Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1383
In “Song for a Dark Girl,” African-American poet Langston Hughes (1902-1967) employs allusions to bring into the poem external contexts that contribute to its theme and tone. The primary allusion is repeated at the beginning of each stanza: “Way Down South in Dixie” (1, 5, 9). The phrase refers to the refrain of the famous mid-nineteenth-century song “Dixie” that celebrates the glory of the American South. Ironically, it was often sung in minstrel shows by white musicians performing in "blackface," a popular theatrical convention of the day that patronized and demeaned African Americans. The repeated allusions to "Dixie" incorporated into the content of the poem make "Song for a Dark Girl" enormously ironic.
The word “song” carries ironic force, as well. Songs often suggest joy or celebration, but this song proves to be extraordinarily tragic. Hughes could have established this immediately by choosing a different title, such as “Lament for a Dark Girl,” but instead he catches us by surprise, not only by using the title he does employ but also by beginning the poem with the first line he chooses. The opening line suggests a nostalgic evocation of the attractive Southland. It is not until we read line 2 that we begin to realize this will be a very sad song indeed.
The fact that the speaker in Hughes's poem is a girl is important. The word “girl” suggests she is relatively young and innocent, which makes the brutal murder of the young man she loves seem all the more unbearable. If the poem were titled “Song for a Dark Woman,” the effect perhaps would be less poignant, since the speaker would be older and presumably more experienced in coping with loss. It is largely the contrast between the vulnerable innocence of the girl and the wicked power of the lynch mob that makes the poem so striking.
The diction (choice of words) in the poem is simple and direct—diction that seems entirely appropriate for the young, unsophisticated speaker, but the artistry of the poem is often subtle. Notice, for instance, the structure of line 2: “(Break the heart of me).” The syntax (order of words) is unusual; the more conventional expression would be “They broke my heart.” Through the unusual syntax, Hughes emphasizes both the crucial verb and the crucial pronoun, which are stressed by their respective positions at the beginning and the end of the line. The girl's suffering occurs in the present (“Break”), rather than in the past (“broke”), and the unconventional syntax of the line suggests that the depth of her torment exceeds a conventional expression of it.
Only in lines 3 and 4 do we discover the cause of the dark girl’s pain: The man she loves has been lynched on a “cross roads tree.” This phrase refers literally to a tree located at a public intersection where roads cross. For his murder to have occurred in such a public place implies that the lynch mob is utterly shameless: No attempt was made to hide the crime by hanging the victim in an obscure location. Instead, the poem suggests, the mob wanted the body to be seen by as many people as possible. The lynching, apparently, was intended not only to punish the victim for some unspecified reason but also to warn anyone else, especially anyone of color, who might somehow offend the mob.
The phrase “cross roads tree” is significant in a second way, as well; it alludes to the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. Christ died on a cross, the victim of hatred and violence; the young girl’s lover has died at the hands of a violent mob fueled by hatred. The poem implies that like Christ, the girl’s lover was innocent of wrongdoing. Like many other writers of his era, Hughes saw lynchings as being comparable in several ways to Christ’s crucifixion.
The victim in the poem is described as the girl's "black young lover"; the phrase is significant in the poem's context. It subtly suggests a particular element of racism reflected in the cultural history of the South. Young black men were once commonly perceived in white society as being lustful toward white women and dangerous to their safety; not coincidentally perhaps, it was young black men who often inspired the ferocity of lynch mobs. Additionally, the phrase directly states the victim's relationship with the speaker—they were lovers—and in the context of the poem, it implies even more. The girl's deep grief suggests their relationship was far more than physical; his loss has left her broken in spirit, beyond the consolation of prayer. In this regard, "Break the heart of me" suggests a second, more subtle meaning; "the heart of me," the most essential part of her, can be interpreted as referring to the young man himself whose broken body hangs in the tree.
The reference in the second stanza to the lover’s “Bruised body high in air” is also rich in connotative meaning. Because the young man was lynched, the bruises on his body suggest that he was beaten and brutalized even before being hanged. His body's being “high in air” makes him a spectacle, but it also emphasizes through contrast the depth of the moral depravity of those who murdered him.
The earlier reference to a “cross roads tree” seems to introduce a religious element into the poem; now in lines 7-8, Hughes brings religion directly into the poem as the dark girl speaks to Jesus: "I asked the white Lord Jesus / What was the use of prayer." The lines resonate with questions of faith and can be interpreted in various and even contradictory ways. On one hand, they can be read as a rebuke, challenging Jesus for allowing such crimes to occur. Prayer is of no use, the poem seems to imply, if Jesus and God himself permit such atrocities. The phrase “white Lord Jesus” can be interpreted as implying that Jesus may have no sympathy for the girl or for anyone who is black. On the other hand, these lines also can be read as emphasizing the contrast between the religion whites often profess and the cruelty they often practice. Historically in the South, lynch mobs often consisted of people who considered themselves Christians and who saw themselves as acting to defend Christian values.
The poem's phrasing, then, can be read as a direct challenge to Jesus, or it can be read as a condemnation of the ostensible Christianity of those who murder (or look away from murder), while considering themselves followers of Jesus. Finally, the passage can be interpreted as a message to all who sincerely follow Christ, showing that lynchings destroy the faith of the innocent, making them doubt his mercy and justice.
By the end of the poem, the girl is no longer mourning only her murdered lover. Instead, she implies "Love" itself is dead: "Love is a naked shadow / On a gnarled and naked tree." "Love" is no longer a reality; it is merely an illusion, "a naked shadow." In this context, "Love" may refer to romantic love between two people, but in light of stanza two, it also seems to refer to love in its most profound expression: divine love, the love of God for his creatures or at least the love God’s creatures are meant to show to one another. The word “Love" also can be read as yet another allusion to Christ, as if Christ himself symbolically has been killed once more through the violence and hatred of the lynching.
The final line of the poem—with its reference to a “gnarled and naked tree”—is effective in several ways. The use of alliteration in “gnarled and naked” makes the line memorable for its sound, and the individual words “gnarled” and "naked" are connotative in meaning. "Gnarled" implies that the tree is old, its natural shape corrupted by time; "naked" suggests that it is stripped of leaves, devoid of life. In its description, the tree contrasts tragically and ironically with the body now suspended from it, the vibrancy of a young life destroyed not through the natural passage of time but through a despicable act of violence. The "song" for the dark girl in Hughes's poem is one of despair and spiritual disillusionment born of the senseless suffering of the innocent.
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