illustrated portrait of American poet and author Langston Hughes

Langston Hughes

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Chidi Ikonne (essay date 1981)

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SOURCE: Ikonne, Chidi. “Affirmation of Black Self.” In Modern Critical Views: Langston Hughes, edited by Harold Bloom, pp. 151-67. New York, N.Y.: Chelsea House Publishers, 1989.

[The following essay, which appeared in Ikonne's From DuBois to Van Vechten: The Early New Negro Literature 1903-1926 (1981), focuses on the aspect of self-expression and race identification in the works of Langston Hughes.]

When Countee Cullen wondered whether some of Langston Hughes's poems were poems at all, he was not alone. Eugene F. Gordon and Thomas Millard Henry's description of The Weary Blues as a “doggerel” and “product of the inferiority complex” has already been noted. Hughes's second volume of poetry, Fine Clothes to the Jew (1927), was unequivocally condemned by a section of the black press. The Pittsburgh Courier called “LANGSTON HUGHES' BOOK OF POEMS TRASH.” The New York Amsterdam News called Hughes himself “THE SEWER DWELLER,” while the Chicago Whip named him “The poet lowrate of Harlem.” Even his friend, Wallace Thurman, almost agreed with his critics that Hughes wrote “trash” when he suggested that Langston Hughes “needs to learn the use of the blue pencil and the waste-paper basket.”

Thurman, nevertheless, offers one of the reasons why most of the Negro literati could not have approved of some of Langston Hughes's subject matter: the apparently anti-assimilationist hue of his treatment. Thurman writes: “He went for inspiration and rhythms to those people who had been the least absorbed by the quagmire of American Kultur, and from them he undertook to select and preserve such autonomous racial values as were being rapidly eradicated in order to speed the Negro's assimilation.”

Langston Hughes's early poetry contained such pieces as “Young Prostitute,” which is about a growing but already overworked harlot—the kind [that] come cheap in Harlem / So they say”; “To a Black Dancer in ‘The Little Savoy,’” which focuses on a girl whose “breasts [are] / Like the pillows of all sweet dreams”; “The Cat and the Saxophone,” that jerky sputtering of a tipsy love-thirsty couple that knocked Countee Cullen “over completely on the side of bewilderment, and incredulity”; and the poem about a prostitute in a British colony—possibly in Africa—Natcha. She offers love “for ten shillings.” All these are raw slices of life cut from Harlem and Africa with no palliative or the Freudian “incitement premium” offered. The pretty and sexy “wine-maiden” drunk with “the grapes of joy” in “To a Black Dancer in ‘The Little Savoy’” is, possibly, only a reflection (a literary transplant) of a young black woman whom the poet must have met, one night, in the cabaret—The Little Savoy.

Thus the source of Hughes's trouble with some black critics was not that he was not being Negro but that his work was too Negro self-expressing. He threw wide, to use Countee Cullen's words, “every door of the racial entourage, to the wholesale gaze of the world at large” in defiance of the black middle-class assimilationist “code” of decency.

The last paragraph of his reply to George S. Schuyler's article “The Negro-Art Hokum” is an adequate definition of what he and many of his close associates—especially his co-founders of Fire—were trying to do:

We young Negro artists who create now intend to express our individual dark-skinned selves without fear or shame. If white people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, it doesn't matter. We know we are beautiful. And ugly too. The tom-tom cries and the tom-tom laughs. If colored people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, their displeasure doesn't matter either. We build our temple for tomorrow, strong as we know how, and we stand on the top of the mountain, free within ourselves.

George S. Schuyler, who believed that “the Aframerican is merely a lampblacked Anglo-Saxon,” had contended that there could be nothing “expressive of the Negro soul” in the work of the black American whose way of life was hardly different from that of other Americans. He is, Schuyler argued, “subject to the same economic and social forces that mold the actions and thoughts of the white Americans. He is not living in a different world as some whites and a few Negroes would have us believe. When the jangling of his Connecticut alarm clock gets him out of his Grand Rapids bed to a breakfast similar to that eaten by his white brother across the street … it is sheer nonsense to talk about ‘racial differences’ as between the American black man and the American white man.” Therefore any attempt on the part of the black American to aim at the production of any art distinctively Negro borders on self-deception, for “Negro art” belongs somewhere else. It “has been, is, and will be among the numerous black nations of Africa; but to suggest the possibility of any such development among the ten million colored people in this republic is self-evident foolishness.”

Langston Hughes's response was direct in spite of the young poet's initial faux pas when he strained logic by equating a desire “to be a poet—not a Negro poet” with a wish “to be white.” Without repudiating the Americanness of the Afro-American, he defined how a work of art by a black American can be Negro, the artist's Americanness notwithstanding. The basis is his choice of object and of manner of imitation. The black artist stands a good chance of capturing the Negro soul if he looks for his material not among the “self-styled ‘high-class’ Negro[es],” but among “the low-down folks, the so-called common elements.” These, Hughes claimed, unlike the type of Negroes who have “Nordic manners, Nordic faces, Nordic hair, Nordic art (if any), and an Episcopal heaven,” “furnish a wealth of colorful, distinctive material for any artist because they still hold their own individuality in the face of American standardizations.” They could easily be found “on Seventh Street in Washington or State Street in Chicago and they do not particularly care whether they are like white folks or anybody else.”

To construct works of art distinctively Negro with these elements, Hughes argued, all the Afro-American artist has to do is to bring to bear on them “his racial individuality, his heritage of rhythm and warmth, and his incongruous humor that so often, as in the Blues, becomes ironic laughter mixed with tears.” It is this marriage between Negro material and the artist's “racial individuality,” as a basis for the creative process, that makes Jean Toomer's Cane and Paul Robeson's singing “truly racial” or expressive of the Negro self. He concluded: the development of this type of black self-expressive art was his and his close associates' prideful aim.

The New Negroness of Langston Hughes resides, therefore, in one attitude of the mind: race-pride. It supports and is often indistinguishable from his African motif; it is at the base of his application of the Negro folk treatment to Negro folk material.

Langston Hughes and his associates were not the first Afro-Americans to apply folk treatment to Negro folk material. James Edwin Campbell, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Daniel Webster Davis, J. Mord Allen, the early James Weldon Johnson, and many others had written about the “common [black] elements” in Negro dialect. Not all their works, however, anticipated the self-pride and self-expression of the Harlem Renaissance literature. Many of them belonged to the minstrel tradition. In many cases, although their subject looked black and their language of creation supposedly was Negro, their end product lacked the Negro soul. Created purposely for the delectation of the white folk whose self-aggrandizement they also sought to sustain, these earlier works comprised mainly those Negro elements which experience had proved to be pleasurable to the white ego. They were, essentially, attempts to recreate the white man's concept of the black man. In other words, the Negro artists often borrowed their black material from the white man's imagination. With regard to their form, the dialect (folk) poems most often differed from their literary counterparts only in orthography. In some cases their folk treatment did not go beyond a distortion of English syntax.

Consequently, when Langston Hughes arrived on the scene the process he was to adopt was almost nonexistent, even though some critics confused it with the old minstrel tradition and feared that it might cater to the old self-aggrandizement of the white folk. Drawing his subjects straight from real (as distinct from imagined) Negro folks, he experimented with the blues and jazz forms and employed the real dialect of real Negroes, mainly of Washington, D.C., Harlem, and the South Side, Chicago. Among the results of his first experiments are “The Weary Blues,” “Jazzonia,” and “Negro Dancers”—poems which are important not only because they are three of his best, but also because they were the very ones that he showed to Vachel Lindsay at the Wardman Park Hotel, Washington, D.C., in December 1925. They set the tone for much of Langston Hughes's later poetry; as such they deserve a closer look.

Thomas Millard Henry was not completely wrong when he applied the phrase “a little story of action and life” to “The Weary Blues,” which earned Hughes the forty-dollar first prize in the poetry section of Opportunity's 1925 contest. An attempt to paint a folk creator of the blues in the very action of creation, the poem is essentially a process analysis, a rhetorical pattern which is very close to narrative. Its title notwithstanding, it is hardly a true imitation of the folk blues—a genre which James Weldon Johnson rightly described as a “repository of folk-poetry.” At least its form does not agree with the description of the blues pattern as given by Langston Hughes himself in 1927:

The Blues, unlike the Spirituals, have a strict poetic pattern: one long line repeated and a third line to rhyme with the first two. Sometimes the second line in repetition is slightly changed and sometimes, but very seldom, it is omitted. The mood of the Blues is almost always despondency, but when they are sung people laugh.

Yet “The Weary Blues” is a successful poem. The monotonous, and therefore boring, sentence patterns with very little or no attention to syntax combine with the folk artist's “droning,” “rocking,” and swaying as well as the implication of the “old gas light,” the “poor piano,” and the “rickety stool” to underscore the dreariness of the player's life. We feel his blues-infected soul not only in the “sad raggy tune” squeezed out of the “poor” moaning piano, or in the “drowsy syncopated tune” and “mellow croon,” but also in his helplessness vis-à-vis the song which rises in him and overflows, almost unaided, his tired voice in the semi-darkness of “an old gas light.” The mood is that of “despondency.” It is the mood of blues, an art form which Hughes thought was more dolorous than the spirituals because its sorrow is untempered by tears but intensified by an existentialistic laughter.

With regard to its coming too close to being an ordinary narrative, “a little story of action and life,” it is even doubtful that it could have done otherwise, since the blues as a poetic expression is an exposé of an active experience physically lived through, or being contemplated mentally or internally ongoing. Witness the movement of the famous “St. Louis Blues” or the sequential approach of “Hard Times Blues.” Unexpected interjections of moods and sentiments may disturb the logical sequence of the action being rehearsed or being lived mentally; they hardly disrupt the basic layout of the experience. “What's stirrin', babe?” which, incidentally, is a good example of the blues in one of its earlier stages of development, will make this point clearer:

Went up town 'bout four o'clock;
                              What's stirrin', babe; stirrin', babe?
When I go dere, door was locked:
                              What's stirrin', babe, what's stirrin', babe?
Went to de window an' den peeped in:
                              What's stirrin', babe; stirrin', babe?
Somebody in my fallin' den—
                              What's stirrin', babe; stirrin', babe?

The question “What's stirrin', babe?” is interjected in the first stanza to reactualize the past experience and underscore the speaker/singer's emotion: a combination of surprise and jealousy. Yet the basic structure of the action is not destroyed, as can be seen if we relocate the interjecting question where it really belongs—after the first line of the second stanza: that is, when the speaker/singer really sees something “stirrin'” in his “fallin' den [his bed].”

It is because the blues is an account of an experience lived, or an experience being lived, or an experience that will be lived, that “it was assumed,” as LeRoi Jones correctly points out, “that anybody could sing the blues. If someone had lived in this world into manhood, it was taken for granted that he had been given the content of his verses.” Langston Hughes sees the relationship between the blues and the experience of its author in his account of the singing habit of one George, a joy-seeking wretch who shipped out to Africa with him. According to Hughes “he used to make up his own Blues—verses as absurd as Krazy Kat and as funny. But sometimes when he had to do more work than he thought necessary for a happy living, or, when broke, he couldn't make the damsels of the West Coast believe love worth more than money, he used to sing about the gypsy who couldn't find words strong enough to tell about the troubles in his hard-luck soul.” Janheinz Jahn is also aware of this storifying nature of the blues when he says that “the texts of the blues follow the African narrative style almost entirely.” This feature itself is not surprising since the blues is only a distant descendant of West African folk songs through the Afro-American work songs, saddened by the black man's experience in the New World.

Whatever the case, “The Weary Blues” has something which can pass as the blues in its own right: one aspect is shown by the speaker's imitation (in the line “He did a lazy sway. … / He did a lazy sway. …”) of the rhythm which the folksinger is trying to create; a second blues quality appears in the last stanza of the lyric that the pianist is in the process of composing. This stanza approximates the blues form to the extent that it could be extracted and sung as an independent folk song:

I got the Weary Blues
And I can't be satisfied.
Got the Weary Blues
And can't be satisfied—
I ain't happy no mo'
And I wish that I had died.

As a matter of fact, Langston Hughes confesses in his autobiography that it is a real “blues verse”—the first he “ever heard way back in Lawrence, Kansas, when [he] was a kid.”

It conforms with the three-point movement of a typical blues stanza: affirmation, reaffirmation, determination. Above all, it obeys the rule of repeated lines as well as the a b a b c b rhyme scheme which some of Hughes's later and more confident attempts follow, as evidenced by this stanza from “Bad Man”:

I'm a bad, bad man
Cause everybody tells me so.
I'm a bad, bad man
Everybody tells me so.
I take mah meanness and ma licker
Everywhere I go.

Or by the third stanza of “Po' Boy Blues”:

I fell in love with
A gal I thought was kind.
Fell in love with
A gal I thought was kind.
She made me lose ma money
An' almost lose ma mind.

Or by the last stanza of “Hard Daddy”:

I wish I had wings to
Fly like de eagle flies.
Wish I had wings to
Fly like de eagle flies.
I'd fly on ma man an'
I'd scratch out both his eyes.

And by this stanza from “Bound No'th Blues”:

Goin' down de road, Lawd,
Goin' down de road.
Down de road, Lawd.
Way, way down de road.
Got to find somebody
To help me carry dis load.

Just as “Aunt Sue's Stories” is a celebration of the oral tradition—that bastion of black civilization and cultural experience—and a product of the oral tradition, “The Weary Blues” is both a folk poem and a dramatization of the creation of a folk poem.

This is also true of the systematic, though disorganized, rhythm of “Jazzonia,” which is modeled on jazz music whose flexible structure, like African musical habits from which it takes at least part of its roots, makes for improvisations capable of provoking a sigh or a smile or both. The speaker manipulates the rhythm and the imagery to create the gay, urgent, and often grotesque atmosphere inherent in jazz music. The refrain with its exotic dazzling tree (of life in the Garden of Eden) and river (Nile) heightens the gaiety and seeks to stabilize the tempo as well as the theme. Yet like a real piece of jazz music whose rhythm and duration are unpredictable, it comes to an abrupt end at a moment when we want more of it—not only because we want to know more about “Eve's eyes” and Cleopatra's “gown of gold” (the focus of the fourth stanza and the frame of reference of the refrain) but also because the very two lines that crash-stop the piece have started with a promise of at least two other lines to follow (since they are modeled on the first two lines of the second stanza, which has four lines):

In a whirling cabaret
Six long-headed jazzers play

The total effect is that of joy and sorrowful disappointment, two opposing moods which adequately reflect those of the dancing girl—an embodiment of Eve and Cleopatra, their initial joyous allurements and eventual sorrows combined. Like real American Negro jazz, “Jazzonia” has an undercurrent of sorrow.

Indeed this could be said of most of Langston Hughes's jazz poems before and after 1926. Witness the mournful pessimism beneath the otherwise Dionysian gaiety of “Harlem Night Club” and the frustration that boils under the hilarious “Brass Spittoons.” Jazz is like “that tune” in “Jazz Band in a Parisian Cabaret,” “that tune / That laughs and cries at the same time.” Langston Hughes had earlier indicated this happy-sorrowful nature of jazz, which he tried to capture in most of his jazz poems:

They say a jazz-band's gay.
Yet as the vulgar dancers whirled
And the wan night wore away,
One said she heard the jazz-band sob
When the little dawn was grey.

“Negro Dancers,” the last of the poems which Hughes showed to Vachel Lindsay, is also a folk material effectively treated in a folk manner in spite of the jarring threat implicit in the two-line third stanza:

White folks, laugh!
White folks, pray!

The rhythm this time is that of the Charleston. With a combination of short lines made up mainly of monosyllabic words and gasping punctuation, the speaker captures the sprightful rhythm of the folk dance as well as the urgency of the folk dancer's announcement. The second and third stanzas, with their less-hurried tempo and the double entendre of a pessimistic speaker, highlight the gaiety of the rhythm of the folk dance and cast a shadow (of doubt) on the exuberance of the folk dancer. The total effect, once again, is joy with an undercurrent of sorrow—a combined reflection of the folk dancer's apparent happiness and the pessimism of the speaker who, beneath the joy of the folk dancer's publication of “two mo' ways to do de buck,” seeks to uncover what looks like “I'm laughin' to keep from cryin'.” Yet “Negro Dancers” is a successful imitation of the Charleston—that folk dance whose roots several students have followed beyond the Afro-American community in Charleston, S.C., into Africa.

When Langston Hughes wrote his poems or when he used the jazz and the blues forms, he thought of his manner of imitation as Afro-American, as distinct from African. Nevertheless, it could safely be assumed that he would not be shocked by the idea that his poetry reveals faint rhythms of African tom-toms and African musical habits, such as the call-and-response technique. For one thing, his “POEM For the portrait of an African boy after the manner of Gauguin” sees the rhythm of the tom-tom as a component of the African blood:

All the tom-toms of the jungles beat in my blood,
And all the wild hot moons of the jungles shine in my soul.
I am afraid of this civilization—
                    So hard,
                                        So strong,
                                                            So cold.

The Afro-American, we learn from another poem, “Afraid,” also is lonely and afraid “among the skyscrapers”—symbols of the non-African Western civilization—“as our ancestors” were lonely and afraid “among the palms in Africa.” As another blood component, Hughes often hears a jungle timbre and feels a jungle rhythm in jazz music and jazz dance, as in “Nude Young Dancer.” The young dancer, like the “night-veiled girl” of “Danse Africaine,” obviously owes part of the effectiveness of her performance to her connection with the jungle.

Unlike many other Afro-Americans who used African motifs in their works, Hughes did not have to rely solely on secondhand exotic pictures of Africa in books and on celluloids. He had been physically in contact with the black continent before publishing—if not writing—most of his poems that use Africa either as a motif or as a reinforcing image in his black-is-beautiful theme. Even if he had written them before visiting Africa, it is a mark of his satisfaction with the accuracy of his conception of the ancestral continent that the poems were published after he had had the opportunity of knowing, to use his own words, “the real thing, to be touched and seen, not merely read about in a book.” The attitudes of his speakers towards Africa could, therefore, be credited with a measure of sincerity instead of being simply discarded as another faddish moonshine of the Jazz Age.

Admittedly, Hughes could not always resist the temptation of trying to soothe the thirst in the 1920s for the exotic and the primitive. Some of his autobiographical short stories reveal a sacrifice of realities on the altar of masturbatory exoticism. “Luani of the Jungles,” a story which appeared in the November 1928 issue of Harlem magazine, is a good example.

In this piece, Hughes's first-person narrator describes the physical milieu where the action takes place as accurately as his white interlocutor depicts the reception given to Luani when she returns from Europe:

There a hundred or more members of the tribe were waiting to receive her,—beautiful brown-black people whose perfect bodies glistened in the sunlight, bodies that shamed me and the weakness under my European clothing. That night there was a great festival given in honor of Luani's coming,—much beating of drums and wild fantastic dancing beneath the moon,—a festival in which I could take no part for I knew none of their ceremonies, none of their dances. Nor did I understand a word of their language. I could only stand aside and look, or sit in the door of our hut and sip the palm wine they served me.

The story, however, moves irrecoverably towards the exotic as the white man describes Luani's behavior in her home village in Nigeria, and portrays her as going “hunting and fishing, wandering about for days in the jungles.”

Firstly, it is doubtful that women among any tribe in Nigeria “went hunting and fishing … with members of the tribe” in the 1920s—at least not a chief's daughter who had lived in England and France. Secondly, it is doubtful that a Nigerian girl like Luani would leave her husband's bed of a night to walk about naked, making love with another man under palm trees—even if her husband were impotent. Perhaps a woman can, in 1981 Nigeria, tell her husband whom she has cheated sexually that “a woman can have two lovers and love them both.” A society which had not greatly evolved from what it was in the days of Chinua Achebe's Okonkwo would have fallen completely apart before being required to listen to such an outrageous claim.

Indeed it strains credulity to accept the idea of a white man's going to live with an African wife in her African “jungle” village. A more realistic picture is that which emerges from Langston Hughes's own account of the experience of the mulatto Edward and his black African mother. The mother was only a house servant of a white man who lived at a special place reserved for whites. When the white man returned to England, “the whites inside the compound naturally would have nothing to do with them [Edward and his mother], nor would they give him [Edward] a job, and the Negroes did not like his mother, because she had lived for years with a white man, so Edward had no friends in the village, and almost nobody to talk to.”

Nevertheless, the attitudes of Langston Hughes's speakers towards Africa should be credited with a measure of sincerity. Unlike the narrators of his “African” short stories (and they are too few to be significant) who tend to subscribe to the exotic image of Africa, most of them who speak of or allude to Africa were created by Hughes before 1926. It was during the post-1926 period that the genuine Afro-American's attempt to express himself and his ancestral heritage was falling into decadence as some New Negro writers consciously sought to please their audience instead of seeking to express their dark selves. Thus, if Langston Hughes had chosen after 1926 to repudiate the articles of his “manifesto” completely (and he did not do so) his action could not have affected most of his poems that deal with Africa either directly or indirectly. Besides, the inaccuracies of his speakers notwithstanding, the picture of Africa that emerges from those poems is more authentic than the images that emerge from the writings of many other New Negro authors. For instance, unlike Countee Cullen's romantic Africa where, as in Heritage, “cinnamon tree” grows, Langston Hughes's Africa grows “palm trees,” as in “Afraid.”

It is this considerably high degree of accuracy in the conception of the face of Africa that separates Hughes's “African” poems from those of his fellow New Negroes (who used the same motifs) without, however, depriving them of the basic New Negro awareness of the Dark Continent's presence in the Afro-American's life.

Hughes's black Americans, whose attitudes his first-person speakers voice, have no illusions either of the remoteness of Africa both in time and space or of their unquestionable right to full American citizenship. They all “sing America”; they are all Americans, the darkness of their skins notwithstanding. Even in the poem “Dream Variation”—where the speaker longs “to fling [his] 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”—it is America that is being sung. The dream is a wish fulfillment. Unable to belong effectively to his live society, the speaker wishes for a place where he could relax. The motivation of this “dream” is the motivation of the numerous back-to-Africa movements. The dream would not occur if the live situation were not painful. This can also be said of “Our Land,” which the poet tellingly subtitled “Poem for a Decorative Panel”—fine art, another channel of wish fulfillment. As a reaction to “this land where life is cold,” the speaker wishes for a dreamland which exists nowhere on this planet.

Nonetheless, Langston Hughes's Afro-Americans recognize and affirm their relations with Africa, whose heritage and experience they cherish and revere as sources of pride-inspiring characteristics. In “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” the characteristic is stability which, ironically, has developed from the instability of the speaker's experience. The impermanence of his situation (as an enslaved African), from life on the Euphrates of ancient history to the Mississippi of relatively modern times, has toughened his mind and skin, making him as stable as the rivers whose rise and fall in importance have not destroyed them: “My soul has grown deep like the rivers.” He could as well say as a mother says to a son in a later poem:

I'se still goin', honey,
I'se still climbin',
And life for me ain't been no crystal stair.

(“Mother to Son”)

Stability through the instability of Africa and her sons is also the point of “Proem,” which, in a way, resembles “The Negro Speaks of Rivers.” The blackness of the speaker's skin relates him directly to the blackness of night and of the depths of Africa. Just as the blackness of night and of the depths of Africa is an unchangeable fact, so also is the speaker's blackness with all its fortitude already tested and confirmed. He IS. His blackness, derived from Africa, has exposed him to a toughening experience. He IS now as real as his experience WAS.

In many other poems by Hughes the inherent characteristic of the Afro-American African ancestry is beauty. We see this in “When Sue Wears Red,” a poem which Hughes wrote at the age of seventeen about a seventeen-year-old “brownish girl” who had recently arrived from the South, and sometimes “wore a red dress that was very becoming to her.” Susanna Jones, beautiful in her “red dress,” is portrayed as a reincarnation of a dead African queen, possibly Cleopatra in view of her obvious coquetry or tantalizing charm which “burns … a love-fire sharp like pain” in the speaker's heart. The piece “Poem,” which was first published in the June 1922 number of The Crisis, is a direct assertion of the beauty of the black race:

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.

In most of Hughes's poems night is interchangeable with blackness; the two words as well as sun often relate the subject in focus to Africa as the foundation or the starting point of black life and experience in America.

Langston Hughes's speakers are hardly loud in their acknowledgment of their relationship with Africa. When they try to be, as in “Afro-American Fragment” (which, though published in 1930, is a good summary of the speakers' attitudes towards Africa), their voices tremble with an anti-African note. The repetition of the first three lines (“So long, / So far away / Is Africa”) at the end of the first stanza (and, indeed, at the end of the next and only other stanza) underscores the speaker's wish that his disassociation of himself from Africa be taken seriously. Nevertheless, beneath the disassociation is a strong undercurrent of affirmation of the speaker's kinship with “Africa's Dark Face.” It is one thing to stop the “drums”; to muffle the sound already produced is another. While the production of drum sounds requires a conscious and, under normal conditions, a voluntary effort, resurgence of the sound after the process that produced it has been discontinued can take place in spite of the feeling and preoccupation of the person in whose mind it has been registered.

Langston Hughes in the 1920s wrote poems like “Winter Moon,” “March Moon,” “Sea Calm,” “Cross,” “The Jester,” and “The Minstrel Man.” These are either nonracial, or extremely racial. When nonracial, they contain nothing that could be described as distinctively Negro. Splendid as it is, for instance, the three-line “Suicide's Note” could have been written by Alfred, Lord Tennyson:

The calm,
Cool face of the river
Asked me for a kiss

When extremely racial, they assume various aspects of the writings of the Old Negro authors—from the Niagara fume of “The South,” which could have come from W. E. B. Du Bois's pen to the Old Negro Christlike virtue of “The White Ones.”

Based on the experience of the black man in the New World though these poems are, they did very little or nothing to affirm with pride the Negro self. This assignment was left for the poems where Hughes considerably exploited the Negro folk material and folk medium of creation or acknowledged, even if ambivalently, his ancestral heritage as it related to Africa.

These were the basis of his New Negroness. He expressed the dark self of the Afro-American without for the most part trying to please or displease the black man or his white brother. “With quiet ecstatic sense of kinship with even the most common and lowly folk,” as Alain Locke puts it, he “discovers in them, in spite of their individual sordidness and backwardness, the epic quality of collective strength and beauty.” These were also the basis of his originality, which, ironically, laid him open to attacks, especially from black scholars and critics who, with Benjamin Brawley, saw his themes as “unnecessarily sordid and vulgar” and his manner of treating them as a good example of “imperfect mastery of technique.”

This, however, was mainly a cover for the belief that Hughes was only catering to the pleasure of white faddists who had allegedly influenced him in a bad way. Even Wallace Thurman, his fellow traveler on the bandwagon of “Fire,” thought as much when he charged that “urged on by a faddistic interest in the unusual, Mr. Hughes has been excessively prolific, and has exercised little restraint.

The strongest and most direct charges, however, came from Benjamin Brawley in his article “The Negro Literary Renaissance,” published in the Southern Workman, and from Allison Davis, who claimed that “the severest charge one can make against Mr. Van Vechten is that he misdirected a genuine poet, who gave promise of a power and technique exceptional in any poetry,—Mr. Hughes.” Both of them drew immediate responses, one from Carl Van Vechten and the other from Langston Hughes.

Benjamin Brawley had implied that Van Vechten had influenced Langston Hughes's first volume of poetry, The Weary Blues, which contains a preface written by Carl Van Vechten. In his reply, therefore, Van Vechten tried to show that that could not have been possible:

The Weary Blues had won a prize before I had read a poem by Mr. Hughes or knew him personally. The volume, of which this was the title poem, was brought to me complete before Mr. Hughes and I ever exchanged two sentences. I am unaware even to this day, although we are the warmest friends and see each other frequently, that I have had the slightest influence on Mr. Hughes in any direction. The influence, if one exists, flows from the other side, as any one might see who read my first paper on the Blues, published in Vanity Fair for August, 1925, a full year before Nigger Heaven appeared, before, indeed, a line of it had been written. In this paper I quoted freely Mr. Hughes' opinion on the subject of Negro folk song, opinions which to my knowledge have not changed in the slightest.

Unfortunately for his argument, however, the opening part of his statement does not agree with established facts from other reliable sources—including his own introduction to the book in question: The Weary Blues. He met Langston Hughes and Countee Cullen for the first time on November 10, 1924, the very day Langston Hughes returned from sea, and was introduced to him by Walter White at a party given by the NAACP. He met and spoke with Langston Hughes again a year later at the 1925 Awards dinner of Opportunity, where the poem “The Weary Blues” was awarded the first prize for poetry. Obviously, “the volume, of which this was the title poem,” was not given to him for onward transmission to Alfred Knopf until later. Furthermore, the claim that he had not written “a line” of his Nigger Heaven by August 1925 is misleading, for in a letter dated March 26, 1925, Langston Hughes hoped “‘Nigger Heaven’ 's successfully finished. It is, isn't it?”

Langston Hughes's rejoinder was stronger. Allison Davis, writing after Van Vechten's denial of Benjamin Brawley's charge, had argued that if the author of Nigger Heaven did not influence The Weary Blues, he “undoubtedly did influence” Fine Clothes to the Jew, Hughes's second volume of poems, which was dedicated to Carl Van Vechten. In his letter to the editor of The Crisis Langston Hughes offered “a correction” based on verifiable facts. He had written many of the poems in both The Weary Blues and Fine Clothes to the Jew before November 10, 1924, when he met Van Vechten for the first time:

I would like herewith to state and declare that many of the poems in said book were written before I made the acquaintance of Mr. Van Vechten, as the files of THE CRISIS will prove; before the appearance of The Weary Blues containing his preface; and before ever he had commented in any way on my work. (See THE CRISIS for June, 1922, August, 1923, several issues in 1925; also Buccaneer for May, 1925.) Those poems which were written after my acquaintance with Mr. Van Vechten were certainly not about him, not requested by him, not misdirected by him, some of them not liked by him nor so far as I know, do they in any way bear his poetic influence.

He returned to the matter in 1940 and explained that most of the poems that supposedly revealed Carl Van Vechten's influence on Fine Clothes to the Jew were not included in the earlier volume “because scarcely any dialect or folk-poems were included in the Weary Blues.” While what Hughes means by “folk-poems” is not clear, the emphasis in his statement is on the modifier “scarcely,” because The Weary Blues does contain folk poems.

In any event, Langston Hughes could not have owed his interest in the blues and jazz to Carl Van Vechten. His pre-August 1925 correspondence with Van Vechten confirms the latter's claim with regard to the possibility of Hughes's having influenced his concept of the blues although they had different tastes. Hughes's interest in the blues could be traced to the time when, at the age of nine, he heard the blues on Independence Avenue and on Twelfth Street In Kansas City. With regard to jazz, he wrote one of his best jazz poems, “When Sue Wears Red,” at the age of seventeen. He met Carl Van Vechten at the age of twenty-two.

A careful study of his development as a writer shows that the credit for influence has often been misdirected. The three persons who most deserve it are frequently forgotten: (1) Paul Laurence Dunbar, whose dialect poems he liked and tried to imitate as a child; (2) Ethel Weimer, his English teacher at Central High School in Cleveland, who introduced him to the writings of Carl Sandburg, Amy Lowell, Vachel Lindsay, and Edgar Lee Masters; (3) Carl Sandburg, whose influence on his budding poetic temperament is evident in the form and content of some of his juvenilia and who, obviously, helped to start him on the road which eventually led him to the stark realism—both in subject and style—that shocked some of his critics. Hughes described Sandburg as his “guiding star” in 1940; he had as a boy written a poem about him.

Vachel Lindsay only helped to enlarge his audience since Hughes had already been published by The Crisis before he met and showed Lindsay his “Jazzonia,” “Negro Dancers,” and “The Weary Blues” at the Wardman Park Hotel in December 1925. As a matter of fact, the three poems had already been published in magazines before Lindsay saw them: “Jazzonia” in The Crisis, August 1923; “Negro Dancers” in The Crisis, March 1925; “The Weary Blues” in Opportunity, May 1925, after winning a prize. In any case, Hughes's work does not reveal as much influence of Vachel Lindsay as Countee Cullen's use of the African motif does, for instance.

Still more conspicuous is the absence of the influence of Hughes's famous patron on his work. Incidentally, Langston Hughes was introduced to her only in 1928. At that time he had already published his first two volumes of poetry. He started work on his first novel, Not without Laughter, in the summer of that year. Although the grant he received from her enabled him to complete and revise the novel, any influence she must have had on its form or content is not apparent. The relationship came to an end in December 1930 because Hughes could not satisfy her wish that he “be primitive and know and feel the intuitions of the primitive.”

Carl Van Vechten's interest in his writing must have been pleasing and encouraging to the young author. Given, however, Langston Hughes's strong sense of independence of opinion and of action, both as a child and as an adult, it is fairly reasonable to assume that his choice of subject and of manner of treatment could have been exactly as he had worked them out (before his acquaintance with Van Vechten) with or without the interest and encouragement of the author of Nigger Heaven or anyone else.

He was predisposed to identification with the common man—the black masses or, to use a more recent phrase, “the soul people.” He was one of them. He looked through their eyes and felt through their senses. His art, therefore, was black self-expression.


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Langston Hughes 1902-1967

(Full name: James Mercer Langston Hughes) African American poet, short-story writer, dramatist, essayist, novelist, and autobiographer.

The following entry presents criticism of Hughes's life and career from 1981 through 2000.

A seminal figure of the Harlem Renaissance, a period during the 1920s of unprecedented artistic and intellectual achievement among black Americans, Hughes devoted his career to portraying the urban experience of working-class blacks. Fellow Harlem Renaissance writer Carl Van Vechten called Hughes “the Poet Laureate of Harlem.” He published prolifically in a variety of genres but is perhaps most widely remembered for his innovative and influential jazz-inspired poetry. Hughes integrated the rhythm and mood of blues and bebop music into his work and used colloquial language to reflect black American culture. Gentle humor and wry irony often belie the seriousness and magnitude of Hughes's themes, including black Americans' ongoing pursuit—and consistent denial—of racial equality and the American dream of freedom.

Biographical Information

Hughes was born February 1, 1902, in Joplin, Missouri. During his infancy, his parents separated, and he moved to Lawrence, Kansas, where he was raised primarily by his grandmother. His mother worked as an actress in Kansas City; his father practiced law in Mexico. Following the death of his grandmother, he settled in Cleveland, Ohio, where he attended high school. His young adult years included a stint of living with his father in Mexico and a year of study at Columbia University, followed by an assortment of jobs and traveling. His first book of poems, The Weary Blues, was published in 1926 to warm critical reception, and his second, Fine Clothes to the Jew, followed the next year. He graduated from Lincoln University in Pennsylvania with a B.A. in 1929, and in 1931 he won the Harmon Gold Medal for Literature with his first novel, Not without Laughter (1930). With this literary success, Hughes decided to pursue a career in writing. Throughout the 1930s Hughes became increasingly involved with the political Left in the United States. In 1953, he was investigated by the Senate subcommittee chaired by Joseph McCarthy for allegedly participating in the selling of books to libraries abroad. He remained active as a writer and lecturer into the 1960s, and died in New York City of congestive heart failure on May 22, 1967.

Major Works

Despite his prolific output in other genres, Hughes was known primarily as a poet. He sought to capture in his poetry the voices, experiences, emotions, and spirit of African Americans of his time. Determined to reflect the everyday lives of the working-class culture, he dealt with such controversial topics as prostitution, racism, lynchings, and teenage pregnancy. Hughes also used the vernacular in his verse, drawing heavily upon the themes, rhythms, and cadences of jazz, blues, and gospel music. One of his most frequently anthologized poems, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” appeared in his first collection, The Weary Blues. His second collection, Fine Clothes to the Jew, recognized the everyday struggles of urban black Americans in Harlem who, in pursuit of the American Dream, left behind the overt oppression of the Deep South only to find their dreams denied or set aside indefinitely. This struggle is characterized in his 1951 book-length poem, Montage of a Dream Deferred. In 1959, the poet oversaw the compilation of Selected Poems of Langston Hughes. Two years later Hughes saw the final collection of his own poetry in print, Ask Your Mama: 12 Moods for Jazz. The Panther and the Lash: Poems of Our Time (1967) was in press at the time of his death and, in 1973, Good Morning Revolution: Uncollected Social Protest Writings by Langston Hughes posthumously brought to public attention the depth and range of Hughes's politically controversial verse, essays, and other works from earlier in the century. Yet the definitive volume of Hughes's poetic output is considered by many critics to be The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes (1994).

Hughes's literary reputation was built not just on his work as a poet, but on his skill as a prose writer, as well. One of his most beloved fictional characters, Jesse B. Semple (shortened to Simple), was a stereotypical poor man living in Harlem, a storyteller eager to share his tales of trouble with a writer-character named Boyd, in exchange for a drink. Through the popular tales of Jesse B. Semple, Hughes offered astute commentary on the problems of being a poor black man in a racist society. The stories first appeared in his columns in the Chicago Defender and the New York Post; many were later published in book form, in collections including Simple Speaks His Mind (1950), Simple Takes a Wife (1953), Simple Stakes a Claim (1957), and Simple's Uncle Sam (1965).

Hughes published a variety of books about African American culture for young readers, including The First Book of Negroes (1952), Famous American Negroes (1954), and Fight for Freedom: The Story of the NAACP (1962). He also published two volumes of autobiography: The Big Sea in 1940, and I Wonder as I Wander, which appeared in 1956.

Critical Reception

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. His second poetry collection, Fine Clothes to the Jew, was well received by mainstream literary critics but roundly criticized by his African American peers and critics—in part for its title, but largely for its frank portrayal of urban life in a poor, black Harlem neighborhood. While some critics accused Hughes of bolstering negative racial stereotypes through his choice of subject matter, others faulted him for employing vernacular speech and black dialect in the portrayal of the Harlem streets. In response to both sets of critics, Hughes once wrote, “I felt the masses of our people had as much in their lives to put into books as did those more fortunate ones who had been born with some means and the ability to work up to a master's degree at a Northern college. … I knew only the people I had grown up with, and they weren't people whose shoes were always shined, who had been to Harvard, or who had heard of Bach. But they seemed to me good people, too.”

During the 1960s some of Hughes's younger literary peers were of the opinion that he did not fully embrace the Civil Rights movement. The increasingly strident, militant rhetoric of the mid-1960s stood in sharp contrast to Hughes's bluesy, gospel song-inspired cadences and gentle tenacity; in a review of The Panther and the Lash critic Laurence Lieberman wrote, “we are tempted to ask, what are Hughes' politics? And if he has none, why not? The age demands intellectual commitment from its spokesmen.” Yet contemporary critic David Littlejohn writes of Hughes, “His voice is as sure, his manner as original, his position as secure as, say Edwin Arlington Robinson's or Robinson Jeffers' … by retaining his own keen honesty and directness, his poetic sense and ironic intelligence, he maintained through four decades a readable newness distinctly his own.”

Alice Walker (essay date fall 1989)

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SOURCE: Walker, Alice. “Turning into Love: Some Thoughts on Surviving and Meeting Langston Hughes.” Callaloo 12, no. 4 (fall 1989): 663-66.

[In the following essay, the transcript of a lecture given by poet Alice Walker during the Langston Hughes Festival in 1989, Walker describes her relationship with Hughes.]

If it had not been for the poet Muriel Rukeyser, who was my teacher at Sarah Lawrence in 1965, I would never have met Langston Hughes. It was she who gave him my short story, To Hell With Dying; she who understood the trauma and insight that was at the root of it; she who—in her rather hearty, absent-minded friendliness—was determined to support me as a young writer. She also introduced me to her own agent, Monica McCall, and told me to send my first batch of poems from my book, Once, to The New Yorker, a magazine I'd never read.

Years afterwards she and I would come to a parting of the ways—inevitable, I now see, because we were so unequal: she was white, I was black; she was in her fifties, I was twenty; she had money, prestige as a poet and a teacher; I was poor, a student, and just recently up from the very painful South. At times I felt confused and somewhat smothered by her concern. Or, to put it another way, it was sometimes hard for me to act as grateful as I felt. In any event, she told me how annoyed she was that I chose to give Langston so much credit for publishing my first story. If it hadn't been for me, she said, he'd never have heard of you. Muriel said this with her usual friendly smile, but it hurt very much. I was sorry I had disappointed her, and besides, what she said was true. I think she was later to regret crushing my rather fragile feathers in this way—we made peace with each other shortly before she died—because she understood very well the isolation I endured as one of only three black girls at Sarah Lawrence at the time, and my longing for my racial, spiritual and political kin. In that rich enclave of white people and snow, any black face beaming on us for any reason, anywhere in the world, was likely to be perceived as the sun.

Langston, who accepted my story for an anthology on which he was working, became a good part of my sun that last year of college.

I remember going up to him after one of his plays had been performed in New York City. At this point I had only heard he was great. The only proof I had was that he'd loved my short story. It was when he turned to me with unconcealed delight—his face exactly like a human sun—that I felt deeply ashamed of my ignorance. I had read not one line of his work. Nor was I fully aware of why this was so. After all, I had been educated at Spelman and Sarah Lawrence, two of the best schools for women in the country.

Looking into his smiling eyes I thought: Ah, this is a good person! He is incapable of evil. It was a lovely moment, a lovely thought. And one I still believe. If I had known more about astrology I would have recognized Langston as a fellow Aquarian, constantly, and almost nonchalantly, filling up his private water jug and bringing it to the public square for people to share.

I understand the puzzlement that the gratitude felt by the people Langston helped seems out of proportion to the actual help received. When I think of the “things” Langston did to inspire the quite intense love I felt for him, they are few. He wished me happiness in my marriage to a non-black man. Well, this was a major act of grace at the time. I still have the card he sent. Exactly the kind a doting uncle would send: shaped like two enormous wedding bells, covered in white glittery stuff. His message, as always, scrawled in optimistic green ink. I think of the words of praise he wrote about my story; his suggestion, in his introduction, that I be given a subsidy; his comment to me that I had married my subsidy—which I did not fully understand, at the time; his understanding of me as a writer. A few letters. For the short story I believe I was paid $27.00.

But then, after our first meeting, and definitely after our second—when he reached behind him and swooped up a stack of his books, which he offered to counter my ignorance of his work—I had begun to study Langston Hughes. The man behind the smiling face. And I admired what I saw.

As much as I liked some of his poems and short stories, I liked even more his autobiography. I now understand that much of Langston's actual life is missing from The Big Sea and I Wonder as I Wander. That they could almost be viewed as Langston's fiction about his life. The pain in his life is not dwelled upon, certainly.

And yet, I felt it. Particularly in the sections where he wrote about his struggle with his parents. In Langston's father, cold, materialistic, contemptuous of black people and the people who love them, I recognized one of my grandfathers. It was the first realistic portrayal of a certain kind of puzzling black man I'd read—the man who has long since given up any belief in the race. I also learned from Langston that this man was wrong—or rather, pitiful—to have given up on us, and that it is quite impossible to harbor a healthy love for anyone who despises you. When Langston bluntly wrote “I hate my father,” I understood I was not alone in having some difficulties with my own, and that this hatred (which I had also felt at times) is an option for the child, and that the child is right, or more healthy, to refuse a parental “love” that doesn't see the child at all but rather what, in the father's image, can be made of him. Or of her.

The courage to demand a different self than the one insisted upon by one's parents or society is a major gift to the soul. And, through his writing, it was a gift Langston was able to share.

I think of Zora Neale Hurston and Langston Hughes as literary parents, or guardians. I am always amazed when I read of their arguments and fallings out, and the eternal blame for their difficulties that is heaped on one of them or the other.

When I consider the ending of their friendship I am filled with sadness for them. It is so easy to see how and why they would love each other. Each was to the other an affirming example of what black people could be like: wild, crazy, creative, spontaneous, at ease with who they are, and funny. A lot of attention has been given to their breakup—which had lots of help from envious, misguided people who disliked both Langston and Zora—but very little to the pleasure Zora and Langston must have felt in each other's company. I like to think of them wandering about together in the early days, Zora showing Langston the close-up beauty of people in the deep South, and Langston returning the kindness, thoughtfulness and generosity that came easily to him with people he liked. I like to think of them telling each other jokes, eating fried chicken and watermelon, zooming about in Zora's little car, laughing. Which I figure was one of the main things they did.

In any event, I have drawn on these guardian spirits over the years, as I have drawn on those of my biological parents—who were also known to have a few fights and a royal falling out or two—and I have never felt that they were fundamentally at odds. Or that their characters were particularly flawed. If anything, again like one's parents, I feel that, spiritually, Langston and Zora resembled each other. And certainly as a black person, a woman, and a writer, I have felt nurtured and nourished by both of them.

When I started thinking about this piece on Langston I was surprised to find his presence so much further away than I imagined it ever could be. For Langston's spirit is one that stayed around, after his death, for many of us. Five years after he died I could still “feel” him, as if he were sitting in my living room or at the top of a tree in my yard. Even now, every once in a while, he floats quite vividly through my dreams, teaching me as a spirit in much the same way he did as a person. What, I sometimes wonder, does this mean?

I think it means that some of us, as we grow and suffer and struggle and age—turn into love. We may continue to be our ordinary selves, but in fact, a transformation occurs. I suspect we let go of everything that does not matter, even our own names, sometimes, so that when a bright hopeful face of anything greets us, we are ready to bestow a smile. The radiance of which lasts an entire life.

By the time I met him, Langston Hughes had turned into love. That is what I met. That is what continues to comfort me through various nights. That is what continues to be a sun. This is true, I believe, for many people.

And now the only question is: How can we honor this?

I think we can honor Langston's memory by remembering that in this life, the Christian church notwithstanding, we are not really required to attain perfection, which is impossible, but to learn to love, which is.

This is almost as hard as attaining perfection, but that is only because we are afraid. I like to think of something Mahatma Gandhi did, in pondering our situation. There was a Hindu man who had killed a Moslem child, and he came to Gandhi in his grief and asked what he could do to atone. Gandhi said: adopt a Moslem child, and raise him as a Moslem. This is a brilliant response, and becomes more profound the longer one studies it.

In this context, I think of a line in Langston's autobiography where he dismisses Zora Neale Hurston with the line: “Girls are funny creatures.” I am thankful that twenty-five years after writing that line Langston, on meeting me, showed no trace of thinking “Girls are funny creatures,” but rather responded to me as if I were his own child, my future as a person and a writer his own concern.

We grow and we change. That is our hope as human beings, and perhaps what we are all required to do is to adopt a Moslem child and raise it as a Moslem. Or, in other words, to make a decision to choose someone totally unlike ourselves about whom to be concerned. And to support them wholeheartedly as they continue to be who they are.

What other hope is there for our hate-filled world? A world in which everyone's children are imperiled.

So, in Langston's memory, this very night, think of a boy or girl, young woman or young man, unrelated to you—or so you think—and send her or him a card, preferably written in optimistic green ink. Ask about this person's well-being. Ask about their work and hopes. Ask about their dreams. Let it be known that you have reached whatever age you have attained and that you are still alive to life beyond yourself, and that you understand that we are each other's responsibility.

As much as I hate to bring up the unpleasant reality of the last presidential election, in which Jesse Jackson alone shone with his own light, I think it serves as an illustration of how much work we must do in order to preserve our own values and our own community. We are up against a hard game. But that is not the news. The news is our temptation to give up. The news is the fear, the lack of caring, the lack of respect among ourselves. The ease with which we think the worst about each other; the pleasure we take in exposing clay feet, the actual joy we take in attack. The way that some of our people have forgotten not only how to love, but how to smile.

Arrange to meet and talk to the young person to whom you've written. Dig up your love and bring it to this meeting. Dust off your smile and wear it. We are all our children have. And they are all our children.

Remember that love is more contagious than AIDS, and the radiance of one smile can last forever.

Principal Works

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The Weary Blues 1926

Fine Clothes to the Jew 1927

Dear Lovely Death 1931

The Negro Mother and Other Recitations 1931

The Dream Keeper and Other Poems 1932

Scottsboro Limited: Four Poems and a Play 1932

A New Song 1938

Shakespeare in Harlem [with Robert Glenn] 1942

Freedom's Plow 1943

Jim Crow's Last Stand 1943

Lament for Dark Peoples and Other Poems 1944

Fields of Wonder 1947

One-Way Ticket 1949

Montage of a Dream Deferred 1951

Selected Poems of Langston Hughes 1959

Ask Your Mama: 12 Moods for Jazz 1961

The Panther and the Lash: Poems of Our Times 1967

Good Morning Revolution: Uncollected Social Protest Writings by Langston Hughes (poetry and prose) 1973

The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes 1994

Mule Bone [with Zora Neale Hurston] (drama) 1930

Not without Laughter (novel) 1930

The Ways of White Folks (short stories) 1934

Little Ham (drama) 1935

Mulatto (drama) 1935

The Big Sea (autobiography) 1940

Simple Speaks His Mind (short stories) 1950

The First Book of Negroes (juvenilia) 1952

Simple Takes a Wife (short stories) 1953

Famous American Negroes (juvenilia) 1954

I Wonder as I Wander (autobiography) 1956

Simple Stakes a Claim (short stories) 1957

Simply Heavenly (drama) 1957

Tambourines to Glory (novel) 1958; adapted as a drama, 1963

Fight for Freedom: The Story of the NAACP (nonfiction) 1962

Something in Common and Other Stories (short stories) 1963

Simple's Uncle Sam (short stories) 1965

Black Misery (nonfiction) 1969

Larry Neal (essay date 1991)

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SOURCE: Neal, Larry. “Langston Hughes: Black America's Poet Laureate.” In American Writing Today, edited by Richard Kostelanetz, pp. 61-72. Troy, N.Y.: Whitson Publishing Company, 1991.

[In the following essay, Neal traces the major themes of Hughes's poetry.]

James Mercer Langston Hughes was born in Joplin, Missouri, on February 1, 1902. He was one of the most prolific writers in American literary history. His plays, poems, and anthologies have found a permanent place in this nation's literary canon, and his work continues to inform Afro-American literature and theater. For several generations of Afro-American artists, his work has vividly illustrated the creative possibilities of the culture and consciousness of black culture.

Hughes came from a separated family; and by the time he was 13, the young boy had lived in Buffalo, Cleveland, Lawrence (Kansas), Mexico City, Topeka (Kansas), Colorado Springs, and Kansas City, before returning to Cleveland for high school. He started writing verses there, and fortunately, his creative talents were encouraged by a perceptive teacher. Then in 1921 he went to live with his father in Mexico, where Langston taught English in two Mexican schools. His first prose piece was published while he was still in Mexico. Called “Mexican Games,” it appeared in the Brownies Book, the innovative children's series edited by the distinguished black scholar-activist W. E. B. DuBois.

1921 was an important year in the young poet's life; for it was the year in which Langston Hughes's classic poem, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” was published in the Crisis magazine, the official organ of the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People). The poem was dedicated to DuBois:

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.
I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young.
I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep.
I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it.
I heard the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln
          went down to New Orleans, and I've seen its muddy
          bosom turn all golden in the sunset.
I've known rivers:
Ancient, dusky rivers.
My soul has grown deep like the rivers.(1)

The poem was enthusiastically received by a broad cross-section of the poetry-reading public. Its young writer became famous, and a major literary career was launched. Along with Claude McKay's defiant sonnet “If We Must Die,” it is still the most widely recited poem in Afro-American literature. Specifically what is it about the poem that has engaged so many diverse audiences? And what is its special meaning in the context of the Afro-American cultural matrix?

Well, for one thing, the poem is not complex. Its lyricism is direct and honest, without being simplistic in the pejorative sense. Langston makes a mythic unity between the souls of black people and the timeless rivers of life. The first three lines meditate upon the order of the world as perceived through the image of the river. Thus, the speaker declares that his spirit is godlike and antecedent to the birth of the human race. Hughes's concept of the soul is decidedly Platonistic. The “I” of the first three lines exists in some strange, prehistoric, metaphysical dawn.

But with the line “I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young,” he introduces the reader to actual history. He evokes the image of a universal and ancient black humanity that actively contributes to the building of civilizations. The poem celebrates the American Negro's African origins as the poet identifies with the myriad of workers who labored to build the pyramids.

Then abruptly the images leap forward into modern history where the poet hears the “singing” of the Mississippi and associates it with the Union conquest of the Confederacy and the abolition of slavery in the United States. Now all of the rivers of the poem converge in the speaker's evocation of the Mississippi, which has a special place in the American ethos. The Mississippi, called by the Indians the “Father of Rivers,” is the mightiest and most legendary river on the North American continent. Throughout the poem, the speaker is a witness to history. The poet asserts the oneness of his soul with that of the river. Thus, in the tradition of Afro-American spirituals, he has been baptized in the river: and this baptism has conferred upon him a knowledge of his universality and ancestral continuity—a continuity which extends backward into the cosmic past where the rivers were “older than the flow of human blood in human veins.”

What we have here is a compressed epic rendered in highly lyrical terms. Despite the obvious universality of the poem, it must not be forgotten that its speaker is a representative of the Negro race.

The “I” of the poem is not the modern, severely alienated “I” of T. S. Eliot's love-song for Prufrock. The comparison may seem somewhat invidious; but the contrast is nonetheless interesting. In Eliot the weight of the years is burdensome for the speaker while Langston's speaker, who is as old as time itself, attempts to occupy a meaningful place at the center of the human universe. The voice in Langston's poem is not simply speaking for himself alone. Rather, his is the collective voice of a people striving to define themselves against a background of political and social oppression. The lyric gestures towards the epic form in that it attempts to express the collective ethos of a profoundly spiritual people. Langston's career, like James Joyce's, especially centers around his attempt to interpret the “soul” of his race.

And for Langston, the soul of his race was best illuminated and manifested in the folklore and musical culture of Black America. For as Professor George Kent notes in an essay on Langston Hughes and the Afro-American folk and cultural tradition: “The folk forms and cultural expressions were themselves definitions of black life created by Blacks on the bloody and pine-scented Southern soil and upon the blackboard jungles of urban streets, tenement buildings, store-front churches, and dim-lit bars. …”2

Thus, it was this particular vision that led Langston Hughes to attempt a poetic translation of the entire universe of black music. In his poetry and prose one hears the cadences of working-class black people. Langston became a poet who was intimately familiar with the possibilities of “ordinary” black speech and its attendant rhythms. He became interested in the folk tales with their wry humor and wisdom. As for the musical form called the blues, he understood that the bittersweet songs popularized by artists like Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey, Blind Lemon Jefferson, and innumerable others expressed compelling attitudes towards life. These songs, built upon the complex vagaries of the human condition—the mysteries of love, hate, chaos, and economic dislocations—were the stuff of great literature. In his first autobiography, The Big Sea, he put it this way:

I tried to write poems like the songs they sang on Seventh Street (in Washington, D. C.)—gay songs, because you had to be gay or die; sad songs because you couldn't help being sad sometimes. But gay or sad, you kept on living and you kept on going. Their songs—those on Seventh Street—had the pulse beat of the people. …3

So it is that in Langston's poetry we discover a special kind of attitude towards Afro-American music. And at the core of his poetic strategy is an attempt to reveal the ethos of black America as symbolized in black music. Thus, he was not merely concerned with the aesthetic surface of the music. He was not a musicologist. It appears that Langston's intention was to look behind or beneath that surface to the lives of its creators: Langston knows that the musician is not merely an entertainer and that the music does not spring from the same ground as European classical music. Rather, the music stands as a metaphor for the actual conditions of black people in America. In a poem entitled the “Trumpet Player” he gives us this vision:

The Negro
With the trumpet at his lips
Has dark moons of weariness
Beneath his eyes
Where the smoldering memory
Of slave ships
Blazed to the crack of whips
About his thighs.

Like the blues singer, Langston is urged to keep alive the painful memories of the ancestral past. He probes beneath the vibrant music to the memory of the slaves' “middle passage” from Africa with its well-known horrors. In the next stanza the Negro musician is seen having altered his African identity by taming down his head of “vibrant hair.” Ever aware of irony and what Ralph Ellison called the “American joke,” the poet describes the slicked down hair as glowing like a “crown.” The music is a kind of contradiction:

The music
From the trumpet at his lips
Is honey
Mixed with liquid fire.
The rhythm
From the trumpet at his lips
Is ecstacy
Distilled from old desire—

We learn that these old desires are essentially a longing for a transcendent freedom.

That is longing for the moon
Where the moonlight's but a spotlight
In his eyes,
That is longing for the sea
Where the sea's a bar-glass
Sucker size.

The poet always sees life in Harlem with a double consciousness. In one context, Langston is the romantic in love with the glorious beauty of his people. And whenever possible, he celebrates the intrinsic spiritual values which give the culture its tone and texture. But he rarely eschews the tough-mindedness of the folk sensibility with its acid-like cynicism. This essential toughnesss of spirit leads him to remind us of the terrible price black people have paid in quest of the urban El Dorados. There is a terror lurking beneath the music:

The Negro
With the trumpet at his lips
Whose jacket
Has a fine one-button roll,
Does not know
Upon what riff the music slips
Its hypodermic needle
To his soul—

At what point in the musician's encounter with the mystery and the elegance of his art does he become addicted like a common junkie? And at what point does the artist risk the loss of his identity by giving into the rigorous demands of his craft? How does one maintain balance and grace in the ritual journey through the river's fire? In the last stanza the poet gives the answer:

But softly
As the tune comes from his throat
Mellows to a golden note.

Yes, pain is transformed into art. The troubles, the “bad air,” are distilled into a compelling and transcendent art form. As in the blues, the troubles are syncopated into a dance beat.

Ralph Ellison's now famous eloquent definition of the blues is pertinent here. Ellison writes that the “blues is an impulse to keep the painful details and episodes of a brutal experience alive in one's aching consciousness, to finger its jagged grain, and to transcend it, not by consolation of philosophy but by squeezing from it a near-tragic, near-comic lyricism. As a form the blues is an autobiographical chronicle of personal catastrophe expressed lyrically.” And this is the attitude which informs most of Hughes's blues-oriented poems.

There is a decidedly religious side to Langston's sensibility. This sense of religious ecstasy occurs when the poet tries to express the sensual energy of the music. We especially note this tendency in such pieces as, “Jazzonia,” “Song for a Banjo Dance,” “When Sue Wears Red,” “Spirituals,” and “Tambourines.” In “Jazzonia,” for example, the images of the Harlem cabaret with its dancing girl are juxtaposed against images of the Biblical Eve and the Cleopatra of classical literature:

Oh, silver tree!
Oh, shining rivers of the soul!
In a Harlem cabaret
Six long-headed jazzers play.
A dancing girl whose eyes are bold
Lifts high a dress of silken gold.
Oh, singing tree!
Oh, shining rivers of the soul!
Were Eve's eyes
In the first garden
Just a bit too bold?
Was Cleopatra gorgeous
In a gown of gold?
O, shining tree!
Oh, silver rivers of the soul!
In a whirling cabaret
Six long-headed jazzers play.(4)

This poetic sensibility is clearly not in a strict Puritan mode. Here, there is a kind of agreement between the sacred and profane—a merger, so to speak, between the sensual and the spiritual. We can also perceive this kind of linkage in the poem, “When Sue Wears Red”:

When Susanna Jones wears red
Her face is like an ancient cameo
Turned brown by the ages.
Some with a blast of trumpets,

This image is highly saturated with internal cultural meanings. There is a kind of racial in-joke involved in its strategy. What Langston does here is riff off on the stereotypical idea that Negroes, as a race, especially like the color red. Bright, primary colors are generally associated with the dressing styles of the black working classes. But the color red, with all of its symbolic overtones, occupies a special place in Afro-American folkways. And Langston, who had a keen ear and eye for folk humor, has lent archetypal weight to the in-house jokes black Americans make about themselves concerning the color red. Langston's red, as used here, symbolizes both royalty and passionate love:

When Susanna Jones wears red
A queen from some time-dead Egyptian night
Walks once again.
Blow trumpets, Jesus!
And the beauty of Susanna Jones in red
Burns in my heart a love-fire sharp like pain.
Sweet silver trumpets,

Those joyous shouts that punctuate the poem are essentially double-entendres which function to merge the sacred and profane. The speaker of the poem could either be in church or on a street corner in Harlem. The point is that the beauty of the brown-skinned Sue evokes an ecstatic outburst which can, by a subtle shift in intonation, either express Sue's holiness and regalness, or her passionate sensuality. There is a special exuberance of spirit associated with Afro-American culture. And Langston was not prudish about celebrating it. In “Song for a Banjo Dance,” the poet urges the dancer to:

                    Get way back, honey,
                    Do that low-down step.
                    Walk on over, darling,
                              Now! Come out
                              With your left.
Shake your brown feet, honey,
Shake 'em, honey chile. [Italics mine](5)

Again there is the double-entendre on the words “low-down step.” As used here the words are a description of the choreography of the dance, but they also convey overtones of the erotic. Nonetheless, Langston's eroticism is never prurient or voyeuristic. His work always strives to celebrate both the joys and the suffering of life.

Stylistically Langston's poetry is characterized by a robust, direct tone, and by a kind of unadorned, uncontrived eloquence which springs from the actual feel and smell of real life. This is why he is the most popularly read and memorized poet in the Afro-American community.

Langston's poetic voice is essentially saturated by the emotional ethos of the blues. His artistic power resides in his skillful rendering of the complex nuances of black, urban speech:

“BOOGIE: 1 A.M.”

Good evening, daddy!
I know you've heard
The boogie-woogie rumble
Of a dream deferred
Trilling the treble
And twining the bass
Into midnight ruffles
Of cat-gut lace.

Langston's poetry rarely exhibits the kind of complexity and density of thought that is often encountered in poetry in the tradition of Pound and Eliot. Despite the absence of cabalistic strategies for literary scholars to gnaw on, a line such as the “boogie-woogie rumble / of a dream deferred” carries a great deal of lyric clout. Just what does “the boogie woogie” rumble have to do with a “dream deferred”? And just what dream was deferred? Langston's poem “Harlem” gives part of the answer:

What happens to a dream deferred?
          Does it dry up
          like a raisin in the sun?
          Or fester like a sore—
          And then run?
          Does it stink like rotten meat?
          Or crust and sugar over—
          like a syrupy sweet?
          Maybe it just sags
          like a heavy load.
          Or does it explode?

So the dream of democracy that has been deferred grumbles and rumbles on into the small hours of the Harlem morning. Most of the characters in this montage of deferred dreams persistently question the contradictions of the dream. They are adroitly and eloquently walking the thin line between spiritual self-assertion and despair:


Tinkling treble,
Rolling bass,
High noon teeth
In a midnight face,
Great long fingers
On great big hands,
Screaming pedals
Where his twelve-shoe lands,
Looks like his eyes
Are teasing pain,
A few minutes late
For the Freedom Train.

In Langston's blues aesthetic, music is always symbolic of the larger human dilemmas in the social environment. Rarely do we find the musicians in Langston's poetry depicted as creating art devoid of social meaning and human significance. For the people in Langston's poetry the music is clearly, to quote Kenneth Burke, “equipment for living”:

Little cullud boys with fears,
frantic, kick their draftee years
into flatted fifths and flatter beers …

These lines are from a poem called, “Flatted Fifths.” Its title refers to the music of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie which was notable for the uniquely creative manner in which the flatted fifth was employed in jazz improvisation. To the chagrin of musicians like the drummer Max Roach, that music came to be known as “bebop,” and its adherents and fans were called “be-boppers.” Thus the poem opens with the lines: “Little cullud boys with beards / re-bop be-bop mop and stop.” Here is Langston's attempt to imitate the rhythmic figures of the new urban black music. This is consistent with Langston's aesthetic urge to coax his words as close as possible to actual songs. Like the poetry of Paul Lawrence Dunbar, James Weldon Johnson, Walt Whitman, and Carl Sandburg, Langston's work displays a very compelling emotional quality when read aloud. The aim of this kind of poetry is the lyrical evocation of the working person's struggle to realize the American “dream.” And Langston, as the poet laureate of his people, sought persistently to maintain an urgency of voice. He either cursed the dream as nightmare or he celebrated the strength and tenacity of the people as they brought a special brand of folk humor to exploding the illusions of the dream. But through all of this Langston truly believed in the possibility of the dream's realization:


Dream singers,
Story tellers,
Loud laughers in the hands of Fate—
          My people.
Ladies' maids,
Nurses of babies,
Loaders of ships,
Number writers,
Comedians in vaudeville
And band-men in circuses—
Dream-singers all,—
          My people.
Story-tellers all,—
          My people.
God! What dancers!
God! What singers!
Singers and dancers.
Dancers and laughers.
Yes, laughers … laughers … laughers—
Loud-mouth laughers in the hands
          Of Fate.(6)


  1. Langston Hughes, Selected Poems (New York: Knopf, 1959). All other poetry quoted in this chapter except where noted is taken from this anthology.

  2. George Kent, Blackness and the Adventure of Western Culture (Chicago: Third World Press, 1972).

  3. Langston Hughes, The Big Sea (New York: Knopf, 1940).

  4. Stephen Henderson, Understanding the New Black Poetry (New York: Morrow, 1973). This critical anthology contains many exciting ideas about the aesthetics of Afro-American poetry.

  5. Henderson.

  6. Henderson.


The Weary Blues. New York: Knopf, 1926.

Fine Clothes to the Jew. New York, Knopf, 1927.

The Big Sea. New York: Knopf, 1940.

Shakespeare in Harlem. New York: Knopf, 1942.

One-Way Ticket. New York: Knopf, 1949.

Simple Speaks His Mind. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1950.

Montage of a Dream Deferred. New York: Henry Holt, 1951.

I Wonder as I Wander. New York: Rinehart, 1956.

The Langston Hughes Reader. New York: Braziller, 1958.

Selected Poems. New York: Knopf, 1959.

The Best of Simple. New York: Knopf, 1959.

Ask Your Mama: 12 Moods for Jazz. New York: Knopf, 1961.

Something in Common, and Other Stories. New York: Hill & Wang, 1963.

The Panther and the Lash. New York: Knopf, 1967.

About Langston Hughes:

Emanuel, James A. Langston Hughes. New York: Twayne, 1967.

Henderson, Stephen. Understanding the New Black Poetry. New York: Morrow, 1973.

Kent, George. Blackness and the Adventure of Western Culture. Chicago: Third World Press, 1972.

Wagner, Jean, Black Poets of the United States. Translated from the French by Kenneth Douglas. Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1973.

Further Reading

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Bogumil, Mary L., and Michael R. Molino. “Pretext, Context, Subtext: Textual Power in the Writing of Langston Hughes, Richard Wright, and Martin Luther King, Jr.” College English 52, no. 7 (November 1990): 800-11.

A critical comparison of three African American literary figures.

Borden, Anne. “Herioc ‘Hussies’ and ‘Brilliant Queers’: Genderracial Resistance in the Works of Langston Hughes.” African American Review 28, no. 3 (fall 1994): 333-45.

A critical analysis of Hughes's literary treatment of gender and racial identity.

Cobb, Martha. “Langston Hughes.” In Modern Critical Views: Langston Hughes, edited by Harold Bloom, pp. 103-26. New York, N.Y.: Chelsea House Publishers, 1989.

Cobb offers a critical overview of Hughes's poetic career.

Kaup, Monika. “‘Our America’ That Is Not One: Transnational Black Atlantic Disclosures in Nicolás Guillén and Langston Hughes.” Discourse: Journal for Theoretical Studies in Media and Culture 22, no. 3 (fall 2000): 87-113.

Discussion of the transnational connections and literary parallels between Hughes and Cuban poet Nicolás Guillén.

Miller, Marilyn. “(Gypsy) Rhythm and (Cuban) Blues: The Neo-American Dream in Guillén and Hughes.” Comparative Literature 51, no. 4 (fall 1999): 324-44.

An examination of the lives, works, political ideologies, and possible reciprocal influences of African American writer Hughes and Cuban poet Nicolás Guillén.

Olmsted, Jane. “Black Moves, White Ways, Every Body's Blues.” In Black Orpheus: Music in African American Fiction from the Harlem Renaissance to Toni Morrison, edited by Saadi A. Simawe, pp. 65-89. New York, N.Y.: Garland Publishing, 2000.

The motif and theme of the blues are examined as they appear in both the fiction and the verse of Hughes.

Additional coverage of Hughes's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Gale: African American Writers, Eds. 1, 2; American Writers Retrospective Supplement, Vol. 1; American Writers Supplement, Vol. 1; Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Vol. 12; Black Literature Criticism, Ed. 2; Black Writers, Eds. 1, 3; Children's Literature Review, Vol. 17; Concise Dictionary of American Literary Biography, Vol. 1929-1941; Contemporary Authors, Vol. 1-4R; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series Vols. 1, 34, 82; Contemporary Authors—Obituary Vol. 25-28R; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 1, 5, 10, 15, 35, 44, 108; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 4, 7, 48, 51, 86, 228; DISCovering Authors; DISCovering Authors 3.0; DISCovering Authors: British Edition; DISCovering Authors: Canadian Edition; DISCovering Authors Modules: Dramatists, Most-Studied Authors, Multicultural Authors, Poets; Drama Criticism, Vol. 3; Drama for Students, Vols. 6, 18; Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century Ed. 2; Exploring Poetry; Exploring Short Stories; Harlem Renaissance: A Gale Critical Companion Vol. 3; Junior DISCovering Authors; Literary Movements for Students, Vol. 2; Literature and Its Times, Vol. 3; Literature Resource Center; Major Authors and Illustrators for Children and Young Adults, Eds. 1, 2; Major 20th-Century Writers, Eds. 1, 2; Poetry Criticism, Vol. 1; Poetry for Students, Vols. 1, 3, 6, 10, 15; Poets: American and British; Reference Guide to American Literature, Ed. 4; Reference Guide to Short Fiction, Ed. 2; St. James Guide to Young Adult Writers; Short Stories for Students, Vols. 4, 7; Short Story Criticism, Vol. 6; Something About the Author, Vol. 4, 33; Twayne's United States Authors; World Literature Criticism; World Poets; and Writers for Children.

Karen Jackson Ford (essay date winter 1992)

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SOURCE: Ford, Karen Jackson. “Do Right to Write Right: Langston Hughes's Aesthetics of Simplicity.” Twentieth Century Literature 38, no. 4 (winter 1992): 436-56.

[In the following essay, Ford examines simplicity of form and content in Hughes's poetry and short fiction.]

The one thing most readers of twentieth-century American poetry can say about Langston Hughes is that he has known rivers. “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” has become memorable for its lofty, oratorical tone, mythic scope, and powerful rhythmic repetitions:

I've known rivers:
I've known rivers ancient as the world and older than
          the flow of human blood in human veins.


But however beautiful its cadences, the poem is remembered primarily because it is Hughes's most frequently anthologized work. The fact is, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” is one of Hughes's most uncharacteristic poems, and yet it has defined his reputation, along with a small but constant selection of other poems included in anthologies. “A Negro Speaks of Rivers,” “A House in Taos,” “The Weary Blues,” “Montage of a Dream Deferred,” “Theme for English B,” “Refugee in America,” and “I, Too”—these poems invariably comprise his anthology repertoire despite the fact that none of them typifies his writing. What makes these poems atypical is exactly what makes them appealing and intelligible to the scholars who edit anthologies—their complexity. True, anthologies produced in the current market, which is hospitable to the African-American tradition and to canon reform, now include a brief selection of poems in black folk forms. But even though Hughes has fared better in anthologies than most African-American writers, only a small and predictable segment of his poetry has been preserved. A look back through the original volumes of poetry, and even through the severely redrawn Selected Poems, reveals a wealth of simpler poems we ought to be reading.1

Admittedly, an account of Hughes's poetic simplicity requires some qualification. Most obvious is the fact that he wrote poems that are not simple. “A Negro Speaks of Rivers” is oracular; “The Weary Blues” concludes enigmatically; “A House in Taos” is classically modernist in both its fragmented form and its decadent sensibility. Even more to the point, many of the poems that have been deemed simple are only ironically so. “The Black Christ,” for example, is a little jingle that invokes monstrous cultural complexity. Likewise, two later books, Ask Your Mama (1961) and The Panther and the Lash (1967), contain an intricate vision of American history beneath their simple surfaces.2 Nevertheless, the overwhelming proportion of poems in the Hughes canon consists of work in the simpler style; and even those poems that can yield complexities make use of simplicity in ways that ought not to be ignored.

The repression of the great bulk of Hughes's poems is the result of chronic critical scorn for their simplicity. Throughout his long career, but especially after his first two volumes of poetry (readers were at first willing to assume that a youthful poet might grow to be more complex), his books received their harshest reviews for a variety of “flaws” that all originate in an aesthetics of simplicity. From his first book, The Weary Blues (1926), to his last one, The Panther and the Lash (1967), the reviews invoke a litany of faults: the poems are superficial, infantile, silly, small, unpoetic, common, jejune, iterative, and, of course, simple.3 Even his admirers reluctantly conclude that Hughes's poetics failed. Saunders Redding flatly opposes simplicity and artfulness: “While Hughes's rejection of his own growth shows an admirable loyalty to his self-commitment as the poet of the ‘simple, Negro commonfolk’ … it does a disservice to his art” (Mullen 74). James Baldwin, who recognizes the potential of simplicity as an artistic principle, faults the poems for “tak[ing] refuge … in a fake simplicity in order to avoid the very difficult simplicity of the experience” (Mullen 85).

Despite a lifetime of critical disappointments, then, Hughes remained loyal to the aesthetic program he had outlined in 1926 in his decisive poetic treatise, “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain.” There he had predicted that the common people would “give to this world its truly great Negro artist, the one who is not afraid to be himself,” a poet who would explore the “great field of unused [folk] material ready for his art” and recognize that this source would provide “sufficient matter to furnish a black artist with a lifetime of creative work” (692). This is clearly a portrait of the poet Hughes would become, and he maintained his fidelity to this ideal at great cost to his literary reputation.

In what follows I will look at some of that forgotten poetry and propose a way to read it that refutes the criticism that most of Hughes's poetry is too simple for serious consideration. I will first reconstruct Hughes's conception of the poet by looking at one of his prose characters who embodies his poetics; and, second, I will turn to a reading of Shakespeare in Harlem (1942), a volume of poetry that typifies Hughes's aesthetic program.

In his column in the Chicago Defender on February 13, 1943, Hughes first introduced the prototype of the humorous and beloved fictional character Jesse B. Semple, nicknamed by his Harlem friends “Simple.” For the next twenty-three years Hughes would continue to publish Simple stories both in the Defender and in several volumes of collected and edited pieces.4 Hughes called Simple his “ace-boy,” and it is surely not coincidental that the Simple stories span the years, the 1940s to the 1960s, when Langston Hughes needed a literary ace in the hole.5 The success of the Simple stories was an important consolation of the writer's later years, when his poetry was reviewed with disappointment, his autobiography dismissed as “chit-chat,” his plays refused on Broadway, and his fiction diminished in importance next to Richard Wright's Native Son (1940) and Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man (1952).6

It seems obvious, however, that in the long association with his ace-boy Hughes found more than popularity and financial success. In fact, his prefatory sketches of Simple attest to the character's importance, in the sheer number of times Hughes sets out to explain him and in the specific details these explanations provide.7 All of them depict Simple as an African American Everyman, the authentic—even unmediated—voice of the community that engendered him. For instance, in “Who Is Simple?” Hughes emphasizes the authenticity of his creation: “[Simple's] first words came directly out of the mouth of a young man who lived just down the block from me” (Best vii). Here and elsewhere Hughes asserts a vital connection between the fictional character and the people he represents: “If there were not a lot of genial souls in Harlem as talkative as Simple, I would never have these tales to write down that are ‘just like him’” (Best viii). The author's dedication to Simple is surely rooted in his conviction that Simple embodies and speaks for the very people to whom Hughes had committed himself back in the 1920s. But Hughes's affinity with Simple is more complete than this.

Commentators on the Simple stories have concentrated on two points: theme, “Hughes's handling of the race issue” (Mullen 20); and genre, “the generic nature of these prose sketches” Mullen 20).8 It is exclusively Hughes as prose artist we have acknowledged when considering these tales. However, I will argue that the Simple stories reveal a great deal about Hughes's poetic genius as well. Casting Simple as the figure of the poet illuminates Hughes's poetic program and explains his powerful affinity with his prose creation.

Crucial in tracing Simple's significance are the “Character Notes” to the 1957 musical comedy Simply Heavenly, which describe Simple in terms that stress his contradictions:

Simple is a Chaplinesque character, slight of build, awkwardly graceful, given to flights of fancy, and positive statements of opinion—stemming from a not so positive soul. He is dark with a likable smile, ordinarily dressed, except for rather flamboyant summer sports shirts. Simple tries hard to succeed, but the chips seldom fall just right. Yet he bounces like a rubber ball. He may go down, but he always bounds back up.

(Plays 115)

The parallel to Charlie Chaplin, an icon of contradiction, is telling. Like Chaplin, whose physical appearance announces internal tensions (his hat is too small, his shoes too large, his vest too tight, his pants too loose), Simple is awkward yet graceful, ordinary yet flamboyant. And, again as with Chaplin, these external tensions reveal deeper ones; he is obstinate yet fanciful, decent yet flawed, and—perhaps most poignant for Hughes—optimistic despite failure.

Simple is a compelling figure for Hughes precisely because of these tensions. For these contraries—even the apparently internal ones—hang about Simple like a fool's motley. The fool's motley, of course, traditionally implies chaos; yet while his multicolored costume reflects the intricacies and contradictions around him, the fool himself may often be a perfect simpleton. This is also true of Hughes's character: though his appearance and even to some extent his character express contradiction, his fundamental nature is unequivocally simple. Obstinate, positivistic, and optimistic, Simple is able to register contradictions without finally resolving them and therefore has special significance for Hughes's poetic project. Hughes, after all, claims that “where life is simple, truth and reality are one” (Big Sea 311). Yet where in America is life simple for African Americans? The “where” Hughes invokes is not a place but a state of mind. The terms of his formulation—simplicity, truth, reality—are broad and vague because they are nearly synonymous to him. If one recognizes the simple facts of life, one will be able to see the truth; if one lives by the truth, one's reality will match one's ideals. Simplicity is truth in Hughes's vision.

Simple is the personification of such a poetics, a philosophy of composition that resorts to simplicity, not in response to singleness or triviality, but, ironically, in response to almost unspeakable contradiction. This is why he appears surrounded by complexities—his culture, his friends, even his clothing registering the confusion of the world around him. To shift the metaphor, simpleness, in both the character and the poetry, functions as a brick wall against which complexities collide. In its artless, uncomprehending refusal to incorporate contradictions, it exacerbates them. For a poet who equates simplicity with truth, cultivating a thematics and aesthetics of simplicity is essential—poetically and politically. Simplicity resists the pernicious subtleties and complexities of integrationist thought. Further, it reveals the inadequacies of such thought. But more important, it achieves these aims by reinstating the truth.

Let me turn to some examples. In “There Ought to Be a Law,” Simple tells his friend Boyd that Congress ought to pass a law “setting up a few Game Preserves for Negroes” (Reader 181). Having seen a short movie about wildlife preserves, where “buffaloes roam and nobody can shoot a single one of them” (181), Simple concludes that “Congress ought to set aside some place where we can go and nobody can jump on us and beat us, neither lynch us nor Jim Crow us every day. Colored folks rate as much protection as a buffalo, or a deer” (181). Boyd, Simple's educated integrationist foil, first faults the plan for drawing a parallel between animals and humans: “Negroes are not wild,” he asserts confidently. Yet in observing Simple's logical flaw, he misses Simple's important point. Precisely because blacks are human beings, they should be treated better than animals. Boyd admits, “You have a point there” (181), but immediately discerns another shortcoming in Simple's argument. When Simple says that one of the things he would like about living on a preserve is that he could “fight in peace and not get fined them high fines” (182), Boyd recoils: “You disgust me. I thought you were talking about a place where you could be quiet and compose your mind” (182). Again Boyd reacts against the racist stereotype that black men are physically aggressive.

In fact, however, the freedom to fight was suggested to Simple by a scene in the movie showing two elks locking horns. While Boyd would replace one behavioral cliché (black men fighting) with another (men meditating in nature), he fails to see that both prescriptions curtail freedom. Once again, Simple makes the more substantial point: “I would like a place where I could do both” (182). While Simple's ideas always sound regressive at first, he ultimately articulates a far more radical position than Boyd's; and he does so by rejecting the falsifying complexities Boyd raises. Boyd's willingness to view all racial issues as hopelessly intricate finally renders him ineffective and conservative. Simple's obstinacy, on the other hand, enables him to view all issues in black and white, so to speak. Indeed, “There Ought to Be a Law” introduces, in a back-handed way, a black separatist position that Simple holds throughout the stories. Far from capitulating to white racist stereotypes about African Americans, Simple advocates a complete break with the white world and, thus, a thorough rejection of white racist assumptions.9

When Simple tries his hand at poetry in two stories, we can begin to see how he embodies Hughes's conception of the poet. Ironically, in “Wooing the Muse” Simple is first inspired to compose poetry when he leaves the city to spend his vacation on the beach. Though the natural setting is a conventional pretext for poetry, Simple's verses ignore the romantic idealization of nature in favor of his characteristic realism regarding a subject that interests him more, human nature:

Sitting under the trees

With the birds and the bees

Watching the girls go by.

(Best 28)

In fact, he gently mocks Romantic clichés like “the birds and the bees” by incorporating such phrases into his irreverent lines. But it is precisely their status as clichés that Simple exploits, tossing off such lines as empty gestures toward figuration to contrast the way his poems barrel unmetaphorically toward their artless points (though his prose is highly figurative). And, of course, that second line is not just any cliché but a euphemism for sexual relations, and thus it receives a double reproof when Simple follows it with his blunt restatement, “Watching the girls go by.”

Predictably, Boyd misses the poem's own logic and faults the verse for its failure to realize conventional Anglo-American form: “You ought to have another rhyme. By ought to rhyme with sky or something” (28). Boyd cannot read the poem on its own terms but views it only as an unfinished quatrain composed (ideally) of two rhymed (aa/bb) couplets. Simple, on the other hand, sees no reason why form should exceed meaning: “I was not looking at no sky, as I told you in the poem. I was looking at the girls” (30).

Simple's second poem is a free-verse composition about racism; “This next one is a killer,” he tells Boyd. “It's serious” (30). In it he compares the treatment of non-black immigrants in the United States with the mistreatment of African Americans:

I wonder how it can be
That Greeks, Germans, Jews,
Italians, Mexicans,
And everybody but me
Down South can ride in the trains,
Streetcars and busses
Without any fusses.
But when I come along—
Pure American—
They got a sign up
For me to ride behind:
My folks and my folks' folkses
And their folkses before
Have been here 300 years or more—
Yet any foreigner from Polish to Dutch
Rides anywhere he want to
And is not subject to such
Treatments as my fellow-men give me
In this Land of the Free.


Again the poem is evaluated in terms of conventional literary standards when Joyce, Simple's fiancée, wants him “to change folkses to say peoples” in order to elevate its diction (31). But since Simple doesn't have an eraser, his original phrasing is preserved. This suggests another constituent feature of Simple's poetry: it is improvisational. Even when he writes poems, they are subject to the pressures of the immediate moment and cannot be polished or refined.

While the lack of an eraser might suggest the opposite, that the poem is fixed and unchangeable, it actually indicates that the process of composition—rather than the product (which is another matter and might receive revision at another time)—is spontaneous and improvisational. In fact, Simple thinks this poem should be longer, but he has to conclude it where he does because Joyce interrupts him during composition. And his sense that the poem should have been longer derives not from some external formal measure but from the integral relationship of structure and meaning. Boyd, on the other hand, thinks “It's long enough” because he doubts the poem's worth; but Simple asserts, “It's not as long as Jim Crow” (31).

After a lengthy discussion with Boyd about why he does not write more nature poems, Simple recites a third piece—a ten-stanza toast in the “counting rhymes” genre, structured in tercets (until the final stanza which is five lines) rhyming aab, like a blues stanza. The “b” line in each stanza is also a refrain line throughout, as in a ballad:

When I get to be ninety-one
And my running days is done,
Then I will do better.


Simple has concocted this toast as a retort to people who tell him, as Boyd has just done, “You should be old enough to know better.” Simple distinguishes between “knowing” and “doing”:

“I might be old enough to know better, but I am not old enough to do better,” said Simple. “Come on in the bar and I will say you a toast I made up the last time somebody told me just what you are saying now about doing better. … That's right bartender, two beers for two steers. … Thank you! … Pay for them, chum! … Now, here goes. Listen fluently.”


Several points in this passage bear upon Simple's poetic practice. Most important is the assertion that recognizing (knowing) social or literary conventions need not result in enacting them (doing). When Simple orders “two beers for two steers,” he playfully supports this by infusing the poetical (by virtue of the rhymes) into the mundane as easily as he has infused the mundane into the poetical. Finally, when Simple cautions Boyd to “Listen fluently,” he coins a phrase that will appear again and again in the stories, whenever Simple suspects that habitual ways of “reading” will obstruct the proper reception of his compositions. The odd phrase pulls artist and audience together, insisting that writer and reader accompany each other in a new literacy. “Listen fluently” also introduces orality, and appropriately so, since it precedes the toast, an oral composition, and thus widens the scope of poetry. As we have seen, many of Simple's poetic models are African-American folk forms—ballads, blues, toasts—genres that can claim written and oral status. Certainly Hughes, like Simple, “knows” about literary convention but chooses to “do” things his own way.

The opposition of correctness as knowledge and correctness as action (in the context of poetry, “action” means writing truthfully) is central to “Grammar and Goodness,” another story that treats Simple's poetic production. Simple's formulation of this borders on the nonsensical, like many of his wise sayings: “It is better to do right than to write right” (Stakes 182). Simple reads two poems to the narrator (who in this story is apparently not Boyd). The first is one that Joyce and Boyd have edited. Its conclusion uneasily renders Boyd's accommodationist perspective in Simple's belligerent style:

Now, listen, white folks:
In line with Rev. King
Down in Montgomery—
Also because the Bible
Says I must—
In spite of bombs and buses,
I'm gonna love you.
I say, I'm gonna LOVE you—
White folks, OR BUST!


The “authorities”—Reverend King and the Bible (and behind them, certainly, Joyce and Boyd)—want Simple's poem to advocate loving the enemy.

However, this conciliatory theme is gainsaid by the imperative construction, the screaming capital letters, the allusions to white violence, and the threatening last line (which comes off as a warning to whites to be lovable rather than as a promise on Simple's part to love them “in spite” of themselves). Despite these obvious contradictions, the narrator extricates a coherent “message” from the piece by ignoring its style, and doubts whether Simple could have written such a poem: “You never wrote a poem that logical all by yourself in life” (181). Simple admits this freely and offers another, unedited, poem in its place; it is no surprise when it completely contradicts the first one. It begins,

In the North
The Jim Crow line
Ain't clear—
But it's here!

and ends,

Up North Jim Crow
Wears an angel's grin—
But still he sin.
I swear he do!
Don't you?


Though the narrator agrees with the sentiment of this poem, he chides Simple “for the grammar” (182). Simple once again rejects the notion that poems must meet formal standards, claiming, “If I get the sense right … the grammar can take care of itself” (182). Both “Wooing the Muse” and “Grammar and Goodness” repudiate the aesthetics of traditional poetry, especially adherence to conventional forms, elevation of diction, preference for written rather than oral forms, the necessity of polish and finish, and the subordination of content to form.

Simple is thus a folk poet in the African and African-American traditions. His poems are communal, colloquial, and often improvisational. When he uses existing verse forms, he chooses ballads, blues, toasts, and spirituals. Moreover, his speech is rendered lyrical through a high content of figuration and internal rhyme.10 In addition to his status as folk poet, however, Simple is the embodiment of—and, considering his life span, perhaps the defender of—Langston Hughes's aesthetic program. His name, an epigrammatic poem in its own right, captures this aspect of the character.

In “Family History” Simple explains his highly suggestive name:

“Grandpa's name was Jess, too. So I am Jesse B. Semple.”

“What does the B stand for?”

“Nothing. I just put it there myself since they didn't give me no initial when I was born. I am really Jess Semple.”

(Speaks 179)

Simple's name invokes his family history, a heritage that the story reveals is multi-racial. His name, then, links him to a diverse cultural past and thereby at least superficially legitimates him as a representative figure. A second interesting feature of his name is the self-defining middle initial “B.” He says the “B” stands for nothing, but knowing him, we wonder if it doesn't signify “black.” Or, it may derive from another story, “Bop,” in which he explains to Boyd that the difference between the prefixes “Re and Be” (in “Re-Bop” and “Be-Bop”) is that the “Be” signifies “the real thing like the colored boys play” (Wife 56). In such a reading, the middle initial “B” might indicate the integrity of self-authorship, a prerequisite for being an authentic representative of his larger culture. Even more suggestive are the puns involved in Simple's names. By giving himself the middle initial he transforms his given name from a negative description of himself—Jess Semple (“just simple”)—into an imperative statement—Jess B. Semple (“just be simple”). The revised name, then, issues a commanding motto for Hughes's poetic program. And finally, “Semple” may also be an ironic appropriation of the middle name of Aimee Semple McPherson, the evangelist, who became a vicious and outspoken opponent of Hughes during the early forties.11 It would be sweet revenge to name his irreverent, black-nationalist bard after a white evangelist who tried to censor and, failing that, publicly excoriated Hughes's poetry.

Simple's provocative name, his rich and original use of language, his obstinate literalism, his radical politics, and his eccentric appearance distinguish him as a poet figure and associate him with a long line of poetic simpletons—most important, with Shakespeare's fools. This is especially obvious in a story like “Cocktail Sip,” where Boyd says Simple sounds like an Elizabethan poet, or “Midsummer Madness,” in which Simple composes pithy proverbs. Like a Shakespearean fool, the Hughesian bard often encodes wisdom in nonsense.12 Indeed, the cardinal point of the Simple stories is the wisdom of simplicity—a precept that, when applied to poetry, demands a daring aesthetic program.

Shakespeare in Harlem (1942), roughly contemporary with the Simple period, self-consciously engages in wooing Simple's muse. The volume is exemplary for two reasons: first, because it declares itself to be “A book of light verse,” and second, because it has been largely overlooked by critics (the latter point undoubtedly due to the former). That is, its outspoken aesthetic recalcitrance has almost certainly doomed it to critical neglect. To read Shakespeare in Harlem we need an interpretive practice that accommodates these poems on their own terms, one that strives, as Simple would say, to “listen fluently.”

From the prefatory note at the front of the book,

A book of light verse. Afro-Americana in the blues mood. Poems syncopated and variegated in the colors of Harlem, Beale Street, West Dallas, and Chicago's South Side.

Blues, ballads, and reels to be read aloud, crooned, shouted, recited, and sung. Some with gestures, some not—as you like. None with a far-away voice


to “A Note on the Type” on the last page of the book,

The headings are set in Vogue Extra-Bold, a typeface designed in our time with the aim to express the utmost simplicity


Shakespeare in Harlem equates the poetic with the simple. It declares itself to contain merely “light verse,” “Afro-Americana”—a collection of folk materials—rather than high art. Like much of Hughes's canon, this book will employ folk forms—“blues, ballads, and reels”—that common readers are already familiar with from the oral culture. Indeed, the poet encourages readers to make the poems their own: they should be “read aloud, crooned, shouted, recited, and sung.” Further, they can be acted out, “Some with gestures, some not.” The preface, then, casts readers in the role of performers who will interpret the poems “as [they] like.” The allusion to As You Like It is the first oblique reference to the namesake of the book. Yet this Shakespeare, in Harlem, is near at hand, colloquial, folksy; he does not speak with the “far-away voice” of Elizabethan England or literary convention or classical poetry. Even his typeface expresses the “utmost simplicity.”

But the appropriation of Shakespeare into simplicity in Harlem is not merely an adjustment undertaken for the audience, nor is it entirely a political maneuver. When Shakespeare goes to Harlem, he faces a crisis of language that is figured forth in extreme simplicity. The material and psychological conditions of Harlem as depicted here (elsewhere Hughes emphasizes its many positive aspects)—poverty, hunger, violence, lack of opportunity, unfathomable despair—render him almost speechless; it is only through the fool, conventionally a voice of simplicity amid overwhelming complexity, that the poet maintains expression. Like Virginia Woolf's imaginative “reconstruction” of the life of Julia Shakespeare in A Room of One's Own, in which she tries to imagine what would have been the fate of Shakespeare's sister (that is, of a talented female poet in the sixteenth century), Hughes is to some extent exploring what Shakespeare's fate would be were he an unemployed African American in twentieth-century Harlem.

Little wonder, then, that the title poem—in which we first hear how Shakespeare sounds in Harlem—is half nonsense:

Hey ninny neigh!
And a hey nonny noe!
Where, oh, where
Did my sweet mama go?
Hey ninny neigh
With a tra-la-la-la!
They say your sweet mama
Went home to her ma.


The poem's nonsense syllables, as might be expected, echo a song from As You Like It which two pages sing in honor of the fool's engagement:

It was a lover and his lass,
                    With a hey, and a ho, and a hey nonino,
That o'er the green cornfield did pass
                    In springtime, the only pretty ringtime,
When birds do sing, hey ding a ding, ding.
Sweet lovers love the spring.


Shakespeare in Harlem reverses this song: love cannot be idealized through images of springtime and green fields. As You Like It itself ridicules romantic equations about love, nature, and the simple life, and the nonsense syllables in the pages' song suggest the fatuousness of those idealized formulations. In the Hughes poem, by contrast, the allusion to Shakespeare seems to marshal the linguistic resources of the fool. Here the nonsense, rather than echoing the mindless babble of the clichéd lyrics, disrupts the portentousness of the lines that communicate the loss of love. Indeed, the first two lines of nonsense in each quatrain seem almost to make possible the utterance of the final two lines that admit loss.

The structure of the stanzas, then, which move from nonsense to sense, suggests that the incantatory energy of the nonsense—deriving from rhymes, alliteration, exclamation marks, and most of all from the liberating effects of non-referential language—is necessary in order to accommodate the painful reality of the sense lines. The word “ninny” in Hughes's stanzas can thus be read simultaneously as a nonsense utterance and a direct address to the fool, “Hey, Ninny.” In both cases the special capacities of foolishness are invoked. Similarly, the literal “no” that is released in the nonsensical “nonny noe” provides an aural negation of the otherwise ineluctable misfortune of the sense lines.

And though the poem sounds somewhat whimsical, lost love is not a comic subject in Shakespeare in Harlem. The “un-sonnet sequence” that opens the book (another revision of Shakespeare), “Seven Moments of Love,” demonstrates what the rest of the book will reiterate: that to be abandoned by a lover is to be cast deeper into poverty. “Supper Time” moves from poverty as an image of loneliness to poverty as the literal result of being alone:

I look in the kettle, the kettle is dry.
Look in the bread box, nothing but a fly.
Turn on the light and look real good!
I would make a fire but there ain't no wood.
Look at that water dripping in the sink.
Listen at my heartbeats trying to think.
Listen at my footprints walking on the floor.
That place where your trunk was, ain't no trunk no more.
Place where your clothes hung's empty and bare.
Stay away if you want to, and see if I care!
If I had a fire I'd make me some tea
And set down and drink it, myself and me.
Lawd! I got to find me a woman for the WPA—
Cause if I don't they'll cut down my pay.


The un-sonnet sequence, indeed the entire book, treats love as a social rather than merely a private problem. Abandoned lovers are exposed to hunger and cold, to diminished wages and status. Details like the dry kettle, the empty breadbox, and the lack of firewood function simultaneously as metaphors for the speaker's isolation and as factual examples of the hardships he will face living on only one income.

The title poem begins a process of recontextualization of private life that the rest of the book develops. In “Shakespeare in Harlem” a speaker registers his loss of love in the first quatrain and another person answers him with the reports of still other people (“they say”) in the second quatrain. The poem, in a section of the book called “Lenox Avenue,” obviously invokes the voices of the people living along the street. A man arrives home, discovers his partner is gone, asks where she went, and is answered by a crowd of neighbors that she went home to her mother. The communal nature of the event is further registered in the appellation “sweet mama” and in the lover's retreat to her own “ma.” This is clearly a family affair, not the isolated nuclear family of suburbia but the extended family of a population that is shifting from the rural south to the urban north. (The Harlem resident's responsibility to aid even remote family members who move north is a repeated theme of the Simple stories.) Romance in this context is not the usual stuff of sonnets but a relationship modeled on the family, as the similarity between the terms “sweet mama” and “ma” indicates. The speaker's “sweet mama” has not left for independence or romance but has retreated to another community, where she will receive care: to her family. There can be little doubt that she is shrinking from the kind of hardships that the “Supper Time” speaker faces.

The poem's simplicity, then, has a great deal of work to do. The nonsense lines allude to a tradition of empty love sentiments even as they also tap the special verbal resources of the fool. The plurality of voices situates love as a public issue. The appellations “sweet mama” and “ma” suggest a paradigm of need and dependence that love can support but not conquer. Though the speaker may to some extent employ nonsense in an effort at “laughing to keep from crying,” this cannot wholly account for the poem. After all, this is Shakespeare, a master of the oxymoron and paradox; that he resorts to nonsense and repetition indicates that his relocation to Harlem has taken a heavy linguistic toll.

“Shakespeare in Harlem” probably has echoes of another fool's song. King Lear's Fool advises that nonsense is an appropriate response (it is the sign, in fact, of some vestige of sense) to the extreme emotional and physical hardships that Lear and the Fool experience on the stormy heath:

He that has and a little tiny wit,
                    With a heigh-ho, the wind and the rain,
Must make content with his fortunes fit,
For the rain it raineth every day.


The logic of the Fool's song turns on the double use of “little tiny wit”: it argues that he who has a shred of sense left will employ a bit of humor to accept his situation, no matter how horrible it seems. The association of the fool's perspective with wisdom is here and elsewhere abbreviated in the word “wit” that refers at once to humor, to knowledge, and, most important, to a quality that humor and knowledge combined may inspire: ingenuity. In As You Like It Rosalind tells Touchstone what is true for nearly all of Shakespeare's fools at one time or another, “Thou speak'st wiser than thou art ware of” (II.iv.55). Hughes's simpletons are blood brothers to Shakespeare's fools.

The wisdom and ingenuity of the Ninny become apparent when we contrast two of the poems in Shakespeare in Harlem. In “Kid Sleepy” the title character, like Melville's Bartleby the Scrivener, prefers not to participate in life. To all of the speaker's efforts at imaginatively resuscitating him, Kid Sleepy responds, “I don't care”:

Listen, Kid Sleepy,
Don't you want to get up
And go to work down-
Town somewhere
At six dollars a week
For lunches and car fare?
Kid Sleepy said,
I don't care.


The prospect of working for a pittance, of earning just enough money to continue going to work, does not inspire Kid Sleepy. The speaker of “If-ing,” on the other hand, is brimming with optimism and energy, though he has no more material resources than Kid Sleepy does. He has, instead, verbal ones:

If I had some small change
I'd buy me a mule,
Get on that mule and
Ride like a fool.
If I had some greenbacks
I'd buy me a Packard,
Fill it up with gas and
Drive that baby backward.
If I had a million
I'd get me a plane
And everybody in America'd
Think I was insane.
But I ain't got a million,
Fact is, ain't got a dime—
So just by if-ing
I have a good time!


The difference between Kid Sleepy and this speaker is that the second speaker, as he proudly admits in stanza one, is a fool. He can acknowledge that he “ain't got a dime,” but that “fact” is countered by another, more important, fact: he has had a good time.

Kid Sleepy, as his name indicates, has utterly succumbed to hardship, while the “If-ing” speaker has turned nonsense into a survival strategy. And notably that strategy is a linguistic game that finds new uses for even the most apparently unavailing words. The very contingency of the word “if” renders it susceptible to transformation. The fool Touchstone in As You Like It recognizes a similar indeterminacy in the word. Touchstone explains that quarrels can be resolved not by determining the truth or falsity of conflicting claims but by rejecting these inflexible categories:

All these [quarrels] you may avoid but the Lie Direct, and you may avoid that too, with an If. I knew when seven justices could not take up a quarrel, but when the parties were met themselves, one of them thought but of an If: as, “If you said so, then I said so”; and they shook hands and swore brothers. Your If is the only peacemaker. Much virtue in If.


Hughes's speaker also has discovered the virtue in “if,” and he exploits its contingency in order to imagine a better life.13 Further, the speaker's word game employs rhyme, alliteration, metaphor, and rhetorical extravagance in order to conjure linguistic wealth. Kid Sleepy's response to poverty and unproductive work is more sensible than the second speaker's, but it is killing him. His name tells us he is on the brink of unconsciousness, he drowses in the harmful sun throughout the poem, and, most troubling, he has almost no language. His final utterance, the one that ends the poem and probably finishes off Kid Sleepy himself, lacks a subject and verb—lacks, that is, subjectivity and thus the capacity to act: “Rather just / stay here” (25). The “If-ing” speaker, by contrast, uses “I” nine times in his short poem and not only employs a range of action verbs but creates the most crucial one himself. Indeed, “coining” the word “if-ing” is another way he amasses his imaginary fortune.

These two poems suggest that the simpleton's penchant for verbal play saves him because it makes linguistic production possible. When Shakespeare gets to Harlem, he is dumbstruck. Having recourse to the voice of the fool is how he continues to write poetry. What I have been calling his crisis of language is an important theme in these and other poems. It is also, however, a structural principle in the volume. The book consists of eight sections of poetry, four of which have generic designations that are anticipated in the preface: “Blues for Men,” “Mammy Songs,” “Ballads,” and “Blues for Ladies.” Two other titles emphasize locale rather than genre: “Death in Harlem” and “Lenox Avenue” (the street where Simple's hangout is located). All these sections answer to the interests of simplicity in their folk forms, common speakers, colloquial diction, everyday concerns, and uncomplicated ideas. Even more interesting are the first two sections: “Seven Moments of Love: An Un-Sonnet Sequence in Blues” and “Declarations” identify forms that are far simpler than ballads and blues: “moments,” “declarations,” a “statement,” and one “little lyric.” These new designations all emphasize brevity, bluntness, and simplicity, and they all take the thematics of simplicity to the structural level. As we will see, the poems themselves function like little elemental chunks of poetry that resist complication and elaboration. If we can find ways to read these atomic lyrics, we will have begun to achieve fluency in Hughes's poetry of simplicity.

I will conclude, then, by looking at several such poems in the “Declarations” section. The section title warns that these poems are not meditative or subtle in content, not figurative or lyrical in form. Instead, they are blurtings that make poetry out of the obvious or even the obtuse. “Hope,” for example, reveals that the speaker's sense of possibility depends in an ironic way on her or his impoverished mental and linguistic resources:

Sometimes when I'm lonely,
Don't know why,
Keep thinkin' I won't be lonely
By and by.


It is precisely the speaker's not knowing that makes hope possible. To know more, to think this out more thoroughly, would surely mean the eradication of all hope. The speaker's language supports the sense that inarticulateness is bliss; the last line, “By and by,” is a phrase from spirituals and hymns, songs that turn from misery toward hope by positing another time when suffering will be alleviated and even rewarded.

The speaker seems not to know where this formulation originates, but it is nevertheless part of her or his severely limited verbal repertoire. The exhaustion and vagueness of “by and by,” ironically, make it efficacious. Two insubstantial words create hope by putting the concreteness of a harsh reality (now) into relation with the abstractness of a better future time (then); and in the process the phrase conjures up an in-between realm of relation even though it cannot visualize hope in more decisive terms. Further, “by” is a homonym for the “bye” in “goodbye” and lends a sense of finality that shuts down further thought and thus staves off despair. “Hope” is achieved, then, by dwelling in an intellectual and linguistic limbo, by waiting in some state that is neither “here” nor “there”—a provisional state characterized by verbal simplicity. “By and by” defers all the mental and linguistic processes that would inevitably lead to the negation of hope.

“Statement” announces its simplicity in its title. And, true to its name, it offers only this bare fact:

Down on '33rd Street
They cut you
Every way they is.


The speaker making this statement has no time for pondering the by-and-by, subject as he is to the perils of the present moment. The knife-wielding, anonymous “they” are not just the perpetrators of street violence but also other evils—hunger, poverty, unemployment, disappointment—that produce physical violence (as the dialect “they” for “there” suggests). The ubiquitousness of “they” and “every way” demands the full attention of this speaker, who can only state or declare the bald truth about life on 133rd Street. The conditions of his existence prevent him from analyzing, lyricizing, or elaborating his plight. The reader, of course, can do these things; in fact, to listen fluently is to analyze these brief utterances and elaborate recognitions and insights that move beyond them. But “Statement” itself remains a hard fact and thus an obstinate form that articulates the exigencies of Harlem.

Finally, “Little Lyric” self-consciously demonstrates the way that poetry will be altered when Shakespeare gets to Harlem: The poem's epigraph insists parenthetically that this little lyric is “Of Great Importance”:

I wish the rent
Was heaven sent.


What is lost in reproducing the poem here is the way the tiny couplet is engulfed by the rest of the page. The white space that ominously surrounds it is as crucial to a reading of the poem as its two lines are. “Little Lyric” says visually that the sigh of desire expressed in the poem has been nearly extinguished by the vast emptiness around it. The visual hopelessness and fragility of the poem on the page are translated into language in the poem proper. Like “by and by,” the idiomatic phrase “heaven sent” does not express a real confidence in divinity to pay the rent miraculously but rather employs the unavailing concept of heaven to figure forth dumb luck. Since there is obviously no heaven (as the hardships and injustices of Harlem seem to indicate), or at least no heaven that is willing to intervene, wishing “the rent / Was heaven sent” is merely an ironic way to acknowledge that the rent will not be paid. Again the brevity of the poem, the sufficiency of its perfect rhymes, and the elemental simplicity of its point are features that defy further elaboration within the poem.

The “Little Lyric” enacts the near loss of language. It reveals in an extreme form what all the other poems in the volume suggest—that utter simplicity is the only adequate response to a dislocated life in an urban ghetto in a racist country. Simplicity, as we have seen, sometimes takes the form of nonsense and foolishness and sometimes takes the form of brevity and obviousness. Both manifestations of Hughes's aesthetics of simplicity forgo the complexities of “great poetry” in order to express something that is “of great importance.” Such poems would rather do right than write right.


  1. Easily ninety per cent of the poems in Hughes's canon are of the sort that I am describing as simple.

  2. Jemie, Hudson, and Miller, among others, have persuasively demonstrated the intricacies of Hughes's jazz structures in these two late books.

  3. Reviews in which these epithets appear are collected in Mullen.

  4. The stories are collected in five volumes, The Best of Simple, Simple Speaks His Mind, Simple Stakes a Claim, Simple Takes a Wife, and Simple's Uncle Sam. Additionally, Hughes takes Simple to the stage with Simply Heavenly, a comedy about Simple's marriage.

  5. In “Who Is Simple?”—the foreword to The Best of Simple—Hughes concludes, “He is my ace-boy, Simple. I hope you like him, too” (viii).

  6. For a chronicle of Hughes's disappointments during these years, see Rampersad, especially chapter 8 of the second volume “In Warm Manure: 1951 to 1953.” Ellison characterized The Big Sea as a “chit-chat” book during an interview with Rampersad in 1983 (202).

  7. Hughes wrote at least four explanations of Simple: “The Happy Journey of ‘Simply Heavenly,’” “Simple and Me,” “Who Is Simple?” and the “Character Notes” to Simply Heavenly.

  8. In his Introduction Mullen surveys the scholarship on the Simple stories; all the works he cites discuss either their racial politics or their prose structures.

  9. One might wonder how a character described as an “Everyman” or a “black separatist”—that is, as a stereotype—can break stereotypes. That is, how can black separatism resist stereotypes when it, by definition, carries racist stereotypes with it? This is a subtlety that would not interest Simple, who accepts the necessity of his own racism and rejects the idea that African Americans should “overcome” black nationalist stereotypes. As long as white racism prevails, he will resist it in kind. See “Color on the Brain” (Stakes 106-110) for one of many exchanges between Simple and Boyd about this issue.

  10. In “Cocktail Sip,” for example, Boyd's quotations of Elizabethan poetry are juxtaposed with Simple's rhyming prose: “Zarita is strictly a after-hours gal—great when the hour is late, the wine is fine, and mellow whiskey has made you frisky” (Wife 47).

  11. Rampersad explains McPherson's antagonism to Hughes in chapter 14 of his second volume: “McPherson had a specific reason to harass Hughes. She was one of the allegedly fraudulent ministers of religion mentioned by name in his ‘Goodbye Christ’” (390).

  12. For discussions of the fool that emphasize the wisdom of his simplicity, see Welsford, Willeford, Weimann, and Goldsmith.

  13. In his chapter on Henry IV, Part I, Holland makes a similar point, describing Falstaff's way of using “if” as a habit of speech that liberates him from the world of responsibilities and permits him to enter a “world of imaginings” (119).

Works Cited

Baldwin, James. “Sermon and Blues.” Mullen 85-87.

Goldsmith, R. H. Wise Fools in Shakespeare. East Lansing: Michigan State UP, 1955.

Hollands, Norman N. The Shakespearean Imagination: A Critical Introduction. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1964.

Hudson, Theodore R. “Technical Aspects of the Poetry of Langston Hughes.” Black World (1973): 24-45.

Hughes, Langston. The Best of Simple. New York: Hill, 1961.

———. The Big Sea: An Autobiography. New York: Knopf, 1940.

———. Five Plays by Langston Hughes. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1968.

———. “The Happy Journey of ‘Simply Heavenly.’” New York Herald-Tribune 18 Aug. 1957, sec. 4: 1+.

———. The Langston Hughes Reader. New York: Braziller, 1958.

———. “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain.” The Nation CXXII (1926): 692-94.

———. “The Negro Speaks of Rivers.” The Norton Anthology of American Literature. Ed. Nina Baym et al. 2nd ed. New York: Norton, 1985.

———. Selected Poems of Langston Hughes. New York: Vintage, 1974.

———. Shakespeare in Harlem. New York: Knopf, 1942.

———. “Simple and Me.” Phylon 6 (1945): 349-52.

———. Simple Speaks His Mind. New York: Simon, 1950.

———. Simple Stakes a Claim. New York: Rinehart, 1953.

———. Simple's Uncle Sam. New York: Hill, 1965.

———. Simple Takes a Wife. New York: Simon, 1953.

———. Simply Heavenly. Five Plays by Langston Hughes. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1968.

———. “Who Is Simple?” The Best of Simple. New York: Hill, 1961. vii-viii.

Jemie, Onwuchekwa. Langston Hughes: An Introduction to the Poetry. New York: Columbia UP, 1976.

Miller, R. Baxter. The Art and Imagination of Langston Hughes. Lexington: UP of Kentucky, 1989.

Mullen, Edward J. Critical Essays on Langston Hughes. Boston: Hall, 1986.

Rampersad, Arnold. The Life of Langston Hughes, Volume II: 1941-1967. New York: Oxford UP, 1988.

Redding, Saunders. “Old Form, Old Rhythms, New Words.” Mullen 73-74.

Welsford, Enid. The Fool: His Social and Literary History. London: Faber, 1935.

Wiemann, Robert. Shakespeare and the Popular Tradition in the Theater: Studies in the Social Dimension of Dramatic Form and Function. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1978.

Willeford, William. The Fool and His Scepter: A Study in Clowns, Jesters, and Their Audiences. Evanston: Northwestern UP, 1969.

George B. Hutchinson (essay date 1992)

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SOURCE: Hutchinson, George B. “Langston Hughes and the ‘Other’ Whitman.” In The Continuing Presence of Walt Whitman, edited by Robert K. Martin, pp. 16-27. Iowa City, Iowa: University of Iowa Press, 1992.

[In the following essay, Hutchinson traces relationships between the works of Langston Hughes and nineteenth-century American poet Walt Whitman.]

By the “other” Whitman in my title I have in mind two distinct but related concepts. One comes from the title of an article published by Leandro Wolfson in 1978, “The Other Whitman in Spanish America,” in which Wolfson criticizes the continued adoration of Whitman in Latin America, pointing out the inaccuracies in the Hispanic view of the North American poet. This “other” Whitman has been debunked and/or repressed (depending upon how you look at it) in the United States since the 1950s as part of the effort to bring his poetry into the academy during an era of formalism, hostility to political writing or propaganda, and emphasis upon confessional aspects of poetry. It was felt that Whitman had to be saved from his disciples as well as from the criticism of scholars who found his work to lack “form.”

The second concept I have in mind is closer to Borges's, that of Whitman as a poetic “other” to all of us for the very reason that he is each one of us when we respond to his call, a ubiquitous signifier always slipping in and out of our embrace, an ecstatic moving always outside our attempts to fix a position for him. This “other” Whitman will always elude us because his otherness is fundamental to his own textual production. It is this more radical and mercurial otherness that has made him the most diversely appropriated American poet. For some reason, in Whitman's mirror many “others” to white, patriarchal American culture have seen themselves; the process of translating his voice has helped them to find their own. Langston Hughes certainly attested to this effect in his own career.

The association of Hughes with Whitman, I suspect, is less than obvious to most readers. If Whitman is often singled out as the archetypal (white male) American poet, Hughes's experiments with black-based idioms and aesthetic principles rooted in blues ballads and spirituals have had an incalculable effect upon the development of a distinctive African-American poetics. Yet, like Sterling Brown after him, even in writing his “folk” poems Hughes considered himself to be following out the implications of Whitman's poetic theory (Rampersad, 1:146). At various points in his long career, Hughes put together no fewer than three separate anthologies of Whitman's poetry (one of them for children), included several Whitman poems in an anthology on The Poetry of the Negro, wrote a poem entitled “Old Walt” for the one hundredth anniversary of Leaves of Grass, and repeatedly—in lectures, newspaper columns, and introductions—encouraged black Americans to read his work. He called Whitman “America's greatest poet” and spoke of Leaves of Grass as the greatest expression of “the real meaning of democracy ever made on our shores.” Feeling that Whitman had been ignored and, in current parlance, marginalized by the custodians of culture, Hughes indeed attempted in his own way to canonize the poet he considered “the Lincoln of our Letters” (Chicago Defender, July 4, 1953).

The poems Hughes most liked are not the ones most taught today. For example, “Ethiopia Saluting the Colors,” which has been called racist in content and hackneyed in form, Hughes praised as “the most beautiful poem in our language concerning a Negro subject” and included it in Poetry of the Negro. His collaborator Harry T. Burleigh (an important black composer) even set the poem to music. “Song of the Open Road” and “Song of the Answerer” were two of his other favorites. Hughes admired the public poems that dramatized the singer's egalitarian ubiquity, his ability to permeate social boundaries, and his role as multiversal “answerer,” which accounted, in Hughes's view, for Whitman's ability to portray black people realistically.

In “Song of the Answerer”—a poem that has rarely attracted the notice of scholars—the answerer knows that “Every existence has its idiom, every thing has an idiom and tongue … / He says indifferently and alike How are you friend? to the President at his levee, / And he says Good-day my brother, to Cudge that hoes in the sugar-field, / And both understand him and know that his speech is right” (31, 34-36). The egalitarian message and the specific reference to the black field-worker would have attracted Hughes at once. But two other characteristics also stand out. First is the importance of respecting the “idiom” of each existence. The answerer is able to resolve this idiom into his own tongue, which he then bestows upon people, who then translate that tongue back into their own even as they translate the answerer himself. “The English believe he comes of their English stock, / A Jew to the Jew he seems, a Russ to the Russ, usual and near, removed from none” (45-46). Whitman also allows for the possibility of multiple translations and thereby answers the objections of those, such as Doris Sommer, who claim that he tries to make us all equal by making us all mirror images of himself. On the contrary he demands that each of us make him a mirror image of our selves. As Hughes saw it, “his poems contain us all. The reader cannot help but see his own better self therein” (Perlman et al., 98). Whitman's specular answerer acts as a mediator between plural identities, reconciling pluralism with union—“One part does not counteract another part, he is the joiner, he sees how they join” (33). Hughes insisted that, in his masked performances, Whitman was able to project a voice, ventriloquistically, outside his own socially constructed role within American culture, a voice that resonated in the sensibilities of a tremendous range of writers throughout the world (Chicago Defender, Aug. 1, 1953).

Though precipitated by the specific ideological and social conflicts in which Whitman was immersed in the years leading up to the Civil War, the evident drive in the poems toward a resolution of those conflicts opens up a liminal, antistructural arena in which the very self is dismembered as it escapes all formulae. This semiotic shattering of the unity of the self in the process of textual production is matched by the exceedingly multivalent, overdetermined quality of Whitman's poetic language, the quality which helps account for its “translations” into so many different social contexts. On top of even these factors is the function of the unnamed second person within the very type of poems Hughes most admired—those like “Song of the Answerer” and “Song of the Open Road.”

One reason Whitman's poetry has resonated in the sensibilities of black American writers is that in certain of his poems he uses the condition of the slave as representative of the condition of his audience. The “you” of his songs, if it is to apply to all readers, must apply to slaves, those most graphically denied the right to self-determination. The poem “To You (Whoever You Are)” at times seems directly addressed to a slave:

None has done justice to you, you have not done justice
          to yourself,
None but has found you imperfect, I only find no
          imperfection in you,
None but would subordinate you, I only am he who will
          never consent to subordinate you,
I only am he who places over you no master, owner,
          better, God, beyond what waits intrinsically in


Arguably, Whitman here distills the specific oppression of black people in the antebellum United States into a metaphor for the hidden condition of all people—“you, whoever you are.” But his slave is not just any slave—his slave is the most enslaved, the one rejected by all others and even by himself or herself. Eschewing pity for admiration and love, the poet projects upon his reader, as by a shamanistic charm, a spiritual freedom that will ensure self-fulfillment: “The hopples fall from your ankles, you find an unfailing sufficiency, / Old or young, male or female, rude, low, rejected by the rest, whatever you are promulges itself” (44-45). A poem such as this virtually begs for appropriation to an African-American frame of reference.

Hence, Hughes was not simply in the Whitman tradition (although he may have been happy with such a characterization); rather, he practiced an African-American-based poetic syncretism that Whitman's answerer explicitly invited: “The words of the true poems give you more than poems, / They give you to form for yourself poems, religions, politics, war, peace, behavior, histories, essays, daily life, and every thing else, / They balance ranks, colors, races, creeds, and the sexes” (75-77). The very nature of Hughes's absorption of Whitman was inevitably shaped by his “racial” identity and historical placement. In fact, it appears that by moving him toward an appreciation of the poetry of the common people, insisting on self-trust, and teaching “straying” from the teacher-poet himself, Hughes's demonic Whitman encouraged black cultural self-identification.

The very years in which Hughes grew close to the urban black community (having grown up largely removed from it) while determining to make his living as a poet were those in which he was most intensely under the spell of Whitman, as Arnold Rampersad's biography shows. Moreover, at a critical point in his life, when leaving the United States for Europe and Africa on a merchant ship, he threw overboard every book he owned except Leaves of Grass. “I had no intention of throwing that one away,” he wrote in a passage from his autobiography (Rampersad, 1:72). By the time he returned to America, Hughes had determined what his vocation would be. His absorption of Whitman was as thorough as that of any other North American poet of his generation. Even in describing the blues to Carl Van Vechten to help him with a preface to The Weary Blues, Hughes would slip effortlessly into a cadence, a mixture of idioms, and even the exact phrasing of “old Walt,” stealing Whitman's evocation of sexual desire: “In the Gulf Coast Blues one can feel the cold northern snows, the memory of the melancholy mists of the Louisianna [sic] low-lands, the shack that is home, the worthless lovers with hands full of gimme, mouths full of much oblige, the eternal unsatisfied longings.”

Hughes was the first African-American poet to sense the affinity between the inclusive “I” of Whitman (which Whitman claimed as his most important innovation—“the quite changed attitude of the ego, the one chanting or talking, towards himself and towards his fellow humanity” (“A Backward Glance,” 564) and the “I” of the blues and even of the spirituals. The result of Hughes's appropriation of this triply descended “I” is amply demonstrated in one of his first published poems, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers”:

I've known rivers ancient as the world and old as the
          flow of human blood in human veins.
My soul has grown deep like the rivers.
I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young.
I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep.
I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it.
I heard the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln
          went down to New Orleans, and I've seen its muddy
          bosom turn all golden in the sunset.

(Weary Blues, 51)

Though Hughes would later, for the most part, turn away from the Whitmanesque style of free verse, the example of Whitman's break with traditional definitions of the poetic, his attempts to achieve an orally based poetics with the cadence and diction of the voice on the street, at the pond-side, or at the pulpit, provided a partial model for the young black poet looking for a way to sing his own song, which would be at the same time a song of his people.

Furthermore, Whitman's conception of the relationship between poet and community was fundamentally that in which Hughes came to believe: “In vain,” Whitman had written, “will America seek successfully to tune any superb national song unless the heartstrings of the people start it from their own breasts—to be return'd and echoed there again.” Hughes would not have to wait for the people to start the song from their breasts; it was ready-formed in the spirituals and blues, which he could justly regard as the most American of song genres available to modern poets. Moreover, these forms embodied the very sort of call-and-response pattern for which Whitman seemed to be asking. It would take Hughes's example (and later that of Zora Neale Hurston and Sterling Brown) to transform the dialect tradition into an uncompromising revelation of the folk-based African-American expressive arts, with a range, a flexibility, and a precision that had not yet found their way into poetry.

The “Epilogue” (later entitled “I, Too”) of Hughes's first book, The Weary Blues, can be read in part as a signifying riff on “old Walt's” songs, forthrightly challenging American rituals of incorporation and exclusion while more subtly playing off of Whitman's “I Hear America Singing” with a dark minor chord.

I, too, sing America.
I am the darker brother.
They send me to eat in the kitchen
When company comes …


In the American family home, the “darker brother,” disowned by white siblings, has been cast out of the common room to servants' space, where he nonetheless grows strong. The poem prophesies the transforming force of the black singer's particular challenge—on the basis of his own aesthetic standards—for the humanization of the white American audience: “They'll see how beautiful I am / And be ashamed,—/ I, too, am America.” In this epilogue to his first collection—a poem with which he often concluded his poetry readings—Hughes registers his own distinctive poetic identity as both black and American. Simultaneously, he protests a community—even family—relationship with those across the color line and makes his claim as an heir to Whitman.

His second volume, Fine Clothes to the Jew, would show an even more radical break than The Weary Blues with past “literary” models by relying more exclusively upon the blues matrix for its aesthetic. Ironically, while the book was being blasted in the black press on genteel grounds and such intellectuals as W. E. B. Du Bois and Benjamin Brawly speculated that Hughes was pandering to the prurient interests of white folks, Hughes was invited to speak to the Walt Whitman Foundation about his poetry. Here, according to his biographer, he described “modern free verse, and his own work, as descending from Whitman's great example” (Rampersad, 1:146), an admission T. S. Eliot and Amy Lowell declined to make. At the same time, he emphasized his reliance upon the black folk tradition, which he characterized as the source of some of America's most distinctive aesthetic achievements. His very descent from Whitman demands difference from him, but difference within an American field. Hughes's liminal status—between white and black intellectual communities—freed him to explore new African-American literary forms.

Hughes had come to Whitman by way of such midwestern rebels as Carl Sandburg prior to the twenties. His was in most respects the democratic “transnationalist” and socialist Whitman pushed by Horace Traubel and other early disciples in the United States, followed by such influential figures as the French unanimist Léon Bazalgette, whose hagiographical study, Walt Whitman, had an enormous impact throughout Europe and Latin America, finally reacting back upon left-wing “cultural nationalists” in the United States. Whitmanisme, as the French called it, was a pervasive intercultural phenomenon (Betsy Erkkila) that embraced anti-imperialists in Europe (Romain Rolland) and the United States (The Seven Arts circle), as well as India (Rabindranath Tagore) and Latin America (José Martí, Rubén Darío) (see Grünzweig). The Hispanic reception of Whitman deserves particular attention here, for Hughes's connections with writers in the Caribbean and Latin America (and in Spain during its Civil War) were important in his career.

Whitman's influence upon such influential poets and revolutionaries as José Martí and Pablo Neruda is generally well known. Even as these socially engaged writers fought imperialism, they looked toward Whitman as a great New World forebear, the champion of democracy, social justice, and national self-determination. Fernando Alegria's account of the image of Whitman he'd had as a student at the University of Chile before World War II is broadly representative: “Whitman era el defensor de la libertad del espíritu, el enemigo de prejuicios, el orgulloso sostenedor de la pureza y excelencia de la faena artística, el cantor de la juventud, de la vida en contacto con la naturaleza, el hermano mayor de los trabajadores, el romántico apóstol de los perseguidos y explotados” (9-10). Such views of Whitman have remained very strong to this day and have even come back to influence North American writers such as June Jordan, who has recently championed him as a “white father” whom reactionary college professors in the United States have repressed.

Jordan's view is quite similar in this respect to Hughes's, as his 1946 essay “The Ceaseless Rings of Walt Whitman” makes clear: “Many timid poetry lovers over the years have been frightened away from his Leaves of Grass … because of his simplicity. Perhaps, too, because his all embracing words lock arms with workers and farmers, Negroes and whites, Asiatics and Europeans, serfs and free men, beaming democracy to all, many academic-minded intellectual isolationists in America have had little use for Whitman, and have impeded his handclasp with today by keeping him imprisoned in silence on library shelves” (96-97). Knowing that Whitman's name had been invoked in movements for social change, Hughes claimed that Leaves of Grass had literally helped millions of people struggling against oppression around the world.

North American critics have generally dismissed Latin American interpretations of Whitman as naïve, overly politicized, or insufficiently attuned to Whitman's craftsmanship. These dismissals can be attributed not only to the North Americans' more accurate knowledge of a poet's life but also to the ways in which critical trends within the United States have shaped the academic readings of Leaves of Grass and to the way in which literature has been institutionalized. In the revaluation of Whitman which coincided with his rising status within English departments, the earlier left-wing, populist, politically engaged, prophetic, and “public” Whitman (espoused by such figures as Eugene Debs, Clarence Darrow, and Emma Goldman when Hughes was young) was debunked along with his disciples, while the private, relatively apolitical poet was discovered beneath the yawping pose. Whitman's academic reputation grew as the work of critics such as Gay Wilson Allen, James E. Miller, and Edwin Haviland Miller in the 1950s and 1960s succeeded in differentiating the weaker, supposedly more prophetic verse from the stronger, more aesthetically satisfying “poetry.” The interpretive shift contributed significantly to the developing appreciation of Whitman's work but had the effect of devaluing, even suppressing, many of those elements of Leaves of Grass which had done most to gain Whitman a broad international following and which most appealed to Hughes. This may partly account for our difficulty in recognizing the close relationship between Whitman and African-American poetry. Precisely the elements that scholars found in Whitman as they established him in university curricula were the elements Hughes deprecated in other modern poets: linguistic “difficulty” or apparently willful obscurity, literary allusiveness, and private confession—qualities professors love to explore but that often alienate “common” readers (and that one rarely finds in Hughes's work).

The legendary Whitman Hughes encountered in Latin America was also ubiquitous among writers in Spain during its civil war; Whitman was a heroic personage to such poets as Federico García Lorca and Miguel de Unamuno, not to mention Neruda who also fought for the antifascist cause. These are all people whom Hughes knew in Spain. García Lorca became one of Hughes's favorite poets; indeed, Hughes translated the play Bodas de Sangre and some of the gypsy ballads, and he intended to translate The Poet in New York at one point. The “Ode to Walt Whitman” in this book-long poem functions as what one translator calls “a synthesis, climax, and solution to the underlying theme of the book” (Jaen, 81). But what is more intriguing about The Poet in New York is the connection it draws between the spirit of Whitman and black American culture. In this poem, black people emerge as those who, still expressing the elemental passions and desires of humanity, hold out the hope of realizing Whitman's dream.

At the end of “Ode to Walt Whitman,” Whitman's spirit is to be carried on by a black American child who will “announce to the whites of the gold / the coming of the reign of the wheat,” a veiled allusion to Leaves of Grass (as quoted in Craige, 79). Indeed, throughout The Poet in New York, the suggested revolt of African-Americans against an oppressive, dehumanizing, and mechanistic civilization seems the only hope of realizing the sort of society of which Whitman had dreamed. A host of themes and images interrelate Whitman and the black people of Harlem: the ability to dream (one of Hughes's constant themes), the power of “blood,” erotic energy, closeness to nature, water and beach imagery, a valuing of community, and a subversive threat to socioeconomic oppression. The “Ode to Whitman” initiates a turn in the poem as a whole toward the speaker's reconnection with nature, accompanied by a growing sense of hope and community. This shift is signified in part by the increasingly musical and incantatory style, which reaches its apogee in the optimistic closing section, “Son of the Negroes in Cuba.” The poem must have hit Hughes with great force, for he had earlier convinced Nicolás Guillén of Cuba to use folk-based son lyrics as a basis for poetry. Of course, by the mid-thirties the main thrust of Hughes's poetry had already been determined, but what I would like to emphasize is an intertextual field connecting Whitman, Hughes, García Lorca, and such Latin American poets as Guillén, a field which considerably alters our vision of “American” poetry and the relationships between its “black” and “white” avatars. As late as 1965, when the separatist Black Arts Movement was gaining steam, Hughes wrote a show called “Tell It to Telstar” in which he combined excerpts from Whitman with songs and spirituals of black America.

The nature and history of Langston Hughes's relationship to Whitman complicate the project of developing sweeping theoretical models for the complex interplay between what at any given time might be constituted as particular radical traditions in the United States, for the centers of these traditions do not hold. Authors are not unitary figures inhabiting fixed cultural coordinates but are often liminal voyagers upon open roads, transgressors of even our latest pieties. This is not necessarily because they were in fact living freer than we give them credit for or because of some timeless, transcendent property but because of the subversive, overdetermined quality of poetic signification itself, because of the tendency of artists to straddle thresholds of social difference, which may be fundamental to their roles, and because of the multiple ways in which authors have been received on their textual journeys.

Calvin Hernton (essay date spring 1993)

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SOURCE: Hernton, Calvin. “The Poetic Consciousness of Langston Hughes from Affirmation to Revolution.” Langston Hughes Review 12, no. 1 (spring 1993): 2-9.

[In the following essay, Hernton examines the lesser-known “protest” poems of Langston Hughes.]

The poetry of Langston Hughes is imbued with a consciousness of black people which has always awed and inspired me. In one of his earliest poems, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” Hughes articulated this abiding consciousness by associating black life with the great rivers of Africa and North America—the Euphrates, the Congo, the Nile, and the Mississippi—rivers that are ancient, dusty, and older than the flow of human blood in human veins. In a similar poem, “Negro,” Langston Hughes wrote:

I am a Negro:
                    Black as the night is black,
                    Black like the depths of my Africa.

(Poems 8)

Again, in a poem entitled, “My People,” he wrote: “The night is beautiful So the faces of my people.” (Poems 13)

Articulating an aesthetic of Black is Beautiful, the poetic consciousness of Langston Hughes resonates with affirmation and celebration of black people. For this achievement, Hughes earned the singular distinction of poet laureate of African American people. Sarah Webster Fabio asserted that for fifty years Langston Hughes was the spiritual leader of the race.

Hughes's affirmation and celebration of African American life was in terms of everyday black folks, their culture, artistic forms, genres, and personages. Well-known genres include the blues and spirituals and gospel and jazz forms, as represented in Hughes's The Weary Blues (1926) and in Montage of A Dream Deferred (1951) and Ask Your Mama: 12 Moods For Jazz (1961). Well-known among the folk personages are Madam Alberta K. Johnson, Sister Mary Bradley in The Sweet Flypaper of Life (1955) and, of course, the universal everyday man, Jesse B. Semple. In 1926, in perhaps the first aesthetic statement ever published by an African American poet, “The Negro Artist and The Racial Mountain,” Langston Hughes asserted: “… an artist must be free to choose what he does, certainly, but he must also never be afraid to do what he might choose.” (Williams and Harris, 304)

Because a significant portion of Hughes's poetry deals with American bigotry and injustice, his work has often been labeled “protest” poetry. But the label, “protest,” overlooks and perhaps dismisses other more important aspects and qualities of his poetry. “Protest” as a label fails to include affirmation and celebration of blackness in the poetry. “Blue Bayou,” for instance, is much more than a protest poem.

I went walkin'
By the blue bayou
And I saw the sun go down.
I thought about old Greeley
And I thought about Lou
And I saw the sun go down.
                    White man
                    Makes me work all day
                    And I work too hard
                    For too little pay—
                    Then a white man
                    Takes my woman away.
I'll kill old Greeley.
                    The blue bayou
                    Turns red as fire.
                    Put the black man
                    On a rope
                    And pull him higher!
I saw the sun go down.
                    Put him on a rope
                    And pull him higher!
                    The blue bayou's
                    A pool of fire.
And I saw the sun go down,
Lawd, I saw the sun go down!

(Poems 170)

In content and style, the poem is a folk work-song, ballad-blues-spiritual of the black southern peasantry. It turns the traditional idyllic hillbilly version of “blue bayou” inside out, and infuses it with the reality of black existence in the South—that what is romantic for poor white folks is a tragedy for poor black folks. Langston Hughes was a poet of direct declarative statement, a black poet of the depictive cognative symbol and metaphor in plain language. “Protest” is too shallow and narrow a label for the depth and breadth of the poem's content, let alone the brilliant blend, or syncopation, of several black folk forms, genres, and idioms. To label similar poems as “protest” is to deny the sheer genius of Langston Hughes. Moreover, in both artistry and message, as is characteristic of Hughes's poetry, the consciousness in these genre of poems is a critical consciousness.

By some perverse twist of logic, rather than seeing Hughes's folk genre poems as a literal affirmation of black folk life and art, during the 1960s some of the Black Arts politicians said the blues were “counter-productive” to the “revolution,” and they trashed Langston Hughes as an “uncle tom” because of his faithful renditions in the blues idiom of our people. The detractors labeled as “reactionary” in Hughes's poems nothing less than that which has sustained the masses of African Americans through the centuries. A poem entitled, “Spiritual,” is a good example.

Rocks and the firm roots of trees.
The rising shafts of mountains.
Something strong to put my hands on.
                    Sing, O Lord Jesus!
                    Song is a strong thing.
                    I heard my mother singing
                    When life hurt her:
Gonna ride in my chariot some day!
                    The branches rise
                    From the firm roots of trees.
                    The mountains rise
                    From the solid lap of earth.
                    The waves rise
                    From the dead weight of sea.
Sing, O black mother!
Song is a strong thing.

(Poems 28)

This poem speaks about the strength of soul which has spiritually empowered black people to survive and even thrive in the midst of draconian adversity. Everything in the poem is rooted in the indestructible elements of nature, earth, and humanity. In this poem, as in others, the strength of soul, concretized in the elements of nature, is rooted and exemplified in women, for Hughes's consciousness was of women as much as it was of men.

Hughes came along during the New Negro or Harlem Renaissance era of the 1920s. Assimilationism (represented by Du Bois) and Nationalism (represented by Garvey) clamored for the upper hand. Both ideologies, however, contained certain elements of each other. Garvey's “back-to-Africa” program notwithstanding—for the New Negroes the “melting-pot” idea of the American Democracy involved a reconciliation between the nationalistic notion of pride in blackness, pride in Africanness, right along with pride in being American.

The poems already mentioned, “My People,” “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” along with such poems as “Daybreak in Alabama,” “Let America Be America Again,” and even the “Calling Cards” poem of Madam Alberta K. Johnson, all speak to both the Africanness and Americanness of black people's prideful aspirations. Of African descent yet born on American soil, African Americans felt entitled to and sought the American dream along with everybody else. When I first went to Harlem in the 1950s, from loudspeakers outside record shops, the voice of Paul Robeson rang out in baritone cadences of Hughes's “Freedom Train” poem, in which “Jimmy” wanted to know:

Will his Freedom Train come zoomin' down the track
Gleamin' in the sunlight for white and black?
Stoppin' in the country in the wide-open air
Where there never was no Jim Crow signs nowhere.

(Poems 277)

This poem and many others form a stream of Hughes's consciousness of black people's “I, Too” aspirations for Equality and Democracy in America.

“I, TOO”

I am the darker brother.
They send me to eat in the kitchen
When company comes,
But I laugh,
And eat well,
And grow strong.
I'll be at the table
They'll see how beautiful I am
And be ashamed—
I, too, am America.

(Poems 275)

Hughes was forever critical of the so-called “American Democracy” and the shibboleth of the American Dream, particularly when it came to the masses of black people and to poor people in general. Running beneath the strident lines of “Let America Be America Again,” there is the murmuring of: “America never was America to me.” (Hughes and Bontemps 193)

Hughes's first influences were Walt Whitman, Paul Laurence Dunbar, and Carl Sandburg, all of whom were poets of the common masses of men and women. So, too, Hughes was the poet of the under-dogs of society, poor people, women, and the oppressed everywhere. In “Down Where I Am,” Hughes states:

I'm gonna plant my feet
On solid ground.
If you want to see me,
Come down.

(Panther 50)

In addition to the protest, integrationist, and nationalistic affirmation-celebration of black people, there exists another vintage of poems imbued with a consciousness of revolutionary import. In “Let America Be America Again,” Hughes militantly declares:

Sure, call me any ugly name you choose—
The steel of freedom does not stain.
From those who live like leeches on the
                    people's lives,
We must take back our land again. …

(Hughes and Bontemps, 195)

In a poem actually entitled, “Militant,” Hughes states:

For honest work
You proffer me poor pay,
For honest dreams
You spit in my face,
And so my fist is clenched. …
To strike your face.

(Panther 39)

Not only was Hughes a poet of the New Negro/Harlem Renaissance, he was also a poet of the legacy of the Russian Revolution and other revolutions of his times. Hughes traveled to Africa, China, Cuba, Haiti, and was in Spain during the Civil War there. He was a young man when Mussolini invaded Ethiopia; and he was involved in the cause of the Scottsboro Boys. Inspired by revolutionary struggles around the world, Hughes published an entire body of revolutionary poems. In Good Morning Revolution, (1973) Faith Berry has collected the bulk of these poems and prose writings as well. Here in Panther and the Lash and as elsewhere, Hughes applied the poetic consciousness of a radical critic of American institutions, the hypocrisy of religion was not spared.


Christ is a nigger.
Beaten and black:
Oh, bare your back!
Most holy bastard
Of the bleeding mouth,
                    Nigger Christ
                    On the cross
                    Of the South.

(Panther 37)


God slumbers in a back alley
With a gin bottle in His hand.
Come on, God, get up and fight
Like a man.

(Revolution 36)

Walt Whitman once said that a poet enlisted in a people's cause can make every word he writes draw blood. In many of the poems in the radical stream, Hughes is even more politically explicit, and he actually curses in the poems. In “Letter To The Academy,” he asks the gentlemen who have written

lovely books about the defeat of the flesh and the triumph of the spirit that sold in the hundred of thousands to kindly come forward and speak about the Revolution—where the poor are mighty and no longer poor, and the young are free from hunger … Please come forward … we want to know what in the hell you'd say?

(Revolution 3)

In “Memo To Non-White People,” Hughes wrote:

They will let you have babies
To … use your kids as labor boys
For army, air force, or uranium mine.
They will gleefully let you
Kill your damn self any way you choose
With liquor, drugs, or whatever.
It's the same from Cairo to Chicago,
Cape Town to the Caribbean …
I'm sorry but it is
The same. …

(Revolution 13-14)

A poem entitled, “Revolution,” marks the apex of Hughes's revolutionary identification with the oppressed peoples of the world.

Great Mob that knows no fear—
Come here!
And raise your hand
Against this man
Of iron and steel and gold
Who's bought and sold
For the last thousand years.
Come here,
Great Mob
And tear him limb from limb,
Split his golden throat …
Great mob that knows no fear.

(Revolution 6)

Of course, Langston Hughes paid for these poems. A southern sheriff thought it bad enough that Hughes called Christ a bastard. “But when he calls him a nigger, he's gone too far!” exclaimed the sheriff. Revolution 139) On reading tours Hughes was often picketed and even barred from appearing. He tells of a frightening incident when he had to run out of town for his life. Revolution 141-142) In 1953, during the witch-hunts of McCarthy's un-American Activities Investigations, Hughes was called before one of the committees and interrogated about his poems and other writings. Many of Hughes's fans and supporters felt that his appearance before the investigating committee left much to be desired. I remember my own disappointment at some of Hughes's responses to the un-American investigator's questions.

In Good Morning Revolution, Faith Berry avers that Hughes seldom mentioned or read his most radical poems and that he did not include them in his Selected Poems—imposing self-censorship on his own work. Berry points out that although Hughes is held as the poet laureate of Negro people, hardly anyone knows of his radical poems; they know Hughes only as a racial protest poet and not as a Revolutionary poet. They are therefore unfamiliar with his two obscure books—Scottsboro Limited (1932) and A New Song (1938)—in which many of the revolutionary poems appear. (xi-xiv)

It is often claimed, too, that the revolutionary poems represent a “passing phase” of Hughes's youth and are not really germane to his work. I disagree because I recall, to my glad surprise, that immediately after being investigated, Hughes published in Atlanta University's PHYLON journal, a poem entitled, “Vari-Colored Song,” which, in part, reads:

If I had a heart of gold,
As have some folks I know,
I'd up and sell my heart of gold
And head North with the dough.
But I don't have a heart of gold.
My heart's not even lead.
It's made of plain old Georgia clay.
That's why my heart is red.

(Panther 98)

Hughes also published a poem entitled, “Un-American Investigators,” in which he said, “The committee's fat, smug, almost secure … shiver with delight in warm manure. …” (Panther 76)

I believe that Hughes had a disposition for telling hostile people some of whatever they wanted to hear in order to get them off his back, but would continue writing what he wanted to hear—and, like Sterling Brown's “Strong Men,” Hughes's poems kept getting stronger.

In his last collection of poems—The Panther And The Lash (1967)—which he collected just before and was published shortly after his death in 1967, many of the above mentioned radical poems are included, plus some new ones. By 1974 the collection had gone into eight printings. Rather than a passing phase of his youth, a careful reading of Hughes's life and works reveals that his poetic consciousness always included poems of the most radical, militant, revolutionary nature. Hughes wrote, at fourteen years of age, “The Mills,” which might be his first poem.

The mills
That grind out steel
And grind away the lives
Of men …
They belch red fire.
Grinding new steel,
Old men.

(Big Sea 29)

“Johannesburg Mines” was published when Hughes was twenty-six. In the poem he pointed out that there were “240,000 natives working in the mines,” and he asked: “What kind of poem / Would You make out of that?” (Revolution 10)

Sixty-five years old, Hughes dedicated his last collection, The Panther And The Lash, to Rosa Parks, who: “started it all … setting off in 1955 the boycotts, the sit-ins, the Freedom-rides, the petitions, the marches, the voter registration drives. …”

That was a very radical dedication for those extremely macho times; to recognize a woman as the first cause of the black upheaval was radical.

Beside the radical poems already alluded to in the collection, The Panther And The Lash contains poems ranging from “Black Panther” and “Death In Yorkville” (reminiscent of death in Benson-Hurst), to “Stokely Malcolm Me,” and the recorded poem by Nina Simone which topped the charts during the 1960s, “Blacklash Blues.” In “Lumuba's Grave,” Hughes declares

Lumumba was black.
His blood was red—
And for being a man
They killed him dead.
They buried Lumumba
In an unmarked grave.
But he needs no marker—
My heart's his grave,
And it's marked there.
Tomorrow will mark
It everywhere.


The United States was recently in the Persian Gulf making war. Hughes wrote many poems expressing his feelings about man's oldest profession. Part 4 of Panther And the Lash is entitled “The Face of War” and contains some of these poems. In “Without Benefit,” Hughes speaks to Joe:

Listen here, Joe,
Don't you know
That tomorrow
You got to go
Out yonder where
The steel winds blow?
Don't ask me why.
Just go ahead and die.


However he came by it, far from a passing phase, a radical revolutionary stance was an integral part of Hughes's poetic consciousness from his birth to his death. In fact, the mere existence of such a poet as Langston Hughes was revolutionary in itself. Of all the identified and unidentified voices in which he spoke, the more personal the voice the more radical were the poems. In “Comment on War,” he wrote:

We who are old know what truth is—
Truth is a bundle of vicious lies
Tied together and sterilized—
A war-maker's bait for unwise youth
To kill off each other. …

(Berry, Before and Beyond 302)

To overlook the thunder, the lightning, and the whirlwind in the genius of Langston Hughes would be robbery of ourselves; it would constitute a disservice to the everlasting legacy of one of humanity's most incredible poets.

Works Cited

Hughes, Langston. The Big Sea, New York: Hill and Wang, 1963.

———. Good Morning Revolution: Uncollected Writings of Social Protest by Langston Hughes. Ed. Faith Berry. New York: Lawrence Hill, 1973.

———. Panther And The Lash. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1974.

———. Selected Poems. New York: Vintage Books, 1974.

Hughes, Langston, and Arna Bontempts, Eds. The Poetry of the Negro: 1746-1970. New York: Doubleday/Anchor, 1970.

Rampersad, Arnold. The Life of Langston Hughes. Volume 1: 1902-1941; I, Too, Sing America. New York: Oxford, 1986. 2 vols.

Williams, John A., and Charles F. Harris, Eds. Amistad I: Writings On Black History and Culture. New York: Vintage Books, 1970.

Tish Dace (essay date November-December 1995)

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SOURCE: Dace, Tish. “On Langston Hughes: Pioneering Poet.” The American Poetry Review 24, no. 6 (November-December 1995): 35-8.

[In the following essay, Dace offers an enthusiastic review of The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes.]

Briefly, I felt desolate.

For weeks I had thrilled while reading from cover to cover The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes, reacquainting myself with old friends and, more joyously, meeting the 226 poems never before included in a Hughes collection. Intoxicated, I had reveled in it hour after hour, reluctant to eat or sleep, irritable when the phone called me away, slack when confronted with other duties. How could any Hughes lover do anything but immerse his or her life in the volume, so full of treasures, old and new, offering many more rewards than even enthusiasts might expect.

Then, however, I had finished the book. And now I'd read them all, I feared, bereft, that never again would I meet another new poem—well, new to me—by a poet I love so well. Then I cheered up, as I recalled that other Hughes poems do await us because Arnold Rampersad and his associate editor, David Roessel, did not, after all, publish everything. They excluded his several hundred unpublished poems preserved at Yale University's Beinecke Library, those juvenilia published in high school and college magazines (the Central High School Monthly Magazine, the Columbia University Spectator, and The Oracle of Omega Psi Phi fraternity) but never thereafter reprinted, as well as poems contained only in his autobiographies and biographies and those (ten in all) which appeared for the first time in the posthumous Good Morning Revolution. In a sense, they have let Hughes decide upon the selection: They include juvenilia he republished and adult poems which he decided to publish, while they exclude those Hughes himself either rejected or forgot about—or, in some cases, which editors may have refused.

For scholars and enthusiasts eager to read everything by Hughes, the editors should perform another great service by issuing a limited print-run volume of the juvenilia and unpublished poems. But the current collection well serves the general reader and provides an excellent source of Hughes's poetry for those scholars who heretofore have settled for much less.

Of the 860 selections, 212 have never before appeared in any book. Fourteen have not appeared in a Hughes collection, and 33 have only been published in such early, limited editions as A New Song and Dear Lovely Death. All the poems from each of Hughes's sixteen volumes of poetry published during his lifetime appear within these covers, as do 52 titles found in Good Morning Revolution. Considering that only that posthumous publication and five of the earlier books currently are in print, this appropriate inclusivity proves particularly helpful. But we especially must rejoice because this volume publishes 259 poems which most of us will never have seen before. By comparison to the 187 titles in Selected Poems—the volume many of us rely on—the 860 in this book prove an amazing treasure trove. Such inclusivity permits readers to decide for themselves how to use the volume and what to value.

In addition to the poems, Rampersad and Roessel provide 77 pages of notes, a chronology of the poet's life, and a short introduction. The notes discuss the poems' provenance and publication history and explain both revisions Hughes made and some allusions, but they do not engage in critical exegesis. In these notes, readers can discover additions or deletions of dialect, relineation, changed wording, or lines which Hughes added or cut. For example, p. 622, note 77 informs us what dialect he cut from “Misery” for Selected Poems. On p. 623, note 78 on “Down and Out” prints the last stanza, which the poet eventually cut. The editors provide other textual variants involving whole deleted stanzas in poems such as “A New Song” on p. 635, and “Militant” on p. 630. This permits us to examine Hughes's revision process throughout his career. The index of first lines helps us to discover that identical poems have appeared under variant titles in previous volumes. The scholarly apparatus likewise corrects and augments Donald Dickinson's A Bio-bibliography of Langston Hughes, 2nd ed., revised (New York: Archon Books, 1972). For all this data, every Hughes scholar owes the editors a debt of gratitude for their invaluable, time-consuming and impeccable scholarship.

Publication of the poems in chronological, rather than thematic, order permits appreciation of what issues occupied Hughes during which periods, the ways in which his work remained consistent and the ways it contrasted or changed, what poems he had available when he collected his work periodically, what he chose to include and exclude from these collections, and the many poems from each part of his publishing life which, for one reason or another, have either never before appeared in book form or only now will receive wide circulation because of the previous book's obscurity.

We should recall W. Edward Farrison appreciating the need for such a chronological arrangement when, in his otherwise enthusiastic review for CLAJ of Faith Berry's Good Morning Revolution,1 he complained, “If the editor had arranged the poems within the several groups in order of their first appearance in print, which probably approximated the order of their composition, she would have facilitated the reader's interest in following the development of many of Hughes's ideas” (434). Wisely, Rampersad and Roessel have done exactly that.

Publication of this collection nearly thirty years after his death will permit reassessment of Hughes's poetry as a more important body of work than some people may appreciate today. Laid out before us all under one cover, these 860 poems impress us with their accessibility, their innovative forms and subjects, their passion or humor, and their variety. He likewise left us such memorable famous quotations as: “life for me ain't been no crystal chair,” “black like me,” “I've known rivers,” “I, too, sing America. / I am the darker brother,” “Nobody loves a genius child,” “I dream a world,” “the boogie-woogie rumble / Of a dream deferred,” “I had a dream,” “a raisin in the sun,” and “Old Walt Whitman / Went finding and seeking.” With these and other phrases, Hughes has enriched American culture.

Hughes appeals to a broad spectrum of humanity—children; adolescents heretofore convinced they hate poems; musicians; casual readers; poetry lovers; teachers; critics; scholars. He wrote something for readers of every race, both genders, any age, any class or degree of education. Surely no poet has ever appealed to any wider spectrum of readers.

Although often seemingly simple and easy, the poems frequently provide considerable matter for analysis and exegesis of form and substance. Hughes had mastered western forms and versified traditional western subjects, but almost from the outset he also published free-spirited flouting of middle-class norms in verse either free or freely metered. He often broke loose from convention: moving into uncharted territory, offending, with earthy, hip poems, some of his race's “talented 10th” in the process, but also winning himself a place among the eternal masters. He helped make much subsequent twentieth-century poetry possible.

Carl Sandburg's Jazz Fantasies, published in 1919, probably influenced Hughes. He did not invent jazz poetry, but he did popularize and perfect it. Hughes pioneered a folk poetry combining black musical forms and African-American cultural content, appropriately reflecting the content in the style. He popularized the poetic formulation of musical forms—the blues, jazz, gospel, spirituals, marches, ragtime, swing, be-bop, and boogie-woogie. A precursor of the beat poets, by the fifties and sixties, when they were experimenting with his rhythms, he was injecting into his own work dissonance (from the newer jazz) and increasing discord reflecting urban strife and the civil rights movement. Throughout his career, Hughes exploded constricted verse forms and opened them up to rhythmic innovation which we now take for granted.

Yes, Hughes also wrote some doggerel. This type of verse has its place and nobody does it more cleverly than Hughes. He also excels at polemic and at occasional verse inspired by specific events. He served his causes and convictions with topical poems, and the editorial notes augment our understanding of these. But he likewise provides us with lyric, descriptive, narrative, and—in monologues and dialogues—dramatic verse we can readily enjoy without assistance.

In these poems Hughes evinces his capacity to disappear, to erase himself and to create instead the persona of someone else, very likely uneducated, possibly sad or bitter or playful. The dramatis personae whom he brings to life—urban and rural, educated and not, young and old, happy and sad, ambitious and not, northern and southern, American and not, black and not, male and female, engaged in all manner of employment and idleness, humanity in all its infinite variety—capture a culture or, really, many cultures.

To sample the diversity of the African Americans he celebrates, turn to “Laughers” on pages 27 and 28, where he describes

                    My people.
Ladies' maids,
Nurses of babies,
Loaders of ships,
Number writers,
Comedians in vaudeville
And band-men in circuses—
Dream-singers all,—
                    My people,

who, of course, he considers “Loud-mouthed laughers in the hands / Of Fate.”

The musicality of Hughes's rhythmical, melodious poetry has prompted many composers to score it. Yet so deftly does he evoke music and musicians that the actual notes may seem superfluous. The editors' chronological arrangement permits us to hear the modulations over the decades. In “The Weary Blues,” Hughes tells us “Droning a drowsy syncopated tune, / Rocking back and forth to a mellow croon, / I heard a Negro play,” and we attend as “Thump, thump, thump went his foot on the floor” (50). More than twenty years later, the poet evokes another African-American musician: “The music / From the trumpet at his lips, / Is honey / Mixed with liquid fire. / The rhythm / From the trumpet at his lips / Is ecstacy / Distilled from old desire …” (338). Two years after that, Hughes writes in One Way Ticket's “Song for Billie Holiday,” after her first imprisonment for drug possession, “Voice of muted trumpet, / Cold brass in warm air / Bitter television blurred / By sound that shimmers—/ Where?” (360). In yet another two years, with the publication of Montage of a Dream Deferred, Hughes in “Flatted Fifths” borrows the rhythms of be-bop in order to jive: “Little cullud boys in berets / oop-pop-a-da / horse a fantasy of days / ool ya-koo / and dig all plays” (404). Indeed the poems in this 1951 volume, more fluid than those of his youth, and written for dozens of voices in a “Chocolate-custard / Pie of a town” (429), positively sing, while their syncopation gets our feet tapping and our joints twitching.

This collection also enables us to appreciate how many of the poems feature Hughes the playwright, who creates dramatic dialogues and monologues and provides stage directions on how to read the verse, what music should accompany it, and even what costume the performer should wear. A significant playwright himself, in his poetry Hughes evinces theatrical sensibilities comparable to those of Charles Dickens in his dramatic public readings of his novels.

Take, for example, the sequence of six poems which comprise The Negro Mother. Hughes intends an actor to read, over martial music, “The Colored Soldier,” a dramatic-monologue-within-a-dramatic-monologue which ironically contrasts a dead soldier's vision of brotherhood with racist reality (147-8). The poet introduces this set piece with stage directions. Then, down the left margin, parallel to the poem's text, he continues his instructions. Hughes achieves similar theatrical effects with the other character studies in this sequence. “Broke” amuses us with the trials of a down-and-out chap who finds a gainfully employed woman to support him, while the four more serious poems characterize the pathos of “The Black Clown,” the braggadocio of “The Big Timer,” the aspirations of “The Negro Mother” for her children, and the hopeful “Dark Youth of the U.S.A.”

If the latter poem proves but a tepid afterthought, the ballad “Death in Harlem” suggests Robert Service's “Ballad of Dan McGrew,” except that here, in Dixie's bar on 133rd, a jealous Arabella Johnson shoots and kills Bessie, who has put the moves on a sugar daddy named the Texas kid (179-83). In “Air Raid Over Harlem,” subtitled “Scenario for a Little Black Movie” (185-88), the poet proffers a racial lesson under the guise of cinematic action and dialogue.

The note to the dramatic monologue “August 19th …” (204-6), which previously has appeared only in the Daily Worker, offers Hughes's stage directions, and the note to “Lynching Song” (640-41) includes the stage directions for this and two other poems. His choral “Chant for May Day” provides Hughes's arrangement for specific numbers of voices on specific lines.

“Ballad of the Seven Songs: A Poem for Emancipation Day” (342-351)—a dramatic occasional piece—cries out for reading aloud on the radio, perhaps for the birthday of Lincoln or King. It also begs to be set to music. How unbelievable that this long poem has not appeared in one of Hughes's previous collections.

Hughes also wrote “Ask Your Mama” to be read aloud accompanied by blues, jazz, and African and European music, often used to comic effect. His stage directions in the left margin address the type of music required. These hip, flip, strident, angry, funny, insulting jazz verses conclude with the explanations of “Liner Notes For the Poetically Unhep.” This urban and urbane theatrical poem seems a long way from the earlier folk poetry.

Readers will spot many other poems which constitute one-act plays, complete with characters, dialogue, and action. Don't miss “Drama for Winter Night (Fifth Avenue)” (47), which begins “You can't sleep here, / My good man” and takes the poor fellow through two evictions, a fall in the street, and a delirious confrontation with the Almighty, before onlookers call for his ouster from the corner where he collapsed.

Some scholar would surely compare the theatrical poems and plays, if only a comparable complete collection of Hughes's work for the stage existed. We can hope that now Arnold Rampersad will turn his attention to compiling such a collection.

The Complete Poems certainly confirms suspicions that Hughes fixated upon death, whether with humor or with pathos. Quite a few such poems have appeared before only in periodicals. Among these, the dialect blues “Red Roses” takes as its speaker a woman postponing her death until spring because “It's bad enough to die but / I don't want freezin' too” (84). Hughes revised the affecting “The Consumptive” after it appeared in Dear Lovely Death: the title poem of that volume is not as telling as the description of this man “feeling life go” (157). Readers will also discover three comical reflections upon death—previously published only, appropriately, in Hearse—such as “Casual,” which begins “Death don't ring no doorbells. / Death don't knock” (459). Or they might prefer the change of pace in another poem “new” to us, “Number,” which sets the scene “When faith in black candles / and in the nothing at all / on clocks runs out …” (536). Readers also can trace the way throughout his life Hughes often considered mortality in relation to racism and war.

Some fans will scan the book in pursuit of satire, while others will unearth humorous character studies or verbal wit. The former mustn't miss his mockery of intellectuals in “Wise Men” (107), “Ph.D.” (161-2), and “Letter to the Academy” (169), and they will enjoy his sending up proper mercantilists in “The English” (129) and colonialists in “Envoy to Africa” (441), which begins “My name is Lord Piggly-Wiggly Wogglesfoot Brown.” Or perhaps they'd prefer the ironic “Ballad of Roosevelt,” in which the parents enjoin the hungry child: “We're waitin' on Roosevelt, son, / Roosevelt, Roosevelt, / Just waitin' on Roosevelt” (178), or the antidote to homophobia in “Café: 3 a.m.” (406). The latter will surely delight in “Argument [1]” (87-8), “If-ing” (226), and “Watch Out, Papa” (232), as well as hitherto unfamiliar Madam poems such as “Madam and the Army”—“They put my boy-friend / in 1-A”—and “Madam and the Movies”—“I love Romance. / That's where I'm weak” (283-4). They will also prize the humerous insights into human nature packed into “Do You Reckon?” (444) and “Mean Old Yesterday” (448) and the more rueful jibes at race relations in “Brotherly Love: A Little Letter to the White Citizens of the South” (453) and “Crowns and Garlands” (551).

Hughes balances his humor with fury, lashing out at violence and at oppression, whether racist or merely economic. If you previously have read only excerpts of “Advertisement for the Waldorf-Astoria,” its ironic anger will stun you. Among the numerous other unfamiliar or less familiar political or revolutionary pieces—some of them poems Hughes dared not circulate to a wide audience—do not neglect “Negro Ghetto” (137), “A New Song” (170-2), “Wait” (174), “One More ‘S’ in the U.S.A.” (176-7), “Song of Spain” (195-97); “Dear Mr. President” (271-2), “Northern Liberal” (541), “Dinner Guest: Me” (547-8), and “The Kids in School with Me” (601).

Although readers doubtless will know Hughes's race poems best, they will find examples new to them scattered throughout this collection and concentrated in its first appendix, composed of works published by members of the Associated Negro Press. Numerous poems take as their subjects events in black history; two chronicle that with an epic sweep. You likely will not have read elsewhere “Prelude to Our Age: A Negro History Poem” (379-84) or the briefer but nevertheless comprehensive “A Ballad of Negro History” (434-6).

This collection offers several surprises. Two take the form of late poems uncharacteristic of the author's other work—if one can generalize at all about such a diverse oeuvre. In 1960 Hughes published “The Jesus” under the pseudonym “Durwood Collins” (468-9). Its title refers both to religion and to a specific slave ship of this name. Although its difficult syntax relinquishes its meaning upon several readings, Hughes has never seemed less accessible. Or consider the 1961 “doorknobs,” which more whimsically describes fears of others—not xenophobia or racism, but panic at anyone else entering or getting close. “The simple silly terror / of a doorknob on a door / that turns to let in life / on two feet standing,” Hughes begins, and then he continues, still all in one sentence, for twenty-one more lines (537). From an earlier era, we may not previously have encountered “Red Clay Blues,” a collaboration between Hughes and Richard Wright (212-13)—yet another of the efforts evidently not previously published in a book. And every time we think we've got Hughes categorized, he throws us another curve, such as “Carolina Cabin,” which warmly evokes an idyllic spot “Where two people / Make a home” (33), or “Second Generation: New York,” which speaks of an Irish mother and Polish father who recall memories their Manhattan child cannot share (351-2).

We should experience no amazement, on the other hand, at how pertinent to today we find so many of the less-known poems from the pen of a poet born nearly a century ago. Check out “God to Hungry Child” (48)—or send it to your congressional representative—as well as “Memo to Non-White Peoples” (456) and the grim “Expendable” (457). Nor will Hughes's repeated celebration of his people through the years (e.g. “The Heart of Harlem,” 311-12) surprise us.

Don't believe you already own all of Hughes's poetry worth reading. Give away your copy of Selected Poems and buy The Collected Poems, which will make you feel like you've just discovered a thick holograph Hughes manuscript tucked away in your attic.


  1. Farrison, W. Edward. “Book Review,” CLAJ (March 1974), 434-7.

Steven C. Tracy (essay date 1995)

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SOURCE: Tracy, Steven C. “Langston Hughes: Poetry, Blues, and Gospel—Somewhere to Stand.” In Langston Hughes: The Man, His Art, and His Continuing Influence, edited by C. James Trotman, pp. 51-61. New York, N.Y.: Garland Publishing, 1995.

[In the following essay, Tracy examines the influence of music—specifically the blues and gospel singing—on the poetry of Langston Hughes.]

The Greek mathematician and inventor Archimedes once said, “Give me somewhere to stand and I will move the earth.” Literary artists, too, must find their places to stand in order to move the earth. And certainly the best of them plant their feet where the ground seems to them to be most stable, especially when their mission is to move the firmament from the shoulders of Atlas onto their own, to provide some new, revolutionary, and mountainous foundation for our visionary dreams. In the midst of that Modernist revolution we know as the Harlem Renaissance or the New Negro Movement, there was a figure who sought to change the way we looked not only at art and African Americans, but also at the world. His vision was modernistic: experimental, both spontaneous and improvisatory and thoughtfully and carefully crafted, at times primitivistic, disjunctive, and cacophonous, rejecting artificial middle-class values, promoting emotional and intellectual freedom, and, above all, life- and love-affirming—self-affirming. And not only affirming of the African American self, though certainly Langston Hughes spent a lifetime climbing the racial mountain and living and affirming an African American self, but also affirming what Ralph Ellison called in Invisible Man the principle “dreamed into being out of the chaos and darkness of the feudal past” (574).

“Freedom! / Brotherhood! / Democracy!” Hughes hallelujahed in “Freedom's Plow”:

… for everybody,
For all America, for all the world.
May its branches spread and its shelter grow
Until all races and all people know its shade.

(Selected Poems, 297)

Langston Hughes planted his feet among the Warren Street Baptists in Lawrence, with their “fiery sermons, inspired responses, and passionate, skilled singing” (Rampersad, I, 16); among the “ordinary Negroes” of Seventh Street in Washington, D.C., were people who drew no color line, “played the blues, ate watermelon, barbecue, and fish sandwiches, shot pool, told tall tales, looked at the dome of the Capitol and laughed out loud” (Hughes, The Big Sea, 209); among, as he called them, proudly jubilantly, “the low-down folks”:

The so-called common element, and they are the majority—may the Lord be praised! … They furnish a wealth of colorful, distinctive material for any artist because they still hold their individuality in the face of American standardizations.

(“The Negro Artist,” 306)

“The tom-tom of revolt against weariness in a white world” he called jazz, referring clearly to the spectrum of African American folk music (“The Negro Artist,” 308). For his vision of African American music—sacred and secular—was comprehensively affectionate, much more so than Du Bois's, Johnson's, and Locke's, all of whom preferred spirituals to blues and jazz, Du Bois even terming jazz “caricature” (Dusk of Dawn, 202-203). But, for Hughes, African American music was elemental, primal:

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 strength like the beat of the human heart, its humor, and its rooted power.

(The Big Sea, 209)

The beat of the heart, the pulse—Hughes used these metaphors repeatedly in reference to the folklore of his people; and his work from The Weary Blues through The Panther and the Lash throbbed with ethno-poetic splendor.

The fact that Hughes could throw one arm around spirituals and gospel music and the other around the blues simultaneously would seem remarkable, even blasphemous, in some circles, primarily Christian ones where the blues might be dubbed “the devil's music.” But Hughes sat them rather comfortably side by side in his work and his ethos: “I liked the barrel houses of Seventh Street, the shouting churches, and the songs,” he wrote in The Big Sea (209); the following year he called spirituals and blues the “two great Negro gifts to American music” (“Songs Called the Blues,” 143). In the mid-fifties his devil figure Big Eye Buddy Lomax, in both the play and the novel Tambourines to Glory, asserted that “them gospel songs sound just like the blues,” to which the holy sister managed only the feeble reply, “At least our words is different” (Tambourines, 126-27).

It is clear that Hughes did not exalt spirituals and gospel music based on any fervent belief in Christianity. The “Salvation” chapter in The Big Sea outlines his traumatic (non-) conversion experience that left him doubting the existence of a Jesus who had not come to help him (18-21); and his poem “Mystery” describes the feelings of an uninitiated thirteen-year-old, isolated by her confused uncertainty, yoking “The mystery / and the darkness / and the song / and me” (Selected Poems, 256). In “To Negro Writers” he called on his African American colleagues to “expose the sick-sweet smile of organized religion … and the half-voodoo, half-clown face of revivalism, dulling the mind with the clap of its empty hands” (139). His “first experience with censorship” he recounted in “My Adventures as a Social Poet,” reporting how a preacher directed him not to read any more blues in his pulpit (206). Years later in a Simple story, “Gospel Singers,” Simple compares churches to movie theaters, preachers to movie stars, and church services to shows during which gospel singers are “working in the vineyards of the Lord and digging in his gold mines,” joking that when you hear gospel singers “crying ‘I Cannot Bear My Burden Alone,’ what they really mean is, ‘Help me get my cross to my Cadillac.’” (Simple's Uncle Sam, 39). Significantly, though, Simple did not mind paying to hear the gospel singers—paying twice, even—because he felt that “the music that these people put down can't be beat” (39). For Simple, as for Hughes, it was not the meaning of the words so much as the wording of the means that carried him away. What Hughes said about the blues in “Songs Called the Blues” applies to gospel music as well: “You don't have to understand the words to know the meaning of the blues, or to feel their sadness or to hope their hopes” (145). Paul Oliver's description of gospel music captures the essence of the spark of gospel music that ignited Hughes:

Gospel songs bring the message of “good news” and are so called, according to some preachers, because they state the “gospel truth.” The promise of a better life hereafter still pervades them but their joyousness and extrovert behavior suggest happiness achieved in this life in preparation for the next.


In the melisma and glissandi of “the wordless moan, that is the essence of gospel music” (Heilbut, 23), Hughes heard the pulsing drama of the life of the spirit, the human spirit. It was a spirit he tried to capture in poems like “Fire” and “Sunday Morning Prophecy” and in gospel plays like Tambourines to Glory, the highly successful Black Nativity and Jericho-Jim Crow, and The Gospel Glory.

Hughes heard that pulse in the blues too, of course. Buddy Lomax was certainly right in hearing similarities between gospel and blues music. Robert Farris Thompson has pointed out the influence of the “Ancient African organizing principle of song and dance” on African American music as a whole, with its “dominance of a percussive performance attack …, propensity for multiple meter …, overlapping and response …, inner pulse control …, suspended accentuation pattern …, and songs and dances of social allusion” (xiii). It is not surprising that one of the founding fathers of gospel music, Thomas A. Dorsey, who came to religious prominence with the publication of Gospel Pearls in 1921 by the Sunday School Publishing Board of the National Baptist Convention, had been a blues and hokum singer. One of Dorsey's biggest hokum hits had been “It's Tight Like That” with singer-guitarist Tampa Red. Eventually, though, Dorsey went from being “tight like that” to being tight with God, penning such standards as “Precious Lord Take My Hand” and “Peace in the Valley.” It was the manner of performing, the spirit of the performance, that transcended the sometimes artificial sacred, secular, and profane bounds and linked black musics together.

Certainly Hughes wrote more about blues than he did about gospel music in his lifetime. He recalled the first time he heard the blues in Kansas City on the appropriately named Independence Avenue, which provided him with material for his “The Weary Blues,” one of the poems, with “Jazzonia” and “Negro Dancers,” that Hughes placed beside Vachel Lindsay's plate at the Wardman Park Hotel; the blues of Ma Rainey and the boogie woogie and ragtime piano players on State Street in Chicago; the blues, ragtime, and jazz of Harlem from the twenties on; aboard the S.S. Malone bound for Africa, even at Le Grand Duc in France:

Blues in the Rue Pigalle. Black and laughing, heartbreaking blues in the Paris dawn, pounding like a pulse beat, moving like the Mississippi.

(The Big Sea, 162)

The yoking of the pulse beat, the river, and the singing links this description with another of Hughes's classic poems, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” reminding us, as Hughes wrote with Milton Meltzer in Black Magic, that the “syncopated beat which the captive Africans brought with them” that found its first expression here in “the hand-clapping, feet-stomping, drum-beating rhythms (related, of course, to the rhythms of the human heart)” (4-5), is as “ancient as the world.” After Le Grand Duc in Washington, D.C., and collecting with Zora Neale Hurston throughout the South—“All my life,” Hughes wrote, “I've heard the blues” (“I Remember the Blues,” 152). He continued to admire their expressive beauty, differentiating them clearly from the spirituals as being “sadder … because their sadness is not softened with tears, but hardened with laughter, the absurd, incongruous laughter of sadness without a god to appeal to” (Van Vechten, 86). To him they were “sad songs sung to the most despondent rhythm in the world …” (review of Blues: An Anthology, 258), at times “as absurd as Krazy Kat” (Van Vechten, 86), but nearly always conveying “a kind of marching on syncopation, a gonnamake-it-somehow determination in spite of it all, that ever-present laughter-under-sorrow that indicates a love of life too precious to let it go” (“I Remember the Blues,” 155), with “a steady rolling beat that seemed to be marching somewhere to something better, to something happy” (First Book of Jazz, 37). Despite the differences between spirituals and blues that Hughes enumerated in “Songs Called the Blues,” he saw a greater inherent bond that transcended what he saw as the superficial discordances between the blues and spiritual and gospel music. The music, his art, black art, was not to be isolating but ultimately unifying, and if what Arnold Rampersad described as Hughes's “cloistered life” (16) with Mary Langston accentuated his solitude, the visceral drama of black music—tender, humorous, tragic, innocent, sexy, ecstatic, mundane, playful, lively and deadly serious—set the stage for his emergence as an artist.

In fact, Hughes sought to infuse much of his poetry with the urgency, the immediacy, of activity and performance. He wrote in “Aunt Sue's Stories”:

Black slaves
Working in the hot sun,
And black slaves
Walking in the dewy night,
And black slaves
Singing sorrow songs on the banks of a mighty river
Mingle themselves softly
In the flow of Aunt Sue's voice,
Mingle themselves softly
In the dark shadows that cross and recross
Aunt Sue's stories.

(Selected Stories, 6)

Hughes delighted in reciting his poetry to musical accompaniment, seeing the performance as an occasion for meaningful group interaction that would enhance and strengthen communication. Ezra Pound wrote to Hughes about a poem Hughes sent to him: “Thank God; at last I come across a poem I can understand” (Hentoff, 27). The comment is ironic coming from Pound, but perfectly appropriate in regard to Hughes's intentions and achievement. Nat Hentoff reported Hughes's designs for his recitations with musical accompaniment:

The music should not only be a background to the poetry, but should comment on it. I tell the musicians—and I've worked with several different modern and traditional groups—to improvise as much as they care around what I read. Whatever they bring of themselves to the poetry is welcome to me. I merely suggest the mood of each piece as a general orientation. Then I listen to what they say in their playing, and that affects my own rhythms when I read. We listen to each other.


The performance of the poem, then, becomes a nexus, a dialogue, something as old as the inception of the poem but as new as the inflection of the impulse. Indeed, in the stage directions to Tambourines to Glory Hughes suggested that “audience participation might be encouraged—singing, foot-patting, handclapping—and in the program the lyrics of some of the songs might be printed with an invitation to sing the refrains along with the chorus of Tambourine Temple” (184). It would not likely take much to inspire participation for, as Hughes wrote in “Spirituals,” “Song is a strong thing” (Selected Poems, 28).

Now Hughes had his limitations as a commentator on the blues. His discussions of the roots of the blues in African music and work songs and field hollers were often general and unsystematic early in his career, though his later work was somewhat more comprehensive. He overgeneralized a bit about the types of blues that males sang as opposed to females, and he did not adequately convey the breadth of themes or stanzaic patterns present in the blues. His lists of outstanding blues singers most often emphasized vaudeville blues singers, certainly urban blues singers at any rate, indicating more of a preference for sophisticated productions. Indeed, Hughes wrote that it was a desire of his to write the first libretto for a blues opera (“From the Blues to an Opera Libretto”), and he himself was ambivalent about whether he was a folk poet or a folk person, discussing the subject in equivocal terms:

I have tried to get that quality into my, shall we call them, created blues, because of course I consciously write these, and so I guess you can't call them real folk blues, unless you want to say that I'm a folk poet, myself a folk person, which maybe I am.

(Langston Hughes Reads and Talks)

The blues poems that Hughes wrote were often thematic rather than associative, and they contained noticeably few references to drugs, sex, and violence in comparison to blues songs recorded both in the field and in the studio, opting for something of a via media in reflecting the themes and images of the folk tradition. His language and images, in fact, are not often as stark or startling as the best blues lyrics by performers within the oral tradition, but they make excellent use of both oral and written traditions in a way that adds materially to both, making his poetry something quite familiar, yet quite new.

Of course, not all of Hughes's blues poems did employ blues stanza forms. Hughes called his poem “Cross,” for example, a poem whose “mood is that of the blues, although its lyric form lacks the folk repetition” (“From the Blues to an Opera Libretto”). It is not stanza form, repetition, or the number of measures in a stanza that makes the blues—but the feeling, spirit, attitude, and approach. And these, indeed, imbue much of the poetry of Langston Hughes to such an extent that the whine of a bottleneck, or the wail of a harmonica, or the trill of a piano may be regularly inferred as the subtext of his work. Behind the “Troubled Woman”

Bowed by
Weariness and pain
like an
Autumn flower
In the frozen rain.

(Selected Poems, 77)

or the “Island” toward which the speaker wishes to be taken by the “wave of sorrow” because of its fair sands (Selected Poems, 78), or the question

Where is the Jim Crow section
On this merry-go-round
Mister, cause I want to ride?

(Selected Poems 194)

or the

Hit me! Jab Me!
Make me say I did it.

(Selected Poems, 197)

of “Third Degree,” or the words of “The Negro Mother”

For I will be with you till no white brother
Dares keep down the children of the Negro Mother. …

(Selected Poems, 289)

are the strains of black life and black song.

All of which leads us to the performance aspect of my discussion today, and the chance to hear some of those songs that seem to be patterned after recognizable stanza forms, both gospel and blues.

Most common in the tradition and in Hughes's work is the twelve-bar blues form. The first song I'm going to perform is “Early Evening Quarrel” from Shakespeare in Harlem, a kind of comedy blues dialogue in the tradition of such male-female recording teams as Butterbeans and Susie or Lonnie Johnson and Victoria Spivey or Clara Smith. The argument's pace and back-and-forth exchange is captured well in Hughes's strategy of giving a twelve-bar chorus each to Hattie and Hammond, where both lay out their arguments in the traditional stanza form paced in a slower fashion by using the repeat lines of the AAB stanza, and then speeding up by having the two exchange quips in one twelve-bar stanza, the lines coming at the rate of one line per bar.

The poem Hughes entitled “Death Chant” in Shakespeare in Harlem and “Stony Lonesome” in his Selected Poems is another twelve-bar blues but noticeably less urbane and more low-down than “Early Evening Quarrel.” Hughes accomplishes this through bluntness and repetition in his diction and by controlling the pace with his line placement, sometimes dividing a single “line” in the AAB stanza, which he usually rendered in two lines, into three lines of four, three, or two words each. The mood of the poem is also achieved by the expletives at the end of each stanza, which violate the strict twelve-bar blues pattern and emphasize the singer's focus on the emotional content rather than the strict technical context of the performance. The original title is somewhat of a directive as to how to hear or sing the song—like a chant—and the later one describes how it should sound as well—stony lonesome.

On his Spoken Arts recording Hughes said that he wrote “Bound No'th Blues” in “the exact format of the traditional folk blues.” It is another moaning blues that makes noticeable use of repetition to create pace and mood, and the theme of wandering alone in the world down some interminable road is common in blues lyrics.

One of Hughes's most successful gospel-influenced poems was “Fire.” It is immediately apparent that “Fire” and such poems as “Stony Lonesome” and “Bound No'th Blues” have a great deal in common. Pace and mood are once again controlled and slowed by repetition and line placement, and the emotional force of the passage resides in the triadic refrain, which builds from one word in the first line to two in the second to an outburst of five in the third, and then becomes a refrain of five lines, the final three elongated anguished cries, at the end.

“Southern Mammy Sings” and “Same In Blues” are two poems that borrow structurally from eight-bar blues lyrics, both of which use modulated refrains that encapsulate the essence of what has come before them. In “Southern Mammy” the refrain becomes more assertive than the narrative section; in “Same In” the refrain sums up the psychological effect of the narrative section as it is related to broader social issues. In this way, Hughes modifies the oral tradition to great literary effect.

Hughes liked humor, of course, and one of his best humorous blues poems is “Morning After.” His final two lines,

You just a little bit o' woman but you
Sound like a great big crowd

could in fact be a metaphor for African American blues and gospel: they may seem small and unimposing, but you should hear them roar.

And resound.

Works Cited

Du Bois, W. E. B. Dusk of Dawn. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1940.

Ellison, Ralph. Invisible Man. New York: Vintage, 1989.

Hentoff, Nat. “Langston Hughes: He Found Poetry in the Blues.” Mayfair (August 1958): 26, 27, 43, 45-47, 49.

Hughes, Langston. The Big Sea. New York: Hill & Wang, 1963.

———. In The First Book of Jazz. Eds. Cliff Roberts and David Martin. New York: Franklin Watts, 1976.

———. “From the Blues to an Opera Libretto.” New York Times. January 15, 1950.

———. “I Remember the Blues.” In Missouri Reader. Ed. Frank Luther Mott. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1964. 152-155.

———. “My Adventures as a Social Poet.” Phylon 6 (1947): 205-213.

———. “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain.” In Voices from the Harlem Renaissance. Ed. Nathan I. Huggins. New York: Oxford University Press, 1976. 305-309.

———. Reads and Talks. Spoken Arts 7140, 1959.

———. “Review of Blues: An Anthology by W. C. Handy.” Opportunity (August 1926): 258.

———. Selected Poems. New York: Vintage Books, 1984.

———. Simple's Uncle Sam. New York: Hill & Wang, 1965.

———. “Songs Called the Blues.” Phylon 2.2 (1941): 143-145.

———. Tambourines to Glory. New York: John Day, 1958. Novel.

———. Tambourines to Glory. In Five Plays by Langston Hughes. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1968.

———. “To Negro Writers.” American Writer's Congress. Ed. Henry Hart. New York: International Publisher, 1935. 139-141.

———, and Milton Meltzer, eds. Black Magic: A Pictorial History of the Negro in American Entertainment. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1967.

Oliver, Paul, Max Harrison, and William Bolcom. The New Grove Gospel, Blues and Jazz, with Spirituals and Ragtime. London: Macmillan, 1986.

Rampersad, Arnold. The Life of Langston Hughes: Volume 1: 1902-1941: I, Too, Sing America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986.

Thompson, Robert Farris. Flash of the Spirit: African and AfroAmerican Art and Philosophy. New York: Random House, 1983.

Van Vechten, Carl. “The Black Blues.” Vanity Fair 24.6 (1925): 57, 86, 92.

David R. Jarraway (essay date December 1996)

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SOURCE: Jarraway, David R. “Montage of an Otherness Deferred: Dreaming Subjectivity in Langston Hughes.” American Literature 68, no. 4 (December 1996): 819-47.

[In the following essay, Jarraway focuses critical attention on issues of subjectivity and identity in Hughes's Montage of a Dream Deferred.]

Our identities are often provoked by what we oppose.

—Jeffrey Escoffer, “The Limits of Multiculturalism”

In the Vietnamese language, … [w]hen you talk to someone you establish a relationship. Such a self concept is a way of experiencing the other, of ritualistically sharing the other's essence and cherishing it. In our culture, seeing and feeling the dimension of harm done by separating self from other requires somewhat more work. Very little in our language or culture encourages looking at others as parts of ourselves.

—Patricia J. Williams, The Alchemy of Race and Rights

… a subject who points to him or herself as subject-in-process, a work that displays its own formal properties or its own constitution as work, is bound to upset one's sense of identity—the familiar distinction between the Same and the Other since the latter is no longer kept in a recognizable relation of dependence, derivation, or appropriation.

—Trinh T. Minh-ha, “Documentary Is / Not a Name”

The “deferred” in my title plays off, or perhaps I should say “signifies upon,”1Montage of a Dream Deferred, the title of a 1948 book of poetry by Langston Hughes. In that six-part suite of poems focused on Harlem life, Hughes offers enough dream post-ponements to suggest that the deferral of dreams may have been willful, if not a little perverse. Otherness often strikes us as willful and perverse in just this way. The perverse Otherness of Black Literature, for instance, frequently provides theorists with the most compelling reason for maintaining its clear separation from rival traditions and competing canons. Houston Baker, for example, has suggested that “judgments on Afro-American ‘modernity’ that begin with notions of British, Anglo-American, and Irish ‘modernism’ as ‘successful’ objects, projects, and processes to be emulated by Afro-Americans are misguided, … [since] Africans and Afro-Americans … have little in common with Joycean or Eliotic projects.”2 Paul Lauter echoes Baker's plea for a distinguishing separation, noting that until quite recently the “fundamental organizing principles [of standard American anthologies have] seldom been altered to accommodate the fact that the significant literary work of African Americans cannot be understood as an expression of ‘European culture’ in an ‘American environment.’”3

Certainly its contextualization in an “American environment” is not in itself a sufficient basis for dissolving the Otherness of Hughes's African American project. Overmastering literary traditions, after all, exist in America as well as in Europe. Even the editors at Alfred A. Knopf, for years Hughes's major publisher in the United States, could barely conceal their disdain for Hughes's refusal to conform to the aesthetic dictates of more mainstream (WASP, masculinist, middle-class) canonical figures. “When Wallace Stevens visited the office,” a Knopf official once recalled to Hughes's biographer, long after Hughes's death, “people were in awe of him. We treated him like a lord. Hardly anybody cared about Hughes. As far as I am concerned, he wrote baby poetry, poor stuff. If we had to go out to lunch with him, say to a French restaurant in mid-town, it was kind of embarrassing. He was a nice enough guy, but you couldn't get around the race thing.”4

In taking up the deferral of black Otherness in Langston Hughes's poetry, and his deferral of subjectivity more specifically, I make no claim to have got around “the race thing.” Part of my argument, in fact, is that race may have been an issue that Hughes—unlike his contemporaries Alain Locke and Countee Cullen—did not care to lead us beyond. I can, however, right from the start, get beyond the charges of “baby poetry” and “poor stuff” brought on by specious comparisons to either European or American mainstream culture. To do so, I follow Henry Louis Gates's lead and turn to “the black vernacular tradition … [in order] to isolate the signifying black difference through which to theorize about the so-called Discourse of the Other.”5

It is hardly possible to isolate the “signifying difference” in the discourse of Langston Hughes by seeking to establish a relationship between it and the discourses of other communities or cultures. In an important journal entry from 1929, Hughes articulated his “ultimate hope” even in his earliest work: namely, “To create a Negro culture in America—a real, solid, sane, racial something growing out of the folk life, not copied from another, even though surrounding race.”6 The statement echoes similar more strenuous sentiments in Hughes's 1926 essay, “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain,” in which he declares that “the mountain standing in the way of any true Negro art in America” is the “urge within the race toward whiteness, the desire to pour racial individuality into the mold of American standardization, and to be as little Negro and as much American as possible.”7 Hughes's fierce resistance here to the standardization, homogenization, or duplication of personal experience presents us with a first insight into that Otherness whose specification is deferred throughout much of his work. Take, for instance, the opening lines of Hughes's early “Afro-American Fragment”:

So long,
So far away
Is Africa.
Not even memories alive
Save those that history books create,
Save those that songs
Beat back into the blood—
Beat out of blood with words sad-sung
In strange un-Negro tongue—
So long,
So far away
Is Africa.(8)

Songs, like history books, endeavor “with words” to replicate the elusive black experience of Africa, “so long, / So far away.” But though words seem capable of internalizing some of the reality that is “Africa”—the experience beaten “back into the blood”—part of Africa escapes. The phrase “beaten out of blood” suggests not only that these songs come out of black suffering but also that something is always lost, “beaten out of [the] blood” of those who hear them. The closing of the poem reinforces this notion:

I do not understand
This song of atavistic land,
Of bitter yearnings lost
Without place—
So long,
So far away,
Is Africa's
Dark face.


We might almost be tempted to educe a strain of Pragmatist thought in this opening and closing of personal experience in Hughes's text, the kind of “self-sustaining in the midst of self-removal” that William James contends “characterizes all reality and fact, … something absolutely foreign to the nature of language.”9 In the Pragmatist view of reality “Something forever exceeds, escapes from statement, withdraws from definition.”10 For Hughes, arguably the something that “escapes from definition” is that “racial something” he sought from the first to express in his work.

The image of Africa's “Dark face” reinforces the unspecifiable Otherness of black experience in “true Negro art.” Robert Young finds a similar image in the counter-traditional writing of the Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, explaining that the “face” in Levinas is invariably linked to the notion of “surplus”—a surplus as “the effect of the radical alterity of the other,” a surplus “always exterior to [any form of] totality.”11 In Hughes, the collocation of darkness, Africa, and facial (non)identity, in one form or another, also signals a surfeit of experience that severely problematizes our efforts to rationalize, systematize, or categorize reality—and thereby contain it. In “Negro,” for instance, the inexpressible surplus or deferral of meaning is figured by “depths”:

I am a Negro:
Black as the night is black,
Black like the depths of my Africa.


In “As I Grew Older,” the darkness is shattered and the night is smashed, but the surfeit nonetheless remains in what results:

To break this shadow
Into a thousand lights of sun,
Into a thousands whirling dreams
Of Sun!


“The Negro Mother” brings the images of these two poems together: “Look at my face—dark as the night—/ Yet shining like the sun with love's true light.” But the very unfathomableness of the Negro mother's experience prevents us from according her any specific identity:

I am the child they stole from the sand
Three hundred years ago in Africa's land
Three hundred years in the deepest South:
But God put a song and a prayer in my mouth.


Ultimately, Hughes's unspecified surplus directs our attention to a certain lack at the heart of black experience, a lack within the very word “black” that Hughes points up in “Consider Me” (“What I lack, / Black, / Caught in a crack / That splits the world in two”), a poem whose final lines neatly sum up the overriding effect of a perpetually undefined Otherness: “Consider me, / Descended also / From the / Mystery” (287).

Langston Hughes shipped out to Africa for almost a full year in 1923, long before taking up writing as a full-time vocation back in America. According to Arnold Rampersad, mystery is the key to that extraordinarily formative experience right from the poet's embarkation: “Africa! The continent was a mystery known to few black Americans. … Hughes stood there awhile in the darkness, salt spray blowing in his face … as the West Hesseltine surged into the dark. Toward Africa!”12 This description is useful in helping us to understand how Africa could enter Hughes's poetry as a figure—associated particularly with darkness and dreaming—for the willed mystery, the uncertainty, the indeterminacy—what I am calling the deferred Otherness—of black experience. And in Hughes's early work, we are particularly struck by the large number of texts that play about this figure, for example, the Blakean lyric entitled “Snail”:

Weather and rose
Is all you see,
The dewdrop's


“Fantasy in Purple” exhorts us to “blow one blaring trumpet note of sun,” and “go with me / to the darkness / where I go” (103). In “Havana Dreams” the image of the face surfaces once again to underscore the enigmatic character of all human experience:

Perhaps the dream is only her face
Perhaps it's a fan of silver lace—
Or maybe the dream's a Vedado rose—
(Quien sabe? Who really knows?)


Like the lack that splits the world in two, Hughes's mysteries land us, in “Border Line,” on a “difference” between “living and dying” and between “here and there”—mysteries that ultimately constitute a “distance” that “Is nowhere” (81). The nowhere of Hughes's “distance,” however, is hardly dismissive of life's mystery. As in Levinas, distance, through its mediation by language, “posits a relation of sociality, whereby the self instead of assimilating the other opens itself to it through a relation with it,” and thus sustains “the radical separation” as well as “the strangeness” of the other as a kind of revelation.13

In The Signifying Monkey, Henry Louis Gates makes the important point that “The ‘finding of the voice’ of the speaking subject in a language in which blackness is the cardinal sign of absence is the subject of so much of Afro-American discourse.”14 The association of black experience with “absence,”15 to which the writer of color, as speaking subject, is exhorted to give a voice, emerges quite early in the poetry of Langston Hughes and is expressed in the ideas of mystery, lack, difference, and distance, all clustered, as we have seen, around the more general notion of an ambiguous or unspecified Otherness. Moreover, although Africa tropes the idea of Otherness or absence in a broad range of texts representing black experience, it is Harlem that provides the quintessential image of difference in Hughes's more concentrated and focused view of American urban life. Darkness undoubtedly forged the link between Africa and Harlem, for it was “[t]he sheer dark size of Harlem,” Hughes records, “that intrigued [him].”16 According to Rampersad, Harlem was

the lifelong source of [Hughes's] finest inspiration … a living, breathing, vibrant black community in all its colors and classes, virtues and vices, dreams and fears. … [Hughes] was not romantic about Harlem, which had changed dramatically since his arrival there twenty years earlier [in 1921]. Still relatively safe, it was not as safe as it had once been; several people he knew had been mugged at least once. … But Harlem was home … [and] he blended effortlessly with the dark flow of life on which he and his art had always depended.17

Harlem's “dark flow of life” foregrounds the signifying difference so central to the representation of reality as Hughes conceives it. “Likewise,” an important text from the Montage sequence, is pivotal in the representation of Harlem's darkness:

The Jews:
          Diamond rings
          THE DAILY NEWS
Jews sell me things.
Yom Kippur, no!
Shops all over Harlem
close up tight that night.
Some folks blame high prices on the Jews.
(Some folks blame too much on the Jews.)
But in Harlem they don't answer back,
Just maybe shrug their shoulders,
“What's the use?”
Sometimes I think
Jews must have heard
the music of a
dream deferred.


Predictably in this text, the “dream deferred” that is Harlem reiterates what makes Africa so darkly mysterious—its imperviousness to rational or linguistic penetration (“in Harlem they don't answer back”). What is more, the focus on “Jews,” already well established symbols of disruption and difference in modernist representation,18 defers the appearance of Harlem's black denizens to other texts in Hughes's sequence, in characterizations anticipated to be “likewise,” and thus reiterates Harlem's darkness as the cardinal sign of its black people's absence. A poem so tight-lipped about the real character of Harlem life can only mock its own words in meaningless signs and exasperated shrugs: “What's the use?”

But it would be a mistake—on the basis of these interpretive refusals—to construe Harlem as an empty signifier in Hughes's later discourse, a linguistic counter or cultural marker dried up “like a raisin in the sun” (268). If its roaring Jewish storefronts are any indication, Harlem suffers not from an attenuation of meaning but from meaning's excess. In “Projection”—a discordia concors that juxtaposes Sammy Davis and Marian Anderson, Paul Robeson with “Moms” Mabley, that pits the Savoy and “jitterbugging” against Seventh Avenue and the “Renaissance,” and that has the Abyssinia Baptist Church lie down beside St. James Presbyterian—a rollicking, roistering, raucous melange of tastes and temperaments satisfies a healthy appetite for experience. Yet even the satiation of the palate leaves one wanting more. For surely the “projection” in the poem's title has more to do with the desire for experience than the satisfaction made possible by any particular presentation of it. Hence, in “Deferred,” the fact that one may never go to France does not prevent the Harlemite from studying French at night school and the lack of “a decent radio” does not extinguish the need “to take up Bach” (253-54).

What keeps the dream “deferred” in this poem, and several others in which the phrase is insistently repeated (“Dream Boogie” [221], “Tell Me” [231], “Boogie 1 a.m.” [250], “Dime” [262], and others), is no one thing. Built into that “certain / amount of nothing / in a dream deferred” (“Same in Blues” [270]) is the desire that would turn no[one]thing into everything, if Harlem were only large enough, or if one had the stamina to withstand “all its colors and classes, virtues and vices, dreams and fears.” If blackness is the cardinal sign of absence, then Harlem—in all of its deferred dreams, its “nothing”—is blackness's most specifically American signifier, just as Africa is its most universal. In all of these instances, Harlem becomes the perfect evocation for blackness because, as Kimberly Benston persuasively argues, “Blackness, far from being inextricable from the paradoxes of its articulation, finally transcends representation” and all “Afro-American cultural expression” that would limit it by defining its essential nature.19 Hughes presents a continuous montage of dream deferrals in his representation of Harlem because the Otherness of black experience, in Benston's words, “does not inhere in any ultimate referent but is renewed in the rhythmic process of multiplication and substitution generated from performance to performance”; accordingly, it becomes “a dynamic producer of richly differing signifying perspectives … ‘seething with possibilities.’”20

The one representation that Hughes does consistently risk attaching to Harlem is that of the female. Black women in his poetry generally suffer intolerable hardships at the hands of black men, for example, in “Misery” (“A good woman's cryin' / For a no-good man” [143]), in “Lament over Love” (“Gonna think about my man—/ And let my fool-self fall” [153]), and in “Ballad of the Girl Whose Name Is Mud” (“The guy she gave her all to / Dropped her with a thud” [149]). But in its association with Harlem as an image of darkness and mystery in Hughes, female identity presents us with something quite other:

Take Harlem's heartbeat,
Make a drumbeat,
Put it on record, let it whirl,
And while we listen to it play,
Dance with you till day—
Dance with you, my sweet Harlem girl.


In this excerpt from “Juke Box Love Song,” Hughes is focusing on the character and quality of experience that sets Harlem life apart—that is to say, on the seething possibilities throbbing in the insistent rhythms and repetitions of its music. These possibilities allow Hughes's discourse to transcend specific representations of men and women within a constraining and containing sameness and to open out instead onto a new and more dynamic level of difference—and hence of equality and freedom. On this level we begin to discern alternative forms of modernism that critically dismantle the traditional notion of modernity as monolithic, hence seamlessly canonical.

Hughes's “sweet Harlem girl” is thus given to us as an alternative modern consciousness. Her representation as such should not surprise us. As Iain Chambers sums up the situation,

In philosophical, literary, historical and critical considerations of modernity the figure of woman has invariably been presented as the symbol of all that is mysterious, unknown and uncontrollable: “The fear in front of woman is the fear before the absence of sense: is the fear in front of the abyss of nothingness that sucks you in” [Otto Weininger, Geschlecht und Character (1981)]. Such a figure stands for that excess in feeling and being that breaks the bounds of reason and threatens its exercise of power. It is therefore a figure of the displaced, the hidden, the unrecognized.21

The mystery, absence, nothingness, and excess in Chambers's commentary make it an astute gloss on Hughes's handling of the female figure with respect to Harlem's deferred Otherness. One might be tempted to go even further and imagine that Hughes saw Alberta K. Johnson, the female persona in another memorable Harlem sequence, Madam to You, as the kind of female figure Chambers speaks of as a threat to powerful reason. To the meticulously logical census taker who demands to know what the “K” stands for in her name, Alberta lashes out:

My mother christened me
You leave my name
Just that way!


Although Alberta is tough enough to say only “K—/ And nothing more,” she strikes us as a bit too sure of herself, a bit too confirmed in her own sense of individuality. In this standoff, it is not likely that her “nothing” is an abyss that will suck in the overly rational census man—or any other calculating, manipulating patriarch. We are reminded here of the Jews who “don't answer back” but allow their silence to be construed as an invitation to construct their identity in any number of subversive ways. After all, “[t]he mind,” as Levinas once remarked, “is a multiplicity of individuals.”22

With this mention of the multiplicity of individuality, I want to shift to a more particular consideration of the deferral of Otherness in Langston's Hughes's poetry, to examine it not just as the rhetorical principle of a more discriminating modernism but to place it in the context of social and cultural politics. Specifically, I mean to address those texts in which Hughes's attention shifts from experience outside, in the external world, to experience inside, within the human individual, that is to say, to the realities of racial thought and gendered consciousness. In a word, I want now to examine the import of Otherness deferred for Hughes's treatment of subjectivity.

It is important here to distinguish between the two kinds of subjectivity already touched upon in Hughes's poetry, the kind represented, say, by Alberta K. Johnson, and that of Hughes's “brown Harlem girl”—one a specific and individualized character and the other a more generalized figure that can only be alluded to or gestured toward, never directly identified. Understanding the distinction between the “referred” subjectivity of the former and the “deferred” subjectivity of the latter is crucial at this point. Houston Baker's notion of the “mask” as a kind of “symbolizing fluidity,” that is to say, “a momentary and changing same array of images, figures, assumptions, and presuppositions that a group of people … holds to be a valued repository of spirit” may help to clarify what I mean by deferred subjectivity.23 More important still, I think, is recognizing that while in my examples both kinds of subjectivity are represented as female, it would be entirely possible—indeed, beneficial—for a man to conceive of the deferred identity or deliberate ambiguity of Hughes's brown Harlem girl as likely to inform his own subjectivity in a number of hypothetically imaginable ways. As a figure for fluidity and alterity, she foregrounds the conditionality of subjectivity for both men and women, and in her nonreferential, nonrepresentational no-thing-ness she opens up an infinite space of possibility for being different, for existing otherwise. In this connection, one may be reminded of a formative experience that Henry Louis Gates recounts from his early youth, when his mother rose one day in church to give substance to words whose significance he had forgotten during a public recitation. “I realized,” Gates reflects, that “much of my scholarly and critical work has been an attempt to learn how to speak in the strong, compelling cadences of my mother's voice,” and what is more, that “learning to speak in the voice of the black female is perhaps the ultimate challenge of producing a discourse of the critical Other.”24

By this time, it may go without saying that the poetry of Langston Hughes repeatedly rises to the challenge of producing a discourse of the critical Other—a discourse of a differing, hence, deferred subjectivity. Had Langston Hughes, at some point during his long career as a writer, learned to speak in the voice of the black female? His biographer seems to think so:

Surfacing now [in the early 1950s] perhaps, at last, was the obverse self-image, which had been latent in him from the start—his sense of himself, in his most intimate role as a poet, as mother (hardly father) to the race, rather than its princely child. Early poems such as “Mother to Son” and “The Negro Mother” had indicated the presence of this essential capacity, even if it had been only sparingly invoked. Now, as an object of his own will, he was moving irrevocably from confidence that Langston Hughes heroically, epically, could determine the future—that is, save and deliver his race—toward the tender hope that his “children,” nurtured by him, would do so.25

Apart from its attribution of a certain kind of female identity to the male writer, what is noteworthy in this characterization is the manifestation of Hughes's feminine sensibility in his openness to change, as demonstrated by a gradual turning in the poetic representation of his self from epic hero to nurturing mother.

This turning recalls the whirling in “Juke Box Love Song” of Hughes's brown Harlem girl, whose circling subjectivity, in the context of deferred Otherness, promises a permanently variable and varying state. The turning also recalls the Pragmatism of William James and the experience of self-sustaining in the midst of self-removal. As Richard Poirier recasts these ideas, Hughes's deferred subjectivity might be equated with that of the “Emersonian individual, of which James's individual is a version, [which] ‘turns’ continually and quizzically on its own doubled and fractured self, aware that one part is apt to be saying more than some other part can accept. … [Hence,] the result is that we do not ever fully mean what we say or say what we mean.”26 In which case, Langston Hughes might respond, better to say nothing.27 If we finally do mean what we say or say what we mean with reference to subjectivity, if all the parts of our selfhood blend into one complete, coherent individual, with no more surplus, no more excess, no further twistings or doublings or turnings, we arrive at the state Hughes calls the “Final Curve”:

When you turn the corner
And you run into yourself
Then you know that you have turned
All the corners that are left.


With no options left for constructing an alternative subjectivity or making workable choices among extant forms, the deferred subject passes into the rigidity of its referred counterpart and in so doing loses any further possibility of social activism or political agency.28 In such terms, when Alberta Johnson hands over her final word to the census man, the dream of subjectivity is over. Hughes, therefore, would find much to endorse in Stephen Melville's recent comment that “No calculus guarantees the unfinishable precision of our language; its necessary obliquity approaches no final ideal curve. Around every circle another can be drawn, and the resulting figure is resolutely and irresolvably complex.”29 The thought here echoes Hughes's introduction to an anthology of poems on racial minorities by Walt Whitman entitled “The Ceaseless Rings of Walt Whitman.” According to Hughes, “Whitman's ‘I’ is not the ‘I’ of the introspective versifiers who write always and only about themselves”; rather, “the Whitman spiral is upward and outward toward a freer, better life for all, not narrowing downward toward death and destruction.”30 Ideally, in the words of Emily Dickinson, “We meet no Stranger but Ourself.”

The most important political implication of the complex circularity of deferred subjectivity is its resistance to the kind of essentializing of human character that leads inevitably to class hierarchy and racial segregation. “Merry-Go-Round” subverts both of these fatal tendencies:

Down South where I come from
White and colored
Can't sit side by side.
Down South on the train
There's a Jim Crow car.
On the bus we're put in the back—
But there ain't no back
To a merry-go-round!


With no end in sight of the infinite revolving of individualities represented in Hughes's playful image of the merry-go-round, the intolerable verticality of an exclusionary racism is overturned and an emancipatory horizon of democratic superfluity set in its place: “there ain't no back.” “Crossing” labors to make a similar point. In this poem a child's “lonely” experience of finding itself “up on a mountain” or “down in the valley” is crossed with the possibility of standing “out on a prairie”—with all one's friends “right there”—and savoring another kind of loneliness, a more individuating, hence, empowering sense of separateness and integrity, of uniqueness, that comes with the realization that “as far as I could see / Wasn't nobody on that prairie / Looked like me” (138).

This kind of “crossing,” which values difference more for what it includes for the deferred subject than what it excludes for the referred, is precisely what renovates difference for Edward Said, who sees the ideology of difference often being used as “an instrument to relegate the rights of others to an inferior or lesser status.” According to Said, “an awareness of the supervening actuality of ‘mixing,’ of crossing over, of stepping beyond boundaries” points difference in the direction of “more creative human activities than staying inside rigidly policed borders,” thereby giving the lie to the notion that there can (or ought to) be “any such thing as a pure race, a pure nation, or a pure collectivity, regardless of patriotic, ideological, or religious argument.”31 Nor can we, according to Hughes, entertain even the notion of a pure self. In a related poem, “Cross,” he describes how “Being neither white nor black” fills the protagonist with remorse, now that both his parents are dead, for having cursed his “white old man” one moment and his “black old mother” the next (158). The impossibility of policing the borders of racial purity is the hideous impasse to which Hughes's “Mulatto” is ultimately led: “Git on back there in the night, / You ain't white” (161). The muteness of nature in this poem seems to hold out greater hope for tolerance than either of its hateful, racializing interlocutors:

The Southern night is full of stars,
Great big yellow stars.
          O, sweet as earth,
          Dusk dark bodies
          Give sweet birth
To little yellow bastard boys.


The crucial distinction between the referred (or limited) subject and the deferred (or open) subject, as I have been elucidating it in Hughes, hinges on what Theodor Adorno has called “the mythical deception of the pure self,” which prizes the referred subject in order to favor some form of “original entity [or] monad” and diminishes the deferred in order to privilege “a social division of the social process.”32 The division of the social process into so many competing identifications—racial, ethnic, sexual, religious, and others—further suggests why the referred subject pathologizes Otherness in a dependent and appropriative relation like the one condemned by Trinh T. Minh-Ha,33 and why the deferred subject valorizes Otherness in a relation of ritualistic sharing and caring like one praised by Patricia Williams.34 What is inescapable in both cases is the fact of relationship itself and the internalization of difference in any act of self-constituting negation. As Judith Butler astutely observes, even a racist needs relationship: “he cannot be white without blacks and without constant disavowal of his relation to them. It is only through disavowal that his whiteness is constituted, and through the institutionalization of that disavowal that his whiteness is perpetually—but anxiously—reconstituted.”35 Toni Morrison makes the same point from the opposite direction, interpreting “the elaborate deferment” of Jim's final escape in Huckleberry Finn as a necessary indication to the humanitarian that “freedom has no meaning … without the specter of enslavement … the signed, marked, informing and mutating presence of a black slave.”36

“Theme for English B,” arguably the most important poem in the Montage sequence, explodes the notion of a racially pure self, despite the white writing instructor's insistence on it in the text's opening exhortation:

Go home and write
a page tonight.
And let that page come out of you—
Then, it will be true.


“I wonder if it's that simple?” the student asks. With Harlem firmly fixed as the backdrop to his exercise, the writer eventually realizes that neither his self nor the words that form the social and cultural extension of that self exist in a vacuum. “Me—who?” (interiority) gains meaning only as a function of what is exterior—“Harlem, I hear you”—just as Harlem gains meaning only in relation to the tiny bedsitter the student rents at the Y downtown. Eventually, this web of co-implicated relativity overtakes even the instructor uptown. And the call for intuitive self-expression, derived from a rigid separation between self and other, writing and reality, black and white, comes completely unraveled by the end:

You are white—
yet a part of me, as I am a part of you.
That's American.
Sometimes perhaps you don't want to be a part of me.
Nor do I often want to be a part of you.
But we are, that's true!
As I learn from you,
I guess you learn from me—


As in “Merry-Go-Round,” we can make no clear determination of the boundaries of human identity. Once again, Hughes's discourse promises an infinitely revolving subjectivity. What seems quintessentially “American” is the dream of its endless deferral.37

The dream of deferral in Hughes's treatment of subjectivity can help us approach one final issue in both his life and work. “Café: 3 A.M.” brings this issue immediately into focus:

Detectives from the vice squad
with weary sadistic eyes
spotting fairies.
          some folks say.
But God, Nature,
or somebody
made them that way.
Police lady or lesbian
over there?


In this brief text, we are once more presented with a referred subjectivity almost immediately displaced by a deferred one. The male gaze of the detectives' “sadistic eyes” aims to objectify a truant sexuality through a disciplinary category attributable to “folks” (“Degenerates”). Hughes reminds us that “God, Nature, / or somebody / made them that way,” and the poem's inability to prize apart the lesbian and police-lady in the poem's final lines suggests the mutual self-authentication of police and “fairies.”

But Hughes's larger satirical project in the poem is to problematize all disciplinary or limiting categories. “In writing my recent study of lesbian fiction from 1969 to 1989,” Bonnie Zimmerman recently confessed, “I found myself constantly falling into the trap of generalizing a lesbian subject, even as I attempted to show the failures of such generalization. Pulled between the desire to affirm a historical lesbian collective identity and to ‘de-stabilize’ … that identity by introducing the discourses of differences within, I did not entirely satisfy either goal.”38 The Otherness of deferred subjectivity in Langston Hughes's poetry suggests that an investment in any totally stable, categorizable, easily representable identity is always misplaced. This kind of investment, it seems to me, accounts for much of the misguided speculation about Langston Hughes's sexuality. Was he, or was he not, gay?

Hughes's purported youthful “affairs” with women (Laudee Williams, Sylvia Chen, Elsie Roxborough, and others) and his supposed rebuffing of the homosexual advances of Alain Locke and Countee Cullen appear to support the opinion of longtime friends and associates (Bruce Nugent, Paul Bontemps, Raoul Abdul, and others) that the poet was definitely not gay.39 Composer Jan Meyerowitz and some in his domestic circle in later years disagree: “Around the streets of Harlem in the sixties,” an anonymous source told his biographer, “everyone knew that Langston Hughes was gay. We just took it for granted, as a fact. He was gay, and there was no two ways about it.”40 Still others were unable to decide. Arthur Koestler, for instance, found Hughes a warm and amiable companion but detected in him “a grave dignity, and a polite reserve” that produced “an impenetrable, elusive remoteness which warded off all undue familiarity”; Carl Van Vechten, after thirty years of friendship with the poet, admitted that he “never had any indication that [Hughes] was homosexual or heterosexual,” since “he seemed to thrive without having sex in [his] life” at all.41 Arnold Rampersad's summation of the issue is also inconclusive:

The truth about his sexuality will probably never be discovered. If Hughes indeed had homosexual lovers, what may be asserted incontrovertibly is that he did so with almost fanatical discretion. On this question, every person curious about him and also apparently in a position to know the truth was left finally in the dark. He laughed and joked and gossiped with apparent abandon, but somehow contrived to remain a mystery on this score even to his intimates.42

Eric Garber is persuaded that although Hughes may have been “at least sporadically homosexual, the exact nature of his sexuality remains uncertain.”43

The period of the Harlem Renaissance, during which Hughes came to prominence with the publication of his first book, The Weary Blues (1926), would have been a favorable period for Hughes to be “out.” Spanning roughly the years between the end of the First World War and the beginning of the “Great Depression,” and coinciding with the height of the “Great Migration” of southern blacks to northern industrial centers, the Harlem Renaissance was greatly enriched by the efflorescence of literary expression by gay or gay-identified writers like Countee Cullen, Wallace Thurman, Bruce Nugent, and Claude McKay, under the mentorship of the period's two chief artistic patrons (also gay), Carl Van Vechten (a white novelist) and Alain Locke (a Howard University professor).44 But even though Hughes might have experienced significantly more tolerance for an alignment with same-sex practitioners in his early years, there was nonetheless considerable pressure, even at that time, to conform to mainstream, heteronormative expectations. “Many middle-class and churchgoing African-Americans,” as George Chauncey recently observed, were inclined to associate homosexuals “with prostitutes, salacious entertainers, and ‘uncultured’ rural migrants as part of an undesirable and all-too-visible black ‘lowlife’ that brought disrepute to the neighborhood and ‘the race.’” Taking his lead from the cultural historian Hazel Carby, Chauncey adds,

… the figure of the sexually irresponsible woman became one of the defining tropes of middle-class African-American discourse, a symbol of the dangerous social disintegration that urbanization could bring … [since] racist ideology used those images so effectively to stigmatize all black women as morally debased. Similarly, the ‘womanish-acting’ man became a special threat to middle-class black men because their masculinity was under constant challenge by the dominant white ideology. As a white middle-class discourse, the attacks on homosexuals were usually but a part of a wider attack on men and women who threatened the social order by standing outside the family system.45

The willful “mystery” surrounding Hughes's sexuality pointed to by Rampersad might thus be an instance of the “closeted openness” practiced by several Harlem Renaissance artists to circumvent the oppression of mainstream racial and sexual ideologies from both sides of the color line.46 Yet by privileging deferred rather than referred subjectivity in his work, Hughes's resistance to such ideological oppression may have been more programmatic than simply “don't ask, don't tell.”

Rampersad's mention of “mystery” also brings us back to the deliberately unspecified black Otherness with which we began. Surely by now the deferred Otherness of Hughes's poetry should inform our attempt to understand “the truth” of Hughes's sexuality. We cannot, imitating the writing instructor in “English B,” say “Go home and write a page tonight, and let that sexuality come out of you—then, it will be true.” If we have learned anything at all from the deferred Otherness that provokes the dream of subjectivity in Langston Hughes's work, I think we can confidently reject the view that Hughes had “no interest whatsoever” in the subject of sexuality.47 It seems much more likely, given his desire for an inclusive rather than limited subjectivity, that Hughes had too much interest in the subject to want to commit himself, either in his life or his work, to one single category or label, identification or orientation, bearing or practice.

Hughes's programmatic refusal openly to commit himself sexually—in both his life and work—flies in the face of clear and consistent pressure to categorize manliness in such a way as to assert its pride of place within black culture and to contain any threat to that culture from within (from the point of view of gender and class) or without (from the point of view of class and race). The backdrop for this insistent asseveration of manly prowess is the so-called “invention” of heterosexuality, which by the time of the Harlem Renaissance had emerged for middle-class men as “a new, more positive way to demonstrate their manhood … as a distinct domain of personhood” essentialized in terms of “exclusive desire for women” and “renunciation of such intimacies with men.” As Chauncey says, “They became heterosexuals, that is, only when they defined themselves and organized their affective and physical relations to exclude any sentiments or behavior that might be marked as homosexual.”48 The hegemonic hetero-homosexual binary did not allow for men like Hughes, who preferred not to be limited in such a way. From the normative vantage point of the sexual mainstream, such men were plainly out of control—hence the obsessive search for the “truth” of Hughes's sexuality. But the model of subjectivity I have traced through Hughes's poetry renders this effort hopelessly beside the point. As Amitai AviRam convincingly argues in the parallel cases of Claude McKay and Countee Cullen, “What the words of the poem tell us about the poem is that its meaning cannot be controlled,” so that given the “undecidability of [its] categories,” “[t]he subject's knowledge of his own inability to know [becomes] the moment of his liberation from the prison of the binary structure of race” (and, I would add, in the present context, sexuality).49 Curiously, therefore, Hughes's cultural positioning as a man out of control (or, better, outside control) represents his poetry's moment of greatest social empowerment. For in that moment of complete Otherness, fully liberated from categorical containment, he enters fully into the dream of subjectivity, “aware, to one degree or another, of the variety of competing sexual ideologies available in his culture, which gave him some room for maneuvering among them.”50

Why have so many been unwilling to accept this indeterminancy? Is this need to know the truth sparked by the enormous appetite in our culture for images of black men “misbehaving” that feeds our more general “Fear of a Black Planet”?51 Or is our demand triggered, as Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick contends, by that “estrus of manipulative fantasy” that makes our search for truth “a silkily camouflaged complicity in oppression” conditioned by “Fear of a Queer Planet”?52 If the answers to these questions lie buried somewhere in the “real life” of Langston Hughes, it would hardly be like him to show us just where. Instead, he would probably hand us a poem like “Neighbor”:

In Harlem
when his work is done
he sets in a bar with a beer.
He looks taller than he is
and younger than he ain't.
He looks darker than he is, too.
And he's smarter than he looks,
.....          Sometimes
          he don't drink.
he just
lets his glass
set there.


Exactly who is this man who can look darker and taller than he is and be smarter than he looks? The poem's projection of these riddles onto the glass—why do we naturally suppose it is empty?—invites us both to feel the pressure to decide too quickly which representation fits and to ponder the rigidity of our mental enclosures and containments—both what they hold in and what they keep out. The representation that so transparently meshes container and thing contained too often elides for us the configurable space between them, a space that might be opened up to challenge, if not defer, their apparently seamless relationship. Given the ease with which Hughes's own subjectivity suffered the fatal elisions of spectatorial regulation and normative reference, there seems to be considerable point in his asking elsewhere, “Do you understand the stillness / Of this house / In Taos / Under the thunder of the Rain God?” (94, emphasis added).

The final text of Hughes's Montage of a Dream Deferred speaks of an “Island”:

Between two rivers,
North of the park,
Like darker rivers
The streets are dark.


The image of the island between two rivers fits perfectly the kind of subjectivity that puts the self in touch with rather than shelters it from the many forms of Otherness in America and the modern world:

Black and white,
Gold and brown—
Pie of a town”


In fact, situated in a “betweenness” that serves both to draw the rivers of reality together and hold them apart, Hughes's island-subject is the very image of deferred Otherness. As such, it places its own being beyond the conventional separations of a dualism that channels subjectivity into the landlocked liberalism of either social pluralism or cultural relativism. Neither the vision of bourgeois transcendence in Europe nor the melting-pot impartiality of the American dream, subjectivity in Hughes, through its “largesse as signifier,” enacts another variation on Caliban's “triple-play.”53 In this new, third space, in what Hughes calls the “Dream within a dream, / Our dream deferred” (272), what means more to us than any island of definitive representation and achieved truth is the yielding to the darkness of the streets within and the darkness of the rivers without. And through the perpetual confluence of inner and outer, likeness and unlikeness, center and margin, this yielding makes the promise of the dream-within-a-dream forever renewable. Less an answer, then, to the question of the “essential” or “true” identity in and of America, Hughes's dreaming subjectivity readies us for a new dawn by desiring forthrightly to be otherwise. And nowhere is this dawn more forthrightly proclaimed than in “Island”: “Good morning, daddy! / Ain't you heard?” (272).


  1. See Henry Louis Gates Jr., “Talkin' That Talk,” in “Race,” Writing, and Difference, ed. Henry Louis Gates Jr. (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1986), 407.

  2. Houston A. Baker Jr., Modernism and the Harlem Renaissance (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1987), xv-xvi.

  3. Paul Lauter, “Race and Gender in the Shaping of the American Literary Canon: A Case from the Twenties,” in Feminist Criticism and Social Change, ed. Judith Newton and Deborah Rosenfelt (New York: Methuen, 1985), 21.

  4. Arnold Rampersad, The Life of Langston Hughes: Volume 1, 1902-1941: I, Too, Sing America; Volume 2, 1941-1967: I Dream a World (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1986, 1988), 2: 120. Karen Jackson Ford summarizes the mainstream critical reception of Hughes's work expressed here: “the poems are superficial, infantile, silly, small, unpoetic, common, jejune, iterative, and, of course, simple. Even his admirers reluctantly conclude that Hughes's poetics failed” (“Do Right to Write Right: Langston Hughes's Aesthetics of Simplicity,” Twentieth Century Literature 38 [winter 1992]: 437). For more positive criticism, especially on the complexity of Hughes's technique and musical style, see Theodore R. Hudson, “Technical Aspects of the Poetry of Langston Hughes,” Black World 22 (September 1973): 24-45; Onwuchekwa Jeme, Langston Hughes: An Introduction to the Poetry (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1976); and R. Baxter Miller, The Art and Imagination of Langston Hughes (Lexington: Univ. Press of Kentucky, 1989).

  5. Henry Louis Gates Jr., Loose Canons: Notes on the Culture Wars (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1992), 69.

  6. Rampersad, 1:173, emphasis added.

  7. Rampersad 1:130. Hughes resoundingly underscores the point in his conclusion: “We younger Negro artists who create now intend to express our individual dark-skinned selves without fear or shame. If white people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, it doesn't matter. We know we are beautiful. And ugly too. … If colored people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, their displeasure doesn't matter either. We build our temples for tomorrow, strong as we know how, and we stand on top of the mountain, free within ourselves” (quoted in Rampersad, 1:131).

  8. Langston Hughes, Selected Poems of Langston Hughes (New York: Vintage Books, 1987), 3. All subsequent quotations from Hughes's poetry are from this edition and are cited parenthetically in the text.

  9. William James, cited in Giles Gunn, Thinking Across the American Grain: Ideology, Intellect, and the New Pragmatism (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1992), 113.

  10. William James, cited in Gunn, 113. Reflecting on this “so little known” passage, Gunn instructively observes: “The life of experience is therefore one of constant movement beyond the linguistic formulations to which it gives rise, and it makes no difference to the reality of our experience that we have no names for its connective and transformative tissue. Its processes of relation and transition are still as real and as consequential as the places where they carry us” (112, 113-14). Houston Baker's terms for the Pragmatist's “life of experience” are “form” and “mask,” and his elucidation of them uncannily matches not only the meaning, but also the very phrasing of the passage cited from James: “It is difficult to convey notions of form and mask in the exact ways that I would like, for the mask as form does not exist as a static object. Rather it takes effect as a center for ritual and can only be defined—like form—from the perspective of action, motion seen [James's “glimpsed”] rather than ‘thing’ observed [James's “told”]” (Modernism and the Harlem Renaissance, 17, emphases retained). For experience as an ultimately “unknowable reality” elsewhere in James, see William James, Pragmatism and Four Essays from The Meaning of Truth (New York: New American Library, 1974), 70-71.

  11. Robert Young, White Mythologies: Writing History and the West (New York: Routledge, 1990), 15.

  12. Rampersad, 1:71-72.

  13. Young, 14.

  14. Henry Louis Gates Jr., The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of African-American Literary Criticism (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1988), 40 n, emphasis added.

  15. Later in Gates's theoretical treatment, this association is supported with the further observation that

    “The blackness of black literature is not an absolute or a metaphysical condition, as Ellison maintains, nor is it some transcending essence that exists outside of its manifestations in texts. Rather, the ‘blackness’ of black American literature can be discerned only through close readings,” that is, through the “specific uses of literary language that are shared, repeated, critiqued, and revised.”


    See also Gates's comment, in his editor's introduction to “Race,” Writing, and Difference, that “Race has become a trope of ultimate, irreducible difference between cultures, linguistic groups, or adherents of specific belief systems” (5).

  16. Rampersad, 1:56.

  17. Rampersad, 2:60. Much later in the volume, Rampersad reaffirms the poet's attachment to Harlem in much the same terms: “For all its crime and poverty, the Manhattan ghetto was his home. He loved its brashness and noise, its raucous gaiety and offbeat humor. To the extent that it knew him, Harlem returned his love. The local cultural institutions definitely could count on his support; he was not ‘above’ any of them” (299).

  18. See Iain Chambers, Border Dialogues: Journeys in Postmodernity (New York: Routledge, 1990), 138 n. 11.

  19. Kimberley W. Benston, “Performing Blackness: Re/Placing Afro-American Poetry,” in Afro-American Literary Study in the 1990s, ed. Houston A. Baker Jr. and Patricia Redmond (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1992), 172.

  20. Benston, 173.

  21. Chambers, 107. For an alternative, feminist expansion of the view of “‘woman’ as the unknown, the unsayable, the indecipherable, as that excess which signifies the ‘other’ for the philosophers of crisis and difference (from Nietzsche to Derrida),” Chambers (138 n. 11) directs our attention to the work of Alice Jardine in Gynesis (1985). See also the parallel use of this material in my Wallace Stevens and the Question of Belief: “Metaphysician in the Dark” (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State Univ. Press, 1993).

  22. Levinas, cited in Charles Bernstein, A Poetics (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1992), 7.

  23. Baker, Modernism and the Harlem Renaissance, 17. My reading of Baker's “mask” as a kind of deferred subjectivity lends itself well to a species of radical democratic discourse that better allows for, in Howard Winant's words, “the permanence of racial difference in US society” (“Postmodern Racial Politics in the United States: Difference and Inequality,” Socialist Review 20 [January 1990]: 121-47). As Winant further explains, “When claims of universality are relaxed, the effect is to recognize the fluidity of racial themes in US politics and culture and to accept both the continuity and the variability of race in sociopolitical arrangements and cultural life.” A notion of deferred subjectivity thus comes into play “when it is possible to recognize both the necessary permanence and ongoing instability of racial meanings and identities in the contemporary United States” (133, 134, emphases added).

  24. Gates, Loose Canons, 41-42. More recently, the lesson has been reaffirmed for Gates by Hortense Spillers in her well-known essay “Mama's Baby, Papa's Maybe,” in which she asserts, “The African-American male has been touched, therefore, by the mother, handled by her in ways that he cannot escape, and in ways that the white American male is allowed to temporize by fatherly reprieve. This human and historical development—the text that has been inscribed on the benighted heart of the continent—takes us to the center of an inexorable difference in the depths of American women's community … [namely,] the Law of the Mother. … It is the heritage of the mother that the African-American male must regain as an aspect of his own personhood—the power of ‘yes’ to the ‘female’ within” (quoted in Loose Canons 40, second emphasis added).

  25. Rampersad, 2:240.

  26. Richard Poirier, Poetry and Pragmatism (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1992), 68.

  27. And “nothing” is precisely what the Emersonian individual is led finally to conclude, according to Poirier elsewhere: “The self for Emerson appears only in its workings, in its actions with words—in movements which turn back against any self … as it may have been constituted even a moment ago. That immediately prior self becomes only one more object of scrutiny [recall Hughes as “an object of his own will” in Rampersad, above]. Better, then, not to assert a self; do not ‘prate,’ only ‘speak’ in some more pliant way, or say nothing” (67, emphases in original).

  28. Hughes's notion of a deferred subjectivity, as I am attempting to account for it, thus supports Michael Omi and Howard Winant's notion of “[r]acial formation … understood as a process … through which new instabilities and contradictions emerge at a subsequent historical point and challenge the pre-existing system once more” (Omi and Winant, “By the Rivers of Babylon: Race in the United States [Part 1],” Socialist Review 71 [September/October 1983]: 50).

  29. Stephen Melville, “Oblique and Ordinary: Stanley Cavell's Engagements of Emerson,” American Literary History 5 (spring 1993): 189, emphasis added.

  30. Cited in Rampersad, 2:112.

  31. Edward Said, “An Ideology of Difference,” in “Race,” Writing, and Difference, 38-58, emphasis added.

  32. Theodor W. Adorno, Minima Moralia: Reflections from Damaged Life, trans. E. F. N. Jephcott (1974; reprint, New York: Verso, 1978), 153.

  33. Trinh. T. Minh-ha, “Documentary Is/Not a Name,” October 52 (spring 1990): 95.

  34. Patricia J. Williams, The Alchemy of Race and Rights: Diary of a Law Professor (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1991), 62.

  35. Judith Butler, Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of “Sex” (New York: Routledge, 1993), 171. Butler amplifies the point elsewhere by noting that “That which is not included—exteriorized by boundary—as a phenomenal constituent of the sedimented effect called ‘construction’ will be as crucial to its definition as that which is included”; hence, “an abjected outside … is, after all, ‘inside’ the subject as its own founding repudiation” (245 n. 8; 3). Thus, as Richard Dyer argues, “It is the actual dependency of white on black in a context of continued white power and privilege that throws the legitimacy of white domination into question” (“White,” Screen 29 [winter 1988]: 48). Similarly, in “Here Be Monsters” James Baldwin observes,“each of us, helplessly and forever, contains the other—male in female, female in male, white in black, and black in white. We are a part of each other. Many of my countrymen appear to find this fact exceedingly inconvenient and even unfair, and so, very often, do I. But none of us can do anything about it” (from The Price of the Ticket, cited by Henry Louis Gates Jr. in “The Welcome Table,” in English Inside and Out: The Places of Literary Criticism, Essays from the 50th Anniversary of The English Institute, ed. Susan Gubar and Jonathan Kamholtz [New York: Routledge, 1993], 60). Gates writes of Baldwin's insight, “We needed to hear these words two decades ago. We need to hear them today” (60). All of these comments might persuade us to emend the opening epigraph from Escoffier thus: “Our identities are always provoked by what we oppose”; see Jeffrey Escoffier, “The Limits of Multiculturalism,” Socialist Review 21 [July/August 1991]: 71.

  36. Toni Morrison, Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1992), 56; related comments appear on 52 and 64-65). Morrison's valuable insight ought not to be viewed as an apology for slavery; her argument merely underscores the complex relation that threatens to become effaced in the referred subject's rage for purity and order. The “crossings of identification of which it is itself composed,” that is, “the kinds of contestatory connections that might democratize the field of its own operation,” have still to be dealt with, as Butler notes (115). But as Patricia Williams observes in the epigraph, “Very little in our language or culture encourages looking at others as parts of ourselves” (62). Williams elsewhere, alluding to Hughes, makes ominously plain what the willfully disconnected subject chooses to ignore at its peril: “So-called enlightened others who fail to listen to these voices of demonic selves, made invisibly uncivilized, simply make them larger, more barbarously enraged, until the nearsightedness of looking-glass existence is smashed in by the terrible dispossession of dreams too long deferred” (145).

  37. My analysis of this particular text, as well as of others discussed earlier, thus takes issue with the view that Hughes is “a poet who equates simplicity with truth,” that “cultivating a thematics and aesthetics of simplicity is essential—poetically and politically,” and that, therefore, “Simplicity is truth in Hughes's vision” (Ford, 440). To cite once again the student's comment in “English B,” “I wonder if it's that simple.” But perhaps my objection is really to the statement that “utter simplicity is the only adequate response to a dislocated life in an urban ghetto in a racist country” (Ford, 454). I shall return to this issue a bit later.

  38. Bonnie Zimmerman, “Lesbians Like This and That: Some Notes on Lesbian Criticism for the Nineties,” in New Lesbian Criticism: Literary and Cultural Readings, ed. Sally Munt (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1992), 8. Compare also Gillian Spraggs's comment along similar lines in the same volume: “lesbianism, like heterosexuality, takes many different forms; … it is neither a willed perversion nor an arbitrary curse but a choice, a particular way of solving the problems presented by the condition of being a woman; and … it is not lesbianism in itself that ought to be placed at issue, but ‘its manner of expression in actual living’” (“Hell and the Mirror: A Reading of Desert of the Heart,” 125). For more on “the policing of identity” in the gendered context of Hughes's poem, see Butler, 117.

  39. Rampersad 1:96, 265, 331; 1:92, 98; 2:149, 239, 279.

  40. Rampersad 2:177, 335.

  41. Rampersad 1:260, 133.

  42. Rampersad, 2:336.

  43. Eric Garber, “A Spectacle of Color: The Lesbian and Gay Subculture of Jazz Age Harlem,” in Hidden from History: Reclaiming the Gay and Lesbian Past, ed. by Martin Duberman, Martha Vicinus, and George Chauncey Jr. (New York: New American Library/Meridian, 1990), 326. Garber may be a bit more conclusive on the issue, given his description of Hughes's living arrangement in a small rooming house on 137th Street called the “Niggerati Manor” and well known for its “considerable interaction between black and white homosexuals”: “According to theater critic Theophilus Lewis, ‘It was said that the inmates of [this] house spent wild nights in tuft hunting and the diversions of the cities of the plains and delirious days of fleeing from pink elephants’” (329). Garber takes part of the title for his essay from a chapter in the first volume of Hughes's autobiography, “Spectacles of Color” (in The Big Sea: An Autobiography [New York: Thunder's Mouth Press, 1986]), which opens with a description of Hughes's fascination with the notorious drag-balls of the Hamilton Club Lodge in Harlem's famed Rockland Palace Casino (273-74). An analogue to Hughes's sexual tergiversation in the early Modern period might be found in the work of Gertrude Stein, who, Renate Stendhal observes, “used every possibility of the English language to neither reveal nor conceal her gender … [but instead] chose to leave the question open,” (“Stein's Style: A Passion for Sentences,” The Harvard Gay & Lesbian Review 2 (spring, 1995): 20.

  44. George Chauncey guardedly adds “possibly Langston Hughes” to the list enumerated here (“Building Gay Neighborhood Enclaves: The Village and Harlem,” in Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay World, 1890-1940 [New York: BasicBooks, 1994], 264). In “The ‘Queen B’ Figure in Black Literature,” Diane A. Bogus also notes (citing Chris Albertson's Bessie [1972]) “that during the 1920s and throughout the 1930s ‘most urban Blacks—whether they indulged or not, accepted homosexuality as a fact of life’” (Lesbian Texts and Contexts: Radical Revisions, ed. Karla Jay and Joanne Glasgow [New York: New York Univ. Press, 1990], 280). Further historical background on these matters is also provided by Garber, 318-19; Alden Reimonenq, “Countee Cullen's Uranian ‘Soul Windows,’” Journal of Homosexuality 26 (winter/spring 1993), 143-45; and David Levering Lewis, When Harlem Was in Vogue (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1989), in particular chap. 3, whose account sometimes verges on the homophobic (esp. 66, 77, 87).

  45. Chauncey, 253-54; see also Bogus, 280-81. Hughes continues to be bent toward heteronormative expectations even after his death, as evidenced in Isaac Julien's recent video, Looking for Langston (Toronto: Full Frame, 1989), currently a popular offering at lesbian and gay film festivals across the country. I was originally somewhat baffled by the title of this short film, because none of Hughes's poems are used as texts in the several scripted voice-overs; it was later pointed out to me by an anonymous reader of this essay that the Hughes estate jealously defends his heterosexuality. I discovered that the film's opening with a silent reading of a poem by Hughes (the estate would not permit quotation) and its somewhat cryptic title were all the film-makers could do to protest the executors' proprietary claim on Hughes's embattled sexuality. Given this appalling situation, there is considerable point in Director Julien's subsequent remark, on the issue of desire, that “filling the lack in everybody is quite hard work really. … The burden of representation weighs on each of us quite heavily” (in Isaac Julien et al., “Filling the Lack in Everybody is Quite Hard Work, Really … : A Roundtable Discussion with Joy Chamberlain, Isaac Julien, Stuart Marshall, and Pratibha Parmar,” in Queer Looks: Perspectives on Lesbian and Gay Film and Video, ed. Martha Gever, Pratibha Parmar, and John Greyson, 41-60 [New York: Routledge, 1993], 56). Sadly, as Lauren Berlant and Michael Warner contend in “What Does Queer Theory Teach Us about X?” “the idea that queerness can be anything other than a pathology or an evil, let alone a good, cannot even be entertained yet in most public contexts” (PMLA 110 [May 1995]: 345).

  46. Alden Reimonenq uses the oxymoron “a closeted openness” to explain Countee Cullen's straddling the twin perils of “fear of discrimination” on the one hand and “[t]he combination of machismo and fundamentalism in the Black community” on the other; Cullen's artistic career evolved through two marriages (one to the daughter of W. E. B. Du Bois), four or five known relationships with gay Americans, and several liaisons with French male lovers, and it produced enough good poetry to make him the “poet laureate” of the Harlem Renaissance (152, 163, 155, 147, 143). Garber also mentions the “sexually ambiguous” proclivities of Wallace Thurman and Claude McKay (327). Chauncey elsewhere interprets secretiveness about being gay in terms of class, noting that about this time “the cultural stance of the queer embodied the general middle-class preference for privacy, self-restraint, and lack of self-disclosure,” and further, that “middle-class men were more observant of the moral injunctions against nonmarital sexual behaviour propagated by their class than working-class men,” perhaps so much so that “almost all self-identified middle-class gay men considered themselves marked, to some degree, as gender deviants as well as sexual deviants, even if they tried to recast that difference in terms of cultural sophistication or sensitivity” (106, 119, 126).

  47. Rampersad 1:289.

  48. Chauncey, 117, 120, 120-21.

  49. Amitai F. Avi-Ram, “The Unreadable Black Body: ‘Conventional’ Poetic Form in the Harlem Renaissance,” Genders 7 (spring 1990): 39. As with Hughes's “a-categorical” treatment of subjectivity in the sexual context, “Only by looking at the pragmatic use the poem makes of its own essential unreadability can its political force be made conscious and appreciated” (43-44).

  50. Chauncey, 126.

  51. Stuart Alan Clarke, “Fear of a Black Planet,” Socialist Review 21 (July/August 1991): 40.

  52. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, “How to Bring Your Kids up Gay,” in Fear of a Queer Planet, ed. Michael Warner (Minneapolis: Univ. of Minnesota Press, 1993), 78, 79.

  53. Houston A. Baker Jr., “Caliban's Triple Play,” in “Race,” Writing, and Difference, 392.

David Chinitz (essay date winter 1996)

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SOURCE: Chinitz, David. “Literacy and Authenticity: The Blues Poems of Langston Hughes.” Callaloo 19, no. 1 (winter 1996): 177-92.

[In the following essay, Chinitz credits Hughes with having invented blues poetry.]

While the adaptation of oral culture to literary ends is never uncomplicated, the accommodation of blues to poetry presents particular difficulties. “Blues,” writes folk musicologist Paul Oliver, “is for singing. It is not a form of folk song that stands up particularly well when written down” (8). A poet who wants to write blues can avoid this trap by poeticizing the form—but this is only to fall into another trap, for blues made literary read not like refined folk song but like bad poetry. For Oliver, there is no safe passage between this Scylla and Charybdis: the poetry of the blues eludes the self-conscious imitator inevitably (9-14). We need not concur with the absoluteness of this judgment to appreciate its force.

Langston Hughes was the first writer to grapple with the inherent difficulties of blues poetry, and he succeeded—not always, but often—in producing poems that manage to capture the quality of genuine blues in performance while remaining effective as poems. This essay will show how in inventing blues poetry Hughes solved the two closely related problems I have sketched: first, how to write blues lyrics in such a way that they work on the printed page, and second, how to exploit the blues form poetically without losing all sense of authenticity.


It is sometimes useful to define “blues poetry” in the broadest possible terms, as Onwuchekwa Jemie does, for example, in his introduction to Hughes's work: “The blues poem … is one that, regardless of form, utilizes the themes, motifs, language, and imagery common to popular blues literature” (44). Such a definition usefully stresses how pervasively the blues influence Hughes's art; in fact, Jemie is quite willing to classify much of Hughes's prose as blues poetry. For the purposes of this essay, however, I am considering the category of blues poetry to include those lyrics that make use of blues imagery, formulae and rhythms, as well as a stanza that is at least closely related to the normative blues form. This reasonably narrow definition makes systematic analysis of Hughes's blues poems fruitful, for within this class of poems a certain consistency of technique can be identified.

Blues use a number of stanzaic forms, but the three-line “AAB” stanza is so ubiquitous as to have become the standard from which all others are seen as deviating. This form is generated by a single line which is first repeated, often with minor impromptu variations, and then rhymed in a line that elaborates on or answers it:

My gal's got legs, yes, legs like a kangaroo.
My gal's got legs, legs like a kangaroo.
If you don't watch out she'll hop all over you.

(qtd. in Hughes and Bontemps 395)

The second and third lines are often referred to as the repeat line and the response line. (In Hughes's poetry, each line is halved so that the stanza is rendered in six lines rather than three; lines 3-4, in this case, function together as repeat lines and lines 5-6 as response lines.) In performance the blues stanza generates dramatic suspense as the audience anticipates the satisfying closure of rhyme and sense in the response line; this suspense gives the singer or lyricist opportunities for irony, surprise, humor, understatement and other effects. The repeat line heightens the suspense by delaying the resolution.

Hughes was attracted to the blues particularly by what the music represented to him: an expression of the resilience and tragedy of the African-American lower class. To some extent Hughes romanticized this social group, with which he always identified but to which he himself never really belonged. What Hughes called “just plain folks” are, in his portraiture, never merely “plain”: they are sensitive, passionate, and frequently wise, drawing unconvoluted wisdom from their very lack of sophistication. Most significantly, Hughes's black proletariat is endowed with an inexhaustible energy that veils and relieves its suffering. It is this quality that is expressed with particular clarity in both jazz and the blues:

For sad as Blues may be, there's almost always something humorous about them—even if it's the kind of humor that laughs to keep from crying.1

(“Songs” 160)

Hughes's explanation for this coincidence of opposing emotions was straightforward: the disenfranchisement of the African-American masses and the various frustrations it engendered demanded indirect outlets supplied by the subculture. The blues were “sad songs” because they manifested the “hopeless weariness” of an oppressed people; they were “gay songs because you had to be gay or die” (Big Sea 209). Hughes sought to catch this “blues spirit”—this compensatory expression of conflicting emotions—in his poetry, in part by imitating the blues themselves.

There are as many blues styles as there are regions and periods of blues activity. The one distinction of real importance for Hughes, however, separates the genres often referred to as “folk blues” and “classic blues”—a classification that points to differences in performer (indigenous talents or touring professionals), in patronage (local community or mass audience), in style (traditional or polished), in creation (improvised or composed) and in transmission (oral or written). Classic blues are comparatively self-conscious, structurally complex, and carefully packaged, a stage sophistication of the original folk product. Popularized by great singers like Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith and Ida Cox, the “vaudeville blues,” as they are also called, won over many of the early blues admirers among the intelligentsia. Folklorists, however, including Zora Neale Hurston and Sterling Brown, have often rejected the classic blues as mercenary and inauthentic. Hughes did not share in this condemnation; on the contrary, as Steven Tracy has shown, when Hughes discusses the blues with any specificity, he seems almost always to have the classic blues in mind.2 Though Hughes was intimately familiar with the folk blues, as a northern urbanite his access to the music flowed naturally through commercial channels.3 Ever catholic in his tastes, he evidently thought of classic blues singers as products of the same folk culture and did not object to their merging of blues with popular song.

That Hughes writes his best blues poetry when he tries least to imitate the folk blues is a critical commonplace.4 So seen, Hughes is too self-conscious, too determined to romanticize the African-American proletariat, too intent on reproducing what he takes to be the quaint humor and naive simplicity of the folk blues to write successfully in that vein. Tracy argues that in extending the blues into another art form, Hughes actually identifies with the professional blues composer, through whose influence his own blues are “limited in expression” (“Tune” 73). Like the commercial songwriter, Hughes is determined to write lyrics more like the blues than the blues themselves.

This critical consensus needs to be challenged, for Hughes's blues poems—including his best in the genre—are in fact considerably closer stylistically to the folk blues than to the deliberately cultivated classic blues. It is true that Hughes emphasizes his own reading of the blues, using the form to reinforce a particular construction of the African-American character. But he conveys his perceptions as a folk artist should: through an accumulation of details over the entire span of his blues oeuvre, rather than by overloading each poem with quaintness and naivete. The differences between Hughes's lyrics and the folk blues are better explained by the exigencies of writing blues for the printed page than by an identification on Hughes's part with the commercial lyricist. And these differences are not inevitably to Hughes's disadvantage: they are just differences.

Hughes's “Young Gal's Blues” will serve to illustrate the relationship between his poetry and the folk blues:

I'm gonna walk to de graveyard
’Hind ma friend Miss Cora Lee.
I'm gonna walk to de graveyard
’Hind ma friend Miss Cora Lee.
Cause when I'm dead some
Body'll have to walk behind me.
I'm goin' to de po' house
To see ma old Aunt Clew.
Goin' to de po' house
To see ma old Aunt Clew.
When I'm old an' ugly
I'll want to see somebody, too.
De po' house is lonely
An' de grave is cold.
O, de po' house is lonely,
De graveyard grave is cold.
But I'd rather be dead than
To be ugly an' old.
When love is gone what
Can a young gal do?
When love is gone, O,
What can a young gal do?
Keep on a-lovin' me, daddy,
Cause I don't want to be blue.

(Fine Clothes 83)

Arnold Rampersad has observed that virtually all of the poems in Fine Clothes to the Jew, the 1927 collection in which Hughes essentially originated blues poetry, fall deliberately within the “range of utterance of common black folk” (141). This surely applies to “Young Gal's Blues,” in which Hughes avoids the conventionally “poetic” language and ideas that the subjects of death, aging and love sometimes elicit in his ordinary lyric poetry. But how folkish is the voice we hear in this poem? Spellings like po' and de point up the speaker's dialectical pronunciation, yet her grammar is standard. Her stanzas cohere, too, with a logic that would be remarkable in an improvised folk composition, where the verses generally relate to each other not through a rational progression but through a consistency of mood, music and theme. But Hughes is aware of this discrepancy. Had he wished to write a neat, polished poem, he could have ended “Young Gal's Blues” with the third stanza, which resolves the opposition set up by its predecessors with a satisfying finality. Instead, Hughes sacrifices what would have been a most un-folkish tidiness by having the girl step outside the apparent parameters of the poem to elaborate on her fear of loneliness. The structural superfluity of the fourth stanza, in other words, is functional.

One of the challenges facing the blues poet is the portrayal of character in the absence of a performer. Working on his small canvas, Hughes brings his “young gal” to life in a few brush strokes. These include her charitable activities in the opening stanzas and her pretended explanation for them—“pretended” because Cora Lee and Aunt Clew have put her in mind of her own future, and not, of course, vice versa. The intrusive frankness of the phrase “old an' ugly” in a verse that describes the girl's kindness to her aunt, the decisive conclusion of the third stanza, and the struggle against melancholy in the last all contribute to a quick and effective delineation of the girl's character and frame of mind. Her turns of thought are fresh and sometimes surprising, but their development is well controlled by the poet. Without calling undue attention to the poet's craft, for instance, the first two stanzas delicately create the dilemma that is resolved in the third. The girl seems to be depicting two similar situations when she is actually setting up an opposition between contrasting evils. Yet the inverted chronological sequence—death in the first stanza, old age in the second—implies that the speaker is not sketching a narrative of her future; she does not expect to grow old and die, but to choose one fate or the other. Hughes thus maintains the illusion of an inconsequential folk-blues logic, while the structural grammar of the poem takes the place of the performing personality that a blues audience normally has before it.

To see what Hughes's blues poetry might have been like if he had truly adopted the vaudeville blues as his model, one need only contrast “Young Gal's Blues” with the “Golden Brown Blues,” a lyric Hughes wrote for composer W. C. Handy:

Dusky eyes tantalize,
Hair just like Moses';
Finger tips, sugar lips
Sweet as red roses.
Ma Beale street Mamma some charmer,
Ma sweet Golden Brown.
Watch your man—understand?
All the men's ravin'.
Better see ‘mediately
That he's behavin’.
Man in the moon in a swoon
Fell for this Golden Brown.

(Handy 91)

Hughes might well have invoked the sharp distinction he made between his poetry and his verse in the case of this commercial-style blues (Big Sea 53). The continual internal rhyme is alien to the folk blues, which, as improvisations, tend to eschew complex prosody. The images and allusions are, likewise, uncharacteristic of the traditional blues, as is the diction, which is conspicuously remote from the common “range of utterance.” The restraint of “Young Gal's Blues” is obvious in comparison. Even when, after the quoted introductory verses, “Golden Brown Blues” modulates into standard AAB form, the lyrics remain slicker than Hughes's blues poems ever get, though by no means better as poetry:

Ashes to ashes, ashes to ashes,
Dust to dust, right down to dust.
Ashes to ashes, ashes to ashes,
Dust to dust, right down to dust.
Golden Brown done got him,
An' I'm bound to rust.

Yet this song was written only a year after the publication of the brilliant blues poems in Fine Clothes to the Jew (Rampersad 160). Clearly Hughes could write vaudeville blues when he chose to, and just as clearly his poetic efforts were in another direction. If he considered the blues poet a relative of the classic blues composer, they remained distant cousins.5


The success of Hughes's blues poems depends on a self-concealing art. Art there must be if his lyrics are to “stand up well when written down,” yet the art must not be too visible if the poems are to preserve any semblance of authenticity. It is a precarious balance. To imitate the published lyrics of the music industry would not do, as “Golden Brown Blues” makes clear. But to replicate the rough verses of the folk singers would not suffice to convey, in print, the feeling of their blues. The stylistic devices that add excitement and emotion to blues performance cannot be captured in poetry by mere transcription:

I can tell the wind is rising, the leaves
          trembling on the tree[s]
          trembling on the trees.
I can tell the wind is rising, the leaves
          trembling on the trees,
All I need my little sweet woman, to keep
          my company,
          my company.

(qtd. in Charters 19)

It hardly needs saying that the effect of Robert Johnson's singing is not reproduced by this transcription's faithful rendering of his moaning and repetition. The only solution for Hughes was to write poems that could be heard as and even sung as folk blues, but that reproduced only sparingly their specifically oral elements.

There are occasions, however, when Hughes will risk introducing into his blues poems what can only be read as oral survivals:

Road, road, road, O!
Road, road … road … road, road!
Road, road, road, O!
On de No'thern road.
These Mississippi towns ain't
Fit fer a hoppin' toad.

(Fine Clothes 87)

Hughes “could never carry a tune,” but he did sing his blues poems to himself while composing them (Big Sea 217). These final lines of his “Bound No'th Blues” transcribe the vocal patterns of that internal performance, an imaginative effort to render the lyric as an actual blues vocalist might. Of course Hughes must then depend on his reader to reconstitute the original imagined performance, which will require the reader to have at least some experience as a blues listener; one can easily conceive the puzzlement such a stanza as this must otherwise generate. As silent poetry, most of the stanza is essentially unreadable. For “Bound No'th Blues” is a blues poem, and relies at least as much on the conventions of the blues as on those of poetry for the context in which its technique is intelligible.

But “Bound No'th Blues” is not a transcribed blues lyric, either: it is a blues poem, and rather than relying completely on the blues tradition to make sense of his last stanza, Hughes constructs a context for it in the poem as a whole. The opening of the first stanza, like that of the last, uses repetition to recreate the interminable stretch of the road:

Goin' down de road, Lawd,
Goin' down de road.
Down de road, Lawd,
Way, way down de road.

The repeat line of the second stanza continues this narrow focus and injects some more of the performance elements that will dominate the closing stanza:

Road's in front o' me,
Nothin' to do but walk.
Road's in front o' me,
Walk … and walk … and walk.

The response lines of the first two stanzas, meanwhile, have introduced the speaker's wish for a traveling companion:

Got to find somebody
To help me carry dis load.
I'd like to meet a good friend
To come along an' talk.

The third stanza takes up this second theme and then discards it with the lament that “ever friend you finds seems / Like they try to do you bad.” Nothing remains to the speaker now, having dismissed his hope, but to trudge the long road north, and nothing remains to the poem but to express this single, tedious reality—thus the twelve-fold repetition of “road,” punctuated with two exclamations of “O,” that dominates the first four lines of the last stanza. To make the situation tolerable, the final response line laughs to keep from crying (Waldron 147). If Hughes relies on the reader's knowledge of an oral culture to make this ending readable, he is also determined to justify it with a rigorous poetic logic.

Hughes's most common strategy for concealing his art is to work below the surface of a homely diction—even to exploit a deliberate verbal drabness. It is quite true, as Tracy claims, that Hughes seldom rises to the “startling or breathtaking” heights of language that such blues artists as Peetie Wheatstraw and Robert Johnson achieve (Langston Hughes 187-88). And it is natural for enthusiasts to adopt these most poetic of folk blues as their touchstone of blues excellence.6 But it is also true that Hughes could not have written the kind of blues that Wheatstraw and Johnson sang without drawing the sort of attack that Paul Oliver fires at a couple of arty stanzas from Sterling Brown's “Tornado Blues” (10-11).7 To avoid poeticizing the blues, Hughes is willing to forego certain possibilities of the form. He would rather have his blues poems under- than overdressed.

When he is successful, however, Hughes plays off the plain language of his blues poems to produce powerful effects. Much of his “Down and Out,” for example, is a purposely flat springboard from which moments of intense desperation suddenly leap:

Baby, if you love me
Help me when I'm down and out.
If you love me, baby,
Help me when I'm down and out,
Cause I'm a po' gal
Nobody gives a damn about.

(Shakespeare 101)

The bitter excess of the last line strikes with hammer force precisely because everything that preceded it struck with so little. The second stanza works the same way:

De credit man's done took ma clothes
And rent time's most nigh here.
Credit man's done took ma clothes.
Rent time's nearly here.
I'd like to buy a straightenin' comb,
An' I needs a dime fo' beer.

The dull complaint of the first two lines is beaten still flatter in the repeat lines, which break it into two sentences. The next two lines—unexpected, eccentric, almost inconsequent—disrupt the poem's placid surface. The persona, to this point a cardboard character, suddenly reveals herself in these two central lines as a woman desperate to lose her identity or at least to drown it in alcohol. The straightening comb introduces a racial dimension; one wonders how much of the singer's predicament can be attributed, synecdochically, to her nappy hair. But then, as Tracy points out, she'd only like the comb; she needs the beer (Langston Hughes 242). Almost by themselves these two lines render the singer three-dimensional, a pathetic and wretched figure where an undifferentiated character type, the down-and-out woman, had stood moments before.

These stanzas from “Down and Out” work by flashing moments of poignancy against an unimposing verbal and emotional backdrop. In the last stanza Hughes finally underreaches, bringing the poem to a rather flaccid ending:

Oh, talk about yo' friendly friends
Bein' kind to you—
Yes, talk about yo' friendly friends
Bein' kind to you—
Just let yo'self git down and out
And then see what they'll do.

This conclusion adds so little to the poem that in his Selected Poems Hughes dropped the stanza altogether, opting instead to end by repeating the crucial “I need a dime fo' beer” as a brief coda (147).

Hughes's blues poems, like most of his work, are not replete with delicately calculated formal devices. Hughes did, however, exercise some of the options available in the print medium, both to simulate the characteristics of oral performance and to achieve certain visual and aural effects. At the simplest level, he used typography—particularly indentation and italics—to indicate changes of tempo and voice. Hughes also employed a variety of blues stanzas, ranging from the standard AAB to longer and more elaborate structures resembling those of the classic blues.8

Like most song lyrics, blues are not metered in the traditional poetic sense. The blues artist has, to an extraordinary degree, free reign to insert unstressed syllables between the musical beats, and on the other hand to draw out a single word or syllable melismatically over several beats:

          x           x           /           x           /           x                     x           /           x           /                     /
Don't ya hear me … ee … ee … ee callin' you … oo?


The rhythm is further complicated by syncopation, which dislocates the vocal stresses from the musical downbeats. Nevertheless, each line of a blues lyric is sung over approximately two musical bars—each with four beats, the first and third accented—plus the first beat in a third bar (1 2 3 4 ¦ 1 2 3 4 ¦ 1); the remainder of the four-bar phrase is left open for an instrumental “break,” or fill. As a result, the number of stresses in each blues line tends toward five. And since the stressed and unstressed beats alternate, the musical phrase, without confining the blues to anything like strict meter, provides a framework over which lines of iambic pentameter naturally fit:9

I hate to see de ev'nin' sun go down.
It's too late, too late, too late, too late, too late!
See See Rider, see what you done done!
Good mornin', blues; ([UNK]) blues, how do you do?(10)

Hughes's blues poems adhere to this metrical skeleton with somewhat greater regularity than the true folk blues, in which “O Alberta, O Alberta” and even “Mmmmmm” are perfectly plausible lines. This rhythmic freedom, an asset in the performance setting, partly accounts for the failure of blues to transfer well to the printed page. In developing his blues poetry Hughes had to correct for this difficulty.

Formally speaking, the AAB blues stanza, with its rough iambic pentameter, turns out to be a cousin of the (AB) heroic couplet. The intrusion of the repeat line makes the blues stanza less supple; it discourages the fluid enjambment that the couplet form invites, keeping the verbal phrase in synch with the musical. The rhythmic looseness of the blues, however, opens up other possibilities in compensation. In both cases the expectation of rhyme and syntactic closure endows the form with exceptional potential for ironic deflation or surprise. Certain forms of wit come naturally to poets working in either form; for example, the anticlimax which Pope so effectively exploits is also common in Hughes:

I'm goin' down to de river
An' I ain't goin' there to swim.
Goin' down to de river,
Ain't goin' there to swim.
Ma true love's left me, an'
I'm goin' there to think about him.

(Fine Clothes 81)

Hughes also renewed the possibility of enjambment by writing out his blues in half-lines, so that each of his syntactical units spreads over two lines of print. Hughes's line breaks generally reflect such nuances of oral performance as breaths and vocal pauses, but he often turns them to still greater poetic advantage. Typically, Hughes will choose to end a line on a minor word. This strategy heightens expectations of the syntactical conclusion, paralleling a harmonic resolution in the music. It also isolates the ensuing line so that visually, at least, it stands alone as a grammatical unit, as in this stanza from “Bad Man”:

I beats ma wife an'
I beats ma side gal too.
Beats ma wife an'
Beats ma side gal too.
Don't know why I do it but
It keeps me from feelin' blue.

(Fine Clothes 21)

The overhanging an' links the first and second (and third and fourth) lines, strengthening the structural parallelism of the lines and therefore the implied equation between the wife and the “side girl.” It never occurs to the “bad man,” as he enumerates his own faults, that his having both a wife and a side girl might be one of them; the enjambment highlights his failure to distinguish between the two women. The placement of but at the end of line 5 is also significant, since it turns the last line into a self-sufficient explanatory statement that neutralizes the professed uncertainty of the previous line. Hughes's line breaks quite often carry meaning in this way.

A related tactic is the deliberate variation of the repeat lines. Reproduction of blues performance is again half the purpose, for blues singers regularly make slight changes when they reiterate the first line of each verse. But again Hughes subtly exploits an oral element for poetic opportunities. The opening lines of “Bad Man,” for instance, suggest that the speaker's character is imposed on him by others:

I'm a bad, bad man
Cause everybody tells me so.

But this man is not about to complain of being misunderstood. He continues:

I'm a bad, bad man.
Everybody tells me so.
I takes ma meanness and ma licker
Everywhere I go.

In the repeat lines, the persona affirms the common judgment by reasserting it without qualification or explanation. In fact, it now transpires that the unanimity of public opinion is cause for swagger. Thrust into the role of the bad man, the speaker plays it to the hilt, concluding:

I'm so bad I
Don't even want to be good.
So bad, bad, bad I
Don't even want to be good.
I'm goin' to de devil an'
I wouldn't go to heaben if I could.

The man's very first sentence has betrayed him, though. The reader has known from the outset that the man's assertion of agency is largely a matter of bravado, of putting the best face on a cycle that he cannot escape. The speaker must be a bad man; he no longer has any choice but to bear out the general representation of himself. In this context the confusion of “Don't know why I do it but / It keeps me from feelin' blue” makes all the more sense: the blues that inevitably befall the man who must be bad can be assuaged only by further badness—in this case, by domestic violence.


Many of Hughes's most effective strategies for blues poetry—as well as some of the pitfalls that even Hughes could not always avoid—are evident in “Out of Work.” It begins:

I walked de streets till
De shoes wore off my feet.
I done walked de streets till
De shoes wore off my feet.
Been lookin' for a job
So's that I could eat.
I couldn't find no job
So I went to de WPA.
Couldn't find no job
So I went to de WPA.
WPA man told me:
You got to live here a year and a day.

(Shakespeare 40-41)

The demands of narrative coherence, unincumbent upon the folk blues artist, sometimes leave Hughes flat footed. In the first stanza, the lack of energy in the response lines may be an intentional irony, but the next stanza then ought to pick up the dramatic pace. Instead, six lines of drab narration follow—just a bit of plot that needs to be gotten over with. The succeeding stanza, however, is beautifully gauged:

A year and a day, Lawd,
In this great big lonesome town!
A year and a day in this
Great big lonesome town!
I might starve for a year but
That extra day would get me down.

In the last line of this ingeniously ironic stanza, the speaker affects weakness to level an indirect criticism at the senseless policies of the bureaucracy. What gives the irony its bite is firstly the power of understatement, secondly the sense of anticipation that leads up to it, and finally the stanza's indirection, which disguises its target. The dagger remains hidden until the thrust is half-way home. As in all standard-form blues poems, the anticipation is created partly by the simple regularity of the poem's rhymes and structure, which telegraph the eventual arrival of a satisfying denouement, and partly by the repetition, which postpones this conclusion. The enjambment of the word but here works to the same end by adding the expectation of a grammatical resolution. What cloaks the dagger is chiefly the stanza's momentary shift of focus away from the WPA. For four lines the speaker seems merely to bemoan his situation; in this respect, too, the delaying repeat lines prove useful. But as Tracy points out, the variation in the repetition, which leaves in this enjambed so that “Great big lonesome town” can stand on its own, shifts the complaint from its apparent object, the postponement of employment, to another source of misery, the town itself (Langston Hughes 149). The actual target of the terminal irony—“the extremes to which the system will go to keep a man down” (Jemie 40)—is thrice hidden: behind the misery of joblessness, behind the heartlessness of the city, and behind the speaker's ostensibly self-directed laughter, as though his strength would really give out precisely on the 366th day.

Other seemingly casual artistic maneuvers have significant effects in the poem's last stanza:

Did you ever try livin'
On two-bits minus two?
I say did you ever try livin'
On two-bits minus two?
Why don't you try it, folks,
And see what it would do to you?

“Two bits,” a proverbial sign of cheapness, would be hard enough to live on; to have them proffered and then snatched away by the end of the line conveys the straits of the unemployed with a bitter wit. The addition of “I say” to the beginning of the repeat lines gives them an insistent quality, as if to force the reader to read the question as something more than rhetorical. The word you here is meant to be taken personally—an implication that is borne out in the last lines, which urge the audience to imagine itself in the speaker's position (Waldron 148).

It seems fair to say, though, that “Out of Work” has run out of gas—that is, it has passed its emotional and structural culmination—some time before this ending. Final anticlimax is not unique to this poem, either; in fact, critic George Kent has complained that often in Hughes's blues poems “the last stanza seems to lose intensity” (199). Yet as we saw with “Young Gal's Blues,” anticlimax can be quite purposeful. “Midwinter Blues,” which Kent singles out for condemnation, actually illustrates another such design:

I'm gonna buy me a rose bud
An' plant it at ma back door.
Gonna buy me a rose bud
And plant it at ma back door.
So when I'm dead they
Won't need no flowers from de store.

(Fine Clothes 84)

This sentiment, according to Kent, “requires the voice of the blues singer to maintain intensity and to assert the toughness of spirit characteristic of the blues” (199). But the ironic misdirection of the speaker's concern, half funny, half pathetic, conveys this determination quite successfully on its own. The woman's self-pity, as is not uncommon in the blues, is both desperate and exhibitionistic, and the final pout shows her thoughts already turning back to a world she doesn't really expect to be leaving. Folk blues do not as a rule rise to a climactic ending, even in performance. Often the lack of closure accomplishes exactly what it does in “Midwinter Blues”: it leaves one feeling that the end of the song is not the end of the singer.

But Hughes's unclosed endings serve a further purpose: they tend to run his blues poems together, building them into a larger mechanism. Hughes's natural attraction to closure is demonstrated by the neatly recapitulative endings of many of the lyrics in The Weary Blues; by the time he wrote the impressive blues poetry of Fine Clothes to the Jew, he seems to have learned the value of avoiding closure. Understanding the dialogical flow of the blues poems into each other is important as a corrective to the charge that Hughes strove too hard to make his blues poems “generally representative” of an idealized African-American commonfolk (Tracy, “Tune” 79). Each poem's lack of finality suggests that it be read not as conclusive or representative, but as one piece in a montage portrait of the African-American proletariat. Hughes would later develop this principle still further in Montage of a Dream Deferred, where the poems are explicitly worked into a sequence.

Like many other genres of folk song, the blues use formulaic phrases and images freely. Phrases like “Going down the road,” “I had a dream last night,” and “I'm laughing to keep from crying” are an important part of the blues idiom and accordingly find their way into Hughes's blues poems. There are idiomatic images in Hughes as well: the knife that avenges infidelity, the river that is the lethal last resort of the unhappy, the railroad that both proffers escape and threatens desertion. But Hughes frequently gives these traditional elements a new twist, turning them to his own purposes.

For example, Hughes's “Hard Daddy” ends with a stanza that develops a common folk motif in which an unrequited lover, usually a woman, imagines herself as a bird. Tracy cites a verse from bluesman Peg Leg Howell:

If I had wings like
Noah's turtle dove
If I had wings like
Noah's turtle dove
If I had wings like
Noah's turtle dove
I would rise and fly and
Light on the one I love.

(“Tune” 82)

Hughes effects a remarkable transformation in this formula:

I wish I had wings to
Fly like de eagle flies.
Wish I had wings to
Fly like de eagle flies.
I'd fly on ma man an'
I'd scratch out both his eyes.

(Fine Clothes 86)

The traditional “If I had wings” formula normally communicates resignation or a mild revenge-wish (e.g., “I'd fly away to my true lover, / And all he asked I would deny”); the vicious spin that Hughes gives it is the more shocking in light of these usually gentler overtones. Hughes has stripped the motif of the warmed-over English poetics still visible in Howell's version (“turtle dove,” “rise and fly,” “light on”); at the same time, he has sharpened the image and intensified the speaker's emotion. The choice of the eagle (some versions of the formula have “sparrow”) is brilliant: its connotations remain open for four lines (speed? nobility? freedom?) only to become tightly focused in the last two, where the eagle is decidedly the powerful and terrifying bird of prey. The man's eyes—both of them—make a chillingly appropriate target, too, hinting at castration. Hughes's reformulation stands the usual passivity of the “If I had wings” formula on its head. He succeeds here, as he often does, in retuning blues elements without losing authenticity. For there is finally nothing more “poetic” in his stanza than in Howell's, however much poetic control he may have brought to bear on it.11

In these ways, Hughes negotiates the difficult task of bringing the form and the spirit of the folk blues into the print medium. Some poetic refinement of the form is inevitable in this process, and in structure, rhythm and even diction Hughes's blues poems are more deliberately crafted than the typical folk blues. But Hughes manages to refine his lyrics without giving them the conspicuous glaze of the vaudeville blues composers. His blues are polished, but with no gloss added—as stones are polished, not as wood is. The blues stanza allowed Hughes to portray the African-American folk in a language and form that approached, perhaps to a maximal degree, their own cultural idiom.


  1. This last phrase quotes a recurrent refrain in the blues as well as in Hughes's discussion of them.

  2. “Tune” 77-78; Langston Hughes 117-23.

  3. For Hughes on his own experience of the folk blues see “Songs,” “I Remember,” and Big Sea 208-10.

  4. See, e.g., Kent 192-202; Oliver 11; Tracy, “Tune” 73-80, 92-95, and Langston Hughes 123, 170-72.

  5. Hughes himself appears to have been somewhat unsure of his position as a blues poet. “I guess you can't call them real folk blues,” he once said of his poems, “unless you want to say that I'm a folk poet, myself a folk person, which maybe I am” (qtd. in Tracy, Langston Hughes 44). Despite its wavering, this statement at least confirms that Hughes identified not with the vaudeville composer but with the folk singer.

  6. Such thinking, I take it, is also the basis of Harold Bloom's judgment that Hughes's poems “do not compare adequately to the best instances of [his] cultural models” (1).

  7. Oliver condemns Hughes's “Young Gal's Blues” in the same passage, though it is not clear why, since all of his specific criticisms are directed at Brown.

  8. Since Hughes's selection, invention and mixing of stanzas in his blues poems has been treated thoroughly by Tracy (Langston Hughes 149-82; “Tune” 83-91), I do not belabor the subject here.

  9. Tracy writes that “A. X. Nicholas is certainly wrong in his assertion that the blues are sung in iambic pentameter lines” (Langston Hughes 127 n. 71). I am suggesting not that blues are sung in iambic pentameter but that they tend toward iambic pentameter. Dickson hears the meter as I do (30). Wagner, who writes that “Each line [in the blues] has four stresses” (33), is simply mistaken.

  10. The most confusing metrical departures often come at the very beginning of a line, where several “pickup notes” (as in the second example) or none at all (as in the third), may appear. In the last example, an unaccented syllable has been omitted, as I have indicated using a musical quarter-rest. The examples cited are the first lines of the following blues: “T. B. Blues” (Ledbetter); “St. Louis Blues” (Handy 82-83); “See See Rider” and “Good Morning Blues,” both folk standards included by Hughes and Bontemps in The Book of Negro Folklore (387-90).

  11. The stanza's enjambment is again well calculated. Most poets would have broken line 5 before an', and Hughes characteristically might have waited until after I'd; instead he foregrounds the speaker's willful self-assertion by having her begin both of her last lines with I'd.

Works Cited

Bloom, Harold, ed. Langston Hughes: Modern Critical Views. New York: Chelsea, 1989.

Charters, Samuel. The Poetry of the Blues. New York: Avon, 1970.

Dickson, L. L. “‘Keep It in the Head’: Jazz Elements in Modern Black American Poetry.” MELUS 10.1 (1983): 29-37.

Handy, W. C. Blues: An Anthology. 1926. New York: Da Capo, 1990.

Hughes, Langston. The Big Sea. 1940. New York: Thunder's Mouth, 1986.

———. Fine Clothes to the Jew. New York: Knopf, 1927.

———. “I Remember the Blues.” Missouri Reader. Ed. F. L. Mott. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1964. 152-55.

———. “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain.” Nation (3 June 1926): 692-94. Rpt. in Langston Hughes Review 4.1 (1985): 1-4.

———. Selected Poems of Langston Hughes. New York: Knopf, 1970.

———. Shakespeare in Harlem. New York: Knopf, 1942.

———. “Songs Called the Blues.” The Langston Hughes Reader. New York: Braziller, 1958. 159-61.

———. The Weary Blues. New York: Knopf, 1926.

———, and Arna Bontemps, eds. The Book of Negro Folklore. New York: Dodd, 1958.

Jemie, Onwuchekwa. Langston Hughes: An Introduction to the Poetry. New York: Columbia University Press, 1976.

Kent, George E. “Langston Hughes and Afro-American Folk and Cultural Tradition.” Langston Hughes: Black Genius. Ed. Therman B. O'Daniel. New York: Morrow, 1971. 183-210.

Ledbetter, Huddie. The Midnight Special. RCA-Vintage, LPV-505, 1964.

Oliver, Paul. “Can't Even Write: The Blues and Ethnic Literature.” MELUS 10.1 (1983): 7-14.

Rampersad, Arnold. The Life of Langston Hughes, Volume I: 1902-1941. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986.

Tracy, Steven C. Langston Hughes and the Blues. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1988.

———. “To the Tune of Those Weary Blues: The Influence of the Blues Tradition in Langston Hughes's Blues Poems.” MELUS 8.3 (1981): 73-98.

Wagner, Jean. Black Poets of the United States. Trans. Kenneth Douglas. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1973.

Waldron, Edward E. “The Blues Poetry of Langston Hughes.” Negro American Literary Forum 5 (1971): 140-49.

Eric J. Sundquist (essay date December 1996)

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SOURCE: Sundquist, Eric J. “Who Was Langston Hughes?” Commentary 102, no. 6 (December 1996): 55-9.

[In the following essay, Sundquist discusses the cultural influence of Langston Hughes as a result of his several decades of producing poetry, fiction, drama, autobiographical writings, and other works.]

At the height of his fame, Langston Hughes (1902-67) was esteemed as “Shakespeare in Harlem,” a sobriquet he borrowed for the title of a 1942 volume of poems. By this point in his career, Hughes had already been credited with some of the finest work in the great flowering of African-American literature known as the Harlem Renaissance. Just as significantly, he had also emerged as one of the most acclaimed writers of the radical Left.

Hughes never did abandon the language of racial protest; a revealing measure of his influence may be found in famous works whose titles are themselves quotations from his poems, among them James Baldwin's Nobody Knows My Name, Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun, and John Howard Griffin's Black Like Me. As such borrowings also suggest, however, Hughes has remained an important writer not for his politics alone, but because of his unusual genius for refining ideology into the language of popular art.

In his own self-estimate, Hughes was something of a “literary sharecropper.” Like his principal mentors, Walt Whitman and Carl Sandburg, he took pride in being both a poet of the people and a paid professional, and few modern American writers sustained a talent so consistently and with such prodigious results: sixteen volumes of poetry, ten collections of short fiction, two novels, two volumes of autobiography, nine books for children, and more than two dozen works for the stage, not to mention miscellaneous books on black history, literary anthologies, radio and film scripts, and song lyrics. The publication of a new selection of Hughes's best short fiction,1 together with the recent release of his Collected Poems,2 makes it possible to appreciate anew the skill with which, in a remarkable range of styles and genres, he shaped his populist art to fit his times.

Hughes first came to notice, barely out of high school, with the publication in 1921 of “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” a poem composed in a ten-minute flash of inspiration on a trip to visit his estranged father in Mexico. As Hughes would remember the incident in The Big Sea (1940), the first of his autobiographies, the historical roots of African-American slavery suddenly unfolded before him in visionary cadence as his train crossed the Mississippi:

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. …

“The Negro Speaks of Rivers” remains one of Hughes's most anthologized poems, but its derivative romanticism gave little hint of the better verse to come. His true originality would lie instead in his response to the era's mass migration of blacks from the agrarian South to the urban North, which prompted him to fuse the rhythms of black speech and black music, particularly blues and jazz, under the loose constraints of modernist versification.

To an older generation steeped in both the high English style of Matthew Arnold and the theatrical black American dialect of Paul Laurence Dunbar, Hughes's initial work, written in the mundane language of jazz musicians, elevator boys, abused or abandoned lovers, domestic servants, lynching victims, and cabaret dancers, promised nothing less than a poetic revolution. He announced his credo in a resounding essay entitled “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain,” influential for generations to come:

Let the blare of Negro jazz bands and the bellowing voice of Bessie Smith singing Blues penetrate the closed ears of the colored near-intellectuals until they listen and perhaps understand. … We younger Negro artists who create now intend to express our individual dark-skinned selves without fear or shame.

In the best of Hughes's early work, vernacular serves as a contrapuntal force to poetic craft. In “The Weary Blues,” for example, choruses of blues are embedded in a crushing psychological portrait of a musician's life; in “Brass Spittoons,” the language of Scripture and black spirituals is joined to the demeaning orders issued to a black bellhop; and in “Cross,” a poem about miscegenation, the simplicity and repetitions of colloquial speech are honed to a fine edge:

My old man's a white old man
And my old mother's black.
If ever I cursed my white old
I take my curses back.
If ever I cursed my black old
And wished she were in hell,
I'm sorry for that evil wish
And now I wish her well. …

As such verse makes clear, Hughes's choice both of voice and of subject matter committed him to an art of social protest—something he came to by family inclination. His grandmother's first husband died in John Brown's raid on Harper's Ferry, while a great-uncle, John Mercer Langston, was a leading black politician of the post-Reconstruction years. From an early age, Hughes too was quick to stand up to racial prejudice, and his writings are filled with evidence of a lifelong struggle against racial bigotry, not only in the South but in the North and in California, and not least at the hands of self-styled progressives.

Nevertheless, during this early period Hughes remained faithful to the ameliorative tradition of Frederick Douglass, dwelling on the tense dialectic between race and citizenship. His praise of color consciousness—for instance, “I am a Negro: / Black as the night is black, / Black like the depths of my Africa”—was hardly contradicted by his hopeful celebration of assimilation. As the “darker brother” sent to “eat in the kitchen” while awaiting a place at the table of democracy, Hughes proclaimed in a famous early poem, “I, too, sing America.”

In this respect, the exoticist poems sometimes said to typify Hughes's contribution to the Harlem Renaissance—“Danse Africaine” or “Nude Young Dancer,” for example, both of which were featured in a landmark 1925 anthology, The New Negro—are, in fact, not very typical at all. Quickly leaping beyond the stylized primitivism of the day, Hughes had discovered a fluent language in which black American life could be immortalized without resort to caricature. Yet by the time the stockmarket crash of 1929 dropped the curtain on the Harlem Renaissance, Hughes had grown altogether dissatisfied with the aesthetics of black modernism. His venue of choice would no longer be the Crisis, house organ of the NAACP, but rather New Masses, flagship of the Communist party.

Concluding that “we were no longer in vogue … we Negroes,” and bidding farewell to New York, he embarked on a reading tour of the South in 1931. By this point Hughes had joined the John Reed Club and worked alongside Whittaker Chambers as a director of the pro-Communist Suitcase Theater, and his art now made race a weapon of class warfare. Sardonic short stories like “Professor” and “Fine Accommodations” registered Hughes's dismay at the timidity of Southern black academics. His outrage at racial injustice was commemorated in Scottsboro Limited, a classic broadside comprising a one-act play and several poems, among them the blasphemous anti-lynching poem “Christ in Alabama.”

The Southern tour proved to be a harbinger of Hughes's visit to the Soviet Union in 1932, which further stamped his work of the 1930s with an urgent, frequently paralyzing militancy. Hughes himself took an inordinate number of pages to recount the Soviet trip and its aftermath in his second autobiography, I Wonder as I Wander (1956), but he revealed little there of his core beliefs about Communism, which even now remain something of a mystery.

Hughes never joined the party, resisted many efforts to enlist his support for one radical project or another, and seemed little touched by the more serious devotion to ideology of those around him. At the same time, however, he served in 1934 as titular president of the League of Struggle for Negro Rights, the party's main African-American front, and few fellow-travelers wrote more vociferously than Hughes in praise of the Red revolution. A characteristic poem of the period, composed for the eighth convention of the Communist party in the United States, begins: “Put one more S in the U. S. A. / To make it Soviet.”

In the Soviet Union itself, where he stayed on for almost a year, Hughes ignored clear signs of corruption and repression. Welcoming the privileges of membership in the International Union of Revolutionary Writers, he dashed off “Goodbye, Christ,” a poem in which the salvific power of the church gives way to a Leninist pantheon and which would later so haunt his career as to become the centerpiece of an FBI probe. A set of essays for Izvestia favorably compared the Soviet justice system to the American, and in poem after poem in this period Hughes replaced a previously favorite image, the North Star of African-American freedom, with the Red Star of Soviet liberation.

It is tempting to conclude that Hughes was simply an “innocent abroad,” as Arthur Koestler, a short-term traveling companion on the Soviet trip, would remember him. In Hughes's case, blindness to the Soviet charade, hardly unique among Western intellectuals of the day, sprang first from reading everything through the lens of race. But his seeming naiveté also had another source. Paid regularly and fairly well as a writer for the first time in his life, Hughes failed to grasp, or was not ready to admit, that the Soviets had good reason to reward talent that was critical of America. In any event, both in the Soviet Union and back home, Hughes's writing of the 1930's was invigorated equally by anti-Americanism and by the scramble for a dollar.

This was especially apparent in his dramatic work, from the sharp realism of Mulatto, to the socialist heroism of Don't You Want to Be Free?, to the racial sentimentality of Little Ham and Way Down South (the last a misguided venture into screen-writing). In verse, likewise, he rewrote Sandburg's maudlin “Good Morning, America” as “Good Morning, Revolution,” a buoyant prophecy of international Communism, while in one of his most telling poems of the decade Hughes sounded like John Steinbeck's Tom Joad drunk on Marx:

O, let America be America
The land that never has been
And yet must be—the land
          where every man is free.
The land that's mine—the poor
          man's, Indian's, Negro's,
Who made America,
Whose sweat and blood, whose
          faith and pain,
Whose hand at the foundry,
          whose plow in the rain,
Must bring back our mighty
          dream again. …

Embarrassing though this poetry is—Hughes excluded most of his radical verse from his Selected Poems in 1951—it is also, as it happens, a superior instance of socialist realism in America and worthy of study for that reason alone. More important, though, Hughes's loss of artistic direction in poetry during the 1930s was balanced by his discovery of a mature voice in fiction.

The germ of Hughes's talent in this field had already appeared in a few stories of the 1920s—especially “Luani in the Jungles,” a Conradian experiment about the burdens of empire—and in Not Without Laughter (1930), an endearing coming-of-age novel noteworthy for its incorporation of blues and vernacular. Marked by Hughes's new cultivation of polemic, the stories soon collected in The Ways of White Folks (1934)—several of them inspired by his tour of the South, and most now included in Langston Hughes: Short Stories—were damning indictments of American racism in an inventive range of settings.

A number of the stories reflect darkly upon the indulgences of the jazz age, in particular the exploitation of black talent by a white clientele. “Slave on the Block,” for example, compares the cultivation of Negro primitivism in the arts to the sale of chattel in the slaveholding South, while the suffocating patronage enjoyed by a young black pianist in “The Blues I'm Playing” is a thinly disguised send-up of the neuroses and anti-Semitism of Hughes's former patron, Charlotte Mason.

As Hughes recognized, there were tragic consequences on both sides of the color line, South and North alike. “Father and Son,” “Cora Unashamed,” and “Home” variously dramatize the South's frenzy over interracial sexuality; in the terrifying “Red-Headed Baby,” a white drifter returns to the cabin of his one-time black mistress to be shocked by a grotesquely retarded child, the result of his previous lust. By the same token, the white foster parents of a black child in New England are gradually revealed to be racists in “Poor Little Black Fellow,” while “Passing” takes the form of a letter of apology written to his mother by a light-skinned young black man after he refuses to recognize her in downtown Chicago. Still other stories treat subtly the heartbreaking isolation and mental derangement brought on by racial prejudice.

To be sure, Hughes's stories are uneven—his endings tend to be tepid and unfocused, and some more resemble sketches than fully developed tales. Yet the intricate irony and sometimes stark satire which disappeared from his poetry when he became a booster for Stalin reappeared in his prose. The Ways of White Folks, a perfect bridge between Charles Chesnutt's turn-of-the-century tales of the color line and Richard Wright's naturalistic work soon to come, remains one of the most powerful collections in the history of the American short story.

As America's Red decade concluded and war came on, Hughes, like most blacks, devoted himself to the Allied cause. He became a member of the War Writers' Committee in 1942 and put his skills as a musical lyricist to good use by turning out homefront trivia like “Go-and-Get-the-Enemy-Blues.” His short stories now took a patriotic turn, and so did most of his poems of the 1940s, while essays such as “My America” and “What the Negro Wants” fell squarely in the mainstream of the American Left, routinely anti-fascist and patriotic. Hughes had been taken aback by the Nazi-Soviet pact in 1939, yet once the Soviet Union emerged as an ally, he revived his opinion that Moscow, having “no colonies, no voteless citizens, and no Jim Crow cars,” was “the world's new center.”

In some respects, Hughes's new work was as much hampered by ideology as the work of the 1930s; but at its most memorable, his wartime poetry made an admirable contribution to American blacks' campaign for “double-V”—victory abroad against fascism and victory at home against segregation. The long poem “Freedom's Plow” offers a nicely textured fusion of folk culture and political protest that points toward the best literature of the civil-rights movement of the 1950s, while the title poem of Jim Crow's Last Stand (1943) honors Dorie Miller, a black hero at Pearl Harbor later killed in the Pacific.

In the previous year, Hughes had also become a regular columnist for the Chicago Defender, the black weekly, and was soon widely known for his relentless journalistic assault on the “Iron Curtains of Dixie.” At the same time, he continued to produce engaging short stories, the best of which, such as “The Gun,” “Who's Passing for Who?,” and “His Last Affair,” are grounded less in the politics of racial oppression than in its startling psychological consequences. But the most important new development of Hughes's mature career lay in a surprising vein.

Turning his longstanding interest in colloquial style toward comedy, and drawing on conversations in Harlem bars, Hughes created the fictive character Jesse B. Semple. Known eventually as “Simple” (his name puns on “just be simple”), this sarcastic raconteur accounted for more than a quarter of Hughes's weekly Defender columns over the next twenty years. Collected in five volumes during Hughes's lifetime, the sketches, best understood as fictional op-ed pieces, usually take the form of a dialogue between the narrator, playing the straight man, and Simple, the wise fool of Harlem; topics range from the haranguing women in Simple's life to the slow death of Jim Crow to the cold war and nuclear disarmament. Initiated as a device to encourage black patriotism at the outset of the war, Simple became over time one of the freshest vernacular creations in American culture, comparable to the achievements of Mark Twain and Will Rogers.

“The race problem in America is serious business,” Hughes wrote in his preface to Simple Stakes a Claim (1957), but “humor is a weapon, too, of no mean value against one's foes.” Running considerable risks with his readers' sensibilities—in one typical instance, Simple offers a modest proposal to build a “Game Preserve for Negroes”—Hughes in these stories took the straightening power of comedy to the maximum.

By 1953, when he was summoned to testify before Senator Joseph McCarthy's committee, there seemed little in Hughes's writing to warrant the accusations of Life magazine, J. Edgar Hoover, and others that he was now—or truly ever had been—a danger to the country. Hughes's writing, though it remained often polemical on the issue of race, had clearly swung back toward the political center during the 1940s, even if his public persona was admittedly harder to specify. In his carefully orchestrated testimony before McCarthy's committee, Hughes satisfactorily accounted for the far-Left drift of his career in the 1930s, while politely demanding artistic freedom. Although he was a cooperative witness, his tightrope act left the distinct impression of a man who wished neither to defend nor to renounce his former beliefs but simply to set them aside, like an abandoned literary style.

“Politics can be the graveyard of the poet. And only poetry can be his resurrection,” Hughes would later write. Without sacrificing his devotion to racial justice, Hughes in the postwar years rediscovered his artistic roots by merging the storytelling of his fiction with the lyric intensity of his early verse. In Montage of a Dream Deferred (1951) he assembled a kaleidoscopic set of urban images, superimposing painterly abstraction upon the rhythms of bebop, while in Ask Your Mama (1961) he forged a densely allusive long poem from the events of black history and the shifting styles of jazz (from Louis Armstrong to Charlie Parker to Ornette Coleman). Like Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man, a work of the same moment and milieu, these two books transform folk culture into a complex, lasting vision. If Hughes's art of the 1930s was often trivialized by politics, these poems, together with his best work during the Harlem Renaissance, are really Hughes at his most “revolutionary.”

“How does it feel to be a problem?” W. E. B. Du Bois had asked in a haunting line in The Souls of Black Folk. More than 60 years later, Hughes, in “Dinner Guest: Me,” feared he had found no clear answer:

I know I am
The Negro Problem
Being wined and dined,
Answering the usual questions
That come to white mind
Which seeks demurely
To probe in polite way
The why and wherewithal
Of darkness U. S. A. …

In fact, though, Hughes had offered the only answers that true literature can provide. The 1960s found him at odds with the shrill art of the black-power movement—“fingerpainting in excrement,” he once called it—and little of his poetry of these years lives up to his previous high standard. What will last in his writing, however, was well forecast by the retort he offered in 1933 to a Communist-party official who condemned jazz for its bourgeois decadence. “It's my music,” Hughes replied, “and I wouldn't give up jazz for a world revolution.”

The statement is in keeping with the enigmatic ebb and flow of political ideology throughout his career—and in keeping, too, with the complex balance in which he weighed the demands of his color and the demands of his art. If he was not Shakespeare in Harlem—Whitman in Harlem is a closer fit—it is hard to name a writer today who comes close to Langston Hughes's remarkable stylistic breadth, let alone his capacity to express the pain of inequality without losing the joy of creativity.


  1. Langston Hughes: Short Stories, edited by Akiba Sullivan Harper. Hill & Wang, 299 pp., $25.00.

  2. Edited by Arnold Rampersad and David Roessel, Knopf (1994).

Karen Jackson Ford (essay date 1996)

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SOURCE: Ford, Karen Jackson. “Making Poetry Pay: The Commodification of Langston Hughes.” In Marketing Modernisms: Self-Promotion, Canonization, Rereading, edited by Kevin J. H. Dettmar and Stephen Watt, pp. 275-96. Ann Arbor, Mich.: University of Michigan Press, 1996.

[In the following essay, Ford examines the various ways in which Hughes acted as a “relentless marketer” of his work throughout a four-decade career.]

In his first autobiography, The Big Sea (1940), Langston Hughes ironically titles a chapter “Poetry Is Practical,” in which he describes meeting his first literary friends and patrons through a sequence of events that owed more to serendipity than to practicality. In fact, the chronicle of those months in 1925 when Hughes was out of work and suffering from hunger is a tale of fortunate flukes and unanticipated generosity rather than one of pragmatics. Nevertheless, ten years later Arna Bontemps would assert, with a surprising lack of irony, what eventually became a favorite commonplace of Hughes scholars: “Langston Hughes is the only Negro poet since Dunbar who has succeeded in making a living from poetry.”1 The comparison to Paul Laurence Dunbar, who could find work only as an elevator operator after graduating high school with honors, paid to publish his own first volume of poetry, was subsidized thereafter by white patrons, and died in his early thirties before it could reasonably be claimed that he had made a living at writing, is laden with ironies that Bontemps seems to ignore. Indeed, Bontemps must overlook the chronic financial hardships that Hughes endured in order to characterize his best friend's vocation as lucrative: “Poetry has turned a pretty penny for the Negro who spoke of rivers the summer after graduating from high school in 1920” (360). Yet despite his optimism about the earning power of poetry, Bontemps does admit that the poem must be commodified if it is to pay.

But a poem must be used many ways to yield enough substance to keep a hearty individual like Mr. Hughes in the kind of food he likes. Therefore it is not surprising to find his poems being danced by Pearl Primus on the stage while they are sung by Juanita Hall in night clubs and on the radio and television and by Muriel Rahn in Town Hall concerts and while Paul Robeson is reciting “Freedom Train” in the United States, West Indies and Central America.


Hughes eked out a living writing poetry because he had the good business sense to understand that the poem could be “used in many ways”—that is, it could be commodified. Poems could be published individually in magazines and newspapers, gathered together for a volume, reprinted in later volumes or anthologies, interpolated in prose, sung on the stage, recited in personal appearances, submitted to writing contests, and recycled yet again for a Selected Poems; further, a poem could be revised, retitled, and even recalled like a defective product. Langston Hughes was a relentless marketer of his own poetry, successful because he recognized that promoting his poetry involved handling both the product and the consumer.

A chapter in his second autobiography, I Wonder as I Wander (1956), describes that latter task: handling the consumer. In “Making Poetry Pay” he recalls the “public routine of reading [his] poetry that almost never failed to provoke … some sort of audible audience response.”2 Reading to poor, uneducated southern blacks, Hughes would begin his program with a biographical introduction that established his humble background. He would then read some of his novice high-school poems to “show how [his] poetry had changed” and probably to demonstrate that poetry could be simple and accessible. Making fun of his own juvenilia, he would get the audience laughing, and then he would “read some of [his] jazz poems so [his] listeners could laugh more” (57). This comic opening put them at their ease and enabled him to lead them through a program of more challenging and troubling poetry: “By the time I reached this point in the program my nonliterary listeners would be ready to think in terms of their own problems” (58). If the attention of the audience wavered, he would recite “Cross,” a provocative poem about miscegenation, with practiced theatrical flourishes. What Hughes describes here is working the crowd; he makes poetry pay with the right sales pitch and a shrewd presentation of the goods.

Hughes's attitude toward his nonliterary audience is not simply exploitative, however. In “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain,” published in The Nation in 1926, he identifies these “common people” as the appropriate muse of the black poet: “They furnish a wealth of colorful, distinctive material for any artist because they still hold their own individuality in the face of American standardizations. And perhaps these common people will give the world its truly great Negro artist, the one who is not afraid to be himself.”3 The conflict that Hughes would have to confront is that the common people retain their individuality because they are outside of the commercial and academic institutions that impose standardizations. Since Hughes could not survive economically as a writer and remain independent of these institutions, his audience would have to include a much greater range of readers, specifically, more affluent black and white readers who would tend to hold “standardized” literary values.

Thus, the written record of Hughes's poetry indicates that in addition to creating an audience for his poems, he had to create poetry for a wide audience. These two impulses were in productive tension throughout his life largely because of the tremendous complexity of that audience. Over the forty-some years of his publishing career (from his first volume, The Weary Blues, published in 1926, to The Panther and the Lash, in press when he died in 1967), Hughes wrote for a diverse and contradictory range of readers. He worked through two major literary movements, the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s and the Black Arts movement in the 1960s; published in exceedingly different political climates, from the socialism of the 1930s through the conservatism of the 1950s to the radicalism of the 1960s; rebelled against his New Negro elders in his youth and against the militant Black Arts poets in his old age; wrote on behalf of the poor black masses even as he did so at the behest of a wealthy white patron; sought readers among the uneducated and the educated, the poor and the middle classes, among political activists and the literati; and, of course, as an African-American writer, he wrote for a divided audience of black and white readers.

To hear Hughes in his most eloquent and influential statement about audiences, one would suppose he had escaped their conflicting demands. In the same essay where he casts his lot with the common people, he also proclaims his artistic autonomy.

We younger Negro artists who create now intend to express our individual dark-skinned selves without fear or shame. If white people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, it doesn't matter. We know we are beautiful. And ugly too. The tom-tom cries and the tom-tom laughs. If colored people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, their displeasure doesn't matter either. We build our temples for tomorrow, strong as we know how, and we stand on top of the mountain, free within ourselves.4

This powerful statement of indifference to the reactions of readers stands in curious contrast to Hughes's almost legendary adaptability to audiences; yet the difference between the proclamation of aesthetic independence and the record of capitulation and compromise in publishing is the difference between the making of the poem and the marketing of it. Throughout his career Hughes did indeed follow his moral and aesthetic instincts in his writing. However, when he marketed that writing, he made many concessions to audience, using the poems and reusing them, packaging and repackaging them, promoting and sometimes suppressing them. To the extent that poetry turned a pretty penny for Hughes, it did so by way of many other turnings.

Most of Hughes's commentators—reviewers, biographers, critics—acknowledge that he made, not just poetry, but much of his writing pay. For example, in a 1967 review of The Best Short Stories by Negro Writers, edited by Hughes, Robert Bone employs the language of commercialism to register his exasperation with the uneven quality of the volume and, thus, with what he takes to be Hughes's failure of judgment and discrimination: “He is merchandising these stories; to him they are commodities.”5 Bone complains that including too many stories is a marketing ploy; even more frequently, excluding material receives the same condemnation. Faith Berry, one of Hughes's biographers, recognizes this marketing impulse in the editing of two of the writer's collections, The Langston Hughes Reader (1958) and the Selected Poems (1959). By definition both books ought to represent the breadth of Hughes's work, yet both exclude his radical writings. Once again the charge is commercialism.

There was nothing about the wide selection of poems to indicate a chronology, but obviously missing were any of his more radical ones from the 1930s; not even his revised version of “Let America Be America Again” [a poem Hughes had already sanitized] was included. Nobody knew better than Langston Hughes why they were not there. He had selected not his best poems, but those he thought would go over best with the public. He aimed to please. Selected Poems reflected that desire as much as The Langston Hughes Reader.6

In fact, Berry's biography, Langston Hughes: Before and beyond Harlem (1983), traces a lifetime of aiming to please an audience by altering or suppressing works.7 Berry is especially interested in Hughes's radical poetry, meticulously documenting first his unequivocal commitment to leftist politics and then his gradual repudiation of much of his socialist writing. From his humiliating capitulation to McCarthy (“[The radical writings] do not represent my current thinking. … I have more recent books I would prefer”) to his futile attempt to suppress the controversial “Goodbye, Christ” (“Goodbye, Christ does not represent my personal viewpoint. It was long ago withdrawn from circulation”)8 Hughes obviously acquiesced to the conservative tastes of the 1950s.

Arnold Rampersad's two-volume biography, The Life of Langston Hughes (1986, 1988), records several of these cases as well;9 however, by 1993, in his two introductions to the reprinted autobiographies, Rampersad focuses much more aggressively on Hughes's evasions and exclusions, calling The Big Sea a “tour de force of subterfuge” and citing a string of contemporary reviewers who chide Hughes for his glaring omissions, and terming I Wonder as I Wander “provocative” for its “wise” blending of truth and untruth. And here again, wisdom is a euphemism for business sense.

Indeed, Hughes was ceaselessly called upon to be a “wise” person, ever vigilant as he negotiated the space between the political right and the left, between the white race and the black, between the middle class who bought and read books and the poorer classes he deeply respected and wanted to reach, between the desire to speak his mind boldly and the restraint that his tenuous position demanded if he was to survive as a writer.10

What these and many other critics see as market-motivated survival tactics, Stanley Schatt considers aesthetic development. Schatt is the only scholar to make a systematic study of Hughes's alterations, and in “Langston Hughes: The Minstrel as Artificer,” he insists that readers have underestimated Hughes's seriousness as a poet because “the general public and many critics are unaware of the vast number of revisions Hughes … made over the years.”11 Schatt confidently associates revision (“from minor alterations in punctuation to additions of entire stanzas”) (115)—he doesn't mention the more troublesome deletions of entire stanzas—with artistic maturity. Hughes “revises,” according to Schatt, to delete immature and derivative material (116), to remove outdated or obscure references (116), and to make a poem more specific (117). Many of Schatt's textual illustrations, however, reveal the inadequacies of these categories. For instance, Schatt's analysis of two versions of the controversial “Christ in Alabama” identifies only the poet's desire to make it more “universal and less personal” (118), qualities Schatt associates with greater artistry. The first version appeared in the December 1, 1931, issue of Contempo and was reprinted without change the following year in the political booklet Scottsboro, Limited; the second version appeared in The Panther and the Lash (1967).


Christ is a Nigger,
Beaten and black—
O, bare your back.
Mary is His Mother—
Mammy of the South,
Silence your mouth.
God's His Father—
White Master above,
Grant us your love.
Most holy bastard
Of the bleeding mouth:
Nigger Christ
On the cross of the South.


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.(12)

Schatt dismisses the typographical changes as insignificant and comments only on the ninth line in both versions, claiming that the substitution of “Him” for “us” shifts the point of view and removes Hughes from the poem: “It is still a social statement about the black man's plight in the South, but the revision makes it universal and less personal.”13

In fact, however, a great deal more than point of view shifts in the revision. The italics in the earlier version indicate that there are at least two levels of discourse, that the voice of the poem is not unitary and stable as in the later revision. The alternating typefaces function visually and thematically as a call and response: the first voice asserts the ironic parallels between Christ and black people, and the response voice adapts that parallel into a highly ambiguous prayer refrain. Who shouts the italicized orders in the first two stanzas? Who urges black people to act like Christ (by silently submitting to beatings)? Such demands would typically issue from white racists, but here they seem also to come from blacks themselves in their effort to emulate the submission of Christ. These first two stanzas of the earlier version confuse the fact of oppression with the glorification of suffering that can result from it, especially in Christianity. The speaker here is both commentator and chorus, preacher and parishioner, whose voice blends in disturbing ways with the oppressor's. The capitalized nouns underscore these blurrings, visually pairing Christ and Nigger, Mary and Mother, God and Father. Schatt is right when he says that the shift from “us” to “Him” in line 9 alters the point of view, but if that revision makes the poem less personal, it also renders it less political. The speaker of the second version maintains a monotonous authority over the lines of the poem; he is aloof and sarcastic, able to register the similarities between Christ and southern blacks without being able to charge these parallels with tensions as the first version does. Indeed, this second poem tidies up the typography and punctuation, editing out the ironies created by the italics and capitalizations. Little wonder that the troubling ninth line is delivered flatly here, without the original implication of masochistic and confused loyalties. Finally, the second version recasts the last stanza, dismantling the metaphor of the South as crucifix in the last three lines. Indentation, line breaks, and capitalization indicate that the speaker has become too self-conscious of the metaphor in the later version. The phrases of the closing analogy are now doled out more deliberately, like a punch line or a clever afterthought. While the second version ends with a rhetorical snap, the first concludes with an expression of deeply internalized contradiction that only a more complex and ambiguous speaker could generate. And it is the original speaker who makes the greater political claim on us, for his discursive conflicts articulate a racism that cannot be reduced to one speaker or one stanza. The original version problematizes the speaker and therefore complicates the poem's “social statement about the black man's plight in the South.”

The textual life of “Christ in Alabama” tells us a great deal about its status as a literary commodity. In 1932, the same year that Hughes signed an open letter backing the Communist presidential ticket, the poem identifies the pervasiveness of racism: the enemy without calls perniciously to the enemy within. The depiction of internalized racism makes it difficult to cast oppression in strictly racial terms. The early version of the poem, then, is an analysis of power relations as well as race relations. By 1959, “Christ in Alabama” is absent from the Selected Poems, along with many other fine poems from Hughes's leftist period. The attacks on Hughes from McCarthy and other conservatives and the general cold-war atmosphere induced Hughes to suppress his more militant work. But in 1967, the cultural marketplace has a new use for the poem. The Panther and the Lash reprints much of Hughes's militant verse excluded from the Selected Poems.14 “Christ in Alabama” surfaces now, but with a less equivocal tone. The revised version is repackaged in subtle ways to reflect the certitude of the 1960s; its single typeface embodies the uniformity of the black nationalist vision and obscures the significantly more ambiguous representation of racism conveyed in the original version. If slight changes in typeface or punctuation or pronouns can work such important transformations on a poem, then readers of Hughes's poetry must take better stock of his incessant reworkings.

A record of the publication history of individual poems reveals that Hughes used and reused them this way with unprecedented frequency. While many of the cases may merely reflect Hughes's attempt to update the poems, as Schatt claims, or to work sympathetic magic by placing old poems in new books, other instances clearly indicate his effort to repackage his work to meet the shifting demands of his audience. The fate of one of his best-known poems, the famous “Refugee in America,” is suggestive of what we would discover in a systematic investigation of the various incarnations of his poems.

There are words like Freedom
Sweet and wonderful to say.
On my heartstrings freedom sings
All day everyday.
There are words like Liberty
That almost make me cry.
If you had known what I know
You would know why.(15)

The poem first appeared in the Saturday Evening Post in 1943; it was anthologized twice during that year and soon after appeared in a volume of poems, Fields of Wonder (1947). The piece is clearly a product of the World War II period. It falls in a section of the book called “Words Like Freedom,” clustered with poems about the war (“When the Armies Passed,” “Oppression,” “Today”). In “Refugee in America” the speaker recites the words that in 1943 constituted the promise of America to thousands of refugees fleeing the oppression and brutality of Europe in the 1940s. When these speakers say that words like freedom and liberty “almost make [them] cry,” they are equating the acquisition of their new country's language with the achievement of that country's promised opportunities. In contrast to the rhetoric of the places they have just come from, the rhetoric of America sounds too good to be true. And, of course, it was.

“Refugee in America” retains its original title up until 1959, when it appeared without change in the Selected Poems. However, within a few years the militant black-liberation movement would ignite in America, and Hughes would feel at best ambivalent in the new, more aggressive political climate.16 When Hughes compiled his last book of verse, The Panther and the Lash, in 1967, he attempted to refigure himself as a significant spokesman for the black movement. “Refugee in America” reappears in The Panther and the Lash, retitled “Words Like Freedom.” In its new environment, in a context of more militant poetry, and with its new title, those former speakers of the poem are suppressed in favor of an implied group of specifically African-American speakers, who now take issue with “words like Freedom” and “Liberty.” Such words almost make them cry because they have endured the hypocrisy of the American dream. The redefinition and qualification of the speaker that the change of title signals amounts to a repackaging of the poem—a marketing technique that occurs with notable frequency in Hughes's work.

Not surprisingly, it is this repackaged version of the poem that Dudley Randall reprints in his definitive post-1960s anthology of African-American poetry, The Black Poets. A glance at the table of contents will make obvious to anyone familiar with these poets that Randall's principle of selection is highly political. The authors are represented by their most militant and nationalist works, even when, as in the case of Dunbar, such poems are not indicative of the author's canon. Such interested choices do, of course, determine the contents of all anthologies, and thus the significance of these choices lies not so much in the principle of selection as in the consequences of it: in the ways the poem responds to each new environment. “Words Like Freedom” occurs in Randall's volume amid a cluster of Hughes poems that all scrutinize language. Each poem suggests that America's clichés and catch phrases signify different things for black Americans and white Americans. “Children's Rhymes” asserts that even a black child can penetrate the hypocrisy of America's rhetoric. The poem ends,

Lies written down
for white folks
ain't for us a-tall:
Liberty and Justice—
Huh!—For All?(17)

Immediately following “Children's Rhymes” is “Words Like Freedom” with its italicized Freedom and Liberty clearly related to the italicized words of the preceding poem. The next poem, “Justice” (87), takes issue with that word (“That Justice is a blind goddess / Is a thing to which we black are wise”). And “American Heartbreak” (87) similarly questions the meaning of the word freedom (“I am the American heartbreak—/ The rock on which Freedom / Stumped its toe”). In this black-nationalist volume, amid other Hughes poems that interrogate the differences between black and white responses to America's most valued words, there is no trace of the original speaker of the poem—the refugee in post-World War II America. The opposition of the earlier poem, Americans versus refugees, both of whom might be any color, is discarded in favor of a specifically racial contrast: blacks versus nonblacks. The emphasis on African-American speakers is certainly more relevant in the 1960s, and Hughes's revisions demonstrate a keen responsiveness to this contemporary interest.

It is no coincidence that these two examples of commodified poetry—“Christ in Alabama” and “Refugee in America”—appear in the final volume of poetry, The Panther and the Lash. Compiled at the height of the Black Arts movement in a climate of militant black nationalism, the volume is a measure of Hughes's capacity to convert old poetry into a new cultural currency.

He had written himself out about America's escalating war in Vietnam and the racial unrest at home. Knopf was soon to publish some of his poems about those events in his anthology The Panther and the Lash. With its forty-four new poems and twenty-six selected from previous volumes, it was to be his final testament, the most militant book of verse he had published since the thirties. He had considered calling it Words Like Freedom, until the words didn't fit the times anymore.18

It is significant that Berry refers to the volume as an anthology, suggesting it is retrospective; Hughes, on the contrary, subtitles the book Poems of Our Times, indicating the poems are not merely timely in their pertinence but also “of the moment” in their composition. Indeed, the book is dedicated to Rosa Parks and casts itself as contemporaneous with the Civil Rights and Black Power movements: “To Rosa Parks of Montgomery who started it all” (PL [The Panther and the Lash] ix). Yet what Rosa Parks started in 1955 is here reflected in poetry composed over a thirty-five-year period, from 1932 to 1967. The advertising blurb from the 1992 reprinted edition of Panther confirms that the historicity of these poems has been lost:

In this, his last collection of verse, Hughes's voice is more pointed than ever before, as he explicitly addresses the racial politics of the sixties in such pieces as “Prime,” “Motto,” “Dream Deferred,” “Frederick Douglass: 1817-1895,” “Still Here,” “Birmingham Sunday,” “History,” “Slave,” “Warning,” and “Daybreak in Alabama.” Sometimes ironic, sometimes bitter, always powerful, the poems in The Panther and the Lash are the last testament of a great American writer who grappled fearlessly and artfully with the most compelling issues of his time.

(PL back cover)

Of the poems listed here as “more pointed than ever before,” “explicitly addressing the sixties,” Hughes's “last testament” on the “issues of his time,” “Motto” was first published in 1951, “Dream Deferred” in 1959, “Still Here” in 1943, “History” in 1934, “Warning” in 1951, and “Daybreak in Alabama” in 1940. By 1992 the poems of our times seem to have eluded time and now stand outside the very history they helped to make.

Obviously Hughes compiled this last volume with the expectation that the older poems would prove as relevant in their own ways as the new ones were. Old and new poems alike deal with racial tensions and the resulting social unrest. Yet the poems reprinted from earlier volumes seem belated, nostalgic, and out of step with the times of The Panther and the Lash. Still, they are the strongest poems in the book. The new poems, while timely in their subject matter, are philosophically confused and stylistically outmoded.

Take, for example, what might be considered the title poems of the book. “Black Panther” and “The Backlash Blues” are two of the only twenty or so poems published for the first time in this volume. “Black Panther” (PL 19) attempts to explain the logic of groups like the militant Black Panther Party, founded in 1966 when Hughes was compiling the book. The poem first imagines the Black Panther as a victim, who is “Pushed into the corner” in a series of periodic phrases by the enemy (“the hobnailed boot”), the desire to live (the “‘I-don't-want-to-die’ cry”), and by the failed rhetoric of the mainstream Civil Rights movement (“‘I don't want to study war no more’”). These ineffective cries are transformed at last into the more militant “Eye for eye.” While the poem seems to want to glorify the panther for “Wear[ing] no disguise,” it concludes with a riddle that indicates the new pose is false as well: “Motivated by the truest / Of the oldest / Lies.” Hughes believed that the Black Power movement merely perpetuated racism in the name of black pride,19 and the poem registers his suspicion that the Black Panthers have become exactly what they claim to oppose. In its emphasis on black victimization, its distrust of militancy, and its retreat at the end into a riddle, “Black Panther” carries no political force. Likewise, “The Backlash Blues” (PL 8-9) takes as its structure a poetic form that the Black Arts leaders had already condemned as irrelevant. LeRoi Jones's infamous line from Dutchman (1964) had asserted, “If Bessie Smith had killed a few white people she wouldn't have needed [the blues],” and Ron Karenga had dismissed the blues as “invalid; for they teach resignation, in a word acceptance of reality—and we have come to change reality.”20 Here once again in this poem, the backlash against militant blacks by whites is finally indistinguishable from black militancy, which is itself a backlash against white racism.

Mister Backlash, Mister Backlash,
What do you think I got to lose?
Tell me, Mister Backlash,
What do you think I got to lose?
I'm gonna leave you, Mister Backlash,
Singing your mean old backlash blues.
You're the one,
Yes, you're the one
Will have the blues.

Both poems, in short, are deeply suspicious of the political developments they herald.

The riddle formula also structures “Stokely Malcolm Me” (PL 94-95) and again reveals that the most pressing question, how to speak to the times, cannot be riddled out.

I have been seeking
what i have never found
what I don't know what i want
but it must be around
since the day before last
but that day was so long
I done forgot when it passed
yes almost forgot
what i have not found
but i know it must be
somewhere around.
you live in the Bronx
so folks say.
did i ever live
up your

The poem is a paean to confusion, beginning with riddles and drifting off into question marks, as though it has nothing left to say but cannot quit trying to say it. The relationship of the speaker to Stokely Carmichael and Malcolm X is posited in the title but not discovered in the poem. Perhaps they once lived in the same neighborhood, but even that possibility amounts to nothing here. One other new poem, “Go Slow” (PL 90-91), ends in a similar fashion, and here again the question marks seem to stand in for the poem's inability to say what it means. It ends:

Am I supposed to forgive
And meekly live
Going slow, slow, slow,
Slow, slow, slow,
Slow, slow,

Ten or twenty years earlier we might have been tempted to read the question mark as a sign of resistance: “How long?” was the early battle cry of the Civil Rights movement, a refusal to wait any longer posing less threateningly as a question. But here in 1967, black militants are no longer troubling themselves with this question or with the posture of supplication. “Go Slow” is hopelessly belated in a time of extreme black militancy, when the only thing still “going slow” in 1967 is this poem.21

One final example will suffice to demonstrate the irresolution of the new poems in Panther. “Ghosts of 1619” (PL 26-27) figures the ghosts of slaves metaphorically resurrected in the persons of the rising black militants. When oppressed people refuse to acquiesce to their enemies, they gain substance and power. However, the concluding stanza wavers, seeming to confuse itself with its own questions.

How can one man be ten?
Or ten be a hundred and ten?
Or a thousand and ten?
Or a million and ten
Are but a thousand and ten
Or a hundred and ten
Or ten—or one—
Or none—
Being ghosts
Of then?

The answer to “How can one man be ten?” is found back in the second stanza, where the poem recognizes that “minority, / Suddenly became majority / (Metaphysically speaking) / In seeking authority”; that is, one person can have the moral authority of ten or of millions if he or she acts in accordance with ethical principles. Likewise, good deeds have their own authenticating power that evil deeds lack. If just one person takes right action, he or she will surely be joined by others. Why the third stanza fails to see the logic of its own formulations is puzzling. The lines appear to grow in confidence as the numbers increase; then suddenly there is a failure of nerve, a grammatical slip (“Or a million and ten / Are but a thousand and ten”—where “Are” should have been its near homophone “Or” and the numbers should have continued to increase), and then all is lost. The metaphysical additions come to nothing, and the ghosts dissolve back into the past.

Too many of the new poems in The Panther and the Lash are tentative, even unfinished, if we take a string of question marks to indicate a failure of vision. They seem to want to participate in the moment, yet they lack commitment and confidence. The volume was heralded then, as now, as Hughes's most militant poetry since the 1930s, but this is only true because the most militant poetry in it was written in the 1930s.

The old poems in the book are consequently more sure of themselves, but they speak of an earlier era and sound sadly out of place in Panther. “Motto” (PL 11), for example, expresses the Beat sensibility of Montage of a Dream Deferred (1951) and cannot possibly be mistaken for a militant political slogan: “Dig and be dug / In return.” Likewise, “Warning” (PL 100), also first published in Montage, offers an extremely belated and nostalgic message for 1967. From its anachronistic use of the term Negro to its rural setting and complacent rhymes, the poem pitifully warns us about a change of mind that has long since happened.

Sweet and docile,
Meek, humble, and kind:
Beware the day
They change their mind!
In the cotton fields,
Gentle the breeze:
Beware the hour
It uproots trees!

In fact, many of the poems in Panther retreat in time like “Warning.” The volume opens with a poem from the 1950s and closes not merely with one written in 1940 but with a poem that harks back to the rural, southern past of an even earlier decade. “Daybreak in Alabama” is a naive and nostalgic poem in which an innocent black speaker imagines an Edenic natural world populated by a beautifully integrated humanity; indeed, it is difficult to distinguish the people from the flowers.

And the scent of pine needles
And the smell of red clay after rain
And long red necks
And poppy colored faces
And big brown arms
And the field daisy eyes
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 everybody with kind fingers
And touching each other natural as dew.

(PL 101)

The Panther and the Lash ends here with this idyll to nature and natural man and thus positions itself, despite its subtitle, well outside its time.

Hughes's last volume of poetry tells us a great deal about making poetry pay. In 1966, he and Knopf thought the time was right for a book of militant poetry,22 however, he clearly did not have enough new poems for a volume. Even the ones he had were weak and hesitant about the 1960s. So he bolstered them with older poems, choosing to reprint many that he had excluded from his Selected Poems probably for the same reasons he was including them now. Several of the older poems are altered to heighten their sense of warning and anger. The word “colored,” for example, is removed from the line “When I get to be a colored composer” in “Daybreak in Alabama.” “Still Here” (PL 32), previously published twice with different degrees of dialect marking (it had been printed in mostly standard English in Jim Crow's Last Stand but then appeared in mostly dialect in 1949 in One-Way Ticket), retains all the dialect features, indicating an unassimilated, perhaps even separatist speaker. “Freedom” (PL 89) appears as the new title of a poem formerly called “Democracy,” and that change registers a subtle shift from the socialist context and a concern with forms of government to the black-liberation context and a complete condemnation of America. “Who but the Lord?” (PL 16-17) adds two suggestive little words to the end of the poem, which transform it from a sarcastic admission of hopelessness to a thinly veiled warning—and with the warning comes new hope.

Being poor and black,
I've no weapon to strike back
So who but the Lord
Can protect me?
          We'll see.

What Hughes had repackaged and commodified in 1967, Vintage Classics is marketing again today. The first Vintage Classics edition of The Panther and the Lash appeared in February 1992, just four months before the Rodney King trial in Los Angeles would force the country to acknowledge that racial tensions had once again reached explosive proportions. This is not Hughes's best book of poems—in fact, it is probably his worst—yet the most militant poems since the 1930s apparently make up in relevance what they lack in artistry. In the wake of the Central Park rape, the Crown Heights killings, the Rodney King and Reginald Denny beatings, and just in time for the Los Angeles uprising, reprinting Hughes's last book is a marketing coup.

Over the course of his writing career, Hughes packaged and repackaged his poems to suppress the perceived anti-Semitism of his second volume, to accommodate the pressures of the McCarthy era, and to embody the program of the Black Arts movement. Yet Hughes describes his poems as bursts of sheer, unmediated inspiration. In The Big Sea he characterizes his process of composition as spontaneous creation that involves almost no revision.

But there are seldom many changes in my poems, once they're down. Generally, the first two or three lines come to me from something I'm thinking about, or looking at, or doing, and the rest of the poem (if there is to be a poem) flows from those first few lines, usually right away. If there is a chance to put the poem down then, I write it down. If not, I try to remember it until I get to a pencil and paper; for poems are like rainbows: they escape you quickly.23

Hughes, too, is like a rainbow, vanishing too quickly into such contrived accounts of himself. It is not surprising, then, that scholars have reproduced his elusiveness, ironically, often in their very efforts to define him. The anthology industry, for example, has canonized first a modernist Hughes, next an integrationist Hughes, then a black-nationalist Hughes, and more recently a Hughes who serves the significantly different demands of curricular multiculturalism.24 Biographers have often constructed an African-American Everyman by suppressing or deferring questions about his political and sexual orientations.25 And even the authors of reference aids, concordances and bibliographies, obscure crucial aspects of the Hughes record even as they presumably work to preserve it.26

Most recently, when filmmaker Isaac Julien attempted to ponder these competing representations of Hughes in his 1989 film Looking for Langston, the executor of the Hughes Estate, George Bass, censored the film for its supposed depiction of Hughes's sexuality (the film is far too impressionistic and exploratory to be considered a depiction of Hughes; in fact, it is motivated by a fascination with the poet's elusiveness rather than by the desire to define him). The Estate succeeded in forcing Julien to cut three poems from the film and, hardly less restrictive, to release an altered version of the film to American audiences, a version that muted the voice of Hughes reading one of his poems in the opening sequence.27

The battle waged by the Estate and Julien exemplifies the problem that Hughes poses for a commodity culture. Behind the commodification of Langston Hughes is the issue of representation, as Julien points out.

[The Estate] can't stand the [homosexual] context of the film. … In effect they're saying, “What you're trying to do is construct [Hughes] as a gay icon and he's a black icon.”28

In “The Black Man's Burden” Henry Louis Gates Jr. proposes that we dispense at last with the “strictures of ‘representation’” that such icons are made of: “The film, we should remember, is called Looking for Langston; it does not promise he will be found. In fact, I think Looking for Langston leads away from the ensolacement of identity politics, the simple exaltation of identity.29” Citing the manifesto on the “new politics of representation” by Isaac Julien and Kobena Mercer, Gates deplores “representation as a practice of depicting and representation as a practice of delegation” (82) and tries to imagine a manner of representation that would be less mimetic than depiction (which places too much confidence in the “real”) and less essentializing than delegation (which makes an individual work or person “stand for” a much more complex and varied group): “It has been argued that we should supplant the vanguardist paradigm of ‘representation’ with the ‘articulation of interests.’ In such a way, we can lighten the ‘burden of representation,’ even if we cannot dispense with it” (82). The difference between representation and articulation might serve as a model for drawing a distinction between commodification and marketing, where commodification entails the packaging of someone like Hughes as a stable icon while the marketing of him might merely involve the distribution of different versions of him—even competing versions. Julien suggests this when he indicates that the problem is not simply representation or mimesis but the ways in which these black images are commodified.

But I'm more interested in questions concerning the commodification of black art and culture. I think questions such as commodification provide a more realistic analysis and critique of black art as we approach the end of the twentieth century. In the film I was pointing out the ways in which black artists were taken up and then thrown out like the ever-shifting tastes of fashion.30

The dominant culture's taste has traditionally demanded a heterosexual, integrationist Hughes who fills the post of the “poet laureate of black America,” as he has often been called. More recently, because of interest in multiculturalism, he has also been recognized for his dialect poems and blues verses. Yet throughout his long and distinguished public sojourn, he has frequently wandered, to use his word, to the margins, where he has represented far more controversial positions.

The poet laureate of black America turns out to be a tremendously elusive figure and becomes only more so as efforts are made to define him. The project of defining and redefining Langston Hughes, a task he himself began, amounts to a continual packaging and repackaging of him. Each time the cultural marketplace attempts to make his poetry pay—by promoting him as a New Negro poet, radical poet, children's poet, black-nationalist poet, folk poet, gay poet—looking for Langston Hughes becomes an increasingly difficult job. If we want Hughes to be the poet of our time, we ought to acknowledge the multiplicity of his work. A capricious, changeful, uncertain, contradictory Hughes would be more difficult to commodify than an exemplary poet—but, by the same token, he would be far more valuable to market.


  1. Arna Bontemps, “Negro Poets, Then and Now,” Phylon 11 (4th quarter 1950): 360.

  2. Langston Hughes, I Wonder as I Wander (1956; New York: Hill and Wang, 1993), pp. 56-57.

  3. Langston Hughes, “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain,” Nation 122 (1926): 692.

  4. Ibid., p. 694.

  5. Robert Bone, review of The Best Short Stories by Negro Writers, ed. Langston Hughes, New York Times Book Review, 5 March 1967, p. 5.

  6. Faith Berry, Langston Hughes: Before and Beyond Harlem (1983; New York: Citadel Press, 1992), p. 321.

  7. For specific instances of such self-censorship, see Berry, Langston Hughes, pp. 53, 105, 126, 183, 197, 257, 294, 296-97, 316, 318-19, and 321.

  8. Quoted in Berry, Langston Hughes, pp. 319, 296.

  9. Arnold Rampersad, The Life of Langston Hughes, 2 vols. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986-88), 2:357, for example.

  10. Arnold Rampersad, introduction to The Big Sea, by Langston Hughes (1940; New York: Hill and Wang, 1993), pp. xvi, xix.

  11. Stanley Schatt, “Langston Hughes: The Minstrel as Artificer,” Journal of Modern Literature 4 (September 1974): 115.

  12. Langston Hughes, “Christ in Alabama,” Contempo, 1 December 1931, front page; Scottsboro Limited: Four Poems and a Play in Verse (New York: Golden Stair Press, 1932), n.p.; The Panther and the Lash (1967; New York: Random House, 1992), p. 37. Subsequent references to The Panther and the Lash appear in the text, abbreviated PL.

  13. Schatt, “Langston Hughes,” p. 118.

  14. Some of the early political poems that were excluded from Selected Poems but included in Panther are “Still Here,” “Christ in Alabama,” “Bible Belt,” “Florida Road Workers,” “Justice,” “Down Where I Am,” “Oppression,” “Color,” “History,” “Democracy” (reprinted as “Freedom”), “Where???” and “Vari-Colored Song.”

  15. Langston Hughes, Selected Poems (1959; New York: Random House, 1974), p. 290.

  16. Rampersad discusses Hughes's uneasy response to the Black Power movement in the chapter “Do Nothing Until You Hear From Me,” Life, esp. 2:407-12.

  17. Dudley Randall, ed., The Black Poets (New York: Bantam Books, 1971), p. 86.

  18. Berry, Langston Hughes, p. 327.

  19. Rampersad, Life, 2:412.

  20. Leroi Jones, Dutchman and the Slave (New York: Morrow Quill Paperbacks, 1964), p. 35; Ron Karenga, “Black Cultural Nationalism,” in The Black Aesthetic, ed. Addison Gayle, Jr. (Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor, 1971), p. 36.

  21. The practice of ending a poem with a piece of punctuation or a nonverbal sign may derive from a poem written in 1937 and also included in Panther, “Elderly Leaders” (7). In it, Hughes employs the dollar sign to indicate that the elderly leaders have sold out to a political system that generates only lies. In this poem, the dollar sign marks a retreat from language into monetary symbol that parallels the retreat from truth to lies.

    Very well paid,
    They clutch at the egg
    Their master's
    Goose laid:

    Even here, where the technique makes some sense, it risks appearing to be a failure of language. In the later poems, the question marks take the place of discourse the poems ought to be able to provide.

  22. Berry, Langston Hughes, p. 327; Rampersad, Life, 2:409.

  23. Hughes, The Big Sea, p. 56.

  24. For a discussion of how the anthology industry has canonized Hughes, see my “Do Right to Write Right: Langston Hughes's Aesthetics of Simplicity,” Twentieth Century Literature 38, no. 4 (Winter 1992): 436-56. In addition to mainstream anthologies, Hughes has been anthologized as a socialist poet in Granville Hicks's Proletarian Literature in the United States (New York: International Publishers, 1935); and as a gay poet in Michael J. Smith's Black Men/White Men: A Gay Anthology (San Francisco: Gay Sunshine Press, 1983).

  25. For an illuminating discussion of homophobia in biographies of Hughes, see Scott Braverman, “Isaac Julien's Looking for Langston: Hughes, Biography and Queer(ed) History,” Cultural Studies 7, no. 2 (May 1993): 311-23. See also Berry, Langston Hughes, app. A, “Breaking Silence: The Meaning of Biographical Truth” (359-67), and app. B, “The Challenge of Access: Archival Materials” (368-76), where Berry wages war against the Hughes Estate and the official biographer, Arnold Rampersad, for suppressing and fabricating information about Hughes's political and sexual orientations.

  26. Though the Preface to Thomas A. Mikolyzk's Langston Hughes: A Bio-Bibliography (New York: Greenwood Press, 1990) claims that “the annotated bibliography includes … virtually every critical piece published throughout the world” (viii), the bibliography does not contain a single reference to works dealing with Hughes's sexuality, many of which were in print well before 1990, when Mikolyzk's book was published. Similarly, Peter Mandelik and Stanley Schatt's A Concordance to the Poetry of Langston Hughes (Detroit: Gale Research, 1975) uses only “the most recent appearance of a poem as the standard edition” (vii) and excludes all of the children's poems from The Langston Hughes Reader; Mikolyzk rightly notes that such practices “eliminated most of the dialect used by Hughes” (113).

  27. For accounts of Julien's conflict with the Hughes Estate, see Lisa Kennedy, “Listening for Langston,” Village Voice, 14 November 1989, p. 49, and “Closeting Langston Hughes,” Village Voice, 10 October 1989, p. 39; and Essex Hemphill, “Looking for Langston: An Interview with Isaac Julien,” in Brother to Brother: New Writings by Black Gay Men, ed. Essex Hemphill (Boston: Alyson, 1991), pp. 174-80.

  28. Qtd. in Kennedy, “Closeting Langston Hughes,” p. 39.

  29. Henry Louis Gates Jr., “The Black Man's Burden,” in Black Popular Culture, ed. Gina Dent (Seattle: Bay Press, 1992), pp. 75, 81.

  30. Hemphill, “Interview with Isaac Julien,” p. 179.

Robert O'Brien Hokanson (essay date December 1998)

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SOURCE: Hokanson, Robert O'Brien. “Jazzing It Up: The Be-bop Modernism of Langston Hughes.” Mosaic: A Journal for the Interdisciplinary Study of Literature 31, no. 4 (December 1998): 61-82.

[In the following essay, Hokanson focuses on Hughes's Montage of a Dream Deferred to examine the influence of jazz on the structure and style of the poet's work.]

Although few topics in literary studies these days are more complex and contested than the concept of “modernism,” it would seem that there remains a consensus that its dominant note is, “Make it new!” Similarly, critics tend to agree that modernist innovation entails breaking down boundaries between the arts, so that musical terms like “canto” and pictorial terms like “imagism” have come to be seen as synonymous with the literary modes of the movement. What seems in turn to have initiated the current revisioning of modernism is the way that the notion of barrier-crossing has also come to include breaking down racial and ethnic boundaries, challenging modernism's exclusive association with Euro-American writers and placing renewed emphasis on other voices, especially the African-American writers of the Harlem Renaissance. With such revisioning, perhaps even occasioning it, there also came the recognition of the need to broaden the music/literary interaction to include African-American musical traditions, particularly jazz.

Within this context, what still needs more attention is the work of Langston Hughes, for it could be argued that no other African-American writer is quite so central to an understanding of how jazz dynamics might operate in poetry and that none so daringly enacts and extends the modernist challenge to “make it new.” What distinguishes Hughes is not merely his departures from the Euro-American modernist tradition but also the extent to which his practice differs from other African-American modernists. The unofficial poet laureate of black America, Hughes's life and work spanned more than a half-century of the modern African-American experience, ranging from the great urban migration and the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s through the stirrings of the Civil Rights and Black Arts movements of the 1960s. A prolific and versatile writer, Hughes published more than 12 volumes of poetry, as well as fiction, drama, essays, and historical studies for adults and children. Across decades and genres, he maintained a commitment to expressing the richness and diversity of African-American life in (and on) its own terms, building a body of work that was both artistically innovative and decidedly “popular” (that is, of and for the people).

In keeping with Hughes's own daring, in this essay I wish to focus not on his early work with African-American musical forms in his already much-discussed first published volume, The Weary Blues (1926), but on his less well known long poem, Montage of a Dream Deferred (1951), which in itself departs from mainstream jazz and taps into the more rebellious mode known as “be-bop.” Although the essence of this work lies in Hughes's intricate blending of a variety of cultural issues and music-literary techniques, for the purpose of analysis I will discuss its major component features in the following manner. First, after a brief overview of the musico-cultural context, I will examine the aesthetic principles that Hughes drew from the jazz tradition generally and be-bop in particular, tracing the impact of this interaction on the structure and style of the poem. I will then consider how Hughes's jazz aesthetic plays out in the nature of the poetic voice of Montage (both in terms of the multiplicity of speakers the poem presents and the stance and status of the poet's voice among them). Finally, I will return to Hughes's relation to modernism, exploring the way that his work constitutes a distinctively “popular” modernism, one that uses jazz to ground its poetic experimentation in the vernacular tradition of African-American culture.

Before I proceed, however, I should clarify some important concepts that are fundamental to my approach to Hughes and his work in Montage of a Dream Deferred. First, in referring to the vernacular tradition of African-American culture I mean primarily the oral and musical expressive practices of a cultural tradition that for centuries was largely non-written. I also mean to suggest the extent to which these cultural practices have maintained a popular base in “the folk,” even as African-American artistic and literary production has grown increasingly professionalized in the 20th century. Second, my understanding of Hughes's adaptation of African-American musical forms in Montage has been profoundly influenced by Henry Louis Gates's notion of a “black Signifyin(g) difference” in which one finds the distinctively “black” quality of African-American literature (xxiv). “Signifyin(g)” is the master trope of Gates's theory of African-American literature, standing for the black revision of standard English signification, intertextual relationships among African-American texts, and an indigenously African-American interpretive approach. I will concentrate on the first dimension of this concept—the sense of signifying as an array of distinctively black expressive practices—in my analysis of the ways Montage draws on jazz for its literary innovations.

The blues, gospel, and jazz are generally regarded as some of the richest manifestations of African-American culture, and it is from black music and the larger black vernacular tradition that Montage draws its boldest experiments in language and form, as Hughes himself explicitly stated in his introductory note to the text:

In terms of current Afro-American popular music and the sources from which it has progressed—jazz, ragtime, swing, blues, boogie-woogie, and be-bop—this poem on contemporary Harlem, like be-bop, is marked by conflicting changes, sudden nuances, sharp and impudent interjections, broken rhythms, and passages sometimes in the manner of the jam session, sometimes the popular song, punctuated by the riffs, runs, breaks, and disc-tortions of the music of a community in transition.1


The significance of this adaptation of musical forms in the poem can hardly be overstated. Be-bop, the most immediate and pervasive embodiment of the jazz tradition in Montage, began in the early 1940s as a revolt against more commercialized forms of jazz, like big-band swing, on the part of such musicians as Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonius Monk, and Charlie Parker, who gathered for jam sessions outside their regular work with swing orchestras. The new music was rooted in the tradition of improvisational jazz, but its dramatic extensions of and departures from jazz conventions soon established be-bop as a “radical” jazz form. Ross Russell, who worked with the legendary saxophonist Charlie Parker as head of Dial Records, described be-bop in terms of a rebellion against the musical status quo in a series of articles written in 1948-49. As he defined it:

Be-bop is music of revolt: revolt against big bands, arrangers, vertical harmonies, soggy rhythms, non-playing orchestra leaders, Tin-Pan Alley—against commercialized music in general. It reasserts the individuality of the jazz musician as a creative artist, playing spontaneous and melodic music within the framework of jazz, but with new tools, sounds, and concepts.


Moreover, in its relation to “traditional” jazz, be-bop can itself be thought of as an African-American modernist form comparable to the Euro-American modernist forms of collage and montage. Russell sensed this, perhaps, in comparing the sometimes hostile reactions against be-bop with the initial response to the work of James Joyce and Arnold Schönberg (188). Similarly, looking back on the be-bop era, in a 1964 essay, novelist and cultural critic Ralph Ellison recalled the impact of the new sound:

It was itself a texture of fragments, repetitive, nervous, not fully formed; its melodic lines underground, secret and taunting; its riffs jeering—“Salt peanuts! Salt peanuts!” Its timbres flat or shrill, with a minimum of thrilling vibrato. Its rhythms were out of stride and seemingly arbitrary, its drummers frozen-faced introverts dedicated to chaos. And in it the steady flow of memory, desire and defined experience summed up by the traditional jazz beat and blues mood seemed swept like a great river from its old, deep bed. We know better now, and recognize the old moods in the new sounds, but what we know is that which was then becoming.


In drawing on be-bop, then, Hughes was not only tapping into the rich vein of the jazz tradition but also registering a moment of tumultuous change in that tradition. This tumult in the world of jazz corresponded with unrest in the wider world, and according to his biographer Arnold Rampersad, Hughes saw in be-bop “the growing fissures in Afro-American culture, the myth of integration and American social harmony jarred by a message of deep discord” (Life 2: 151).

Specifically placing Montage in its musical and social context of 1940s Harlem, Walter Farrell and Patricia Johnson have suggested that be-bop offered Hughes not only a mood but also a form: a way of building a long poem out of a number of shorter poems or phrases (61). According to Steven Tracy, however, the idea of building a long poem from a sequence of shorter pieces did not originate with Hughes, and he attempts to show how the structure of Montage responds in a similar fashion to some of the same kinds of problems confronted by a number of modernist poets in trying to make a long poem that corresponded to their experience (224-25). Agreeing in principle, I would nevertheless argue that the specific experience that Hughes's poem attempts to convey and the particulars of its aesthetic principles do set it apart from the work of “traditional” modernists, whereby it truly breaks new ground for modern poetry. As a key element of what makes Montage a distinctively modernist and African-American text, the nature and extent of its use of aesthetic principles drawn from be-bop and the larger jazz tradition clearly merits more detailed examination.

Originally recorded in 1945, a composition by Charlie Parker entitled “KoKo” demonstrates how be-bop radically departed from the big-band swing that had become the dominant jazz style of the 1940s, and the piece can also serve as an illustration of the aesthetic principles that Hughes employs in Montage. In keeping with the way that Hughes described be-bop in the introduction to his poem, “KoKo” is marked by abrupt, sometimes rapid, shifts in direction, tone, rhythm, and melody. The piece is largely a showcase for Parker's work on alto saxophone, with Dizzy Gillespie playing trumpet in a supporting role along with a bassist, pianist, and drummer. The ensemble opens with a brief passage that suggests a theme or melody which reappears in varied forms throughout the piece. Short solos by Gillespie and Parker and another brief passage by the ensemble follows. Next comes Parker's extended solo—the heart of the piece. He plays fast and faster, looping up and down the scale as the bass keeps up a quick, faint undertone and the cymbals shimmer. Jazz critic Martin Williams aptly describes Parker's rhythmic innovations in this solo that helped define be-bop: “Following a pause, notes fall over and between this beat and that beat: breaking them asunder, robbing them of any vestige of monotony; rests fall where heavy beats once came, now ‘heavy’ beats come between beats and on weak beats” (134). A bombastic drum solo and a longer ensemble passage, which ends abruptly with two notes that sound like a “be-bop,” conclude the number. All this happens in two minutes and 50 seconds. “KoKo,” it turns out, is in part a variation on the jazz standard “Cherokee,” but Parker's “KoKo” is unmistakably original.

As the example of “KoKo” suggests, one may think of be-bop in terms of a set of principles of formal revision and performative improvisation. Like more traditional forms of jazz, be-bop is an eclectic composite of earlier African-American musical forms and styles. Even more significant, be-bop musicians took the jazz tradition of devising variations on standard tunes to lengths that tested the limits of what other musicians and jazz audiences would accept. Jazz critic Marshall Stearns explains that the new music's harmonies sounded like mistakes to a typical Dixieland jazz musician and that its melodies seemed deliberately confusing. But he also notes that many be-bop numbers were in fact based on the chord progressions of standard jazz tunes, such as “I've Got Rhythm,” “Indiana,” and “How High the Moon”: “The piano, guitar, and bass would play the same accompaniment to “Indiana” as they might ordinarily, for example, and the soloist would improvise as usual—but nobody would play the tune. It wasn't exactly new to jazz, but bop made a practice of featuring variations upon melodies that were never stated” (229). This kind of virtuosity—itself a form of signifying—would seem to be based on the assumption that the “original” melody is understood and that the piece can therefore proceed from it. Distinctive instrumental styles and techniques also contributed to be-bop's revision of more traditional music. For example, after stating that Charlie Parker was jazz's “greatest inventor of melodies,” Williams is quick to add that a “typical” Parker phrase is likely to be much the same as one that had been employed by previous generations of jazz musicians. “The secret,” Williams explains, “is of course that Parker inflects, accents, and pronounces that phrase so differently that one simply may not recognize it” (127).

Such distinctive inflections, accents, and changes in “pronunciation” of black vernacular forms are characteristic of Hughes's writing as well—particularly in Montage. Like be-bop, the poem reworks “standards” from the African-American musical and broader expressive traditions, pushing them farther than previous poetic practice had allowed in its composite of diverse poetic modes and styles and its variations on standard musical and linguistic forms, such as blues lyrics and the dozens. Similarly, the poem replicates other be-bop departures from improvisational and performative conventions, such as the foregrounding of the individual performer/artist in relation to the group and its emphasis on the detached, “cool” approach to performance that defied stereotypes of the black entertainer. In all this, be-bop provided Hughes with a way of organizing a nonlinear, multiple-voiced long poem that was grounded in African-American culture and offered a distinctively African-American means of disrupting conventional poetic language and form.

If we look at Montage of a Dream Deferred in the context of be-bop and the larger black vernacular tradition, its innovative force also comes into sharper focus. As its title suggests, the poem presents a rapid sequence of scenes and images that reiterate “The boogie-woogie rumble / Of a dream deferred” (Collected Poems 388). In myriad ways Montage records, explains, and enacts the undercurrent of frustrated hopes that runs through the lives of black Americans in the aftermath of World War II. This disparity between the ideal and the reality is the central thread of the poem, and it is underscored throughout the text by the repetition of the phrases “dream deferred” and “ain't you heard,” which insist that the reader recognize this fact of African-American life.

The original 1951 edition of the poem is 75 pages long and consists of 91 pieces set off from each other by individual headings or subtitles. An aural and visual montage, the poem shifts, sometimes abruptly, sometimes by thematic transition, from one image, voice, or vignette to the next through six unnumbered sections of varying length. Ranging from one line to three pages, the distinct pieces can be called “poems” for convenience, but they clearly function as parts of a larger whole. It is particularly important to note the structure and format of the first edition of the poem because the versions of it published in The Langston Hughes Reader (1958) and the Selected Poems of Langston Hughes (1959) tend to “normalize” its typography and format, making it appear more like a series of independent poems and less like a single long poem. Although in the recently published Collected Poems of Langston Hughes the typography and format are much the same as that of the Selected Poems, this edition does reaffirm the status of Montage as a single poem by shading the edges of the pages of this section.

One striking parallel with the composite form and revisionary approach of be-bop is the way that the poem itself includes specific adaptations of standard African-American musical forms. These standard forms, rather than, as in jazz, specific standard tunes, serve as the basis for new compositions in the poem. Montage includes both pieces that work within the conventions of particular forms, such as the traditional blues stanza form of “Blues at Dawn,” and pieces that qualify or expand on the forms themselves, such as “Same in Blues” and what Tracy calls the “boogie poems” of Montage—a set of pieces scattered throughout the poem that play off the conventions of boogie-woogie. As Tracy describes it, “Same in Blues” modifies a traditional blues stanza by changing a key word in the refrain (165-66). Consider here the opening stanzas:


I said to my baby,
Baby, take it slow.
I can't, she said, I can't!
I got to go!
                                        There's a certain
                                        amount of traveling
                                        in a dream deferred.
Lulu said to Leonard,
I want a diamond ring.
Leonard said to Lulu,
You won't get a goddam thing!
                                        A certain
                                        amount of nothing
                                        in a dream deferred.


The refrain pattern not only encourages the “audience” to repeat the refrain with the “singer” in the traditional manner but also provides more detached generalizations on the situations depicted. By separating the refrains from the body of the piece and highlighting judgments and summations of the episodes in the stanzas with key words (traveling, nothing), the poem works inside and outside of the blues tradition, just as a be-bop composition plays off traditional jazz forms.

In a similar fashion, the boogie poems bring the forms and rhythms of boogie-woogie into the poem's composite structure. A driving, blues-based piano style that emerged in the 1920s and remained popular into the 1940s, boogie-woogie is marked by the interplay between improvisations played on the treble keys with the right hand and repeated phrases played on the bass keys with the left hand. Tracy suggests that the boogie poems replicate the playing of a boogie-woogie pianist, “combining the rumbling infectious bass beat and rhythm with treble variations and improvisations” (234). “Dream Boogie,” the opening piece of the poem, sets up this juxtaposition in its first stanza:


Good morning, daddy!
Ain't you heard
The boogie-woogie rumble
Of a dream deferred?
Listen closely:
You'll hear their feet
Beating out and beating out a—
                              You think
                              It's a happy beat?


This use of a “boogie-woogie rumble” to convey the deferred dreams and double consciousness of African-Americans echoes throughout the poem in the repetition of the phrases “ain't you heard” and “dream deferred” in and beyond the “boogie poems” themselves. In its manipulation of the blues form and its adaptation of the interplay between the rumbling bass and tingling treble of boogie-woogie, Montage clearly demonstrates the creative revision and manipulation of standard forms that be-bop allows for, and, in fact, demands.

As the pervasiveness of the “boogie-woogie rumble” in Montage suggests, the dynamics of jazz and signifying inform the poem's overall structure and aesthetic principles in ways that go far beyond specific adaptations of musical forms in particular passages. The piece “What? So Soon!” is a short but striking example of the be-bop aesthetic that runs throughout the entire poem:


I believe my old lady's
pregnant again!
Fate must have
some kind of trickeration
to populate the
cullud nation!
                              Comment against Lamp Post
You call it fate?


The format, spacing, and typography of this piece and others like it adds to the dynamism and fluidity of the poem's form, underscoring the role of distinctive individual pieces as parts of a larger whole. Like jazz solos, these pieces are often in dialogue with each other, as in the ironic commentary that the two-line phrase of “Comment against Lamp Post” provides on the speaker's opening exclamations in “What? So Soon!” This short reply both serves as a signifying retort and puts the speaker's complaint into a broader, more profound context. The multiple dimensions of this simple exchange—as overheard speech, statement on the circumstances of black life, and comment on individual responsibility (or the lack of it)—is typical of Hughes's vernacular style throughout Montage.

Lines like the “Figurette” section of “What? So Soon!” punctuate the shift from one piece or sequence of pieces to the next in the same way brief “tags” signal the end of jazz or blues numbers. Yet, as in improvised jazz, the connections between one voice and the next are often tight enough in Montage that despite abrupt changes in the speaker and tone it is difficult to say exactly where one sequence definitely ends and another begins. “What? So Soon!” for example, is preceded by a section entitled “Numbers,” the ambiguous pledge of a gambler to go straight once he (or she) hits it big, and followed by the “Motto” of a cool be-bop cat. Although distinct, these other voices are not so different from those of “What? So Soon!” just as the way Hughes knits them together underscores what they share: hopes and concerns about money, living to get the most out of the moment, and a signifying sensibility that is evident in a sense of irony and a gift for turning a phrase.

As the “What? So Soon!” sequence illustrates, the overall structure of the poem recalls the organization of such earlier modernist long poems as The Waste Land and Hugh Selwyn Mauberly, which also aspire to the form of collage or montage. Like these poems, Montage depends more on thematic and associative connections than narrative or chronology for its structure. In Montage, however, it is jazz and the signifying voices of the African-American tradition that provide Hughes with the kind of broad and deep collective foundation that T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound aimed for in their references to classical mythology and the monuments of Western culture. The collective and open-ended improvisatory quality that Montage gains from the black vernacular is significantly different from the associative leaps of the “traditional” modernist long poems of writers like Eliot and Pound, which continue to evoke notions of formal closure even as they pursue more individualized and subjective associative connections.

The discontinuous, nonlinear form of Montage not only mirrors the musical and social dissonance of the be-bop years but also reflects the deeper structures of the jazz tradition. In terms of jazz, the poem can be thought of as a sequence of distinctive voices that play off each other while building a free-form, improvisational whole. The sequence of pieces “Evening Song,” “Chord,” and “Fact” is a further illustration of this dynamic:


A woman standing in the doorway
Trying to make her where-with-all:
Come here, baby, darlin'!
Don't you hear me call?
If I was anybody's sister,
I'd tell her, Gimme a place to sleep.
But I ain't nobody's sister.
I'm just a poor lost sheep.
Mary, Mary, Mary,
Had a little lamb.
Well, I hope that lamb of Mary's
Don't turn out like I am.


Shadow faces
In the shadow night
Before the early dawn
Bops bright.


There's been an eagle on a nickel,
An eagle on a quarter, too,
But there ain't no eagle
On a dime.


In the space of one page, the poem shifts from the opening juxtaposition of the voices of a prostitute and a more reflective speaker to the imagistic lines of “Chord” and then to the signifying aphorism “Fact.” Again and again throughout the poem, individual voices come forward to highlight distinctive nuances and perspectives from the Harlem that the poem represents, but the individual voices (and the poet's voice) remain rooted in a communal context, resulting in a poetic version of the collective improvisations of jazz.

It is in the process of this interplay—a signifying practice of repetition and revision—that what Charles Hartman calls the “dialogic understanding” of a jazz aesthetic is most evident. Hartman explains that the key principles of jazz that relate to poetry include not only voice and improvisation but also ideas about performance and the kind of conversational call-and-response that jazz's language of repetition and revision entails (146). Similarly, William Harris underscores the crucial role of revision and parody in jazz (particularly through repetition and inversion) in outlining the “jazz aesthetic” of Amiri Baraka, one of a younger generation of African-American poets who returned to jazz forms in the 1960s. Such perspectives on jazz and poetry remind us that even more than images and stanza structures, what be-bop jazz offered Hughes was an array of aesthetic principles rooted in the black vernacular. Concepts like these can help us make more substantive connections between jazz and the poetry of Montage, and they enable us to pursue the implications of this relationship more fully.

Much of Montage consists of dramatic monologues and dialogues spoken by a cross-section of Harlem blacks, and the poem's foregrounding of individual voices in a communal context is a major manifestation of the dynamics of jazz in Montage. Yet the multitude of African-American voices represented in the poem, and Hughes's handling of them, also demonstrates the poem's engagement with the signifying tradition of the black vernacular, which includes and extends beyond the realm of music. The signifying voices of Montage illustrate the verbal dexterity and rhetorical skill of its African-American speakers, and Hughes's commitment to this “collective improvisation” has important implications for the poem's relation to the vernacular and the poet's relation to his people. The depth and breadth of Hughes's commitment to rendering distinctive African-American voices indicate that he, too, is engaged in what Gates has described as the “search of the black subject for a textual voice” in the African-American literary tradition (169). The multiple speakers, monologues, and dialogues of Montage play off each other like the solos in a be-bop performance, but they also swell into a larger, communal voice. Like its manipulation of black musical forms, this play of voices itself disrupts conventional literary form, adding another layer to Hughes's African-American modernism.

The varied voices of Montage quite literally make it what Gates has called a “speakerly text.” For Gates, Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God is a prime example of a text that “enable[s] a multiplicity of narrative voices to assume control of the text” in its pursuit of a black textual voice (196). As a non-narrative poem, Montage is free from the strictures of a narrator, protagonist, or plot and can concentrate more exclusively on a “speakerly” play of voices. These voices also represent the black subject's quest for a textual voice on a broader, more fully communal scale rather than in individual terms. While Hurston's novel centers on Janie's gaining her own voice, Hughes's poem focuses on amplifying the voices that the black community of Harlem already has.

The way that Montage presents not only the variations of a single voice or persona but also the speakerly play of a variety of voices in a communal context is clear from sequences like the following:


don't let your dog
curb you!


I don't give a damn
For Alabam'
Even if it is my home.


I was born here,
that's no lie, he said,
right here beneath God's sky.
I wasn't born here, she said,
I come—and why?
Where I come from
folks work hard
all their lives
until they die
and never own no parts
of earth nor sky.
So I come up here.
Now what've I got?
She lifted up her lips
in the dark:
The same old spark!


Five distinct speakers make up this passage and only the last of them corresponds to what might be considered the authorial or “poetic” voice of the poem. A sense of the depth and texture of Harlem life, particularly the contrast between Harlem natives and migrants from the South, emerges from the interaction of these five voices. The hip, aphoristic “Warning” about self-effacement and the blunt “Croon” of the native of Alabama stake out what in “New Yorkers” becomes the opposition between the apparently autonomous, Whitmanian “I” of the male speaker and the more materially grounded, ironic female voice that responds to him. Typical of Montage, the authorial voice concludes the piece with a signifying punch line, which at once celebrates and calls attention to the superficiality of such a resolution given the profound differences in outlook among Harlem blacks.

The monologues and dialogues of Montage function like improvised solos and duets, emphasizing the distinctiveness and particularity of individual voices against a collective background. In this, they also can be thought of in terms of what Houston Baker calls “blues moments”—moments when African-American voices “achieve a resonant, improvisational, expressive dignity” in a communal context (Blues 13). By presenting African-American voices in dialogue and then making dialogues out of monologues, the poem insists on both the “expressive dignity” of the individual voices that it represents and their larger communal context. Again, this quality may bring to mind canonical modernist texts that experiment with multiple voices, but in Montage the sound and the structure of these voices is distinctively black.

In its theme, scope, and style, Montage epitomizes the work of a self-described “social poet” whose ear was finely tuned to the interplay of voices that make up a larger, communal voice, and the play of black voices represented in Montage demonstrates the poem's aspirations toward orchestrating a collective black voice that maintains the differences among its speakers. In the tradition of the black vernacular and jazz, Montage calls up and calls on a communal voice (a literary collective improvisation) but remains committed to the diversity of discrete, particular voices rather then attempting to totalize or generalize from them. In this way, Montage defies conventions that tie poetry to a single, central consciousness and would have it aspire to a single, unitary voice.

A direct and fundamentally important result of the role of jazz and the black vernacular in Hughes's work is the implications it has for the stance and status of the author in the text. Throughout the poem, what might be considered the poet's voice is muted, and the poem's wider play of voices dominates the text. The difference between the poet's voice and the other voices in the poem is registered dramatically in passages like these:


Jack, if you got to be a rounder
Be a rounder right—
Just don't let mama catch you
Makin' rounds at night.


Face like a chocolate bar
full of nuts and sweet.
Face like a jack-o'-lantern,
candle inside.
Face like a slice of melon,
grin that wide.


In these consecutive pieces, the poem shifts abruptly from what could be overheard speech (perhaps that of a woman) to an imagistic, “poetic” treatment of faces on the street.

The speech rendered in “Street Song,” with its colloquial terms (“Jack,” “rounder,” “mama”) and signifying rhyme, seems to be the opposite of the detached poetic perspective of “125th Street,” which consists of a string of similes that recall the imagism of poems like Pound's “In a Station of the Metro.” Yet within the difference in style and point of view between “Street Song” and “125th Street,” continuities remain. The terms of Hughes's “imagism” are thoroughly popular, evoking even the stereotype of watermelon-eating blacks and concluding with a rhyme that echoes the rhyme scheme of “Street Song.” Another poem, “Wonder,” combines this popular imagism with a “folk” voice:


Early blue evening.
Lights ain't come on yet.
                              Looky yonder!
                              They come on now!


Characteristic of Montage, “125th Street” and “Wonder” indulge in what may be cliched or even stereotypical expressions and transform such material into something more. As “125th Street” shows, the poet's voice is distinct from the multitude of other voices in the poem but not divorced from or condescending toward them. Hughes brings a poetic perspective to Harlem, but even his most poetic rendering of it is steeped in folk images and language.

The stance and status of the poet's voice in Montage also relates back to be-bop's emphasis on a “cool” attitude and approach to performance. Consistent with the “cool” style, the poet's voice in the poem, when present, has a detached quality. Arthur Davis has examined this stance in Hughes's work generally, and nowhere is it more apparent than in Montage, where Hughes maintains this “cool” even when the voice that seems to be the poet's conveys anger or bitterness. For example, in “Movies” the speaker concludes:


laughs at me,
so I laugh


The companion piece, “Not a Movie,” matter-of-factly summarizes the brutality that drove a man from the South to Harlem. He arrives with six knots on his head, but “there ain't no Ku Klux / on a 133rd” (396). The poem returns to a critical perspective, with touches of humor, in “Shame on You,” which concludes:


A movie house in Harlem named after Lincoln,
Nothing at all named after John Brown.
Black people don't remember
any better than white.
If you're not alive and kicking,
shame on you!


When the poet's voice emerges from the chorus of Harlem voices, it is most often in this ironic and sadly comic vein, providing a critical commentary on life in Harlem and the United States at large. The varying distance between author and speaker throughout the poem—and such other variations as shifts between first and third person, degrees of self-consciousness, uses of folk material, and episodes of ironic commentary—show the breadth of the range of voices that comprise Montage.

Instead of an omnipotent, Whitmanian “I” or shorer of fragments like Eliot's speaker, Montage presents the poet's voice(s) as a pervasive but not a commanding presence in a chorus of diverse voices. This may in part reflect the ironies of the relationship between a black speaker/author and the “white” language that he/she must employ, since, as Gates asks, “how can the black subject posit a full and sufficient self in a language in which blackness is a sign of absence?” (169). Hughes may to some extent be “unable” to project the voice of a central subject—in a post-structuralist sense—in Montage. Yet the lack of a strong, central “I” in the text seems to be as much a positive as a negative quality. The poem can be understood as positively refraining from projecting a single authoritative voice in favor of the communal play of voices it presents. In this respect, Montage points toward a sense of identity that is not necessarily predicated on the individual self. By defining and nurturing a communal sense of identity, the poem wrests a measure of agency from a history of objectification and victimization.

A key aspect of the authorial stance in the poem is Hughes's handling of what are sometimes called “folk materials,” which is also a point on which he has been criticized, both in regard to Montage specifically and his work in general. Initially, there were objections to the allegedly sordid and unflattering image of blacks, his choice of themes and use of black vernacular language, and more recently it has been argued or implied that Hughes's use of popular forms displays a lack of artistic seriousness or depth. What one needs to understand, however, is that Hughes's use of folk material not only makes sense in terms of what his poetry aims to accomplish but is in fact essential. Further, it can be argued that Hughes is particularly successful in representing “the folk” because of the extent to which he lets the vernacular shape his writing. Hazel Carby notes that Hughes avoids the pitfalls of objectifying or romanticizing the folk because of the way he uses the blues to convey a communal sensibility in social rather than individual terms. Similarly, David Chinitz has argued that Hughes's “primitivism” is a much more complex—and much richer—matter than has been previously acknowledged. In Montage in particular, Hughes's manipulation of folk language and forms is integral to the logic of the poem. Like its diverse voices, the poem employs folk material in a variety of ways, ranging from relatively direct, unmediated representations to subtle adaptations of and commentaries on it. In this way, the poem also reflects back on the complex relationship between jazz and the vernacular sources from which it arose.

Rather than using Euro-American poetic models, Hughes turned to the tradition of black music and speech for aesthetic principles and expressive forms, and nothing so well suggests the relationship between identity and writing that shapes Montage as the words of the black student in “Theme for English B”:


It's not easy to know what is true for you or me
at twenty-two, my age. But I guess I'm what
I feel and see and hear. Harlem, I hear you:
hear you, hear me—we two—you, me, talk on this page.
(I hear New York, too.) Me—who?


Here Hughes suggests the problematic nature of the ideal of universality for a “Harlem” writer and presents an image of that “writing subject” as being constituted by and in dialogue with the world—particularly the black voices—around him. It is in this way that the black student's page is “colored” by his identity and social context. Montage is thus a prime example of how, as Jean Wagner aptly puts it, Hughes lived “in terms of the external world and in unison with it, making himself one with the community and refusing to stand apart as an individual” (393). This quality is a crucial element of Hughes's popular modernism, and it also suggests what the relationship between jazz and poetry in his work still has to offer contemporary poets and readers.

Montage of a Dream Deferred figures the relationship between author and text differently than most “traditional” modernist works at the same time that it pursues an alternative language, structure, and theme rooted in African-American traditions. Not only does the poem “make it new” in terms of African-American culture, it also offers a representation of the author as one among many voices—constituted by and reconstituting the culture from which and for which he speaks. The absence of a strong personal or individual identity is a given in the poem, and the poet neither despairs over its loss or projects its return or fulfillment. Instead, Hughes engages in a dialogue with the African-American culture that provides his sense of identity, both celebrating and critiquing it.

The relationship between jazz and Hughes's poetry has profound implications for our understanding not only of his work in isolation but also of the aesthetic and cultural phenomena of modernism and the Harlem Renaissance. Like the other great innovators of the Harlem Renaissance, Hughes blends the black vernacular with modernist experimentation. As yet, however, the nature and value of Hughes's contribution to an African-American modernism has been underappreciated. His unique combination of a jazz aesthetic and an unreservedly popular orientation—seen in the extent to which he allows vernacular voices and forms to shape his poetry—suggests powerful ways of bringing the individual and the communal, the poet and his people, together. In this, Hughes's voice is one that still needs to be heard by literary historians who aim to understand modernism and the Harlem Renaissance and by poets who aim to speak to, for, and with their people, whoever they might be.

Such a “modernizing” of Hughes may at first seem willful, but a careful reading of his work reveals that he was engaged in a modernist enterprise of his own. Although Hughes was indeed critical of the high-modernist style of Melvin Tolson, with its “foreign words and footnotes” (Nielsen 242), rather than being anti-modernist, Hughes's work represents a distinct version of African-American modernism. Tolson and of course Ellison brilliantly assert their place in the modern tradition, transforming it from “within” through their mastery of a high-modernist style and the black vernacular. Although Hughes also knew the work of Pound and James Joyce, in his own writing he was almost always the populist “outsider,” and his work relates to the idea of “Literature” differently than most canonical modernist texts. He described himself as a “literary sharecropper,” for whom writing was a job and an art (Bontemps-Hughes Letters 292), and in a text like Montage of a Dream Deferred Hughes draws less on the centuries of literary tradition behind him than on the vivid life around him. Overall, his work is marked by what Karen Jackson Ford calls an “aesthetic of simplicity”—one which puts aside the complex conventions of Poetry in order to get his message across with directness, humor, and signifying wit (454). This “unliterary” quality may be a reason Hughes's work has not figured prominently in the sophisticated theories of black literature developed by critics like Gates and Baker. Yet with the central role that these scholars ascribe to the black vernacular, the popular orientation of texts like Montage suggests that Hughes's writing should be all the more important. In his own way, Hughes certainly engages in what Nielsen calls the “deterritorialization” of modernism by “rearticulat[ing] modernism as a virtuoso African-American form” (250) and in the “deformation of mastery” that Baker finds in the work of the African-American modernists who appropriated the black vernacular in their effort to re-make “white” language (Modernism 50). If he himself had been inclined to such theoretical musings, Hughes would no doubt have found simpler terms for his take on modernism, perhaps something like “jazzing it up.”

Those critics who have examined Hughes's relation to modernism locate his particular contribution in his ability to combine a modern consciousness with an abiding racial consciousness. Rampersad, for example, finds this quality in the blues poems of The Weary Blues (1926) and Fine Clothes to the Jew (1927) (“Langston Hughes”), and R. Baxter Miller has written of Hughes's attempts to fuse the individual and the collective in the long poem Ask Your Mama: Twelve Moods for Jazz (1961) (“Framing”). A major text from the middle of Hughes's career, Montage goes beyond the earlier blues poems in scope and anticipates the ways that Ask Your Mama conveys the images and energies of a historical moment. Like other writers of the Harlem Renaissance and since, Hughes uses black linguistic and musical forms to convey a sense of the collective memory and voice of African-Americans. But it is his thoroughly popular orientation—the extent to which he allows vernacular voices and forms to shape his poetry—that makes Hughes's work distinctively his own. If we are to move toward a three-dimensional image of Hughes, today's continuing re-examination of the ideas about “literariness” and aesthetic value—handed down from Euro-American modernism and the New Criticism—needs to account fully for the ways he brings poetry and jazz together.

In Montage Hughes brings the dynamics of jazz and the black vernacular tradition to the broad canvas of the long poem—the form that became the ultimate measure of poetic achievement for a generation of modernist poets. He also demonstrates how he kept his ear for the vernacular current, drawing on the sounds of a particular moment in the history of Harlem and black America. The be-bop era of the 1940s was a time when it became clear that the “dream revived” by the war effort would once again be “deferred,” and, as James de Jongh notes, Montage captures the sea-change of Harlem's transition from black cultural capital to urban ghetto (100). In Montage, Hughes's engagement with the black vernacular—both in terms of expressive forms and lived experience—results in a text that is shaped by the dynamics of jazz and its play of signifying black voices. The poem thus differs from some more “traditional” modernist long poems (such as The Waste Land, Pound's Cantos, or William Carlos Williams's Paterson) in the particular structure it adopts and in the governing aesthetic principles of that structure. The African-American musical tradition (and be-bop in particular) provides Montage with a form that challenges conventional Euro-American ideas about aesthetic unity, the status of the text, and the role of the author—ideas that linger even in some modernist revisions of received forms.

The poetic stance that Hughes adopts in Montage is also crucial to his particular contribution to an African-American modernism. His willingness (and ability) to let the sounds and shapes of jazz and the black vernacular guide his poetry results in modernist experimentation that maintains a popular grounding. In this way, the jazz aesthetic and signifying voices of Montage succeed in meaningfully engaging the vernacular on its own terms. This unreservedly popular orientation is a valuable complement to the more self-consciously intellectual writing of such African-American modernists as Ellison and Tolson. Beyond this, Hughes's work continues to offer a vibrant model for all contemporary poets who would aspire to “popular” poetry—poetry that speaks with a broader community in its own language and about its deepest concerns—and it testifies to the rich possibilities of interarts relationships. When Hughes brings the “boogie-woogie rumble” of jazz to the poetry of Montage, the black vernacular sounds through literary tradition, a sound that continues to reverberate for us today.


  1. Unless otherwise indicated, all quotations from Montage will refer to the version published in Collected Poems. In these quotations, all italics are Hughes's own.

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———. Montage of a Dream Deferred. New York: Holt, 1951.

———. “My Adventures as a Social Poet.” Good Morning Revolution: Uncollected Social Protest Writings by Langston Hughes. Ed. with Intro. by Faith Berry. New York: Hill, 1973. 135-43.

———, and Arna Bontemps. Arna Bontemps-Langston Hughes Letters: 1925-1967. Ed. Charles H. Nichols. New York: Paragon, 1990.

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———. The Life of Langston Hughes. 2 Vols. New York: Oxford UP, 1986, 1988.

Russell, Ross. “Bebop.” The Art of Jazz: Essays on the Nature and Development of Jazz. Ed. Martin T. Williams. New York: Oxford UP, 1959. 187-213.

Stearns, Marshall W. The Story of Jazz. 1956. New York: Oxford UP, 1972.

Tracy, Steven C. Langston Hughes and the Blues. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1988.

Wagner, Jean. Black Poets of the United States from Paul Laurence Dunbar to Langston Hughes. Trans. Kenneth Douglas. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1973.

Williams, Martin. The Jazz Tradition. New York: Oxford UP, 1970.

Rebecca L. Walkowitz (essay date December 1999)

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SOURCE: Walkowitz, Rebecca L. “Shakespeare in Harlem: The Norton Anthology, ‘Propaganda,’ Langston Hughes.” Modern Language Quarterly 60, no. 4 (December 1999): 495-519.

[In the following essay, Walkowitz explores Hughes's employment of poetry as a means of social and political discourse.]

Politics in any country in the world is dangerous. For the poet, politics in any country in the world had better be disguised as poetry. … Politics can be the graveyard of the poet. And only poetry can be his resurrection.

—Langston Hughes

Mr. Shakespeare in Harlem
Mr. Theme for English B
Preach on
kind sir
of Death, if it please—

—Kevin Young

Langston Hughes proposes a twofold disguise: he will conceal “politics” in “poetry,” and he will suggest that poetry is constitutive of a politics it is often thought to transcend. For Hughes, there are multiple concealments in play: the masking of politics as poetry and the pretense that politics, because it looks like poetry, has been masked. Hughes wanted his writing to be recognized as “art,” and at the same time he sought to show that aesthetic standards are shaped by social institutions and racialized principles of judgment. These competing impulses—the desire for acceptance within a universal tradition and the desire to assert an African American vernacular regularly demeaned by universalist protocols—were crucial to the poetics that Hughes developed, and they have been formative to the literary culture that he helped animate.

The editors of The Norton Anthology of African American Literature describe this double consciousness and also reproduce it: they align their project with the singular urgencies of African American history even as they associate its purpose with the common “task” of anthology making.1 For Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Nellie Y. McKay, the anthology is a “celebration” of writing, but the professional recognition of African American literature, culminating in the publication of the Norton, constitutes a political as well as an aesthetic triumph (xxxvi). “The resistance to the literary merits of black literature,” Gates and McKay argue, “has its origins … in the peculiar institution of slavery” (xxxiv). Although they are explicit about the stakes of writing in the African American past, Gates and McKay are rather circumspect about the politics of the anthology they have conceived. Like Hughes, they articulate a style of critique by disguising the conditions of its practice.

Having thanked M. H. Abrams, general editor of The Norton Anthology of English Literature, for his inspiration and advice, Gates and McKay wryly integrate their predecessor's aim for his Norton into their aim for theirs: the volume necessary to “the indispensable courses that introduce students to the unparalleled excellence and variety of English literature” in Abrams's preface becomes the anthology “indispensable for ‘the indispensable courses that introduce students to the unparalleled excellence and variety’ of African American literature” in Gates and McKay's (xxxvii).2 The latter preface repeats Abrams's uncompromising superlative both to canonize the new anthology's own texts and to ironize the exclusive rhetoric of canon formation. Gates and McKay, in their turn, offer a poetics of indirection: their anthology contests an aesthetic hierarchy in which it nevertheless participates.

To be sure, whatever irony Gates and McKay may direct toward Abrams's language, the claim for “excellence” has a distinctive genealogy in the African American anthology tradition. From the important volumes of the 1920s by Robert T. Kerlin, Countee Cullen, and V. F. Calverton to later volumes by Langston Hughes and Arna Bontemps to recent collections by Clarence Major and Keith Gilyard, the anthology itself, and its place in a line of prior anthologies, often serves—as it does for Gates and McKay—to construct and confirm the “tradition” that justifies its publication.3 James Weldon Johnson, whose Book of American Negro Poetry (1922) many later anthologists cite as an archetype of the genre, famously writes a forty-eight-page history of “creative genius” to account for the representative selection that will follow: the whole and the part, African American literature and its necessary anthology, emerge at one and the same time.4 With Johnson's text still in circulation, Cullen's volume of “verse by Negro poets” (1927) opens with a catalog of recent predecessors of “five years,” “four years,” “three years” (ix); Cullen cites the concentration and quantity of anthologies to affirm the quality of work that these texts present. Only eight years later, in the preface to the revised edition of his Negro Poets and Their Poems (1935), Kerlin submits his collection and those like it—starting with Johnson and including ten or fifteen others—as “abundant evidence” for the “great poetic activity on the part of young Negroes” (xix-xx). By the time Gilyard introduces “contemporary African American poetry” (1997), he can easily punctuate his own genealogical narrative with thirteen different anthologies of poetry alone, which he offers not as a comprehensive list but as a representative one (xix-xxii). The list creates the community and the tradition by which Gilyard measures the contributions of the poems he selects.

Alongside the history of African American anthology production, Gates and McKay embrace the Norton series as another “continuity” in which their volume participates. Indeed, the African American literary tradition inaugurates its aesthetic specificity in the negotiation, like this one, between “standard” and particularist identifications. Like all traditions, what counts as standard also has a history, and its content changes with the times: one may notice that the unparalleled excellence repeated by Gates and McKay in their preface is fairly new to the Abrams text; the word unparalleled does not appear in the preface of the fifth edition of 1986,5 but only in the sixth edition of 1993. The claim for superlative merit inscribes a “Norton tradition,” and it registers the contentious proliferation and intervention of new anthologies in it. It seems possible that the structural “parallel” between “English” and “African American” anthologies occasioned the “original” language on which the referential wit of Gates and McKay depends.6

The reaction to proliferating Nortons, although muted in the case I have described, has reached more audible peaks in the pages of some magazines, where the undisputed cultural capital and curricular influence of the volumes fuel the scrutiny of its recent manifestations. Kevin Meehan, in a book review full of respectful reservations, deems the Norton anthology series “one of the main tools of canon formation in U.S. literature curriculums.” With an “editorial policy of belletrism,” Meehan argues, The Norton Anthology of African American Literature chooses the literature of “self-contemplation” over the literature of historical critique.7 According to their stated “principles of selection,” Gates and McKay favor an emphasis on the African American literary tradition as a “formal entity,” represented by “works of such a quality that they merit preservation and sustain classroom interest” (xxxvi-xxxvii). That Gates and McKay conform their selections not only to their sense of the African American tradition but also to their sense of the Norton lineage is evident when one looks, by way of example, at the preface to the landmark Norton Anthology of Literature by Women, published by Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar in 1985. This anthology is arguably the prototype, at least among Nortons, for The Norton Anthology of African American Literature; it is the first Norton collection to reflect the curricular developments through which “literature by women” or “African American literature” have become legitimate fields of study in the academy.

The two Nortons share a commitment to the project of disciplinary revision and multiculturalism, but their editorial practices and public receptions have been markedly different. Where Meehan criticizes Gates and McKay for perpetuating the “canonizing project embodied in the Norton” (44), Denis Donoghue roundly attacks Gilbert and Gubar for selections that are “political and sociological” and that exemplify “range of experience” rather than “literary merit.”8 Whether or not it is true, or even “lamentable,” that Gilbert and Gubar turn away from “literary merit,” their volume, in both its first and its second (1996) editions, diverges from Abrams's example in some basic structural ways: they thank Abrams for his “wise counsel,” but they do not reiterate his preface or his ideals,9 they do not mobilize an editorial board (Gates and McKay have nine editors; Abrams by now has thirteen); the front of the volume lists Gilbert and Gubar by name and institution, but it forgoes the professorial titles—the trappings of “excellence”—that typically accompany the Norton pedigree. Ultimately, however, Gilbert and Gubar share with Gates and McKay an implicit discretion about these choices and these signifiers; neither pair remarks on, either to repeat or to reject, the “excellence” and the exclusions that the Norton tradition has helped establish.10

Langston Hughes was also an anthologist, but it is as a poet that he remains a touchstone for other anthologists throughout the century. James Weldon Johnson, writing in 1931, names Hughes one of the “younger group” leading “Negro poets” into the future; Woodie King Jr. dedicates his 1975 anthology of midcentury African American poets to the memory of the “patron saint” who died in 1967; and Clarence Major, in his 1996 anthology, finds in “the spirit of Hughes's artistic rebelliousness” a continuing model for the negotiation between politics and art in the African American poetry of today (xxviii).11 Hughes was such a model, I argue, because he recognized a dialectic between the “celebration” of literature and the enunciation of a tradition to which this celebration refers. Hughes was interested, moreover, in taking the institutional contexts of writing as the content of his work and in asking what literature might make of literary “excellence.” He demonstrates in his poetry the tactics of selection, citation, repetition, and revision that make traditions and anthologies possible.

Early in his career Hughes was a key participant in debates about whether African American art should be engaged in “propaganda.” More recently, the collection and republication of his poems have occasioned a return to these concerns. In Helen Vendler's extensive review of The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes, for example, the difference between art and propaganda plays a central role.12 The assertion of this difference in Vendler's review and the competing prefatory gestures of the new Norton volume suggest that it continues to matter—for literature and for politics—whether African American literature can, or even does, make such distinctions. Arnold Rampersad, editor of the Harlem Renaissance section of the Norton, more or less divides his selections for Hughes between poems that emphasize innovative practice and essays that theorize what this practice meant in the context of African American literary culture. Hughes, however, imagined that his poetry could itself theorize a relation to the institutions it engaged. Many of his poems, written at the same time as the more famous “blues” lyrics of the 1920s, consider the canonical and political implications of aesthetic innovation; they confront their own use of traditional forms and allusions and historicize the “unparalleled excellence” of which they are now examples.

“Politics can be the graveyard of the poet. And only poetry can be his resurrection.” Rampersad offers this statement as an epigraph to the second volume of his landmark biography of Hughes.13 In the biography the epigraph confirms a lesson Hughes has learned the hard way: politics is dangerous; better turn back to poetry. Reading the poetry, Vendler cites Rampersad's epigraph to suggest that Hughes recognized in his work a choice between propaganda and art: “Hack propagandists do not know how to write genuine poems; but a genuine poet who writes propaganda (as many have done) engages in a conscious faithlessness to art” (37). By themselves, the two sentences, written by Hughes and repeated by Rampersad and Vendler, seem to create an opposition between “politics” and “poetry,” where politics is the site of death and poetry the agent of rescue. The context of the opposition, however, suggests something slightly different, for Hughes says first: “Politics in any country in the world is dangerous. For the poet, politics in any country in the world had better be disguised as poetry.” Hughes learns not to discard politics but to transform it. Resurrection is not the negation of death but the opportunity for a new kind of life.

The brief manifesto of which my own epigraph offers the opening lines concludes with this argument and injunction:

Each human being must live within his time, with and for his people, and within the boundaries of his country. Therefore, how can a poet keep out of politics?

Hang yourself, poet, in your own words. Otherwise, you are dead.

(Rampersad, Life, 385)

Hughes thought that the expression of art within a particular time and place was subject to local conditions. He did not believe that he could extract his writing from these circumstances, but he did think that his writing could facilitate a form of intervention in them. Instead of, say, “getting lynched,” “you” can “hang yourself,” but “in words”: in the exchange of a given hazard for a taken risk, the poet is invoked and produced in the words he or she writes. Repeating himself with a difference, Hughes transforms literal danger into figurative language: poetry, as “resurrection,” recasts politics and its perils as the condition for any life worth living.

Vendler's review of The Collected Poems conflates “propaganda” and “politics” and opposes both to “genuine” poetry, such that propaganda and poetry are separate activities, with separate goals. Vendler begins by distinguishing between the more and the less successful poems in Hughes's career; she then maps propaganda and the genuine onto these aesthetic distinctions. Thus Vendler renders universal and understood a language of evaluation that Hughes himself addressed and revised in his work. For Hughes, as for other writers of the Harlem Renaissance, the definition and relevance of propaganda were important questions for literary practice.14 The term was used early, often, and variously among those who argued about the role of “racial individuality” in art and artistic expression. When Hughes invoked the need for “racial individuality” in his essay “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain,” he was responding not just to George S. Schuyler and his “Negro-Art Hokum” (the specific occasion) but also to a broad ongoing debate about art and politics.15 The broad debate is perhaps most closely associated with Alain Locke and W. E. B. DuBois, who are often thought to have represented opposite sides of the propaganda issue. Above all, however, Locke and DuBois disagreed about what propaganda was. They differed as to how, or whether, aesthetic standards were informed by social conditions.

In 1926 DuBois spoke before the NAACP about the “criteria of Negro art.”16 He began his talk by responding to imagined critics who might object to a discussion of art in the context of social reform. DuBois presumed that his audience would consider aesthetic commitments an irrelevant distraction or, at best, a welcome relief from the real work at hand. On the contrary, DuBois argued, art was inseparable from “rights”; it was “part of the great fight”: “It is right here that the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People comes upon the field … to say that the Beauty of Truth and Freedom which shall some day be our heritage and the heritage of all civilized men is not in our hands yet and that we ourselves must not fail to realize” (292, 294). DuBois's argument depends on the reciprocal causality between “civilized men” and “Beauty,” in which the signs of civilization (Beauty) justify and facilitate political recognition and social justice. The structure of causality is lifted from Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment theories of “race,” nation, and aesthetics: if a civilized nation is defined by its “race” or people, and a people by its literature and artistic achievement, then the claim to civilization rests on the claim to Beauty and aesthetic success.17

Johnson had argued similarly in his first preface to The Book of American Negro Poetry: “The world does not know that a people is great until that people produces great literature and art.” He attributed the “status of the Negro” to a “national mental attitude” rather than to “actual conditions” (vii). DuBois, however, understood both kinds of “greatness”—people and literature—to depend as much on social access as on individual development. “After all, who shall describe Beauty?” he asked, intimating a paradox of causality: the description of Beauty is a right and a sign of “civilized man,” but Beauty is measured by the civilization it is meant to characterize. This paradox is not unlike the problem faced by anthologists of African American literature, who can only “celebrate” a newly recognized tradition with reference to a history of artistic excellence that they themselves inaugurate. DuBois noticed the circularity of aesthetic valuation even as he retained the Platonic language of ideal distinction: “That somehow, somewhere eternal and perfect Beauty sits above Truth and Right I can conceive, but here and now and in the world in which I work they are for me unseparated and inseparable” (292). Because Beauty must be defined, because the right to describe it must be claimed, DuBois ultimately asserted that “all Art is propaganda and ever must be, despite the wailing of the purists” (296). For DuBois, propaganda denoted a function; it demanded the recognition of what art could do; it announced art as a social and political intervention.

Locke, writing in 1925, asserted that the goal of “new Negro” artists should be “an objective attitude toward life.”18 Locke imagined an artistic practice that would dissociate “race” from “life,” rendering the former “a sort of added enriching adventure” for the latter (48). In a manifesto of 1928 Locke clarified his position: “Artistically it is the one fundamental question for us today,—Art or Propaganda. Which?”19 Locke deemed art an “objective attitude” and propaganda, like race, its corrupting supplement. Propaganda was not equivalent to race, yet Locke felt that both distorted a “free and purely artistic expression” (312-3). Like DuBois, Locke defined propaganda by the attention it called to itself: “It harangues, cajoles, threatens, or supplicates. It is too extroverted for balance or poise or inner dignity and self-respect” (312). For Locke, however, propaganda was indecorous, and art must show restraint; it must be “self-contained.” Where for DuBois propaganda reflected a political enunciation of art—as art—for Locke it was a genre of writing incompatible with “self-expression.”

At age twenty-four Hughes entered this debate with his influential essay “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain.” The essay, structured from beginning to end as a response to other poets, to critics, and to readers both “Negro” and “white,” rejects all political and commercial attempts to direct artistic expression: “We young Negro artists who create now intend to express our individual dark-skinned selves without fear or shame. If white people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, it doesn't matter. … If colored people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, their displeasure doesn't matter either” (309). This argument seems to ally Hughes with Locke's demand for and belief in “free and purely artistic expression.” Yet “purity” and Platonic ideals are just what Hughes acutely critiques in the first paragraph of his essay.

Indeed, Hughes's commitment to individuality has more to do with asserting specificity than with transcending it. He begins by examining the statement “I want to be a poet—not a Negro poet”: “One of the most promising of the young Negro poets said to me once, ‘I want to be a poet—not a Negro poet,’ meaning, I believe, ‘I want to write like a white poet’; meaning subconsciously, ‘I would like to be a white poet’; meaning beyond that, ‘I would like to be white’” (305). The gloss Hughes provides sutures the politics of writing to an aesthetics of race. The analysis he concentrates in the transitions between the four statements goes as follows: (1) “I want to be a poet—not a Negro poet” means that there is a universal category poet, which the adjective Negro demeans. Negro poet is not greater than but less than poet. (2) “I want to write like a white poet” means that the universal subject is white. The poet from statement 1 must be a white poet. (3) “I would like to be a white poet” allows writing to signify being. There is a similar metonymy, in which literature stands for culture, in Johnson's remark “The world does not know that a people is great until that people produces great literature and art.” (4) With the final transition from being a white poet to being white, artists and poets come to represent a people at large: culture guarantees humanity. Poetic achievement—an attribute of whiteness (only)—stands for the people that it defines and valorizes.

Hughes understood the potential racism of universalist language, but he also found the rhetoric of collectivity useful: thus he writes of a “true Negro art,” “racial individuality,” and “inherent expressions of Negro life.” In “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain” the critique of authenticity is ambivalent: the desire to be a genuine poet may be an implicit desire for whiteness, but the demand for true Negro art—also a demand for authenticity—is, for Hughes, a resistance to caricature and censorship. From this perspective, poetry cannot be the opposite of racial politics, since poetry that seeks this opposition in fact seeks whiteness. Hughes does not explicitly join or even cite the call for propaganda voiced by DuBois, but he nevertheless asserts that a poet's identity as a Negro artist is its own political practice.

Within this sensibility, Hughes addressed “the basic ‘how’” of poetry.20 From the beginning of his career he considered the relationship between art and politics, not just in newspapers and magazines but in his poems as well. Even in those poems that seem most interested in the what of international politics, Hughes often tried to understand how poetry as a vehicle and a tactic might transform its subject. For him, the question of subject matter—what could be poetic—linked the what to the how. The disguise of politics typically emphasizes the what as how, where “expressing” Negro life means evoking the conditions in which its writing takes place.

Acknowledging the paradox of political writing in aesthetic forms—that is, the poet's inability to capture, in writing, the gravity of his subject or the danger that the aesthetic form might undermine that gravity—Hughes still achieved political “force” in a number of poems by announcing the inadequacy of his efforts.21 This is one way that Hughes explored the category of politics as a formal problem for poetics. Three poems published by Hughes in the 1920s—“A Song to a Negro Wash-woman” (1925), “Johannesburg Mines” (1925), and “Formula” (1926)—demonstrate the range of this exploration;22 all three were published in magazines affiliated with the Harlem Renaissance (the Crisis and the Messenger), and none appeared in Hughes's first two volumes of poetry, collected during the same years. Hughes often published one kind of poetry in his collected works and another kind in his newspaper columns or in magazines. In this way, as his own anthologist, he could shape the artistic persona he presented. In the 1940s, for instance, he concentrated in his books on “black people's particular American dream” and excluded poems that reflected a broad-based interest in class and Marxist politics.23 The uncollected poems from the 1920s that I will examine are more introspective about writing than those published in The Weary Blues (1926) and Fine Clothes to the Jew (1927), and they point toward the work Hughes thought his poetry, in general, might do. That he excluded them from the collected books of the period is suggestive, since they ironize an aesthetic tradition in which the ambitious young poet sought to be recognized. Even in the 1920s, the poems demonstrate, Hughes considered politics dangerous in every way; his writing shows, however, that one of the best ways to make political statements in poetry is to express this danger as poetry.

Hughes gestures in his poems toward the most traditional lyric conventions, from Petrarchan blazons to poems about poems, as if to say that such conventions are part of what he is trying to negotiate. “Johannesburg Mines,” for example, poses a question that it then answers in part:

In the Johannesburg Mines
There are 240,000
Native Africans working.
What kind of poem
Would you
Make out of that?
240,000 natives
Working in the
Johannesburg mines.


The staggering fact of 240,000 “Native Africans” working in the Johannesburg mines is a difficult subject for poetry, if only because of its shock value; it might paralyze reader and poet alike. The first three lines, besides presenting a traditionally unpoetic topic, read like a sentence from a newspaper: one stumbles, literally and figuratively, over the large number: 240,000. Yet the poem challenges “you,” reader and poet, to “make” a poem “out of” it. Out of the fact. Out of the sentence. The last three lines at once reiterate the staggering, stuttering fact and “make” it poetic by reshaping the first three into two rough tetrameters (the second is divided over the last two lines). The reiteration suggests that the poem cannot be made, while the reshaping makes it. The poem thus transforms the political statistic into poetry and also resists the very idea of approaching it—the vast number, the information—at all.

“A Song to a Negro Wash-woman” addresses a similar, if less obviously political problem of poetic expression (41-2). The narrative, presented in apostrophe to a “wash-woman,” recasts the Petrarchan poetry of praise by choosing a “little brown woman” as its subject. The last stanza reads:

                    And for you,
O singing wash-woman,
For you, singing little brown woman,
Singing strong black woman,
Singing tall yellow woman,
Arms deep in white suds,
Soul clean,
Clothes clean,—
For you I have many songs to make
Could I but find the words.


The poem announces its praise of the wash-woman's song and life by claiming its own inability to “sing” her praises. The poet-speaker exclaims from the beginning, “I have many songs to sing you / Could I but find the words.” The paradox is that the success of the poem's praise depends in good part on the gesture of declared inadequacy, a contract that is continuous with a long tradition of English love lyric but that here associates indescribable beauty with blackness, with work, with the object's ability to sing herself.24 In both “A Song to a Negro Wash-woman” and “Johannesburg Mines,” the boundaries between traditional poetics and racial politics seem slim indeed.

“Formula,” although it does not address race explicitly, also asks whether poetry has a proper subject and shows how it can undermine its own (ostensible) rules. The poem transforms a rule of traditional poetry into a playful negation of its initial statement:

Poetry should treat
Of lofty things
Soaring thoughts
And birds with wings.
The Muse of Poetry
Should not know
That roses
In manure grow.
The Muse of Poetry
Should not care
That earthly pain
Is everywhere.
Treats of lofty things:
Soaring thoughts
And birds with wings.


The first stanza comes across as a truism and a statement: it seems to be the initial “formula.” The poem's title puts distance between the opening statement and the poet-speaker, even as the formula seems to describe what poetry traditionally does. The second and third stanzas confirm the poem's presentation of the initial statement: the formula is only a formula. One expects the last stanza to repeat the banality of the first, thus completing the poem's indictment. Instead it repeats the first with a difference in punctuation: should treat becomes the plural noun treats; what was “lofty” is reduced to a frivolity (the word lofty makes the “things” merely pretentious); poems become amusements; and meanwhile this poem achieves a certain gravity. The formula is thus the content of the first stanza and also the poem's demonstration of how a banal poetics can be “treated” and made into a “treat.” Since the formula includes what “the Muse of Poetry / Should not know,” the poem might be said to teach the Muse how to assess this forbidden information. “Formula,” in this last sense, is a serious guide to undermining the seriousness and the exclusions of traditional poetic subjects.

All three of these early poems describe and enact the poet-speaker's ambivalence about poetry's capacity to address social conditions or racial politics. In a column published in the Pittsburgh Courier in 1927 Hughes expressed his doubt that traditional English lyric forms could accommodate “Negro” experience: “Certainly the Shakespearean sonnet would be no mould in which to express the life of Beale Street or Lenox Avenue.”25 Distancing himself from the “conventional” poetics of Claude McKay or Paul Laurence Dunbar, Hughes questioned the universal accessibility of poetic forms; he also suggested that literary traditions imply or create cultural coherence where there might be cultural difference. Nonetheless he came to use Shakespearean tropes and styles to explore the relationship among scholarship, tradition, and “the real wide world.”

In the 1933 poem “Ph.D” the Shakespearean sonnet provides a contrast between academic “order” and “human world” disorder:

He never was a silly little boy
Who whispered in the class or threw spit balls,
Or pulled the hair of silly little girls,
Or disobeyed in any way the laws
That made the school a place of decent order
Where books were read and sums were proved true
And paper maps that showed the land and water
Were held up as the real wide world to you.
Always, he kept his eyes upon his books:
And now he has grown to be a man
He is surprised that everywhere he looks
Life rolls in waves he cannot understand
And all the human world is vast and strange—
And quite beyond his Ph.D's small range.


This poem works chiastically: the rhymes draw closer as the text moves from the ordered false consciousness (slant rhymes) of the boy's “paper maps” to the disorderly experience (final couplet) of the man's “human world.” The bookish tradition of the sonnet accommodates the oversized, unassimilated environment better than it renders the more academic representation. That “sums” are “proved true” has the double, Shakespearean sense of “made” as well “shown”: arithmetic and geography are systems of explanation whose selectivity and contingency the child is taught not to consider. Prospero's “books” keep the boy from seeing that life is a tempest. In the last lines Hughes imagines a sea change: the boy's environment has been transformed by his ignorance of what learning has failed to teach him.26 The English literary tradition is used in “Ph.D” to contrast not its opposite but its inside and so to undermine the cultural authority of underexamined scholarship.

Before Hughes, several other Harlem Renaissance poets had used English lyric conventions. Their work provides an important context for thinking about the poems Hughes wrote: while they compared “black” poets to the English tradition, Hughes tended to resist affirming this opposition. In his 1917 elegy Johnson praises “black and unknown bards” in two ways: by comparing their songs to the “tones … / That helped make history when Time was young” and by placing their stories in the elegiac form of the tradition itself, as if to say that they were as worthy as, and continuous with, the (white) canonical poets already recognized by “history.”27 Johnson's poem takes the “black and unknown bards of long ago” and makes them “still live” through a “race” that hears their songs and has been affected by them. The force of comparison in Johnson's poem, in its attempt to place the “bards” in the literary tradition of the lyric, ultimately reinforces the European standard as well as the need to achieve it. Rather than challenge or elide differences, the comparison consolidates them.

In an essay on the Harlem Renaissance poets, Rampersad observes a similar contrast in McKay's work. His use of the Shakespearean sonnet, for example, demonstrates the tension between “radicalism of political and racial thought, on the one hand, and, on the other, a bone-deep commitment to conservatism of form.”28 Rampersad points to McKay's well-known “If We Must Die” (1922), in which the narrative's rhetorical effect and anger are strengthened by the sonnet's structural restraint.29 Hughes, in his turn, revises this familiar content-form dynamic in “Ph.D” by addressing the fact of the contrast as a paradox of “education”: what one learns from the sonnet is what it cannot teach.

“Shakespeare in Harlem,” a poem published by Hughes in 1942, alludes to Shakespearean forms and texts in analyzing the comparison—and the opposition—that its title so readily suggests. The poem is brief and saucy:

Hey ninny neigh!
And a hey nonny noe!
Where, oh, where
Did my sweet mama go?
Hey ninny neigh,
With a tra-la-la-la!
They say your sweet mama
Went home to her ma.


The poem's title presents several contradictory possibilities about what the lyric promises to be. Is it a poem located in Harlem, where “Shakespeare” stands for “great poetry,” and this is the generic “great poetry” found in Harlem? Is this what Shakespeare—the work of Shakespeare—would sound like (would have sounded like?) if he had been writing in Harlem? Is this, perhaps, a translation of Shakespeare's poetics into “Negro life”?30 Or does the poem contain the elements of Harlem that sound like Shakespeare: does it register moments of Shakespeare in Harlem, a refinement of Harlem into Shakespeare?

The text, like its title, offers several interpretations. This deceptively simple lyric mobilizes an elaborate formal and rhetorical structure. From the title, one might initially ask what part of the poem is “Shakespeare” and what part the context, location, or language “Harlem.” Looking at the poem, one sees that it is written in two short quatrains. Vendler suggests that the use of quatrains in Hughes's poems lends a jazz syncopation to metrical lines that would seem more traditional, perhaps more literary, in a longer form (39-40).31 She argues that the “short rhythmic pulses” of the blues and jazz traditions allow Hughes to represent thinking in “fits and starts” (40). To demonstrate this point, she transforms a lyric written by Hughes from its dimeter quatrains into a tetrameter stanza and then contrasts her made poem with the one Hughes published. Where Vendler uses transformation and juxtaposition to show how a vernacular style contributes to the poet's art, in “Shakespeare in Harlem” Hughes asks what a vernacular style is and takes transformation and juxtaposition as topics for his art to imagine.

If Hughes had written his poem in couplets, it would look, following Vendler's lead, like this:

Hey ninny neigh! And a hey nonny noe!
Where, oh, where did my sweet mama go?
Hey ninny neigh, with a tra-la-la-la!
They say your sweet mama went home to her ma.

These two couplets correspond to the anapestic tetrameter found in, for instance, a bawdy song from As You Like It.32 As quatrains, then, “Shakespeare in Harlem” might be said to transform Shakespeare into Harlem. The diction of the poem, however, might suggest the opposite translation. This is a story about a poet-speaker in search of his “sweet mama,” a term for “lover” specific to black vernacular of the period.33 The story has been cast in a Shakespearean idiom, with allusions to the language of folk songs that appear in at least four of Shakespeare's plays.34 The poet has taken the Harlem story and made it sound like an English ditty. Text and context, original and elaboration, vernacular and literary are difficult to establish here.

Like the diction and meter, the two stanzas seem to constitute a dialogue. The poem has two explicit speakers, although it is hard to say whether they are both Harlem, or Harlem and Shakespeare. The first speaker asks, “Where, oh, where / Did my sweet mama go?” and the second responds, “They say your sweet mama / Went home to her ma.” The response, which implicates a third party, makes the respondent either closer to the first speaker (not part of “they” but part of “us”) or farther (not “us” but someone who talks to “they”). In the latter case, sweet mama would repeat in quotation marks, as the language of the first speaker returned from a distance.

The distance of the second speaker is significant: is the poem a “Negro” call-and-response, a dialogue within the community that inscribes the community, or is it a dialogue between one who uses the term sweet mama and one who does not? Perhaps, however, the second speaker differs from the first but within the context of Harlem, rather than in opposition to it, where the first speaker imitates Shakespeare and the second imitates, or “signifies on,” his imitation.35 The poem might render a contrast not between two different traditions but between differences within traditions—Shakespeare or Harlem—that are thought to be undifferentiated. As “Shakespeare in Harlem” points to Shakespeare's bawdy songs, it represents not “low” Shakespeare so much as Shakespeare's own conjunction of high and low cultures. These songs were popular in his time; in his plays they are already in quotation. As his work brings high and low together, Shakespeare seems quite a bit like “Shakespeare in Harlem.” One might say that Harlem can be found in Shakespeare, except that it is no longer clear just what Harlem is. Hughes has dismantled the opposition between high and low cultures that the poem's title seemed to offer.36

By making Shakespeare into a Harlem song, Hughes reminds us not only of the oral tradition in Shakespeare but also of the performance tradition that constituted Shakespeare as such. Rather than contrast the African American vernacular tradition, elements of Shakespeare draw attention to the long history of vernacular practices in which both Shakespeare and Hughes participate. Steven C. Tracy argues that readers should pay close attention to “both the oral and the literary” in Hughes's work (245) and points in particular to the collection Shakespeare in Harlem, where the poet announces the priority of performance in his writing.37 The poems in Shakespeare in Harlem, Hughes wrote, should be “read aloud, crooned, shouted, recited, and sung. Some with gestures, some not—as you like. None with a far-away voice” (1). Bringing Shakespeare and Harlem together, Hughes returns Shakespeare to a historical context and also asserts his proximity to an African American oral and performance tradition. For Hughes, the priority of writing—both in the African American tradition and in the English tradition that Shakespeare represents—is itself an assembled standard, produced through practices of editing, authorization, and canon formation.

Writing is given pride of place in The Norton Anthology of African American Literature, but Gates and McKay acknowledge that the development of African American writing owes a continuing debt to vernacular forms, such as folktales, the blues, jazz, and street rhymes. They devote the first section of the anthology to vernacular materials and include a compact disc with an assortment of audio performances. The question of how or whether to include vernacular culture in African American writing has been essential to the negotiation between African American particularism and universalist aesthetics. Hughes often addressed this question in his poetry in good part by showing how the most canonical literature in English is also indebted both to spoken idioms and to performance forms.

The provocative claim that “Shakespeare in Harlem” might be Shakespeare, and its consequent claim to literary achievement for Harlem, is ultimately a disguise, and closer to mimicry than to masquerade: Hughes disrupts the definitions of both terms in his title, such that their content turns on the relation and the confusion between them. Theories of mimicry and masquerade are more regularly applied to styles of identity than to styles of writing, but for Hughes and other African American artists it is through writing that identities are often negotiated. Hughes recognized in his poems and elsewhere that literature could refashion as well as signify the perceived attributes of racialized persons. The point of disguise in Hughes is not to fit into a standard tradition so much as to reveal oneself fitting in in the way that all things are made to fit, in the way that differences are regularly standardized.38 Homi K. Bhabha argues that mimicry can unsettle the distinction between background and foreground to the extent that it “mocks” as well as “mimes.”39 Mocking separates mimicry from masquerade: in the latter the actor unconsciously capitulates to a stereotype or convention rather than subverts it.40 As Diana Fuss rightly observes, however, mimicry easily becomes masquerade if the conditions of comparison and imitation—excellence, for instance—are never examined but only appropriated and naturalized (147). The Norton Anthology of African American Literature provides a good example of this slippage: repeating the promise of “unparalleled excellence,” the editors would copy what cannot be reproduced; thus they seem to mock what they also assimilate.

This is the poetics of comparison that Hughes's work engages. Ann Douglas persuasively argues that, for Hughes, a “lower-class idiom was an earned achievement, not a natural attribute”: he “appropriated his black idiom”—Harlem—as much as he transformed Shakespeare.41 Hughes questions the social and cultural characteristics associated with both Harlem and Shakespeare; refusing to oppose high and low, “Negro” and “white,” cultures, he displaces the uniformity of standardized traditions. “Shakespeare in Harlem” offers comparison and contrast, but never the distance that would stabilize and distinguish categories: the Harlem poet best occupies the Shakespearean tradition, best appropriates the English literary canon by replicating and redefining it at once.42

Rampersad associates Hughes's career with “the search for a genuinely Afro-American poetic form” (“Langston Hughes,” 62). For Hughes, however, a genuine Afro-American poetics asks what genuine poetry is and what an Afro-American idiom sounds like. This is the resurrection of politics as poetry, a disguise that challenges the genuine. It is within this commitment that Hughes's most genuine poems—to return to Vendler's phrase—are also the most political ones.

Within the Norton text, one is struck by the “paralleled” excellence that the writing throughout composes, Gates and McKay's prefatory claims notwithstanding. Hughes considered and performed parallels of tradition and culture as poetry; in its work, “African American literature” thus prescribes its own ambivalence about the unqualified celebration of anthology production. Hughes offers an important model for the tactic of repetition and critique; he understands juxtaposition as a literary and political resource and also recognizes the aesthetic standards it cannot, or should not, fail to scrutinize.

One of the final poems in the Norton section on Hughes is the memorable “Harlem” (1951), a sharp lyric about comparisons and proposed similes:

What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore—
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over—
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?


To the extent that Harlem oscillates between “deferred” action and the contemplation of its effect, it registers a history that it will consider as and through poetic language. The poem asks “what happens” and offers six questions in response. The first five suggest that “a dream deferred” leads away from itself, to metaphor, quietude, and disintegration. The sixth contradicts the others and forgoes a final simile, although its power depends on the detours before it, on the “likes” it does not share and the metaphorical diction it inhabits all the same.43 The “dream deferred” is a dream transformed: the work of contemplation facilitates the transition from contained image to incomparable, unparalleled action. The resistance to comparison is a resistance to closure—to the foreclosure of a dream—yet comparison is also the structure through which this resistance is articulated. Reading the Norton, looking for Shakespeare in Harlem, it is best to read as Hughes wrote, with the art of propaganda in mind.


  1. Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Nellie Y. McKay, gen. eds., The Norton Anthology of African American Literature (New York: Norton, 1997), xxxvi.

  2. Abrams, gen. ed., The Norton Anthology of English Literature, 6th ed. (New York: Norton, 1993), xxxv.

  3. Kerlin, ed., Negro Poets and Their Poems, 2d ed. (Washington, D.C.: Associated, 1935); Countee Cullen, ed., Caroling Dusk: An Anthology of Verse by Negro Poets (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1927), rpt. as Caroling Dusk: An Anthology of Verse by Black Poets of the Twenties (Secaucus, N.J.: Carol, 1993); Calverton, ed., Anthology of American Negro Literature (New York: Modern Library, 1929); Hughes and Bontemps, eds., The Poetry of the Negro, 1746-1949 (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1949); Hughes, ed., New Negro Poets, U.S.A. (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1964); Major, ed., The Garden Thrives: Twentieth-Century African-American Poetry (New York: Harper-Perennial, 1996); Gilyard, ed., Spirit and Flame: An Anthology of Contemporary African American Poetry (Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1997).

  4. Johnson, ed., The Book of American Negro Poetry (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1922), iii.

  5. Abrams, gen. ed., The Norton Anthology of English Literature, 5th ed., 2 vols. (New York: Norton, 1986), 1:xxx.

  6. It is often hard to say what constitutes an “occasion,” but I would argue that The Norton Anthology of African American Literature should be read in the historical context of debates about multiculturalism and curricular revision. It is one of any number of recent volumes, although perhaps one of the most visible, to make accessible and “traditional,” through its production and publication, literature historically excluded from the most “indispensable courses.”

  7. Meehan, “Spiking Canons,” Nation, 12 May 1997, 44.

  8. Donoghue, “A Criticism of One's Own,” New Republic, 10 March 1996, 31.

  9. Gilbert and Gubar, eds., The Norton Anthology of Literature by Women: The Tradition in English (New York: Norton, 1985), xxxii; Gilbert and Gubar, eds., The Norton Anthology of Literature by Women: The Traditions in English, 2d ed. (New York: Norton, 1996). The quotations below come from the first edition. Cf. Gates and McKay's claim for “unparalleled excellence” and Gilbert and Gubar's desire to represent the “exuberant variety yet strong continuity of the literature that English-speaking women have produced” (xxvii). Although their selections should illuminate “major” works, Gilbert and Gubar write, they are also valued for “documenting the self-consciousness with which these writers situated themselves and their texts in specifically female and often feminist contexts” (xxix). Gilbert and Gubar deem “historical, intellectual, or aesthetic significance” equal categories of merit in their principles of inclusion (xxx).

  10. Donoghue also notices this absence of comment and recommends Lillian S. Robinson's discussion of these canonizing issues. Many of Robinson's insights about the politics of anthology production are relevant to my argument, in particular her sense that those who wish to confer canonicity on texts historically excluded from the center of the curriculum frequently “are torn between defending the quality of their discoveries and radically redefining literary quality itself” (“Treason Our Text: Feminist Challenges to the Literary Canon,” in The New Feminist Criticism: Essays on Women, Literature, and Theory, ed. Elaine Showalter [New York: Pantheon, 1985], 111).

  11. Johnson, The Book of American Negro Poetry, rev. ed. (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1931), 5; King, ed., The Forerunners: Black Poets in America (Washington, D.C.: Howard University Press, 1975), xxviii.

  12. Vendler, “The Unweary Blues,” New Republic, 6 March 1995, 37-42.

  13. Arnold Rampersad, The Life of Langston Hughes, 2 vols. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986-88), 2:ix.

  14. Nathan Irvin Huggins provides one of the earliest and most decisive critical accounts of propaganda in the Harlem Renaissance (Harlem Renaissance [New York: Oxford University Press, 1971], 201-5).

  15. Hughes, “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain,” Nation, June 1926, rpt. in Nathan Irvin Huggins, ed., Voices from the Harlem Renaissance (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), 305-9; Schuyler, “The Negro-Art Hokum,” Nation, June 1926, rpt. in Huggins, Voices, 309-12.

  16. DuBois, “Criteria of Negro Art,” Crisis, October 1926, 290-7.

  17. Kwame Anthony Appiah's essay “Race” has aided my formulation here (Frank Lentricchia and Thomas McLaughlin, eds., Critical Terms for Literary Study, 2d ed. [Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995], 274-87).

  18. Locke, ed., The New Negro (New York: Atheneum, 1992), 48.

  19. Locke, “Art or Propaganda,” Harlem 1 (1928), rpt. in Huggins, Voices, 312.

  20. Henry Louis Gates Jr., Figures in Black: Words, Signs, and the “Racial” Self (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987), 184.

  21. “Through the force of his art,” Hughes argued, the “young Negro artist” could influence his reader's unconscious associations between Beauty and race (“Negro Artist,” 308).

  22. All poems by Langston Hughes that are discussed in this essay are taken from The Collected Poems, ed. Arnold Rampersad (New York: Knopf, 1994).

  23. Onwuchekwa Jemie, Langston Hughes: An Introduction to the Poetry (New York: Columbia University Press, 1976), 123.

  24. Shakespeare's sonnet 106 (“When in the chronicle of wasted time”), for instance, is a good example of the poet-speaker who describes the stunning beauty of his object by claiming that he and “we … lack tongues to praise” (The Norton Shakespeare, gen. ed. Stephen Greenblatt [New York: Norton, 1997], 1958-9).

  25. Hughes, Pittsburgh Courier, 15 April 1927, 8.

  26. Cf. “Ph.D” with “Ariel's Song” in The Tempest, 1.2.400-9 (Norton Shakespeare, 3067).

  27. Johnson, “O Black and Unknown Bards,” in Huggins, Voices, 304-5.

  28. Arnold Rampersad, “Langston Hughes and Approaches to Modernism in the Harlem Renaissance,” in The Harlem Renaissance: Revaluations, ed. Amritjit Singh, William S. Shiver, and Stanley Brodwin (New York: Garland, 1989), 55.

  29. McKay, “If We Must Die,” in Huggins, Voices, 353-4.

  30. I am using translation in a broadly metaphorical sense, in which differences in language are understood to convey kinds of cultural specificity beyond those associated with national identity. Thus, with James Clifford, I associate “translation” with “practices of cross-cultural understanding” not only between nations but within them (Routes: Travel and Translation in the Late Twentieth Century [Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1997], 359 and passim). Such practices might include literary traditions as well as other forms of local knowledge.

  31. Arnold Rampersad also identifies the adaptation of traditional poetic forms to jazz and blues as Hughes's major innovation (“Poetry of the Harlem Renaissance,” in The Columbia History of American Poetry, ed. Jay Parini [New York: Columbia University Press, 1993], 464), and Steven C. Tracy argues that “the blues” constitutes the “soul” of Hughes's work (Langston Hughes and the Blues [Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1988], 144-7).

  32. As You Like It, 5.3.14 (Norton Shakespeare, 1651).

  33. Clarence Major defines sweet mama as a term used between 1900 and 1940 to indicate “a black man's black female lover” (Juba to Jive: A Dictionary of African-American Slang [New York: Penguin, 1994], 459). See a similar definition of mama in Bruce Kellner, ed., The Harlem Renaissance: A Historical Dictionary for the Era (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 1984), 432.

  34. See As You Like It, 5.3.14; Much Ado about Nothing, 2.2.57; King Lear, 3.4.92; and Two Noble Kinsmen, 2.4.21 (Norton Shakespeare, 1651, 1407, 2519, 3219).

  35. Gates and McKay offer “signifying” as a continuous practice that defines the African American literary tradition, although it is a practice that comes to writing from vernacular idioms, such as folktales, street rhymes, “the dozens,” and other forms of verbal dueling. Gates and McKay argue: “Precisely because ‘blackness’ is a socially-constructed category, it must be learned in the same way—like jazz—through repetition and revision” (xxxvi). Gates elaborates his theory of signifying more fully elsewhere, defining the term as “repetition and revision, or repetition with a signal difference” (The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of Afro-American Literary Criticism [New York: Oxford University Press, 1988], xxiv).

  36. Indeed, Lawrence Levine's discussion of the “popular” history of Shakespeare in nineteenth-century America, including minstrel parodies, suggests that Hughes understood “Shakespeare” as an already unstable marker in the opposition between high and low culture (“William Shakespeare and the American People,” in Rethinking Popular Culture: Contemporary Perspectives in Cultural Studies, ed. Chandra Mukerji and Michael Schudson [Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991], 163-9).

  37. Hughes, Shakespeare in Harlem (New York: Knopf, 1942), 4.

  38. Jacques Lacan formulates a seminal account of mimicry as “camouflage, in the strictly technical sense. It is not a question of harmonizing with the background, but, against a mottled background, of becoming mottled” (The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis, ed. Jacques-Alain Miller, trans. Alan Sheridan [New York: Norton, 1981], 99).

  39. Bhabha, The Location of Culture (London: Routledge, 1994), 86.

  40. For more on these distinctions and definitions see Luce Irigaray, This Sex Which Is Not One, trans. Catherine Porter, with Carolyn Burke (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1985), 220; Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (New York: Routledge, 1990), 47; and Diana Fuss, Identification Papers (New York: Routledge, 1995), 146.

  41. Douglas, Terrible Honesty: Mongrel Manhattan in the 1920s (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1995), 374. R. Baxter Miller also discusses Hughes “as a writer whose complex use of metaphor belied his seemingly transparent treatment of folk life” (The Art and Imagination of Langston Hughes [Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1989], 6).

  42. I differ here from earlier critical accounts of what Hughes did with traditional forms of literature. James A. Emanuel, for instance, distinguishes “the current of American literature” from the “many shades of Negro experience” that he believes Hughes added to it (Langston Hughes [New York: Twayne, 1967], 174). I argue that Hughes made every effort to show that the tropes of African American literature were constitutive of the “American” tradition they are thought to “color.”

  43. Critical interpretations of this often-cited, less-read poem tend to literalize its narrative, to associate each of its images with particular experiences in African American life. Although the poem surely invokes these referents, its overall effect depends on the persistent distance between referential events and contemplated, figurative action. See Jemie, 79; and Jean Wagner, Black Poets of the United States: From Paul Laurence Dunbar to Langston Hughes, trans. Kenneth Douglas (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1973), 452-3.

Kalamu ya Salaam (essay date 1999)

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SOURCE: ya Salaam, Kalamu. “Langston Hughes: A Poet Supreme.” In The Furious Flowering of African American Poetry, edited by Joanne V. Gabbin, pp. 17-24. Charlottesville, Va.: University Press of Virginia, 1999.

[In the following essay, ya Salaam offers an analysis of Montage of a Dream Deferred to support his praise of Hughes as a prime innovator and creative force in the development of black poetry.]

For the purposes of this essay, black poetry is poetry that (1) is grounded in the black experience; (2) utilizes black music as a structural or emulative model; and (3) “consciously” transforms the prevailing standards of poetry through an iconoclastic and innovative use of language.

No poet better carries the mantle of model and innovator than Langston Hughes, the prolific Duke Ellington of black poetry. Hughes's output alone is staggering. During his lifetime, he published over eight hundred poems. Moreover, he single-handedly defined “blues poetry” and is arguably the first major “jazz” poet. Early in his career he realized the importance of “reading” his poetry to receptive audiences. “When Alain Locke arranged a poetry reading by Hughes before the Playwriter's Circle in 1927 in Washington, a blues pianist accompanied him, bringing Hughes the artist and blues music one step closer together, even though Hughes felt that the piano player was ‘too polished.’ He suggested to his Knopf editor that they ought to get ‘a regular Lenox Avenue blues boy’ to accompany him at his reading in New York.”1 In the fifties Hughes was a major voice in the movement of recording with jazz accompaniment.

Although I have neither the space, inclination, nor ability to give a close textual reading of Hughes's poetry and although a large body of critical work already exists, I would like to focus on one piece by Hughes to evidence my case for his stature. That piece is the multipart, book-length poem Montage of a Dream Deferred (1951).

In Montage, which Hughes described in a letter to Arna Bontemps as “what you might call a precedent shattering opus—also could be known as a tour de force,”2 Hughes addresses a number of critical problems facing black poetry: (1) how to affect a modern sensibility and at the same time maintain a grounding in the folk culture; (2) how to achieve the textual representation of the music, especially in terms of improvisation and variation of tone and timbre; and (3) how to use the vernacular without resorting to dialect.

Hughes realized that it was impossible to do what he wanted to do in one piece, so he composed a series of short poems that play off each other. Western literary thought values the long form, the novel in particular, as a statement of intellectual achievement and implicitly devalues short forms. For this reason a collection of short stories rarely receives equal critical attention as does a novel by the same author. In order to make the long form stand out, the author is expected to demonstrate complexity of plot and character development. But these and related concerns are simply a culturally biased valuation of a specific set of literary devices, often at the expense of other devices (many of which center on the sounding of poetry on the page). In a very important sense, modern American poetry was moving toward painting, that is, a composition of words placed on a page, and away from music, that is, an articulation of words that have both sense (meaning) and sound (emotion). Hughes clearly chose to emphasize black music, which increasingly meant dealing with improvisation.

The improvisation is implied in that certain themes, rhyme and rhythmic patterns, and recurring images ebb and flow throughout Montage—here spelled out in detail, there hinted at, and in another instance turned on their head. The above-quoted letter indicates that Hughes was conscious of what he was doing, and it is this self-consciousness that marks this as a modern poem. Indeed, Montage is almost postmodern in its mosaic of voices and attitudes contained in one piece.

Just as jazz simultaneously stresses the collective and the individual, Hughes's component poems are each individual statements, but they are also part of a larger unit(y). Significantly, Hughes as an individual is deemphasized in the work, even as various individual members of the community speak and are spoken about. In other words, Hughes becomes a medium, a sensitive and subtle medium, but a medium nonetheless. In a seemingly simple form, Hughes serves as a sounding board for the articulation of people who are usually voiceless.

The work's modernity is the self-reflective nature of all of the voices speaking, and in speaking, coming to consciousness of themselves and their environment. Time and time again we hear voices self-consciously grappling with their Harlem realities, which include an international awareness of African American, West Indian, and African bonding. In the African American context “modernity” specifically refers to the post-Reconstruction, northern-oriented urbanization of African American life. No presixties black poet was more complete in expressing the black urban viewpoint than Hughes.

The ease with which Hughes voices the various personalities and points of view belies both the complexity and progressiveness of his achievement. Because of the brevity of the poems, Hughes's points are often made in passing and require reflection in order to appreciate just how far-reaching is Montage's social commentary. “Cafe: 3 A.M.” is one of the many short poems that make up the Montage series. This poem perfectly illustrates Hughes's musical use of bebop rhythms and phrasing mated to subtle social commentary.

Most critics consider Hughes reticent on the subject of homosexuality, yet Montage includes this double critique—one of homophobia and heterosexism and one of the criminalization of sexual activities.

“CAFE: 3 A.M.”

Detectives from the vice squad
with weary sadistic eyes
spotting fairies.
                    some folks say.
                    But God, Nature,
                    or somebody
                    made them that way.
Police lady or Lesbian
over there?

Compare this to the work of any other poet publishing with a major house in the early 1950s.

In the headnote to Montage, Hughes declares, “In terms of current Afro-American popular music and sources from which it has progressed—jazz, ragtime, swing, blues, boogie-woogie, and be-bop—this poem on contemporary Harlem, like be-bop, is marked by conflicting changes, sudden nuances, sharp and impudent interjections, broken rhythms, and passages sometimes in the manner of the jam session, sometimes like the popular song, punctuated by the riffs, runs, breaks, and distortions of the music of a community in transition.”3

Langston Hughes, a poet who had cut his teeth and made his mark as a blues poet, took up the challenge of writing a book-length bebop jazz poem! Although, just like the music, there is a bedrock of blues undergirding the structure, Hughes's objective and success was in creating a modern jazz structure that allowed for a broader range of themes, voices, and even styles. Some of the poems are epigrams, some are written as actual letters, some are conversations, and others are monologues; more than once we have poems that amount to sayings, folk definitions, and observations. Indeed, Montage is aptly named. In the whole history of American literature, no one has written a comparable poem that bases itself on a music form, and certainly no one has even come close in the context of jazz. All other efforts at jazz poetry pale in comparison.

Consider that Hughes does not take the easy way out. He chose not to emphasize the names of musicians or the names of musical compositions. There is no attempt to imitate the sound of the horns (as was common in much of the Black Arts music-based poetry). The mosaic quality of the music, the intensity of expression, the fluid, quicksilver rhythms, and the complex melodic counterpoint and harmonic daring of bebop are all achieved by a deft use of simple words, precise punctuation, and italics. The complexity of the overall composition notwithstanding, the individual parts seem too simple to be true, but Montage works so sublimely because Hughes figured out precisely how to get to the heart of the expression without bothering with or getting caught up in external floridness.

The third major achievement of this poem is Hughes's mastery of nuance and control of language. He suggests the dialect without resorting to the contractions and so-called broken English that mar(k)s most dialect poetry and some modern poetry by blacks. Langston Hughes and the Blues, Steven Tracy's detailed reading and explication of Hughes's blues poetry, more than adequately defines Hughes's consummate poetic artistry. Tracy pays particular attention to Hughes's subtle use of punctuation, a subtlety that completely escapes most critics of Hughes's work. Although Tracy does not focus on the bebop aspects of Montage and does not address Ask Your Mama, this is nevertheless the best starting point for a literary appreciation of Hughes's use of music in his poetry. Introducing an analysis of the textual revisions that Hughes made as he combined the techniques of the blues artist, the blues composer, and the poet, Tracy writes: “The pervasive influence of the oral tradition in Hughes's poetry might make an examination of Hughes's revisions of his blues poems seem like a futile, pedantic exercise, particularly given the variable nature of an individual blues lyric as the singer performs it. However, because Hughes was a literary artist, because he was tied to the written as well as the oral tradition, and because he made sometimes drastic revisions of his blues poems, such an examination helps to reveal his attitudes toward his material as they modulated over the years and to illuminate the nature of his use of the oral blues tradition in his written work.”4

There is an African proverb used to express futility: “like singing to a white man.” If one is unfamiliar with blues culture, how can one hope to appreciate fully or expertly critique Langston Hughes? The establishment's critical diminishing and dismissing of Hughes is based, to an astoundingly large degree, on the cultural illiteracy and unresponsiveness of establishment critics to the blues. In their ignorance they denigrated what they were both intellectually and emotionally unequipped to understand.

Montage gave us defining metaphors of the black experience—“the dream deferred” and “raisins in the sun.” Only Dunbar's “caged bird” metaphor comes close, in terms of popular acceptance, as a cultural image of African American life. As important and innovative as Montage is, most of us are not fully aware of this book-length accomplishment because we have bought into the establishment assessment that Hughes had a limited poetic technique. In a similar way, the establishment assessed Thelonious Monk as having a limited piano technique. But just as few pianists are able to play like Monk and no musicians have been able to match his compositional authority; similarly, emphasis on Eurocentric poetic devices notwithstanding, few poets have been able to write from inside the black experience like Hughes, and no one has achieved as impressive a body of compositions, that is, “textual poems.”

Langston Hughes was absolutely clear about the focus of his work and the danger inherent in articulating the history and vision, the realities and aspirations, of the sufferers.

Unfortunately, having been born poor—and also colored—in Missouri, I was stuck in the mud from the beginning. Try as I might to float off into the clouds, poverty and Jim Crow would grab me by the heels, and right back on earth I would land. A third-floor furnished room is the nearest thing I have ever had to an ivory tower.

Some of my earliest poems were social poems in that they were about people's problems—whole groups of people's problems—rather than my own personal difficulties. Sometimes, though, certain aspects of my personal problems happened to be also common to many other people. And certainly, racially speaking, my own problems of adjustment to American life were the same as those of millions of other segregated Negroes. The moon belongs to everybody, but not this American earth of ours. That is perhaps why poems about the moon perturb no one, but poems about color and poverty do perturb many citizens. Social forces pull backwards or forwards, right or left, and social poems get caught in the pulling and hauling. Sometimes the poet himself gets pulled and hauled—even hauled off to jail.5 Contemporary white writers can perhaps afford to be utterly irresponsible in their moral and social viewpoints. Negro writers cannot. Ours is a social as well as a literary responsibility.6

An emphasis on dual responsibilities, social and literary, is in itself a particular feature of a black aesthetic. This is not new, or novel, but it does continue to be controversial precisely because it contextualizes art within the world as the world actually is, beset by dominant and dominating forces who enforce (sometimes under the rubric of “free enterprise”) all manners of economic exploitation.

There is necessarily an opposition to “commercialism” inherent in the black aesthetic precisely because, from an African American perspective, the birth of the black experience, as archetypically illustrated by the Congo Square experience, was simultaneously the site of both black art as ritual and black art as entertainment, with the entertainment undermining the ritual. Moreover, the birth of the African American was as a chattel slave, as a commercial product. If anyone is by birthright opposed to commercialism, it is certainly the African American.

The advocacy of freedom and fighting against oppression and exploitation is not simply a question of content but also a question of the use of art. Langston Hughes was keenly aware of the dichotomy of content and aesthetic and also of the moral disaster of ignoring the reality and repercussions of such a dichotomy. Too many people in their literary criticism completely overlook social context and hence overlook as well the fact that the social thrust of poetry is integral to its aesthetics.

Langston Hughes, as subtle as he was, and as innocuous as he may seem by today's standards, is exemplary of a poet grounded in the culture, consistent in his use of music as both inspiration and model, and innovative and iconoclastic in his use of English. Yes, it was and continues to be revolutionary to insist on transforming English into a tool of ritual within the black community and not just a lingua franca of commerce or individual self-expression.

Finally, another aspect of Hughes's abilities that is also overlooked or ignored is that he was multilingual and masterfully translated poetry, including seminal work of Nicholas Gullien and Federico García Lorca. The importance of this observation is that this is another piece of irrefutable evidence that Hughes's writing style was not reflective of the limitations of an “undisciplined,” unsophisticated, and provincial poet.

Much of the criticism of Hughes's poetry by textually influenced academicians would lead the reader to believe that Hughes was simply a hack writer who had some facility with musical imagery and styles. Such views allow the critic to pass over the difficult challenge of explaining how a man who comfortably spoke three languages, translated literature from Africa, the Caribbean, Europe, and elsewhere, and traveled incessantly, could be thought of as a relatively “unsophisticated,” even “simple” poet.

In much the same way the Pulitzer judges refused to award their prize to Duke Ellington in 1965 because they did not think his work was serious enough, Hughes has been denied both appropriate formal awards and informal kudos, as well as significant posthumous awards from the American literary establishment. Perhaps there is no surprise here because the elevation of self-determined blackness, especially outside of sports and entertainment, is usually greeted by deafening silence from both the critical as well as the popular authorities of the status quo. How else could it be? To achieve blackness is inherently a liberating act, and liberation is necessarily disruptive of the status quo.


  1. Tracy, 112.

  2. Nicholas, 236.

  3. Rampersad and Roessel, 387.

  4. Tracy, 236-37.

  5. Berry, 149-50.

  6. Ibid., 171.

Works Cited

Berry, Faith, ed. Good Morning Revolution: Uncollected Writings of Langston Hughes. New York: Citadel, 1992.

Nichols, Charles H., ed. Arna Bontemps-Langston Hughes Letters, 1925-1967. New York: Dodd, 1980.

Rampersad, Arnold. The Life of Langston Hughes, vol. 2, 1925-1967. New York: Dodd, 1988.

Rampersad, Arnold, and David Roessel, eds. The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes. New York: Knopf, 1994.

Tracy, Steven C. Langston Hughes and the Blues. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1988.

Jonathan Gill (essay date spring/fall 2000)

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SOURCE: Gill, Jonathan. “Ezra Pound and Langston Hughes: The ABC of Po'try.” Paideuma 29, nos. 1-2 (spring/fall 2000): 79-88.

[In the following essay, Gill discusses correspondence that took place between Ezra Pound and Langston Hughes from 1931 to 1951.]

For sheer chutzpah, nothing beats Ezra Pound's letters. Pound wrote to Louis Zukofsky in a Yiddish-English that rarely stopped short of offense, addressed James Joyce in a mock Irish-English, and communicated with his publisher James Laughlin in an ornery Yankee-English. Nowhere, though, did Pound test the patience of a correspondent more than with Langston Hughes. Pound not only addressed the premier African American poet of the twentieth century in black English, but at one point in a 1951 letter went so far as to correct as inauthentic Hughes's own language—the phrase “I ain't got another thing in the U.S.A. on which to lean,” from Hughes's book Simple Speaks His Mind (178). Pound took Hughes to task for allowing artistic sensibilities to interfere in what ought to have been a simple transcription of a natural language: “Dazz L. H.'s musical sense buttin' in” (qtd. in Rampersad 2. 185). However, the comment betrays not the ignorance or arrogance that so often characterizes Pound's letters, but a genuine insight into the workings of Hughes's language. That Pound could “black up” with such ease suggests unexplored alliances between the two poets; indeed, I would go so far as to argue that unpublished letters between the two poets show that Pound's Modernism and Hughes's role in the Harlem Renaissance function as more than merely analogues or allied projects, but as something approaching a single literary enterprise.

It is only in recent years that scholars have allowed the writings of the Harlem Renaissance specifically, and black English and African American culture in general, anything more than a peripheral role in the Modernism for which Pound served as parent, midwife, and offspring. Even so, a segregation between the two movements prevails. Houston Baker has taken a “separate but equal” position, claiming that “Africans and Afro-Americans—through conscious and unconscious designs of various Western ‘modernisms’—have little in common with Joycean or Eliotic projects” (xvi). More recently, Michael North has focused on the letters of Pound and T. S. Eliot, claiming that their playful use of black dialect serves as Modernism's “private double” (57), and therefore remains outside the proper bounds of the modernist experiment. In fact, questions of race in America, explored through a direct and committed engagement with African American culture, pervade the modernist canon, from Pound's Cantos and Gertrude Stein's The Making of Americans, to Eliot's “Fragment of an Agon” and William Carlos Williams's Paterson. Despite persistent genuflections to Europe, the American modernists drew from African American culture no less than the writers of the Harlem Renaissance drew from white culture. For Pound to correct Hughes's black English or play Brer Rabbit to Eliot's Possum, or for Hughes to address Pound in “white” English or write Shakespearean sonnets, signified not the putting on, but the taking off of a mask.

The first contact between Hughes and Pound occurred in 1931 in the pages of Contempo, a liberal journal run by two students at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. In the early 1930s Pound sat on Contempo's editorial board, and on September 15, 1931, his essay “Publishers, Pamphlets, and Other Things” shared the front page with Hughes's poem “House in This World.” The day after Christmas of the same year, Pound wrote what was apparently a blind letter to “Langston Hughes Esq,” in care of the Contempo offices. Pound may not have shown much interest thus far in the developments of the Harlem Renaissance beyond a 1922 dig at the producers of “native negro phoque melodies” (Eliot 505), but he was convinced that Hughes was in an ideal position to help disseminate the works of Leo Frobenius, the German anthropologist who claimed that European civilization derives from Africa. As Pound explained to Hughes, black colleges in the United States had a particularly obvious and important stake in making sure Frobenius's studies of African folk tales were translated and studied—an unrealistic proposition, if the difficulties in translating Frobenius's term “paideuma,” taken up with such vigor by Pound, are any indication.

Hughes responded in April 1932 with warmth, particularly as regards Pound's plans for the use of Frobenius in black colleges. As Arnold Rampersad details, during Hughes's Southern reading tour of late 1931 and early 1932—which included a visit to Chapel Hill—he saw how hard the Depression had hit African Americans, and he noted how poorly black colleges, then largely timid and conservative in matters of racial protest, were responding. Hughes even allowed Pound to excerpt, in Nancy Cunard's 1934 Negro Anthology, a provocative Hughes letter to Pound calling Negro schools “highly imitative of the ‘best’ white models, and mostly controlled by white gentlemen who live in Boston and New York and never heard of Benin” (“Letter to EP” 141). As the correspondence makes clear, Hughes diligently but fruitlessly forwarded Pound's suggestions to the heads of several black colleges.

From the start, however, Hughes was anxious to speak as more than simply the representative of his race. In his very first letter to Pound, in April 1932, Hughes gushed:

I have known your work for more than 10 years and 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.1

(Pound 43/21/796)

Despite Hughes's perhaps overly enthusiastic effort here to establish a poet-to-poet bond with Pound, these are the words of someone who had not read Pound's work very carefully. Pound's early poetry strenuously opposes a poetics of inwardness in favor of “direct treatment of the thing” (LE [Literary Essays of Ezra Pound] 3); the whole thrust of Pound's writing from Imagism to the start of The Cantos emphasizes the poem itself, and the words from which the poem is so painstakingly sculpted. Despite an increasing density of reference, there is never the sense that the words on the page are only signposts to some inner, hidden or otherwise secretive meaning.

This is not to say that Hughes was uninfluenced by Pound, or that his poetic project was unrelated to Pound's; in fact, Hughes's most significant contribution to the poetry of the Harlem Renaissance—the use of black English instead of the stilted dialect voices that had dominated Negro poetry thus far—may be seen as a typically modernist rejection of the artificial in favor of the natural. Poems like “Elevator Boy” show off a voice that is positively lyrical in its plainness:

I got a job now
Runnin' an elevator
In the Dennington Hotel in Jersey.
Job ain't no good though.
No money around.

(Fine Clothes 38)

Like much of Hughes's early work, this poem seems to have been written under the sign of Pound's 1912 call for a new poetics—the poem's directness of treatment, spareness of presentation, and irregular musicality make the poem a textbook illustration of “A Few Don'ts” (LE 3). Further, consider Hughes's practice of constructing poems out of the “real” voices of his friends and neighbors, as in “Prize Fighter”:

If I wasn't dumb
I wouldn't be fightin'
I could make six dollars a day
On the docks
And I'd save more than I do now

(Fine Clothes 33)

Such poems have no clearer precedent than in the vernacular masking Pound had perfected in the poems collected in Personae (1926), where characters so often simply rise and speak:

So much barren regret,
So many hours wasted!
And now I watch, from the window
                              the rain, the wandering busses

(P 158)

Hughes has simply substituted the unadorned voices of African American elevator boys, prostitutes, blues singers, gamblers, and porters for Pound's British clerks, Provençal warriors, and Chinese courtesans.

However much Hughes wished to link his poetry to that of Pound in April 1932, he also had a political agenda of his own: gathering financial and moral support for nine African Americans who had recently been arrested for rape after a racial brawl on a train near Scottsboro, Alabama. Hughes visited the jailed suspects, known as the Scottsboro boys, in the midst of his 1931-1932 reading tour, wrote poems and a play about the case, and asked for support from figures such as Countee Cullen, John Dos Passos, W. C. Handy, Anita Loos, Claude McKay, George Bernard Shaw, and Ezra Pound, who responded with a statement that should confound those who would blithely dismiss Pound as a racist:

no govt. can go on forever if it allows the worst men in it to govern and if it lends itself repeatedly to flagrant injustice. There is no doubt in my mind that the extreme Southern states are governed by the worst there is in them […] All of which you are welcome to quote if you think it will do any good. I am not hiding my opinion.

(L [Ezra Pound, Selected Letters, 1907-1941] 241)

Significantly, this letter came in response not merely to Hughes's explicit call for assistance in the Scottsboro boys trial, but because Pound had received Scottsboro Limited, Hughes's volume of poetry denouncing the racism that led to the trial. Nonetheless, Pound dismissed Hughes's verse with a polite expression of thanks and quickly moved on to more important matters, namely the above statement. It was not until July of that year that Pound would offer his comments on the volumes that had made Hughes's reputation in America: The Weary Blues (1926) and Fine Clothes to the Jew (1927).

Pound may have been late in offering his opinion, but once he did, it was clearly after a sympathetic and respectful reading: “Now about yr / poems. I don't know whether you want yr / great granddad's opinion or not” (JWJ/Hughes 126/6/1). Pound, who as far as I can tell never remarked on the notorious title of Fine Clothes to the Jew, was particularly pleased with Hughes's use of the blues in that volume:

The strength of folk song gets into it because everything unnecessary is forgotten in the oral transmission. and simply drops out. I think you were dead right in starting with the “blues” as a model. AND there is nothing harder than to do a folk song once one has touched any sort of sophistication.

(JWJ/Hughes 126/6/1)

Pound clearly recognized the affinities between his own use of Provençal song forms and Hughes's use of the blues—in both cases, a vernacular, “closed” form was being used to produce a surprising vitality and freshness. As Pound had written in a 1930 letter to Louis Zukofsky:

Latin words do have a hackscent on some syllables more'n on others, like in English and amerikun but mostly you have to learn it a word at a time. The fun comes when it pulls against the verse accent, alle samme jazz etc. depending on whether the guy has nigger blood undsoweiter.

(L/LZ [Pound/Zukofsky: Selected Letters of Ezra Pound and Louis Zukofsky] 74)

Pound apparently heard in the language of African Americans a natural vitality and vernacular spontaneity that he felt standard English lacked—indeed, Pound seems to have considered black English the model for a contemporary vernacular.

Pound's definitive statement on black English is contained in an undated, unpublished essay—possibly a radio script from the early 1940s—called FOR THE AFRO=AMERICAN LANGUAGE. Here Pound claims that “one race and one race only” has resisted the “various caucasian and semi=eastern strains” that have “thineed [sic] out the vowel sounds” (Pound 43/94/3548). In this essay, the noise of racist interference cannot quite drown out a legitimate admiration:

God damn it I wish the yellow octaroons quadroons and spitoons wd. stop talking like the cheap whites … There is only one time I really want to kick a black man and that is when I hear him blahing like a Haavud sophmore. Damn it, nigguh; when you got som'thin' better n the white man; why the hell can't you keep it.

(Pound 43/94/3458)

Pound wrote, however, from longstanding interest in African American culture. Among Pound's earliest letters preserved in his papers at Yale is an 1891 request for Santa Claus to bring Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin (Pound 53/41/1560). Although Pound grew up in an all-white suburb of Philadelphia, he seems to have had enough exposure to African Americans, both in Philadelphia and on visits to New York, to claim, forty years later: “I wuz riz among nigguhs” (qtd. in Flory 76). In the 1920s and 1930s Pound contributed to periodicals celebrating the black arts, he proselytized unceasingly on behalf of Frobenius and the value of African culture, and he even planned to set an African rock drawing of a “negro on the hop” (L/JL [Ezra Pound and James Laughlin: Selected Letters] 153-4) beside a Chinese ideogram on the title page of The Cantos. Perhaps most famously, there were the black voices:

          “doan yu tell no one I made it”
                              from a mask fine as any in Frankfurt
“It'll get you offn th' groun”


that Pound heard while imprisoned near Pisa in the summer of 1945, and whose natural grace he celebrated in The Pisan Cantos.

However, Pound's celebration of black English and African culture—he often elided the two—was not as benign as it sometimes seems; the modernist embrace of black English depended on a distance that made the claim of sameness safe. Pound prided himself on a liberal view of non-European cultures, especially in comparison to that of Eliot—“how you gwine ter keep deh Possum in his feedbox,” he wrote to F. V. Morley in 1937, “when I brings in deh Chinas and blackmen?? He won't laaak fer to see no Chinas and blackmen in a bukk about Kulchur” (L 288). Nonetheless, three years later Pound wrote to Eliot, “I know you jib at China and Frobenius cause they ain't pie church; and neither of us likes sabages, black habits, etc.” (L 336). Indeed, while Pound's affection for black culture allowed him to understand Hughes's use of the blues as a legitimately modernist transformation of folk material, Pound's ideas about “sabages, black habits etc.” prevented him from recognizing the ways in which Hughes was striving after long forms.

In his initial response to Hughes's poems in 1932, Pound ignored the sense in which both The Weary Blues and Fine Clothes to the Jew are more than collections of short verses. As such, Pound's initial misreading of Hughes was almost as blatant as Hughes's initial misreading of Pound. Pound wrote:

If it means anything to you that I find the stuff toward the end of the second vol. better made. A poem, especially in vers libre, but ANY poem ought to be like a steel spring with the ends held firm so that the whole thing is kept tense. I think you're firmer in poems like Railroad Ave. and Ruined Gal than in most of the earlier poems. Every word that don't work ought to be put out “sinister” does no good in Ruby Brown.

(JWJ/Hughes 126/6/1)

As of 1932, Pound had clearly not lost his sharp editorial sense, at least for close reading; to leave the “sinister” out of the line “And the sinister shuttered houses of the bottoms” (CP [The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes] 73) in “Ruby Brown” keeps the line taut and powerful. Like an obedient “great-grandson” of the modernists, Pound suggested, Hughes ought to allow the bare image, not an authorial intervention, to do the work. But the vision that allowed Pound a decade earlier to see The Waste Land's larger shape was nowhere in evidence when Pound read Hughes. The only defense I can offer is the fact that most of Hughes's contemporaries, black and white, failed or refused to see Fine Clothes to the Jew as a long poem. Perhaps Hughes himself doubted his larger vision; after all, in his 1959 Selected Poems he broke up the sequence, destroying the sense of progress and redemption in the six-section poem, which begins in uncertainty and hard luck at sunset, passes through the dark night of religion, sex, and love, and ends with a bluesy but hopeful sunrise.

In the decades that followed, Pound continued to deny Hughes anything more than the lyric sensibility of a latter-day minstrel. In his readings of Hughes's subsequent work, Pound consistently focused on individual words at the expense of larger patterns—precisely the opposite of Hughes's initial sycophancy. Just as he completely missed the sense of Fine Clothes to the Jew as more than a simple collection of light verses, Pound denied the seriousness of the achievement of Montage of a Dream Deferred (1951), this time sweetening his dismissal in a compliment: “am ylad to git some po'try I can read” (Pound 53/21/796), Pound wrote Hughes in March 1951. In fact, Montage of a Dream Deferred presents itself as a High Modernist long poem, missing not a trick from the repertoire: fragmentation, the primacy of form, the integration of non-poetic material, and the sense of a culture in crisis, not to mention an ultimately redemptive “narrative.” However, in Pound's eyes, it seems that the best that Hughes could hope for was the clarity and simplicity of “po'try”—as opposed to Pound's own “poetry,” in which a readable vernacular could properly express the universal values of high culture. The highest tribute Pound could come up with a month later was a playful imitation of the rhythm that opens and closes Montage, but with a hidden barb comparing Hughes to one of the most famous of American “po'tasters”:

Have yu heard
Vachel L.
                              did n'
                                                  say deh
                                                                      las' word

(Pound 53/21/796)

Given Pound's low opinion of Vachel Lindsay, this is small praise indeed.

Perhaps in the end, it was not distance, but proximity that might account for the ways in which these two poets so misread one another. Consider Hughes's contribution running alongside Pound's essay in that September 1931 issue of Contempo:

I'm looking for a house
In the world
Where the white shadows
Will not fall.
There is no such house,
Dark brothers,
No such house
At all.

(CP 138)

Here Hughes invents the notion of “white shadows” to rethink the roles of those who supposedly give light, and those who supposedly live in darkness—suggesting that “poetry” and “po'try” in Pound's terms, are not only related, but interdependent. After all, in every way that counts—the mask, the fragment, the vernacular, the myth, the reworking of genealogies—the literary movements that Pound and Hughes spear-headed are truly distinguishable only in terms of race. Even there, the “other” voices that both Pound's Modernism and Hughes's Harlem Renaissance so depended on for their subjects and poetics were not something far “out there,” but something deep “in here.”


  1. Most of the surviving correspondence between Ezra Pound and Langston Hughes is held at Yale University's Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, New Haven, CT, in the Ezra Pound and James Weldon Johnson/Langston Hughes collections. Where possible, I have retained the punctuation, spelling, and page layout of these materials and cited them by collection, box, and file number.

Works Cited

Baker, Houston A. Jr. Modernism and the Harlem Renaissance. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1987.

Flory, Wendy Stallard. The American Ezra Pound. New Haven: Yale UP, 1989.

Hughes, Langston. The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes. Ed. Arnold Rampersad. New York: Knopf, 1994.

———. Fine Clothes to the Jew. New York: Knopf, 1927.

———. Selected Poems. New York: Vintage, 1959; repr. 1974.

———. Simple Speaks His Mind. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1950.

North, Michael. “The Dialect in/of Modernism.” American Literary History 4/1 (Spring 1992): 56-76.

Pound, Ezra. Ezra Pound and James Laughlin: Selected Letters. Ed. David M. Gordon. New York: Norton, 1994.

———. Ezra Pound, Selected Letters, 1907-1941. Ed. D. D. Paige. New York: New Directions, 1950.

———. “A Letter to Ezra Pound,” in Negro Anthology, ed. Nancy Cunard. London, 1934; repr. New York: Negro Universities Press, 1969. 141.

———. Literary Essays of Ezra Pound. Ed. T. S. Eliot. New York: New Directions, 1954.

———. Personae: The Collected Poems of Ezra Pound. New York: Boni and Liveright, 1926; repr. New York: New Directions, 1971.

———. Pound/Zukofsky: Selected Letters of Ezra Pound and Louis Zukofsky. Ed. Barry Ahearn. New York: New Directions, 1987.

———. The Cantos. New York: New Directions, 1983.

Rampersad, Arnold. The Life of Langston Hughes. 2 vols. New York: Oxford UP, 1986.

John Lowney (essay date June 2000)

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SOURCE: Lowney, John. “Langston Hughes and the ‘Nonsense’ of Bebop.” American Literature: A Journal of Literary History, Criticism, and Bibliography 72, no. 2 (June 2000): 357-85.

[In the following essay, Lowney discusses the emergence of bebop in the Harlem jazz scene and its relationship to the themes and rhythms of Hughes's Montage of a Dream Deferred.]

In terms of current Afro-American popular music and the sources from which it has progressed—jazz, ragtime, swing, blues, boogie-woogie, and be-bop—this poem on contemporary Harlem, like be-bop, is marked by conflicting changes, sudden nuances, sharp and impudent interjections, broken rhythms, and passages sometimes in the manner of the jam session, sometimes the popular song, punctuated by the riffs, runs, breaks, and disc-tortions of the music of a community in transition.

—Langston Hughes, Introduction to Montage of a Dream Deferred

That is where Bop comes from—out of them dark days we have seen. That is why Be-bop is so mad, wild, frantic, crazy. And not to be dug unless you have seen dark days, too. That's why folks who ain't suffered much cannot play Bop, and do not understaind it. They think it's nonsense

—Langston Hughes, “Bop”

Langston Hughes's 1951 book-length montage of “contemporary Harlem” concludes with a motif that recurs throughout the poem and throughout his career: “Dream within a dream / Our dream deferred.1 Hughes locates this African American “dream deferred” within a geography of broken promises, a geography both separate from and contained within the social inequities of Manhattan and, by extension, the national postwar world. In mapping the social geography of a Harlem that was still suffering from the economic impact of the Great Depression, a Harlem that had become a national symbol of black urban unrest after 1943, Hughes underscores the necessity for a critical memory responsive to its historical moment. As his introductory statement to Montage indicates, the musical form he chose to render this critical memory was the still controversial jazz sound of bebop. While Montage invokes a polymorphous African American musical tradition familiar to readers of Hughes's earlier blues and jazz poetry, it summons this tradition through bebop's more defiant postwar mood. Hughes's introduction anticipates a readership divided in its understanding of bebop. On the one hand, he can assume an identification of bebop with Harlem in explaining how the poem's dissonance relates to the social world it represents; on the other, the academic, even bureaucratic sound of “a community in transition” appeals to a public less familiar with Harlem than, for example, the African American readership of his weekly Simple columns in the Chicago Defender. Such a conflicted sense of his audience, figured more blatantly in the contrasting language of the introduction to Montage and that of Simple's rendition of “bop,” is symptomatic of the struggle that occupied Hughes throughout his postwar writing: the struggle to negotiate conflicting formations of a progressive black public sphere, from the multiracial ideal of social democracy associated with the Popular Front to more militant black nationalist alternatives. Because bebop evinces this discord in both its performative practice and its reception, it is an especially compelling mode for Hughes's “disc-tortions” of postwar Harlem. It is this relationship between bebop and its public that I will address in the following pages, examining in particular the significance of bebop in Montage for reclaiming Harlem as a site for both black cultural pride and militant anger, a site of memory that recalls the utopian promise of the Harlem Renaissance but also appeals to the postwar skepticism of a younger generation of black artists.2

Montage exemplifies the ongoing importance of what Houston Baker has defined as “critical memory.”3 In his essay in the 1995 Black Public Sphere collection, Baker discusses recent pluralist formulations of the public sphere that take into account subordinated social groups excluded from the dominant bourgeois public. He cites in particular feminist social theorist Nancy Fraser, who emphasizes the importance of both identity politics and the mass media for the formation of “subaltern counterpublic spheres.” Counterpublic spheres constituted by such subordinated social groups serve two important functions: they provide spaces for the invention and circulation of counterdiscourses, and they offer bases for critical action within broader public spheres against the privilege of dominant social groups.4 Given the history of black exclusion from official decision-making spheres in the United States, African American political struggle prior to the 1960s was articulated largely through counterpublic organizations ranging from the black church to the activities and publications of Civil Rights organizations to debates within black literary and academic circles. Such organizations have strengthened black counterpublics and increased pressure for African American inclusion in mainstream public discourses.5 In questioning the relation of counterpublic to official public spheres in African American history, Baker takes as his primary example recent debates over the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s legacy as a political leader. In reclaiming the radical political work of King from more conservative constructions of his legacy, Baker argues for the role of critical memory not only in rethinking the past but also in furthering progressive social change: “The essence of critical memory's work is the cumulative, collective maintenance of a record that draws into relationship significant instants of time past and the always uprooted homelessness of now.” King's own oratorical strategies illustrate this function of critical memory. As Baker writes: “King's sensibility was metaphysical. It was one of montage, or after the example of Romare Bearden in the graphic arts, collage. It was capable of both effecting and expressing a peculiar synthesis between seemingly disparate walks of American life.”6 Hughes's jazz portrait of postwar Harlem also conveys this “peculiar synthesis,” as does much of Hughes's cultural work during and immediately after World War II.

Hughes was remarkably productive in the late 1940s, even as he was becoming increasingly subject to official surveillance and censure for his associations with the Communist Party. The range of books he published in the postwar years preceding the McCarthy hearings suggests his defiant commitment to a social democratic public sphere that is international in scope but open to emergent local and national formations. In particular, his work as a writer, translator, and editor suggests his ongoing dedication to the formation of a pan-Africanist public sphere. In addition to Montage (written mostly in 1948 and published in 1951), Hughes published Simple Speaks His Mind in 1950, his first collection of the weekly columns he had been writing for the Chicago Defender since 1942. He was also busy working on a number of collaborative projects, all published in 1949: One-Way Ticket (a collection of poems illustrated by Jacob Lawrence); Cuba Libre: Poems by Nicolás Guillén (which Hughes translated with Ben Frederic Carruthers); and the groundbreaking anthology The Poetry of the Negro 1746-1949 (which he coedited with Arna Bontemps). This popular anthology included black American poetry, poetry by white American writers about blacks, and poetry by black Caribbean and African writers. Although some reviewers objected to the internationalist approach of this anthology and others objected to its inclusion of white writers, The Poetry of the Negro succeeded in introducing a wide range of black poetry, especially poetry by younger writers, to a larger audience. During this period, Hughes was also engaged in a number of more popular cultural productions, working in media as diverse as Broadway musical theater, opera, and children's books. As these projects suggest, Hughes's “social art” worked toward the formation of a public sphere that contested not only the dominant formations of American nationalism but also divisive distinctions between high and popular culture.

From the early years of the Cold War until the present, Hughes has been subject to competing claims for his legacy, claims that often obscure his radical response to the Depression and War years.7 Such selective memory is common within African American literary studies more generally, which has tended to valorize the 1920s accomplishments of the Harlem Renaissance, often ignoring the continuity of many of its literary debates through the 1930s. Debates about primitivism, nationalism, and class politics that were initiated in the mid-1920s occupied African American intellectuals through the next decade and beyond.8 As scholars of American cultural history have documented, collective memory of the 1930s was so dramatically revised during the Cold War that memories of the collapse of American capitalism and popular social democratic alternatives to this socioeconomic system were largely repressed. This process of “political amnesia,” as Alan Wald has written of the New York intellectuals, has had a lasting impact on American and, more specifically, African American literary history. Until recently, the cultural complexity of the 1930s and 1940s has most often been subjected to the political amnesia of the academy or studied reductively in relation to the merits and/or failures of Communism.9

One legacy of McCarthyism has been the distorted vision of the Popular Front as a social and cultural movement. In his compelling recent book The Cultural Front: The Laboring of American Culture in the Twentieth Century, Michael Denning documents the ways in which the Popular Front has had a more profound impact on American culture than historians have tended to realize. Contesting the common assumption that 1930s American radicalism emerged as a temporary response to the Depression and to European fascism, Denning argues instead that the Popular Front formed a more substantial historical bloc. Based primarily in the unionizing activities of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), this bloc encompassed a broader social movement of trade unionists and Communists, independent leftists and émigré antifascists, united by their commitment to social democratic electoral politics; to antifascist, anti-imperialist international politics; and to a civil liberties campaign that opposed lynching and labor repression. The most important literary correlative to this multiethnic movement is not the social realism usually identified with proletarian fiction but a social modernism that variously fuses modernist formal strategies with the recognition of social crisis, a modernism more often conventionally associated with the European Marxism of Bertolt Brecht, for example, than with the African American Marxism of a writer like Hughes.10 Denning underscores how models of twentieth-century literary periodization have contributed to misperceptions of the Popular Front because these models have tended to follow broad narratives of cultural, social, and economic history: modernist/postmodernist, prewar/postwar, Fordist/post-Fordist, and so on. Models periodized in these ways diminish the significance of generational structures of feeling as well as specific events that inform literary production, particularly those that do not coincide exactly with the dominant narratives. This is especially the case for leftist writers, such as Hughes, whose careers were dramatically transformed by the Depression, World War II, and the Cold War. As Denning writes, the Popular Front “stands, not as another epoch, but as the promise of a different road beyond modernism, a road not taken, a vanishing mediator. It was a moment of transition between the Fordist modernism that reigned before the crash, and the postmodernism of the American Century that emerged from the ruins of Hiroshima.”11

If Hughes's cultural work at the very end of this “moment of transition” was both national and global in its orientation and impact, it was also specifically located within the community where he had made his home, Harlem.12 By the 1940s, Harlem was of course no longer the center of refuge and hope associated with the New Negro Renaissance. Although still a major destination for poor migrant blacks during the Great Depression, Harlem had become better known nationally as an explosive site of urban racial conflict, first in 1935 and then in 1943. The 1943 riot—one of many in black urban communities across the United States that year—took place after a white policeman had shot a black soldier in a conflict involving a black woman. The socioeconomic causes for such social volatility had been well-known since the publication of the 1935 Report on the Harlem Riot: poverty, job discrimination, housing segregation, limited educational opportunity, and police insensitivity and brutality.13 Given that black unemployment was one and a half to three times the rate for white New Yorkers during the Depression, the irony of fighting white supremacy in Europe during World War II while facing such abusive conditions at home was too painful to ignore. Hughes's 1940s writing variously registers the bitter irony of continuing discrimination against blacks (at home and abroad) amid the claims of wartime nationalism. In registering this irony, however, Hughes continued to evoke the mythic status of Harlem as a black “Mecca.”

The idea of Harlem as a black Mecca is associated most often with the early years of the Harlem Renaissance, but it is an idea that lasted through the economic despair of the Depression. Harlem was, of course, one of many Northern destinations for blacks during the Great Migration. What distinguished it from other urban black communities in the North was its cosmopolitanism. By the 1920s Harlem had become an important entertainment, publishing, and intellectual center known to blacks worldwide. But like New York City more generally, Harlem was also an important destination for immigrants, most of whom came from the Caribbean. Proponents of African American cultural nationalism, as well as of pan-Africanism, underscored Harlem's multinational dimension, often with a rhetorical appeal for cultural pluralism that paralleled European immigrant claims for what Randolph Bourne called a “trans-national America.”14 This rhetoric of cultural pluralism is most prominent in The New Negro, which, despite its limited coverage of the Garvey movement and of radical socialist politics, is still often considered the definitive anthology of the Harlem Renaissance. Alain Locke's introduction to this anthology portrays Harlem as a cosmopolitan cultural capital whose significance for “Aframerican” nationalism resembled that of newly emergent national capitals of Europe such as Dublin or Prague. Although not all of the contributors to The New Negro agreed with Locke's formulation of cultural nationalism, the vision of Harlem as the international cultural center for peoples of African descent—the “home of the Negro's ‘Zionism,’” as Locke writes—is echoed elsewhere in the anthology.15 Most notably, James Weldon Johnson writes of Harlem in the essay that would become the introduction to his definitive 1930 history, Black Manhattan: “Throughout colored America … its name … now stands for the Negro metropolis. Harlem is indeed the great Mecca for the sight-seer, the pleasure-seeker, the curious, the adventurous, the enterprising, the ambitious and the talented of the entire Negro world; for the lure of it has reached down to every island of the Carib Sea and has penetrated even into Africa.”16

Johnson's trope of the black Mecca recurs in 1930s histories of Harlem as well, even as these histories register the disastrous socioeconomic impact of the Depression. Much of the interest in Harlem history was generated by initiatives of the New Deal Federal Writers Project (FWP). Among the many projects on African American history and folklore supported by the FWP were studies of the history of New York blacks and of the cultural life of Harlem in particular. Drawing from research done for the FWP, Claude McKay, who had immigrated to Harlem from his native Jamaica, wrote in Harlem: Negro Metropolis (1940):

Harlem is a piece of New York. And exactly as New York is not the typical American city, similar to one in the Middle West or the Southeast, so Harlem is no black Chicago or Durham, N.C. But as the metropolis of New York attracts America and the rest of the world, so does Harlem, in a lesser sense, make its appeal to the Negroes of America and of the world. … Harlem is more than the Negro capital of the nation. It is the Negro capital of the world. And as New York is the most glorious experiment on earth of different races and divers groups of humanity struggling and scrambling to live together, so Harlem is the most interesting sample of black humanity marching along with white humanity.17

Several years later, Roi Ottley, also working with FWP research materials, addressed a public much more concerned with the War in Europe than with the everyday struggles of black Americans. The very title of Ottley's social history of Harlem, “New World A-Coming”: Inside Black America (1943), suggests a bolder stance toward civil rights, even as its implied equation of Harlem with “black America” evokes the more mythic associations of “the Negro capital of the world.” After an epigraph from Hughes's poem “Mother to Son”—“Well, son, I'll tell you: / Life for me ain't been no crystal stair”—Ottley opens his book by reminding readers of Harlem's exemplary role in progressive social movements, while reiterating the familiar theme of its cosmopolitanism:

Harlem, a bite off Manhattan Island, is called the Negro capital. But it is more—it is the nerve center of advancing Black America. It is the fountainhead of mass movements. From it flows the progressive vitality of Negro life. Harlem is, as well, a cross-section of life in Black America—a little from here, there, and everywhere. It is at once the capital of clowns, cults, and cabarets, and the cultural and intellectual hub of the Negro world. By turns Harlem is provincial, worldly, cosmopolitan, and naïve—sometimes cynical. From here, though, the Negro looks upon the world with audacious eyes.18

Describing Harlem's multicultural “worldliness” later in his book, Ottley concludes: “[O]ne might say, the Black Metropolis is more heterogeneous than any one section in the United States.” Even more than McKay, however, Ottley draws attention to the alarming contrast of wealth and poverty that characterized everyday life in the United States, New York City, and Harlem itself. He argues that despite the “slum-shock” resulting from the practices of segregation and discrimination that have defined Harlem life, blacks were united by their collective struggle for moral, economic, and political rights: “[S]corched beyond normal recognition in the crucible of a segregated life, Negros become slum-shocked. They get distorted perspectives, and become hardened or callous. War is sometimes an intangible peril that is dwarfed by the stern realities of living. Yet this great dark mass of people of unknown potentialities is loudly assertive of its aspirations.”19 Published the same year as the second outbreak of violence that “scorched” Harlem literally, “New World A-Coming” foreshadows Hughes's expression of collective black anger several years later. But Ottley also evokes the “slum-shocked” weariness that had characterized Harlem life throughout the 1930s.

While Ottley's and McKay's uncompromising social histories of a Harlem still reeling from the Great Depression are less familiar than the earlier, more optimistic claims of Locke or Johnson, they speak more directly to the socioeconomic circumstances in which bebop emerged. As the now legendary narratives of the “bebop revolution” have insisted, the formation of a bebop counterpublic corresponded precisely with the wartime mood of black disappointment and rage that Ottley describes.20 Even such a judicious student of African American music as Ralph Ellison, himself a musician and an important influence on Hughes's understanding of bebop, detected a “revolutionary” sound emerging in wartime Harlem.21 Recalling the atmosphere of experimentation at Minton's Playhouse as “a continuing symposium of jazz, a summation of all the styles, personal and traditional, of jazz,” Ellison wrote that one could also hear “the first attempts toward a conscious statement of the sensibility of the younger generation of musicians as they worked out the techniques, structures, and rhythmical patterns with which to express themselves.”22 In a more recent account of bebop's “politics of style,” Eric Lott incisively relates this dissonant sensibility to its sociohistorical context:

[I]n the mid-forties, [Charlie] Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, [Bud] Powell, Thelonius Monk, and the rest were tearing it up with such speed and irreverence—sometimes so acrobatic as to feel unfinished, often world-historical—that prewar life seemed like a long, long time ago. … Brilliantly outside, bebop was intimately if indirectly related to the militancy of its moment. Militancy and music were undergirded by the same social facts; the music attempted to resolve at the level of style what the militancy fought out in the streets.23

Bebop was the innovative expressive form of a new generation of black jazz musicians coming to terms with the social contradictions of the war years. Like Ellison, and like Hughes before him, many of these musicians had themselves migrated to Harlem from the South and Midwest. And, like earlier expressive forms of the Harlem Renaissance, bebop's hybrid style reflected the social heterogeneity of Harlem while registering the jarring but liberating impact of a new urban environment. Improvisation became a means for negotiating but also inventing new racial—and interracial—identities.24 Yet, as Lott writes, bebop was also aggressively modernist in a way that earlier forms of African American music had not been. Not only was its “relationship to earlier styles one of calculated hostility,” its social position apart from both the black middle class and any white mainstream consensus “gave aesthetic self-assertion political force and value.”25

As socially disruptive as bebop appeared to both its proponents and detractors, its perceived relation to politics was complicated by the timing of its emergence. Bebop indeed evolved in early 1940s Harlem nightclubs such as Minton's and Clarke Monroe's Uptown House as “part of an isolated black underground, an ‘in-group’ expression that allowed relatively undisturbed experimentation away from white eyes,”26 but because it did not reach a wider public until immediately after the war, it appeared to emerge as a fully formed movement. Its sound was perplexing, if not threatening, to many listeners because its historical development had been obscured by the events of the war, including the recording ban from 1942-1944. Furthermore, because bebop's emergence coincided with a revival of New Orleans jazz, its reputation as a “revolutionary” expressive form was intensified. Bebop displaced swing in debates about postwar jazz, debates defined by the familiarly oppositional terms of progressives versus traditionalists, or modernists versus “moldy figs,” as the revivalists came to be known.27 While the popular social resonance of bebop was informed by the postwar hysteria that associated it with such “un-American” behavior as sexual promiscuity, illegal drug use, and juvenile delinquency, its contested reception among jazz enthusiasts resembled more than it differed from the reception of the earlier swing movement.

As recent cultural historians of the Swing Era have emphasized, jazz had taken on a newly defined and often fiercely contested political significance with the emergence of jazz magazines and professional music criticism in the 1930s. Much of the jazz criticism in these periodicals was written by Popular Front and New Deal intellectuals, who celebrated the music's African American roots and saw its potential for fostering an American culture based on social democracy, ethnic and racial pluralism, and an urban utopianism of changing sexual and cultural identities. In contrast to radicals who saw swing as a vehicle for greater equality, more conservative business forces tried to keep the music as “white” as possible to ensure the largest mass market. While the segregationist logic and discriminatory practices of the music industry set the stage for the bebop revolt, the terms for articulating the social and political significance of black music were established in debates about swing in the late 1930s. Even bebop's association with a subculture more invested in stylistic signs of non-conformity (such as language and dress) than in the music's cultural legitimacy was comparable to the earlier popular press about jitterbugs. The debate about bebop's social significance among the cognoscenti seemed so familiar that the jazz trade magazine Down Beat could write about the bop controversy that “history was repeating itself. … Same story, different characters.”28 There was, however, one crucial if understated difference between the popular media attacks on bebop and the earlier criticisms of swing: the attacks on bebop were explicitly aimed at the black musicians themselves, whereas the most prominent public figures of swing, who were white, had been treated more respectfully.29 The “story” may have been the “same,” but the racial “difference” of these “characters” made the bebop controversy more politically charged.

If the Swing Era had popularized jazz as an art form enjoyed by white as well as black consumers, bebop certainly resisted the commercial logic of this tradition. With its seemingly calculated defiance of the marketplace, its privileging of creative autonomy in disregard of audience expectations of the popular entertainer, bebop could be characterized as an avant-garde mode of social modernism. By the later 1940s, however, the subversive qualities of bebop had themselves become commercialized. As Scott DeVeaux writes in The Birth of Bebop, the idea of the jam session as the arena of “jazz in its purest state—an uncorrupted, unmediated, and uncommercial form of musical expression,” and the more mythic idea of the jam session as a sign of alienation, “the province of embattled, marginalized artists,” not only enhanced bop's avant-garde cachet, it also heightened its commercial appeal.30 Even “the most visible signs of resistance—the subcultural wardrobe, the impenetrable lingo, the refusal to play the expected role of entertainer—defined a place for bop in the marketplace.”31 This growing public prominence in turn made the musicians more likely subjects of police repression. As the McCarthyist hysteria about social deviance intensified during these early years of the Cold War, bebop musicians were increasingly targeted as symbolic figures of racial and generational rebellion. And as jazz became increasingly associated by political and police authorities with illegal drug use, jazz musicians were identified with Communists as agents of moral decay and threats to national unity. Jazz clubs were infiltrated by undercover agents, and numerous musicians were convicted of illegal drug possession, losing their New York City cabaret cards and, as a result, their livelihoods.32 While bebop may have sounded militant under these repressive circumstances, it was first and foremost the product of African American professionals who were struggling to make a living. Ralph Ellison's assessment of bop in the early 1950s underscores the relation of its innovative sound to the racial logic of the marketplace: “[T]he ‘changes’ or chord progressions and melodic inversions worked out by the creators of bop sprang partially from their desire to create a jazz which could not be so easily imitated and exploited by white musicians to whom the market was more open simply because of their whiteness.”33 Black musicians had seen the expansion of opportunities in the Swing Era only to experience the reemergence of patterns of segregation during the war that eroded those opportunities. DeVeaux concludes: “Bebop was a response to this impasse, an attempt to reconstitute jazz … in such a way as to give its black creators the greatest professional autonomy within the marketplace.”34

Hughes's Montage is a similar attempt to reconstitute jazz poetry. What was new about his representation of postwar Harlem was also what was “revolutionary” about bebop: critical awareness of a changing public sphere that was transforming the relationship not only between artist and audience but also between past and present. Bebop, for Hughes, evokes the tension between established public and emergent counterpublic spheres. One only has to compare Hughes's explanation of bebop in the introduction to Montage with that of his Simple columns to see how racially coded bebop's reception was. While his assessment of Harlem as “a community in transition” in Montage suggests a sociological detachment from his subject, Simple's explanation in the Chicago Defender maps a different scenario for bebop's emergence:

That is where Bop comes from—out of them dark days we have seen. That is why Be-bop is so mad, wild, frantic, crazy. And not to be dug unless you have seen dark days, too. That's why folks who ain't suffered much cannot play Bop, and do not understaind it. They think it's nonsense—like you. They think it's just crazy crazy. They do not know it is also MAD crazy, SAD crazy, FRANTIC WILD CRAZY—beat right out of some bloody black head! That's what Bop is.35

Whereas the introduction to Montage elucidates the technical devices appropriated from bop for a general public audience that may not be totally sympathetic with Hughes's experimental form, Simple's explanation assumes that such “nonsense” needs no translation. His explanation assumes an alternative black public sphere that is intimately familiar with bebop's emergence as an expressive form, a “mad, wild, frantic, crazy” from that evokes the violent racial conflict of its time but is also rooted in the “dark days” of the blues tradition.

Hughes's appropriation of bebop does not represent a radical departure from the African American expressive traditions he had popularized in his earlier writing, especially the blues. Nonetheless, the agitated sound of Montage struck many of his contemporaries as a radical departure from the more straightforward “populist” rhetoric of his best-known verse. One Marxist critic, for example, cited the title itself as an indication of this departure, suggesting that the structural principle of the montage somehow conflicted with the more accessible “people's language” of Hughes's poetry.36 Another critic similarly wrote that the references to bebop were unnecessarily obscure for such an otherwise powerfully direct work of social criticism. Yet if this critic feared that “any reader today who is unfamiliar with the raw and dizzy rhythms of the contemporary version of jazz” would be disoriented by Montage,37 critics more attuned to the history of jazz and blues poetry took Hughes's evocation of bebop more seriously. The question of Hughes's audience figures as prominently but registers quite differently in assessments of Montage's form by African American reviewers, particularly in journals that had a substantial black readership. Celebrating the fact that Montage defies the “tendency … to write about Harlem primarily for the white reader,” Frank Marshall Davis wrote that its style is “disarmingly simple—so simple that often the brilliant artistry may be overlooked. Yet this conversational simplicity makes for the charm and readability that produces a wide audience.”38 Such unqualified praise was the exception among readers who debated whether the bebop form of Montage was continuous with Hughes's earlier “folk art.” Disagreements about what made Montage formally innovative depended on the reviewer's understanding of bebop's relation to the history of black music. Arthur P. Davis, for example, wrote that Hughes employed a “technique with which he has been experimenting since 1925,” but the technique that Davis goes on to describe is that of the bebop “jam session.”39 Arna Bontemps likewise noted the formal continuity of The Weary Blues with the jazz of Montage, but, he noted, because Harlem was “25 years older … naturally its music has grown more complicated.”40 Critics who situated Montage within a developing but continuous tradition of black music were most likely to note the correspondence it implied between bebop's dissonance and Harlem's growing frustration. If these readers identified Hughes's disjointed sequence with the unnerving restlessness of a music associated with an alienated black subculture, others saw his Montage as a more calculated attempt to cash in on the youthful appeal of this same movement. J. Saunders Redding was perhaps the most direct in his criticism of Hughes's “experimentation” with “the jarring dissonances and broken rhythms of be-bop,” in contrast to the earlier “smooth and relatively simple rhythm of jazz.” With bebop opposed to jazz in this comparison, Redding appears to question whether Hughes's bebop rendition of Harlem could be considered poetry. While he objected to Hughes's “too great concern for perpetuating his reputation as an ‘experimenter,’” Redding's criticism nonetheless registers what sounded threateningly new about the “jarring dissonances” of bebop.41

The dialogic sequencing of poems throughout Montage suggests the way in which Hughes is dramatizing a Harlem “community in transition” through his translation of bebop's rapid rhythmic and harmonic changes. The sudden, unpredictable shifts in voice, mood, and dramatic scene convey a sense of anxiety, fragmentation, and urgency. Whereas the rhythms of bebop provide the formal continuity of Montage, its thematic continuity emerges through the recurring motif of the dream deferred, a motif deeply rooted in African American history that had taken on greater urgency during the War years.42 However, what makes Montage so compelling not only as a formally innovative long poem but as a representation of postwar Harlem is its formal and thematic discontinuity, the tensions it produces rather than its temporary relief of these tensions, the questions it raises rather than its tentative answers. This discontinuity underscores the often conflicting, even contradictory relations between public and counterpublic spheres within black Harlem, New York City, and the nation as a whole. I would now like to examine some instances in which Hughes's bebop sequencing of poems suggests both the continuities and discontinuities between established public and emerging counterpublic spheres.

The opening pair of poems in Montage, which introduces a section Hughes entitled “Boogie Segue to Bop,” exemplifies Hughes's technique of blending the confrontational, discordant “nonsense” of bebop with more established black performative traditions.43 Introducing the motif of the “dream deferred” as both an unspoken premise for black cultural expression and a direct challenge to rethink its contemporary resonance, “Dream Boogie” introduces the sudden shifts in voice, tone, and mood that characterize the entire volume. It begins with a series of questions that reflect on its own process of composition:

Good morning, daddy!
Ain't you heard
The boogie-woogie rumble
Of a dream deferred?
Listen closely:
You'll hear their feet
Beating out and beating out a—
                    You think
                    It's a happy beat?


Introducing the boogie-woogie rhythm that recurs in Montage's subsequent “boogie” poems, “Dream Boogie” stresses the disparity between the joyfulness associated with its rhythm and the seriousness of the dream deferred.44 By interrupting the regular rhythm with the italicized question, the poem sets up the disruptive, dialogic, interrogative pattern that generates the entire sequence. Following the example of bebop, this disruptive pattern forces us to listen more precisely to continuities and discontinuities in the sequence's metrical “feet,” continuities and discontinuities that operate thematically as well, as the next poem, “Parade,” suggests.

Whereas “Dream Boogie” introduces the “dream deferred” through the abstract discourse of music, through a dialogic discourse of jazz styles whose political implications are embedded within the formal transitions that the poem accentuates, “Parade” maps out these implicit racial conflicts in more straightforwardly oppositional terms of “black and white.” Following the first-person participant's description of the parade is a more ominous trail of “Motorcycle cops, / white,” who “will speed it / out of sight / if they can” (389). The presence of these “motorcycle cops” intensifies the resolve of the parade participants:

Marching … marching …
marching …
noon till night …
I never knew
that many Negroes
were on earth,
did you?
I never knew!
A chance to let
the whole world see
old black me!


With the dramatic repetition of “marching,” following the earlier repetition of “on foot,” “Parade” transforms an official public celebration into a politically charged commentary on wartime race relations. “Marching … marching … marching” most obviously evokes the wartime experience of black veterans, but the presence of white policemen reminds us how this commitment to progress is of necessity a march for black civil rights as well. The deliberate procession of community leaders becomes an act of defiant pride not unrelated to the aggressively disruptive approach of “Dream Boogie,” whose closing allusions to the “nonsensical” street language of bop seem otherwise distant from the formal ritual of the parade. The more straightforward descriptive approach of “Parade” ends on a note of affirmation that celebrates “the whole world” of blackness, including the counterpublic world of “Dream Boogie,” an affirmation of solidarity that also acknowledges internal differences within Harlem and within the speaker's subjectivity.

The initial sequencing of poems in Montage suggests how its dialogic procession maps a geography of “a dream deferred” rooted in the long history of black struggle, but Hughes also maps a complex geography of rapidly changing Harlem cultural life. Throughout Montage various public images of Harlem—whether utopian or dystopian, subtly nuanced or blatantly stereotypical—are contrasted with the specific voices and visions of Harlem residents. Their insiders' perspectives form a geography of proper names (of people, places, events, etc.) that locate memory within the heterogeneous social history of Harlem and New York City more generally. The political implications of such a geography become dramatically evident in the sequence of poems that opens the second section of Montage, “Dig and Be Dug.” The series of poems beginning with “Movies” and ending with “Neon Signs” locates the place names of popular entertainment sites within an intricate but explosive political web of violent power relations. “The Roosevelt, Renaissance, Gem, Alhambra: / Harlem laughing in all the wrong places” (395) begins Hughes's indictment of racist Hollywood stereotypes, an indictment substantiated by the divisively alienating effects of such mass cultural images in the following poem, “Tell Me”: “Why should it be my dream / deferred / overlong?” The political analogue to this Hollywood version of blackness is presented in “Not a Movie.” This poem's geography of racist violence begins in the South—“Well, they rocked him with road-apples / because he tried to vote”—and ends in the refuge of Harlem: “And there ain't no Ku Klux / on a 133rd” (396). If “Not a Movie” offers a sobering corrective to the “crocodile art” of Hollywood, the next poem in this sequence, “Neon Signs,” raises more interesting questions about the social and political place of bebop in Harlem. The capitalized names of jazz clubs stand in loud contrast to the lower-cased list of Harlem movie theaters: the prominence of the former not only suggests the importance of bebop to the formal structure of Montage, but it also affirms the importance of these jazz clubs to the social geography of a changing Harlem. Hughes's straightforward but emphatic rendering of “neon signs,” with minimal exposition of what these seemingly mystical names signify, presents an insider's counterpublic perspective on Harlem night life. This perspective affirms bebop's emergence as the expressive form responsive to the graphic, almost mythic violence of “Not a Movie,” as well as to the less politically motivated but no less troubling violence of the local “broken glass / in the early bright” (397).

Bebop is invoked in the even more ominous atmosphere of “Early Bright,” which follows “Dig and Be Dug.” After the mock-utopian jazz vision of “Projection,” in which “Manhattan Island will whirl / like a Dizzy Gillespie transcription / played by Inez and Timme” (404),45 we are introduced to the more familiar subcultural image of bebop in “Flatted Fifths”: “Little cullud boys with beards / re-bop be-bop mop and stop.” These initial “flatted fifths” signify an “Early Bright” scenario in which distinctions between public and private are obscured, blurred by a police culture of surveillance suspicious of all forms of racially and sexually coded social transgression. Even the “be-bop boys” are not as self-assured as they appear: they are instead “little cullud boys with fears / frantic,” who “kick their draftee years / into flatted fifths and flatter beers.” If the music can momentarily transform these flat beers into “sparkling Oriental wines / rich and strange / silken bathrobes with gold twines” (404), even such imagery of exotic luxury is subject to the paranoid fantasy of an official culture suspicious of any signs of nonconformity. In this repressive logic of officially defined difference, young black musicians, interracial couples, illegal drug users, and homosexual men and women occupy a threatening social space made common simply by the shared experience of official repression. While this implied alliance of social outcasts suggests the latent idealism of the multiracial Popular Front, the emphasis on gendered, sexual oppression also adumbrates the new social movements that in the early years of the Cold War were still counterpublic spheres of “underground” activity.

While bebop figures as the soundtrack for the atmosphere of imminent violence in “Early Bright,” the social logic of oppression in Montage is multivalent and unpredictable. The economic basis of class oppression is dramatized by “Tomorrow,” which echoes the desire for long awaited revolutionary socioeconomic change suggested by earlier poems like “Ballad of the Landlord.” It evokes this recurring desire in a seemingly mundane moment of frustration, however, frustration provoked by inflated postwar cigarette prices:

                                        Tomorrow may be
                                        a thousand years off:
                                        says this particular
                                        cigarette machine.
Others take a quarter straight.
                                        Some dawns


While this momentary craving for nicotine suggests how the impact of a “dream deferred” is experienced physiologically, the heavily accented concluding rhyme of “straight” and “wait” suggests how multivalent the repressive apparatus denying the dream can be. The presumably thwarted desire for cigarettes is figured symptomatically within a discriminatory economy in need of radical change. But the vision of this long awaited “tomorrow” can hardly obscure the social implications of “straight,” whether applied to musical performance, drug use, or sexuality.

The poem that immediately follows “Tomorrow,” ironically entitled “Mellow,” situates the jarring emphasis on “straight” and “wait” within the ever threatening logic of racial segregation that polices sexuality. There is nothing subtle about the social prohibitions that attract “white girls” to “black celebrities” in this poem. The appeal of such transgressive relationships is precisely the threatening atmosphere in which they occur, the “high tension wall / wired for killing” that “makes it / more thrilling” (405). The alluring danger of social nonconformity is reiterated in the different context of “Gauge” (406), a simple catalogue of “underworld” terms for marijuana that makes us rethink the implications of its title. Does “gauge” signify a form or instrument of measurement, or does it signify more specifically the size of a shotgun? Given the illegality of marijuana use, and given its association by the law enforcement establishment with blacks, especially the black musicians Montage celebrates, the connection of measurement—of official forms of control—to the threat of violence is inescapable. It suggests the internalized structure of social discipline that bebop both ironically echoes and transgresses. This realm of internalized restraint and potential repressive violence is evoked more sinisterly, and more specifically, in the homophobic scene of the subsequent “Café: 3 a.m.” This poem locates us initially within the social logic of an officially sanctioned atmosphere of surveillance: “Detectives from the vice squad / with weary sadistic eyes / spotting fairies.” If such “degenerates,” as “some folks say,” are perceived as a threat to the social order, a threat analogous to that of Communists in the hysterical logic of McCarthyism, the conclusion of the poem situates us in an indeterminate position, neither comfortably within nor outside this logic: “Police lady or Lesbian / over there? / Where?” (406). The concluding questions, whose speakers are not identified, heighten the poem's anxiety about gendered categories rather than relieving any tension about who is a “fairy” or a “Lesbian.” This subversion of sexual identification not only mocks and provides an antidote to McCarthyist homophobia, it raises the possibility of alliances between the figures of “Early Bright” who defy the pressure to play it “straight.”46

It seems quite a distance from the “be-bop boys” of “Jam Session,” “Be-Bop Boys,” and “Tag,” the sequence of poems that concludes “Early Bright,” to the introspective musings of the poem that follows, “Theme for English B.” Yet the transition from the violent beat of “Early Bright” to the quieter rhythms of the next section, “Vice Versa to Bach,” exemplifies the remarkable tonal range of Montage, which conveys not only the social complexity of a Harlem divided by generational, class, and cultural conflicts but also the contradictory ways this complexity is perceived by different audiences. “Theme for English B” represents one student's subjective response to life in Harlem; however, the socially constructed process of identity formation that it dramatizes corresponds to the polyphonic “community in transition” that emerges more fully in the remaining pages of Montage. And as the subsequent poems about interracial relations elaborate, the questions raised by the speaker of the poem—questions about the possibility for meaningful interracial dialogue, and, by extension, for interracial political alliances, not only in Harlem but nation-wide—are hardly confined to the classroom “theme.”

“Theme for English B” was initially published in Common Ground, which was founded by Louis Adamic and M. Margaret Anderson in 1940 to promote an understanding and appreciation of racial and ethnic diversity within the United States. While this journal was sponsored by a New Deal liberal organization, the Common Council for American Unity, it not only employed many prominent Popular Front intellectuals; it also published numerous “minority” writers, particularly writers who have since become well known. Hughes had more of his 1940s writings published in Common Ground than in any other magazine.47 Even in this liberal environment, however, Hughes, who was named to the journal's editorial board the same year he started his Simple columns for the Chicago Defender, was considered too confrontational by some readers of his essays on racial discrimination.48 Thus the question of audience that troubles the “only colored student” in the class of “Theme for English B” is not altogether different from the questions that occupied Hughes throughout the 1940s and throughout Montage. Who is his audience in this era of incipient anti-Communist hysteria? What can he presume about an audience, however liberal or even progressive, that is not predominantly black? What is the appropriate discourse for an audience whose power he distrusts but must nonetheless respect? And what is the relation of one's subjective vision to a public sphere in which every word can be (mis)judged? The answer to these questions emerges in the brilliantly disjointed rendition of Harlem's similarly contradictory position within New York City:

It's not easy to know what is true for you or me
at twenty-two, my age. But I guess I'm what
I feel and see and hear, Harlem, I hear you:
hear you, hear me—we two—you, me, talk on this page.
(I hear New York, too.) Me—who?


While the “writer” of this “theme” cannot fully identify himself with the intellectual worldview of his instructor, the formal discourse of this composition distances him from Harlem as well, a Harlem that is also figured outside but within hearing distance of “New York.” While the poem establishes a “common ground” between student and instructor in the music of “Bessie, bop, or Bach,” its subtle conclusion underscores how the interdependency of “we two” is hardly based on social equality:

Sometimes perhaps you don't want to be a part of me.
Nor do I often want to be a part of you.
But we are, that's true!
As I learn from you,
I guess you learn from me—
although you're older—and white—
and somewhat more free.


As “composed” as the speaker is in qualifying his assessment of his white teacher's authority, the accentuation of “I guess” and “somewhat more free” is too ironic to ignore. The writer's page is “part of” his teacher by necessity, that is, if the writer wants to succeed within a context of “white” authority. If the poem affirms the possibility for mutual recognition among the members of a multiracial “American” public, its ironic closure underscores the restraints that at once limit and necessitate a black counterpublic discourse.

The montage of a subjectivity “in transition” in “Theme for English B,” a subjectivity composed pragmatically more by the immediate demands of its rhetorical situation than by a securely fixed notion of a Harlem “identity,” finds its correlative in the dialogic “dream” play that makes up the remainder of Montage. The play's “dreams” include the utopian, if sometimes nostalgic, proletarian vision of interracial and intercultural cooperation, from the “mingled / black and white” of “Subway Rush Hour” (423) to the African American and African Caribbean solidarity of “Brothers” to the experience of racial hatred shared by blacks and Jews in “Likewise.” But if the poet sometimes thinks that Harlem Jews also “must have heard / the music of a / dream deferred” (425), this music is an African American music whose syncopated rhythms remind us that this “dream” is “colored” black and blue. The poems of black religious expression as well as the bebop and boogie poems identify this dream most explicitly with African American cultural forms; however, even poems that express the “American dream” in otherwise bourgeois terms map a geography of desire that locates Harlem as a central site of African American culture. This can be seen in “Deferred,” the montage of Harlem voices that represents the collective aspirations of a “community in transition” analogous to the subjective vision of “Theme for English B.” “Deferred,” which follows the most expansive protest poem in the first edition of Montage, “Freedom Train,” begins with a humble desire for education that echoes “Theme”: “This year, maybe, do you think I can graduate? … To get through high at twenty's kind of late—/ But maybe this year I can graduate” (413). Following this are similarly humble desires: a stove, a new suit, a bottle of gin, a television set, or a radio. Such material desires are counterposed with dreams of marital happiness, heavenly reward, and career success, even dreams to “study French” or “take up Bach” (413-14). These dreams represent the range of social-class aspirations that divide the Harlem of Montage, but they coalesce within the volume's signature sound of frustration:

of a dream

Buddy, have you heard? (414)

The conclusion of Montage looks forward to an uncertain future for Harlem—“What happens to a dream deferred?” (426)—powerfully reiterating this thematic motif within a postwar Harlem geography of unresolved conflicts. This geography is marked by generational differences but also by the social differences of an ever-changing immigrant and migrant population. The poem entitled “Good Morning,” however, emphasizes that the differences in culture and language that divide people of color arriving in New York are less important than the common barriers they face. Written in the voice of a life-long resident of Harlem who has witnessed the arrival of migrants from “Georgia Florida Louisiana” and immigrants from “Puerto Rico … Cuba Haiti Jamaica,” who has “watched Harlem grow … from river to river” into a “dusky sash across Manhattan” (426-27), “Good Morning” concludes with a sober yet provocative rendering of the poem's refrain:

I've seen them come dark
out of Penn Station—
but the trains are late.
The gates open—
          Yet there're bars
          at each gate.
                    What happens
                    to a dream deferred?
          Daddy, ain't you heard?


By returning to the mode of address that begins Montage, “Good Morning” reaffirms the counterpublic potential of African American music, especially bebop. The dramatic repetition of “ain't you heard,” however, accentuates the reader's position—and the necessity to respond—more urgently than ever. The testimonial voice of “Good Morning” speaks for as it speaks to the poem's montage of Harlem “dreams deferred.” A geography of desire, a geography of disappointment, a geography of militant rage, a geography of “dark” meditation, Hughes's Harlem extends beyond the city's physical boundaries defined in the concluding poem of Montage: “Between two rivers / North of the park” (429). Hughes's “dream within a dream” foregrounds the role of critical memory not only for reclaiming a past but for translating the “nonsense” of emergent counterpublic expressive forms into a language of utopian possibility.


  1. Langston Hughes, The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes (New York: Knopf, 1994), 429. All subsequent quotations from Hughes's poetry are from this edition and will be cited parenthetically in the text.

  2. While the scope of this essay is limited to Hughes's relation to the younger generation of jazz musicians emerging in the 1940s, his extraordinary impact on younger black writers has not been sufficiently recognized. On Hughes's importance for experimental writing, see Aldon Lynn Nielsen's provocative study of African American postmodernism, Black Chant: Languages of African-American Postmodernism (New York: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1997), especially 41-54.

  3. Houston A. Baker Jr., “Critical Memory and the Black Public Sphere,” in The Black Public Sphere, ed. The Black Public Sphere Collective (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1995), 7-37.

  4. Baker cites Nancy Fraser's “Rethinking the Public Sphere: A Contribution to the Critique of Actually Existing Democracy,” in The Phantom Public Sphere, ed. Bruce Robbins (Minneapolis: Univ. of Minnesota Press, 1993), 1-32. See also Fraser's more extensive Unruly Practices: Power, Discourse, and Gender in Contemporary Social Theory (Minneapolis: Univ. of Minnesota Press, 1989). The Phantom Public Sphere presents a multidisciplinary range of post-Habermasian approaches to contemporary public culture. See especially Robbins's introduction to the collection (xii-xxvi).

  5. Michael C. Dawson provides a cogent analysis of the twentieth-century political evolution of the black counterpublic in “A Black Counterpublic? Economic Earthquakes, Racial Agenda(s), and Black Politics,” in The Black Public Sphere, 199-225.

  6. Baker, “Critical Memory and the Black Public Sphere,” in The Black Public Sphere, 7, 23.

  7. The most informative and thorough consideration of Hughes's writing in the 1940s and afterwards is Arnold Rampersad's The Life of Langston Hughes, Volume 2, 1941-1967: I Dream a World (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1988). As Rampersad notes, Hughes himself chose to suppress much of his most radical writing after repeated harassment by anti-Communist organizations in the 1940s and 1950s. The most notorious example of this self-censorship is his Selected Poems, which excluded his most political protest poems. On the Selected Poems, see Rampersad, The Life of Langston Hughes, Volume 2, 295. While Hughes also omitted evidence of his pro-Communist sympathies from his autobiographies, he continued to publish radical social protest writings in magazines and newspapers throughout this period of anti-Communist harassment. See also Faith Berry's introduction to Langston Hughes, Good Morning Revolution: Uncollected Social Protest Writings, ed. Faith Berry (New York: Lawrence Hill, 1973), xi-xiv.

  8. The most influential literary histories of the Harlem Renaissance have argued that the end of the Renaissance coincided with the decline of white patronage during the Depression. See, for example, Nathan Irvin Huggins, Harlem Renaissance (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1971); and David Levering Lewis, When Harlem Was in Vogue (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1979). For arguments that stress the continuity of 1920s literary politics with the greater emphasis on social class in the 1930s, see James O. Young, Black Writers of the Thirties (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State Univ. Press, 1973); and George Hutchinson, The Harlem Renaissance in Black and White (Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard Univ. Press, 1995), 435-39.

  9. Alan M. Wald, The New York Intellectuals: The Rise and Decline of the Anti-Stalinist Left from the 1930s to the 1980s (Chapel Hill: Univ. of North Carolina Press, 1987), especially 3-24. Wald addresses how and why study of Depression-era literature has been so proscribed in “The 1930s Left in U.S. Literature Reconsidered,” in Radical Revisions: Rereading 1930s Culture, ed. Bill Mullen and Sherry Lee Linkon (Urbana: Univ. of Illinois Press, 1996), 13-28, as he argues for a revised paradigm of radical literary studies that relates the 1930s to earlier and later manifestations of leftist literary production. Radical Revisions offers a number of exemplary literary studies that answer Wald's challenge to rethink the boundaries of “1930s culture.” See in particular James A. Miller, “African-American Writing of the 1930s: A Prologue,” in Radical Revisions, 78-90.

  10. Michael Denning, The Cultural Front: The Laboring of American Culture in the Twentieth Century (New York: Verso, 1996). Denning cites Hughes extensively as an innovative leftist writer whose political affiliations have routinely been misrepresented or ignored; see especially 57-58. On Hughes's “importance as a model and emblem of proletarian writing” (217), see Denning's discussion of Hughes's 1934 The Ways of White Folks, 217-19.

  11. Denning, The Cultural Front, 27.

  12. Mark Naison studies the impact that the Communist Party had on Harlem cultural politics in Communists in Harlem during the Depression (Urbana: Univ. of Illinois Press, 1983); see especially his discussion of Hughes (42-43) and his chapter on the Popular Front and Harlem intellectuals (192-226).

  13. On the socioeconomic conditions that informed the Harlem riots, see Jervis Anderson, This Was Harlem: A Cultural Portrait, 1900-1950 (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1982); Dominic J. Capeci Jr., The Harlem Riot of 1943 (Philadelphia: Temple Univ. Press, 1977); and Cheryl Greenberg, “Or Does It Explode?”: Harlem in the Great Depression (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1991).

  14. Randolph Bourne, “Trans-National America,” in War and the Intellectuals: Collected Essays, 1915-1919, ed. Carl Resek (New York: Harper, 1964), 107-23. Recent comparative studies of American modernism that emphasize the interracial and intercultural dimensions of the Harlem Renaissance include Ann Douglas, Terrible Honesty: Mongrel Manhattan in the 1920s (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1995); Hutchinson, The Harlem Renaissance in Black and White; and Michael North, The Dialect of Modernism: Race, Language, and Twentieth-Century Literature (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1994).

  15. Alain Locke, “The New Negro,” in The New Negro, ed. Alain Locke (1925; reprint, New York: Atheneum, 1992), 6-7, 14.

  16. James Weldon Johnson, “Harlem: The Culture Capital,” in The New Negro, ed. Locke, 301.

  17. Claude McKay, Harlem: Negro Metropolis (New York: Dutton, 1940), 15-16.

  18. Roi Ottley, “New World A-Coming”: Inside Black America (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1943), 1.

  19. Ibid., 41, 2-3.

  20. As Scott DeVeaux has documented in “Constructing the Jazz Tradition” (in The Jazz Cadence of American Culture, ed. Robert G. O'Meally [New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1998], 483-512), the “bebop revolution” has been constructed primarily by scholars who have approached the history of jazz from sociological perspectives. These would include Sidney Finkelstein, Jazz: A People's Music (New York: Citadel, 1948); LeRoi Jones [Amiri Baraka], Blues People: Negro Music in White America (New York: Morrow, 1963); and Eric J. Hobsbawm [Francis Newton, pseud.], The Jazz Scene (1959; reprint, New York: Da Capo, 1975). On the other hand, musicologists have tended to see the transition from swing to bebop as evolutionary rather than revolutionary. These would include swing proponents such as Leonard Feather, The Book of Jazz (New York: Meridian, 1957); and Barry Ulanov, A History of Jazz in America (New York: Viking, 1952); as well as influential scholars such as Gunther Schuller, The Swing Era: The Development of Jazz, 1930-1945 (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1989); and Martin Williams, The Jazz Tradition (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1970). Recent studies by writers of the “New Jazz History” concentrate as much on the reception of jazz as its practice. See, for example, Scott DeVeaux, The Birth of Bebop: A Social and Musical History (Berkeley and Los Angeles: Univ. of California Press, 1997); Lewis A. Erenberg, Swingin' the Dream: Big Band Jazz and the Rebirth of American Culture (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1998); David W. Stowe, Swing Changes: Big-Band Jazz in New Deal America (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1994); and the two volumes of essays edited by Krin Gabbard, Jazz among the Discourses (Durham, N.C.: Duke Univ. Press, 1995) and Representing Jazz (Durham, N.C.: Duke Univ. Press, 1995). DeVeaux, Erenberg, and Stowe in particular address the cultural conditions in which these polarized explanations of bebop emerged.

  21. Hughes was close enough to Ellison at the time in which he wrote Montage that he dedicated the volume to Ellison and his wife Fanny. In an interview with Arnold Rampersad, Ellison attributed this dedication to his knowledge of bebop: “I had called his attention to what was happening in the vernacular—be-bop and so on” (Rampersad, The Life of Langston Hughes, Vol. II, 202). The friendship between Hughes and Ellison barely outlasted the publication of Montage and Ellison's Invisible Man a year later (Rampersad, 200-202).

  22. Ralph Ellison, “The Golden Age, Time Past,” in Shadow and Act (New York: Random House, 1964), 210.

  23. Eric Lott, “Double V, Double Time: Bebop's Politics of Style,” in Jazz among the Discourses, ed. Gabbard, 245-46.

  24. Ibid., 247-48.

  25. Ibid., 249-50.

  26. Erenberg, Swingin' the Dream, 227. For a first-hand account that corroborates Ellison's assessment of the early days of bebop, see Dizzy Gillespie's reminiscence of Minton's Playhouse in to BE, or not … to BOP (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1979), 134-51.

  27. The derisive appellation “moldy figs” was first used to describe the revivalists in a 1942 Metronome editorial (Bernard Gendron, “‘Moldy Figs’ and Modernists: Jazz at War [1942-1946],” reprinted in Jazz among the Discourses, ed. Gabbard, 32). For additional documentation and assessment of the critical reception of bebop in the 1940s, see Gendron, “A Short Stay in the Sun: The Reception of Bebop (1944-1950),” in The Bebop Revolution in Words and Music, ed. Dave Oliphant (Austin: Univ. of Texas Press, 1994), 137-58.

  28. Quoted in Gendron, “A Short Stay in the Sun,” 153.

  29. Stowe, Swing Changes, 209-10.

  30. DeVeaux, The Birth of Bebop, 204-5.

  31. Ibid., 24.

  32. Charlie Parker and Billie Holiday are the best known victims of police repression during the antidrug crusade of the late 1940s and early 1950s, but they were not alone; see Erenberg, Swingin' the Dream, 241-53, for an incisive account of the systematic targeting of black jazz musicians during this period.

  33. Ellison, “The Golden Age, Time Past,” 212.

  34. DeVeaux, The Birth of Bebop, 27.

  35. Hughes, “Bop,” quoted in Rampersad, Langston Hughes, Vol. II, 153.

  36. Don West, “Reviews: Montage of a Dream Deferred,Appeal for Peace and Unity, August 1951; reprinted in Langston Hughes: The Contemporary Reviews, ed. Tish Dace (New York: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1997), 398.

  37. Ruth Lerrigo Parker, review of Montage of a Dream Deferred, International House Quarterly 15 (autumn 1951); reprinted in The Contemporary Reviews, ed. Dace, 399.

  38. Frank Marshall Davis, review of Montage of a Dream Deferred, Philadelphia Tribune,3 March 1951; reprinted in The Contemporary Reviews, ed. Dace, 385.

  39. Arthur P. Davis, review of Montage of a Dream Deferred, Journal of Negro History 36 (April 1951); reprinted in The Contemporary Reviews, ed. Dace, 390.

  40. Arna Bontemps, “Harlem's Poet Scores Again,” review of Montage of a Dream Deferred, Nashville Tennessean, 17 June 1951; reprinted in The Contemporary Reviews, ed. Dace, 397.

  41. J. Saunders Redding, “Langston Hughes in an Old Vein with New Rhythms,” review of Montage of a Dream Deferred, New York Herald Tribune Book Review, 11 March 1951; reprinted in The Contemporary Reviews, ed. Dace, 387. It should be noted that many reviewers of Montage dismissed Hughes's references to bebop altogether, some citing their distaste for the music and others their ignorance. Redding's criticism of Montage, by contrast, is distinguished by his appreciation of the significance of the blues and jazz for the history of African American poetry.

  42. Critical studies of Montage that address the sociaesthetic implications of bebop for its form include James DeJongh, Vicious Modernism: Black Harlem and the Literary Imagination (New York: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1990); Onwuchekwa Jemie, Langston Hughes: An Introduction to the Poetry (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1976); and Steven C. Tracy, Langston Hughes and the Blues (Urbana: Univ. of Illinois Press, 1988).

  43. There were initially six sections of Montage, although Hughes later omitted the section headings when the poem was reprinted in its entirety in his Selected Poems. See Rampersad's discussion of the genesis of Montage in The Life of Langston Hughes, Volume 2, 151-53. In examining its structure as a long poem, I will refer to the section headings from the initial publication of Montage, although the poems I quote are the final versions published in Collected Poems. Rampersad delineates Hughes's revisions of Montage in the notes for Collected Poems, 664-68.

  44. See Tracy, Langston Hughes and the Blues, 225-36, on the boogie poems in Montage.

  45. According to Rampersad, “Inez” refers to Inez Cavanaugh, who worked as a publicity agent for Duke Ellington before opening a nightclub in Paris, while “Timme” most likely refers to Baron Timme Rosenkrantz, a Danish jazz afficionado who wrote for Down Beat in the late 1940s. See Rampersad's notes to Hughes, Collected Poems, 666, where he annotates the network of contemporary names that Hughes included in different versions of “Projection.”

  46. On the psychosexual implications of “Café: 3 a.m.,” see David R. Jarraway, “Montage of an Otherness Deferred: Dreaming Subjectivity in Langston Hughes,” American Literature 66 (December 1996): 819-47. In addition to the article by Jarraway, which cogently relates the “mystery” of Hughes's sexuality to the problem of “deferred subjectivity” in Montage, see Charles I. Nero, “Re/Membering Langston: Homophobic Textuality and Arnold Rampersad's Life of Langston Hughes,” in Queer Representations: Reading Lives, Reading Cultures, ed. Martin Duberman (New York: New York Univ. Press, 1997), 188-96; and John Shoptaw, “Lyric Incorporated: The Serial Object of George Oppen and Langston Hughes,” Sagetrieb 12 (winter 1993): 105-24. The significance of Hughes's ambiguous sexuality has attracted considerable attention in recent years, especially in the wake of Rampersad's biography. For studies that (tentatively) relate Hughes to the gay subculture of Jazz Age Harlem, see George Chauncey, Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940 (New York: Basic-Harper/Collins, 1994), 244-67; and Eric Garber, “A Spectacle in Color: The Lesbian and Gay Subculture of Jazz Age Harlem,” in Hidden from History: Reclaiming the Gay and Lesbian Past, ed. Martin Duberman, Martha Vicinus, and George Chauncey (New York: New American Library, 1989), 318-33.

  47. See Rampersad, The Life of Langston Hughes, Vol. II, 39-40 and 66-67 on Hughes's literary affiliation with Common Ground, on whose editorial board he also served. Denning makes a compelling case for the lasting impact of this journal, which, during its decade-long existence (1940-1950), published black writers such as Arna Bontemps, Melvin Tolson, Margaret Walker, Zora Neale Hurston, Ralph Ellison, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Chester Himes (Cultural Front, 447-49).

  48. Rampersad, Life of Langston Hughes, Vol. II, 67-68.

Anita Patterson (essay date December 2000)

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SOURCE: Patterson, Anita. “Jazz, Realism, and the Modernist Lyric: The Poetry of Langston Hughes.” Modern Language Quarterly 61, no. 4 (December 2000): 651-82.

[In the following essay, Patterson examines the jazz poetics and the modernistic aspects of Hughes's verse.]

In 1940 Richard Wright, praising Langston Hughes's contribution to the development of modern American literature, observed that Hughes's “realistic position” had become the “dominant outlook of all those Negro writers who have something to say.”1 Nineteen years later James Baldwin faulted Hughes for failing to follow through consistently on the artistic premises laid out in his early verse. The problem with his unsuccessful poems, Baldwin said, was that they “take refuge, finally, in a fake simplicity in order to avoid the very difficult simplicity of experience.” In succumbing to the idiomatic demands of a sociological perspective—the pressure, that is, to “hold the experience outside him”—they did not fulfill an essential criterion of Baldwin's realism, namely, the evocation of a point of view that stands “within the experience and outside it at the same time.” To argue his point, Baldwin cited the last line of a jazz poem by Hughes called “Dream Boogie,” which first appeared as part of Montage of a Dream Deferred in 1951. “Hughes,” said Baldwin, “knows the bitter truth behind these hieroglyphics, what they are designed to protect, what they are designed to convey. But he has not forced them into the realm of art where their meaning would become clear and overwhelming. ‘Hey, pop! /Re-hop!/ Mop!’ conveys much more on Lenox Avenue than it does in this book, which is not the way it ought to be.”2

The main criticism Baldwin raises against jazz poems like “Dream Boogie” is that they do not offer a clearly recognizable, accurate record of experience that calls attention to their embeddedness in history. Such summary judgment has hampered further exploration of how Hughes's jazz poetics contributed to twentieth-century realism or to the development of the modernist lyric.

This essay situates Hughes's jazz poetics within the arc of his entire career to show how modernist experiments in poems like “Dream Boogie” are in keeping with his earlier attempts at lyric realism. I will focus on two main ideas. The first is that Hughes's poems challenge the critical distinction between “realism” and the “avant-garde”: even his simplest, most documentary, and most historically engaged poems evince a characteristically modernist preoccupation with the figurative implications of form. Second, Hughes's realist approach to the lyric offers a fresh perspective on some central tendencies in transatlantic modernism: his repudiation of racial separatism, his interest in the relationship between poetry and American music, and his experiments with a jazz poetics are, in many ways, comparable to the critique of romantic cultural nationalism undertaken by Ezra Pound, Hart Crane, T. S. Eliot, and other modernists writing in the aftermath of the Great War. The convergence between Hughes's techniques and those of the American avant-garde highlights the importance of metonymic style, and of the historical knowledge that underlies the impulse toward formal experiment and improvisation, as a relatively neglected feature of the modernist lyric.

It is by now almost a commonplace to say that Hughes revised and extended the populist angle of vision explored in the previous decade by Edwin Arlington Robinson, Vachel Lindsay, Carl Sandburg, and others. But we have yet to understand the series of formal experiments he executed within the lyric that show his engagement with questions shared by his high modernist contemporaries.


As a rubric, realism has been subject to heated debate and casual dismissal in the history of American criticism. “American realism virtually has no school; its most dominating and influential advocate, William Dean Howells, often seems to ride along in a strange vacuum, nearly unheeded in his continual insistence on the proprieties of the everyday, stable characterization, and moral certainty, while almost every other important author of the period simply refused, on these terms, to become a realist.”3 Whereas in Europe the great period of realism occurred throughout the second half of the nineteenth century, in North America the movement emerged in full force only with Howells's advocacy in the nineties.4

Partly in response to Erich Auerbach's Mimesis, theoretical descriptions of realism in modern American fiction have proliferated in recent decades.5 Yet little sustained, systematic analysis has been done on the formal development of realism in the modern lyric.6 Such neglect may be explained in part by the fact that the realist movement was long excluded from accounts of twentieth-century American poetry, because it was considered formally without interest—a servile, transparent copying of the world.7The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, for example, defines realism solely in contradistinction to the intensified perception, densely metaphorical style, and artificiality of the lyric and adds that, “in a general sense, realistic poetry may result from any down-to-earth opposition to what seem artificial rules of versification or arbitrary restrictions on matter or diction. … The precepts of realism are often considered inimical to the spirit of lyric poetry.”8

The latent critical bias against realism was memorably addressed by Georg Luckacs, who in the late 1950s offered a surprising and useful theoretical reappraisal that paid special attention to formal issues. In The Meaning of Contemporary Realism Lukacs arrived at a description of literary realism that helped readers bracket ideological content and focus instead on innovations in language and method. One objection he raised to current critical approaches to realism was that the political message of literature was fast becoming the overriding preoccupation of reviewers; as a result, literary standards were falling precipitously.9 Another pressing concern was that modernist tastes in the 1920s had led critics to neglect works that exhibited the traditional mimetic techniques of realism. Criticism, according to Lukacs, was hindered by the unexamined belief that realism was always, by definition, antithetical to modernism:

Let us begin by examining two prejudices. The first is typical of much present-day bourgeois criticism. It is contained in the proposition that the literature of “modernism,” of the avant-garde, is the essentially modern literature. The traditional techniques of realism, these critics assert, are inadequate, because too superficial, to deal with the realities of our age.


Hughes's poems raise questions about stultifying critical binarisms that for years have pitted modern realism against modernist antirealism, tradition against the avant-garde, political content against artistic form. As a poet, Hughes constantly tries to illustrate how formal qualities may assist an act of engaged social criticism. Instead of using words that deceive us into seeing only their “transparency” and make us believe that we are taking an unmediated look through a windowpane to a world outside the poem, Hughes offers historical knowledge by directing our attention to his careful arrangement of words on the page. His style often dramatizes how language shapes the poem's social perspectives.

“Flight,” which first appeared in the June 1930 issue of Opportunity, demonstrates how Hughes's realist poetics meets modernist formal expectations. The poem is set in a swamp, during the postemancipation period: a black man, accused of raping a white woman, is trying to escape from a lynch mob. The pursuit of hounds recalls the history of slavery and suggests that rituals of racial violence in the South continued, and even escalated, after emancipation. Hughes's speaker assumes two points of view: observer and victim. The poem begins by giving the victim, who initially occupies the same position as the reader, the impossible task of stepping in mud without leaving tracks:

Plant your toes in the cool swamp mud.
Step and leave no track.
Hurry, sweating runner!
The hounds are at your back.
No I didn't touch her
White flesh ain't for me.
Hurry! Black boy, hurry!
They'll swing you to a tree.(10)

In “Flight” Hughes uses a short lyric form to present a splintered aspect of a reality too vast and horrifying to comprehend in its entirety. Instead the speaker describes, analyzes, and orders a tragic, swiftly unfolding moment. The lyric evokes a tension between Hughes's artistic suspension of time and the time-bound social realities that are the subject of his poem. But despite his reliance on the temporal restrictions of the genre, Hughes refuses to rest content with the familiar consolations of lyric transcendence and disengagement. Distrustful of such forced integrities and closures, he builds in a narrative structure that implies a larger, sociohistorical context, giving disquieting openness to the exigencies that lend the poem shape and significance.

The reign of terror in the wake of emancipation generated the special conditions in which modern African American poetry emerged. In the postbellum South slavery was replaced by other forms of racial subjection: indentured servitude, black codes, the contract system, vagrancy statutes, and lynching.11 Between 1900 and 1930 massive numbers of African Americans fled the rural South and traveled to northern cities like Chicago, Detroit, and New York. During the time that Hughes wrote, many of his contemporaries started the long process of coming to grips with his lyric's main subject, namely, the violent causes of this exodus, now known as the “Great Migration.”12 “Flight” documents how, for many southern freedmen, migration had become more than a necessary socioeconomic resource; it was a way of life, a means of preserving their safety, sanity, and dignity.

In “Flight,” however, realist verisimilitude coexists with modernist formal innovation. In this respect Hughes's style fits an essential criterion that Hugo Friedrich proposes for the modernist lyric.13 The preoccupation with expressive freedom makes sense inasmuch as the plight of the lynched man described in “Flight” forces us to question a fundamental tenet of nineteenth-century realism: that a realist work should depict a form of social life in which the individual can act with “autonomous motivation” (Preminger and Brogan, 1016).

The guiding metaphor in the poem's title also works to correct popular misconceptions of the causes of the Great Migration, misconceptions exacerbated by the constant use of the trope in journalistic analyses by Hughes's black contemporaries. In Opportunity, the same journal in which Hughes's poem appeared, Charles S. Johnson asked, “How much is migration a flight from persecution?”14 Black public intellectuals such as Alain Locke, portraying the social formation of the “New Negro” in 1925, tried to play down the violent causes of migration by using the image of “deliberate flight” to suggest that African Americans were engaged in a mythic, quintessentially American quest for opportunity.15

Lynching was, in certain respects, similar to the experience that the Great War offered transatlantic modernists, since its moral horrors spurred Hughes and other African American poets to discover formalist freedoms that were wholly new. But although Hughes's passion for freedom resembles that of the avant-garde, his practices as a modern lyricist are distinctive insofar as they dramatize his effort to bridge a cultural divide between a folkloric African American tradition that is largely oral and the privileged arena of “literature.” Thus the lyric's opening line may be read as an apt allegory of Hughes's predicament as a modern African American poet. It compares his effort to fashion enduring metrical feet that fit the rhythms of an oral tradition with a fleeing man's attempt to “plant” his “toes” in the mud.

Because self-referentiality penetrates a privileged arena, there is also the suggestion of trespass: the poet's act is described in terms that bring to mind a man in flight, a man accused of rape. Hughes's exhilarating discovery of freedom through formal modes of expression—metaphors rich in ambiguity, the distancing effects and pleasures of rhyme and writerly italicization, the metrical swing of his verse—is counterpointed by an awareness that such freedom implicates him in the history he relates. Hughes's use of italics, for example, makes the victim's words echo, as if lifted from a realist novel about a lynching that was written for a mass audience.16 The device reminds us that, by adopting the lyric as his preferred genre, Hughes has aligned himself with other avant-garde artists in refusing to satisfy the raging market demand for sensationalist fiction that exacerbated a mass audience's tendency toward escapism. Even as his poem resists such a flight from reality, however, Hughes also insists on his freedom as an artist: the freedom, that is, to work continually at formal experimentation and to transcend the all-determining, muddy historical contingencies that fatally distort perception.

Hughes's gesture toward modernist innovation—his veiled reference to an avant-garde flight from verisimilitude—ultimately serves the ends of his realism, insofar as it raises the reader's awareness of the post-emancipation context of the lyric. The violent historical developments that caused the Great Migration and spurred Hughes's engagement with formal questions are linked to the rhythmic cadences of “Flight” by the verb swing, at the end of the poem: the neat succession of rhythms that fall (“Hurry! Black boy, hurry!”) and rise again (“They'll swing you to a tree”) ominously dramatizes the swinging motion of the hanged man's body.

“Flight” questions familiar definitions of literary realism, as well as the idea that Hughes's realist commitments foreclose the possibility of modernism. At the same time that he tries to document the violent conditions that shaped the emergence of modern African American poetry, Hughes also invites us to consider how, and why, the poet's manipulation of his medium expresses artistic freedom from the contingencies he depicts. In the end he shows us that the nineteenth-century realist goal of transparent verisimilitude is unattainable in the modern lyric. Such figurative complexity highlights a modernist tendency in Hughes's realism.


To confer shape on what Eliot described as the “immense panorama of futility and anarchy which is contemporary history,” Hughes turned not to classical myths but to a poetics of migration that had been used to impose order on and give significance to the traumatic postemancipation experience of African Americans, and that figured in many ballads, reels, and blues and ragtime songs Hughes remembered hearing during his childhood in Lawrence, Kansas.17 A great deal has already been said about the “modernity” of African American music and, in particular, about the centrality of the blues to Hughes's lyric practice.18 Arnold Rampersad's suggestion that the blues poems in Fine Clothes to the Jew are some of Hughes's most important works has prompted a critical reassessment of his project and legacy.19 There is, however, much to be learned about how his blues and jazz poetics fit in the development of the modernist lyric, both in the United States and in Europe, and, conversely, how his engagement with modernism contributed to his technique as a realist poet.

In his autobiography Hughes, appealing to the strength, humor, and “rooted power” of the blues, tries to change the derogatory view of folk culture that prevailed among the African American middle class and Euro-Americans.20 Ralph Ellison once described the blues as a “chronicle of personal catastrophe expressed lyrically,” a mode of remembrance that keeps the experience alive and also transcends it, “not by the consolations of philosophy, but by squeezing from it a near-tragic, near-comic lyricism.”21 The artistic possibilities of traditional blues are examined in “Red Clay Blues,” a poem Hughes wrote in collaboration with Richard Wright. The lyric states, with eloquent simplicity, a near-tragic vision of history that is tempered by a strong belief in the sanctity of knowledge. The first premise of the opening stanza is that “knowing” history means knowing what it feels like to long for the red clay of Georgia:

I miss that red clay, Lawd, I
Need to feel it in my shoes.
Says miss that red clay, Lawd, I
Need to feel it in my shoes.
I want to get to Georgia cause I
Got them red clay blues.

(CP [Collected Poems], 212)

These lines suggest, with remarkable precision, the transition from spiritual to blues, and from sacred to secular idioms, that took place during the late nineteenth century. For instance, the syntax subsumes the act of praying in an ornamental cadence (“Lawd”) designed to enhance the expression of personal, daily needs. Despite the starkly conventional form, the lyric's style affirms the individuality of both speaker and poet. The line breaks rhythmically emphasize the importance of human desire and possession (“miss,” “need,” “want,” “got”), Hughes's unabashed embrace of the oral tradition and a vernacular blues syntax (“Says miss that red clay”), and the metrical freedom discovered through repeated pronominal self-naming (“I”).

Hughes broke new ground in his poetry, partly because he saw that his engagement with canonical texts and his interest in traditional English and American prosody would provide a much-needed, clarifying distance from the rich but potentially formulaic idioms he borrowed from African American folk culture. Ellison made a comment that seems to encapsulate Hughes's efforts to establish a critical, intellectual perspective on the folk tradition as a poetic resource:

The Negro American writer is also an heir of the human experience which is literature, and this might well be more important to him than his living folk tradition. For me, at least … the stability of the Negro American folk tradition became precious as a result of an act of literary discovery. … For those who are able to translate its meanings into wider, more precise vocabularies it has much to offer indeed.22

Hughes was well aware that, as a poet, he needed to come to terms with the fundamental difference between blues language and poetic language. Despite his devotion to the traditional African American folk idiom, in a number of poems written during the 1920s he took a serious look at the artistic costs and devastating emotional consequences of the strict expressive constraints imposed by the blues.

In “The Weary Blues,” first published in 1925, Hughes expresses his desire to encounter the idiomatic options raised by the blues as possibilities that he was free to choose, not as habitual motions that he was compelled to reiterate. The blues song has been framed by the mediating perspective of the lyric speaker, who describes the “moan” of the “poor piano.” In contrast to the speaker, who tries to put the meaning of the music into words, the blues player conveys his feelings not so much with words as with the “lazy sway” of his body:23

Droning a drowsy syncopated tune,
Rocking back and forth to a mellow croon,
I heard a Negro play.
Down on Lenox Avenue the other night
By the pale dull pallor of an old gas light
He did a lazy sway. …
He did a lazy sway. …
To the tune o' those Weary Blues.
With his ebony hands on each ivory key
He made that poor piano moan with melody.
O Blues!
Swaying to and fro on his rickety stool
He played that sad raggy tune like a musical fool.
Sweet Blues!
Coming from a black man's soul.
Thump, thump, thump, went his foot on the floor.
He played a few chords then he sang some more—
“I got the Weary Blues
And I can't be satisfied.
Got the Weary Blues
And can't be satisfied—
I ain't happy no mo'
And I wish that I had died.”
And far into the night he crooned that tune.
The stars went out and so did the moon.
The singer stopped playing and went to bed
While the Weary Blues echoed through his head.
He slept like a rock or a man that's dead.

(CP, 50)

Hughes expected many readers to think that poems such as “The Weary Blues” were not about anything more than a piano player playing blues. In fact, he often invited and validated such interpretations.24 The poem may be seen to enact, however, a renunciation of metaphor—a despairing gesture suggesting that imaginative dreamlike escapes from the “outer” world do noting to change social conditions. In another poem the romantic images of the stars and moon going out would be richly evocative and metaphorical, signifying unfulfilled desire or desolation over a dream deferred. But here their figurative weight is offset by a context that leads us to believe that Hughes merely wants to indicate the passage of time. The latent metaphorical meaning of his idiom is suppressed. Whereas in “Flight” Hughes acknowledges his passion for figuration as a mode of transcendence, in this lyric he dramatizes how having the blues may undermine a poet's belief in the modernist freedom to trope. The stars and moon going out and the player going to bed illustrate the action of lulling metaphorical language to the dead sleep of verisimilitude.

In “The Weary Blues” Hughes implies that the conventional blues idiom is so compelling, and so limited, as to threaten his imaginative freedom. In addition, the mechanical objects that occupy the poem's setting—the gas light, the rickety stool, the piano parts, and so on—evoke another modern development that imperils artistic freedom. Like many of his contemporaries, both in the United States and abroad, Hughes was aware of the cultural crisis caused by mechanization. In 1933 F. R. Leavis, quoting H. G. Wells, would vividly condemn the “vast and increasing inattention” resulting from new forms of mechanical reproduction: “The machine … has brought about changes in habit and the circumstances of life at a rate for which we have no parallel. … When we consider, for instance, the processes of mass-production and standardisation in the form represented by the Press, it becomes obviously of sinister significance that they should be accompanied by a process of levelling-down.” Two years before Hughes published “The Weary Blues,” Eliot warned against the insidious effects of gramophones, motorcars, loudspeakers, and cinemas in which the mind was “lulled by continuous senseless music and continuous action too rapid … to act upon.”25

Hughes's concern about the leveling-down effects of technology, which are barely hinted at in “The Weary Blues,” becomes a point of focus in “Summer Night,” which first appeared in the December 1925 issue of Crisis. Like the typist in Eliot's Waste Land, who paces about her room, her brain allowing only a “half-formed thought,” and who “smoothes her hair with automatic hand” as she puts a record on the gramophone, Hughes's lyric speaker is left virtually without words once the player piano, the Victrola, and the other “sounds” of Harlem fall silent in the still night.26 He can only toss restlessly, muttering ineffective generalities:

The sounds
Of the Harlem night
Drop one by one into stillness.
The last player-piano is closed.
The last victrola ceases with the
“Jazz-Boy Blues.”
The last crying baby sleeps
And the night becomes
Still as a whispering heartbeat.
I toss
Without rest in the darkness,
Weary as the tired night,
My soul
Empty as the silence,
Empty with a vague,
Aching emptiness,
Needing someone,

(CP, 59)

The passage demonstrates the high stakes of Hughes's project as a poet who deals in words, and it implies his effort, as Pound might say, to “modernize” his perspective by distancing himself from the nonverbal expressiveness of the blues.

Together, “Summer Night” and “The Weary Blues” scrutinize the view that the blues is an essentially “black” musical emotion that can never be individuated for Euro-American readers. By raising this question, Hughes anticipates Paul Gilroy's proposition, in his recent study of music and the black diaspora, that a “topos of unsayability”—a habitual invocation of truths that cannot be put into words—lies at the heart of black musical culture.27

Gilroy's discussion follows in large part from W. E. B. DuBois's analysis of African American spirituals in The Souls of Black Folk. DuBois was one of the first to notice that many things were conventionally left unsaid in the folk lyrics. Such “omissions and silences,” and the lack of reference to social conditions, testify to the violent subjugation of enslavement and reflect the “shadow of fear” that hung over the slaves. DuBois concludes that, in this crucial respect, the folk idiom imposed constraints on “allowable thought” and confined poetry “for the most part to single or double lines”:

Over the inner thoughts of the slaves and their relations one with another the shadow of fear ever hung, so that we get but glimpses here and there, and also with them, eloquent omissions and silences. Mother and child are sung, but seldom father; fugitive and weary wanderer call for pity and affection, but there is little of wooing and wedding; the rocks and the mountains are well known, but home is unknown. … Of deep successful love there is ominous silence. … [The] rhythm of the songs, and the limitations of allowable thought, confined the poetry for the most part to single or double lines, and they seldom were expanded to quatrains or longer tales.28

Gilroy argues that the “topos of unsayability” is an outgrowth of the experience of slavery, and no doubt DuBois and Hughes would agree. But whereas Gilroy celebrates this topos, which can be used “to challenge the privileged conceptions of both language and writing as preeminent expressions of human consciousness” (74), Hughes considered it part of the debilitating legacy of slavery and was deeply concerned about the “silences” that structure thought and expression in the blues. True, in the short lyric “Hey!” Hughes jokes about the curious effects of unsayability by drawing our attention to the alluring ambiguity of the blues singer's sustained note, “hey”:

Sun's a settin',
This is what I'm gonna sing.
Sun's a settin',
This is what I'm gonna sing:
I feels de blues a comin',
Wonder what de blues'll bring?

(CP, 112)

But Hughes also understood how severely limiting such a convention was. In “The Weary Blues” he suggests that unsayability cannot be a topos so long as it is forced on African Americans by the memory of “racial terror” (Gilroy, 74).

As we have seen, the stylistic complexity of many of the poems Hughes wrote during the 1920s and early 1930s creates a clarifying perspective on the folk tradition and distances him from racial separatist explanations of culture.29 Although Hughes was noted as one of the first poets to celebrate the beauty of the blues as an American art form, he was not a “black nationalist,” in Amiri Baraka's sense of the term.30 In Blues People: Negro Music in White America (1963) Baraka began to advance a separatist line of argument:

Blues as an autonomous music had been in a sense inviolable. There was no clear way into it … except as concomitant with what seems to me to be the peculiar social, cultural, economic, and emotional experience of a black man in America. … The materials of blues were not available to the white American. … It was as if these materials were secret and obscure, and blues a kind of ethno-historic rite as basic as blood.31

Forty years before the Black Arts movement Hughes was writing poems that examined the tragic implications of racial separatist logic. As “The Weary Blues” shows, it would have been impossible for him to write completely in accordance with the verbal constraints of the folk tradition: to do so would have resulted in an endlessly mechanical recapitulation of the racial terror of slavery. Viewed in these terms, Hughes's repudiation of racialist ideas about culture in poems written during the 1920s anticipates the positions he explored in his so-called radical poetry, written between 1932 and 1938.32


Hughes's resistance to separatist descriptions of African American culture is, in certain respects, strikingly similar to the critique of romantic nationalism undertaken by many of his modernist contemporaries, both in the United States and in Europe. D. H. Lawrence, T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, Wallace Stevens, Hart Crane, and others wrote poems in which they tried to come to terms with the difficult necessity of cross-cultural identification. Many of these poems centered on the changing nature of musical experience and the devastating, far-reaching consequences of European nationalism that culminated in the Great War.

An early draft of Lawrence's “Piano,” which first appeared in New Poems in 1918, explores how the speaker's response to Hungarian music reflects the historical causes of the war. Like Hughes, Lawrence tried to show how traces of history were ceaselessly echoed in nineteenth-century musical forms. But whereas Hughes was primarily concerned with illustrating the American legacy of racial violence that shaped musical forms such as swing and the blues, Lawrence confronted the legacy of romanticism in Europe:

Somewhere beneath that piano's superb sleek black
Must hide my mother's piano, little and brown, with the back
That stood close to the wall, and the front's faded silk, both torn,
And the keys with little hollows, that my mother's fingers had worn.
Softly, in the shadows, a woman is singing to me
Quietly, through the years I have crept back to see
A child sitting under the piano, in the boom of the shaking strings
Pressing the little poised feet of the mother who smiles as she sings.
The full throated woman has chosen a winning, living song
And surely the heart that is in me must belong
To the old Sunday evenings, when darkness wandered outside
And hymns gleamed on our warm lips, as we watched mother's fingers glide.
Or this is my sister at home in the old front room
Singing love's first surprised gladness, alone in the gloom.
She will start when she sees me, and blushing, spread out her hands
To cover my mouth's raillery, till I'm bound in her shame's heartspun bands.
A woman is singing me a wild Hungarian air
And her arms, and her bosom, and the whole of her soul is bare,
And the great black piano is clamouring as my mother's never could clamour
And my mother's tunes are devoured of this music's ravaging glamour.(33)

“Piano” also refers, more broadly, to the changing of European musical experience and sensibility from the early nineteenth to the early twentieth century. Concert life and musical tastes were dramatically transformed in the Allied countries during and after the Great War. Fewer keyboard battle pieces, for example, were written then than at the height of romantic nationalism during the nineteenth century, and composers began to turn their attention to serious vocal and orchestral laments. In the Allied countries there was a growing tendency to ban concert performances of German music; in England, France, and America musicians were encouraged to perform the works of “native” composers.34 In the first half of the nineteenth century chamber music had gradually been moved out of domestic spaces and salons into public performance halls. “Personality,” observes James H. Johnson, “thrust itself to center stage in the romantic decades.”35

“Piano” is as much about the creative hunger to absorb different cultural influences, and the threat it poses to the cherished individuality of regions, as it is about the fateful vying for dominance among the major European powers in the decades preceding the Great War. The “wild Hungarian air” (a phrase Lawrence omitted in the final version of the poem) recalls the intensification of European nationalist rivalries during this period.36 The poem is built on a perceived contrast between, on the one hand, the speaker's present experience of the “clamouring” sound of a sleek black concert hall piano and a song that bares a woman's soul to the public; and, on the other, his secretly erotic childhood memories of his mother and sister performing hymns and love songs at home. By searching for hidden continuities between the raging, devouring glamour associated with Hungarian music and the speaker's fond memories of British middle-class musical culture, Lawrence discloses the speaker's painful ambivalence toward the sentiment awakened in him by the song.37

Lawrence and Hughes both questioned popular notions of racial authenticity in music. Like Hughes's “Weary Blues,” Lawrence's “Piano” expresses ambivalence toward the expressive and perceptual constraints of the “polarization” of peoples in “particular localit[ies].”38 Hughes was concerned to stand, as it were, both inside and outside the blues and figuratively to imply his own motives for moving away from the rich but ultimately constraining formulas of traditional blues lyrics. Lawrence's stance is similar, insofar as his speaker affirms, with great affection, the distinctive musical heritages of nations while he conveys the horrifying irony that such seemingly benign cultural distinctions would, in the end, be used as a justification for war. By upholding both the distinctiveness and the universality of musical experience, both poets suggest that music, in the words of Theodor Adorno, “more than any other artistic medium, expresses the national principle's antinomies” (quoted in Gilroy, 72).

Hughes's technically self-conscious approach to realism in the lyric, his prosodic resistance to separatist paradigms, and his interest in the history and irreducible hybridity of African American culture are aspects of his lyric practice that he shared with his American modernist contemporaries. Pound's 1920 poem Hugh Selwyn Mauberley, for example, may be said to anticipate Hughes's “Weary Blues,” since it also confronts the problem of realism in the lyric. Although Pound keeps references to social setting and details to a bare minimum in the poem, his interest in finding a modern poetic equivalent to Henry James's realism is evident in a 1922 letter to Felix Schelling, in which Pound calls his poem an attempt to condense the James novel.”39 Morever, like Hughes, Pound uses the image of a piano to explore how modern art has come dangerously close to the mass-produced conformity, planned obsolescence, and rapid replacement associated with fashion. The pianola metonymically represents the forces of mass production:

The tea-rose tea-gown, etc.
supplants the mousseline of Cos,
The pianola “replaces”
Sappho's barbitos.(40)

Another American modernist, Hart Crane, examined how the violent history that gave rise to African American music ultimately shaped the imagery and cadence of his own idiom:

“what do you want? getting weak on the links?
fandaddle daddy don't ask for change—IS THIS
FOURTEENTH? it's half past six she said—if
you don't like my gate why did you
swing on it, why didja
swing on it
And somehow anyhow swing—
The phonographs of hades in the brain
Are tunnels that re-wind themselves, and love
A burnt match skating in a urinal—
Somewhere above Fourteenth TAKE THE EXPRESS
To brush some new presentiment of pain—(41)

In 1948, in The Auroras of Autumn, Wallace Stevens vividly probed the sources of his ambivalent love of and animosity toward primitivist decadence: the mind's eye first summons up a festive scene of “negresses” dancing and then suddenly becomes cruelly analytic, mocking the whole party for their brutish disorderliness:

The father fetches negresses to dance,
Among the children, like curious ripenesses
Of pattern in the dance's ripening.
For these the musicians make insidious tones,
Clawing the sing-song of their instruments.
The children laugh and jangle a tinny time.
What festival? This loud, disordered mooch?
These hospitaliers? These brute-like guests?(42)

Of Hughes's modernist contemporaries, however, the poet whose interest in realism, racial cross-identification, and American music comes closest to his own is not Pound, Crane, or Stevens but Eliot. In many of the early poems collected in the leather-bound notebook begun in 1909—some, such as “Opera,” “First Caprice in North Cambridge,” and “The Burnt Dancer,” which were unpublished until 1996, and others, such as “Rhapsody on a Windy Night” and “Portrait of a Lady,” which appeared in Prufrock and Other Observations in 1917—Eliot shares Hughes's preoccupation with realism and the analogy between musical and poetic forms.43 But whereas Hughes's poems more often than not call attention to the African American folk origins of the blues as an American musical form, Eliot takes the occasion of these early poems to explore the hybrid European origins of modern American music by adapting the idea of the “caprice” or the “rhapsody”: pieces that were written out, not improvised, most likely for the piano.

In The Dialect of Modernism Michael North offers a groundbreaking, provocative analysis of how Eliot adapted techniques such as linguistic mimicry and racial masquerade to make the language new and to resist institutional forces of standardization. In 1921 Eliot “was laboring to put his knowledge of black music to work in The Waste Land, which contained at one time references to a number of rag and minstrel songs.”44 The musical allusions cut from the final text are of particular interest, since many of them—for example, Eliot's reference to a song (“I'm proud of all the Irish blood that's in me”) from a musical play called Fifty Miles from Boston and his adaptation of lines from minstrel shows (“By the Watermelon Vine,” “My Evaline,” and “The Gubanola Glide”)—cryptically encode the composite regional landscapes and irreducibly hybrid cultures evoked by American popular music.45

Eliot's fascination with ragtime is best understood in light of his effort to understand the idea of “purity” in poetry, that is, the peculiar effect of works that direct the reader's attention primarily to style and virtually exclude consideration of their subject matter. In “From Poe to Valery,” for example, he discusses poems in which words have been chosen for the right sounds while the poet has been deliberately “irresponsible” toward their meaning.46 In “The Music of Poetry” Eliot singles out Edward Lear's “non-sense verse,” whose reader is moved by the music and enjoys, again, a “feeling of irresponsibility towards the sense.” In these instances, however, the source of enjoyment is not a “vacuity of sense,” or the poet's total escape from meaningful representation. Rather, Lear's “non-sense … is a parody of sense, and that is the sense of it.”47

In The Waste Land Eliot illustrates the rich senses of nonsense by alluding to a popular ragtime song that hit the charts in 1912, called “That Shakespearian Rag”:

That Shakespearian rag,—
Most intelligent, very elegant,
That old classical drag,
Has the proper stuff, the line “Lay on Macduff,”
Desdemona was the colored pet,
Romeo loved his Juliet—
And they were some lovers, you can bet, and yet,
I know if they were here today,
They'd Grizzly Bear in a diff'rent way,
And you'd hear old Hamlet say,
“To be or not to be,”
That Shakespearian Rag.(48)

Eliot adapted lines from the original chorus by adding the “O O O O” and a syncopated syllable in “Shakespeherian” (McElderry, 185-6):

O O O O that Shakespeherian Rag-
It's so elegant
So intelligent
“What shall I do now? What shall I do?”

(WL [The Waste Land], 57)

The poem's miming of ragtime gives both the speaker and the reader a brief reprieve from the burdensome duty to convey meaning truthfully. But the “vacuity of sense” brought about by the repetition of the apostrophe “O”—a repetition that reduces the trope, quite literally, to a series of zeroes on the page—also signals the tragic lack of continuity, as well as a tragic lack of engagement with the sense of Shakespeare's vibrant words, evidenced by American popular music. Eliot's allusion to ragtime, followed by the listless, bored, near-hysterical line “What shall I do now? What shall I do?” evokes apocalyptic dread. The passage implies that, taken to an extreme, such fleeting moments of enjoyable irresponsibility toward sense may promote an increasingly automated, vast inattention in American society. By pursuing the analogies between music and poetry in The Waste Land, Eliot's “Shakespeherian Rag” responds stylistically to conditions that imperiled artistic freedom and anticipated Hughes's experiments with a jazz poetics.49

The Waste Land calls attention to the danger of popular ragtime songs, in which words have been torn away from their traditional contexts. In “The Music of Poetry,” however, Eliot proposes that nonsense verse also has profoundly restorative powers, as in Lear's work. “The Jumblies,” for example, “is a poem of adventure, and of nostalgia for the romance of foreign voyage and exploration; The Yongt-Bongy Bo and The Dong with a Luminous Nose are poems of unrequited passion—‘blues’ in fact. We enjoy the music, which is of a high order, and we enjoy the feeling of irresponsibility towards the sense” (PP, 21). In “Fragment of an Agon,” part of the unfinished jazz play Sweeney Agonistes, Eliot illustrates the poetic vitality and beauty of nonsense. The poem includes the following text, adapted from a popular song written by the African American poet James Weldon Johnson, called “Under the Bamboo Tree”:

Under the bamboo
Bamboo bamboo
Under the bamboo tree
Two live as one
One live as two
Two live as three
Under the barn
Under the boo
Under the bamboo tree.
Where the breadfruit fall
And the penguin call
And the sound is the sound of the sea
Under the barn
Under the boo
Under the bamboo tree.
Where the Gauguin maids
In the banyan shades
Wear palmleaf drapery
Under the barn
Under the boo
Under the bamboo tree.(50)

That the other personages in the play are ludicrous, materialistic, and superficial does not suggest that Eliot's allusion to Johnson's lyric “imprisons the song once again in the minstrel tradition” (North, 88).51 The sense of adventure and the nostalgia for exotic romance that Eliot identifies in Lear's poems are beautifully highlighted in the passage he borrows from Johnson's artful rendering of the African American vernacular.52 The enjoyable irresponsibility toward sense that the poem dramatizes enhances the meaning: it is a poem of “unrequited passion—‘blues’ in fact.” The provocatively playful nonsense of “Two live as one / One live as two / Two live as three” expresses the speaker's yearning to transform the social fragmentation of American society and hints at Eliot's deeper motive for incorporating Johnson's lyric. Two poets—one Euro-American, the other African American—in effect “live as one” in Eliot's poem and intimately share a sensibility embodied by the blues. The poem's outlook is hopeful and forward-looking: after all, as Eliot has shown, the hope of perpetuating any given culture lies in the creative action of exchanging ideas and influences with others.53


Many, if not all, of Hughes's late jazz poems highlight the freedom of improvisation and formal innovation. In “The Trumpet Player: 57th Street,” published in 1947, the freedom of choice Hughes himself exercises in creating a metonymic style opens new expressive possibilities.54 The lyric not only educates the reader to hear his writing as trumpetlike, an instrument with voiced inflection and phrasing. It also dramatically illustrates the advantages of metonymy:

The Negro
With the trumpet at his lips
Has dark moons of weariness
Beneath his eyes
Where the smoldering memory
Of slave ships
Blazed to the crack of whips
About his thighs.
The music
From the trumpet at his lips
Is honey
Mixed with liquid fire.
The rhythm
From the trumpet at his lips
Is ecstasy
Distilled from old desire—
The Negro
With the trumpet at his lips
Whose jacket
Has a fine one-button roll,
Does not know
Upon what riff the music slips
Its hypodermic needle
To his soul.

(CP, 338)

Even as the lyric speaker refers to the uses of metaphor in describing the “ecstasy / Distilled from old desire” expressed in the trumpet's rhythm, he ends up showing us the profound artistic satisfactions and referential range of metonymy, the depiction of the body's surface and the temporal and spatial relatedness of everyday objects in the room. As an expression of weariness, traces of a personal and collective history of oppression, the “thump, thump, thump” of “The Weary Blues” is here inscribed on the body as “dark moons of weariness” beneath the trumpet player's eyes. The relatively obscure meaning of the moon going out as an image of thwarted desire and a dream deferred in “The Weary Blues” is considered and then freely cast off in “The Trumpet Player” in favor of hybrid tropes that hover somewhere between metonymy and metaphor:

That is longing for the moon
Where the moonlight's but a spotlight
In his eyes,
That is longing for the sea
Where the sea's a bar-glass
Sucker size.

(CP, 338)

Like a held chord, the romantic, sentimental idiom of “longing for the moon” is sustained and, at the same time, transmuted into a “spotlight / In his eyes.” As an evocation of desire, the sea is condensed into a “bar-glass, / Sucker size.”

Insofar as Hughes's later poems mime the improvisatory action of jazz to discover emancipatory techniques, they are stylistically similar to works written by the American avant-gardes of the interwar period. In Spring and A14 for example, William Carlos Williams praises the freedoms of improvisation, while he laments the dangers of incomprehensibility:

The Improvisations—coming at a time when I was trying to remain firm
The virtue of the improvisations is their placement in a world of new values—
at great cost—I had recourse to the expedient of letting life go completely in order to live in the world of
my choice …
their fault is their dislocation of sense, often complete.(55)

The convergence between Hughes's techniques and those of Williams, Eliot, and others discloses the historical knowledge that informs the impulse toward formal experiment and improvisation in the modernist lyric.

At the beginning of this essay we saw Baldwin criticize Hughes's late jazz poem, “Dream Boogie,” for falling short of the standards of realism. I want to conclude by suggesting that, Baldwin's criticisms notwithstanding, the spirit of formal innovation in “Dream Boogie” is entirely in keeping with Hughes's earlier realism in poems such as “Flight.”

“Dream Boogie” is far more modernist than “Flight,” since it manifests a sustained, figurative effort to move away from the realist duties of verisimilitude. It avoids familiar reference to historical contexts; it twists away from language toward abstract sequences of sound; and it brings us into a discursive world in which speech and perception have been broken down into fragments. Insofar as the speaker touches on realities, his treatment of them is almost wholly nondescriptive:

Good morning, daddy!
Ain't you heard
The boogie-woogie rumble
Of a dream deferred?
Listen closely:
You'll hear their feet
Beating out and beating out a—
You think
It's a happy beat?
Listen to it closely:
Ain't you heard
something underneath
like a—
What did I say?
I'm happy!
Take it away!
Hey, pop!

(CP, 388)

Like many works written by his avant-garde contemporaries, Hughes's poem is not designed to meet our interpretive expectations; it contains no meaning that, as Eliot says, would readily satisfy a “habit” of the reader (UP, 151). According to Eliot, modern poems are sometimes intended primarily to amplify the reader's experience of the intensity of feeling that results from the poet's movement toward ideas at the “frontiers of consciousness,” where meanings have not yet been put into words. In “The Music of Poetry” he writes: “We can be deeply stirred by hearing the recitation of a poem in a language of which we understand no word. … If, as we are aware, only a part of the meaning can be conveyed by paraphrase, that is because the poet is occupied with frontiers of consciousness beyond which words fail, though meanings still exist” (PP, 22).

In “Dream Boogie” Hughes's idiom is modernist in Eliot's sense: the lyric's form embodies an effort to move beyond the frontiers of social consciousness and expression. The line breaks; the arrangement of words on the page, flush left and flush right; and the use of italics are stylistic elements that show the ambivalence and animosity of an African American speaker trying to explain the meaning of the music to a Euro-American listener. The rhetorical question “You think / It's a happy beat?” has the visual effect of stretching, tonally inflecting, and thereby extending the meaning of the trope to include its own correct response. The poem pauses, calling attention to its own act of figuration and to the poet's act of writing. Hughes's modernist predilection for experimental forms that allegorize the struggle for and against verisimilitude, and his constant awareness of the constraints of language as an artistic medium, is central to his practice as a realist poet.

Although “Dream Boogie” is modernist insofar as it illustrates an effort to escape from historical referentiality and refuses to state explicitly the bitter social truths encoded in what Baldwin calls the “hieroglyphics” of African American music, it also remains anchored in the particularities of its own time and place, since it is essentially about the dangers posed to American society as a whole when these truths are not brought to light in the realm of art. The speaker's ambivalence toward the project of meaningful representation makes sense only when we realize that the poem takes on a subject that Adorno systematically elaborated in his celebrated diatribe against the popular culture industry: the poem figuratively suggests a deplorable lack of conscious perception on the part of many Euro-Americans who considered themselves avid jazz fans.

Like Adorno, Hughes in “Dream Boogie” suggests that too many people who listened to jazz did not hear the seriousness of its emotional message and were not aware of the violent historical conditions out of which the impulse to formal innovation emerged. Instead many Americans regarded jazz merely as a pleasant background for conversation or a happy accompaniment to dancing.56 The italicized question addressed to the Euro-American reader marks a crucial transition from the lyric's effort to mime violence (that is, from its performance of a nonrepresentational, violent motion of beating measured feet) to an all-out confrontation with meanings on the verge of verbal explicitness. The italics themselves highlight the social and emotional pressure exerted on the speaker when he tries to say that the historical implications of jazz as an art form—a form rooted in the traumatic postemancipation history of lynching and migration—were anything but happy; they express the speaker's frustration at the listener's inability to hear the social and emotional truths conveyed by the music.57

Hughes's experiments with realism in the lyric help us question the distinction between realism and the avant-garde in accounts of transatlantic modernism. Like Eliot, Crane, Stevens, and other twentieth-century American poets, Hughes demonstrated that certain modernist styles were created in response to historical conditions and addressed the danger posed by modernity to artistic freedom. Leo Bersani once said that “the realistic novel gives us an image of social fragmentation contained within the order of significant form—and it thereby suggests that the chaotic fragments are somehow socially viable and morally redeemable” (quoted in Anesko, 83), and this claim also seems an apt description of Hughes's poetic evocation of jazz. Insofar as his lyrics transcend frontiers of consciousness and culture, they fulfill a cherished criterion of modernism, and this modernism, in turn, serves the moral ends of realism by allowing him to encompass, order, and preserve fragments of history.


  1. Wright, “The Big Sea,” in Langston Hughes: Critical Perspectives Past and Present, ed. Henry Louis Gates Jr. and K A. Appiah (New York: Amistad, 1993), 21. Comparing Hughes to Theodore Dreiser, Wright observed that both writers undertook the crucial task of “freeing American literary expression from the restrictions of Puritanism” (21).

  2. Baldwin, “Sermons and Blues,” review of Selected Poems, by Langston Hughes, New York Times Book Review, 29 March 1959, 6.

  3. Eric J. Sundquist, ed., American Realism: New Essays (Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1982), 4.

  4. Louis Budd, “The American Background,” in The Cambridge Companion to American Realism and Naturalism: Howells to London, ed. Donald Pizer (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 21-46. The concept of realism surfaced again in the 1920s, when a generation of journalists—H. L. Mencken, John Macy, Van Wyck Brooks, Ludwig Lewisohn, Lewis Mumford, and Randolph Bourne, to name a few—probed the social purpose of literature and lavished praise on previously neglected artists, such as Mark Twain, Stephen Crane, and the late Howells, who had been critical of America's social and economic values. In 1930 Vernon Louis Parrington published The Beginnings of Critical Realism in America: 1860-1920, an influential analysis that roundly criticized writers who were too committed to narrowly “belletristic” aspects of literature. Parrington was, in turn, condemned to obscurity by critics like Lionel Trilling, who sharply criticized his literary nationalism and his insistence that literature should appeal to a pop ular constituency. More recently, at least since the publication of Warner Berthoff's Ferment of Realism: American Literature, 1884-1919 in 1965, a number of revisionary studies have explored the social construction of American realism: Sundquist; Amy Kaplan, The Social Construction of American Realism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988); and Michael Anesko, “Recent Critical Approaches,” in Pizer, 77-94.

  5. Auerbach, Mimesis: the Representation of Reality in Western Literature, trans. Willard R. Trask (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1953). Auerbach's helpful, systematic account of the emergence of modern realist fiction identifies four criteria of realism as a literary method: detailed description of everyday occurrences; serious treatment of “socially inferior groups” as subject matter for existential representation (491); belief in the capacity of language to reveal truths about the phenomenal world; and portrayal of the individual's destiny in both a particular social hierarchy and a broader historical context.

  6. In a useful account of the diverse approaches undertaken by modern American poets, Cary Nelson discusses “partly forgotten poetry—including black poetry, poetry by women, the poetry of popular song, and the poetry of social mass movements—thereby giving those texts new connotations appropriate to our time” (Repression and Recovery: Modern American Poetry and the Politics of Cultural Memory, 1910-1945 [Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1989], 22-3). But his study is primarily historical: he gives no extended formal analyses and—aside from remarking that “traditional forms continued to do vital cultural work” throughout the modern period (23)—tells us little about the poetics of realism.

  7. See Jonathan Arac, “Rhetoric and Realism; or, Marxism, Deconstruction, and the Novel,” in Criticism without Boundaries: Directions and Crosscurrents in Postmodern Critical Theory, ed. Joseph A. Buttigieg (Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1987), 161.

  8. Alex Preminger and T. V. F. Brogan, eds., The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1993), 1016.

  9. “If every mediocre product of socialist realism is to be hailed as a masterpiece,” Lukacs writes, “confusion will be worse confounded. My terlium dalur is an objective critical appraisal of the very real innovations which we owe to socialist realism. In exposing literary mediocrity, and criticizing theoretical dogmatism, I am trying to ensure that the creative aspects of this new realism will be more clearly understood” (The Meaning of Contemporary Realism, trans. John Mander and Necke Mander [London: Merlin, 1963], 11).

  10. The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes, ed. Arnold Rampersad and David Roessel (New York: Knopf, 1994), 127; hereafter cited as CP.

  11. See Saidiya V. Hartman, Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997).

  12. See, e.g., W. E. B. DuBois, The Philadelphia Negro: A Social Study (1899; rpt. New York: Schocken, 1967); Carter G. Woodson, A Century of Negro Migration (1918; rpt. New York: Russell and Russell, 1969); Emmett J. Scott, Negro Migration during the War (1920; rpt. New York: Arno, 1969); Louise Kennedy, The Negro Peasant Turns Cityward: Effects of Recent Migrations to Northern Cities (New York: Columbia University Press; London: King and Son, 1930); E. Franklin Frazier, The Negro Family in Chicago (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1932); St. Clair Drake and Horace R. Cayton, Black Metropolis: A Study of Negro Life in a Northern City (1945; rpt. New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1962); and Gunnar Myrdal, An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy, 2 vols. (1945; rpt. New York: Harper and Row, 1962). For a useful overview of the vast literature on the Great Migration see Joe Trotter, “Black Migration in Historical Perspective: A Review of the Literature,” in The Great Migration in Historical Perspective: New Dimensions of Race, Class, and Gender; ed. Joe William Trotter Jr. (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991), 1-21.

  13. Friedrich argues, on the evidence of poems by Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Mallarme, and others, that “modern poetry, in its dissonances, is obeying a law of its style. And this law … is, in turn, obeying the historical situation of the modern mind, which, because of the excessive imperiling of its freedom, has an excessive passion for freedom” (The Structure of Modern Poetry: From the Mid-Nineteenth to the Mid-Twentieth Century, trans. Joachim Neugroschel [Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 1974], 168). Cf. Paul de Man's claim that a definitively “modern” poet must reject the burdensome assumption that artists convey meaning, since it poses a limit on expressive freedom and denies “the conception of language as the act of an autonomous self” (“Lyric and Modernity,” in Blindness and Insight: Essays in the Rhetoric of Contemporary Criticism [Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1971], 171).

  14. Johnson, “How Much Is Migration a Flight from Persecution?” Opportunity, September 1923, 272-5.

  15. Whereas in 1930 Hughes used the image of flight ironically, juxtaposing the poem's title with the closing image of a hanged black man swinging in a tree, in 1925 Locke had used a similar image to mythologize the modernizing effects of migration: “The wash and rush of this human tide on the beach line of the northern city centers is to be explained primarily in terms of a new vision of opportunity, of social and economic freedom. … With each successive wave of it, the movement of the Negro becomes more and more a mass movement toward the larger and the more democratic chance—in the Negro's case a deliberate flight not only from countryside to city, but from medieval America to modern” (“The New Negro,” in The New Negro [New York: Atheneum, 1992], 6).

  16. Hughes did not use these italics until 1949, when the poem appeared in the collection One-Way Ticket. But he did use quotation marks in 1931, when it was published in Dear Lovely Death.

  17. “‘Ulysses,’ Order, and Myth,” in Selected Prose of T. S. Eliot, ed. Frank Kermode (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1975), 177. For a discussion of Hughes's early exposure to black music see Steven Tracy, “To the Tune of Those Weary Blues,” in Gates, 69-93. Tracy observes that during his childhood (from about 1902 to 1915) Hughes would have heard ballads, reels, and the “crude blues” of an older man like Henry Thomas; that the blues shouter Big Joe Turner led blues singers through the streets of Kansas City during the late 1910s and early 1920s; and that, although early blues was often accompanied by crude homemade instruments, orchestral-type blues was already emerging during the 1910s.

  18. For a discussion of Hughes's folk sources and references to blues structure, themes, and imagery, and for a useful bibliography on jazz and blues, see Steven Tracy, Langston Hughes and the Blues (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1988). For other insights into Hughes's use of the blues idiom see Patricia E. Bonner, “Cryin' the Jazzy Blues and Livin' Blue Jazz: Analyzing the Blues and Jazz Poetry of Langston Hughes,” West Georgia College Review 20 (1990): 15-28; Patricia Johns and Walter Farrell, “How Langston Hughes Used the Blues,” Melus 6 (1979): 55-63; and Edward E. Waldron, “The Blues Poetry of Langston Hughes,” Negro American Literature Forum 5 (1971): 140-9.

  19. Rampersad insists that we take a revisionary look at Hughes's aesthetic as having been shaped by his recognition of a link between poetry and black music; he claims that Fine Clothes to the Jew, Hughes's least successful volume, marks the height of his creative originality (“Hughes's Fine Clothes to the Jew,” in Gates, 54). Rampersad's monumental biography of Hughes, as well as his and Roessel's recent edition of the Collected Poems, has also contributed to the renewed interest in Hughes's poetry. For an illuminating review of the Collected Poems that characterizes Hughes's poems in light of four main attributes—his poetics of “announced … [but] cryptic reciprocity,” his “idiosyncrasy of personal identity,” his inveterate sociality, and his humorous irony—see Helen Vendler, “The Unweary Blues,” New Republic, 6 March 1995, 37-42.

  20. “I tried,” Hughes observes, “to write poems like the songs they sang on Seventh Street—gay songs, because you had to be gay or die; sad songs, because you couldn't help being sad sometimes. But gay or sad, you kept on living and you kept on going … 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 strength like the beat of the human heart, its humor, and its rooted power” (The Big Sea, 2d ed. [New York: Hill and Wang, 1993], 215).

  21. Quoted in Shelby Steele, “The Content of His Character,” New Republic, 1 March 1999, 30.

  22. Ellison, Shadow and Act (New York: Vintage, 1995), 58-9.

  23. R. Baxter Miller argues that the blues performance in “The Weary Blues” dramatizes several actions, including black self-affirmation, a remaking of the black self-image, and Hughes's transcendence of racial stereotypes through lyric discourse (The Art and Imagination of Langston Hughes [Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1989], 55). My discussion suggests, on the contrary, that the figurative complexity of Hughes's poem helps him arrive at a clarifying, critical perspective on the folk tradition.

  24. Hughes remarked that “it was a poem about a working man who sang the blues all night and then went to bed and slept like a rock. That was all” (Big Sea, 215).

  25. Leavis, “Mass Civilization and Minority Culture,” in For Continuity (Cambridge: Minority, 1933), 16-8; Eliot, “Marie Lloyd,” in Selected Essays (New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1960), 407. “In an interesting essay in the volume of Essays on the Depopulation of Melanesia,” Eliot writes, “the psychologist W. H. R. Rivers adduced evidence which has led him to believe that the natives of that unfortunate archipelago are dying out principally for the reason that ‘Civilization’ forced upon them has deprived them of all interest in life. They are dying from pure boredom. When every theatre has been replaced by 100 cinemas, when every musical instrument has been replaced by 100 gramophones, when every horse has been replaced by 100 cheap motor cars, when electrical ingenuity has made it possible for every child to hear its bedtime stories from aloud-speaker, when applied science has done everything possible with the materials on this earth to make life as interesting as possible, it will not be surprising if the population of the entire civilized world rapidly follows the fate of the Melanesians” (407-8).

  26. Eliot, The Waste Land, in Collected Poems, 1909-1962 (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1963), 62; hereafter cited as WL.

  27. “The question of racial terror,” Gilroy suggests, “always remains in view when these modernisms are discussed because their imaginative proximity to terror is their inaugural experience. … Though they were unspeakable, these terrors were not inexpressible, and … residual traces of their necessarily painful expression still contribute to historical memories inscribed and incorporated into the volatile core of Afro-Atlantic cultural creation. … The topos of unsayability produced from the staves' experiences of racial terror … can be used to challenge the privileged conceptions of both language and writing as preeminent expressions of human consciousness” (The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness [Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1993], 73-4).

  28. DuBois, The Souls of Black Folk, in Writings, ed. Nathan Huggins (New York: Library of America, 1986), 542-3.

  29. In “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain,” a polemical essay published in the Nation in 1926, Hughes emphasizes his “racial individuality” as a poet. But even here he implies that knowledge of traditional prosody would have helped him acquire an interpretive, distanced perspective on folk resources: the African American artist, he says, must learn to “interest himself in interpreting the beauty of his own people” (Within the Circle: An Anthology of African American Literary Criticism from the Harlem Renaissance to the Present, ed. Angelyn Mitchell [Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1994], 55—6).

  30. In the 1960s Baraka advocated a racial separatist approach to African American music. Many of his essays written in 1965, for example, affirm nineteenth-century racialist ideas of black manifest destiny and propose the formation of a black nation through a cultural consciousness flowing from the soul of the artist: “The Black Man must realize himself as Black. And idealize and aspire to that. … The Black Artist's role in America is to aid the destruction of America as we know it” (Home: Social Essays [New York: Morrow, 1966], 248, 252).

  31. Although at this point in his career Baraka's position is not entirely separatist, insofar as he concedes that the blues can be “appreciated” by non-African Americans, what comes across here is the inaccessibility of the blues to a Euro-American audience (The Leroi Jones/Amiri Baraka Reader, ed. William J. Harris [New York: Thunder's Mouth, 1991], 37).

  32. For a discussion of Hughes's repudiation of racial separatist accounts of African American culture during the 1930s see Anthony Dawahare, “Langston Hughes's Radical Poetry and the End of Race,” Melus 23, no. 3 (1998): 21-41.

  33. Lawrence, Complete Poems, ed. Vivian de Sola Pinto and Warren Roberts (New York: Penguin, 1994), 943.

  34. Ben Arnold, Music and War: A Research and Information Guide (New York: Garland, 1993), 135. Arnold writes that “the concert life naturally changed, particularly in the Allied countries, where German music had been so widespread. In Great Britain, all German music was at first banned outright. … Musicians performed more music by native composers in France, England, and America than before the war” (135). See also Barbara L. Tischler, “World War I and the Challenge of 100٪ Americanism,” in An American Music: The Search for an American Musical Identity (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986), 68-91.

  35. Johnson, Listening in Paris: A Cultural History (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995), 267.

  36. For a discussion of the themes and figurative resources used to remember, mythologize, and represent the war see Paul Fussell, The Great War and Modern Memory (New York: Oxford University Press, 1975).

  37. In the final, frequently anthologized version of the poem, the speaker recognizes that the sentiments inspired by the “insidious mastery” of music betray him even as he helplessly yields to them, “till the heart of me weeps to belong / To the old Sunday evenings at home” (Lawrence, Complete Poems, 148).

  38. Lawrence's statement sheds some light on “Piano”: “Every people is polarized in some particular locality, which is home, the homeland. … The Island of Great Britain had a wonderful terrestrial magnetism or polarity of its own, which made the British people. For the moment, this polarity seems to be breaking. Can England die? And what if England dies?” (Studies in Classic American Literature [New York: Doubleday, 1953], 16).

  39. The Letters of Ezra Pound, 1907-1941, ed. D. D. Paige (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1950), 180.

  40. Pound Diptych Rome-London (New York: New Directions, 1994), 40.

  41. The Bridge, in The Complete Poems of Hart Crane, ed. Marc Simon (New York: Live-right, 1993), 98-9.

  42. The Auroras of Antumn, in The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens (New York: Vintage, 1982), 415. Helen Vendler suggests that “the source of the disgust for the father-impresario seems to he Stevens' revulsion against that deliberate primitivism of his own … which sets itself to conjure up negresses, guitarists, and the ‘unherded herds’ of ox-like freed men, all in a vain attempt to reproduce on an ignorant and one-stringed instrument the sophisticated chaos of the self” (On Extended Wins: Wallace Stevens' Longer Poems [Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1969], 252).

  43. Eliot, Inventions of the March Hare: Poems, 1909-1917, ed. Christopher Ricks (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1996), 13, 17, 62.

  44. North, The Dialect of Modernism: Race, Language, and Twentieth-century Literature (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), 10.

  45. Eliot, The Waste Land: A Facsimile and Transcript of the Original Drafts Including the Annotations of Ezra Pound, ed. Valerie Eliot (San Diego: Harcourt Brace, 1994), 125 nn. 2-3.

  46. Eliot, “From Poe to Valery,” in To Criticize the Critic, and Other Writings (London: Faber and Faber, 1965), 32.

  47. Eliot, “The Music of Poetry,” in On Poetry and Poets (New York: Farrar, Straus and Cudahy, 1957), 21; hereafter cited as PP.

  48. Quoted in Bruce McElderry, “Eliot's Shakespeherian Rag,” American Quarterly 9 (1957): 185.

  49. For a discussion of Eliot's pursuit of analogies between musical and poetic procedures, which situates his engagement with symbolism within the context of Stravinsky's Shakespeare Songs and works by other twentieth-century composers, see James Anderson Winn, Unsuspected Eloquence: A History of the Relations between Poetry and Music (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1981), 295-9.

  50. Eliot, “Fragment of an Agon,” in Collected Poems, 1909-1962, 119-20.

  51. Referring to the nature of his “experiment” in writing Sweeney Agonistes, Eliot recalled: “I once designed, and drafted a couple of scenes, of a verse play. My intention was to have one character whose sensibility and intelligence should be on the plane of the most sensitive and intelligent members of the audience; his speeches should be addressed to them as much as the other personages in the play—or rather, should be addressed to the latter, who were to be material, literal-minded and visionless, with the consciousness of being overheard by the former. There was to be an understanding between this protagonist and a small number of the audience, while the rest of the audience would share the responses of the other characters in the play. Perhaps this is all too deliberate, but one must experiment as one can” (The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism: Studies in the Relation of Criticism to Poetry in England [London: Faber and Faber, 1933], 153-4; hereafter cited as UP).

  52. Henry Louis Gates Jr. observes, “We are forced to wonder aloud where in dialect poetry, with the notable exception of Sterling Brown, a black poet used his medium as effectively as did Eliot in Sweeney Agonistes” (Figures in Black: Words, Signs, and the “Racial” Self [New York: Oxford University Press, 1987], 289 n. 17).

  53. See, e.g., Eliot, Notes towards the Definition of Culture (London: Faber and Faber, 1948), 121; and Eliot, “The Social Function of Poetry,” in PP, 13.

  54. In Allegories of Reading: Figural Language in Rousseau, Nietzsche, Rilke, and Proust (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1979), Paul de Man argues that the link between metonymy and its referent is contingent and accidental; thus reliance on metonymic fragments of social reality is problematic. Although Hughes is aware that the reader may not understand the historical context of the trope, his poems repeatedly affirm that the meaning of African American experience, in certain instances, may be shared by readers from different social worlds and cultural backgrounds. His insistence on metonymy as a mainstay of his realist poetics is an assertion of his right to creative freedom of expression, even at the risk of incomprehensibility.

  55. Spring and A11 in The collected Poems of William Carlos Williams, ed. A. Walton Litz and Christopher MacGowan, vol. (New York: New Directions, 1986), 203.

  56. Theodor Adorno, “Fetish Character in Music and Regression of Listening,” in The Essential Frankfurt School Reader, ed. Andrew Arato and Eike Gebhardt (New York: Continuum, 1982), 288.

  57. Babette Deutsch wrote that the poems in Montage of a Dream Deferred suffered “from a will to shock the reader, who is apt to respond coldly to such obvious devices” (“Waste Land of Harlem,” New York Times Book Review, 6 May 1951, 23).

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Hughes, Langston (Contemporary Literary Criticism)