The Poem

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 495

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.

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“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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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 558

“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...

(The entire section contains 3366 words.)

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Teaching Guide