What did I say?" By upsetting the rhythm and asking the questions, Hughes highlights the disparity between the rumbling seriousness of the deferred dream and the superficial happiness of the beat or performance. To this masterful maneuvering of the idiom Hughes annexes the "tag" ending—in jazz and blues a four-bar section appended to the end of a tune that repeats a phrase, offers a final comment, or indicates that the performance is about to end—often for those dancing to the performance. Hughes's seven-line ending contrasts once again the happiness of the words/music performance with the underlying problem. In light of the dramatic irony with which Hughes dealt with the subject earlier, this return to the facade of carefree happiness adds psychological complexity to the poem. Hughes felt that blacks needed to recognize the reality of deferred dreams, as he has forced in stanza three, but in stanza four he emphasizes the need to retain the spirit of cultural expression and the usefulness of the elaborate role-playing that provided blacks with the opportunity for advances, while whites concentrate on the superficial happy roles that blacks played.
The boogie rhythms extend to other poems in the sequence, although the twelve-bar progression is not necessarily present in any of them. "Easy Boogie," "Nightmare Boogie," and "Dream Boogie: Variation" could theoretically fit into the twelve-bar pattern annotated with the variations above. One indication that they may not have been intended to fit into the twelve-bar pattern is the presence, in "Easy Boogie," of the line "Riffs, smears, breaks" between stanzas two and three, which seems to indicate an instrumental break that would not be characteristic in a standard twelve-bar blues—the breaks would come between the twelve-bar verses. This underscores the importance of "hearing" the boogie-woogie rhythm and spirit of the performance as opposed to following a predetermined structure. "Lady's Boogie" and "Boogie 1 a.m." reemphasize the distinction, each of them eight-line poems (with an additional mock-jive exclamation in the former) in boogie rhythm. These poems, then, are tied together by the rhythm and spirit of boogiewoogie—a rhythm and spirit that Hughes clearly intended for us to hear.
The poems, of course, have other features in common besides boogie-woogie rhythm. The first four poems in the sequence all employ black jive slang: in "Dream Boogie" he uses "Daddy!" and "Hey pop! Re-hop! Mop! Y-e-a-h!"; in "Easy Boogie" he uses "Hey, Lawdy, Mama!"; in "Boogie 1 a.m." he uses "Daddy!"; and in "Lady's Boogie" he employs the phrase "Be-Bach!" Coupled with the boogie rhythms this plying of black speech demonstrates the influence of oral culture on Hughes's work, giving the distinctively black flavor to the poems necessary to suggest encoded messages appropriate to a segregated group of people. Music critic John McDonough has pointed out the usefulness of slang code words:
There is a fraternal link that always seems to bond together those who would challenge or otherwise separate themselves from the mainstream of social custom. Sometimes the trappings and devices of such brotherhood are enjoyed for their own sake—a sort of college game without substance. But more commonly, they have a very specific and necessary function. In a hostile and crowded world, such devices identify each member to the other. It may be a handshake, a secret word or phrase, gesture or symbol. In short, a lexicon of code words that separate the true believers from the indifferent or unfriendly.
Hughes doesn't employ code words that whites are unlikely to understand, but the words are readily identifiable with black culture, and by doing so he intimates that his message is directed at blacks and, to a great measure, originates with them.
This slang also helps call attention to the similarities and contrasts of the poems. Both "Dream Boogie" and "Boogie 1 a.m.," for example, are narrated by women, as indicated by the address "Daddy." This address, along with "Papa," is common in the blues songs of females and in black culture in general, but the term of address would not be used by a male; "Daddy-o" would be used, but not simply "Daddy." This use of a female speaker, which is also prevalent in Hughes's blues poems, is important in that it indicates that the ideas are not necessarily identifiable with a single viewpoint: that of the black male Hughes. The suggestion is that the problems of blacks connected with deferred dreams is not simply an intricate artistic stance of the author, but the representative stance of sensitive blacks, both male and female, who, especially in terms of the sexual theme of the poems, will be creating future generations.
"Dream Boogie" is a poem of beginnings: besides being the first poem of the sequence, it is the poem that greets at the beginning of the day and poses the nagging and disconcerting questions dealt with repeatedly in the other poems. It is appropriate that this is the first poem in the sequence, since upon awakening one would have the best chance of recalling dreams, and awakening from the fantasy/dream world to reality would accentuate the disparity between those two worlds. In "Dream Boogie" the speaker asks questions, in contrast to "Boogie 1 a.m.," a poem of conclusion that addresses the listener at day's end—"Good evening, Daddy"—and asserts that the listener is aware of the rumblings of the dream deferred, presumably after day-long contact with the white-controlled world.
Similarly, "Easy Boogie," the second poem of the sequence, and "Lady's Boogie," the fourth, are related. In contrast to "Dream Boogie," in "Easy Boogie" a man addresses a woman—"Hey, Lawdy Mama!" The speaker associates the recognition of the steady beat of the dream deferred with the vitality of the sexual act:
Hey, Lawdy Mama! Do you hear what I said? Easy like I rock it In my bed!
This sexual vitality, implicit in the word "boogie," as already pointed out, is also linked with the soul's aspirations through the repetition of sentence construction:
Down in the bass That easy roll Rolling like I like it In my soul.
The souls' dreams are seen as vital, lively, and life-giving. Thus through the repetition of phrases and structures, Hughes expands the importance of his words beyond their initial or superficial meanings.
"Lady's Boogie" exposes the superficial concerns of a posturing "lady" who
ain't got boogie-woogie On her mind.
Viewed in comparison to "Easy Boogie," the sexual connotation is at work here, suggesting a sexually ineffectual or inhibited person and connecting that to the inability to hear the beat of the dream deferred. Hughes suggests that the "Lady" has not listened, and could be successful if she did:
But if she was to listen I bet she'd hear Way up in the treble The tingle of a tear.
However, the final exclamation ("Be-Bach!") suggests that her pretense makes a mockery of her own people's language in combining the phrase be-bop with the classical composer from another culture, mocking the pretension of her position and making it seem ludicrous.
"Easy Boogie" and "Lady's Boogie" also begin to deal with the relationships between the performer/creator, his instrument, and his creation, as they relate to the underlying desires and feelings of blacks. Although the "boogie-woogie rumble of a dream deferred" played "underneath" on the bass keys of a piano had already been introduced in "Dream Boogie," "Easy Boogie" further connects the bass rumble with something "down," something "underneath," something sexual, something elemental. It is the walking bass of solidarity:
Down in the bass That steady beat Walking, walking, walking Like marching feet.
This solidarity is connected, through repetition and parallel sentence structure, with the feeling of the soul:
Down in the bass that steady roll, Rolling like I like it In my soul.
Conversely, "Lady's Boogie" deals with the speaker's attitude toward a woman who has allowed the pretensions of "society" to interfere with her realizations about the problems of her people. This woman's mind is linked to the notes played in the treble on the piano:
See that lady Dressed so fine She ain't got boogie-woogie On her mind— But if she was to listen I bet she'd hear Way up in the treble The tingle of a tear.
Once again the lines relate through their parallel structures: the lady whose pretensions prevent her from "hearing," being aware; who concentrates on appearances rather than sounds, messages; who doesn't listen to the agent that would "enlighten" her, the treble improvisations; whose mind refuses her emotional involvement with the boogie-woogie message. Hughes is, in effect, replicating the amazing dexterity and remarkable rhythmic diversity of the boogie-woogie pianist: he is combining the rumbling, infectious bass beat and rhythm with treble variations and improvisations, relating the former to the "soul" and action, and the latter to the mind and thought of the "movement" to foster awareness of the problems of black people in terms of the deferred dream. The staccato alliteration is particularly effective in "Lady's Boogie," "Boogie 1 a.m." ("trilling the treble"), and "Dream Boogie: Variation" ("tinkling treble"), particularly when picked out over the momentum of the rolling bass.
These treble and bass patterns are used to introduce and indeed are a part of the compelling unifying image of the poems:
Trilling the treble And twining the bass Into midnight ruffles of cat-gut lace.
Here the right-hand treble notes and the left-hand bass notes are united in performance, just as the mind and soul or thought and feeling of blacks are meant to be united in a common cause: the recognition of the dream deferred and the organization into a unified front to confront the problems of blacks in America. Hughes did not want to overemphasize the bass/sex/soul of the second poem of the sequence, "Easy Boogie"; neither did he want to concentrate exclusively on the treble/inhibitions/mind of the fourth poem, "Lady's Boogie." It was the poem in between, "Boogie 1 a.m.," that presented the "unified sensibility" for which Hughes aimed and that combined the bass and treble into a single compelling image.
The image itself at once suggests several things: ruffles and lace both suggest the delicate trimming of clothing; however, to be ruffled is to become disturbed, and to ruffle is to cause disturbances, as in water; the lace becomes something to hold things together in light of the "cat-gut" prefix. All these combine to suggest a decorative appearance tied to an underlying disquietedness. The "midnight" of "midnight ruffles" identifies the revelation as a black one and places the revelation at nighttime—the time of dreams and nightmares.
A variation of the image returns in "Nightmare Boogie," which follows "Lady's Boogie" and, with "Dream Boogie: Variation," helps emphasize the dream theme at the end of the sequence. "Nightmare Boogie" deals with the collective loss of black identity:
I had a dream and I could see a million faces black as me! A nightmare dream:Quicker than lightAll them facesTurned dead white!
This sentiment is a magnification of the problem recognized in "Lady's Boogie," where the "lady" has lost the ability to hear and understand cultural messages. In "Nightmare" Hughes identifies the instantaneous loss of black identity as a phenomenon that occurred more quickly than it could be recognized, more quickly than it could be exposed, thus stressing the urgency of black identity, pride, and unity. What is important here is that the first four lines have a direct parallel relationship to lines five through eight: the dream of line one is the nightmare of line five; the seeing of line two is the revelation of line six; the faces of lines three and seven and the colors of lines four and eight define whether the event was a dream or a nightmare. At the climax of the metamorphosis from black to white, from dream to nightmare, Hughes eschews a smooth transition, generating a "whirling" midnight incantation, as if awakening to a real solution:
Boogie-woogie, Rolling bass, Whirling treble Of cat-gut lace.
This variation on the lines of "Boogie 1 a.m." labels the dream deferred as a nightmare that leads to a racial identity, resolvable only by hearing and understanding the "message" of boogie-woogie.
In contrast to the nightmare of the dream deferred, the black pride/identity "movement," the marching, walking feet of "Dream Boogie" and "Easy Boogie," is a whirling awakening to a new dream, which forms a very natural sequence to "Dream Boogie: Variation"—the final poem of the entire sequence—and a counterpoint to "Dream Boogie," the first. Whereas "Dream Boogie" is an upbeat, urgent poem, "Variation" is much more sad and subdued: the portrait of the boogie-woogie pianist, performing his music, his piano screaming for him under his lone stomping feet, his eyes misting at the prospect of having missed his chance at freedom. Here, however, the "midnight ruffles of / cat-gut lace" of the "Boogie 1 a.m." quatrain, and the "Whirling treble / of cat-gut lace" of the "Nightmare Boogie" quatrain become "High noon teeth / In a midnight face," identifying the central idea and image of the poems with the actual facial features and identity of the performer, the creator, the one closest to the music itself. Hughes is emphasizing here how easy it is for an individual to fail to recognize the dream deferred, the nightmare as it relates to the individual himself. The final image is not the jive-talking, energetic persona of "Dream Boogie"; it is the embodiment of the boogie-woogie tradition, alone and too late, playing the wistful boogie of freedom deferred.
By varying and manipulating the rhythm, words, imagery, moods, and themes of these poems, Hughes has illuminated the issue of the dream deferred from different emotional perspectives. By employing folk culture so well, he in effect gives his poems traditional authority, makes them unadulteratedly black, and establishes a continuity that makes them seem to express the ideas of the people for the people.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6687
SOURCE: "Langston Hughes and Approaches to Modernism in the Harlem Renaissance," in The Harlem Renaissance: Revaluations, Garland Publishing, 1989, pp. 49-72.
[In the following essay, Rampersad argues that Hughes's use of the blues form in his poetry places him in the modernist tradition.]
In 1936, certainly after the end of the Harlem Renaissance, one highly literate young black student, a junior at Tuskegee Institute, saw no connection between modernism and black American verse even as he recognized a link between modernism and black culture. "Somehow in my uninstructed reading of Pound and Eliot," he later wrote, "I had recognized a relationship between modern poetry and jazz music, and this led me to wonder why I was not encountering similar devices in the work of Afro-American writers." In 1936, however, the youth came across a poem by a young black Communist based in Chicago, published in New Masses. Although the poem "was not a masterpiece," he would write, at last "I found in it traces of the modern poetic sensibility and techniques that I had been seeking."
The student was Ralph Ellison; the Communist poet, Richard Wright. The point is that Ellison, following the Harlem Renaissance, could see nothing of literary modernism in its writing, but had to depend for a glimpse of modernism in black poetry on a writer who not only had nothing to do with either Harlem or its Renaissance, but would the following year, 1937, dismiss virtually all of black writing. "Generally speaking." Wright declared (without offering an exception), "Negro writing in the past has been confined to humble novels, poems, and plays, prim and decorous ambassadors who went a-begging to white America." Wright knew well that ambassadors speak typically in archaic, sanctioned formulae; in general, they initiate nothing, make nothing new.
The writers of the Harlem Renaissance apparently had not responded to Emerson's primal dictum that "the experience of each new age requires a new confession, and the world seems always waiting for its poet." Or had they? Let us resolve modernism into a series of questions aimed at these writers. Did they sense some historic shift in the world that justified Pound's famous charge to writers to "Make it new!"? Did they perceive a crisis of expression, a need to, again in Pound's words, "resuscitate the dead art / Of poetry?" Had blacks made a pact with Walt Whitman, as Pound had done ("I make a pact with you, Walt Whitman—/ I have detested you long enough")? Did they perceive the modern dominance of science and technology as requiring a self-preserving, adaptive response by art, in order to make something, in Frost's phrase, of "a diminished thing?" Did they recognize a crisis in the loss of prestige by religion? Or were the black writers of the Harlem Renaissance merely, as Ellison and Wright would have us believe, dull and uninspired imitators of mediocre white writers?
I would argue that writers such as Jean Toomer, Countee Cullen, Langston Hughes, Claude McKay, Wallace Thurman, Richard Bruce Nugent, and Zora Neale Hurston were as aware as anyone else about the pressure of the modern on their lives and their art. Of course, to be aware of a situation does not mean that one acts responsibly; to act responsibly does not guarantee success. My purpose here is to look at some of the ways in which black writers engaged or failed to engage various compelling aspects of the age in which they lived. Perhaps we can thus learn something about the Renaissance, and perhaps even about modernism itself.
The movement toward the modern in black letters began, in fact, a generation before the Harlem school, when Afro-American poetry was dominated by the work, in standard English but more popularly in dialect form, of Paul Laurence Dunbar. By 1900 (he would die six years later) Dunbar's poetry enjoyed a national vogue; as a boy, for example, William Carlos Williams read the black poet as a matter of course. To Dunbar himself, however, and to at least one other black writer, James Weldon Johnson, dialect poetry, and thus Afro-American poetry, was a dead art. In it, "darkies" most often either sang, danced, ate, and stole comically, or they mourned some minor loss pathetically. Dunbar's verse led William Dean Howells to note "a precious difference of temperament between the races which it would be a great pity to lose," and to see "the range between appetite and emotion, with certain lifts far beyond and above it," as the range of the black race. Such a reaction made Dunbar despair, without showing him a way out of his dilemma. "He sang of life, serenely sweet, / With, now and then, a deeper note," he wrote once about himself. "He of love when earth was young, / And Love, itself, was in his lays. / But ah, the world, it turned to praise / A jingle in a broken tongue."
The first step in the resuscitation of black poetry came late in the summer of 1900, when Dunbar's friend and admirer James Weldon Johnson at last read the work of a white writer who had died during the previous decade. "I was engulfed and submerged by the book, and set floundering again," Johnson later recalled in his autobiography, Along This Way:
I got a sudden realization of the artificiality of conventionalized Negro dialect poetry: of its exaggerated geniality, childish optimism, forced comicality and mawkish sentiment…. I could see that the poet writing in the conventionalized dialect, no matter how sincere he might be, was dominated by his audience; that his audience was a section of the white American reading public; that when he wrote he was expressing what often bore little relation, sometime no relation at all, to actual Negro life; that he was really expressing only certain conceptions about Negro life that his audience was willing to accept and ready to enjoy; that, in fact, he wrote mainly for the delectation of an audience that was an outside group. And I could discern that it was on this line that the psychological attitude of the poets writing in the dialect and that of the folk artists faced in different directions; because the latter, although working in the dialect, sought only to express themselves for themselves, and to their own group.
Thus Johnson laid bare the central dilemma facing not merely Dunbar but all black writers in America. The white poet was, of course, Walt Whitman, with whom Johnson made a pact more than a dozen years before Pound did. Neither Johnson nor Pound, however, would have been sensitive to Whitman had it not been for altering social and historical conditions that first gradually, then torrentially, made Whitman's insights into social meaning and poetic form shine forth. For Pound, the twin factors were, perhaps, science and technology, on one hand, and the Great War on the other. I suspect that in 1900, when Johnson first read Whitman, science meant relatively little to him as a threat, and the Great War was still more than a dozen years away. Or was it? For blacks, there was another great war, one that saw in the 1890s (the "nadir" of Afro-American history, as Rayford Logan has called it) racial segregation and black disfranchisement made law by the Supreme Court and enforced brutally by the Ku Klux Klan. In Along This Way, Johnson's discussion of Leaves of Grass follows immediately on his horrified recollection of the fourth major race riot in the history of blacks in New York, occurring in 1900 and capping a decade in which almost 1700 blacks had been lynched, "numbers of them with a savagery that was satiated with nothing short of torture, mutilation, and burning alive at the stake." This was for blacks the "Great War," compared to which their involvement in the later carnage in Europe was almost a form of affirmative action—affirmative action with a vengeance, if you will. Every major American war from the Revolution to Vietnam, it must be remembered, has led to a material advance in the freedom of black Americans.
That this pressure had its effect on poetic form among blacks is independently demonstrated in the sometime poetry of the scholar-turned-protagonist, W.E.B. DuBois. In DuBois's verse we see rage against racism making the tropes of traditional poetic discourse impossible, and pushing his pen, willy-nilly, toward free verse and liberated rhyme in a series of poems, such as "A Litany of Atlanta," "The Burden of Black Women," "Song of the Smoke," and "Prayers of God," published in the first two decades of this century. When the war in Europe came, it only added to the pressure toward the modern. "We darker men said," DuBois wrote in his essay "The Souls of White Folk," "This is not Europe gone mad; this is not aberration nor insanity; this is Europe; this seeming Terrible is the real soul of white culture,—stripped and visible today. This is where the world has arrived—these dark and awful depths and not the shining and ineffable heights of which it boasted."
By this time, at least one younger black writer had taken black poetry closer to the modern. In 1912 Fenton Johnson's first book of verse, A Little Dreaming, was conventional and included both a long poem in blank verse and Dunbaresque dialect verse. Within two or three years, however, he had completely renovated his sense of poetry. In Visions of Dusk (1915) and Songs of the Soil (1916) he not only adopted free verse but altered his ways of viewing civilization itself. Instead of glorifying white high culture, Fenton Johnson spurned it, as Pound would do in writing of Europe as "an old bitch gone in the teeth," and "a botched civilization." Unlike Pound, however, Fenton Johnson did so from an unmistakably racial perspective:
I am tired of work; I am tired of building up some body else's civilization. Let us take a rest, M'Lissy Jane. I will go down to the Last Chance Saloon, drink a gallon or two of gin, shoot a game or two of dice and sleep the rest of the night on one of Mike's barrels. You will let the old shanty go to rot, the white people's clothes turn to dust, and the Cavalry Baptist Church sink to the bottomless pit…. Throw the children into the river; civilization has given us too many. It is better to die than it is to grow up and find out that you are colored. Pluck the stars out of the heavens. The stars mark our destiny. The stars marked my destiny. I am tired of civilization.
In "The Banjo Player," the speaker wanders the land playing "the music of the peasant people." He is a favorite in saloons and with little children. "But I fear that I am a failure. Last night a woman called me a troubadour. What is a troubadour?" "The Scarlet Woman," who possesses "a white girl's education and a face that enchanted the men of both races," spurns classical mythic language and enters a bordello for white men: "Now I can drink more gin than any man for miles around. Gin is better than all the water in Lethe."
Fenton Johnson was so close to the center of the Chicago manifestation of modernism, which is to say the center of literary modernism except for wherever Ezra Pound happened to be at the moment, that it is unclear how much he owes to the more famous poets he resembles in his work—Carl Sandburg, whose groundbreaking Chicago and Other Poems appeared in 1916, and Edgar Lee Masters in his Spoon River Anthology (1915). Johnson published in Harriet Monroe's Poetry magazine and at least one other important modernist outlet, Others. One point must be noted, however, about the work thus far of Fenton Johnson, James Weldon Johnson, and DuBois. For all its incipient modernism, their verse betrays no sign of any specific innovative formal influence by the culture, or subculture, they championed. Indignation at the treatment of blacks moved them to change as poets; black culture itself did not. This was the crucial hurdle facing would-be black modernists.
Yet another poet to balk at the highest fence was Claude McKay, the Jamaican-born writer who first gained notice in the United States in 1917, when he published two sonnets in Seven Arts magazine. Subsequent publications in Pearson's, Max Eastman's Liberator (where he would serve as an associate editor), and the leading black journals, such as the radical socialist Messenger and DuBois's Crisis, as well as in prestigious English publications, such as C.K. Ogden's Cambridge Magazine, made him for a while the most respected of Afro-American versifiers. Two volumes of verse, Spring in New Hampshire (London, 1920), with an introduction by I.A. Richards, and Harlem Shadows (Harcourt, Brace, 1922) anchored his reputation. For black Americans, however, McKay's single most impressive publication was not one of his lyric evocations of nature but a sonnet published in 1919, following perhaps the bloodiest summer of anti-black riots since the end of the Civil War. In "If We Must Die," McKay implored his readers not to die "like hogs / Hunted and penned in an inglorious spot" but to "nobly die, / So that our precious blood may not be shed / In vain." Even if death is certain, "Like men we'll face the murderous, cowardly pack, / Pressed to the wall, dying, but fighting back."
With McKay and "If We Must Die," we come not only directed to the Harlem school but also to one of its principal tensions—that between radicalism of political and racial thought, on the one hand, and, on the other, a bone-deep commitment to conservatism of form. As a poet, McKay was absolutely ensnared by the sonnet, which—for all the variety possible within its lines—is perhaps the most telling sign of formal conservatism in the writing of poetry in English. Perhaps no greater tension exists in a brief Afro-American text than that between the rage of "If We Must Die" and the sonnet form. McKay used the form again and again to write some of the most hostile verse in Afro-American letters, as in "To the White Fiends" ("Think you I am not a fiend and savage too? / Think you I could not arm me with a gun / And shoot down ten of you for every one / Of my black brothers murdered, burnt by you?" and in "The White House," or "Tiger," where "The white man is a tiger at my throat, / Drinking my blood as my life ebbs away, / And muttering that his terrible striped coat / Is Freedom's."
McKay was not alone in his commitment to conservative forms even in the postwar modernist heyday. If the work of Countee Cullen, a far younger writer, was more varied than McKay's, his formal conservatism was as powerful. Cullen's idols were John Keats ("I cannot hold my peace, John Keats; / There never was a spring like this"), and A.E. Housman, still alive but moribund surely when one considers the distance between his blue remembered hills and the steamy streets of Harlem. And unlike McKay, who wrote of both race and "universal" topics without a sense of contradiction, Cullen resented the inspiration that came from racial outrage. In a novel, One Way to Heaven (1932), he satirized a black woman who insists upon teaching her students verse by Langston Hughes. "While her pupils could recite like small bronze Ciceros, 'I Too Sing America'," the narrator jibes, "they never had heard of 'Old Ironsides,' "The Blue and the Gray,' or 'The Wreck of the Hesperides.' They could identify lines from Hughes, Dunbar, Cotter, and the multitudinous Johnsons, but were unaware of the contributions of Longfellow, Whittier, and Holmes to American literature." Elsewhere he ridicules a poem by a so-called "Negro poet." "Taken in a nutshell," a character explains scornfully, "it means that niggers have a hell of a time in this God-damned country. That's all Negro poets write about." In perhaps his best-known couplet, Cullen lamented "this curious thing: / To make a poet black, and bid him sing!"
Exactly why McKay and Cullen stuck by conservative forms in the midst of a decade of change is too complicated a question to answer here. But we might take note of one or two points. If McKay was a radical socialist and an anti-modernist, he was in line with a tradition of taste among great radicals from Marx to Lenin, who fomented revolution but clung to the classics like bourgeois intellectuals. "I am unable to consider the productions of futurism, cubism, expressionism and other isms," Lenin wrote privately somewhere. "I do not understand them. I get no joy from them." In addition, McKay was in line with the very philosophy of Marxism, which defines the world in a way diametrically opposed to modernism; Marxism and modernism are poles apart.
Langston Hughes, in opening his Nation essay in 1926, "The Negro and the Racial Mountain," bluntly attacked Cullen's dilemma without naming him. He wrote about a black friend, a writer, who wished to be known not as a Negro poet, but as a poet. "Meaning subconsciously," Hughes wrote, "'I would like to be white.'" Cullen might have defended himself by quoting T.S. Eliot on tradition—or, if you permit an anachronism—by quoting Ralph Ellison, who would distinguish between (on one hand) his ancestors—T.S. Eliot and Hemingway, above all, who strongly influenced him, and (on the other) his family, such as Richard Wright and Langston Hughes, who apparently influenced him not at all. But Cullen was not Eliot nor could ever be. Eliot spoke up for the power of dead poets on aesthetic grounds, but the choice of white ancestors over black relatives cannot ever be, to say the least, a purely aesthetic matter. In addition, one must be wary of the motives of anyone, of any color, who exalts his ancestors at the expense of his family.
Let us turn from the most conservative members of the Harlem school to probably the least conservative according to modernist standards—Jean Toomer and Richard Bruce Nugent. Toomer's Cane, a pastiche of fiction, poetry, drama, and hieroglyphics published in 1923, has been hailed almost invariably as the greatest single document of the Renaissance. Bruce Nugent's published work in the 1920s was scant but very striking, especially the hallucinogenic, stream-of-consciousness story "Smoke, Lilies and Jade," which was too quickly compared by at least one review of FIRE!! magazine, where it first appeared in 1926, to Ulysses. Is it significant that Toomer and Nugent, the most modernist of the black writers, were also probably the least racial either personally or in their writing? From the start, Nugent seemed to consider race a great irrelevancy. And while Jean Toomer's Cane is saturated with a concern for race and the complex fate of being black in America, even as his book was appearing the extremely light-skinned Toomer was vehemently denying that he was a Negro—an attitude that only intensified over the years as his writing became more modernist and purged of the racial theme. Bruce Nugent, one black modernist, says that race doesn't matter; Toomer, another, says that race doesn't matter as long as nobody calls him black. Are we to conclude, then, that modernism and black racial feeling, with its political consequences, are incompatible?
It might be useful here to look at the work of Melvin B. Tolson, who began writing at the tail end of the Renaissance with a limited sense of the modern, but grew to be acclaimed as the first authentic black modernist poet. Tolson was the author of A Gallery of Harlem Portraits, posthumously published but in manuscript form by 1931; the Marxist-influenced Rendezvous with America (1944); and a deeply modernist Libretto for the Republic of Liberia (1953), among other works. Beginning with the sense of the modern derived from Edwin Arlington Robinson and Carl Sandburg, Tolson repudiated their blending of free verse, highly accessible language, and folk references in order to master the most complex version of modernism. The result was poetry beyond the ability of all but a few readers to understand, let alone enjoy. This new poetry, however, tremendously excited those privileged few, including the reformed racist Allen Tate, who in 1931 refused to attend a dinner for Langston Hughes and James Weldon Johnson in Nashville because they were black, but lived to write an introduction in 1953 to Librello for the Republic of Liberia. Tolson not only showed a "first rate intelligence at work from first to last," Tate marveled, but for "the first time, it seems to me, a Negro poet has assimilated completely the full poetic language of his time, and by implication, the language of the Anglo-American tradition." As if that were not praise enough, William Carlos Williams found a place of honor for Tolson, and Allen Tate, in the fourth book of Paterson:
—and to Tolson and to his ode and to Liberia and to Allen Tate (give him credit) and to the South generally"Selahl"
Thus encouraged, Tolson deepened his commitment to modernism with Harlem Gallery: Book I. The Curator (1965). In his introduction to the book, however, Karl Shapiro questioned Tate's statement that Tolson was indebted to white modernist masters and their special language. "Tolson writes in Negro," Shapiro declared. Let me quote some lines from the first stanza of the book:
Lord of the House of Flies, jaundiced-eyed, synapses purled, wries before the tumultuous canvas,The Second of May— by Goya: the dagger of Madrid vs. the scimitar of Murat. In Africa, in Asia, on the Day of Barricades, alarm birds bedevil the Great White World, a Burdian's ass—not Balaam's—between oats and hay.
Any Negro who speaks naturally like this is probably wearing a straightjacket. In its stated themes, the poem justifies Tolson's continuing sense of himself as a champion of his fellow blacks and their history; in its full language, it repudiates that sense. A while ago, Toomer and Nugent led me to ask whether modernism can be compatible with strong racial feeling. Tolson leads me to understand that complex modernism cannot be so compatible. Racial feeling, which is spurious unless accompanied by a deep sense of political wrong, demands an accessible art; the more pervasive the political wrong, the more accessible must be the art. Melvin Tolson may be on his way to Mount Olympus, but only at the expense of his people and their common poets, washed up on the shores of oblivion while the mighty modernist river rolls by.
When we drive by the scene of an accident, we feel the pain of broken bones and flowing blood. We tremble, but we drive on, unscathed and unstained. Are all of us integral victims of the accident of modernism (which followed the accident of World War I)? Or are some of us only rubbernecking? Must we assume that what is modern for the white goose is also modern for the black gander, that the dominant quality of white life in the twentieth century, as perceived by certain great white poets, is the same as the dominant temper for black? Or that the white quality is something to which blacks should have aspired (a tragic attitude, but one to which Jean Toomer, I think, succumbed)? Nor is this a matter of black and white alone. Robert Frost, to my mind, achieved unquestioned greatness swimming against the tide of modernism, ridiculing free verse, gentrifying run-down forms, forging out of a mixture, in which New England regionalism played a very strong part, both a critique of modernism and a body of work beyond easy category.
The major meditative poem by a black writer of the decade, Arna Bontemps's "Nocturne at Bethesda," reveals a black poet "flying low, / I thought I saw the flicker of a wing / Above the mulberry trees; but not again. / Bethesda sleeps. This ancient pool that healed / A host of bearded Jews does not awake…." "Nocturne at Bethesda" is the black counterpart to Wallace Stevens's magnificent "Sunday Morning," in which Stevens dwells on the crisis of spirituality but denies transcendent religion in favor of a future of hedonism: "Supple and turbulent, a ring of men / Shall chant in orgy on a summer morn / Their boisterous devotion to the sun, / Not as a god, but as a god might be, / Naked among them, like a savage source," In "Nocturne at Bethesda," Arna Bontemps, who never outgrew completely the lugubriousness of his Seventh Day Adventism, nevertheless also looks to a new day beyond religion: "Yet I hope, still I long to live. / If there can be returning after death / I shall come back. But it will not be here; / If you want me you must search for me / Beneath the palms of Africa."
The finest black poet of the decade, Langston Hughes, rejected metaphysics and superstition altogether; loyal to perhaps the essential modernist criterion, Hughes for the most part looked not before and after, but at what is. Hughes went in the only direction a black poet could go and still be great in the 1920s: he had to lead blacks, in at least one corner of their lives—in his case, through poetry—into the modern world. His genius lay in his uncanny ability to lead by following (one is tempted to invoke Eliot's image of the poet's mind as a platinum filament), to identify the black modern, recognize that it was not the same as the white modern, and to structure his art (not completely, to be sure, but to a sufficient extent for it to be historic) along the lines of that black modernism.
Modernism began for Hughes on January 1919, a month short of his seventeenth birthday, when the Cleveland Central High School Monthly, in which he had been publishing undistinguished verse for more than a year, announced a long poem "in free verse"—apparently the first in the history of the magazine. "A Song of the Soul of Central" ("Children of all people and all creeds / Come to you and you make them welcome") indicates that Hughes had made his individual pact with Walt Whitman. With Whitman's influence came a break with the genteel tyranny of rhyme and the pieties of the Fireside poets and the majority of black versifiers. Already conscious of himself as a black, however, Hughes could not accept, much less internalize, a vision of the modern defined largely by the fate of Europe after the war. Sharing little or nothing of J. Alfred Prufrock's sense of an incurably diseased world, Hughes looked with indifference on the ruined splendors of the waste land. In practice, modernism for him would mean not Pound, Eliot, or Stevens, but Whitman, Vachel Lindsay, and, above all, Sandburg. The last became "my guiding star." Hughes, however, did not remain star-struck for long; within a year or so he had emancipated himself from direct influence. In one instance, where the well-meaning Sandburg had written: "I am the nigger / Singer of Songs, / Dancer," Hughes had responded with the more dignified (though not superior) "Negro": "I am the Negro: / Black as the night is black, / Black like the depths of my Africa."
The key to his release as a poet was his discovery of the significance of race, as well as other psychological factors (beyond our scope here) that amount to a final admission of his aloneness in the world, with both factors combining to make Hughes dependent on the regard of his race as practically no other black poet has been. He responded by consciously accepting the challenge of Whitman and Sandburg but also by accepting as his own special task, within the exploration of modern democratic vistas in the United States, the search for a genuinely Afro-American poetic form. At the center of his poetic consciousness stood the black masses,
Dream-singers all, Story-tellers, Dancers, Loud laughers in the hands of Fate— My people.
Or, as he soon more calmly, and yet more passionately, would express his admiration and love:
The night is beautiful, So the faces of my people. The stars are beautiful, So the eyes of my people. Beautiful, also, is the sun Beautiful, also, are the souls of my people.
Before he was nineteen, Hughes had written at least three of the poems on which his revered position among black readers would rest. The most important was "The Negro Speaks of Rivers" ("I've known rivers: / I've known rivers ancient as the world and older than the flow of human blood in human veins. / My soul has grown deep like the rivers.") "When Sue Wears Red" drew on the ecstatic cries of the black church to express a tribute to black woman unprecedented in the literature of the race.
When Susanna Jones wears red Her face is like an ancient cameo Turned brown by the ages. Come with a blast of trumpets, Jesus!…
The third major poem of this first phase of Hughes's adult creativity was "Mother to Son," a dramatic monologue that reclaimed dialect (Dunbar's "jingle in a broken tongue") for the black poet ("Well, son, I'll tell you: / Life for me ain't been no crystal stair. / It's had tacks in it, / And splinters"). With this poem and the resuscitation of dialect, Hughes came closer than any of the poets before him to what I have identified as the great hurdle facing the committed black poet-how to allow the race to infuse and inspire the very form of a poem, and not merely its surface contentions. Until this step could be taken, black poetry would remain antiquarian, anti-modern.
To a degree greater than that of any other young black poet, however, Hughes trained himself to be a modern poet—I am conscious here of Pound's words on the general subject, and on Eliot in particular. His high school, dominated by the children of east European immigrants, and where he was class poet and editor of the yearbook, was a training ground in cosmopolitanism. Mainly from Jewish classmates, "who were mostly interested in more than basketball and the glee club," he was introduced to basic texts of radical socialism. Although at 21 he began his first ocean voyage by dumping overboard a box of his books, the detritus of his year at Columbia (he saved only one book—Leaves of Grass: "That one I could not throw away"), it was not out of ignorance of what they might contain. "Have you read or tried to read," he wrote in 1923 to a friend, "Joyce's much discussed 'Ulysses'?" By the age of 23 he could speak both French and Spanish. In 1923 he was writing poems about Pierrot (a black Pierrot, to be sure), after Jules Laforgue, like Edna St. Vincent Millay in Aria da Capo, and another young man who would soon concede that he was a poet manqué and turn to fiction to confront the gap between lowly provincialism and modernism—William Faulkner. If Hughes went to Paris and Italy without finding the Lost Generation, at least he was able in 1932 to assure Ezra Pound (who had written to him from Rappallo to complain about the lack of instruction in African culture in America) that "Many of your poems insist on remaining in my head, not the words, but the mood and the meaning, which, after all, is the heart of a poem."
Hughes also shared with white modernists, to a degree far greater than might be inferred from his most popular poems, an instinct toward existentialism in its more pessimistic form. One poem, written just before his first book of poems appeared in 1926, suggests the relative case with which he could have taken to "raceless" modernist idioms. From "A House in Toas":
Thunder of the Rain GodAnd we threeSmitten by beauty.Thunder of the Rain God:And we threeWeary, weary.Thunder of the Rain GodAnd you, she and IWaiting for the nothingness….
Hughes, however, had already committed himself to a very different vision of poetry and the modern world, a vision rooted in the modern black experience and expressed most powerfully and definitively in the music called blues. What is the blues? Although W.C. Handy was the first musician to popularize it, notably with St. Louis Blues, the form is so deeply based in the chants of Afro-American slave labor, field hollers, and sorrow songs as to be ancient and comprises perhaps the greatest art of Africans in North America. Oral and improvisational by definition, the blues nevertheless has a classical regimen. Its most consistent form finds a three-line stanza, in which the second line restates the first, and the third provides a contrasting response to both. "The blues speak to us simultaneously of the tragic and the comic aspects of the human condition," Ralph Ellison has written; they must be seen "first as poetry and as ritual," and thus as "a transcendence of those conditions created within the Negro community by the denial of social justice." "It was a language," Samuel Charters asserts in The Legacy of the Blues, "a rich, vital, expressive language that stripped away the misconception that the black society in the United States was simply a poor, discouraged version of the white. It was impossible not to hear the differences. No one could listen to the blues without realizing that there were two Americas."
A long brooding on the psychology of his people, and a Whitmanesque predisposition to make the native languages of America guide his art, led Hughes early in 1923 to begin his greatest single literary endeavor: his attempt to resuscitate the dead art of an American poetry and culture by invoking the blues (exactly as George Gershwin, the following year, would try to elevate American music in his Rhapsody in Blue). If Pound had looked in a similar way, at one point, to the authority of the Provincial lyric of the middle ages, Hughes could still hear the blues in night clubs and on street corners, as blacks responded in art to the modern world. At the very least, Pound and Hughes (and Whitman) shared a sense that poetry and music were intimately related. To Hughes, black music at its best was the infallible metronome of racial grace: "Like the waves of the sea coming one after another, always one after another, like the earth moving around the sun, night, day—night, day—night, day—forever, so is the undertow of black music with its rhythm that never betrays you, its rooted power." In the blues, in its mixture of pain and laughter, its lean affirmation of humanity in the face of circumstance, all in a secular mode (no "shantih, shantih" here; no brand plucked from the "burning!"), he found the tone, the texture, the basic language of true black modernism. A line from the epigraphic note to the volume says it all: "The mood of the Blues is almost always despondency, but when they are sung people laugh."
Over a period of five years, starting some time around 1922, he slowly engaged the blues as a literary poet, first describing the blues from a distance, then enclosing the blues within a traditional poem, as he did in the prizewinning "The Weary Blues" ("Droning a drowsy syncopated tune, / Rocking back and forth to a mellow croon, / I heard a Negro play"), until, at last, in his most important collection, Fine Clothes to the Jew (1927), he proposed the blues exclusively on its own terms by writing in the form itself, alone. Thus he acknowledge at last the full dignity of the people who had invented it.
Savagely attacked in black newspapers as "about 100 pages of trash [reeking] of the gutter and sewer," containing "poems that are insanitary, insipid, and repulsing," this book nevertheless was Hughes's greatest achievement in poetry, and remarkable by almost any American standard, as the literary historian Howard Mumford Jones recognized in a 1927 review. "In a sense," Jones wrote of Hughes, "he has contributed a really new verse form to the English language."
More important, blues offered, in a real sense, a new mode of feeling to the world (Eudora Welty has reminded us that literature teaches us how to feel) and a new life to art. To probe this point we would have to make a fresh reading of art and culture in the 1920s, for which I do not have the time or, truly, the skills. But instead of dismissively talking about the jazz age we would have to see that 1920, when the first commercial recording of a black singer, Mamie Smith's Crazy Blues, appeared, was perhaps as important a year for some people (certainly the millions of blacks who bought blues records in the decade, and the millions of whites down to our day who would thereafter sing and dance to the blues and its kindred forms) as was 1922, the year of Eliot's The Waste Land, for other people. We would see Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue, premiered at Paul Whiteman's concert "An Experiment in Modern Music" in New York in 1924, as a modern American landmark that is in fact an alternative to the spirit of European modernism. We might go further, not simply to the work of other musicians such as Stravinsky and Bartok and Aaron Copeland but also to the work of writers like Faulkner, whose genius was emancipated in The Sound and the Fury, I would suggest, by a balance between the modernism of Joyce, which dominates the first section of the novel, and the counter-modernism of the blues, which dominates the last in spite of the religious overtones there, and in spite of Faulkner's ultimate unwillingness to take on the consciousness of a black character whose life is informed by the blues. To me, it is instructive that Joycean technique facilitates the utterance of the idiot, Benjy, but that the blues temper informs the most affirmative section of the book, that dominated by black Dilsey Gibson and her people ("they endured").
Far from suggesting that only Langston Hughes in the Harlem Renaissance discovered the black modern, I see the whole Harlem movement as struggling toward its uncovering. Why? Because it was inescapable; it was what the masses lived. In one sense, reductive no doubt, the Harlem Renaissance was simply an attempt by the artists to understand blues values and to communicate them to the wider modern world.
Finally, I would suggest that this question of modernism, and Hughes's place in it, needs to be seen in the context not merely of Harlem but of international cultural change in the twentieth century. By the age of twenty-one, he belonged already to an advanced guard of writers, largely from the yet unspoken world outside Europe and North America, that would eventually include Neruda of Chile, the young Borges of Argentina (who translated "The Negro Speaks of Rivers" in 1931), Garcia Lorca of Spain (see his "El Rey de Harlem"), Jacques Roumain of Haiti (see his poem "Langston Hughes"), Senghor of Senegal (who would hail Hughes in 1966 as the greatest poetic influence on the Negritude movement), Césaire of Martinique, Damas of French Guyana, and Guillen of Cuba (who freely asserted in 1930 that his first authentically Cuban or "Negro" poems, the eight pieces of Molivos de Son, were inspired by Hughes's visit to Havana that year). To these names should be added painters such as Diego Rivera, following his return from Paris in 1923, and his friends Orozco and Siquieros.
The collective aim of these writers and artists was to develop, even as they composed in the languages and styles of Europe and faced the challenge of European modernism, an aesthetic tied to a sense of myth, geography, history, and culture that was truly indigenous to their countries, rather than merely reflective of European trends, whether conservative or avant-garde. Finally, let me suggest that Hughes's virtual precedence of place among them has less to do with his date of birth or his individual talent than with the fact that he was the poetic fruition of the Afro-American intellectual tradition, where these questions of race and culture and this challenge to civilization had long been debated, and under the harshest social conditions. In 1910, after all, when DuBois founded Crisis magazine, he gave it a challenging subtitle—but one he had already used for an even earlier publication. He called it "A Record of the Darker Races."
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2345
SOURCE: "Dead Rocks and Sleeping Men: Aurality in the Aesthetic of Langston Hughes," in The Langston Hughes Review, Vol. 11, No. 1, 1992, pp. 1-5.
[In the following essay, Beavers argues that Hughes's role was to amplify the voice of African Americans.]
In his 1940 autobiography, The Big Sea, Langston Hughes discusses the circumstances that lead him, at the puerile age of 19, to the creation of his poem, "The Negro Speaks of Rivers." The poem came into being during a trip to Mexico, Hughes writes, "when [he] was feeling very bad. Thus, he connects poetic inspiration and emotional turbulence, both of which stemmed from his attempt to understand his father's self-hatred. He relates, "All day on the train I had been thinking about my father and his strange dislike of his own people. I didn't understand it because I was a Negro, and I liked Negroes very much." What is striking about the end of this passage is that one finds Hughes adopting a posture both inside and outside the race: he does not make a statement of self-love (e.g. I like myself), rather he indicates through a kind of reflexivity, that he has self-worth. In short, he is unable to articulate self-valuation, he can only construct his positionality as the mirror opposite of his father's racial feeling. But then Hughes shifts the subject and recalls that "one of the happiest jobs [he] ever had," was the time he spent working behind the soda fountain of a refreshment parlor, in "the heart of the colored neighborhood" in Cleveland. He offers this description:
People just up from the South used to come in for ice cream and sodas and watermelon. And I never tired of hearing their talk, listening to thunderclaps of their laughter, to their troubles, to their discussions of the war and the men who had gone to Europe from the Jim Crow South, their complaints over the high rent and the long overtime hours that brought what seemed big checks, until the weekly bills were paid. (my emphasis)
I quote this passage at length to point to the disjointed quality Hughes's narrative assumes. In one chapter, we find the self-hatred of his father, his own admiration for the recuperative powers of newly arrived Southern blacks, and the act of composing a famous poem. The elements that form Hughes's account can be read, at least on a cursory level, as an attempt to demonstrate that his "best poems were written when [he] felt the worst." This notwithstanding, what I would like to propose is that we can place the poem into an aesthetic frame that brings these three disparate elements into a more geometrical alignment.
Hughes's autobiographical account can be found in the middle of a chapter entitled, "I've Known Rivers." Having established his father as someone he neither understands nor wishes to emulate, the autobiography paints the older man as an outsider, not only geographically, but spiritually as well. That Hughes would discuss his father in relation to such an important poem, alludes to body travel of a different sort than that which he undertakes in this chapter of his autobiography. Moving further away from Cleveland, the geographical space where he encountered the individuals he describes as "the gayest and bravest people possible …", Hughes elides the distance his father has put between himself and other blacks. He resists the impulses that lead to the latter's self-imposed exile: he is immersed in a vernacular moment and simultaneously peripheral to that moment. What differentiates the younger Hughes is that he listens to the voices of the folk and is "empowered rather than debilitated" by what he hears.
In composing the poem, Hughes looks at "the great muddy river flowing down toward the heart of the South" (The Big Sea). While he suggests that it is his gaze—looking out of the train window at the Mississippi—that initiates composition, I would assert that what catalyzes his act of writing is the act of recovering the spoken word. A point emphasized, moreover, by the fact that he recounts a moment where he is listener rather than speaker.
Later in the autobiography, Hughes relates, in much less detail, the events which lead to his poem, "The Weary Blues." There, he states, simply: "That winter, I wrote a poem called "The Weary Blues," about a piano-player I heard in Harlem…." Again, Hughes's poetic composition moves forward from an aural moment where, as with "The Negro Speaks of Rivers," he is an outsider. Arnold Rampersad alludes to this when he observes:
… [I]n his willingness to stand back and record, with minimal intervention as a craftsman, aspects of the drama of black religion or black music, Hughes had clearly shown already that he saw his own art as inferior [my emphasis] to that of either black musicians or religionists … At the heart of his sense of inferiority … was the knowledge that he stood to a great extent outside the culture he worshiped.
Rampersad concludes that Hughes's sense of alienation resulted from the fact that "his life had been spent away from consistent, normal involvement with the black masses whose affection and regard he craved."
This trajectory repeats itself in "The Weary Blues." Rampersad intimates as much in his description of the poem's inception: "And then one night in March [of 1922], in a little cabaret in Harlem, he finally wrote himself and his awkward position accurately into a poem [my emphasis]." This assessment calls our attention to an important consideration, namely, that Hughes's aural aesthetic employs the externality he felt in the African American community. That he was a writer and not a musician, preacher, or dancer meant that his artistic project was to record artistic expression, to amplify the African American vernacular speech event for the rest of the world to hear. Further, Hughes's sense that his literary representation of the folk was inferior, mere imitation, in turn means that he was positioned, as artist, at a distance from the "real source," almost as if he were a loudspeaker serving as a medium through which sound travels, rather than the source itself. In becoming comfortable with this role, Hughes traversed repeatedly the conceptual distance necessary to create authentic representations of black speech. Hence, as he achieved a greater place among the African American intellectual elite, the distance increased between him and the masses he sought to portray. Nonetheless, as his aesthetic sensibility crystallized, his conceptual movement was toward them.
This is evidenced by the fact that Hughes's Simple character resulted from a conversation he shared with a factory worker and his girlfriend in a Harlem bar in 1943. Intrigued as he listened to the exchange, Hughes used the qualities he discerned from the conversation to create the character, who first appeared in his column for The Chicago Defender. Constructed as a dialogue between a narrator speaking in standard English and Jesse B. Semple (or Simple), who spoke in a more colorful, Southern idiom, the columns work out Hughes's passionate desire to honor the self-redemptive power found in the African American community. Thus, Simple became a vehicle for giving voice to the nature of his artistic project; indeed, it is he who articulates the necessity, as if it were a constant reminder to Hughes, to listen "eloquently."
If the ability to "listen eloquently" characterizes Hughes's attempts to celebrate "the folk," one also finds him creating stories that illustrate the ways that African American culture is objectified because people, particularly whites, fail to understand what African American voices articulate. In Hughes's collection of stories, The Ways of White Folks, for example, we find stories like "Slaves on the Block," where the Carraways are described as "people who went in for Negroes." When their maid's nephew, Luther, arrives at their home, they are immediately attracted to him as the ultimate exotic. Michael Carraway, as one who thinks "in terms of music," exclaims, "He's 'I Couldn't Hear Nobody Pray." Not only does Hughes suggest that Carraway confuses physicality and spirituality, but the song title signals his lack of aural dexterity as well.
In "The Blues I'm Playing," Mrs. Ellsworth takes on the role of benefactress for Oceola, a young black woman who is a gifted pianist. However, the investment leads her to believe that she can dictate what her protégé will play. Indeed, she can only "hear" Oceola when she plays classical music, despite the fact that she also plays the blues and spirituals. Tension develops between the two when the older woman, "really [begins] to hate jazz, especially on a grand piano." In short, Oceola is mute unless she capitulates to Mrs. Ellsworth's belief that classical music is "superior" to vernacular musical expression.
What both these stories suggest, through their dramatization of white aural incompetence, is that African American culture is self-constituted, discursive, and regenerative. In each, Hughes is positioned at the nexus of the two cultures to mediate the events, to encode what one reads in the stories as aural incompetence. At the end of "The Blues I'm Playing," Mrs. Ellsworth claims that marriage will "take all the music" out of Oceola. The latter responds by playing the blues, which symbolizes her rejection of what Hughes suggests is the bourgeoisie's inclination to compartmentalize experience in order to create art.
Herein lies an important consideration: that Hughes's aesthetic works out a trope that brings internality and externality into a state of opposition. One sees an example of how this unfolds in "The Weary Blues." The speaker in the poem documents the experience of listening to a piano player in Harlem play the blues. Steven Tracy's compelling argument asserts that the piano player and speaker are united by the performance.
I would like to argue to the contrary however. In my view, the poem works out Hughes's apprehension, his feeling that his ability to understand the emotions that generated this form of artistic expression was not on a par with the expression itself. This is indicated by the last line of the poem, where the speaker notes that the piano player "slept like a rock or a man that's dead." The key word here is "or," for it denotes the imprecision of the speaker's understanding. What the blues articulates is the simultaneous presence of the "tragic and comic aspects of the human conditions." Thus, the blues in the poem is not the conventional "either/or" condition configured within the Cartesian construct. Rather, the piano player, by metaphorizing loneliness has already chosen self-recovery. The poem's last line, then, ignores the blues performer's ability to articulate pain and likewise to subsume it. That the speaker and the piano player never meet, or as Tracy asserts, "strike up a conversation, share a drink, or anything else," suggests that the experience does not rupture the speaker's externality. He never enters that space whereby the piano player is speaking for him, giving utterance to his loneliness. Finally, at no point in time does the speaker in the poem insert himself into the lyrics.
What this implies is that "The Weary Blues" can also be read as an anti-Jazz Age poem. That is, a case can be made in which we need not equate the speaker in the poem with Hughes at all. While Hughes obviously had a strong desire to "link the lowly blues to formal poetry," locking him into the poem ignores its efficacy as cultural commentary. Given the increasing number of whites traveling to Harlem to be entertained in clubs like The Cotton Club, the poem can be seen as an attempt on Hughes's part to warn the community that African American expression was being appropriated by mainstream culture.
The poem's structure enables this reading, if only because the speaker "quotes" the lyrics, but never allows his own voice to give way to them. Moreover, the speaker is "Down on Lenox Avenue …" which also, interestingly enough, marks the location of the Cotton Club and thus implies travel from downtown Manhattan. The I/he dichotomy Hughes establishes never collapses, which means that we can read the exteriority of the speaker as that which pertains to someone being entertained, who will leave Harlem after the performance is over. In this respect, the "or" in the last line calls our attention to the slippage that occurs when an understanding of the blues is lacking. That the speaker utters the possibility that the piano player has killed himself illustrates his failure to realize that the blues is performed reflection and not a preface to suicidal behavior.
If we return to the moment in his autobiography where Hughes is headed to Mexico towards his father, what is clear is that he circumvents his father's hatred of blacks by reconstituting the aural joy he feels in their midst. In short, Hughes's aesthetic rests on his need to assure his readership that if his writing spoke, both to and for them, it was because he took great pains to hear them. In his multifarious roles as poet, fiction writer, autobiographer, and columnist, Langston Hughes relates to the African American community as a speaker to be sure, but here the term is dualistic: the term alludes to the act of writing as both composition and amplification. As the Rampersad biography makes very clear, Hughes never elevated books over spoken forms of eloquence and his passion for writing flowed naturally from the fact that he seized every opportunity to posit himself as a listener. The Big Sea begins, after all, with Hughes standing on the deck of the S.S. Malone (his pseudonym for the freighter, West Hesseltine) and throwing books into the sea. [B]ooks had been happening to me," he writes, "I was glad they were gone." What this suggests is that Hughes never wanted to subordinate experience to literacy; books could not replace the value of improvisation. Although their disappearance from his life was temporary, one can imagine that that movement, like so many others in Hughes's life, led him towards what he so dearly loved to do: put his ear to the wind and serve as a witness for all there was to hear.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2803
SOURCE: "Symbolizing America in Langston Hughes's 'Father and Son,'" in The Langston Hughes Review, Vol. 11, No. 1, Spring, 1992, pp. 14-20.
[In the following essay, Hubbard discusses Hughes's observations on the mulatto and the culture of race as depicted in the short story "Father and Son."]
Langston Hughes was haunted by a sense of literal kinship between black and white Americans. His preoccupation shows up in much of his writing, even in the poem "I, Too" with its arresting second line that glosses the experience of blacks in America: "I am the darker brother." This ancient and just claim for recognition and acceptance is rooted in the poet's own biography. On his maternal side, Hughes inherited an enhanced perspective of what it means to be loved in a mixed marriage, wherein the claims of family take precedence over artificial claims such as those of race. His great grandfather, Captain Ralph Quarles, was a white plantation owner who fell in love with Lucy Langston, a slave woman of Indian descent. Quarles had received her as chattel on a promissory note for money borrowed by her former owner, but he soon freed her. The two subsequently lived as a married couple on his Louisa County, Virginia, plantation (such a marriage, of course, was technically illegal). Quarles acknowledged paternity of their four children (unlike the iconoclastic patriarch in Hughes's literary productions), and sent them North to school where they were enrolled in Oberlin College. As a result of Quarles breaking with the accepted code of conduct for slaveholding whites, the entire family was ostracized. When Lucy Langston and Ralph Quarles died, they were buried as husband and wife, side by side on the farm. Their children proved to be even more active in resisting the expectations of a slave society. Charles Langston (1817–1892), Hughes's grandfather, distinguished himself as an abolitionist, educator, and reformer; John Mercer Langston (1829–1897), his renowned uncle, distinguished himself as educator, diplomat, and politician. As a descendent of arguably one of the more prominent black families in nineteenth-century America, Langston Hughes accepted his racial duality as a historical fact, that he did not necessarily reject, but he continually explored the ambiguities of his dual ancestry. These factors help account for Hughes's fascination with the "mulatto" and his unusual treatment of mixed-race characters in his texts.
For over a quarter of a century, Langston Hughes presented the mulatto theme in four different genres, in treatments varying in length from a twelve-line poem to a full-length Broadway play. Reduced to its simplest level, the "tragic mulatto" theme as depicted in American fiction and drama presents a character of a dual ancestry (usually the offspring of a white father and a black mother), who suffers because of difficulties arising from his or her biracial background. In "Cross", his first statement on the as yet unresolved American melodrama of family and race, Hughes renders in three quatrains the mulatto's complaint, his victimization as a result of his divided inheritance:
My old man's a white old man And my old mother's black, If I ever cursed my white old man I take my curses back. If I ever cursed my black old mother And wished she were in hell, I am sorry for that evil wish And now I wish her well. My old man died in a fine big house, My ma died in a shack. I wonder where I'm gonna die, Being neither white nor black? (Selected Poems)
Unlike Jean Toomer and Georgia Douglas Johnson, who celebrated the mulatto as both white and black, Langston Hughes generally portrays the mulatto character as lamenting that he is neither white nor black, which actually fits the dominant ideology better. Hughes's glory, as was the glory of Charles Chesnutt and Paul Laurence Dunbar, was his wish and determination to be American. However, Hughes, unlike Chesnutt, Dunbar and Thomas Nelson Page, is not trapped by an outmoded romanticism. He advances a bold idea that America is far richer and more vibrant as a result of her encounter with Africa.
"Father and Son," the last story in The Ways of White Folks (1934), is the American tragedy of color caste told against the background of an ostensibly idyllic South. Set on the Norwood plantation in south Georgia in the 1930s, "Father and Son" is replete with the classic picture of plantation geography: the Big House, Quarters, and hard working, singing blacks. Somewhat God-like, Colonel Tom Norwood, the patriarch, proudly surveys all that he sees, for all within his purview is his—grounds, buildings, and five children (one dead) by his faithful black mistress of 30 years. Trouble in paradise takes the form of his youngest son—the spitting image of the Colonel—who returns home from Atlanta where he is a student at a black college. Bert Lewis returns to claim title to what he rightfully feels is his: the Norwood name and the rights and privileges attached to it. Try as she might, the despairing mother cannot keep the peace between the self-righteous, stubborn father and the equally stubborn son, who resents the Colonel for refusing to acknowledge him.
Bert Norwood, the intrepid protagonist, is one of a number of complex characters whom Hughes had portrayed, along with Roy Williams in "Home," and Oceola Jones in "The Blues I'm Playing." They resist definitional certainty in that they do not conform to the stereotype of the submissive, fawning "darky." In these three stories, Hughes engaged in a prolonged brooding over the fascinating spectacle of socially constructed existence.
The larger than life struggle between father and son is reinforced by a deeper realism which sees beyond and beneath the exterior world to the hidden reality which is the essence of things. The essence of things refers to the elemental human emotions rendered on an epic scale in white and black, dramatized against the background of fratricidal violence that bathes the beauty of an agrarian South in blood. Ostensibly, Hughes attacks the romantic vision of a verdant South, in which the Civil War is a noble and just cause. The apologists for this ideology do not acknowledge the violence that it takes to make the system work for the few while the many suffer in silence. Against the backdrop of an outdated economic system, one that no longer can sustain itself, Hughes presents us with something else—the denial of kin (whose antecedents have Biblical overtones). The unrecognized son insists on a right to his patrimony, his claim of identity with his father whose racist ideology conflicts with his tabooed interracial desire. Hughes looks behind the stereotype to demystify the mulatto. But the focus of the violence seems to be a family drama, amplified to represent on a larger scale an American tragedy.
The thirty-year relationship between the Colonel and Bert's mother fall outside the boundary that the society deems socially acceptable. It is not sanctioned by official institutions—economic, political, religious; which is to say, it is rendered invisible. Colonel Norwood, regardless of his social standing, does not change the status of his five children by his black mistress. They are black and inferior. It is precisely because of this lineage system, which can be described as descending miscegenation, that the black child inherits a patrimony of failure.
The Colonel cannot publicly acknowledge his black children; to do so would be tantamount to undermining the credibility of the system that empowers him, and which has shaped his image of himself. With a novel twist, Hughes asserts that the fight for the body obscures the real fight—the bastard son's fight for acknowledgment and family. In his adamant denial of any such acknowledgment or identity, the father uses racial rather than family identity as prima-facie evidence of separation. This choice then translates into control of the "black" body as is evident in the Colonel's unmerciful beating of the then 14-year-old Bert for calling him "Papa" in front of his white friends. And the Colonel repeats his threat of beating his now 20-year-old, athletically-gifted son for forgetting his place.
The fight for the body, for the text is the matrix within which all other terms are fleshed and shaped, as the Colonel is acutely aware with his references to Cora about Bert's being "your" not "our" son. In addition, the fight for the body is made manifest in the Colonel's condescending remarks to Cora about his educating her children. The implication is that he, the Lord of the land, gives and can take away as he closed the only public school in the county for black children once Cora's children graduated. That he sends Cora's black children to college in Atlanta is socially acceptable, as they attend segregated and inferior black institutions. Bert's fight for the text—his refusal to be a white folks' nigger—makes him appear, at best, indecently arrogant and, at worst, incurably mad. In a contemplative moment on the train ride home in the Jim Crow car, Bert ponders what it means to be black and the difference between his and his family's response to race:
"It's hell," Bert thought.
Not that Cora's other kids had found it hell. Only he had found it so, strangely enough. "The rest of 'em are too dumb, except little Sallie [two years behind him in college], and she don't say nothing—but it's hell to her, too, I reckon." the boy thought to himself as the train rocked and rumbled over the road. "Willie [the oldest] don't give a damn so long as his belly's full. And Bertha's got up North away from it all. I don't know what she really thought…. But I wish it hadn't happened to me."
The 'it' refers to Bert's acute self-consciousness which, like the mute red-headed baby in the story by the same name, is a synecdoche for the silent black subject trapped in history. One aspect of the racial text imposed on people such as Bert by whites who control the modes of production is a denial of their biracial and bicultural identity. The American racial text does not acknowledge the possibility of a person's being both black and white; it denies any family continuity between the races.
Hughes argues that white men's control of textuality constitutes one of the primary causes of the patrimony of failure. Forced to read texts written by powerful white men, blacks are forced to become characters in those texts. And since the texts written by these men assert as fact what blacks know to be fiction, not only do blacks lose the power that comes from authoring; more significantly, they are forced to deny their own reality and to commit in effect a kind of psychic suicide. Three manifestations of this psychic suicide are: first, the mother's sexual politics to make the quality of life better for her children; second, the nauseating subservience of Bert's oldest brother, Willie, who obediently knows his place; and third, the sister who moved to Chicago to escape from this repressive lifestyle. There is tremendous pressure on them to forget rather than remember the terror that is history. One sees the genesis of the blues in the circumscribed lives of these minor characters.
Determined not to be a "white folks' nigger", the rejected Bert engages in a time honored ritual of trying to displace the father. The mother tries to keep the peace between father and son. The father, for all of his supercilious posturing, finds himself rootless in spirit at the height of what should be his finest hour: the return home of his handsome and debonaire son who is the "spittin' image" of the Colonel. It is ironic that he, one of those who walks proudly in the light, now finds himself walking in the dark. For the better part of the day, Colonel Norwood remains sequestered in his library. In a curious reversal, he finds himself in exile on his own plantation as he experiences the impotence of power. The grotesque emerges in an unexpected form. To maintain his power, prestige, and privilege, Colonel Norwood, who fancies himself a benevolent patriarch, dons his demonic mask. As an archetype of his class, he is orgiastic in his exercise of power. The Lord of the land had become so rich on the backs of his black workers that he could command the "body politic." He sets in motion the legal machinery and public opinion that leads to the death of one son by suicide and the hanging of the other by an enraged mob.
In a variation on the freedom-restraint, flight-pursuit motif that is a recurrent theme in nineteenth-century Southern fiction, Hughes shows how both the father and son take turns being pursuer and pursued. On the day of Bert's homecoming, the secretly proud father retreats to his library, presumably containing many of the great books of western culture, yet he is not inclined to share the culture which he venerates. On another level, as the last of the white Norwoods, the Colonel is engaged in a flight from the new economic reality. He is at the mercy of economic forces that stand ready to gobble him up, as is evident by his concern for the depressed cotton market and the encroachment of industrial capitalism.
With an heightened self-consciousness, Bert returns home to engage in two struggles: the pursuit of that which he can never have—the Norwood name, and the struggle to free himself from being an object possessed or owned by another. Unlike his sister who is two years behind him in college, Bert refuses to suppress his natural personality in his quest for an autonomous self or quietly to accept definitional certainty as a silent subject. In these two interconnected yet distinct struggles, Bert shares the latter with all other black people, while the former stands reserved for those of white patriarchy who want to claim their ancestry. Boldly asserting his claim for full recognition of his bloodlines, Bert terrorizes the black community. The price they pay for his unrelenting quest for freedom is that they live in increased fear for their welfare. In Bert, Hughes anticipates Wright's nihilistic anti-hero, Bigger Thomas.
In "Father and Son," Hughes subverts the romance; the expected closure does not occur. Although there are no white heirs, Bert, the prince charming cannot win a bride and live happily ever after in this Eden kept beautiful by the hard working sons and daughters of Africa. Instead of the suave prince charming, wooing and winning a bride, there are the tragic consequences of filial rejection; Bert kills his gun-toting father with his bare hands in the twilight darkness of the library. He slays no dragons; he wins no honor that is socially approved; he does not become the lord of the estate. Instead of a happily married couple, there is the image of the embittered mother. Cora re-visions history as she redeems the good name of her soon-to-be-dead son. In her monologue directed at the dead man on the floor, she confronts the fiction of race:
"Colonel Tom, you hear me? You said he was ma boy, ma bastard boy. I heard you. But he's your'n too—out yonder in the dark runnin'—from your people."
Cora's lamentation over the imminent death of their son for killing his white father locates her at the intersection of subject and history—a ritual of pain that involves her rebuking the "white-male-is-norm ideology". Speaking as a lover and mother who bore the now dead Colonel five children, she questions her relation to the material conditions that define her and her existence. Like her hunted son, she finds herself at odds with language that arbitrarily privileges her blackness over her humanness.
That there is no romantic interest for the socially accomplished Bert speaks to the ideology that governs the patrimony of failure. Hughes understood that to destroy a people, you first destroy the men. This accounts, in large part, for the absence of stable family relationships in the short fiction of Langston Hughes. Lifting the veil on an ostensibly idyllic South, Hughes reminds us that the practical effect of the patrimony of failure is continued economic and social polarization.
To restate this observation from another angle of vision, Hughes rewrites Booker T. Washington's speech at the Atlanta Cotton States and International Exposition (18 September 1895) in which Washington accepted social and legal segregation but promised racial friendship and cooperation. A people cannot work their way up from slavery if they adhere to an ideology of accommodation, the handmaiden of industrial capitalism in the United States. While he would disagree with the ideology that informs their vision, Hughes would agree with the Agrarians on our need to be careful of an uncritical worship of material progress as an end in itself. From this perspective, Hughes in "Father and Son" gives us a stunning example of one mode of American modernism.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4153
SOURCE: "Rage, Repudiation, and Endurance: Langston Hughes's Radical Writings," in The Langston Hughes Review, Vol. XII, No. 1, Spring, 1993, pp. 31-9.
[In the following essay, DeSantis reveals the ways racial injustice and violence influenced Hughes's writings in the 1930s and 1940s.]
In The Big Sea Langston Hughes laments the close of the 1920s and the first years of the 1930s as the end of the period known as the Harlem Renaissance, a cultural movement of international significance which generated an outpouring of African American art, literature, and criticism. The final chapters of Hughes's autobiography strike a tone of sadness, markedly different from the lively prose describing the writer's early years in vibrant Harlem. Hughes writes: "The generous 1920s were over. And my twenties almost over. I had four hundred dollars and a gold medal." It is fitting that Hughes chose to mention his financial status in closing. With the Depression looming darkly over America, the hands of patrons who sustained many artists during the Harlem Renaissance were withdrawn. The prizes offered to promising writers by African American journals were fewer, and the stipends for submissions were of lesser amounts. Nevertheless, armed with the four hundred dollars that came with the 1931 Harmon Award ("Four hundred dollars! I had never had a job that paid more than twenty-two dollars a week."), Hughes scoffed at the national economic crisis: "… I'd finally and definitely made up my mind to continue being a writer—and to become a professional writer, making my living from writing."
While Hughes was able to adhere to his goal of writing for a living, writing was certainly not the most pressing thing on his mind. The end of the Harlem Renaissance saw an increase in racial violence and economic hardship for the black masses in America. The beatings, lynchings and daily humiliation of segregation which African Americans suffered in the South and elsewhere outraged Hughes. As a member of the African American community Hughes accepted the responsibility to speak out against these injustices in his writing and to fight them in his daily life, at whatever cost to his own personal welfare. The body of writing which resulted from these turbulent years contains the most searing, ironic, and powerful poetry and prose that Hughes ever wrote. Often overlooked by readers and critics, Hughes's radical writings assume great significance when viewed in the context of the ever-increasing racial tensions we are witnessing in the 1990s. It is my intent here to re-introduce some of these works to readers and critics, lest we forget the powerful and far-reaching significance of Langston Hughes's famous question, "What happens to a dream deferred?"
The Scottsboro incident of 1931 set the tone for much of Hughes's radical poetry and prose that would emerge in the following years. The incident involved nine African American teenagers who were jailed in Scottsboro, Alabama, for allegedly raping two white prostitutes in an open railroad freight car. After a trial in Scottsboro, eight of the youths were sentenced to the electric chair and the ninth to life imprisonment. In I Wonder as I Wander Hughes reveals that Ruby Bates, one of the white women involved in the incident, later recanted her rape testimony and admitted that she fabricated the entire story. Arnold Rampersad notes in his biography of Hughes that whereas the NAACP hesitated to react to the indictment against the Scottsboro youths, "the International Labor Defense, the legal defense arm of the Communist Party, threw its energies into appealing the case and mobilizing public support for the defendants." Taking the Scottsboro incident very much to heart, Hughes embraced the Communist Party as the only entity which seemed able, or at least willing, to help the nine youths. Though Hughes never formally joined the Communist Party, Rampersad found evidence to suggest that he served as honorary president of the League of Struggle for Negro Rights, an organization formed by the Communist Party to "bring the race problem into sharper relief."
While Hughes was physically active lecturing and fund-raising on behalf of the youths involved in the Scottsboro Case, he also took a firm stand on the incident in his writing. Two searing essays responded to the call of the nine teenagers imprisoned in the State Penitentiary at Kilby, Alabama. The first, "Southern Gentlemen, White Prostitutes, Mill-Owners, and Negroes," strikes a tone of disgust and defiance as Hughes poses a challenge to the African American community at large and specifically to the black leaders of the NAACP involved with the incident:
But back to the dark millions—black and half-black, brown and yellow, with a gang of white fore-parents—like me. If these twelve million Negro Americans don't raise such a howl that the doors of Kilby Prison shake until the 9 youngsters come out …, then let Dixie justice (blind and syphilitic as it may be) take its course, and let Alabama's Southern gentlemen amuse themselves burning 9 young black boys till they're dead in the State's electric chair. (Good Morning Revolution)
Hughes ends the essay in mock prayer, signifying the bitter irony of the Scottsboro Case in particular and the hypocritical structures of the southern white social order in general: "Dear Lord, I never knew until now that white ladies (the same color as Southern gentlemen) traveled in freight trains … Did you, world?… And who ever heard of raping a prostitute?"
Hughes's second essay on the Scottsboro incident, "Brown America in Jail: Kilby," was written after Hughes paid a visit to the Scottsboro youths while on a speaking tour through the South. Though eager to cheer the young men with some of his more humorous poems, Hughes notes in I Wonder as I Wander that the atmosphere in the prison had a feeling of desperation: "The youngest boy, Andy Wright, smiled. The others hardly moved their heads. Then the minister prayed, but none of the boys kneeled or even changed positions for his prayer. No heads bowed." The essay is marked throughout by a tone of profound sadness and bitterness. Although one of the women involved in the Scottsboro incident recanted her rape testimony under oath, the youths remained in the "death house" of the prison. Where Hughes's first Scottsboro essay struck a tone of defiance and projected hope for justice, the second essay conveys the seeming futility of challenging a brutal and apparently hopeless racial situation in Alabama:
For a moment the fear came: even for me, a Sunday morning visitor, the doors might never open again. WHITE guards held the keys. (The judge's chair protected like Pilate's.) And I'm only a nigger. Nigger. Niggers. Hundreds of niggers in Kilby Prison. Black, brown, yellow, near-white niggers. The guards, WHITE. Me—a visiting nigger (Good Morning Revolution)
Although the tone of the essay is decidedly desperate, Hughes recognizes the Communist Party and a number of revolutionary writers for their interest in helping to change the racial situation in America. Through sarcasm Hughes drives the point home, further strengthening his ties with people and organizations which would prove to shape the nature of his writings in the years preceding the McCarthy hearings:
(Keep silent, world. The State of Alabama washes its hands.) Eight brown boys condemned to death. No proven crime! Farce of a trial. Lies. Laughter. Mob. Music. Eight poor niggers make a country holiday. (Keep silent, Germany, Russia, France, young China, Gorki, Thomas Mann, Romain Rolland, Theodore Dreiser. Pilate washes his hands. Listen Communists, don't send any more cablegrams to the Governor of Alabama. Don't send any more telegrams to the Supreme Court. What's the matter? What's all this excitement about, over eight young niggers? Let the law wash its hands in peace.)
Although at the time of the Scottsboro incident Hughes had achieved a certain degree of fame and was traveling around the country on a successful speaking tour, he realized that celebrity status was no protection against the bloody wrath of racial discrimination. A decade after the Scottsboro case, this proved equally true. "Roland Hayes Beaten (Georgia: 1942)," was written after the world-famous singer walked into a shoe store in Georgia, his home state, and was brutally beaten by a white store clerk. The beating occurred in 1942, during a war which was supposedly being fought to rid the world of racial supremacy, and in which many black soldiers saw active duty. In the poem Hughes addresses the theme of African Americans rising up against the oppression of whites, a theme that would become prevalent in much of his post-Scottsboro writings. He does not focus on details of Hayes's bloody beating here. The power of the poem lies in the juxtaposition of humanity and nature. The comparison plays off of the stereotypical meek, humble, and accommodating nature of African Americans:
Negroes, Sweet and docile, Meek, humble, and kind: Beware the day They change their minds! Wind In the cotton fields, Gentle breeze: Beware the hour It uproots trees! (Selected Poems)
In the poem Hughes alludes to the dispossessed slaves in the Southern fields (the wind; transient and dynamic) and to the plantation overseers (the trees; established and static). Through this analogy Hughes suggests that the same oppression and brutality which resulted in slave revolts exists still, and will be dealt with in a similar manner. Fury will not sprout from the meek and humble, but rather from the oppressed, the brutalized and the displaced. Hughes's message is clear, and the clarity gains passion and fury when we consider other radical writings—often overlooked by readers and critics—written during his distinguished career.
In a scathing essay addressed to the leaders and educators of African American colleges throughout the nation, Hughes asserted that white people could no longer be blamed exclusively for the propagation of Jim Crow ethics and practices. "Cowards from the Colleges," first published in The Crisis in 1934, marked a turning point in Hughes's writing. Though he still concerned himself with documenting folk mannerisms, patterns of speech, and ways of life of common black people, Hughes perceived in the educated black elite an invidious pattern of behavior that seemed to encourage rather than ameliorate the social codes that served to keep the African American community in the margins of American society: "To combine these charges very simply: Many of our institutions apparently are not trying to make men and women of their students at all—they are doing their best to produce spineless Uncle Toms, uninformed, and full of mental and moral evasions" (Good Morning Revolution). In backing up his assertions, Hughes cites two incidents in which blatant racism was glossed over by college administrators worried about the possible danger of offending white patrons of the college. The first incident concerned Juliette Derricotte, the dean of women at Fisk University, who died after an automobile accident because she was refused treatment by white Georgia hospitals. The second incident involved the football coach of Alabama's A&M Institute at Normal, who was beaten to death by a mob in Birmingham while attempting to see his team play. Outraged by the two incidents which occurred during the same weekend, students at Hampton, where Hughes was lecturing at the time, attempted to band together and protest the racial violence. Citing the school's policy of "moving slowly and quietly, and with dignity," Major Brown, the dean of men at Hampton, and an African American, effectively killed the protest. Hughes writes:
On and on he talked. When he had finished, the students knew quite clearly that they could not go ahead with their protest meeting. (The faculty had put up its wall.) They knew they would face expulsion and loss of credits if they did so. The result was that the Hampton students held no meeting of protest over the mob-death of their own alumnus, nor the death on the road … of one of the race's finest young women. The brave and manly spirit of that little group … was crushed by the official voice of Hampton speaking through its Negro Major Brown. (Good Morning Revolution)
Hughes's anger at some of the black leaders and institutions of higher learning did not, of course, go unexpressed in his poetry. Although some of the intellectuals in Harlem during the Renaissance found books such as The Weary Blues and Fine Clothes to the Jew disturbing because of their glamorization of the black working class, those texts did not offend nearly so much as the more radical verse Hughes wrote in the 1930s. "To Certain Negro Leaders," a poem first published in New Masses, addresses in sparse and angry language the bitter frustrations Hughes attempted to document in "Cowards from the Colleges":
Voices crying in the wilderness, At so much per word From the white folks: "Be meek and humble, All you niggers, And do not cry Too loud." (Good Morning Revolution)
Hughes cryptically posits here the dangerous ramifications white patronage and philanthropy pose to African American institutions. Money becomes a shackle to the receiving institutions; the maker of the gift holds the power to tighten it at will. Hughes arrived at these conclusions through his bitter experiences with Charlotte Mason during the Harlem Renaissance. When Hughes expressed a desire to try different things with his poetry, Mason's patronage was quickly, and finally, withdrawn.
The hypocrisy which seemed to fester behind philanthropic fronts troubled Hughes long after the end of the Harlem Renaissance and the largesse of wealthy patrons who supported it. Addressing the first American Writers' Congress in 1935, Hughes called on African American writers to expose these hypocrisies through their novels, stories, poems, and articles:
The lovely grinning face of Philanthropy—which gives a million dollars to a Jim Crow school, but not one job to a graduate of that school; which builds a Negro hospital with second-rate equipment, then commands black patients and student-doctors to go there whether they will or no; or which, out of the kindness of its heart, erects yet another separate, segregated, shut-off, Jim Crow Y.M.C.A. (Good Morning Revolution)
Hughes believed in the transformative powers of the written word, and cautioned writers about using their art for purposes other than social change. This rhetoric, of course, was first espoused by Hughes during the Harlem Renaissance. In "The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain," published in 1926, Hughes called for the formation of a "racial art" which would lead to the creation of a distinct black aesthetic. He denounced writers who believed their art came first, their race second. More significant here, Hughes believed in a social force inherent in art, and considered it a basic duty of black artists to channel this force toward social change. At his speech before the first American Writers' Congress in 1935, Hughes called on black writers to fulfill this basic duty:
Sure, the moon still shines over Harlem. Shines over Scottsboro. Shines over Birmingham, too, I reckon. Shines over Cordie Cheek's grave, down South. Write about the moon if you want to. Go ahead. This is a free country. But there are certain very practical things American Negro writers can do. And must do. There's a song that says, "the time ain't long." That song is right. Something has got to change in America—and change soon. We must help that change to come. The moon's still shining as poetically as ever, but all the stars on the flag are dull. (And the stripes, too).
(Good Morning Revolution)
Hughes's poems of this period, while adhering to the basic artistic ideals established in the 1920s, were far removed from the optimism generated by the artists of the Harlem Renaissance. With the Depression came more hunger, more oppression, and more racial violence. These facets of American life were certainly not new to Hughes, but there seemed during this period to be something more evil and more dangerous with which African Americans had to contend. Not content to see the African American community merely endure, Hughes felt that revolution was a necessary end:
I am so tired of waiting, Aren't you, For the world to become good And beautiful and kind? Let us take a knife And cut the world in two- And see what worms are eating At the rind. (Good Morning Revolution)
With Hughes's disgust at the generally bleak state of life in America came a profound mistrust of religion, particularly directed at those people who used Christianity as a cloak behind which to hide their oppressive actions. "Goodbye, Christ" most explicitly conveys Hughes's attitude at the time. Where the call for revolution was softened by imagery in "Tired," here Hughes unleashes words of anger and bitterness which make clear his political posture:
Listen, Christ, You did alright in your day, I reckon— But that day's gone now. They ghosted you up a swell story, too, Called it Bible— But it's dead now. The popes and the preachers've Made too much money from it. They've sold you to too many. (Good Morning Revolution)
In the poem Hughes examines, or rather obliterates, the tenets set forth in a supposedly Christian country. If a majority of Americans do indeed call themselves Christians, why then do we witness so much suffering, so much oppression? During the time in which the poem was written Hughes made a journey to the Soviet Union and saw Socialism working, whereas in America, Christianity had failed. Though resources in the Soviet Union were meager, Hughes notes the fact that "white and black, Asiatic and European, Jew and Gentile stood alike as citizens on an equal footing protected from racial inequalities by the law" (Good Morning Revolution). Hughes thus called for a rethinking of dominant American beliefs and an acceptance of the tenets of Marxism:
Goodbye, Christ Jesus Lord God Jehovah, Beat it on away from here now. Make way for a new guy with no religion at all— A real guy named Marx Communist Lenin Peasant Stalin Worker ME…. (Good Morning Revolution)
The trip to the Soviet Union obviously had a profound affect on much of Hughes's writing during this period. A little more than a decade after the visit, Hughes wrote a series of articles addressing his experiences. These pieces appeared in Hughes's weekly "Here To Yonder" column in the Chicago Defender, an influential African American newspaper. Though the anger and bitterness evident in his 1930s writings lost intensity as Hughes moved into the 1940s, his vision of humanity remained unchanged. Indeed, the first article in the series deals mainly with the humanitarian aspects of the Soviet Union:
There is one country in the world that has NO Jim Crow of any sort, NO UNEMPLOYMENT of any sort, NO PROSTITUTION or demeaning of the human personality through poverty, NO LACK OF EDUCATIONAL FACILITIES for all of its young people, and NO LACK OF SICK CARE or dental care for everybody. That country is the Soviet Union. (Good Morning Revolution)
Hughes was not completely unrealistic or idealistic about the Soviet Union, and was quick to point out that it was not a paradise. He recognized the meagerness of resources to be a serious problem, but found the Soviet way of life and governance to be ultimately superior to that in America: "[The] steps toward an earthly paradise reach higher today on the soil of the Soviet Union than they do anywhere else in this troubled world. And the future of the Soviet Union is based on more concrete modern social achievements than that of any other existing state." Hughes bases this assertion on many factors, one of the most important being the position of women in the Soviet Union. He was very much impressed that prostitution had been wiped out, linking the demeaning profession to capitalism and greed: "In many great cities of the capitalist world, I have seen poor girls of high school age selling their favors as cheaply as a pair of stockings…. During the American depression, the streets of our big cities were full of such women. Poverty, the economic root of prostitution, is gone in the Soviet Union" (86). Where the general welfare of the people in the Soviet Union seemed superior to that in America, however, Hughes found that the Soviet people did not enjoy the freedom of speech which was largely taken for granted in the United States. Heads of government were assured of not being ridiculed publicly, for the price of denouncing a public official was often a rather stiff prison sentence. Hughes both lamented and praised the Soviet newspapers for not printing crime news or racially derogatory statements: "Nice juicy murders and big black brutes are both missing from their pages. Soviet headlines are not as exciting in a sensational way as ours."
Despite its faults, however, Hughes saw in the Soviet Union a degree of hope which seemed sadly absent in America. While the African American community was still suffering the same violence and oppression it had endured for years, followers of the Soviet doctrines seemed infinitely better off. Hughes addresses this idea in "Lenin," one of his last poems to endorse Communism:
Lenin walks around the world. Frontiers cannot bar him. Neither barracks nor barricades impede. Nor does barbed wire scar him. Lenin walks around the world. Black, brown, and white receive him. Language is no barrier. The strangest tongues believe him. Lenin walks around the world. The sun sets like a scar. Between the darkness and the dawn There rises a red star. (Good Morning Revolution)
Although Hughes ultimately abandoned his support of Communism shortly after "Lenin" was written, his love for the Soviet Union and its people remained. Arnold Rampersad has noted that Hughes's renunciation of Communism did not result in a break with all organizations on the Left, and that Hughes continued to support groups that fell under the scrutiny of Joseph McCarthy's investigations. Retaining these ties, it seems, made Hughes amply suspect. On March 26, 1953, Hughes appeared before McCarthy's Senate Permanent Sub-Committee on Investigations to explain and account for this "anti-American," radical past. At the hearing Hughes offered a prepared statement which effectively repudiated his radical writings and saved him from serious charges by the Committee. When asked by Roy Cohn, the head examiner, to describe the time period in which he sympathized with the Soviet form of government and when that period ended, Hughes replied:
There was no abrupt ending, but I would say, that roughly the beginnings of my sympathies with Soviet ideology were coincident with the Scottsboro case, the American depression, and that they ran through for some 10 or 12 years or more, certainly up to the Nazi-Soviet Pact, and perhaps, in relation to some aspects of the Soviet ideology, further, because we were allies, as you know, with the Soviet Union during the war. So some aspects of my writing would reflect that relationship, that war relationship.
When further questioned by Cohn as to what exactly caused his change in ideology, Hughes offered an answer which amply satisfied the Committee:
The Nazi-Soviet Pact was, of course, very disillusioning … and then further evidences of, shall we say, spreading imperialist aggression. My own observations in 1931–32, as a writer, which remained with me all the time, of the lack of freedom of expression in the Soviet Union for writers, which I never agreed with before I went there or afterward—those things gradually began to sink in deeper and deeper. And then, in our own country, there has been, within the last 10 years, certainly within the war period, a very great increase in the rate of acceleration of improvement in race relations.
In closing, Hughes was asked if he was in any way mistreated by the staff or the committee involved with the investigation. His reply could only have served to warm the hearts of the very people who had caused him much pain: "I must say that I was agreeably surprised at the courtesy and friendliness with which I was received…. [Senator Dirksen] was, I thought, most gracious and in a sense helpful in defining for me the area of this investigation; and the young men who had to interrogate me, of course, had to interrogate me."
Rampersad has demonstrated that by cooperating with McCarthy and the Committee, Hughes was choosing the lesser of two evils: "He could defy the body and destroy much of his effectiveness in the black world. Or he could co-operate, draw the disapproval, even the contempt, of the white left, but keep more or less intact the special place he had painstakingly carved out within the black community." Given Hughes's love for his community which he had held since he began writing, Rampersad suggests that the choice was perhaps easy to make. Although Hughes repudiated a body of writing that was so important to a turbulent period in his life, the choice allowed him to continue doing what he loved best. After the hearing he resumed the admirable task of making a living as a writer, perhaps subconsciously secure in the fact that his writings, including the ones he apparently repudiated, were tucked safely away in the archives of universities across the country.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2479
SOURCE: "Langston Hughes in Mexico and Cuba," in Latin American Literature and Arts, Vol. 47, Fall, 1993, pp. 23-27.
[In the following essay, Mullen argues that Hughes's experiences in Mexico and Cuba had a significant influence on his writing and identity.]
In his introduction to Do the Americas Have a Common Literature? (Duke University Press, 1990), Gustavo Pérez Firmat underscores the fact that the field of inter-American literary studies is something of a terra incognita. The occasion of the quincentenary, in which so much writing has been directed toward the theme of the identity of the Americas, seems a particularly appropriate juncture to fill in some of the open critical space to which Pérez Firmat refers. The shaping of the American identity has been marked in no small degree by a relatively constant set of discoveries carried out by writers from both sides of the border, from the period of Conquest to the present day. It is no surprise that Robert E. Spiller, in his classic The Cycle of American Literature, credits Columbus's letter of 1493 to the Royal Treasurer of Spain describing his discovery as the earliest genuinely American text. In fact, a list of North American writers who have traveled to Latin America reads like a veritable Who's Who of North American literature: James Fenimore Cooper, Herman Melville, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, William Cullen Bryant, John Dos Passos, Ernest Hemingway, Willa Cather, Katherine Anne Porter, and William Styron.
To this impressive list should be added the name of Langston Hughes. It is one of those curious paradoxes that in many ways define North American literature that the best known, if not the most prolific black American writer of the twentieth century, was more familiar in Latin America at the time of his death than he was in his native country. The case of Hughes serves not only as a paradigm of the African American literary experience, which has been deeply shaped by influences outside of the United States (one recalls the cases of Richard Wright, James Baldwin, and Chester Himes, all of whom flourished in Paris), but also demonstrates the deeply rooted interconnections among writers of the black diaspora.
Much as did his spiritual compadre, Manuel Zapata Olivella, Hughes spent much of his life as a writer, both searching for and sharing his sense of selfhood and blackness with other writers. It was, in particular, first his travels to Mexico and then to Cuba that were to prove most significant in his formation as a writer and that would equip him with both the linguistic skills and the personal connections to share his developing sense of a genuine black folk aesthetic. Between 1907 and 1934, for example, Hughes journeyed to Mexico four times, accumulating almost two years in Toluca and Mexico City. These travels were crucial in shaping his notions of race and class—elements so essential in his poetics. Ironically, his discovery of Spanish American literature was due, in part, to the fact that his father, an embittered Afro-American attorney, had selected Mexico as his place of self-imposed exile. James Hughes—aloof and uncaring toward his son—was particularly contemptuous of black American culture. Langston's first trip to Mexico, which took place when he was five, was a fleeting experience, marked only by an earthquake, and recalled in his autobiography, The Big Sea. He returned in 1919 to spend a summer with his father, a summer, he wrote in the book, that was "the most miserable I've ever known," spent in brooding isolation in Toluca. Lured by the prospect of securing money to attend Columbia University, Hughes again returned to see his father in the summer of 1920. This was a period of increasing racial awareness for the young Hughes, who had read W.E.B. DuBois's The Souls of Black Folk (1903) and was aware of Marcus Garvey's "Back to Africa" movement. It was en route to Mexico City that he composed his most often anthologized poem. "A Negro Speaks of Rivers." After crossing the border, he penned the following telling comments in his journal: "But here nothing is barred from me. I am among my own people, for … Mexico is a brown man's country. Do you blame them for fearing a 'gringo' invasion, with its attendant horror of colored hatred.
Hughes spent the year teaching English in a small business college, learning Spanish, and writing about his experiences. From a literary standpoint, it was an extremely productive period in his life. He published three short prose sketches in a journal recently founded by Dr. W.E.B. Dubois, The Brownies Book. "Mexican Games," his first essay published in an American magazine, appeared in January 1921. It was followed in April by "In a Mexican City," a description of market day in Toluca, and in December by "Up to the Crater of an Old Volcano," an account of a trip to Xinantécatl, near Toluca. The same month Crisis published a very brief note, "The Virgin of Guadalupe."
During his weekend trips to Mexico City, he met the young poet Carlos Pellicer, who was a member of an important literary coterie known as the Contemporáneos ("Contemporaries"). Pellicer had a deep affinity with Hughes and his poetry. He was, at the time of their meeting, himself actively engaged as a writer in the quest for a genuine Mexican folk aesthetic based on the rediscovery of the country's indigenous past. Pellicer would be one of the few Mexican poets to write about Africa. "Surgente fin" ("Surging End"), a poem written in the 1960s, deals with the primordial ties between Africa and Mexico. It was through Pellicer that Hughes met the playwright and poet Xavier Villaurrutia (1902–1950) and the essayist Salvador Novo (1904–1973). Villaurrutia published translations of four of Hughes's poems in the important journal Contemporáneos in the fall of 1931 and wrote poems about racial tensions in the United States, "North Carolina Blues," which he dedicated to Hughes. Novo also identified Hughes in an essay on Afro-American poetry—one of the first such assessments of its kind—in the same issue of Contemporáneos.
When Hughes returned to Mexico in December 1934 to settle his father's estate, he was already an established writer. By now, he had published the basic document of his aesthetic, "The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain" in the Nation (1926) and two major books of poetry. The Weary Blues (1926) and Fine Clothes to the Jew (1927)—which would find particular resonance in Latin America. This, his final extended stay in Mexico, lasted some six months, during which he met writers and artists such as Luis Cardoza y Aragón, Rufino Tamayo, and Nellie Campobello.
He had become a familiar figure among the Mexican literati, who were fascinated with both the content and form of his poetry and had begun to view him as a genuine spokesman for the black proletariat. Translations of his poetry and prose were to appear in Mexico with regularity up until the time of his death. Mexico was a place special to Hughes, but unlike writers such as Katherine Anne Porter and Malcolm Lowry, whose experiences in Mexico inspired much of their writing, apart from his early stories for children, which he had published in the Brownies Book, he wrote little about Mexico. Hughes's Mexican audience, while almost always appreciative, often misread him. Salvador Novo felt that his blues poems would soon be subsumed into a more universalist aesthetic, while Rafael Lozano, one of his earliest translators, cast him as the embodiment of a black artistic primitiveness. The thesis that primitive peoples (translate: blacks and Native Americans) were more directly in touch with nature and their feelings was widespread during the 1920s and 1930s. Thus, Lozano wrote: "Langston Hughes's poetry is highly spontaneous…. It is a primitive composition, like all of the poetry of his race, which expresses itself, like jazz music, with his own slightly syncopated rhythm.
While his contact with Mexico certainly had a profound shaping influence on Hughes, it would be his travels to the Caribbean and Cuba, in particular, that would prove to be most significant. Hughes traveled to Cuba on three separate occasions, in 1927, 1930, and 1931. His first trip took place in July 1927, when he went to Havana as a crew member on a freighter. The trip, a brief and unpleasant one, was later recalled in his short story "Power White Faces" which deals with racial discrimination in the brothels of Havana. In February 1930, he spent two weeks in Havana in search of a black composer to collaborate with him on an opera commissioned by his patron, Charlotte Mason. He arrived on February 25, 1930, with a letter of introduction from Miguel Covarrubias, whom he had met in Harlem, and who had done illustrations for The Weary Blues, and went directly to meet José Antonio Fernández de Castro, the editor of the influential newspaper El Diario de la Marina. The latter, a white patron of the arts, who had a strong interest in black culture, had published the first Spanish translation of a poem by Hughes ("I, Too") in the Cuban journal Social in 1928.
In March 1930 Fernández de Castro published an essay "Introducing Langston Hughes" in the Revista de la Habana. The Cuban's comments, essentially a paraphrase of Carl Van Vechten's preface to The Weary Blues, "Introducing Langston Hughes to the Reader," stress in particular Hughes's sense of racial pride:
In the lyrical works of L.H.—as in those of Countee Cullen. Walter F. White. Jessie Fauset. Claude McKay, to name only the most representative black writers in the United States—a vigorous racial pride is evident, a combativeness unknown until the present by the intellectual writers of that race. His technique is modern and with this sensitivity he achieves very personal touches which make him stand out as unique in the complicated panorama of contemporary poetic production in the United States. L.H., during his recent visit to Cuba, was received and entertained by representatives of our young intellectuals, and by distinguished and important black Cubans.
Fernández de Castro introduced Hughes to a group of Afro-Cuban writers—Nicolás Guillén, Reginio Pedroso, and Gustavo Urrutia—who toured the poet around Havana's centers of black culture. While Hughes was dazzled by the son, an African-based song-dance form, his hosts were equally startled by his questions about race and the social status of blacks. Guillén interviewed Hughes and published the text of his "Conversation with Langston Hughes" in the literary supplement "Ideales de una raza" of the newspaper Diario de la Marina on March 9, 1930. This meeting led to a long and fruitful friendship which was later renewed in Spain during the Civil War. The interview is an important document, inasmuch as it signals the deep affinities between the two in regard to their attitudes toward black artistic consciousness. Here Hughes confesses that it was during his early visit to Africa that he had become conscious of his role as a poet: "I knew then that I had to be their friend, their voice, their poet. My only ambition is to be the poet of the blacks, the black poet." Guillén replied: "I understand. And I feel that the poem with which Hughes opens his first volume of verse, rises from the depths of my own soul: I am black, black as the night, black as the depths of my Africa.'"
As critics have been careful to point out, Hughes's meeting with Guillén was to have a profound effect on the young Guillén, who was still in a formative stage as a writer. The early 1930s was a critical period in Caribbean letters as writers struggled with the fundamental problematic of the time: how to express the region's unique cultural heritage within the framework of a universalist Eurocentric aesthetic. While white writers such as Ramón Guirao and Juan Marinello wanted to posit black culture as an alternative to white neocolonialism, their project failed, projecting at best a picturesque but external view of black culture. One month after Hughes's departure, Guillén published eight powerful dialect poems under the title Motivos de son (Son Motifs) in the Diario de la Marina. Similar in theme to Hughes's The Weary Blues and making strong use of neo-African musical forms, they were the object of immediate and often vitriolic critical reaction. In a letter to Hughes. Guillén said that they had "created a scandal," while Gustavo Urrutia wrote that Guillén was writing "the best kind of Negro poetry we ever had; indeed, we had no Negro poems at all in Cuba before the new work." The poems were later translated by Hughes and appeared in Cuba Libre: Poems by Nicolás Guillén (1948), the first book-length translation of Guillén into English.
In the spring of 1931, with the money he had received from the Harmon Gold Award for Literature, Hughes made a trip to Cuba and Haiti, accompanied by his friend, Zell Ingram. By now, he was a well-known figure in Cuban artistic circles. In fact, Hughes had already published a short note on the black Cuban sculptor, Ramos Blanco in Opportunity a year earlier and had done translations of poetry by Guillén and Pedroso and of an essay by Urrutia. As with his earlier experiences in Mexico, Hughes captured his impressions of Cuba both in poetry and prose. For example, he published a somewhat stylized reflection on Cuban high life called "Havana Dreams" in Opportunity in June 1933 and dedicated several pages of I Wonder as I Wander, describing racial discrimination in Havana. He also wrote a short story "Little Old Spy," in which he depicted the racist policies of the Machado dictatorship. In May 1931, Hughes published "To the Little Fort, San Lázaro, on the Ocean Front Havana" in New Masses. A bitter attack on economic imperialism, the poem prefigures the radical assault on society that Guillén would undertake in West Indies Ltd. (1934) and, at the same time, vaguely evokes the poetry of Hughes's Mexican friend Carlos Pellicer.
While Mexico and Cuba were important points of contact for Langston Hughes, they are only pieces of a larger literary mosaic to which Hughes is linked. He spent time, for example, in Spain during the Civil War and was an accomplished translator of Federico García Lorca and Gabriela Mistral. In the area of hemispheric literary interrelationships, however, he remains a singular figure, one who was able to convey a sense of what it meant to be black in America to a white Hispanic audience while supplying a voice to Afro-Hispanic writers (Guillén, Zapata Olivella) to articulate their own vision of black Hispanic culture. It is no coincidence that Hughes appears as a character in Manuel Zapata Olivella's epic novel Changó, el gran putas (Changó, the Big Mother,… 1983), which is perhaps the most important work written about the black experience in the New World to date by an Afro-Hispanic writer.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6260
SOURCE: "Heroic 'Hussies' and 'Brilliant Queers': Genderracial Resistance in the Works of Langston Hughes," in African American Review, Vol. 28, No. 3, Fall, 1994, pp. 333-45.
[In the following essay, Borden examines how freely Hughes discussed gender and race relations in his works.]
In his writings, Langston Hughes explores the convergence of race and gender in Black men's and women's lives, questioning binary constructions of identity and exploring sensuality in relation to social change. These are the pages, as bell hooks suggests, that lay marked on bedside tables, that become worn with searching fingers, that represent something other than "the Langston Hughes most folks read or remember." They are poems and stories that deal with love among Black men and women, nature, romantic quandary, mother-daughter and father-son relations, friendship, and silences. In discussing Black male and female identity, Hughes speaks of the ways gender uniquely colors these experiences. He writes in a manner which could be described as genderracial, emphasizing how gender and racial identity are intertwined.
In an often cited passage from "The Negro Artist and Racial Mountain," Hughes comments, "One of the most promising of the young Negro poets said to me once, 'I want to be a poet, not a Negro poet.'… I was sorry the young man said that, for no great poet has ever been afraid of being himself. And I doubted then, that, with his desire to run away spiritually from his race, this boy would ever be a great poet." To Hughes, identity is inseparable from, and indeed central to, one's artistry. His work is strengthened by a poetic imagination which enters the consciousness of those with varying experiences. Hughes's images are at times disturbing, also comforting, alternately sad and joyous, and directly connected to his identity as a Black man who heard the voices of many—white and of Color, male and female, gay and straight, within and without himself.
Suggesting a useful approach to Hughes's genderracial concerns, Frances Beale's 1970 essay "Double Jeopardy: To Be Black and Female" comments on the tendency of social movements to privilege one liberation struggle over another in their vision of change. She cites the women's movement's dismissal of Black women's concerns in their drive to advance the status of white women, and Black Power's assertion of Black "manhood" through the subordination of Black women. And she queries, "Are there any parallels between this struggle and the movement on the part of Black women for total emancipation?"
Deborah King expands on Beale and borrows from W.E.B. Du Bois's theory of double consciousness to describe Black women's "multiple consciousness." She concurs that "the gender-only perspective alone is insufficient for understanding Black female oppression" and asserts a form of consciousness which occupies a "both/and holistic orientation", a consciousness which she identifies as polyrhythmic. Drawing connections between African and African American expressive art forms and Black consciousness, King explains: "For Black women, the interrelationship among strips of strong contrast in multiple, counter rhythms which produces music,… dance or quilts replicates the interdependence of individuals and other elements of the cosmos, all of which have strong, contrasting natures in an ever-changing yet stable whole."
Gender and race converge for Hughes's female characters, who confront genderracial myths in their exploration of identity. bell hooks notes that Hughes often invokes the voice of a Black woman, and that he appears "comfortable in this fictive transvestism." In "Southern Mammy Sings," Hughes takes on a female voice to contrast the genderracial stereotype of the "mammy" with the reality of Black domestic work:
Miss Gardner's in her garden Miss Yardman's in her yard Miss Michaelmas is at de mass And I am gettin' tired! Lawd! I am gettin' tired!
The form of the poem indicates the blues as the musical form representative of a Black woman's experience working in white folks' kitchens, contrasting sharply with the images of the cheerful, singing "mammy" seen in the minstrel show or on the big screen, and in literature.
In "Ruby Brown," Black domestic work is contrasted with the work of Black female prostitutes. A young woman, sitting on the backporch of her white employer, polishing the silver, is struck by two questions:
What can a colored girl do On the money from a white woman's kitchen? And ain't there any joy in this town?
The economic realities of sex work are reflected in Ruby Brown's decision to work in prostitution. She searches for joy among her sisters and brothers in "the sinister shuttered houses of the bottoms." Her motives for becoming a prostitute reflect tragic economic need, not "looseness" or moral corruption on her part. Hughes writes:
… the white men, Habitués of the high shuttered houses, Pay more money to her now Than they ever did before, When she worked in their kitchens.
Like "Ruby Brown," Hughes's novel Not Without Laughter explores the ways in which economic and social conditions influence the identities of Black women, embodying polyrhythm and resistance. In this work, Hughes acknowledges male perspective through the character Sandy. A young boy, Sandy remains distant and curious throughout most of the book, constantly reconciling his view of the world around him with the views of the women who raise him. Gender, race, and class converge in the dialogues among the women, which Sandy often overhears, being a quiet boy, in their kitchen conversations. His mother Anjee works as a domestic, and his grandmother Hagar takes in washing from local whites. His Aunt Harriet, once fired from a kitchen job for breaking a glass pitcher, rebels against the traditionally ascribed "respectable" occupations for Black women; she works as a carnival dancer, a blues singer, and a prostitute at different points in the story. A third sister, Tempy, is a middle-class homemaker who avoids her family in her attempt to establish herself in the middle class.
The perspectives of the four women coexist in Sandy's consciousness. There is no clear-cut right or wrong; their realities survive in the flashes of joy and conflict that make up family. Despite varying views and lifestyles, a spirit of collectivity is maintained; a polyrhythmic quality such as that which King describes suffuses the novel. The movement of Sandy among the households of Hagar, Tempy, Harriet, and Anjee signifies dialogue among them. For instance, when Harriet moves away from home to work in a bordello, Sandy becomes a liaison between the worlds of Hagar and the highly religious Harriet. Upon visiting the bordello with word that Hagar has taken ill, he realizes his aunt is still much the same woman as before: "Presently, Harriet appeared in a little pink wash dress, such as a child wears, the skirt striking her just above the knees. She smelled like cashmere-bouquet soap, and her face was not yet powdered, nor her hair done up, but she was smiling broadly, happy to see her nephew, as her arms went around his neck."
This greeting, not unlike other family greetings, signifies the wholeness of Harriet's experience, in which her occupation plays but one part. While Harriet prepares herself to leave with Sandy, the young boy waits in the parlor, among the empty bottles and ashtrays. As he waits, women's voices are heard from upstairs: "'Can I help you, girlie? Can I lend you anything? Does you need a veil?'" This dialogue offers humanity to the race, class, and gender identity of Harriet and her co-workers; it resists genderracial stereotypes and explores the commonalities between the world of Harriet and the other women in her family.
Similarly, the "Madam" series of poems reflects genderracial resistance in Black women's lives. The series focuses on the life of Madam Alberta K. Johnson, a Black woman surviving in the city, who asserts her pride in part by taking the name Madam when negotiating with her landlord, the census taker, her employer, and the reader. Addressing the reader, she comments:
I do cooking, Day's work, too! Alberta K. Johnson—Madam to you.
Like "Southern Mammy Sings," the "Madam" series describes the gender, race, and class concerns Black women face in domestic work. In "Madam and Her Madam," Madam recounts an incident in which she responds to being overworked by her employer:
I said, Madam, Can it be You trying to make a Pack-horse out of me? She opened her mouth She cried, Oh, no! You know, Alberta, I love you so!
This passage speaks to the convergence of race, class, and gender in Black women's dealings with white women. While the narrator's name is Madam Alberta K. Johnson, her employer insists on referring to her by her first name only, while Madam must refer to her employer as "Madam." The fact that Madam is overworked and exploited by her employer, yet her employer claims to "love" her, points to the historic relationship between white and Black women of racist and sexist oppression. Though both Madam and her employer share a subordinate, female status, the oppressions heaped upon Madam are in no way lessened by the fact that her oppressor is a woman. In fact, by calling her out of her name, Madam's female employer is attempting to negate Madam's status as a "real" woman. The response which Madam recounts is not surprising:
I said, Madam, That may be true— But I'll be dogged If I love you!
The speaker rejects the mythic relationship between white and Black women and instead asserts her own reality to the reader. The poem simultaneously identifies gender-racial myths about relations between white and Black women, and gives voice to Black female resistance.
Hughes demonstrates that the oppressions of Black women and men are linked because of race, but are manifested in gender-specific ways. In "Mulatto" and "Father and Son," the image of the "loose black woman" used to justify rape by white men is connected with the label of "bastard" pinned on children of white fathers, and with the use of the image of Black men as sexual beasts to justify lynching.
"Mulatto" addresses the consciousness of a white male plantation owner, as felt by a Black boy:
What's a body but a toy? Juicy bodies Of nigger wenches Blue black Against black fences. O, you little bastard boy, What's a body but a toy?
As a means of survival, the boy finds himself pondering the oppressor's-eye-view of his mother. He risks, in such intimacy, the internalization of genderracial myths which would contribute to his own oppression of Black women and self-destructive behaviors. The poem actively resists this internalization of myths when the boy shouts, "I am your son, white man!", rejecting the myths used to justify the rape of his mother and the economic exploitation of both mother and son.
In addressing the sexual exploitation of Black women by white men, Hughes explores the use of gender stereotypes as a means of reinforcing racial oppression. In "Father and Son," Coralee Lewis comes to live in the "big house" of the plantation upon which she and her family work for one Colonel Norwood. Her second son by Colonel Norwood, Bert, resists the label of "bastard" his father has pinned on him. As a small child he refers to Colonel Norwood as "Papa," despite his father's repeated warnings and beatings. Returning home from college one summer, he confronts his father, who will send him to college yet won't allow him to enter through the front of the house. The confrontation climaxes when Bert kills his father in self-defense. As her son is chased by a vicious mob, Miss Lewis holds the dead Colonel Norwood in her arms, screaming:
"You said he warn't your'n—Cora's po' little yellow bastard. But he is your'n, Colonel Tom, and he's runnin' from you…. You can't fool me—You ain't never been so still like this before—you's out yonder, runnin' ma boy! Colonel Thomas Norwood runnin' ma boy through de fields in de dark, runnin' ma po' helpless Bert through de fields in de dark for to lynch him and to kill him…. God damn you, Tom Norwood!…. God damn you!"
The oppression of Coralee and her son are linked because of racism, but are manifested in gender-specific ways. Coralee is left penniless, because "the dead man left no heirs." Her association with Colonel Norwood is negated by the white community's view of her as "loose" and unworthy. The lynching of Bert and his brother, which ends the story, is a white response to Bert's rebellion against the role ascribed to him as a "nigger" and a "bastard"; it is justified by whites through the myth that Black men are beasts.
Hughes's exploration of Black male identity emphasizes the convergence of gender and race in threatening Black male survival. Responding to the 1931 Scottsboro case, in which one young Black man was given a life sentence and eight others were sentenced to the electric chair for the alleged rape of two white women, Hughes wrote:
BLACK BOYS IN A SOUTHERN JAIL. WORLD, TURN PALE!8 black boys and one white lie. Is it much to die?
In asking "Is it much to die?" Hughes confronts white notions of the value of Black male life, discussing how one's very personhood and survival are political acts. Elsewhere in the poem, he likens the struggle of the Scottsboro Boys to those of great political martyrs such as John Brown and Christ. Similarly, "Christ in Alabama" juxtaposes Black male experience with a cultural symbol of political martyrdom, exposing the hypocrisy of racist white Christians:
Most holy bastard Of the bleeding mouth Nigger Christ— On the cross Of the South.
Hughes's anti-lynching writing contrasts white-created images of white piety with the reality of racist brutality against Black people. In "Silhouette," Hughes contrasts the genderracial myth of gentle, swooning white ladies with the reality of their role in the barbarous act of lynching:
Southern gentle lady Do not swoon They've hung a black man In the dark of the moon. They've hung a black man To a roadside tree In the dark of the moon For the world to see How Dixie protects Its white womanhood.
Not limiting himself to the overt, Hughes comments on the sexualization of racist power by liberals as well as lynch mobs, often with a mordant humor. For example, "Slave on the Block" chronicles a Greenwich Village couple's fascination with racial exoticism. Hughes begins, "They were people who went in for Negroes—Michael and Anne—the Caraways." Artists, they are forever seeking entrance into the "jungle life" of Negroes, voying at Negro speakeasies, trying to speak, paint, and learn Negro ways, yet are perplexed, for "as much as they loved Negroes, Negroes didn't seem to love Michael and Anne." The sexual shade of their desire to possess Blackness is exemplified in Anne's motivation to use a young Black man in one of her paintings:
She wanted to paint him now representing to the full the soul and sorrow of his people. She wanted to paint him as a slave about to be sold. And since slaves in warm climates had no clothes, would he please take off his shirt…. Before luncheon Michael came in, and went into rhapsodies over Luther on the box without a shirt, about to be sold into slavery.
In addition to exploring whites' genderracial stereotypes, Hughes also comments on gender issues within the Black community—specifically, the ways in which gender affects the struggle to maintain community in racist society. His work contributes to African American dialogue on gender, often in the context of racism and economic class oppression. In Montage of a Dream Deferred Hughes uses jazz and blues forms to punctuate a series of dialogues among Black men and women on gender issues. For instance, in "Sister," a young man issues a concerned complaint about his sister's affair with a married man:
That little Negro's married and got a kid. Why does he keep foolin' around Marie?… Why don't she get a boy-friend I can understand—some decent man?
to which a mother's voice replies:
Did it ever occur to you, boy,that a woman does the best she can?
and, in response, a man sitting on the stoop comments:
So does a man.
In "Same in Blues," Hughes again expresses gender dialogue in the Black community, focusing on the frustration a man feels at not being able to fulfill the male-ascribed role of provider, because of racial and economic conditions:
Lulu said to Leonard I want a diamond ring. Leonard said to Lulu You won't get a goddamn thing! There's a certain amount of nothingin a dream deferred. Daddy, daddy, daddy, All I want is you. You can have me, baby— but my lovin' days is through. A certain amount of impotencein a dream deferred.
Leonard wishes to fulfill a masculine role in his relationship, yet he is disempowered because of racism. The second italicized remark expresses feelings of inadequacy and hopelessness caused by this awareness: "You can have me, baby," he states, "but my lovin' days is through."
Male withdrawal from feeling as an expression of hopelessness is challenged by Hughes's female characters. In "Hard Daddy," Hughes invokes the blues to discuss a woman's frustration with her man's response to her tears:
I cried on his shoulder but He turned his back on me. Cried on his shoulder but He turned his back on me. He said a woman's cryin' Never gonna bother me.
Though the characters act in typically gender-ascribed ways, Hughes adds a twist at the end of the poem as the female character rebels against her man's hardness with her own fury:
I wish I had wings to Fly like the eagle flies…. I'd fly on ma man an' I'd scratch out both his eyes.
The destructive potential of masculine and feminine social constructs is addressed in Hughes's work, yet it is not always broken down into a male-female dichotomy, or even into simple notions of the masculine and the feminine. Rather, Hughes identifies a subversive strength in the feminine and a vulnerability intrinsic to masculinity. At times in his work, gender is left entirely ambiguous, broadening the scope of discussion to include masculine and feminine conflicts within one's self.
Hughes's unapologetic discussion of such topics as homosexuality, teenage pregnancy, and prostitution—whichearned him the title of "the poet low rate of Harlem" in the Chicago Whip and "The Sewer Dweller" in the Amsterdam News—promotes dialogue on taboo genderracial issues. Hughes demonstrates polyrhythmic consciousness by placing opposing views together in dialogue. Commonly, there is no clear "right" or "wrong" character; rather, the reader is invited to view the conflict through numerous perspectives simultaneously.
In discussing the genderracial concerns of gay Blacks, for example, Hughes explores racial realities and gender constructs in the Black community which contribute to homophobia. In "Blessed Assurance," Hughes invokes an ironic sympathy with a father who worries that his son is "turning into a queer," while bringing to light contradictions in the father's wishes that his son were more "masculine." The father, John, worries that homosexuality will compound the young man's oppression as a Negro:
He was a brilliant queer, on the Honor Role in high school, and likely to be graduated in the spring at the head of the class. But the boy was colored. Since colored parents always like to put their best foot forward, John was more disturbed about his son's transition than if they had been white. Negroes had enough crosses to bear.
The text is sympathetic to John's concerns, while discussing a personal, gendered concern: John doesn't want his boy to look like a "sissy" in front of John's friends. It is significant that Hughes uses the term queer to define Delly, particularly when he continues, "If only Delly were not such a sweet boy—no juvenile delinquency, no stealing cars, no smoking reefers ever. He did chores without complaint. He washed dishes too easily…."
John's concern that his son's homosexuality will further impede the boy's survival intertwines with his gender-located embarrassment and personal privileging of heterosexually ascribed styles of masculinity. The ironic twist of Delly's academic and personal success suggests that in breaking from traditional styles of masculinity—sexually and socially—Delly avoids certain traps which defer dreams for young boys trying to fit into "proper" gender roles. By examining the contradictions of John's wishes for his son, Hughes contributes to dialogue on homosexuality as a spring point for genderracial reform. Thus, "Blessed Assurance" works to move homosexuality out of the realm of the dangerous and deviant in our minds, and creates dialogue on its possible uses in promoting positive social change.
Similarly, "Café: 3 A.M." resists stereotypes of gay identity. Reprinted in several gay and lesbian anthologies, the poem discusses police violence against homosexuals:
Detectives from the vice squad With weary sadistic eyes Spotting fairies.Degenerates, some folks say. But God, Nature, or somebody made them that way. Police lady or Lesbian Over there?Where?
"Café" advocates greater understanding of gays and lesbians and, on second glance, also explores the label deviant in the context of multiple consciousness. One might interpret Hughes's "Degenerates" as the police themselves, huddled off in a corner, waiting to strike, scoping out their victims on the basis of appearance. Yet we reconcile ourselves—"somebody / made them that way"—wanting to understand the intricate gut machinery of the Other, to get to the roots of homophobic violence, or to get to the root of gaiety if we are straight. The last stanza further deepens this double reading of the poem, adding a poly-rhythmic feel to the identity of a café dweller. By asking whether she is a "Lesbian" or a "police lady," Hughes invokes the ironic sentiment that, of course, she could be both; and he questions what this identity would mean to her, to her co-workers, to the gay community.
In "Café," Hughes set forth the complex rhythm of multiple consciousnesses and oppressions to illuminate our moral dilemmas. Several of Hughes's works comment on moral judgments against women in many facets of female sexuality, addressing the ways in which women are judged by their sexual behavior. Sexuality is a necessary battleground for those who are marginalized and abused because of their sex or gender; as African American gay poet Essex Hemphill notes, the erogenous zones are far from "demilitarized" in a sexist society. For many women, sexuality becomes a means of expression, and often it is the form of our expression which is taken most seriously.
Hughes's "Ballad of the Girl Whose Name Is Mud" evokes the voice of a whispering gossip who disapproves of a girl who dated "a no-good man." The last stanza gives voice to the experience of the "hussy" herself, through gossip:
… The hussy's telling everybody— Just as though it was no sin— That if she had a chanceShe'd do it agin'!
The "hussy" rejects gender constructs, which tell her she should be remorseful; instead, she shocks those around her by stating that "she'd do it agin'!" This type of resistance, grounded solidly in the societal notion that women express themselves primarily through their sexuality, portrays female sexual identity much as Black male identity is portrayed in "Scottsboro," as a political act. Similar sentiments recur in "S-sss-ss-sh!," which discusses unmarried, probably teenage, pregnancy. Hughes contrasts the natural imagery of birth with disapproval by family and neighbors:
The baby came one morning Almost with the sun.The neighbors—And its grandma—Were outdone! But mother and child Thought it fun.
In simultaneously enacting several views of the birth, "Sh-sss-ss-sh!" promotes dialogue on gender issues in a polyrhythmic way. It interrogates our notions of female shame in an age when unmarried pregnancy held greater stigma than it does today.
As Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar have suggested in their analysis of women writers, Hughes lends a subversive quality to his "mad women." Imagery of nakedness is heavy in Hughes's discussion of women's identity struggles, suggesting an awareness of women's sexuality as a site of resistance. The sharp and mysterious "Strange Hurt," describes a female who seeks out storms from shelter, "fiery sunshine" from shade. Hughes concludes:
In months of snowy winter When cozy houses hold, She'd break down doors To wander naked In the cold.
In "March Moon," Hughes uses irony to break down constructions of female sexuality, while connecting it with broad issues of power and inequality. The social construction of female shame is addressed through an ironic examination of the bright bare moon:
The moon is naked. The wind has undressed the moon. The wind has blown all the cloud-garments Off the body of the moon And now she's naked. Stark naked. But why don't you blush, O shameless moon? Don't you know It isn't nice to be naked?
As a poem about women, "March Moon" unveils the construction of female shame which represses female expression—sexually, spiritually, and intellectually. "March Moon" exposes the fallacy of "niceness" that clenches our desires, prefiguring Audre Lorde's comment that, "as women, we have come to distrust that power which rises from our deepest and non-rational thought. We have been warned against it all our lives by the male world … The fear of our desires keeps them suspect and indiscriminately powerful."
Constructing naked space as a moment of potential power, "Strange Hurt" and "March Moon" speak to the need to break down oppressive social constructs, and addresses the power of expressing our desires without shame. In a Black gay context, particularly in the age of AIDS, the need to express desire has a particular resonance. Many feel the need to emphasize the erotic as a means of broad social comment on gender, race, and class oppression. Essex Hemphill connects the devaluation of erotic experience with narrow constructs of femininity and masculinity. In "Heavy Breathing," he comments on the "threadbare masculinity" he has "outgrown":
At the end of the heavy breathing the funerals of my brothers force me to wear this scratchy black suit. I should be naked, seeding their graves.
Hemphill blends images of tragedy and injustice with nakedness, sensual yearning. Similarly, Brad Johnson's "Protest Poem" discusses a veteran's yearning:
i would like to become a soldier and fight my way to the finest guerrilla i could find, lick the musky sweat from his body and let him make love to me….
Johnson's poem invokes the sensual to signify greater struggle. He suggests that to love another man is to cross a battlefield, and that love among Black men is, as Joseph Beam comments, "the revolutionary act."
Read in the context of Hemphill's and Johnson's work, Hughes's "I Loved My Friend" contributes to a genderracially resistant Black male identity. The poem embodies a soft blue atmosphere of melancholy tenderness, of loss:
I loved my friend. He went away from me. There's nothing more to say. The poem ends, soft as it began. I loved my friend.
By naming his love, sexual or otherwise, for a Black man, Hughes simultaneously confronts a racist culture that treats Black people as objects of fear and scorn, and resists gender constructs which forbid the articulation of love between men. "I Loved My Friend" directly challenges racism and sexism in whites and internalized racism and sexism in the self.
Occupying marginal spaces within the Black community as gays and within the gay community as Blacks, Black gay artists offer a unique viewpoint on genderracial constructs of Black identity. Arguably less inhibited by the constraints of heterosexual gender roles in expressing love for members of the same sex, writers such as Hemphill and Johnson challenge genderracial self-hatred which contributes to destruction of Black male pride and community. Marlon Riggs comments on his development of Black male pride as a Black gay man:
I was blind to my brother's beauty/my own but now I see. Deaf to the voice that believed we were worth wanting/loving each other. Now I hear.
Vega writes of his romantic connection with another Black man as a source of strength in the face of racism and homophobia:
You precious gem black pearl that warms the heart symbol of ageless wisdom, I derive strength from the touch of your hand.
Like Vega, Hughes uses erotic experience as a touchstone for gender, race, and class concerns. "In Hughes's work," bell hooks remarks, "sexual passion is always mediated by issues of materiality, class position, poverty"; gender, race, and class conflict "disrupts, perverts and distorts sexuality." Social concerns and sexual expression are inextricably linked as Hughes inquires into the nature of power, meditates on hope, and envisions social transformation through his use of sensual imagery.
In "The Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power," Audre Lorde discusses the potential power of sensuality in transforming conceptions of reality imposed upon us by "racist, patriarchal, and anti-erotic society." She observes some of the ways in which the erotic frees us to explore our own capacity for joy. Once this joy is actualized through the erotic, we can no longer settle for anything less in the full spectrum of our lives. Lorde comments:
In the way my body stretches to music and opens into response, hearkening to its deepest rhythms, so every level upon which I sense also opens to the erotically satisfying experience, whether it is dancing, building a bookcase, writing a poem, examining an idea. [It] is a measure of the joy which I know myself to be capable of feeling. And that deep and irreplaceable knowledge … comes to demand from all my life that it be lived within the knowledge that such satisfaction is possible.
The bridge which connects dream and vision with the material and political is, Lorde asserts, "formed by the erotic—the sensual—those physical, emotional and psychic expressions of what is deepest and strongest and richest within us, being shared, the passions of love in its deepest meaning." Hughes's "Fulfillment" has particular resonance in this context:
The earth-meaning Like the sky-meaning Was fulfilled. We got up And went to the river, Touched silver water, Laughed and bathed In the sunshine.
Hughes's sensual vision can be compared to the jazz music he so loved, transcending the barriers of beauty, creating new vision, stretching the limitations of rational thought. Like the soothing confusion of Thelonius Monk's arrangements, Hughes's poetic sensualism moves from the rushing within our heads, our dreams, to the articulation of those dreams in talk and, eventually, reality. Like Lorde's, Hemphill's, and Vega's, this dialogue on interpersonal sensual relationships broadens to include larger social relations and issues of power and inequality, and addresses social change through the exploration of yearning.
Many of Hughes's poems which explore erotic experience comment on personal relations and broad social struggle simultaneously. The poem "Desire" uses erotic imagery to address many types of desire:
Desire to us Was like a double death, Swift dying Of our mingled breath….
Of what desire is Hughes speaking? The mention of mingled breath may hearken sexual imagery, but Hughes simultaneously addresses greater struggle:
Evaporation Of an unknown strange perfume Between us quickly In a naked Room.
Thus this poem about a brief sexual encounter also expresses the desire to understand the death following any brief spell of harmony. Hughes intertwines moments of hope with its absence, personal dreams with sociopolitical reality. We do not know what perfume seeps into these moments with hope, allowing us to dream, or why it is so often that chaos emerges from the ensuing silence.
Similarly, in "Demand," Hughes inquires into the nature of hope, addressing "the dream" almost aggressively:
Listen! Dear dream of utter aliveness— Touching my body of utter death— Tell me, O quickly! dream of aliveness, The flaming source of your bright breath.
"Demand" contemplates how to move dreams out of the realm of fantasy. The dream of utter aliveness touches the speaker's body when it is feeling close to death. The poem suggests that, if we knew the flaming source that breathes life into hopeless souls, it would be the source of our deepest power.
In "Daybreak in Alabama" Hughes suggests that human language limits our articulation of dreams, that it is too tethered to social hierarchy. Yet still he struggles with words as he ponders their limitations, using words to describe the music he wants to write. He contrasts natural images of the South—"the scent of pine needles / And the smell of red clay after rain"—with dreamlike visions:
Of black and white black white black people And I'm gonna put white hands And black hands and brown and yellow hands And red clay earth hands in it Touching everyone with kind fingers….
In disrupting race and gender classifications, Hughes breaks down hierarchical barriers and allows readers to envision Alabama transmuted from its reality of hunger and small hard hate, of "mixing blood and rain," to a blending of people in touch and kindness—race, gender, and class hierarchy transformed. This contrasting imagery sounds a blue note, a powerful space on the page, where laughter and tears meet.
"Joy" alludes to such a place of power, again through the use of sensual imagery:
I went to look for Joy Slim, dancing Joy, Gay, laughing Joy Bright-eyed Joy— And I found her Driving the butcher's cart In the arms of the butcher boy!
The speaker is at once dismayed and pleased to find Joy "in the arms of the butcher boy." Joy is demystified, found amidst the chaotic harmony of city streets and work, in the space we occupy between barbarism and tender hope. The poem asserts that joy exists all around us in our ability to love and dream. Here, as in his well-known "Harlem," the dream is a human right, a daily act of resistance.
Anticipating the current rediscovery of Hughes's work by Black gay artists, "Old Walt" examines poet Walt Whitman's life through the lens of Hughes's experience. Isaac Julien's film Looking for Langston, a meditation on Hughes and the Black gay artists' tradition, transposes Hughes and Black gay life much in the manner which Hughes transposes Whitman and his own artistic searching:
Old Walt Whitman Went finding and seeking, Finding less than sought Seeking more than found, Every detail minding Of the seeking or the finding. Pleasured equally In seeking as in finding Each detail minding, Old Walt went seeking And finding.
bell hooks writes that "it is [the] evocation of pleasure that is seductive, that suggests the poem is about sensuality and desire." The overlapping of desire and discovery points to the interaction between the two realms. In this search we see the yearning bringing finding and the finding spurring yearning; dreams and their actualization are spun together.
As artists, both Hughes and Whitman act as visionaries in unique ways, transcending social constructs momentarily through the poetic imagination. Hughes uses this dreamspace to inquire into the nature of power, eventually interrogating his own role in the creative process. As we have seen, Hughes, in "The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain," demonstrated his awareness of his role as a Negro writer, and made inquiry into his own identity and the power in that role. In "To Artina," he problematizes his relationship as writer with his poetic subject through the use of romantic, sensual imagery:
I will take your heart. I will take your soul out of your body As though I were God. I will not be satisfied With the little words you say to me. I will not be satisfied With the touch of your hand Nor the sweet of your lips alone.
If we view "I" as the writer and "you" as the poetic subject, the poem stands as a reminder of the limits of poetic omniscience. It is this final ellipse—"I will take your heart for mine. / I will take your soul. / I will be God when it comes to you"—that signifies the power differential between writer and subject. Recognizing the role of one's own (multiple) consciousness in informing one's perspective on poetic subjects dissipates some of the "Godly" qualities of this omniscience. In recognizing distance, the writer's work is strengthened through a direct dialogue with the subject, centered in identity.
Hughes's discussion of identity focuses not only on his own role as a writer but on the role of literature in social transformation. In "Long Trip," which was written at sea, the sea, writing, and reading are connected. The writer observes that
The sea is a wilderness of waves, A desert of water. We dip and dive, Rise and roll, Hide and are hidden On the sea.
Here, as in "Daybreak in Alabama," Hughes uses contrasting images to disrupt traditional imagery. Immersed in the shadowy sun glow beneath the surface, writers (and readers) "dip and dive," an image suggestive, as in "Old Walt," of searching. Hughes juxtaposes seemingly binary images, to blur the disparity between them:
Day, night Night, day, The sea is a desert of waves, A wilderness of water.
Through writing, Hughes takes his readers to places of vision, where traditional social constructs have been momentarily neutralized. It is significant that Hughes came to this space with a radical creativity centered in consciousness and identity. Hughes's genderracial dialogue offers an exciting contribution to discussion of the convergence of gender, race, and class in forming identity and envisioning social change through transcendent sensual imagery. In discussing Hughes's work, and the work of other authors, past and present, we must move beyond our reticence to speak of sex, gender, and race as informing their works. By exploring gender and race as inseparable players in the construction of identity, and by examining the interrogation of power through visionary fictions, we begin a new and rewarding dialogue on the poetic word.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1221
SOURCE: "He Heard America Jiving," in New York Times Book Review, Vol. XCIX, No. 52, December 12, 1994, p. 15.
[In the following review of The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes, Taylor states that the quality of the poems is uneven but the book gives a clear picture of Hughes.]
It is the rare poet whose words enter the culture with the apparent durability of, say, "a dream deferred." Lorraine Hansberry's play A Raisin in the Sun, Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot's book I've Known Rivers—the titles are phrases from the pen of Langston Hughes, and so is "black like me." To lodge such fragments so broadly and deeply requires not only a gift for poetry but also an unusual affinity with the language of popular speech and song. This gift and this affinity Langston Hughes had, along with an intense if scattered energy that kept him working all his adult life on a variety of projects in prose and verse—essays, columns, librettos, fiction, songs and, most important to him and to most of his readers, poems.
"The Negro Speaks of Rivers," first published in 1921, when Hughes was 19, is still among his best-known poems, though vintage Hughes verse continued to appear; his last volume, The Panther and the Lash, was published shortly after his death in 1967. Dozens of Hughes's poems are in the mode of "Motto," first collected in Montage of a Dream Deferred (1951):
I play it coolAnd dig all jive. That's the reasonI stay alive.My motto,As I live and learn, is: Dig And Be Dug In Return.
This has the almost anonymous authenticity to which some fine poetry aspires. Its rhythm is memorable and lively. It does what it sets out to do. Many of Hughes's poems display greater ambition, and some of them fulfill it, but he may have been most consistently at his best in short poems embodying brief moments of deeply compassionate wit. Much of the time, his poems moved to blues and jazz rhythms, with which Hughes experimented more rewardingly than any other important poet of this century. Sometimes he would point in some self-conscious way to the technical aspects of a poem, using over emphatic capital letters or marginalia. But when the words and rhythms were allowed merely to do their work, they were often convincing and haunting.
Langston Hughes is one of the essential figures in American literature. His career is much larger than the body of his poetry alone. By his work and example, he has enriched our lives; as Gwendolyn Brooks once put it, he "made us better people." His stature demands a collection like this. It is edited by Arnold Rampersad, the Woodrow Wilson Professor of Literature at Princeton University, whose two-volume life of Hughes is among the most absorbing and well-written literary biographies of recent years, and David Roessel, who teaches English at Princeton. They say they have attempted to assemble "all the poems of Hughes published in his lifetime." (This statement is followed a few sentences later by the merciful qualification that they "have excluded as juvenilia" Hughes poems written in high school or college.) Along with a useful chronology of Hughes's life and 77 pages of scholarly notes, The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes gathers 860 poems, some 280 of which Hughes published in periodicals but did not choose to include in books.
It should surprise absolutely no one, then, that a great many of these poems are not good. A mere syllable or two might make the difference between the poem nourished by a light touch and the poem stifled under a heavy hand. Hughes's ear for the difference was not always reliable, but most of the time he could recognize extreme cases of ineptitude while assembling a collection. Here is a typical quatrain—the fourth—from "Give Us Our Peace," which Hughes published in The Chicago Defender in 1945, but did not subsequently include in a collection:
Give us a peace that is not cheaply used,A peace that is no clever scheme,A people's peace for which men can enthuse,A peace that brings reality to our dream.
In sharp contrast, here is the opening quatrain of "Cross," which was published 20 years earlier in the N.A.A.C.P. magazine, The Crisis, and then in the collections The Weary Blues (1926) and Selected Poems (1959):
My old man's a white old manAnd my old mother's black. If ever I cursed my white old manI take my curses back.
These two examples demonstrate, among other things, that frequent repetition is as subject to clumsiness and grace as anything else. In the first, "a" and "peace" appear four times each, to tiresome effect. In the shorter second example, "my" and "old" appear four times each without redundancy. But it would be foolish to conclude simply that Hughes sometimes had the good luck to score such direct hits as the opening of "Cross." Hughes was a skilled technician, but he worked quickly and threw himself feverishly into each poem while it was in process. Only later, and not quite dependably, did he come to see whether he had been successful or not. Many fine poets—Wordsworth is a stunning example—have worked this way.
The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes is divided by decades, from the 1920's through the 1960's, with a couple of appendixes: 42 mostly polemical poems, mostly written in the 40's, circulated to newspapers by The Associated Negro Press, and 33 poems for children. Mr. Rampersad and Mr. Roessel have made every effort to arrange the poems chronologically in order of publication, except for those collected in Montage of a Dream Deferred and Ask Your Mama: 12 Moods for Jazz (1961), which are presented as Hughes arranged them. It would have been extremely cumbersome to preserve the arrangement of poems in other volumes, since some of the poems appear in as many as four collections. The notes make it possible to distinguish between the previously collected and previously uncollected poems.
However, if the integrity of individual collections is of necessity destroyed here, the editors have restored in large measure the feel of the life that gave rise to the poems. It has long been recognized that Hughes believed strongly in the usefulness of poetry as polemic; this collection makes even clearer his willingness to put his name to doggerel, as well as to inspired poetry, for the sake of a cause he believed in. It also helps to clarify some of the pressures to which he reacted at various times; in the 50's, for example, he was careful to omit most of his more radically Communist verse from Selected Poems. It is extremely useful to have those poems here.
Plenty of readers will wish that more of these poems could have been better than they are; yet it seems impossible to wish that Hughes could have been anyone but who he was. From the beginning of his career to the end of it, Hughes spoke out clearly and courageously for racial justice. His range of tone was broad, from loving portrayal of brave people living private lives to heavy-handed but sometimes hilarious daydreams turning Orval Faubus and James O. Eastland into stick figures Mammy Faubus and Mammy Eastland. There was a great deal of anger in between, and pain, but somehow Hughes kept these emotions within the bounds of an amazingly generous heart.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 797
SOURCE: A review of The Sweet and Sour Animal Book and Black Misery, in New York Times Book Review, February 12, 1995, p. 18.
[In the following review, Chambers discusses the appeal of Hughes's simple language and life experiences in three books for children.]
Langston Hughes (1902–67) was able to turn sophisticated and complex ideas into very simple language. A lifelong fan of jazz and blues, Hughes shared with musicians the gift of flow. His words could ride above you, breeze by or lift you like Aladdin's magic carpet. He often wrote in the AAB style of blues lyricists: the first line repeated for emphasis, the third line providing the payoff or switch. One of my favorite verses from Blues Montage goes:
Baby, baby, please don't snore so loud.Baby, baby, please don't snore so loud.You just a lil' bit of woman …But you sound like a great big crowd.
In the literary world, poetry with simple rhymes is almost always looked down upon. In his lifetime, Hughes was often derided as not holding African-American arts and letters up to "intellectual" standards. Children, however, love a good rhyme. So it seems only natural that at some point in a 40-year career, which produced books of poetry, plays, novels and short stories. Hughes wrote for children, giving them just a simple but seductive taste of the blues.
The Sweet and Sour Animal Book, is an alphabet primer for the very young. A "lost" manuscript completed in 1936, according to George P. Cunningham, a scholar who contributed the afterword, it was rejected by publishers repeatedly and rediscovered only recently among Hughes's papers at Yale's Beinecke Rare Book Library by Nancy Toff, executive editor of children's books at Oxford University Press. From Ape to Zebra, the short poems reflect Hughes's childlike wonder as well as his sense of humor:
What use Is a gooseExcept to quackle? If a goose Can't quackleShe's out of whackle.
Always, Hughes's poetry tells children that there is no identity better than their own:
Newt,Newt, Newt,What can you be?JustA salamander, child,That's me!
This edition of The Sweet and Sour Animal Book is especially charming because of the illustrations by students in the lower grades at the Harlem School of the Arts. Though Langston Hughes was born in Joplin, Mo., Harlem was the mecca where he spent most of his adult life.
Hughes's childhood years and his love of Harlem are the subject of Floyd Cooper's book. Coming Home: From the Life of Langston Hughes, which begins with one of Hughes's poems "Hope":
Sometimes when I'm lonely,Don't know why,Keep thinkin' I won't be lonely,By and by.
Mr. Cooper's illustrations balance the sad stories of Hughes's childhood. The colors are warm and vivid and the artist offers a vibrant picture of the community that surrounds Hughes's family. This is a book that will no doubt touch many young readers, because in the text Mr. Cooper is honest about Hughes's difficult childhood. He grew up in Kansas, living with his grandmother Mary Langston. His father lived in Mexico because he could not practice law in the United States. His mother was an actress who pursued stardom in Kansas City. Throughout his childhood, the young poet-to-be dreamed of living with his parents, a dream that never came true.
His constant search for "home" was somewhat satisfied after he went to live with friends of the family whom he called Auntie and Uncle Reed. Hughes found another "home" in a Baptist church, with its singing and swinging and festive atmosphere. He wasn't particularly religious, but he liked being in that warm, musical place where everyone was referred to as "brother" and "sister."
But above all, Langston Hughes found "home" in Harlem, and the black community there would inspire much of his work. This is the first book Floyd Cooper has written, and his text is as inviting as his illustrations.
Black Misery, the last book that Langston Hughes wrote before his death in 1967, was originally published in 1969. It is the least elaborate of these three books, published in small format and illustrated with simple but beautiful drawings by Arouni, an artist and book designer. But the sharpness of the text, and the way it reverberates event today, will be as powerful to an adult as to a child.
"Misery is when you heard on the radio that the neighborhood you live in is a slum but you always thought it was home … Misery is when you can see all the other kids in the dark but they claim they can't see you."
The language is as skeletal and yet as monumental as a dinosaur's bones. Langston Hughes tells us what black misery is, even while the alchemy of his writing turns that misery into literature.