Dialogue October-December, 2004, Volume 6 No. 2
Ballad of a Dream Deferred: Blackness and Bleakness in the Poetry of Langston Hughes
What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
Like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore—
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over—
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.
Or does it explode? (MODD 71)
Langhton Hughes: “Harlem”.
The division of the world’s population into races is now generally agreed upon by scientists to have arisen as a result of climatic and environmental pressures—the darker more pigmented peoples better equipped to withstand solar output than whites. For various reasons, again largely environmental and climatic, the steady advances in civilization came from a temporary ascendancy of whites over blacks or near blacks. Until the early part of the twentieth century, the technological gulf between white and black was so wide that the Europeans held these darker races in slavery. While such a thought might be repugnant to most today, attitudes to colored people still reflect a pervasive hostility and an inherent notion of white superiority which is easy to deny intellectually but difficult to shake off emotionally. In the U.S.A., the most advanced and at the same time the most tormented of multi-racial societies in the world, the role of its substantial black population however, has changed dramatically over the last hundred years with the introduction of cosmetic reforms aimed at a fictional or theoretical equality. Nevertheless, Jim Crow laws, and Ku Klux Klan prejudices notwithstanding, a change in the black community’s view of itself has affected an attitudinal change which has set up a powerful counter discourse that finds its ultimate expression in the concept and ideology of Black Power. It is the achievement of this Black Power which is necessarily disruptive of aestheticized and mythologised representations of blacks that becomes an essentially liberating act. However, there seems to be a more or less tacit understanding among literary historians as Toni Morrison suggests, “that traditional canonical American literature is free of, uninformed and shaped by the four-hundred-year- old presence of, first, Africans and then African-Americans in the United States” (5). Because American literature has been clearly the preserve of white, male views, genius and power, scholars assume that this presence “which has shaped the body politic as well as the entire history of the culture, has no significant place or consequence in the origin and development of its literature” (5). The contemplation of this ‘black’ or nonwhite presence however, is central to any understanding of American literature and should not be permitted to hover at the margins of the literary imagination. In this context the work of Langhton Hughes, one of the leading and most prolific writers of the Harlem Renaissance, is of special significance and value. Hughes has not only given us inimitable defining metaphors of the black experience in his powerful analogies of a “dream deferred” and a “raisin in the sun”, but has also focused on the conflicts and injustices that launched Black Power.* Yet he has often been diminished and dismissed by the critical establishment. Denied formal awards and even informal kudos, the poet has often been accused by some critics, both black and white, of not writing enough consciousness-raising material. On the contrary, Hughes was the first black American to write civil-rights protest poetry that was identifiable as such, when it was quite dangerous to do so. Hailed as the poet laureate of his people, he was ready to risk even the then prevailing sub-human act of lynching, a metaphor he used for American injustice, and which he had masterfully equated with the supreme act of martyrdom and crucifixion:
It would be too bad if Jesus,
Were to come back black.
There are so many churches,
Where he could not pray,
In the U.S.A.,
Where entrance to Negroes
No matter how sanctified
Where race not religion,
But say it—
You may be
Crucified. (TPTL 38).
This paper therefore, seeks to explore through his poetry, Hughes’ significant contribution to American literature and what it means to live “in a nation of people who decided that their world-view would combine agendas for individual freedom and mechanisms for devastating racial oppression” (Morrison Preface xiii).
In an essay entitled “An Empire of Poetry”, the critic Sydney Burris draws attention to the “intractable dilemma” that Christopher Columbus was faced with when forced to characterize in most alluring terms, the culture of the uncharted territories of the West Indies which he had sailed into. Burris informs us that in an account of the islanders sent by letter to Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain in 1493, Columbus wrote, “They exhibit great affection to all and always give much for little, content with very little or nothing in return” (Burris 260). Columbus’ “rhetoric of profit”, Burris concludes, “prophetically encapsulate[s] the informing structure of colonialist thought” (259-60). To put it differently, these islands offered good profits for a sound investment. This very mechanics of sound investment, became the governing principle of white American traders who first envisioned the profitable potential of human transactions which led to the subsequent growth of a flourishing slave trade industry, that replicated the Victorian racial dichotomies of white man rational, black man irrational.
The narrative of Langston Hughes’ poetry as of his other works, reflects not only an acute awareness of the ways in which this Columbian perspective survives in the twentieth century, but also his attempts to counter the fragmentary representations of his community, that have been encouraged by this colonial vision. The 1920s were a transitional period in American history for African-Americans, economically and politically, one in which the locus of black presence was shifting northward and urbanward in search of the American Dream. This mass migration resultantly re-mapped the African-American landscape and the American perception of what blackness means in American culture. Alongside reflecting white and black romantic constructions of the Negro’s cultural identity Hughes’ poetry, more significantly, attempts to provide for his dark brethren, the definitive strengths and comforts of a “black” narrative that recalls Aime` Cesaire’s Negritude** and Marcus Garvey’s ‘black is beautiful’ cult, with its focus on black agency:
Sweet and docile,
Meek, humble and kind:
Beware the day,
They change their minds! (TPTL 100).
Again, a poem like “Harlem Sweeties” (PN 101-102), is pervaded by monochromatic, dark and intoxicating images of “coffee”, “brown sugar”, “caramel”, “chocolate”, “walnut”, “cocoa”, “cinnamon”, “All those sweet colors” that “Flavor Harlem of mine!” Although these conjure up olfactory, palatable and connoisseurial associations, they also act as reminders of the black power that went into the development of the southern plantation economy.
Hughes’ literary career begins with a commitment to black cultural resources as one important basis for his art. His unapologetic allusions to black agency inherent in the folk norms and cultural responses of his community, take on Negro spiritual, blues and Jazz forms, which best define an aesthetic constitution and sensibility that is informed by an innate sense of rhythm and spirituality. Hughes’ experimentation with the formal structures of the Blues in his verse, exemplified by improvisatory compositions and syncopated rhythms that replicated the silencing of the black voice, was part of his exploration of black representational possibilities. More importantly however, it became an important source of resistance against racial discrimination and definitions of art to which, the opposition between races— re-expressed as conflict between a primitive child and rational adult— was integral. These folk norms as George E. Kent rightly suggests, were in themselves:
definitions of black life created on the bloody and pine-scented Southern soil and upon the black board jungle of urban streets, tenement buildings, store-front churches and dim-lit bars. The current generations of black writers, who are trying to develop artistic forms that reflect a grip upon realities as they exist from day to day in black communities, discover that Langston Hughes is an important pioneer who has already “ been there and gone”. (183)
Hughes experimentation with and assimilation of Jazz rhythms in his poetry is also in tandem with his attitude to his community. Just as jazz simultaneously stresses the collective and the individual, Hughes poems are individual statements, but are also part of a larger unity. Significantly, as an individual he is de-emphasized in his work, even as various individual members of the community speak and are spoken about. In a seemingly simple form Hughes thus becomes a subtle and sensitive medium for articulating the trials, tribulations and aspirations of a voiceless community. The work’s modernity with its focus on post-Reconstruction, north-oriented urbanization of African-American life, lies in the self- reflexive nature of all the voices speaking and in speaking, coming to a consciousness of themselves and their environment. Time and again we hear voices self-consciously grappling with their Harlem realities, which include an international awareness of African-American, West Indian and African bonding. In a poem like “The Negro Speaks of Rivers”, the speaking voice transcends racial and tribal divides to express a cultural and racial pride and solidarity with blacks in the African Diaspora, whatever their nationality. When the Negro speaks of rivers, not only does he unfold before us a saga of deprivation and inhumanity, but also an exuberant cultural historiography that recalls to mind the contribution as well as the rich cultural heritage of one of the oldest civilizations of the world:
My Soul has grown deep like the rivers
I bathed in the Euphrates when the dawns were young.
I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep.
I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it.
I heard the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln
went down to New Orleans, and I’ve seen its muddy
bosom turn all golden in the sunset. (LHR 88).
Articulating the sentiment of a collective black consciousness and pan-national racial solidarity that survives in black subcultures everywhere, his poetry is a celebration of this blackness as well as a demonstration of the fact that the political impetus of the post-colonial begins well before the moment of independence. For black people the experience of colonialism is a racial experience that proceeds from the idea of race as a major feature of economic and political discrimination. This leads to the creation of “what Irele describes as a ‘community of blood’, and what Senghor calls a ‘collective personality of the black people’” (Loomba 211). Consequently, Hughes’ writing like all other urbane and subtle forms of protest serves to demonstrate the silencing and marginality of the black voice, the abrogation of an imperial center within the text and the active appropriation of the language and culture of that center. A forceful illustration of assertions that almost appear to border on an inherent superiority, is thus discernable in the subtext of even a seemingly simple poem like “I, Too, Sing America”:
I, too, sing America.
I am the darker brother.
They send me to eat in the kitchen
When company comes,
But I laugh,
And eat well,
And grow strong.
I’ll sit at the table
When company comes.
Say to me,
“Eat in the kitchen,”
They’ll see how beautiful I am
And be ashamed—
I, too, am America. (PN 97).
Hughes thus conveys in a language that is not his own, a spirit that is his own. Even while celebrating racial and cultural difference, his Negritude challenges white constructions of the meaning and value attached to these associations. If a poem like “The Weary Blues”” serves to highlight black plight and white apathy, it also becomes an ethnography of his own cultural specificity and its inherent black power, which is conveyed through recurring images of ebony on ivory, black on white:
Droning a drowsy syncopated tune,
Rocking back and forth to a mellow croon,
I heard a negro play.
Down on Lenox Avenue the other night
By the dull pallor of an old gas light
He did a lazy sway…
He did a lazy sway…
To the tune of those Weary blues.
With his ebony hands on each ivory key
He made that poor piano moan with melody.
Coming from a black man’s soul. (PN 98).
It is the black man’s ‘soul’ then that is laid bare in poems that reflect Hughes’ commitment to blackness. The poem is a rich tribute to the black performing artist through its commanding image of the black musical magician who also serves as a metaphor for the African-American experience upto the 1920s. Centuries of confrontation of black lives with the ambiguities of their universe and that of American culture have forced the Negro artist to look more searchingly towards the dominant WASP American cultural perspective. Rejecting what the cultural critic Arthur Berger terms as its “melting pot metaphor of cultural homogenization (140), Hughes emphasizes not only the importance of maintaining a black sub-cultural identity even while being American, but also demands an acknowledgement of the fact that the white American structure rests on black scaffolding:
God of dust and rainbows
Help us to see
That without the dust
The rainbow would not be. (Cited from Berry 180).
His text thus becomes an important means of inverting and challenging dominant means of representation and colonial ideologies:
It’s not easy to know what is true for you or me
…. But I guess I’m what
I feel and see and hear. Harlem, I hear you:
I guess being colored doesn’t make me not like
the same things other folks like who are other races.
So will my page be colored that I write?
Being me, it will not be white.
But it will be
a part of you, instructor.
You are white—
Yet a part of me, as I am part of you
That’s American. (MODD 40)
Hughes’ poetry plunges into Harlem, the ultimate symbolic black cultural space—the city within a city, the “ Mecca of the Negro”, as Alain Locke the Harvard University Professor of Philosophy put it in 1925, to explore the variegated uptown and downtown life of America’s very own heart of darkness. “Harlem was like a magnet for the Negro intellectual, pulling him from everywhere” wrote Hughes. “Once in New York, he had to live in Harlem. Harlem was not so much a place as a state of mind, the cultural metaphor for black America itself”. A cultural and psychological watershed, the Harlem Renaissance was an era in which black people were perceived as having finally liberated themselves from a past fraught with self-doubt. They had surrendered instead, to an unprecedented optimism, a novel pride in all things black and a cultural confidence that stretched beyond the borders of Harlem to other black communities in the Western world. This cultural confidence is best reflected in the spirit of bonhomie, freedom and fellow- feeling that prevailed at the rent-parties, speakeasies, buffet-flats and costume balls that formed the sub-cultural life of Harlem and which Hughes described as “spectacles in color”. The inimitable lesbian figures of the Blues great, Bessie Smith and the 250-pound pianist Gladys Bentley whom Hughes called an “amazing exhibition of musical energy”, along with other black vaudeville entertainers good timing their way through life, all find a place in Hughes’ poetry. Yet, notes of severe skepticism and weariness often percolate the narrative, and even though they are largely resolved by the exuberant cultural historiography that constantly engages the poet, they never vanish from his score. Behind the happy Negro exterior, the boisterous music lies the hurt in the heart:
It’s a happy beat?
Listen to it closely:
Ain’t you heard
Something underneath (MODD 3)
Lennox Avenue is thus viewed, as not only the cultural hub of black life, but also as the repository of dreams and aspirations gone awry, of disappointments and betrayals, of ‘night funerals’ and ‘red sun blues’. Harlem is the ultimate “Jim-Crow section/ On this merry go round”, which provides “the horse/ For the kid that’s black” (TPTL 92). Trapped in a matrix of structural repression, and intimidated through a violent repression of opposition, hundred years of supposed black freedom are marked by a progression that can only question the very objectivity of the American justice system:
From the slave chain to the lynch rope
To the bullets of Yorkville,
100 years NOT free. (TPTL 15)
Hughes’ deepest hope for black militancy and the enfranchisement of his community lay in art. These were large claims but not unrealistic ones as long as art continued to define itself as resistive, as continually aligned against diffidence from colored people who were uncertain about their abilities to participate in the grand ritual of resistance. His poetry with its deepest fund of history inflected through its melodious and regional music, thus lent a discursive dimension to a drama of otherness that took place on a split stage. Two misallied characters had resigned themselves to their hierarchic positions in a culture, which practiced an art of deception that was psychologically debilitating to its subjects. Jazz, Hughes believed, was the instrument, “best fitted to express the rebelliousness of a whole people against the unworthy lot that some hoped to impose on them forever” (Wagner 386). If modern poetry tended towards a fusion with painting, Hughes’ uniqueness lay in his adapting the rhythms of black music to poetry. If language and writing were to be used as weapons of protest against individual, group and structural repression, he was making use of exactly those capacities that the whites did not expect blacks to possess or even allow them to develop. Jazz with its sense of immediacy, its cultural associations and intellectual foundations, which evoked a “visceral, emotional and intellectual” impact on the listener as Morrison describes it (viii), was thus for Hughes:
one of the inherent expressions of Negro life in America; the eternal tom-tom beating in Negro soul—the tom-tom of revolt against weariness in a white world, a world of sub-way trains, and work, work, work; the tom-tom of joy and laughter, and pain swallowed in a smile” (Peplow and Davis 475).
Although poems like “Ballad of the Landlord”, never entirely assuage the linguistic, social, and political conflicts that Hughes addresses himself to, yet they do assert the overwhelming prominence of the black predicament:
My roof has sprung a leak.
These steps is broken down
Ten bucks you say I owe you?
What? You gonna get eviction orders?
You gonna cut off my heat?
You gonna take my furniture and
Throw it in the street?
Um-huh! You talking high and mighty.
Talk on—till you get through.
You ain’t gonna be able to say a word
If I land my fist on you.
Come and get this man!
He’s trying to ruin the government
And overturn the land!
Headlines in press:
MAN THREATENS LANDLORD
TENANT HELD NO BAIL
JUDGE GIVES NEGRO 90 DAYS IN COUNTY JAIL
It is in such poems that Hughes locates much of the trenchant interrogation that sustains his poetry. Now and again uneasy truces are worked out in poems between the blacks and the governing WASP community. He envisions a possible future in which “Martin Luther King is the governor of Georgia” and “Dr. Rufus Clement” the then white president of Atlanta University, his “Chief Advisor”. He imagines “Wealthy negroes” in “white pillared mansions” with “white servants” and “colored children” with “white nannies” (AYM 8-9). These however, are truces whose terms have misrepresented black biographies. Recording evidence to correct such misrepresentations then, is one of the fundamental purposes of Hughes’ works. He has thus succeeded remarkably, in providing for his community a deeply assimilative work that immediately becomes essential to further assessments of the African-American literary tradition:
Notes and References:
· In the late 60s, when the Black Power movement was at its most aggressive phase of expansion, there were real fears that open conflict, almost of civil war dimensions would break out in American cities. However, increasing liberalization and better opportunities for the social advancement and education of Negroes, saw a dramatic change in the state of the American Negro in the 70s, with Blacks penetrating middle-class and professional strata of society at a rate, which would have seemed incredible twenty years ago. Although this has slightly dulled the movement’s sense of purpose, urban ghettoes still exist and provide numerous flash points for black-white conflict. Nevertheless, most observers now view the future with optimism, for America is fast becoming one of the most integrated countries of the world, a fact that can be partly traced to the injustices and conflicts that launched Black Power into being.
** Negritude as Loomba rightly suggests, “is a reactive position, and yet it tries to create an identity free of colonialism’s taint”. Both Cesaire and Senghor “chart a dichotomy between Africa and Europe in terms that celebrate the former”. (212). As Ran Greenstein points out: “Pan-Africanism, Negritude and Black Consciousness have all emerged in the aftermath of the colonial encounter, and not just in their written forms, although they have drawn on and sought to mobilize pre-colonial discourses”. (‘History and the Production of Knowledge’, South African Historical Journal 32, May 1995: 227). Franz Fanon on the other hand, was highly critical of the Negritude movement and proposed against it, a national literature. However, even though “both ‘the nation’ and pan-national racial essence are contentious conceptions” as Loomba points out, they have nevertheless “helped anti-colonial consciousness” (213).
Berger, Arthur A.1995. Cultural Criticism: A Primer of Key Concepts. Thousand Oaks, California: Sage Publications.
Berry, Faith. 1983. Langston Hughes: Before and Beyond Harlem. West Port: Lawrence Hill and Company.
Burris, Sidney. “An Empire of Poetry”. Postcolonial Literatures. 259-268.
Hughes, Langston. 1979.Selected Poems. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. Hereafter cited as SP.
. 1974.The Panther and the Lash: Poems of Our Time. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. Hereafter cited as TPTL.
. 1961. Ask Your Mama: 12 Moods for Jazz. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. Hereafter cited as AYM.
. 1958. The Langston Hughes Reader. New York: Braziller. Hereafter cited as LHR.
. 1951. Montage of a Dream Deferred. New York: Henry Holt. Hereafter cited as MODD.
Hughes, Langhton and Bontemps, Arna. Ed. 1949. The Poetry of the Negro 1746-1949. New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc.
Kent, George E. “Langston Hughes and Folk and Cultural Tradition”. Langston Hughes Black Genius: A Critical Evaluation. Ed. Therman B. O’Daniel New York: William Morrow 1971. 183-210.
Loomba, Ania. 1999. Colonialism/ Postcolonialism. London and New York: Routledge.
Parker, Michael and Starkey, Roger Ed. 1995. Postcolonial Literatures: Achebe, Ngugi, Desai, Walcott: Contemporary Critical Essays. London: Macmillan Press Ltd.
Morrison, Tony. 1992.Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.
Peplow, Michael W. and Davis, Arthur P. Ed. 1975. The New Negro Renaissance: An Anthology. New York: Rinehart and Winston.
Wagner, Jean. 1973. Black Poets of the United States: From Paul Lawrence Dunbar to Langston Hughes. Urbana: Univ. of Illinois Press.
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