The Poem

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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...

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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 that it contains a six-line reply in blues form about how the bodies of women are indeed toys for entertaining men.

After the blues riff, and within the same stanza, the narrative voice switches to that of the father, who asks his son, “What’s the body of your mother?” The omniscient narrator, not the son, responds, saying that “Silver moonlight” is “everywhere.” The father asks the same question again, and again the reader sees that only the omniscient narrator replies, telling the father that there is a “Sharp pine scent in the evening air.” The fifth stanza is spoken by the father’s other son, the biracial child’s half brother, who, in response to the opening line of the poem, says “Naw, you ain’t my brother.”

The poem’s omniscient narrator responds to the brother’s statement in another rhythmically improvised stanza, where the poet uses a three-line blues form instead of the six-line form to explain that “Dusk dark bodies/ Give sweet birth.” The father orders his biracial son to “Git on back there in the night” because he is not white. The son seems to have the last word, declaring again that he is the white man’s son; however, the omniscient narrator is the final voice, describing the son in the same way the stars have been described, as “yellow.” The final line reminds the reader that the mixed-race child is born of parents who are not married to each other. The child is a “bastard boy.”

Forms and Devices

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“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 your mother?” and “Great big yellow stars.”

The poet uses slang and informal language with the formal apostrophe (an address or exclamation to an unseen person or a thing). The biracial boy is addressed by Hughes’s omniscient narrator who says, “O, you little bastard boy.” Later in the poem, the narrator uses an apostrophe to exclaim “O, sweet as earth.” This line is also a simile that compares fertile female bodies to the fertile earth.

Aside from the remarkable structure of a stanza form within a stanza form, Hughes’s style relies on several voices to narrate the story of a young, biracial man’s conception. The voices of the father and the half brothers are italicized, while the omniscient narrator’s voice is not. Each voice offers a different perspective. The father and the omniscient narrator imply that the biracial child was conceived in an unholy sexual union, that is, when a married white man turned to a black woman for sexual pleasure. The half brother hints at the bleak future the biracial child will have without his father’s heritage when he says “you ain’t my brother// Not ever.” Yet, the mulatto or biracial child insists on his patrimony. Except for the biracial child’s, each voice speaks nonstandard English and uses racial slurs, demonstrating a lack of formal education as well as rampant ignorance.

The poet uses two very strong allusions. The first allusion, found in the fourth line of the poem, is to Solomon’s temple. The second allusion is to the abilities of the common solvent turpentine, made from pine trees common to the southern United States. Turpentine is able to dilute color as well as strip the surface color off an object, revealing its essence. The sexual activity that takes place in the “turpentine woods” produces “yellowboys” or boys whose color is diluted, that is, not assessed as black or white.

Historical Context

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The Great Depression
The setting notes for the play say that it takes place in the present time, but it takes a little digging to figure out what Hughes means by present time. Although the play was not published until the 1960s, it was first performed in 1935, written in 1930, and copyrighted in 1932. Because of this, Hughes most likely means for the play to take place sometime in the early 1930s. This was a volatile time in America, which was undergoing the devastating financial crisis known as the Great Depression. When the stock market crashed in 1929, the mainly African American population assumed that this was a white problem since African Americans did not typically own stocks. In fact, Norwood alludes to the Great Depression in the play when talking about buying a new car. Norwood says, ‘‘Been thinking about getting a new one myself, but money’s been kinder tight this year, and conditions are none too good yet either. Reckon that’s why everybody’s so restless.’’ However, as it turned out, African Americans, especially those in the cities, were some of the hardest hit since they typically worked in unskilled jobs— positions that were often cut by companies who were looking to tighten budgets and weather the financial storm. For these reasons, African Americans like those on Norwood’s plantation felt grateful to have any kind of a job at all, even if it was working in the hated cotton fields that were a living symbol of their ancestors’ slavery.

Racial Bigotry
Many southern whites during this time believed that blacks were racially inferior. Jim Crow laws varied from state to state in the south and had been created to enforce racial segregation in jobs, public schools, parks, restaurants, hotels, trains, and buses. Jim Crow laws were used for more than 60 years. The term ‘‘Jim Crow’’ came from a character frequently found in travelling minstrel shows that portrayed a derogatory image of blacks, thus the term became a racial slur that aided the views of white supremacy. Jim Crow laws gave sufficient support to punish lawbreakers, sometimes by lynching. From 1889–1930, more than 3,700 men and women were hanged in the United States, most of them southern blacks. To fight segregation in the 1930s, the NAACP began a campaign to challenge segregation through the legal system. This case eventually found its way to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1954 as the landmark Brown vs. Board of Education. Brown vs. Board of Education essentially overturned the principle of ‘‘separate but equal’’ and made it illegal for public schools to remain segregated.

Literary Style

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Setting
The setting is extremely important in the play. Although African Americans were discriminated against in the northern American states, too, it was in the South that they faced the most racism. Robert’s behavior at the post office is astounding to white men like Higgins, who warns Norwood that the white people of the area are not going to put up with behavior like that. Higgins says, ‘‘The white folks at the Junction aren’t intending to put up with him much longer.’’ When Robert claims his heritage as Norwood’s son to the assembled crowd in town, he crosses another line, as Higgins notes to Norwood. Higgins says, ‘‘Now, Tom, you know that don’t go ‘round these parts o’ Georgia, nor nowhere else in the South. A darkie’s got to keep in his place down here.’’

However, as Robert notes, this is not true everywhere in the South. As Robert says to his brother William, he has ‘‘seen people in Atlanta, and Richmond, and Washington where the football team went—real colored people who don’t have to take off their hats to white folks.’’ While racism was still apparent in these cities, African Americans usually experienced the worst racism in rural areas where they had little recourse against the racist behavior of whites. The expected social roles of African Americans and whites in the South were especially enforced on cotton plantations, like the one in the play. During America’s long history of slavery, African Americans were forced to work in cotton fields on plantations like Norwood’s. After the Civil War, some African Americans felt they had no other option but to work in the cotton fields, the only work they knew and so stayed on willingly as hired hands or sharecroppers. Because of this, they did not realize that in certain areas, like the cities that Robert mentions, society was starting to change. Robert says, ‘‘Back here in these woods maybe Sam and Livonia and you and mama and ever’body’s got their places fixed for ‘em, but not me.’’

Language
The division between African Americans and whites in the play is due to more than just skin color; the language also separates them. This is apparent from the first exchange of dialogue in the play. Norwood asks Cora, ‘‘I want to know if that child of yours means to leave here this afternoon?’’ This clear form of English differs heavily from the acM cented form of English used by most African American characters in the play. When Cora responds to Norwood, she says, ‘‘Yes, sir, she’s goin’ directly. I’s gettin’ her ready now, packin’ up an’ all. ‘Course, she wants to tell you goodbye ’fore she leaves.’’ Cora’s response is filled with incomplete words, like ‘‘gettin’’ instead of ‘‘getting.’’ The overall effect is one of heavily accented speech, which many audience members would have recognized as stereotypically African American. This type of speech indicates the lack of education of most African Americans—especially those who worked on plantations. Because of this lack of education, many African Americans picked up English by listening to others instead of being taught. As a result, their accented speech often contained many grammatical errors. For example, in another line of Cora’s dialogue, when she is talking to Norwood about Robert’s trip into town, she says, ‘‘Said he were lookin’ for some tubes or somethin’nother by de mornin’ mail for de radio he’s been riggin’ up out in de shed.’’ In this sentence, Cora incorrectly says ‘‘were’’ instead of the grammatically correct ‘‘was.’’ She also combines several words, ‘‘something or other,’’ into the made-up word, ‘‘somethin’nother.’’ These types of deviations from standard English helped to enforce the division between African Americans and whites.

For this reason, Robert becomes a threat to the status quo. Since he has been educated, he talks like a white man does, in clear, grammatically correct English. Robert says in his first lines in the play, ‘‘Hello ma! Your daughter got off, and I’ve come back to keep you company in the parlor! Bring out the cookies and lemonade. Mr. Norwood’s here.’’ By his correct speech and confident actions, Robert tries to act like a white man. However, since he has an African American mother, Robert, like other mulattoes, is expected to act like he is African American. When Norwood asks Robert to talk to him, he says, ‘‘Now, I’m going to let you talk to me, but I want you to talk right.’’ As the resulting dialogue indicates, Norwood is expecting Robert to speak like the other African Americans do. However, Robert refuses, saying, ‘‘Oh! But I’m not a nigger, Mr. Norwood, I’m your son.’’

Foreshadowing
Several clues in the story foreshadow or predict, Robert’s murder of Norwood and Robert’s own suicide. Throughout the play the other characters, both African American and white talk about the bitter end that Robert will come to if he keeps on trying to act like a white man. From the very beginning, Robert’s behavior is associated with his death. When Norwood hears from Sam that Robert has been using the front door of the Big House like a white man, Norwood says, ‘‘Let me catch him and I’ll break his young neck for him.’’ When Higgins comes to visit Norwood, he tells him about Robert’s behavior at the post office, and warns Norwood that Robert might have problems in town in the future. Higgins says, ‘‘It might not be safe for him around there—today, nor no other time.’’’ Cora notes the impending danger to Robert, when she is talking to William. Cora says, ‘‘Colonel Tom has to take him in hand, or these white folks’ll kill him around here.’’ In addition to the characters’ expectations about Robert’s death, Hughes gives the audience other clues, such as Cora’s prophetic dream. Cora says to William, ‘‘I had a bad dream last night, too, and I looked out and seed de moon all red with blood.’’ These clues, as well as the introduction of props like Norwood’s pistol all increasingly indicate the murder of Norwood and Robert’s resulting suicide.

Compare and Contrast

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

Today: America experiences a recession, a fi- nancial tragedy that many attribute to the massive drop in stock prices in recent years. Although the government tries to take steps to improve the economy, such as lowering federal interest rates, unemployment remains high and consumer con- fidence—one indicator of the health of the economy— remains low.

1930s: Although the Civil War of the 1860s has been over for more than six decades, racist attitudes still remain in many areas of the United States, most notably the American South. This is especially true in rural areas, where whites often punish unruly African Americans with lynch mobs and other forms of small-town, vigilante justice. African Americans often have little recourse against actions like these.

Today: Although the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s has been over for more than three decades, racist attitudes still remain in the United States. Southern Congressman Trent Lott grabs national headlines after he makes racist comments. In the aftermath of this highly publicized event, the African American community is in an uproar, and Lott ultimately resigns his seat as the Republican majority leader in the United States Senate.

1930s: America and other Allied nations prepare for World War II. Hitler is viewed as a fascist dictator who must be removed from power if there is to be world peace.

Today: America and some of its allies engage in war with Iraq, who they believe is hiding weapons of mass destruction. Saddam Hussein, Iraq’s leader, is singled out as a dictator who must be removed from power if there is to be peace.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Sources
Emanuel, James A., ‘‘Chapter 1: The Big Sea,’’ in Langston Hughes, Twayne’s United States Authors Series, No. 123, Twayne Publishers, 1967.

Hughes, Langston, The Collected Works of Langston Hughes, Vol. 5, Plays to 1942: ‘‘Mulatto’’ to ‘‘The Sun Do Move,’’ edited by Leslie Catherine Sanders and Nancy Johnston, University of Missouri Press, 2002, pp. 17–50.

Hurst, Catherine Daniels, ‘‘Langston Hughes,’’ in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 7: Twentieth-Century American Dramatists, edited by John MacNicholas, Gale Research, 1981, pp. 314–24.

Martinson, Deborah, ‘‘Langston Hughes,’’ in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 228, Twentieth-Century American Dramatists, Second Series, edited by Christopher J. Wheatley, Gale, 2000, pp. 116–27.

Rampersad, Arnold, ‘‘Langston Hughes,’’ in African American Writers, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1991, pp. 193–204.

Turner, Darwin T., ‘‘Langston Hughes as Playwright,’’ in CLA Journal, Vol. 11, No. 4, June 1968, pp. 297–309.

Further Reading Aptheker, Herbert, ed., A Documentary History of the Negro People in the United States, Vol. 3, From the NAACP to the New Deal, Carol Publishing Group, 1993. Unlike many other volumes of African American history, Aptheker’s historical study, originally published in 1973, relies on original documents, including essays, reports, speeches, letters, and news articles, from people who lived during this time period. Collectively, the book offers a good picture of what life was like for African Americans from 1910 to 1932.

Berzon, Judith R., Neither White nor Black: The Mulatto Character in American Fiction, New York University Press, 1979. This book examines the various mulatto characters that American authors have introduced into their fiction. The author explores the dilemma that many of these characters faced in trying to reconcile their mixed heritage.

Earle, Jonathan, The Routledge Atlas of African American History, Routledge, 2000. This book chronicles the four centuries of African American history and culture in the United States, from the arrival of the first African slaves in the early 1600s to the present day. The book contains short essays on several topics, each of which is illustrated with a variety of photographs, charts, graphs, maps, and other illustrations. The book also features a chronology of African history from 3200 B.C. through the late 1990s.

Rampersad, Arnold, The Life of Langston Hughes, Vol. 1, 1902–1941, I, Too, Sing America, Oxford University Press, 1988. Rampersad offers a critical biography of the first part of Hughes’s life, which contains the author’s formative experiences. Of particular note is the effect that the rejection of Hughes by his father had on his life and writing.

Bibliography

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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.

Haskins, James. Always Movin’ On: The Life of Langston Hughes. Trenton, N.J.: Africa World Press, 1993.

Hokanson, Robert O’Brien. “Jazzing It Up: The Be-bop Modernism of Langston Hughes.” Mosaic 31 (December, 1998): 61-82.

Leach, Laurie F. Langston Hughes: A Biography. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2004.

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

Ostrum, Hans A. A Langston Hughes Encyclopedia. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2002.

Rampersad, Arnold. The Life of Langston Hughes. 2 vols. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Tracy, Steven C., ed. A Historical Guide to Langston Hughes. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.

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