I Am Me: The New Negro in Langston Hughes

I, Too: http://www.poemhunter.com/poem/i-too/

Mulatto: http://www.uncp.edu/home/berrys/courses/hist362/hist362_docs_harlem_renaissance4.html

Goodbye, Christ: http://www.autodidactproject.org/other/hughes-christ.html

            angston Hughes was a writer of prolific prosaic, poetic and theatrical production; making him one of the most well known authors of the Harlem Renaissance. Yet, Hughes remains a controversial figure of the Renaissance, as his peers considered his “iconoclastic, anti-religious and anti-capitalist poems” to be in “bad taste” (Lewis 257). By rejecting the European sonnet and embracing American poets such as Walt Whitman, Hughes created poetry of unique and indebted character emblematic of the time and place of the Harlem Renaissance. A key thematic in the poetry of Hughes and the Renaissance in general is the formation of black identity by African Americans through creative works, or, the formation of a New Negro as defined by Alain Locke. Hughes navigates the concept of the New Negro in many of his poems, going from the defiant despair of Mulatto to the bittersweet I, Too to the triumphant declaration of his Marxist, secular identity in Goodbye, Christ. Hughes’ poems mirror the renaissance itself, as Hughes works through the conflict of forming a New Negro identity in a society still steeped in racism both north and south of the Mason-Dixon Line. By studying the assimilation present in I, Too, the resistance in Mulatto, and the declaratory nature of Goodbye, Christ, a greater understanding of Hughes’ conception of the New Negro emerges. Hughes moves from desire to assimilate and “sing” of America to the disillusionment that would send him traveling to Africa, Japan, the Soviet Union and beyond. This led the poet to seek a New Negro identity in the denotative sense of the term, an internationalist and new identity based in the atrocities of the American past and present. Yet in the end, one that rejected an assimilatory solution in favor of a revolutionary one.

Hughes’ I, Too is one of his most famous poems and it elucidates Hughes’ navigation through assimilation and resistance into a greater American society. The poem begins with the reactive relationship that is the foundation of the poem. Hughes writes, “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” (Hughes 257-258). Hughes here is reflecting the foundational ideology of the Harlem Renaissance, that creation and productivity can raise the perception of African Americans in society, and build their “strength.” With one stroke of the pen Hughes rejects white as normative with the use of “darker” as opposed to dark, and with another he establishes his defiance to social segregation and his mounting strength to fight it. In Hughes’ later works, his ability to laugh off the racism of society seems to no longer be present, but here Hughes’ is assured by the antecedent to his strength; that American society will once and for all recognize his strength and beauty. Hughes continues, “To-morrow / I’ll sit 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” (Hughes 258). Hughes’ singling out of the word “then” seems to suggest that the date of his rise is not so finite as “to-morrow” but rather at a date when white culture will not “dare” deny his strength and beauty. Inherent in this message is resistance, as Hughes uses imagery such as strength and beauty instead of intellect for example. Yet the final line of the poem suggests the poet’s desire to affirm his role in greater American society. This is perhaps Hughes’ most idealistic conception of the New Negro, one who tills his own strength and is eventually accepted by the greater American culture.  We can see this in the way the poem progresses on a causal relationship; he will eat in the kitchen yet become strong, then he will eat at the table, then American culture will see how beautiful he is and then he will be a part of America. These last two conclusions are ones Hughes would later find harder and harder to make, and this disillusionment can be found in poems such as Mulatto.

Mulatto is a poem of war, murder and rebirth all over the identity of a mixed child of a hateful father; and in its ten syllable lines the imagery of battle demonstrates a marked move from the thesis of I, Too. The form itself is unique to Hughes, as in Mulatto he is utilizing an English sonnet with an alternating rhyme scheme and a rhymed couplet at the end. Certainly the subject matter could not be farther from Shakespeare’s sonnets, and it can be assumed this is just the reason Hughes decided to use the form for his murderously defiant art. Hughes writes, “I will dispute his title to his throne, / Forever fight him for my rightful place. / There is a searing hate within my soul, / A hate that only kin can feel for kin, /A hate that makes me vigorous and whole, /And spurs me on increasingly to win” (Hughes 263). Here we see a catalyst that is starkly contrasted to the food in the kitchen – here Hughes’ protagonist is feeding on hate; a hate born out of his birth and his subsequent rejection by society for his “bastard birth mark.” In this poem there is no reconciliation, no acknowledgement from the white father and a distinct lack of any avenue for the mulatto in the poem to progress. Hughes here is offering a congruent message to the one offered in McKay’s canonical If We Must Die, as the protagonist accepts a brutal reality yet offers in a last push of defiance a profound sense of resistance. Added to this desperate tonality, Hughes utilizes deeply conflicting imagery throughout the poem, demonstrating the broken nature of his protagonist and the desperation the protagonist feels. Hughes continues, ” Because I am my cruel father’s child, /My love of justice stirs me up to hate, /A warring Ishmaelite, unreconciled, /When falls the hour I shall not hesitate /Into my father’s heart to plunge the knife /To gain the utmost freedom that is life” (Hughes 263). Hughes asserts hate as a product of love, and life as a product of death; imagery that suggests a profound detachment from the purposed suffering witnessed in I, Too. The protagonist is a product of contradiction and “cruelty” and thus reflects these qualities. This is because he has no avenue with which to create his own identity; the mulatto in Hughes poetic project is a product of his rulers and the society around him, and not the flight of his free thinking mind. In Mulatto Hughes presents us with the problem of forming a New Negro identity in a land built from the ground up on sexual and racial violence; how can one define their own identity in a land devoted to defining it for them through violence and hatred? Hughes finds the solution to this question in Goodbye, Christ.

In Goodbye, Christ Langston Hughes delivers us his climactic and declaratory definition of his New Negro, that is, one who is both strong and beautiful and free from the chains of racist American culture and history. The poem is polemical at spots yet it does more than simply say goodbye to a Christian religion Hughes is clearly repudiating within the text. The poem is more involved in class and religious charlatans (Aimee McPherson, “Saint” Becton) than it is specifically any religious belief. The poem also interacts with the agency poetry grants, a theme keenly ingrained in Harlem Renaissance thematics. Hughes writes, “Make way for a new guy with no religion at all / A real guy named / Marx Communist Lenin Peasant Stalin Worker ME – / I said, ME!” (Hughes 267). The poem in general is very declaratory as it commands Jesus to “make way” and “move on out” of the present. In these lines of poetry Hughes defines himself, that is, declares his own self-determination. There is no father figure who controls him, no white people sending him to the kitchen, but rather the singular “I” and his ability to “say” what defines him and indeed his ability to banish religious authority. Interestingly, Hughes finishes a list of Marxist heroes with “ME,” placing himself in his own canon. This is a new synthesis, as Hughes moves to defining his New Negro. Hughes rejects the cannon of America, and instead attributes himself to an arguably antithetical one, one that would subject him to much criticism and even a senatorial summons in the McCarthy era. To Hughes, this new canon empowers the poet as he continues, “The world is mine from now on – / And nobody’s gonna sell me / To a king, or a general, / Or a millionaire.” This thesis is far detached from either I, Too and Mulatto. Instead of “I, too, Am America” we are given “I am ME!” Instead of “Because I am my cruel father’s child” we are given “The world is mine from now on.” Hughes’ New Negro is one that isn’t enslaved to the whims of “Kings…generals…or millionaires” and Hughes elucidates this idea further in his “Advertisement for the Waldorf-Astoria” as he sarcastically celebrates a new hotel in the light of impoverished African Americans in Harlem.  Thus Hughes’ New Negro is one that is not only self-determined and productive but also free from the class structure and cultural canon that systemically oppresses him. This mix of early Harlem ideology and radical Marxism was Hughes’ final, if not controversial, synthesis on the formation of the New Negro.

Langston Hughes, in spite of his radical ideology and rejection of forms, has emerged as one of the most commonly read authors of the Harlem Renaissance. His poetry has become canonical in American poetry, and emblematic of the Harlem Renaissance. This perspective is perhaps flawed, as we have seen in Hughes poetry that he was often at odds with the core ideology of the Renaissance, and he was criticized by his peers for his radical politics and poems about women of the night. By studying the assimilative themes in I, Too, the desperate resistance in Mulatto and finally the new synthesis of Hughes’ vision of the New Negro, a greater understanding of Langston Hughes as a poet of the Renaissance emerges. Hughes rejected assimilation in favor of internationalist and revolutionary sentiments; sentiments that would send him traveling across the globe and place him at odds with many of his Harlem comrades. In short, Hughes defined his new negro with a new canon, one of Marx, Lenin, Stalin, Peasants, Workers and himself; standing against not only Jim Crow and its murderous adherents, but also the leaders who sent African Americans to die in Europe only to see regression at home.

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Filed under Academic, American, English, Literature, Poetry

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