Themes and Meanings

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Influenced by the nineteenth century American poet Walt Whitman and the early twentieth century American poets Vachel Lindsay and Carl Sandburg, Hughes’s poetry focuses on the lives and the struggle of African Americans for racial equality. Marked with melancholic passivity, concealed outrage, and finally a transcendence that is repeatedly an assertion of black worth, history, and beauty, Hughes’s poetry supports his claim that he is the “poet laureate of the negro race.” Unafraid to write about the controversial or the uncomfortable, and passionate about embracing his heritage, Hughes’s poetic structure (the blues form) gave voice to those who had never been given the chance to speak. “Mulatto” is an enduring example of Hughes’s poetic achievement.

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The narrator in the opening line claims he is the son of a “white man.” Because the father is identified by race rather than by name, readers know the poem is not just a straightforward presentation of a family drama, but an examination of race relations in the American South, a setting confirmed in the second line, which tells readers of a “Georgia dusk.” The omniscient narrator says that “One of the pillars of the temple fell,” alluding to the two pillars the ancient Hebrew king Solomon erected as symbols of God’s promises of support to the people of Israel. People of faith who passed between the pillars were reminded of the presence and strength of God. When the poet says that one of the pillars has fallen, he is suggesting that either the presence, or the strength, of God is in question, not only in this father-son relationship, but also in the American South.

This allusion is deepened by the omniscient narrator’s question “What’s a body but a toy?,” a refrain that stands in direct contrast to the New Testament passage in I Corinthians 3:16, which says, “Know ye not that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit?” The deeper message is that the human body is not a toy but a spiritual temple and as such should not be defiled in an unholy union, that is, a union between a married man and an unmarried woman.

The poem’s final message is the most poignant and is also illustrative of Hughes’s idea of transcendence. The biracial child knows who he is and where he comes from, even though neither the father nor the brother will acknowledge him, their blood relative, as a family member. However, the poet says twice that the “Southern night” is “full of stars/ Great big yellow stars” and repeatedly describes the biracial child as “a little yellow/ Bastard boy,” drawing a parallel between the boy and the stars. Hughes implies that the offspring of unsanctified unions, commonly referred to as bastards, are as numerous and widespread as the stars and are able, like the stars, to go “everywhere.”

Themes

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 924

Racism and Discrimination
Although slavery was technically illegal after the American Civil War, racism and discrimination were still alive in many areas, especially in the American South. The play, which takes place on a Georgia plantation, explores the social roles of African Americans and whites during this time period. Most whites believed that they should be superior to the African Americans, who often worked for them in cotton fields as their grandparents had when they were slaves in the 1800s. For the most part, African Americans accepted their fate because they knew that there could be disastrous consequences if they tried to challenge the status quo. William says it best, when he is speaking to his mother, Cora: ‘‘A nigger’s just got to know his place in de South, that’s all, ain’t he, ma?’’

Interracial Relationships
For African American women, their...

(The entire section contains 1402 words.)

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