The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Langston Hughes’s eleven-stanza narrative poem “Mulatto” explores the impact of a sexual union between unmarried people of different races. The offspring of such a union is a mixed-race or biracial child, sometimes referred to as a mulatto. Biracial people in the twenty-first century are less likely to experience the sense of displacement and rejection Hughes’s poem describes. However, the poem has unquestionable historical as well as aesthetic value.

“Mulatto,” set in the state of Georgia, relies on the stereotyped situation of sexual exploitation of southern black women by southern white men. The poem has an omniscient narrator who speaks between statements made by a son, a father, and a brother; the opening line is a declaration by a young man who says he is the son of a “white man.” After the opening line, the narrative voice changes to that of an omniscient speaker, who explains that as evening approached the pine forests of Georgia, one of the “pillars of the temple fell,” a reference to the two pillars that stood outside Solomon’s temple (2 Chronicles 3:15-17). The young man’s father speaks, saying emphatically that the young man is not his son. In the fourth stanza, the omniscient narrator reminds the poem’s readers that the stars that accompany a “Southern night” are yellow, then asks rhetorically, “What’s a body but a toy?” In response to the rhetorical question, the poet improvises the rhythm of the stanza so...

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Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“Mulatto” combines the African American blues form Hughes pioneered with the free-verse form made popular by the modernist American poet Ezra Pound. Originally, musician W. C. Handy identified the blues form as song lyrics sung in three-line rhyme. The first two lines of the rhyme were the same or similar; the third line rhymed with the second line. Hughes adapted the musical form to his poems by extending the three-line rhyme to six lines, meant to be spoken rather than sung.

“Mulatto” contains two blues stanzas set inside two free-verse stanzas. The first blues stanza follows Hughes’s six-line structure, beginning with the line “Juicy bodies” and ending with the line “What’s a body but a toy?” The second blues stanza, similar to the original design of three-line blues songs, reads: “O, sweet as earth,/ Dusk dark bodies/ Give sweet birth.” The poet uses end rhyme irregularly, except in the first blues section, where the rhyme scheme is abcbdd, and the second blues section, where the rhyme scheme is aba. Hughes alternates trochaic (a stressed syllable followed by a slack syllable) and iambic (a slack syllable followed by a stressed one) feet in lines that vary from dimeter to pentameter to achieve the effect of conversational speech. The poet uses several refrains or repeated lines throughout the poem, such as “I am your son, white man,” “What’s a body but a toy?,” “What’s the body of...

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Historical Context

(Drama for Students)

The Great Depression
The setting notes for the play say that it takes place in the present time, but it takes a little digging...

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Literary Style

(Drama for Students)

The setting is extremely important in the play. Although African Americans were discriminated against in the northern...

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Compare and Contrast

(Drama for Students)

1930s: America experiences the Great Depression, a huge financial tragedy that many attribute to the recent stock market crash. During...

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Topics for Further Study

(Drama for Students)

Research the social acceptance of mulattoes in the United States today. How have perceptions towards interracial relationships changed since...

(The entire section is 101 words.)

What Do I Read Next?

(Drama for Students)

(Harold) Athol Fugard, a white South African who grew up in the 1930s and 1940s, attempted to resist the racism that other white South...

(The entire section is 353 words.)

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Drama for Students)

Emanuel, James A., ‘‘Chapter 1: The Big Sea,’’ in Langston Hughes, Twayne’s United States Authors...

(The entire section is 386 words.)


(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Berry, Faith. Langston Hughes: Before and Beyond Harlem. New York: Wings Books, 1995.

Bloom, Harold, ed. Langston Hughes. New York: Chelsea House, 1989.

Chinitz, David. “Rejuvenation Through Joy: Langston Hughes, Primitivism, and Jazz.” American Literary History 9 (Spring, 1997): 60-78.

Cooper, Floyd. Coming Home: From the Life of Langston Hughes. New York: Philomel Books, 1994.

Harper, Donna Sullivan. Not So Simple: The “Simple” Stories by Langston Hughes. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1995.


(The entire section is 162 words.)