Langston Hughes, “The Negro Artist & the Racial Mountain”

1926

One of the most promising of the young Negro poets said to me once, “I want to be a poet–not a Negro poet,” meaning, I believe, “I want to write like a white poet”; meaning subconsciously, “I would like to be a white poet”; meaning behind that, “I would like to be white.” And I was sorry the young man said that, for no great poet has ever been afraid of being himself. And I doubted then that, with his desire to run away spiritually from his race, this boy would ever be a great poet. But this is the mountain standing in the way of any true Negro art in America–this urge within the race toward whiteness, the desire to pour racial individuality into the mold of American standardization, and to be as little Negro and as much American as possible.

This article appeared in The Nation in 1926. The first paragraph implicitly refers to Countee Cullen, who used very traditional forms in his work and sometimes seemed to have a more conservative, Booker T. Washington-like approach to reform, as opposed to McKay and Hughes’ more radical ideas, drawn from the tradition of Du Bois.

Hughes blames the poet’s bourgeois background, which effaces the beauty of his race and people in favor of normalization. The racial mountain is the “Nordic world and Episcopal heaven” such a poet tries to reach in spite of himself. He praises instead the low-down folks who are still individual “in the face of American standardizations” (rather an ironic comment for a Marxist!). There is a colorful world of raw material for the Negro artist in black popular culture. Toomer does this: “Cane contains the finest prose written by a Negro in America. And like the singing of Robeson, it is truly racial.” Folk music has already arrived, as has Negro literature. Now painting, theater, and dance will take off. Hughes describes his method:

“Most of my own poems are racial in theme and treatment, derived from the life I know. In many of them I try to grasp and hold some of the meanings and rhythms of jazz… But jazz to me is one of the inherent expressions of Negro life in America; the eternal tom-tom beating in the Negro soul–the tom-tom of revolt against weariness in a white world, a world of subway trains, and work, work, work; the tom-tom of joy and laughter, and pain swallowed in a smile.”

“An artist must be free to choose what he does, certainly, but he must also never be afraid to do what he must choose.” [that is, concern himself with race in art… vs Baldwin?]

“We younger Negro artists who create now intend to express our individual dark-skinned selves without fear or shame. If white people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, it doesn’t matter. We know we are beautiful. And ugly too. The tom-tom cries and the tom-tom laughs. If colored people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, their displeasure doesn’t matter either. We build our temples for tomorrow, strong as we know how, and we stand on top of the mountain, free within ourselves.”

W. E. B. Du Bois, “The Souls of Black Folk”

1903

DuBois’ famous tract establishes a number of key concepts for American black writers – the “double consciousness,” the “talented tenth,” and a sense of “worlding” that diminishes American power in the duree. Du Bois’ more radical stance on immediate political change clashed with the more conservative tactics of Booker T. Washington. Thus we might posit Du Bois in a tradition with McKay and Hughes, whereas at times it seems Cullen falls more into Washington’s steps.

CHAPTER 1 – Du Bois’ sense of the double consciousness is developed from Hegel (he was a student of William James’). In one sense, it is “always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others,” and is negative, but it is also the power of seeing oneself seeing the world, and it ties in with cosmopolitanism as a virtue for that worldview (disinterestedness?) instead of primitivism.

CHAPTER 3 – Here Du Bois critiques Booker T. Washington’s stance on reform. Washington asks blacks to focus on “industrial education, the accumulation of wealth, and the conciliation of the South,” rather than political power (the vote), civil rights, and higher education. This is disenfranchisement, legal inferiority, and the condemnation of black education for Du Bois.

CHAPTER 9 – the most talented ten percent of blacks and whites are likely not in contact because of segregation, which is a loss to culture (recall what Stendahl and Woolf say about women).

Gwendolyn Brooks: Poems

Gwendolyn Brooks (1917-2000) is a late inheritor of the Harlem Renaissance vein of poetry. She is known for the versatility of her experimental styles and themes.

A STREET IN BRONZEVILLE, 1945

“KITCHENETTE BUILDING”

We are things of dry hours and the involuntary plan,
Grayed in, and gray. “Dream” mate, a giddy sound, not strong
Like “rent”, “feeding a wife”, “satisfying a man”.

But could a dream sent up through onion fumes
Its white and violet, fight with fried potatoes
And yesterday’s garbage ripening in the hall,
Flutter, or sing an aria down these rooms,

Even if we were willing to let it in,
Had time to warm it, keep it very clean,
Anticipate a message, let it begin?

We wonder. But not well! not for a minute!
Since Number Five is out of the bathroom now,
We think of lukewarm water, hope to get in it.

Think of “Harlem,” by Langston Hughes in connection with the imagery of the dream here.

“THE MOTHER”

Abortions will not let you forget.
You remember the children you got that you did not get,
The damp small pulps with a little or with no hair,
The singers and workers that never handled the air.
You will never neglect or beat
Them, or silence or buy with a sweet.
You will never wind up the sucking-thumb
Or scuttle off ghosts that come.
You will never leave them, controlling your luscious sigh,
Return for a snack of them, with gobbling mother-eye.
I have heard in the voices of the wind the voices of my dim killed children.
I have contracted. I have eased
My dim dears at the breasts they could never suck.
I have said, Sweets, if I sinned, if I seized
Your luck
And your lives from your unfinished reach,
If I stole your births and your names,
Your straight baby tears and your games,
Your stilted or lovely loves, your tumults, your marriages, aches, and your deaths,
If I poisoned the beginnings of your breaths,
Believe that even in my deliberateness I was not deliberate.
Though why should I whine,
Whine that the crime was other than mine?—
Since anyhow you are dead.
Or rather, or instead,
You were never made.
But that too, I am afraid,
Is faulty: oh, what shall I say, how is the truth to be said?
You were born, you had body, you died.
It is just that you never giggled or planned or cried.
Believe me, I loved you all.
Believe me, I knew you, though faintly, and I loved, I loved you
All.
Remarkable for its early, candid treatment of abortion, if somewhat maudlin.

“A SONG IN THE FRONT YARD”

I’ve stayed in the front yard all my life.
I want a peek at the back
Where it’s rough and untended and hungry weed grows.
A girl gets sick of a rose.
I want to go in the back yard now
And maybe down the alley,
To where the charity children play.
I want a good time today.
They do some wonderful things.
They have some wonderful fun.
My mother sneers, but I say it’s fine
How they don’t have to go in at quarter to nine.
My mother, she tells me that Johnnie Mae
Will grow up to be a bad woman.
That George’ll be taken to Jail soon or late
(On account of last winter he sold our back gate).
But I say it’s fine. Honest, I do.
And I’d like to be a bad woman, too,
And wear the brave stockings of night-black lace
And strut down the streets with paint on my face

“GAY CHAPS AT THE BAR”

…and guys I knew in the States, young
officers, return from the front crying and
trembling.  Gay chaps at the bar in Los
Angeles, Chicago, New York…
–Lt. William Couch
in the South Pacific

We knew how to order.  Just the dash
Necessary.  The length of gaiety in good taste.
Whether the raillery should be slightly iced
And given green, or served up hot and lush.
And we knew beautifully how to give to women
The summer spread, the tropics of our love.
When to persist, or hold a hunger off.
Knew white speech.  How to make a look an omen.
But nothing ever taught us to be islands.
And smart, athletic language for this hour
Was not in the curriculum.  No stout
Lesson showed how to chat with death.  We brought
No brass fortissimo, among our talents,

“WE REAL COOL, ” 1960

The Pool Players.
Seven at the Golden Shovel.

We real cool. We
Left school. We

Lurk late. We
Strike straight. We

Sing sin. We
Thin gin. We

Jazz June. We
Die soon.

The poem invites a syncopated reading – you can almost hear a snap in the pauses at the end of each enjambed line. It would be interesting to compare this to the lineation of a William Carlos Williams poem.

Langston Hughes: Poems

Langston Hughes (1902-1967) was the most famous and popular of the Harlem Renaissance poets. He was born in Missouri, moved to New York to attend Columbia, and dropped out after a year. Like McKay, he was a leftist who drew his ideas from the tradition of DuBois, rather than Booker T. Washington. He traveled to the Soviet Union and believed in what we saw there for many years, though he eventually became more disillusioned by it.

“THE NEGRO SPEAKS OF RIVERS,” 1921

I’ve known rivers:
I’ve known rivers ancient as the world and older than the
flow of human blood in human veins.

My soul has grown deep like the rivers.

I bathed in the Euphrates when 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.

I’ve known rivers:
Ancient, dusky rivers.

My soul has grown deep like the rivers.

Hughes applies the voice of primitivism to himself here – whether it is ironic or not is unclear.

“I, TOO,” 1925

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.

Tomorrow,
I’ll be at the table
When company comes.
Nobody’ll dare
Say to me,
“Eat in the kitchen,”
Then.

Besides,
They’ll see how beautiful I am
And be ashamed–

I, too, am America.

Following in the Whitmanian tradition of “I Hear America Singing,” the speaker here actively sings, rather than just listening – he is of the body of America, rather than one who listens to its many voices.

“THE WEARY BLUES,” 1925

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 pale dull pallor of an old gas light
      He did a lazy sway. . . .
      He did a lazy sway. . . .
To the tune o’ those Weary Blues.
With his ebony hands on each ivory key
He made that poor piano moan with melody.
      O Blues!
Swaying to and fro on his rickety stool
He played that sad raggy tune like a musical fool.
      Sweet Blues!
Coming from a black man’s soul.
      O Blues!
In a deep song voice with a melancholy tone
I heard that Negro sing, that old piano moan—
      “Ain’t got nobody in all this world,
      Ain’t got nobody but ma self.
      I’s gwine to quit ma frownin’
      And put ma troubles on the shelf.”
Thump, thump, thump, went his foot on the floor.
He played a few chords then he sang some more—
      “I got the Weary Blues
      And I can’t be satisfied.
      Got the Weary Blues
      And can’t be satisfied—
      I ain’t happy no mo’
      And I wish that I had died.”
And far into the night he crooned that tune.
The stars went out and so did the moon.
The singer stopped playing and went to bed
While the Weary Blues echoed through his head.
He slept like a rock or a man that’s dead.
This is one of the first examples of poetry to fully embrace the black vernacular and to translate the blues into poetic form.

“SONG FOR A DARK GIRL,” 1927

Way Down South in Dixie
(Break the heart of me)
They hung my black young lover
To a cross roads tree.

Way Down South in Dixie
(Bruised body high in air)
I asked the white Lord Jesus
What was the use of prayer.

Way Down South in Dixie
(Break the heart of me)
Love is a naked shadow
On a gnarled and naked tree.

The form of the poem as song draws ironic attention (like McKay’s sonnet “Lynching”) to the horror of the content.

“HARLEM,” 1927

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?
This poem, often read as a lament, can also be read as a threat – the mixed images of consumption and injury end with an inevitable bang as the wound explodes.

“CUBES,” 1934

In the days of the broken cubes of Picasso
And in the days of the broken songs of the young men
A little too drunk to sing
And the young women
A little too unsure of love to love——
I met on the boulevards of Paris
An African from Senegal

God
Knows why the French
Amuse themselves bringing to Paris
Negroes from Senegal.

It's the old game of the boss and the bossed,
       boss and the bossed,
            amused
              and
            amusing,
       worked and working,
Behind the cubes of black and white,
           black and white,
    black and white

But since it is the old game,
For fun
They give him the three old prostitutes of
	France——
Liberty, Equality, Fraternity——
And all three of 'em sick
In spite of the tax to the government
And the legal houses
And the doctors
And the Marseillaise.

Of course, the young African from Senegal
Carries back from Paris
A little more disease
To spread among the black girls in the palm huts.
He brings them as a gift
    disease——
From light to darkness
        disease——
From the boss to the bossed
	     disease——
From the game of black and white
    disease
From the city of the broken cubes of Picaso
   d
     i
   s
 e
   a 
     s
   e

This later poem takes stock of Hughes’ realization that imperialism is the parent of Cubism. The poem ends with the curving “S” of disease – syphilis – spreading in the colonies thanks to European infection.

Countee Cullen: Poems

Countee Cullen (1903-1946) was a Harlem Renaissance poet adopted and educated in New York. While progressive, Cullen valued the traditional forms of the English & American literary forms and did less to openly subvert them than Claude McKay. His less radical politics and poetics put him more in the tempered line of Booker T. Washington (in “The Negro Artist & the Racial Mountain,” Langston Hughes criticizes him for wanting to be “a poet” and not “a Negro poet”). He was first published in Alain Locke’s 1925 The New Negro, alongside Hughes, McKay, Hurston, and Toomer. He helped publish much of Hughes’ work after Locke’s anthology in his own anthology a few years later.

COLOR, 1925

“YET I DO MARVEL”

I doubt not God is good, well-meaning, kind,
And did He stoop to quibble could tell why
The little buried mole continues blind,
Why flesh that mirrors Him must some day die,
Make plain the reason tortured Tantalus
Is baited by the fickle fruit, declare
If merely brute caprice dooms Sisyphus
To struggle up a never-ending stair.
Inscrutable His ways are, and immune
To catechism by a mind too strewn
With petty cares to slightly understand
What awful brain compels His awful hand.
Yet do I marvel at this curious thing:
To make a poet black, and bid him sing!
An English sonnet with the rhyme scheme abab cdcd efef gg. It is traditional in a number of ways: the first 8 lines are a catalogue of the situation at hand, a meditation on it, and a variety of metaphors for the inscrutability of God. At the volta, the speaker reasserts his unknowingness. Finally, in the last couplet, he reveals the true topic of the poem – the pain of being a black poet in America, bidden to sing.

“INCIDENT”

Once riding in old Baltimore,
Heart-filled, head-filled with glee,
I saw a Baltimorean
Keep looking straight at me.

Now I was eight and very small,
And he was no whit bigger,
And so I smiled, but he poked out
His tongue, and called me, ‘Nigger.’

I saw the whole of Baltimore
From May until December;
Of all the things that happened there
That’s all that I remember.

A vivid childhood recollection of the manner in which hate speech erases other memories and creates lasting trauma. An injunction to the reader to erase the word, even as the poem shows it in print (where it is and always was more impactful).

“HERITAGE”

What is Africa to me:
Copper sun or scarlet sea,
Jungle star or jungle track,
Strong bronzed men, or regal black
Women from whose loins I sprang
When the birds of Eden sang?
One three centuries removed
From the scenes his fathers loved,
Spicy grove, cinnamon tree,
What is Africa to me?
So I lie, who all day long
Want no sound except the song
Sung by wild barbaric birds
Goading massive jungle herds,
Juggernauts of flesh that pass
Trampling tall defiant grass
Where young forest lovers lie,
Plighting troth beneath the sky.
So I lie, who always hear,
Though I cram against my ear
Both my thumbs, and keep them there,
Great drums throbbing through the air.
So I lie, whose fount of pride,
Dear distress, and joy allied,
Is my somber flesh and skin,
With the dark blood dammed within
Like great pulsing tides of wine
That, I fear, must burst the fine
Channels of the chafing net
Where they surge and foam and fret.
Africa? A book one thumbs
Listlessly, till slumber comes.
Unremembered are her bats
Circling through the night, her cats
Crouching in the river reeds,
Stalking gentle flesh that feeds
By the river brink; no more
Does the bugle-throated roar
Cry that monarch claws have leapt
From the scabbards where they slept.
Silver snakes that once a year
Doff the lovely coats you wear,
Seek no covert in your fear
Lest a mortal eye should see;
What’s your nakedness to me?
Here no leprous flowers rear
Fierce corollas in the air;
Here no bodies sleek and wet,
Dripping mingled rain and sweat,
Tread the savage measures of
Jungle boys and girls in love.
What is last year’s snow to me,
Last year’s anything? The tree
Budding yearly must forget
How its past arose or set—
Bough and blossom, flower, fruit,
Even what shy bird with mute
Wonder at her travail there,
Meekly labored in its hair.
One three centuries removed   
From the scenes his fathers loved,
Spice grove, cinnamon tree,
What is Africa to me?
So I lie, who find no peace
Night or day, no slight release
From the unremittant beat
Made by cruel padded feet
Walking through my body’s street.
Up and down they go, and back,
Treading out a jungle track.
So I lie, who never quite
Safely sleep from rain at night—
I can never rest at all
When the rain begins to fall;
Like a soul gone mad with pain
I must match its weird refrain;
Ever must I twist and squirm,
Writhing like a baited worm,
While its primal measures drip
Through my body, crying, “Strip!
Doff this new exuberance.
Come and dance the Lover’s Dance!”
In an old remembered way
Rain works on me night and day.
Quaint, outlandish heathen gods
Black men fashion out of rods,
Clay, and brittle bits of stone,
In a likeness like their own,
My conversion came high-priced;
I belong to Jesus Christ,
Preacher of humility;
Heathen gods are naught to me.
Father, Son, and Holy Ghost,
So I make an idle boast;
Jesus of the twice-turned cheek,
Lamb of God, although I speak
With my mouth thus, in my heart
Do I play a double part.
Ever at Thy glowing altar
Must my heart grow sick and falter,
Wishing He I served were black,
Thinking then it would not lack
Precedent of pain to guide it,
Let who would or might deride it;
Surely then this flesh would know
Yours had borne a kindred woe.
Lord, I fashion dark gods, too,
Daring even to give You
Dark despairing features where,
Crowned with dark rebellious hair,
Patience wavers just so much as
Mortal grief compels, while touches
Quick and hot, of anger, rise
To smitten cheek and weary eyes.
Lord, forgive me if my need
Sometimes shapes a human creed.
All day long and all night through,   
One thing only must I do:
Quench my pride and cool my blood,
Lest I perish in the flood.
Lest a hidden ember set
Timber that I thought was wet
Burning like the dryest flax,
Melting like the merest wax,
Lest the grave restore its dead.
Not yet has my heart or head
In the least way realized
They and I are civilized.
The poem is written in rhyming couples of iambic tetrameter that devolves as the poem continues. As the speaker disavows a connection to Africa, claiming instead an English poetic tradition in content, the form of the poem becomes more jagged, more interrupted, as if it were difficult for him to continue his claim.

Claude McKay: Poems

Claude McKay, perhaps most known for his novel Banjo, was also a poet of the Harlem Renaissance. Jamaican by birth, he settled in America, where he became a citizen in 1940. He saw capitalism and racism as inextricably linked, and devoted much of his work to overturning conventional belief via conventional forms (the sonnet, the novel, etc.). He was a devout believer in the potential of the Soviet Union, but did not seem to experience the disillusionment that Hughes and others did.

“THE HARLEM DANCER,” 1917/1922

Applauding youths laughed with young prostitutes
And watched her perfect, half-clothed body sway;
Her voice was like the sound of blended flutes
Blown by black players upon a picnic day.
She sang and danced on gracefully and calm,
The light gauze hanging loose about her form;
To me she seemed a proudly-swaying palm
Grown lovelier for passing through a storm.
Upon her swarthy neck black shiny curls
Luxuriant fell; and tossing coins in praise,
The wine-flushed, bold-eyed boys, and even the girls,
Devoured her shape with eager, passionate gaze;
But looking at her falsely-smiling face,
I knew her self was not in that strange place.

An English sonnet with the rhyme scheme abab cdcd efef gg. Interesting to compare the dancer's dislocation from physical space with the stripper in Ellison's Invisible Man and with the dancers in Hughes' poetry.

“HARLEM SHADOWS,” 1918

I hear the halting footsteps of a lass
      In Negro Harlem when the night lets fall
Its veil. I see the shapes of girls who pass
      To bend and barter at desire’s call.
Ah, little dark girls who in slippered feet
Go prowling through the night from street to street!
Through the long night until the silver break
      Of day the little gray feet know no rest;
Through the lone night until the last snow-flake
      Has dropped from heaven upon the earth’s white breast,
The dusky, half-clad girls of tired feet
Are trudging, thinly shod, from street to street.
Ah, stern harsh world, that in the wretched way
      Of poverty, dishonor and disgrace,
Has pushed the timid little feet of clay,
      The sacred brown feet of my fallen race!
Ah, heart of me, the weary, weary feet
In Harlem wandering from street to street.
A poem about the senses and the exhaustion of the urban flaneur in three stanzas of six lines with the rhyme scheme ababcc dedecc efefcc.

“THE LYNCHING,” 1919

His Spirit in smoke ascended to high heaven.
His father, by the cruelest way of pain,
Had bidden him to his bosom once again;
The awful sin remained still unforgiven.
All night a bright and solitary star
(Perchance the one that ever guided him,
Yet gave him up at last to Fate’s wild whim)
Hung pitifully o’er the swinging char.
Day dawned, and soon the mixed crowds came to view
The ghastly body swaying in the sun
The women thronged to look, but never a one
Showed sorrow in her eyes of steely blue;
And little lads, lynchers that were to be,
Danced round the dreadful thing in fiendish glee.

An English sonnet with the rhyme scheme abba cddc effe gg. The horror of the subject in the rather prosaic form of the sonnet is striking here. The speaker shifts from the family of the victim to the body itself, ending on the women and children – “lynchers that were to be” thronging around the “thing” made of the victim’s body.

“IF WE MUST DIE,” 1919

If we must die, let it not be like hogs
Hunted and penned in an inglorious spot,
While round us bark the mad and hungry dogs,
Making their mock at our accursèd lot.
If we must die, O let us nobly die,
So that our precious blood may not be shed
In vain; then even the monsters we defy
Shall be constrained to honor us though dead!
O kinsmen! we must meet the common foe!
Though far outnumbered let us show us brave,
And for their thousand blows deal one death-blow!
What though before us lies the open grave?
Like men we’ll face the murderous, cowardly pack,
Pressed to the wall, dying, but fighting back!

An English sonnet with the rhyme scheme abab cdcd efef gg. The first 8 lines are in a subjunctive tone of prevention, while the last 6 represent a turn that is a rallying cry to leftist political action.

“AMERICA,” 1921

Although she feeds me bread of bitterness,
And sinks into my throat her tiger’s tooth,
Stealing my breath of life, I will confess
I love this cultured hell that tests my youth!
Her vigor flows like tides into my blood,
Giving me strength erect against her hate.
Her bigness sweeps my being like a flood.
Yet as a rebel fronts a king in state,
I stand within her walls with not a shred
Of terror, malice, not a word of jeer.
Darkly I gaze into the days ahead,
And see her might and granite wonders there,
Beneath the touch of Time’s unerring hand,
Like priceless treasures sinking in the sand.

An English sonnet with the rhyme scheme abab cdcd efef gg. The poem is remarkable for enacting in its form (an English sonnet by a Jamaican-born black immigrant in America) the conflict of its content (a man torn between violent political resistance and cultural infatuation).

“MOSCOW,” 1953

Another sonnet, but in a Petrarchan octet/sestet structure (with the unusual rhyme scheme abcd bcda / efg fge). The octet describes Moscow as McKay saw it; after the volta, the sestet turns to how the memory preserves him and gives him hope (almost like Wordsworth’s daffodils). The poem transforms Moscow into Byzantium, perhaps a comment on a Yeatsian ideal of aesthetic and political union, as in “Sailing to Byzantium.”