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.