C Lit 321
13 May 2019
The Weary Blues: A Critique of Racism
The blues, a flagship of early twentieth century American culture, informs the poetry of Langston Hughes’ collection of poems The Weary Blues. His poetry addresses issues such as anti-miscegenation laws, lynchings, segregation, and the hardships African Americans experienced while participating in The Great Migration of the first half of the twentieth century. He details the emotional effects of racism on the characters he builds within his poems. Continuing in the blues tradition, Langston Hughes’ blues poetry explores the genre of the blues and blues archetypal character-driven story-telling to analyze the effects of racism. This essay will analyze how Hughes incorporated elements of the blues into his poetry, the archetypal characters, and their symbolic value. At the same time, techniques of close reading will be used to argue that the poems explore the effects of racism. Hughes’ poems transcend the realm of literature by infusing elements of the musical genre into the written word so that readers may experience them. In doing so, Hughes takes personal catastrophes caused by racial conflicts and makes them both transferable and livable.
Continuing in the blues tradition, Hughes’ incorporation of the blues as a form is integral to its effect at conveying the personal catastrophe as a livable experience for the reader (Steele, Shelby 154). Techniques such as the blue note, often an eighth of a note flat in pitch, gave blues music its texture and inspired the same melancholy emotions as a minor key (in the Western musical tradition) (“Blues Scale and Blue Note”). Like a blues musician, Hughes incorporated specific techniques in his poems to draw on themes of the blues genre which strengthened the poems emotional impact. The technique of lyrical repetition is used, for example, to embed musicality within the poem. “I hope my child’ll / Never love a man. / I say I hope my child’ll / Never love a man” (Hughes 1259). The lyrical repetition in these blues poems can trigger the speech to song illusion, which, briefly, is the human brain’s tendency to interpret repetition as musicality (Caswell 2:54). Author of On Repeat: How Music Plays the Mind, Elizabeth Margulis explains, “You can take a little bit of speech, repeat it a number of times, and [...] what initially just sounded like somebody talking to you now sounds like somebody singing.” In other words, the repetition in the poems (when read aloud, as all poems should be) triggers the human brain to interpret the poem as it would a song; literally creating a simulation of hearing the blues.
In addition, Hughes’ blues poems mimic the call and response nature of blues music. Many lines in a stanza are “calls” paired with a “response,” for example “Heard de owl a hootin’ / Knowed somebody’s ‘bout to die. / Heard de owl a hootin’ / Knowed somebody's bout to die” (Hughes 1263). The call-and-response technique is one which invites participation. “Call and response is arguably the single most centrally important tradition in African American culture, a democratic participatory dynamic that melds the individual to the communal [...]; it can be seen in such otherwise diverse arenas as the Black Church, spirituals, [and] the blues” (Lamb). The invitation to participate, which is both implicitly and explicitly communicated by the call and response technique, creates a lived experience through simulation, yet again, of the blues form.
Above, this essay established some of the ways in which Hughes’ poems simulate blues music, and fall into the blues tradition -- inviting readers to experience the poems as something that transcends literature while activating the same brain pathways as music. In addition to these similarities to blues music, Hughes’ poems fall into the blues genre by incorporating archetypal characters derived from the blues imaginaries. Generally, within the blues, there are certain character archetypes that are integral to the storytelling nature of the song. The blues imaginaries are inspired by African American experiences and the genre is directly attributable to African American culture. Hughes’ poems reflect African American experiences of racism, segregation, racialized violence, and migration, which are topics for which the blues genre is known for explicitly exploring.
“Mulatto” is a poem which explores race through the use of an archetypal bastard character, a typical motif in the blues tradition, and uses the character to drive a narrative while highlighting the effects of segregation and anti-miscegenation laws. The opening line establishes the parentage of the character. Anti-miscegenation laws in the U.S. caused biracial children in the U.S. to be evidence of an illegal union. In exploring the experience of a mixed race “bastard” Hughes illustrates the racism of anti-miscegenation laws and white rejection of their mixed-race citizens. “You are my son! / Like hell!” illustrates the rejection of the mixed race child, but also the rejection of mixed-race people. “Not ever. / Niggers ain’t my brother.” doubles down on the idea that in the climate of segregation, it was not possible for whites to recognize mixed-race people as members of the white race. Instead, the poem suggests that blacks are denied personhood altogether, even if they are mixed race. “What’s a body but a toy?” compares the black body to an object, a toy, which can be owned, signifying the objectification of black people into black bodies which can be denied personhood. In objectifying the mother of the bastard boy, Hughes is able to symbolize the violence of racism. Racism turns people into objects, which can be exploited for pleasure and denied recompense. “Git on back there in the night, / You ain’t white” is signifying the erasure of mixed race people. The night signifies the metaphorical darkness of being unseen, legally erased. Following this erasure with the line “You ain’t white” offers a reason for the erasure -- those who are not white are invisible, unseen, and rejected. At the same time, the erasure ensures that no justice can be served to the child of the white man because if he is rejected, he cannot inherit the benefits of whiteness or the protections of the white patriarchy which exploited his mother and left him a “bastard.” The poem as a whole; therefore, argues that anti-miscegenation is a type of injustice which exploits black women and denies mixed-race children their personhood.
In the same vein, Hughes uses the blues tradition to tap into the taboo topics of sexuality and explores black-white relations in the poem “Red Silk Stockings” using the archetype of the black flapper girl (Hughes 1262). “Black gal. / Go out an’ let de white boys / Look at yo’ legs.” writes Hughes. This stanza establishes that the subject, a black gal, is the object of sexual attention from white men. Her “red silk stockings” and her “legs” imply the sexual nature of the white boys’ gaze. They only see her legs, which signifies not just sexual attention but objectification. They only see her as a source of sexual pleasure, not as a potential romantic partner. “Ain’t nothin’ to do for you, nohow, / Round this town, -- / You’s too pretty. / Put on yo red silk stockings, gal, / an’ tomorrow’s chil’ll / Be a high yaller.” is a stanza that implies that the black woman is unable to find work, that she will have sex with the white men, and that she will have a black child with white ancestry (1262). Together, each of these pieces of information suggests that in the worst case scenario this woman, due to the color of her skin, struggles to find employment and as a result has to resort to prostitution and will end up having a bastard, mixed-race child. The “Red Silk Stockings” is not about sexual liberation because the objectification of her body in the poem clarifies the power imbalance between the black gal and the white boys. This poem, therefore, is a critique of how white men objectify and sexually exploit black women.
The strongest case for Hughes’ poems being an exploration of the effects of racism through the use of blues-style storytelling lies in a close reading of “Gal’s Cry for a Dying Lover” (Hughes 1263). The poem “Gal’s Cry for a Dying Lover” is a snapshot of a black girl mourning the death of her lover, who has been lynched. In order to understand the use of the owl and the hound as signs that the black girl’s lover is going to die, one must understand some of the history of racialized violence and the use of lynchings and bloodhounds as tools of terror. “Hound dawg’s barkin’ / Means he’s gonna leave this world” is a direct reference to the historical practice of using bloodhounds to hunt black people down, especially escaped slaves (Yingling & Parry). In Cuba, breeders had black slaves torture specially bred hounds in order to instill hatred for black people in the dogs (Yingling & Parry). These “Cuban Bloodhounds” were bred for their “[ferocity, size, and] ability to smell, hear, outrun, signal, attack, and sometimes execute black victims” (Yingling & Parry). These dogs were sold to the British and the French to help control slaves and prevent revolts (Yingling & Parry). The tradition of using dogs trained to hunt, attack, maim, and kill blacks continued, as people trained “white dogs.” This essay includes a picture taken of a lynching in Georgia in the year 1911 in which men pose with their dogs front and center at the lynching.
Considering the historical context, the “hound dawg’s barkin’” is a much more menacing entity in the poem. In addition, improvisational lynchings often relied on trees as the locations for hangings. So, an “owl a hootin’, / knowed somebody’s ‘bout to die.” may very well be a reference to the location of a lynching. “High-in-heaben Jesus, / Please don’t take this man o’ mine” is an appeal to Jesus Christ on the part of the black girl for the sake of her lover. The poem references death five times in only three stanzas, and the title of the poem is “Gal’s Cry for a Dying Lover” which implies that the lover is in the process of dying and is not yet dead. Therefore, the hootin’ and barkin’ can be attributed as elements of the process of dying; specifically, they are part of the soundscape of the lynching. Also, in referencing Jesus Christ, the poem is alluding to a story of an innocent man being put to death in front of a crowd, which is very similar to the setting of black victims being put to death by a mob. This blues poem captures the emotional impact of the racialized violence of lynchings on the loved ones of the victims, illustrating a grown woman terrified to the point of hiding beneath her “kiver” (Hughes 1263). It also falls into the tradition of blues as being a medium that, despite dealing with taboo subject matter, often relies on metaphor and symbolism in order to make social commentary. The style of the poem is influenced by call-and-response, and the emotional tone of the poem is undeniably blue. In this poem, Hughes critiques the terror of racism openly and humanizes the experience in a way that is palatable to audiences by not disturbing readers with images of violence and resorting to voyeurism.
Ralph Ellison writes, “The blues is an impulse to keep the painful detail and episodes of a brutal existence alive in one’s aching consciousness, to finger its jazzed grain, and to transcend it, not by the consolation of philosophy but by squeezing from it a near-tragic, near-comic lyricism” (Steele). Langston Hughes’ poems are a beautiful celebration of the blues genre, simulating the musical richness of the blues sound by recreating the musicality and cultural richness of the genre in his poems. His poems take on the challenge of addressing difficult and painful experiences, and memorialize the struggles of black Americans who lived through the horrors of the Jim Crow era of racialized violence. If the blues is an impulse to keep the pain and brutality of existence alive, Hughes has undeniably succeeded in expanding on and contributing to the blues genre.
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a 3rd year PhD student at the University of Warwick and his research relates to issues of gender and slavery in North America
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