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.
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.”
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...
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to know his place in de South, that’s all, ain’t he, ma?’’
Interracial Relationships For African American women, their place often meant becoming the mistresses of white men. This is what happens to Cora, whom Norwood chooses when she is just a teenager. She notes this when she is having an imaginary conversation with the dead Norwood and remembering their first meeting. Cora says, ‘‘I’m just fifteen years old. Thirty years ago, you put your hands on me to feel my breasts, and you say, ‘you’re a pretty little piece of flesh, ain’t you?’’’ In this Southern culture, black women like black men were thought of as no more than pieces of flesh that could be molded and used in whatever way suited white people. Norwood’s friend, Fred Higgins, is a perfect example of the Southern white man who felt that black women should be used by white men for sex, but not for relationships. Higgins says about Cora, ‘‘And living with a nigger woman! Of course, I know we all have ‘em—I didn’t know you could make use of a white girl till I was past twenty.’’ Although Norwood is somewhat better in this regard, because he tries to help his mulatto children by sending them to school, he still possesses this Southern attitude of treating women like property that can be traded or sold. He says to Higgins, ‘‘(Winking) You know I got nice black women in this yard.’’ Perhaps the most callous example of this attitude is at the end of the play. The undertaker and Sam casually discuss the fact that Cora’s son, Robert, will be dead by the end of the night for killing Norwood. Then, without missing a beat, the undertaker expresses sexual interest in Cora, knowing that she is available after Norwood’s death. The undertaker says about Cora, ‘‘(Curiously) I’d like to see how she looks.’’
Mulattoes This interracial sex leads to the birth of many mulatto children. As the play shows, white men generally rejected their paternity when it came to their mulatto children. Although Norwood tries to help out his mulatto children by sending them to school, he refuses to call them his own. Norwood says to Cora when discussing Robert’s behavior, ‘‘Cora, if you want that hard-headed yellow son of yours to get along around here, he’d better listen to me. He’s no more than any other black buck on this plantation.’’ Mulattoes were often called ‘‘yellow’’ since their skin tones were usually lighter than brown and darker than white, a sign of their mixed genetic heritage. Despite the fact that mulattoes had one white parent, it was socially unacceptable for mulattoes to point this out. Robert does this when he is a little boy, calling Norwood ‘‘papa’’ in front of some important white guests. Although Norwood beats Robert, he is also angry with Cora. Cora, remembering the incident while she is talking to William, says, ‘‘And he were mad at me, too, for months. Said I was teachin’ you chilluns who they pappy were.’’
However, while most African Americans and mulattoes on the plantation accept the fact that they are considered inferior to whites, Robert does not, which creates the conflict in the play. Robert is confused and angry about his heritage. He shares many of the white features of his father, Norwood. Cora says to Robert when he is getting ready to speak to Norwood, ‘‘Talk like you was colored, cause you ain’t white.’’ Robert responds, ‘‘(Angrily) And I’m not black, either. Look at me, mama. (Rising and throwing up his arms) Don’t I look like my father? Ain’t I as light as he is?’’ Cora even tries to stand up for Robert in the beginning by noting that Robert inherited his attitude from Norwood. Cora says, ‘‘He don’t mean nothin’—just smart and young and kinder careless, Colonel Tom, like ma mother said you used to be when you was eighteen.’’ Despite these genetic links, Norwood denies that he is Robert’s father. Norwood tries to say that Robert is Cora’s son, and tells Robert that ‘‘Nigger women don’t know the fathers. You’re a bastard.’’
While Cora spends most of the play trying to prevent Robert from getting in trouble with Norwood or other white people, she goes insane once Robert kills Norwood. In her insanity as she is speaking to Norwood’s dead corpse, Cora finally stands up for herself and admits that Norwood should accept Robert as his own son. ‘‘Why don’t you get up and stop ‘em? He’s your boy. His eyes is grey—like your eyes. He’s tall like you’s tall. He’s proud like you’s proud.’