Tag Archives: Langston Hughes

Revised Close Reading of “Song for a Dark Girl”

 

          Poetry has been battling cultural and social norms since cavemen wrote on walls. African Americans, however, did not get the opportunity to truly express their voice and challenge the discrimination and oppression they faced in America until after emancipation. Even after this blacks were subject to extreme violence and injustice, still being seen as inferior citizens of the United States. Langston Hughes wrote poetry that opposed the social views on race of the white population during the 1920s. He incorporated aspects of the perspectives of both races in order to show the injustices being done to African Americans. The rhythm of jazz poetry he used in much of his poetry was unique when he first began and was instrumental in establishing his voice and driving home his themes. The rhythm of Hughes’ poem “Song for a Dark Girl” incorporates jazz poetry and reads like a ritualistic chant. By using lyrics from “Dixie” within this chant-like-poem, Hughes juxtaposes the use of lynching as established entertainment from the perspective of the white community and as a paralyzing form of control from the viewpoint of blacks. This juxtaposition ultimately serves to express Hughes’ view on the lack of racial equality in the “free” south.

            The lynching present in “Song for a Dark Girl” is seen as an atrocious act that symbolizes the height of intolerance in America. While Hughes paints a sorrowful picture, lynching was not seen as oppressive by many in the 1920s. Lynching was a form of entertainment and community bonding. It would be advertised that a black citizen was to be lynched and people would gather at the location anxious to witness the death of another: a form of live action entertainment like a festival or play. One did not even have to be present at the lynching in order to get the entertainment value; lynching photography was widely spread for the purpose of white voyeurism and to control and instill fear in African Americans. There was no escape in the US from this horrifying public festivity.

            Hughes’ plays off this idea of entertainment, by heavily incorporating music into the poem. The references to music and entertainment within “Song for a Dark Girl” start with the title. By calling this poem a “song” Hughes immediately establishes that there is a musically entertaining aspect to the poem. Though it is not a song in the traditional sense, one reads it in a chant like rhythm. Chanting falls under the umbrella of musical entertainment, whether it be a band leading a chant at a football game or part of a recorded song. By repeating “Way Down South in Dixie” as the first line in each stanza, Hughes incites the repetition of chants and their often melodic qualities (1042). In order to emphasize the melody aspect of the poem, he rhymes the second and fourth lines of each stanza. Along with having musical qualities, the poem chanting feels ritualistic. A ritual that has become routine and monotonous, as though none of the actions are surprising and have become a part of everyday life. On top of these facts, it is also similar to a religious ritual. In religion, worshippers act in ways that they feel will better the world and please the superior power. In this case, the white community sees the world as a better place when blacks are oppressed and killed when necessary, and they view themselves as the superior power.

The black woman even accepts this pretense of white religious power. Hughes’ writes, “I asked the white Lord Jesus/ What was the use of prayer.” (1042) This “white Lord Jesus” accepts the lynching, and does not condemn it despite it being a grave sin. Not only is the physical world the young lover in wrought with oppression, but so is the spiritual world. By cutting off one of the only avenues for solace, this makes it nearly impossible to escape the horrors of racial prejudice anywhere.

In “Song for a Dark Girl” the community as a whole is represented by one lover. To this community the music was not entertaining; it was often a coping mechanism for people to deal with the hardships in life, and that is how the speaker of the poem is using the chant. Reading, “Love is a naked shadow/ On a gnarled and naked tree” one can feel the pain leaping off the page in the same way an audience feels when a great musician plays a sad song (1042). The speaker is aware that her opinion and sadness means nothing in the greater, white dominated world, so she uses this song as a way to let her sorrow be felt.

The music in the poem can be seen in a third light as well. Hughes incorporates jazz rhythms in a way that the reader could imagine it being sung like a jazz song. “Way Down South in Dixie” would be wailed out by the musician, and as he made his way through each stanza the singer would move to a sad, bluesy tone (1042). The use of jazz poetry gives it a distinctly African American point of view despite the fact that there are many references to the white viewpoint. Hughes is able to use this technique as a way to contrast the perspectives and effects of lynching on both the black and white communities.

“Way Down South in Dixie:” these lyrics are the ultimate examples of the antebellum South and paralyzing control (1042). These lyrics that begin each stanza in Hughes’poem are from the popular minstrel song “Dixie.” This once again emphasizes just how much Southerners saw lynching as a form of entertainment. Minstrelsy was the single most popular form of entertainment in the late 1800s and its popularity continued through the 1920s. Also, minstrelsy was much more than a popular form of entertainment; it was an overarching form of control. Whites used it as a way to keep blacks as the inferior race in the US. They projected an image of what the African American and his culture were and this was perceived as the actual behavior and culture of African American. That is what these lyrics meant to blacks: oppression, control, and slavery. Also, including this lyric does much more than drive home that point. It allows for a comparison between the 1920s and the antebellum South. By starting each stanza with this phrase, Hughes says that the 1920s South is the same as the antebellum South, the only separator of the two is time. There has not been progression. Once again, Hughes is capable of taking one aspect and allowing it to represent both the white and black communities and how they oppose one another.

Hughes is able to highlight just how oppressed the African American is through the use of parentheses in the second line of each stanza. By placing the feelings of the African American woman in parentheses after the white supremacist lyric “Way Down South in Dixie”, Hughes makes these feelings seem like an afterthought (1042). In writing parentheses often surround a side note that is not central to the main point of the text. By putting “(break the heart of me)” in parentheses, there is the implication that the sorrow, that the feelings of the “Dark Girl” are secondary in the world of white supremacy. This purposely creates the sense that these thoughts are less important and just something to consider if the reader wants to take the time to read what is in them. The ability to emphasize the African American condition, while still showing it from a white perspective is the ultimate truth that Hughes reveals in this poem.

While this poem strongly evokes the white perspective in order juxtapose it to the experiences of the black community, Hughes, who had much racial pride, still makes it clear that this is a poem about the struggles of African Americans in the US. The true power of “Song for a Dark Girl” comes from Hughes’ ability to layer many difference perspectives and meanings into each word in order to make a statement about America’s racial injustice.

Close Reading of “Song for a Dark Girl”

Poetry has been battling cultural and social norms since cavemen wrote on walls. African Americans, however, did not get the opportunity to truly express their voice and challenge the discrimination and oppression they faced in America until after emancipation. Even after this blacks were subject to extreme violence and injustice, still being seen as inferior citizens of the United States. Langston Hughes wrote poetry that opposed the social views on race of the white population during the 1920s. He incorporated aspects of the perspectives of both races in order to show the injustices being done to African Americans. The rhythm of jazz poetry he used in much of his poetry was unique when he first began and was instrumental in establishing his voice and driving home his themes. The rhythm of Hughes’ poem “Song for a Dark Girl” incorporates jazz poetry and reads like a ritualistic chant. By using lyrics from “Dixie” within this chant-like-poem, Hughes juxtaposes the use of lynching as established entertainment from the perspective of the white community and as a paralyzing form of control from the viewpoint of blacks.

The lynching present in “Song for a Dark Girl” is seen as an atrocious act that symbolizes the height of intolerance in America. And while Hughes paints a sorrowful picture, lynching was not seen as oppressive by many in the 1920s. Lynching was a form of entertainment and community bonding. It would be advertised that a black citizen was to be lynched and people would gather at the location anxious to witness the death of another: a form of live action entertainment like a festival or play. And one did not even have to be present at the lynching in order to get the entertainment value; lynching photography was widely spread for the purpose of white voyeurism and to control and instill fear in African Americans. There was no escape in the US from this horrifying public festivity.

When people think of entertainment, music is usually one of the first things they think of. The references to music and entertainment within “Song for a Dark Girl” start with the title. By calling this poem a “song” Hughes immediately establishes that there is a musically entertaining aspect to the poem. Though it is not a song in the traditional sense, one reads it in a chant like rhythm. Chanting falls under the umbrella of musical entertainment, whether it be a band leading a chant at a football game or part of a recorded song. By repeating “Way Down South in Dixie” as the first line in each stanza, Hughes incites the repetition of chants and their often melodic qualities (1042). In order to emphasize the melody aspect of the poem, he rhymes the second and fourth lines of each stanza. Along with having musical qualities, the poem chanting feels ritualistic. A ritual that has become routine and monotonous, as though none of the actions are surprising and have become a part of everyday life. On top of these facts, it is also similar to a religious ritual. In religion, worshippers act in ways that they feel will better the world and please the superior power. In this case, the white community sees the world as a better place when blacks are oppressed and killed when necessary, and they view themselves as the superior power.

The musicality of the poem goes beyond the entertainment value lynching has for whites, it juxtaposes it next to sorrow of the affected black community. In “Song for a Dark Girl” the community as a whole is represented by one lover. Music is often a coping mechanism for people to deal with the hardships in life, and that is how the speaker of the poem is using the chant. Reading, “Love is a naked shadow/ On a gnarled and naked tree” one can feel the pain leaping off the page in the same way an audience feels when a great musician plays a sad song (1042). The speaker is aware that her opinion and sadness means nothing in the greater, white dominated world, so she uses this song as a way to let her sorrow be felt.

The music in the poem can be seen in a third light as well. Hughes incorporates jazz rhythms in a way that the reader could imagine it being sung like a jazz song. “Way Down South in Dixie” would be wailed out by the musician, and as he made his way through each stanza the singer would move to a sad, bluesy tone (1042). The use of jazz poetry gives it a distinctly African American point of view despite the fact that there are many references to the white viewpoint. Hughes is able to use this technique as a way to contrast the perspectives and effects of lynching on both the black and white communities.

“Way Down South in Dixie:” these lyrics are the ultimate examples of the antebellum South and paralyzing control (1042). These lyrics that begin each stanza in Hughes’poem are from the popular minstrel song “Dixie.” This once again emphasizes just how much Southerners saw lynching as a form of entertainment. Minstrelsy was the single most popular form of entertainment in the late 1800s and its popularity continued through the 1920s. Also, minstrelsy was much more than a popular form of entertainment; it was an overarching form of control. Whites used it as a way to keep blacks as the inferior race in the US. They projected an image of what the African American and his culture were and this was perceived as the actual behavior and culture of African American. That is what these lyrics meant to blacks: oppression, control, and slavery. But including this lyric does much more than drive home that point. It allows for a comparison between the 1920s and the antebellum South. By starting each stanza with this phrase, Hughes says that the 1920s South is the same as the antebellum South, the only separator of the two is time. There has not been progression. Once again, Hughes is capable of taking one aspect and allowing it to represent both the white and black communities and how they oppose one another.

Hughes is able to highlight just how oppressed the African American is through the use of parentheses in the second line of each stanza. By placing the feelings of the African American woman in parentheses after the white supremacist lyric “Way Down South in Dixie”, Hughes makes these feelings seem like an afterthought (1042). In writing parentheses often surround a side note that is not central to the main point of the text. By putting “(break the heart of me)” in parentheses, there is the implication that the sorrow, that the feelings of the “Dark Girl” are secondary in the world of white supremacy. This purposely creates the sense that these thoughts are less important and just something to consider if the reader wants to take the time to read what is in them. The ability to emphasize the African American condition, while still showing it from a white perspective is the ultimate truth that Hughes reveals in this poem.

While this poem strongly evokes the white perspective in order juxtapose it to the experiences of the black community, Hughes, who had much racial pride, still makes it clear that this is a poem about the struggles of African Americans in the US. The true power of “Song for a Dark Girl” comes from Hughes’ ability to layer many difference perspectives and meanings into each word in order to make a statement about society in America.

Song for a Dark Girl

“Way Down South in Dixie

(Break the heart of me)

They hung my black young lover

To a cross roads tree.”

From reading the first stanza of Langston Hughes’s “Song for a Dark Girl,” we know that the poem takes place in the South. From the ensuing description of a lynching, we can assume that this poem is set in the time after the Civil War, when supremacist groups such as the Ku Klux Klan performed public hangings to assert their dominance over the recently emancipated black Americans. This poem has a very ritualistic, chant-like quality to its structure that is reminiscent of normal cult behavior. The repetition of “Way Down South in Dixie” at the beginning of each stanza lends itself to being chanted by the reader. The repetitiveness could also represent the fact that hangings became a common occurrence in the post-Antebellum South, and the structure certainly has a constant rhythm to it. The practice, much like this chant, must have seemed endless to those who feared becoming the victims of such brutality.

In addition to representing a chant of white supremacists, if we consider the parenthetical lines in the poem (such as “Break the heart of me”), we get a glimpse into the mind of the speaker. Though lynchings were becoming common, people did not become numb to their effects. The speaker of this poem has lost her lover and the parenthetical lines serve as the chant of her inner monologue as she grieves. She repeats this line in the first and last stanza, and it acts as a reminder for her to keep feeling some sort of emotion, because losing a loved can seem like the end of the world. She has to acknowledge her feelings constantly, possibly as a way to keep herself sane. Insanity, however, can sometimes manifest itself in strange ways – such as in the performance of odd rituals – which points back to the chant-like essence of the way this poem was written.

Visitors to the Black Belt

You can talk about

Across the railroad tracks–

To me it’s here

On this side of the tracks.

The specific formatting choices that Hughes uses in these lines really puts an emphasis on places and separation of them. “Across” establishes quite a bit about this poem and its message just from its placement and its form. By italicizing it Hughes shows that places and where one is in reference to them is vital to the poem. And just as importantly, by placing it as the first word of the second line the reader notices it and that draws to its importance. By starting a line with a capitalized, italicized word, it ensures that the reader will not just glimpse over it, but instead take it in.

At the end of the second line there is a long dash. By putting this between the two ideas established by “Across” and “here” Hughes parallels the separation of ideas and races with a physical separation in the text. Hughes essentially puts an actual racial barrier in the stanza. By using this form the reader can not only feel but see the separation between races.

Just as “Across” was significant for being the first word in the line and italicized, “here” is important for being the last word and italicized. Once again, Hughes brings the readers eye to a word that indicates a place. But unlike with “Across“, the placement is important, because as the last word it is also the readers last thought on that going into the end of the stanza. The italics reveal that is much more than a place; it is a group of people and culture.

If the entire stanza were reduced to “Acrosshere” the reader could see and feel the tension without any of the other context. Just by forming the words and phrases in the way he does, Hughes is able to put a strong, difficult tension on paper.

“Thump, thump, thump, went his foot on the floor. He played a few chords then he sang some more—“

“The Weary Blues”
Langston Hughes

Langston Hughes successfully captures the essence of the blues music genre through his attention to form. “Thump, thump, thump, went his foot on the floor”; Hughes’ use of onomatopoeia channels the rhythmic quality of music. At the same time, the repetition of the word “thump” suggests monotony. This monotony relates back to the title specification of “weary” blues, as “thump” conjures images of a heavy, tired foot. The placement of a period at the end of the line conveys a sense of finality, as if this motion is unstoppable, mechanic. The period suggests that this movement cannot be contested, that even, perhaps, the singer has no control over his foot, his music, or his blue emotions. The next line continues this theme: “He played a few chords then he sang some more—“ is a phrase comprised of two simple sentences. The declarative nature of the phrases adds to the repetitious, and laborious, aspect of the poem. The use of the em dash indicates that more information is to follow, further indicating the never-ending nature of blues music in the singer’s life. Furthermore, the beat of the two lines stresses the humdrum, everyday nature of the blues. The rhyming couplet serves to incorporate the musical quality of the blues into the poem itself. Through clever use of form, Hughes’ poem is not just a celebration, but also an embodiment of the “weary blues”.

Elise

Short Blog Post 3, Weeks of 2/17 and 2/24

In short blog posts 1 and 2, you selected increasingly localized parts of a text to think about, first a single line/sentence and then a single word. In blog post 3, you’ll still select some small part of the text to think about (a word, a phrase, 1-3 lines of poetry, a sentence, a rhyme pair, etc.), but you’ll do so to make some point about the form or style of the text at hand.

Form is often opposed to (and interlinked with) content in literary studies. Roughly, content is “what a text says” and form is “how it says it.”

Consider these lines from Langston Hughes, for example:

Droning a drowsy syncopated tune,

Rocking back and forth to a mellow croon,

I heard a Negro play.

When someone talks about the immediate, literal-level content of this passage, she means what’s represented–the man playing piano, and the particular ways in which he is playing it. Figurative-level content would be similar, but it’s more about a second-level meaning of what the man playing piano represents.

When we talk about form, on the other hand, we’re considered with the way it’s put together: the alliteration on d sounds in the first line, the way the rhythmic stresses fall in each of these lines, the way the poet begins with two subordinate clauses before offering a short, simple sentence in the third line, the rhyme on tune and croon, the way “Rocking back and forth” feels like it rocks back and forth, the way the third line seems cut off compared to the first two lines. With poems, we often have very specific ways to talk about form. I might say, for example, that the second line begins with trochaic feet and ends up feeling rather iambic–a shift that might explain the rocking feeling of the sentence. For these first posts on form, however, don’t get too bogged down in the proper terminology. It’s more important to show how some formal choice adds to the meaning/experience of the poem/text.

We can talk about form in prose, too–here, the word “style” becomes useful. If you’re writing on a prose writer, you should again pick some small aspect/piece of the text and write about how it’s put together–what choices does the author make? What’s particular about her style? Style is a bit more elusive as a term–but think about how different Charles Chestnutt’s writing is from Henry James’s. That difference is in content, but it’s even more overwhelmingly in form/style.