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Critical Essay by Anne Borden
SOURCE: "Heroic 'Hussies' and 'Brilliant Queers': Genderracial Resistance in the Works of Langston Hughes," in African American Review, Vol. 28, No. 3, Fall, 1994, pp. 333-45.
In the following essay, Borden examines how freely Hughes discussed gender and race relations in his works.
In his writings, Langston Hughes explores the convergence of race and gender in Black men's and women's lives, questioning binary constructions of identity and exploring sensuality in relation to social change. These are the pages, as bell hooks suggests, that lay marked on bedside tables, that become worn with searching fingers, that represent something other than "the Langston Hughes most folks read or remember." They are poems and stories that deal with love among Black men and women, nature, romantic quandary, mother-daughter and father-son relations, friendship, and silences. In discussing Black male and female identity, Hughes speaks of the ways gender uniquely colors these experiences. He writes in a manner which could be described as genderracial, emphasizing how gender and racial identity are intertwined.
In an often cited passage from "The Negro Artist and Racial Mountain," Hughes comments, "One of the most promising of the young Negro poets said to me once, 'I want to be a poet, not a Negro poet.'… 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." To Hughes, identity is inseparable from, and indeed central to, one's artistry. His work is strengthened by a poetic imagination which enters the consciousness of those with varying experiences. Hughes's images are at times disturbing, also comforting, alternately sad and joyous, and directly connected to his identity as a Black man who heard the voices of many—white and of Color, male and female, gay and straight, within and without himself.
Suggesting a useful approach to Hughes's genderracial concerns, Frances Beale's 1970 essay "Double Jeopardy: To Be Black and Female" comments on the tendency of social movements to privilege one liberation struggle over another in their vision of change. She cites the women's movement's dismissal of Black women's concerns in their drive to advance the status of white women, and Black Power's assertion of Black "manhood" through the subordination of Black women. And she queries, "Are there any parallels between this struggle and the movement on the part of Black women for total emancipation?"
Deborah King expands on Beale and borrows from W.E.B. Du Bois's theory of double consciousness to describe Black women's "multiple consciousness." She concurs that "the gender-only perspective alone is insufficient for understanding Black female oppression" and asserts a form of consciousness which occupies a "both/and holistic orientation", a consciousness which she identifies as polyrhythmic. Drawing connections between African and African American expressive art forms and Black consciousness, King explains: "For Black women, the interrelationship among strips of strong contrast in multiple, counter rhythms which produces music,… dance or quilts replicates the interdependence of individuals and other elements of the cosmos, all of which have strong, contrasting natures in an ever-changing yet stable whole."
Gender and race converge for Hughes's female characters, who confront genderracial myths in their exploration of identity. bell hooks notes that Hughes often invokes the voice of a Black woman, and that he appears "comfortable in this fictive transvestism." In "Southern Mammy Sings," Hughes takes on a female voice to contrast the genderracial stereotype of the "mammy" with the reality of Black domestic work:
Miss Gardner's in her garden
Miss Yardman's in her yard
Miss Michaelmas is at de mass
And I am gettin' tired! Lawd!
I am gettin' tired!
The form of the poem indicates the blues as the musical form representative of a Black woman's experience working in white folks' kitchens, contrasting sharply with the images of the cheerful, singing "mammy" seen in the minstrel show or on the big screen, and in literature.
In "Ruby Brown," Black domestic work is contrasted with the work of Black female prostitutes. A young woman, sitting on the backporch of her white employer, polishing the silver, is struck by two questions:
What can a colored girl do
On the money from a white woman's kitchen?
And ain't there any joy in this town?
The economic realities of sex work are reflected in Ruby Brown's decision to work in prostitution. She searches for joy among her sisters and brothers in "the sinister shuttered houses of the bottoms." Her motives for becoming a prostitute reflect tragic economic need, not "looseness" or moral corruption on her part. Hughes writes:
… the white men,
Habitués of the high shuttered houses,
Pay more money to her now
Than they ever did before,
When she worked in their kitchens.
Like "Ruby Brown," Hughes's novel Not Without Laughter explores the ways in which economic and social conditions influence the identities of Black women, embodying polyrhythm and resistance. In this work, Hughes acknowledges male perspective through the character Sandy. A young boy, Sandy remains distant and curious throughout most of the book, constantly reconciling his view of the world around him with the views of the women who raise him. Gender, race, and class converge in the dialogues among the women, which Sandy often overhears, being a quiet boy, in their kitchen conversations. His mother Anjee works as a domestic, and his grandmother Hagar takes in washing from local whites. His Aunt Harriet, once fired from a kitchen job for breaking a glass pitcher, rebels against the traditionally ascribed "respectable" occupations for Black women; she works as a carnival dancer, a blues singer, and a prostitute at different points in the story. A third sister, Tempy, is a middle-class homemaker who avoids her family in her attempt to establish herself in the middle class.
The perspectives of the four women coexist in Sandy's consciousness. There is no clear-cut right or wrong; their realities survive in the flashes of joy and conflict that make up family. Despite varying views and lifestyles, a spirit of collectivity is maintained; a polyrhythmic quality such as that which King describes suffuses the novel. The movement of Sandy among the households of Hagar, Tempy, Harriet, and Anjee signifies dialogue among them. For instance, when Harriet moves away from home to work in a bordello, Sandy becomes a liaison between the worlds of Hagar and the highly religious Harriet. Upon visiting the bordello with word that Hagar has taken ill, he realizes his aunt is still much the same woman as before: "Presently, Harriet appeared in a little pink wash dress, such as a child wears, the skirt striking her just above the knees. She smelled like cashmere-bouquet soap, and her face was not yet powdered, nor her hair done up, but she was smiling broadly, happy to see her nephew, as her arms went around his neck."
This greeting, not unlike other family greetings, signifies the wholeness of Harriet's experience, in which her occupation plays but one part. While Harriet prepares herself to leave with Sandy, the young boy waits in the parlor, among the empty bottles and ashtrays. As he waits, women's voices are heard from upstairs: "'Can I help you, girlie? Can I lend you anything? Does you need a veil?'" This dialogue offers humanity to the race, class, and gender identity of Harriet and her co-workers; it resists genderracial stereotypes and explores the commonalities between the world of Harriet and the other women in her family.
Similarly, the "Madam" series of poems reflects genderracial resistance in Black women's lives. The series focuses on the life of Madam Alberta K. Johnson, a Black woman surviving in the city, who asserts her pride in part by taking the name Madam when negotiating with her landlord, the census taker, her employer, and the reader. Addressing the reader, she comments:
I do cooking,
Day's work, too!
Alberta K. Johnson—
Madam to you.
Like "Southern Mammy Sings," the "Madam" series describes the gender, race, and class concerns Black women face in domestic work. In "Madam and Her Madam," Madam recounts an incident in which she responds to being overworked by her employer:
I said, Madam,
Can it be
You trying to make a
Pack-horse out of me?
She opened her mouth
She cried, Oh, no!
You know, Alberta,
I love you so!
This passage speaks to the convergence of race, class, and gender in Black women's dealings with white women. While the narrator's name is Madam Alberta K. Johnson, her employer insists on referring to her by her first name only, while Madam must refer to her employer as "Madam." The fact that Madam is overworked and exploited by her employer, yet her employer claims to "love" her, points to the historic relationship between white and Black women of racist and sexist oppression. Though both Madam and her employer share a subordinate, female status, the oppressions heaped upon Madam are in no way lessened by the fact that her oppressor is a woman. In fact, by calling her out of her name, Madam's female employer is attempting to negate Madam's status as a "real" woman. The response which Madam recounts is not surprising:
I said, Madam,
That may be true—
But I'll be dogged
If I love you!
The speaker rejects the mythic relationship between white and Black women and instead asserts her own reality to the reader. The poem simultaneously identifies gender-racial myths about relations between white and Black women, and gives voice to Black female resistance.
Hughes demonstrates that the oppressions of Black women and men are linked because of race, but are manifested in gender-specific ways. In "Mulatto" and "Father and Son," the image of the "loose black woman" used to justify rape by white men is connected with the label of "bastard" pinned on children of white fathers, and with the use of the image of Black men as sexual beasts to justify lynching.
"Mulatto" addresses the consciousness of a white male plantation owner, as felt by a Black boy:
What's a body but a toy?
Of nigger wenches
Against black fences.
O, you little bastard boy,
What's a body but a toy?
As a means of survival, the boy finds himself pondering the oppressor's-eye-view of his mother. He risks, in such intimacy, the internalization of genderracial myths which would contribute to his own oppression of Black women and self-destructive behaviors. The poem actively resists this internalization of myths when the boy shouts, "I am your son, white man!", rejecting the myths used to justify the rape of his mother and the economic exploitation of both mother and son.
In addressing the sexual exploitation of Black women by white men, Hughes explores the use of gender stereotypes as a means of reinforcing racial oppression. In "Father and Son," Coralee Lewis comes to live in the "big house" of the plantation upon which she and her family work for one Colonel Norwood. Her second son by Colonel Norwood, Bert, resists the label of "bastard" his father has pinned on him. As a small child he refers to Colonel Norwood as "Papa," despite his father's repeated warnings and beatings. Returning home from college one summer, he confronts his father, who will send him to college yet won't allow him to enter through the front of the house. The confrontation climaxes when Bert kills his father in self-defense. As her son is chased by a vicious mob, Miss Lewis holds the dead Colonel Norwood in her arms, screaming:
"You said he warn't your'n—Cora's po' little yellow bastard. But he is your'n, Colonel Tom, and he's runnin' from you…. You can't fool me—You ain't never been so still like this before—you's out yonder, runnin' ma boy! Colonel Thomas Norwood runnin' ma boy through de fields in de dark, runnin' ma po' helpless Bert through de fields in de dark for to lynch him and to kill him…. God damn you, Tom Norwood!…. God damn you!"
The oppression of Coralee and her son are linked because of racism, but are manifested in gender-specific ways. Coralee is left penniless, because "the dead man left no heirs." Her association with Colonel Norwood is negated by the white community's view of her as "loose" and unworthy. The lynching of Bert and his brother, which ends the story, is a white response to Bert's rebellion against the role ascribed to him as a "nigger" and a "bastard"; it is justified by whites through the myth that Black men are beasts.
Hughes's exploration of Black male identity emphasizes the convergence of gender and race in threatening Black male survival. Responding to the 1931 Scottsboro case, in which one young Black man was given a life sentence and eight others were sentenced to the electric chair for the alleged rape of two white women, Hughes wrote:
BLACK BOYS IN A SOUTHERN JAIL.
WORLD, TURN PALE!
8 black boys and one white lie.
Is it much to die?
In asking "Is it much to die?" Hughes confronts white notions of the value of Black male life, discussing how one's very personhood and survival are political acts. Elsewhere in the poem, he likens the struggle of the Scottsboro Boys to those of great political martyrs such as John Brown and Christ. Similarly, "Christ in Alabama" juxtaposes Black male experience with a cultural symbol of political martyrdom, exposing the hypocrisy of racist white Christians:
Most holy bastard
Of the bleeding mouth
On the cross
Of the South.
Hughes's anti-lynching writing contrasts white-created images of white piety with the reality of racist brutality against Black people. In "Silhouette," Hughes contrasts the genderracial myth of gentle, swooning white ladies with the reality of their role in the barbarous act of lynching:
Southern gentle lady
Do not swoon
They've hung a black man
In the dark of the moon.
They've hung a black man
To a roadside tree
In the dark of the moon
For the world to see
How Dixie protects
Its white womanhood.
Not limiting himself to the overt, Hughes comments on the sexualization of racist power by liberals as well as lynch mobs, often with a mordant humor. For example, "Slave on the Block" chronicles a Greenwich Village couple's fascination with racial exoticism. Hughes begins, "They were people who went in for Negroes—Michael and Anne—the Caraways." Artists, they are forever seeking entrance into the "jungle life" of Negroes, voying at Negro speakeasies, trying to speak, paint, and learn Negro ways, yet are perplexed, for "as much as they loved Negroes, Negroes didn't seem to love Michael and Anne." The sexual shade of their desire to possess Blackness is exemplified in Anne's motivation to use a young Black man in one of her paintings:
She wanted to paint him now representing to the full the soul and sorrow of his people. She wanted to paint him as a slave about to be sold. And since slaves in warm climates had no clothes, would he please take off his shirt…. Before luncheon Michael came in, and went into rhapsodies over Luther on the box without a shirt, about to be sold into slavery.
In addition to exploring whites' genderracial stereotypes, Hughes also comments on gender issues within the Black community—specifically, the ways in which gender affects the struggle to maintain community in racist society. His work contributes to African American dialogue on gender, often in the context of racism and economic class oppression. In Montage of a Dream Deferred Hughes uses jazz and blues forms to punctuate a series of dialogues among Black men and women on gender issues. For instance, in "Sister," a young man issues a concerned complaint about his sister's affair with a married man:
That little Negro's married and got a kid.
Why does he keep foolin' around Marie?…
Why don't she get a boy-friend
I can understand—some decent man?
to which a mother's voice replies:
Did it ever occur to you, boy,
that a woman does the best she can?
and, in response, a man sitting on the stoop comments:
So does a man.
In "Same in Blues," Hughes again expresses gender dialogue in the Black community, focusing on the frustration a man feels at not being able to fulfill the male-ascribed role of provider, because of racial and economic conditions:
Lulu said to Leonard
I want a diamond ring.
Leonard said to Lulu
You won't get a goddamn thing!
There's a certain
amount of nothing
in a dream deferred.
Daddy, daddy, daddy,
All I want is you.
You can have me, baby—
but my lovin' days is through.
amount of impotence
in a dream deferred.
Leonard wishes to fulfill a masculine role in his relationship, yet he is disempowered because of racism. The second italicized remark expresses feelings of inadequacy and hopelessness caused by this awareness: "You can have me, baby," he states, "but my lovin' days is through."
Male withdrawal from feeling as an expression of hopelessness is challenged by Hughes's female characters. In "Hard Daddy," Hughes invokes the blues to discuss a woman's frustration with her man's response to her tears:
I cried on his shoulder but
He turned his back on me.
Cried on his shoulder but
He turned his back on me.
He said a woman's cryin'
Never gonna bother me.
Though the characters act in typically gender-ascribed ways, Hughes adds a twist at the end of the poem as the female character rebels against her man's hardness with her own fury:
I wish I had wings to
Fly like the eagle flies….
I'd fly on ma man an'
I'd scratch out both his eyes.
The destructive potential of masculine and feminine social constructs is addressed in Hughes's work, yet it is not always broken down into a male-female dichotomy, or even into simple notions of the masculine and the feminine. Rather, Hughes identifies a subversive strength in the feminine and a vulnerability intrinsic to masculinity. At times in his work, gender is left entirely ambiguous, broadening the scope of discussion to include masculine and feminine conflicts within one's self.
Hughes's unapologetic discussion of such topics as homosexuality, teenage pregnancy, and prostitution—whichearned him the title of "the poet low rate of Harlem" in the Chicago Whip and "The Sewer Dweller" in the Amsterdam News—promotes dialogue on taboo genderracial issues. Hughes demonstrates polyrhythmic consciousness by placing opposing views together in dialogue. Commonly, there is no clear "right" or "wrong" character; rather, the reader is invited to view the conflict through numerous perspectives simultaneously.
In discussing the genderracial concerns of gay Blacks, for example, Hughes explores racial realities and gender constructs in the Black community which contribute to homophobia. In "Blessed Assurance," Hughes invokes an ironic sympathy with a father who worries that his son is "turning into a queer," while bringing to light contradictions in the father's wishes that his son were more "masculine." The father, John, worries that homosexuality will compound the young man's oppression as a Negro:
He was a brilliant queer, on the Honor Role in high school, and likely to be graduated in the spring at the head of the class. But the boy was colored. Since colored parents always like to put their best foot forward, John was more disturbed about his son's transition than if they had been white. Negroes had enough crosses to bear.
The text is sympathetic to John's concerns, while discussing a personal, gendered concern: John doesn't want his boy to look like a "sissy" in front of John's friends. It is significant that Hughes uses the term queer to define Delly, particularly when he continues, "If only Delly were not such a sweet boy—no juvenile delinquency, no stealing cars, no smoking reefers ever. He did chores without complaint. He washed dishes too easily…."
John's concern that his son's homosexuality will further impede the boy's survival intertwines with his gender-located embarrassment and personal privileging of heterosexually ascribed styles of masculinity. The ironic twist of Delly's academic and personal success suggests that in breaking from traditional styles of masculinity—sexually and socially—Delly avoids certain traps which defer dreams for young boys trying to fit into "proper" gender roles. By examining the contradictions of John's wishes for his son, Hughes contributes to dialogue on homosexuality as a spring point for genderracial reform. Thus, "Blessed Assurance" works to move homosexuality out of the realm of the dangerous and deviant in our minds, and creates dialogue on its possible uses in promoting positive social change.
Similarly, "Café: 3 A.M." resists stereotypes of gay identity. Reprinted in several gay and lesbian anthologies, the poem discusses police violence against homosexuals:
Detectives from the vice squad
With weary sadistic eyes
some folks say.
But God, Nature,
made them that way.
Police lady or Lesbian
"Café" advocates greater understanding of gays and lesbians and, on second glance, also explores the label deviant in the context of multiple consciousness. One might interpret Hughes's "Degenerates" as the police themselves, huddled off in a corner, waiting to strike, scoping out their victims on the basis of appearance. Yet we reconcile ourselves—"somebody / made them that way"—wanting to understand the intricate gut machinery of the Other, to get to the roots of homophobic violence, or to get to the root of gaiety if we are straight. The last stanza further deepens this double reading of the poem, adding a poly-rhythmic feel to the identity of a café dweller. By asking whether she is a "Lesbian" or a "police lady," Hughes invokes the ironic sentiment that, of course, she could be both; and he questions what this identity would mean to her, to her co-workers, to the gay community.
In "Café," Hughes set forth the complex rhythm of multiple consciousnesses and oppressions to illuminate our moral dilemmas. Several of Hughes's works comment on moral judgments against women in many facets of female sexuality, addressing the ways in which women are judged by their sexual behavior. Sexuality is a necessary battleground for those who are marginalized and abused because of their sex or gender; as African American gay poet Essex Hemphill notes, the erogenous zones are far from "demilitarized" in a sexist society. For many women, sexuality becomes a means of expression, and often it is the form of our expression which is taken most seriously.
Hughes's "Ballad of the Girl Whose Name Is Mud" evokes the voice of a whispering gossip who disapproves of a girl who dated "a no-good man." The last stanza gives voice to the experience of the "hussy" herself, through gossip:
… The hussy's telling everybody—
Just as though it was no sin—
That if she had a chance
She'd do it agin'!
The "hussy" rejects gender constructs, which tell her she should be remorseful; instead, she shocks those around her by stating that "she'd do it agin'!" This type of resistance, grounded solidly in the societal notion that women express themselves primarily through their sexuality, portrays female sexual identity much as Black male identity is portrayed in "Scottsboro," as a political act. Similar sentiments recur in "S-sss-ss-sh!," which discusses unmarried, probably teenage, pregnancy. Hughes contrasts the natural imagery of birth with disapproval by family and neighbors:
The baby came one morning
Almost with the sun.
And its grandma—
But mother and child
Thought it fun.
In simultaneously enacting several views of the birth, "Sh-sss-ss-sh!" promotes dialogue on gender issues in a polyrhythmic way. It interrogates our notions of female shame in an age when unmarried pregnancy held greater stigma than it does today.
As Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar have suggested in their analysis of women writers, Hughes lends a subversive quality to his "mad women." Imagery of nakedness is heavy in Hughes's discussion of women's identity struggles, suggesting an awareness of women's sexuality as a site of resistance. The sharp and mysterious "Strange Hurt," describes a female who seeks out storms from shelter, "fiery sunshine" from shade. Hughes concludes:
In months of snowy winter
When cozy houses hold,
She'd break down doors
To wander naked
In the cold.
In "March Moon," Hughes uses irony to break down constructions of female sexuality, while connecting it with broad issues of power and inequality. The social construction of female shame is addressed through an ironic examination of the bright bare moon:
The moon is naked.
The wind has undressed the moon.
The wind has blown all the cloud-garments
Off the body of the moon
And now she's naked.
But why don't you blush,
O shameless moon?
Don't you know
It isn't nice to be naked?
As a poem about women, "March Moon" unveils the construction of female shame which represses female expression—sexually, spiritually, and intellectually. "March Moon" exposes the fallacy of "niceness" that clenches our desires, prefiguring Audre Lorde's comment that, "as women, we have come to distrust that power which rises from our deepest and non-rational thought. We have been warned against it all our lives by the male world … The fear of our desires keeps them suspect and indiscriminately powerful."
Constructing naked space as a moment of potential power, "Strange Hurt" and "March Moon" speak to the need to break down oppressive social constructs, and addresses the power of expressing our desires without shame. In a Black gay context, particularly in the age of AIDS, the need to express desire has a particular resonance. Many feel the need to emphasize the erotic as a means of broad social comment on gender, race, and class oppression. Essex Hemphill connects the devaluation of erotic experience with narrow constructs of femininity and masculinity. In "Heavy Breathing," he comments on the "threadbare masculinity" he has "outgrown":
At the end of the heavy breathing
the funerals of my brothers
force me to wear
this scratchy black suit.
I should be naked,
seeding their graves.
Hemphill blends images of tragedy and injustice with nakedness, sensual yearning. Similarly, Brad Johnson's "Protest Poem" discusses a veteran's yearning:
i would like to become
a soldier and fight
my way to the finest
guerrilla i could find,
lick the musky sweat
from his body
and let him make love
Johnson's poem invokes the sensual to signify greater struggle. He suggests that to love another man is to cross a battlefield, and that love among Black men is, as Joseph Beam comments, "the revolutionary act."
Read in the context of Hemphill's and Johnson's work, Hughes's "I Loved My Friend" contributes to a genderracially resistant Black male identity. The poem embodies a soft blue atmosphere of melancholy tenderness, of loss:
I loved my friend.
He went away from me.
There's nothing more to say.
The poem ends, soft as it began.
I loved my friend.
By naming his love, sexual or otherwise, for a Black man, Hughes simultaneously confronts a racist culture that treats Black people as objects of fear and scorn, and resists gender constructs which forbid the articulation of love between men. "I Loved My Friend" directly challenges racism and sexism in whites and internalized racism and sexism in the self.
Occupying marginal spaces within the Black community as gays and within the gay community as Blacks, Black gay artists offer a unique viewpoint on genderracial constructs of Black identity. Arguably less inhibited by the constraints of heterosexual gender roles in expressing love for members of the same sex, writers such as Hemphill and Johnson challenge genderracial self-hatred which contributes to destruction of Black male pride and community. Marlon Riggs comments on his development of Black male pride as a Black gay man:
I was blind to my brother's beauty/my own
but now I see.
Deaf to the voice that believed
we were worth wanting/loving
Now I hear.
Vega writes of his romantic connection with another Black man as a source of strength in the face of racism and homophobia:
You precious gem
black pearl that warms the heart
symbol of ageless wisdom,
I derive strength
from the touch of your hand.
Like Vega, Hughes uses erotic experience as a touchstone for gender, race, and class concerns. "In Hughes's work," bell hooks remarks, "sexual passion is always mediated by issues of materiality, class position, poverty"; gender, race, and class conflict "disrupts, perverts and distorts sexuality." Social concerns and sexual expression are inextricably linked as Hughes inquires into the nature of power, meditates on hope, and envisions social transformation through his use of sensual imagery.
In "The Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power," Audre Lorde discusses the potential power of sensuality in transforming conceptions of reality imposed upon us by "racist, patriarchal, and anti-erotic society." She observes some of the ways in which the erotic frees us to explore our own capacity for joy. Once this joy is actualized through the erotic, we can no longer settle for anything less in the full spectrum of our lives. Lorde comments:
In the way my body stretches to music and opens into response, hearkening to its deepest rhythms, so every level upon which I sense also opens to the erotically satisfying experience, whether it is dancing, building a bookcase, writing a poem, examining an idea. [It] is a measure of the joy which I know myself to be capable of feeling. And that deep and irreplaceable knowledge … comes to demand from all my life that it be lived within the knowledge that such satisfaction is possible.
The bridge which connects dream and vision with the material and political is, Lorde asserts, "formed by the erotic—the sensual—those physical, emotional and psychic expressions of what is deepest and strongest and richest within us, being shared, the passions of love in its deepest meaning." Hughes's "Fulfillment" has particular resonance in this context:
Like the sky-meaning
We got up
And went to the river,
Touched silver water,
Laughed and bathed
In the sunshine.
Hughes's sensual vision can be compared to the jazz music he so loved, transcending the barriers of beauty, creating new vision, stretching the limitations of rational thought. Like the soothing confusion of Thelonius Monk's arrangements, Hughes's poetic sensualism moves from the rushing within our heads, our dreams, to the articulation of those dreams in talk and, eventually, reality. Like Lorde's, Hemphill's, and Vega's, this dialogue on interpersonal sensual relationships broadens to include larger social relations and issues of power and inequality, and addresses social change through the exploration of yearning.
Many of Hughes's poems which explore erotic experience comment on personal relations and broad social struggle simultaneously. The poem "Desire" uses erotic imagery to address many types of desire:
Desire to us
Was like a double death,
Of our mingled breath….
Of what desire is Hughes speaking? The mention of mingled breath may hearken sexual imagery, but Hughes simultaneously addresses greater struggle:
Of an unknown strange perfume
Between us quickly
In a naked
Thus this poem about a brief sexual encounter also expresses the desire to understand the death following any brief spell of harmony. Hughes intertwines moments of hope with its absence, personal dreams with sociopolitical reality. We do not know what perfume seeps into these moments with hope, allowing us to dream, or why it is so often that chaos emerges from the ensuing silence.
Similarly, in "Demand," Hughes inquires into the nature of hope, addressing "the dream" almost aggressively:
Dear dream of utter aliveness—
Touching my body of utter death—
Tell me, O quickly! dream of aliveness,
The flaming source of your bright breath.
"Demand" contemplates how to move dreams out of the realm of fantasy. The dream of utter aliveness touches the speaker's body when it is feeling close to death. The poem suggests that, if we knew the flaming source that breathes life into hopeless souls, it would be the source of our deepest power.
In "Daybreak in Alabama" Hughes suggests that human language limits our articulation of dreams, that it is too tethered to social hierarchy. Yet still he struggles with words as he ponders their limitations, using words to describe the music he wants to write. He contrasts natural images of the South—"the scent of pine needles / And the smell of red clay after rain"—with dreamlike visions:
Of black and white black white black people
And I'm gonna put white hands
And black hands and brown and yellow hands
And red clay earth hands in it
Touching everyone with kind fingers….
In disrupting race and gender classifications, Hughes breaks down hierarchical barriers and allows readers to envision Alabama transmuted from its reality of hunger and small hard hate, of "mixing blood and rain," to a blending of people in touch and kindness—race, gender, and class hierarchy transformed. This contrasting imagery sounds a blue note, a powerful space on the page, where laughter and tears meet.
"Joy" alludes to such a place of power, again through the use of sensual imagery:
I went to look for Joy
Slim, dancing Joy,
Gay, laughing Joy
And I found her
Driving the butcher's cart
In the arms of the butcher boy!
The speaker is at once dismayed and pleased to find Joy "in the arms of the butcher boy." Joy is demystified, found amidst the chaotic harmony of city streets and work, in the space we occupy between barbarism and tender hope. The poem asserts that joy exists all around us in our ability to love and dream. Here, as in his well-known "Harlem," the dream is a human right, a daily act of resistance.
Anticipating the current rediscovery of Hughes's work by Black gay artists, "Old Walt" examines poet Walt Whitman's life through the lens of Hughes's experience. Isaac Julien's film Looking for Langston, a meditation on Hughes and the Black gay artists' tradition, transposes Hughes and Black gay life much in the manner which Hughes transposes Whitman and his own artistic searching:
Old Walt Whitman
Went finding and seeking,
Finding less than sought
Seeking more than found,
Every detail minding
Of the seeking or the finding.
In seeking as in finding
Each detail minding,
Old Walt went seeking
bell hooks writes that "it is [the] evocation of pleasure that is seductive, that suggests the poem is about sensuality and desire." The overlapping of desire and discovery points to the interaction between the two realms. In this search we see the yearning bringing finding and the finding spurring yearning; dreams and their actualization are spun together.
As artists, both Hughes and Whitman act as visionaries in unique ways, transcending social constructs momentarily through the poetic imagination. Hughes uses this dreamspace to inquire into the nature of power, eventually interrogating his own role in the creative process. As we have seen, Hughes, in "The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain," demonstrated his awareness of his role as a Negro writer, and made inquiry into his own identity and the power in that role. In "To Artina," he problematizes his relationship as writer with his poetic subject through the use of romantic, sensual imagery:
I will take your heart.
I will take your soul out of your body
As though I were God.
I will not be satisfied
With the little words you say to me.
I will not be satisfied
With the touch of your hand
Nor the sweet of your lips alone.
If we view "I" as the writer and "you" as the poetic subject, the poem stands as a reminder of the limits of poetic omniscience. It is this final ellipse—"I will take your heart for mine. / I will take your soul. / I will be God when it comes to you"—that signifies the power differential between writer and subject. Recognizing the role of one's own (multiple) consciousness in informing one's perspective on poetic subjects dissipates some of the "Godly" qualities of this omniscience. In recognizing distance, the writer's work is strengthened through a direct dialogue with the subject, centered in identity.
Hughes's discussion of identity focuses not only on his own role as a writer but on the role of literature in social transformation. In "Long Trip," which was written at sea, the sea, writing, and reading are connected. The writer observes that
The sea is a wilderness of waves,
A desert of water.
We dip and dive,
Rise and roll,
Hide and are hidden
On the sea.
Here, as in "Daybreak in Alabama," Hughes uses contrasting images to disrupt traditional imagery. Immersed in the shadowy sun glow beneath the surface, writers (and readers) "dip and dive," an image suggestive, as in "Old Walt," of searching. Hughes juxtaposes seemingly binary images, to blur the disparity between them:
The sea is a desert of waves,
A wilderness of water.
Through writing, Hughes takes his readers to places of vision, where traditional social constructs have been momentarily neutralized. It is significant that Hughes came to this space with a radical creativity centered in consciousness and identity. Hughes's genderracial dialogue offers an exciting contribution to discussion of the convergence of gender, race, and class in forming identity and envisioning social change through transcendent sensual imagery. In discussing Hughes's work, and the work of other authors, past and present, we must move beyond our reticence to speak of sex, gender, and race as informing their works. By exploring gender and race as inseparable players in the construction of identity, and by examining the interrogation of power through visionary fictions, we begin a new and rewarding dialogue on the poetic word.
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