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ajnabi ([personal profile] ajnabi) wrote2010-02-19 09:01 pm

paper one, african-american literature class

Love And Necessity In Langston Hughes' Poetry

Love in Langston Hughes' poems takes on several forms, always running on the undercurrent of immediacy. This immediacy is rooted in black people's struggle for survival in the historically oppressive context of slavery, lynching, and racism. In this paper I will examine two of Hughes' poems in particular, Song For A Dark Girl (Hughes, 104), and Lenox Avenue: Midnight (Hughes, 92). Through my analysis of these poems, I will demonstrate that love in black experience is also connected to black people's search for language, religion and power.

In Song For A Dark Girl, Hughes addresses love in the context of lynching. When black people were lynched, the core of black humanity was broken and destroyed repeatedly. This broken core is referenced when the speaker repeats, "(Break the heart of me)". Their heart is not individual; their heart is rooted in collective black experience. This made it all the more important to hold onto that core fiercely. Black people have been constrained by an essentialist white/western gaze; that is, the idea that one black person represents the entire collective black diaspora. However, because of their historical experience of slavery and being torn apart from their families, black people have also needed to find strength in whatever collective experience they can retain and/or create. When there is no collective force or experience to fall back on since it has been distorted and destroyed through oppression, there is a much greater need for it. Thus, black people's core is rooted in an "Afro-American culture... that has been generated partly as a response to racism" (Wideman, 4).

When that core of black experience is broken, it seems as though there is no use for prayer or hope, as the speaker realizes: "I asked the white Lord Jesus / What was the use of prayer". The pain of loss, of the speaker's lover being murdered, must be repressed because there is no one to appeal to. In the end, Jesus is white, not black. The church functioned as a way for black people to come together and heal, but the religion was borrowed. Black people have made Christianity their own, but it is difficult to find their "own" when their cultures, languages and histories have been erased through force. This force began with the Middle Passage, and continued through slavery and murder, through punishing black people if they used their languages or for passing on their traditions. When the core is broken so deeply, the loss of African history becomes most clear. The borrowed language, the borrowed prayer, is no longer sufficient to contain that loss. It is no longer adaptable in any way. As John Wideman says, "There's nothing more to say. The distance between your version of reality and mine admits no possibility of mutual intelligibility" (Wideman, 4).

In this context of oppression and loss, is love possible? The speaker of Song For A Dark Girl says, "Love is a naked shadow / On a gnarled and naked tree". The use of the word "shadow" suggests that love has become reduced to a mere glimmer, a shoddy version, of its former self. The speaker's lover is hanging from a tree; there is nothing more to say about love. Their love cannot continue as it was. However, the repetition of "naked" suggests that perhaps this is the very essence of love for black people who were always under the threat of being lynched. Lynching exposed the horrific truth of black experience; it made black people's love all the more urgent.

In another poem by Hughes, Lenox Avenue: Midnight, the necessary urgency of love is again made apparent. In the third stanza, the speaker says, "Lenox Avenue, / Honey. / Midnight, / And the gods are laughing at us." The definite and purposeful line breaks suggest the importance of this time, this place. It's midnight, and it's a black place – Lenox Avenue. It is also important that the gods are laughing at the speaker and their lover. Just as in Song For A Black Girl, there is no use for prayer or supplication to the divine – the gods are separate, away, above, white. The time for love is now, and it might end very soon. There is no use in paying attention to the laughing gods, for they are always there. In fact, it is in refusing to pay attention to the laughing gods that the lovers reclaim their agency.

It is necessary to submit to love in the present. Love is painful, and it is made more painful by the omnipresent threat of loss, of death. Lenox Avenue: Midnight does address this truth as well. The speaker speaks of "The broken heart of love, / The weary, weary heart of pain," as "Overtones" and "Undertones" to the "rumble of street cars" and the "swish of rain". It is significant that "Overtones" and "Undertones" are placed on separate lines, indented away from the rest of the stanza, because this indicates the fact that pain and loss are definitely, inevitably there. However, because it is inevitable, the speaker still appeals to their potential lover. There is no sense in attempting to create a love that will not be marked by the possibility of loss, or running away from love because of the fear of pain. It is through the attempt at love regardless that black people have created and continued their survival. There is also a sense of a love that takes place entirely separate from white-borrowed language, prayer, culture. The love that is appealed to in Lenox Avenue: Midnight is not spoken. It is sensed, and felt, in the rain and the street cars and the night. It is felt in the "jazz rhythm" of life; but this jazz rhythm does not need words. It is a rhythm that carries over from the past.

The struggle to create, reference and document an authentic black experience is very apparent in Hughes' blues poems, and in the general blues aesthetic. As John Wideman says, "Billie Holiday's genius flourished in spite of... the simplistic, sentimental lyrics of American popular music, in spite of racism and sexism. The deep structures of African languages survived in the slaves' version of the new language enforced upon them" (Wideman, 4-5). Blues songs are marked by the recreation of American, white songs into markedly black songs through the combination of black singers' voices and repetitive choices, as well as the instrumental accompaniments of their bands. Just as black people reinterpreted and recreated blues songs, they also similarly created a Christian church for themselves infused with the spirit of gospel. This can also be compared to the struggle to create love in a climate of fear, oppression, murder and hate. The oppression makes love all the more immediate and necessary.

Structures of music and religion helped in healing and coping, and also emphasized the struggle for survival. Blues songs and black people's churches are filled with the intensity of the present – hence the pain is so visceral and real. The reality of black experience is not borrowed, and this is why even though several elements of African-American culture are borrowed from the white masters' culture, they are also not borrowed. The reality of the oppressed changes the borrowed language, the borrowed religion, the borrowed culture. As Wideman says, "black speech is not simply faulty English but a witness to a much deeper fault, a crack running below the surface, a fatal flaw in the forms and pretensions of so-called civilized language" (Wideman, 4) The changes that are made to English reflect the "primal authenticity of [black] experience" (Wideman, 2). The language of power is limited; therefore, music and movement and gesture and sound take on vital roles in the construction of a language that is more authentically black. Black language and black music are forms of survival, just as love for black people is a form of survival.

Love in Langston Hughes' poems moves from despair and agony to a defiant reclaiming of agency. The speaker's lover has been killed in Song For A Dark Girl, but the speaker is still alive. The core of black experience rebuilds itself over and over in spite of oppression. This is very evident in the construction of a black language and culture despite it being borrowed. In Lenox Avenue: Midnight, love is imminent; the excitement is palpable. Blues songs, even as they represent the pain of love and loss, are also a form of speech and acknowledgment. Once experience has been communicated, it cannot be lost. Love does not ever stop in Hughes' poems, just as it does not stop in life.



Works Cited

Hughes, Langston. "Lenox Avenue: Midnight." The Collected Poems Of Langston Hughes. Ed. Arnold Rampersad. New York: Knopf, 2004. 92.

Hughes, Langston. "Song For A Dark Girl." The Collected Poems Of Langston Hughes. Ed. Arnold Rampersad. New York: Knopf, 2004. 104.

Wideman, John. "The Black Writer And The Magic Of The Word." The New York Times 24 January 1988.