This section contains 2,335 words
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Critical Essay by Herman Beavers
SOURCE: "Dead Rocks and Sleeping Men: Aurality in the Aesthetic of Langston Hughes," in The Langston Hughes Review, Vol. 11, No. 1, 1992, pp. 1-5.
In the following essay, Beavers argues that Hughes's role was to amplify the voice of African Americans.
In his 1940 autobiography, The Big Sea, Langston Hughes discusses the circumstances that lead him, at the puerile age of 19, to the creation of his poem, "The Negro Speaks of Rivers." The poem came into being during a trip to Mexico, Hughes writes, "when [he] was feeling very bad. Thus, he connects poetic inspiration and emotional turbulence, both of which stemmed from his attempt to understand his father's self-hatred. He relates, "All day on the train I had been thinking about my father and his strange dislike of his own people. I didn't understand it because I was a Negro, and I liked Negroes very much." What is striking about the end of this passage is that one finds Hughes adopting a posture both inside and outside the race: he does not make a statement of self-love (e.g. I like myself), rather he indicates through a kind of reflexivity, that he has self-worth. In short, he is unable to articulate self-valuation, he can only construct his positionality as the mirror opposite of his father's racial feeling. But then Hughes shifts the subject and recalls that "one of the happiest jobs [he] ever had," was the time he spent working behind the soda fountain of a refreshment parlor, in "the heart of the colored neighborhood" in Cleveland. He offers this description:
People just up from the South used to come in for ice cream and sodas and watermelon. And I never tired of hearing their talk, listening to thunderclaps of their laughter, to their troubles, to their discussions of the war and the men who had gone to Europe from the Jim Crow South, their complaints over the high rent and the long overtime hours that brought what seemed big checks, until the weekly bills were paid. (my emphasis)
I quote this passage at length to point to the disjointed quality Hughes's narrative assumes. In one chapter, we find the self-hatred of his father, his own admiration for the recuperative powers of newly arrived Southern blacks, and the act of composing a famous poem. The elements that form Hughes's account can be read, at least on a cursory level, as an attempt to demonstrate that his "best poems were written when [he] felt the worst." This notwithstanding, what I would like to propose is that we can place the poem into an aesthetic frame that brings these three disparate elements into a more geometrical alignment.
Hughes's autobiographical account can be found in the middle of a chapter entitled, "I've Known Rivers." Having established his father as someone he neither understands nor wishes to emulate, the autobiography paints the older man as an outsider, not only geographically, but spiritually as well. That Hughes would discuss his father in relation to such an important poem, alludes to body travel of a different sort than that which he undertakes in this chapter of his autobiography. Moving further away from Cleveland, the geographical space where he encountered the individuals he describes as "the gayest and bravest people possible …", Hughes elides the distance his father has put between himself and other blacks. He resists the impulses that lead to the latter's self-imposed exile: he is immersed in a vernacular moment and simultaneously peripheral to that moment. What differentiates the younger Hughes is that he listens to the voices of the folk and is "empowered rather than debilitated" by what he hears.
In composing the poem, Hughes looks at "the great muddy river flowing down toward the heart of the South" (The Big Sea). While he suggests that it is his gaze—looking out of the train window at the Mississippi—that initiates composition, I would assert that what catalyzes his act of writing is the act of recovering the spoken word. A point emphasized, moreover, by the fact that he recounts a moment where he is listener rather than speaker.
Later in the autobiography, Hughes relates, in much less detail, the events which lead to his poem, "The Weary Blues." There, he states, simply: "That winter, I wrote a poem called "The Weary Blues," about a piano-player I heard in Harlem…." Again, Hughes's poetic composition moves forward from an aural moment where, as with "The Negro Speaks of Rivers," he is an outsider. Arnold Rampersad alludes to this when he observes:
… [I]n his willingness to stand back and record, with minimal intervention as a craftsman, aspects of the drama of black religion or black music, Hughes had clearly shown already that he saw his own art as inferior [my emphasis] to that of either black musicians or religionists … At the heart of his sense of inferiority … was the knowledge that he stood to a great extent outside the culture he worshiped.
Rampersad concludes that Hughes's sense of alienation resulted from the fact that "his life had been spent away from consistent, normal involvement with the black masses whose affection and regard he craved."
This trajectory repeats itself in "The Weary Blues." Rampersad intimates as much in his description of the poem's inception: "And then one night in March [of 1922], in a little cabaret in Harlem, he finally wrote himself and his awkward position accurately into a poem [my emphasis]." This assessment calls our attention to an important consideration, namely, that Hughes's aural aesthetic employs the externality he felt in the African American community. That he was a writer and not a musician, preacher, or dancer meant that his artistic project was to record artistic expression, to amplify the African American vernacular speech event for the rest of the world to hear. Further, Hughes's sense that his literary representation of the folk was inferior, mere imitation, in turn means that he was positioned, as artist, at a distance from the "real source," almost as if he were a loudspeaker serving as a medium through which sound travels, rather than the source itself. In becoming comfortable with this role, Hughes traversed repeatedly the conceptual distance necessary to create authentic representations of black speech. Hence, as he achieved a greater place among the African American intellectual elite, the distance increased between him and the masses he sought to portray. Nonetheless, as his aesthetic sensibility crystallized, his conceptual movement was toward them.
This is evidenced by the fact that Hughes's Simple character resulted from a conversation he shared with a factory worker and his girlfriend in a Harlem bar in 1943. Intrigued as he listened to the exchange, Hughes used the qualities he discerned from the conversation to create the character, who first appeared in his column for The Chicago Defender. Constructed as a dialogue between a narrator speaking in standard English and Jesse B. Semple (or Simple), who spoke in a more colorful, Southern idiom, the columns work out Hughes's passionate desire to honor the self-redemptive power found in the African American community. Thus, Simple became a vehicle for giving voice to the nature of his artistic project; indeed, it is he who articulates the necessity, as if it were a constant reminder to Hughes, to listen "eloquently."
If the ability to "listen eloquently" characterizes Hughes's attempts to celebrate "the folk," one also finds him creating stories that illustrate the ways that African American culture is objectified because people, particularly whites, fail to understand what African American voices articulate. In Hughes's collection of stories, The Ways of White Folks, for example, we find stories like "Slaves on the Block," where the Carraways are described as "people who went in for Negroes." When their maid's nephew, Luther, arrives at their home, they are immediately attracted to him as the ultimate exotic. Michael Carraway, as one who thinks "in terms of music," exclaims, "He's 'I Couldn't Hear Nobody Pray." Not only does Hughes suggest that Carraway confuses physicality and spirituality, but the song title signals his lack of aural dexterity as well.
In "The Blues I'm Playing," Mrs. Ellsworth takes on the role of benefactress for Oceola, a young black woman who is a gifted pianist. However, the investment leads her to believe that she can dictate what her protégé will play. Indeed, she can only "hear" Oceola when she plays classical music, despite the fact that she also plays the blues and spirituals. Tension develops between the two when the older woman, "really [begins] to hate jazz, especially on a grand piano." In short, Oceola is mute unless she capitulates to Mrs. Ellsworth's belief that classical music is "superior" to vernacular musical expression.
What both these stories suggest, through their dramatization of white aural incompetence, is that African American culture is self-constituted, discursive, and regenerative. In each, Hughes is positioned at the nexus of the two cultures to mediate the events, to encode what one reads in the stories as aural incompetence. At the end of "The Blues I'm Playing," Mrs. Ellsworth claims that marriage will "take all the music" out of Oceola. The latter responds by playing the blues, which symbolizes her rejection of what Hughes suggests is the bourgeoisie's inclination to compartmentalize experience in order to create art.
Herein lies an important consideration: that Hughes's aesthetic works out a trope that brings internality and externality into a state of opposition. One sees an example of how this unfolds in "The Weary Blues." The speaker in the poem documents the experience of listening to a piano player in Harlem play the blues. Steven Tracy's compelling argument asserts that the piano player and speaker are united by the performance.
I would like to argue to the contrary however. In my view, the poem works out Hughes's apprehension, his feeling that his ability to understand the emotions that generated this form of artistic expression was not on a par with the expression itself. This is indicated by the last line of the poem, where the speaker notes that the piano player "slept like a rock or a man that's dead." The key word here is "or," for it denotes the imprecision of the speaker's understanding. What the blues articulates is the simultaneous presence of the "tragic and comic aspects of the human conditions." Thus, the blues in the poem is not the conventional "either/or" condition configured within the Cartesian construct. Rather, the piano player, by metaphorizing loneliness has already chosen self-recovery. The poem's last line, then, ignores the blues performer's ability to articulate pain and likewise to subsume it. That the speaker and the piano player never meet, or as Tracy asserts, "strike up a conversation, share a drink, or anything else," suggests that the experience does not rupture the speaker's externality. He never enters that space whereby the piano player is speaking for him, giving utterance to his loneliness. Finally, at no point in time does the speaker in the poem insert himself into the lyrics.
What this implies is that "The Weary Blues" can also be read as an anti-Jazz Age poem. That is, a case can be made in which we need not equate the speaker in the poem with Hughes at all. While Hughes obviously had a strong desire to "link the lowly blues to formal poetry," locking him into the poem ignores its efficacy as cultural commentary. Given the increasing number of whites traveling to Harlem to be entertained in clubs like The Cotton Club, the poem can be seen as an attempt on Hughes's part to warn the community that African American expression was being appropriated by mainstream culture.
The poem's structure enables this reading, if only because the speaker "quotes" the lyrics, but never allows his own voice to give way to them. Moreover, the speaker is "Down on Lenox Avenue …" which also, interestingly enough, marks the location of the Cotton Club and thus implies travel from downtown Manhattan. The I/he dichotomy Hughes establishes never collapses, which means that we can read the exteriority of the speaker as that which pertains to someone being entertained, who will leave Harlem after the performance is over. In this respect, the "or" in the last line calls our attention to the slippage that occurs when an understanding of the blues is lacking. That the speaker utters the possibility that the piano player has killed himself illustrates his failure to realize that the blues is performed reflection and not a preface to suicidal behavior.
If we return to the moment in his autobiography where Hughes is headed to Mexico towards his father, what is clear is that he circumvents his father's hatred of blacks by reconstituting the aural joy he feels in their midst. In short, Hughes's aesthetic rests on his need to assure his readership that if his writing spoke, both to and for them, it was because he took great pains to hear them. In his multifarious roles as poet, fiction writer, autobiographer, and columnist, Langston Hughes relates to the African American community as a speaker to be sure, but here the term is dualistic: the term alludes to the act of writing as both composition and amplification. As the Rampersad biography makes very clear, Hughes never elevated books over spoken forms of eloquence and his passion for writing flowed naturally from the fact that he seized every opportunity to posit himself as a listener. The Big Sea begins, after all, with Hughes standing on the deck of the S.S. Malone (his pseudonym for the freighter, West Hesseltine) and throwing books into the sea. [B]ooks had been happening to me," he writes, "I was glad they were gone." What this suggests is that Hughes never wanted to subordinate experience to literacy; books could not replace the value of improvisation. Although their disappearance from his life was temporary, one can imagine that that movement, like so many others in Hughes's life, led him towards what he so dearly loved to do: put his ear to the wind and serve as a witness for all there was to hear.
This section contains 2,335 words
(approx. 8 pages at 300 words per page)