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...

(The entire section is 495 words.)