Selected Poems of Langston Hughes Characters

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Selected Poems of Langston Hughes Summary & Study Guide includes comprehensive information and analysis to help you understand the book. This study guide contains the following sections:

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Big Boyappears in Catch and 50-50

Big Boy is a character who appears twice in this collection of Langston Hughes' poetry. The author does not offer much information about the character's personality in "Catch," other than his going fishing for a mermaid wife. However, in the poem "50-50" Hughes establishes Big Boy (in this instance, anyway) as a man who takes advantage of women in order to meet his own physical and financial needs. Big Boy is the only named male character featured in this volume. In other selections, Hughes does include portraits of men who are just like Big Boy in their unselfconscious abuse of black women. Specifically, in the section "Lament Over Love," men are seen as no-account, opportunistic and generally untrustworthy.

Alberta K. Johnson (Madam)appears in Madam to You

Alberta K. Johnson is a black woman with strong opinions and a forthright attitude. "Madam" as she prefers to be known, has been married twice and has worked all her life. Alberta is all about business and she does not rely on anyone else to make her luck. Madam does not trust men who treat her like a real woman. She has grown accustomed to being let down and having her heart broken by men. In addition to working in white people's homes as a domestic, Alberta K. Johnson has tried her hand at various businesses with limited success. At one point, Madam owned and operated a "hair-dressing parlor." Shortly thereafter, she opened a barbecue stand only to realize that the man she chose as her business partner (most likely an unreliable lover) was less than trustworthy. Madam Alberta lives in Harlem. The interactions she has with the phone company, her minister, even the landlord, reveal Madam as someone who is virtually unafraid of confrontation. It is unclear from the poems included in this volume exactly how Madam earns a livelihood, but it is reasonable for one to assume the character lives by her wits and manages to live reasonably well, if precariously.

The Negro Motherappears in The Negro Mother

In the poem of the same title, the Negro Mother is established as the supreme caregiver and nurturer of the black race in America. Through the trials of slavery, raising white children even when hers were taken from her and sold, the Negro Mother held a vision of freedom and independence for the generations which followed. A symbol of hope and the promise for a better future, the Negro Mother is a representation of fierce determination and ancestral remembrance. The mother is the keeper of the oral tradition. She is the person/persona to turn to when times are difficult because she is capable of unconditional love as well as unyielding support. The Negro mother believes in God fervently and trusts Him to care and provide for her, her children, and her children's children. Her God is the planter of dreams in the black American soul. Her God is the one who makes all things possible. Hughes' Negro mother is never without a prayer on her lips and in her heart. The Negro Mother realizes that although she may never see freedom, those who follow her will build on the progress she is able to make. This figure of African-American womanhood has a spine of steel and unwavering compassion for those closest to her heart.

Mexican Market Womanappears in Mexican Market Woman

An old woman featured in the poem of the same name, she sits in the sun and sells "her scanty wares." The speaker, however, recognizes that this old woman is connected to the land and the sun in an undeniable way. Her skin has been baked brown because she spends most of her time inside. This establishes the character as poor and humble. Had she been a city woman, her skin would be pale, indicating her lack of connection and resonance with the natural world. Also, the woman is at an advanced age, which means that living exposed to the elements is somehow healthful not just for the body but for the mind and spirit as well. Although it is obvious from the poem that the woman does not have much, what she knows and what she has seen of "high wind-swept mountains" makes her a rare creation. Hughes makes a point of saying that the woman's skin is "so brown." The speaker renders the words with a certain amount of awe and affection. The portrait of the "ancient hag" as she is called, is actually a kind of a love song.

Ruby Brownappears in Ruby Brown

Ruby Brown (also the title of the poem) is a young black woman living in the small town of Mayville. Ruby's skin is golden brown, "like the sunshine / That warmed her body." The character works as a domestic for a woman by the name of Mrs. Latham. Polishing the silver one day, Ruby realizes that Mayville offers her little. There is no future for her in such a small town, and Mayville presents almost nothing in the way of money-making opportunities for a young black women with even moderate ambitions. Ruby is also in search of some kind of joy in life.. She longs to satisfy her soul in some way. It is not difficult to understand her conflicting feelings of stagnation and restlessness. As a young woman, Ruby is certain that there is more to life than simply cleaning white women's houses and being paid next to nothing. Ruby, bored, underemployed and hungering for some excitement in life, becomes a prostitute. It seems that Ruby (in this instance) functions as a representation of the thousands of young black women who come from similar backgrounds. That is, Ruby is a "good" girl who makes a less than wise choice based on economic necessity. Furthermore, one should also recognize that Ruby chooses prostitution because there are no other viable options for a woman such as herself. Her worldview is limited, most assuredly, by her experience as an unmarried, exuberant, uneducated black woman in the South. The last lines of the poem sum up Ruby's experience: "But the white men, [...] / Pay more money to her now / Than they ever did / When she worked in their kitchens." As happened in slavery, Ruby re-commodifies herself. That is, she returns to the mind set of slavery, in that she offers herself as property to be bought and used for pleasure rather than labor.

Monroeappears in Monroe's Blues

Monroe is a man who "sings a little blues." His lover and his friend are dead. The implication here is that Monroe is responsible for their deaths. If this is true, then Monroe committed a crime of passion, another element often associated with the blues and the right to sing the blues. The character is distraught over the deaths of his wife and friend. So much so, in fact, that his depression renders him incapable of going out and earning a living. The line "Monroe's fell on evil days" suggests that Monroe's life circumstances have taken a turn for the worse. The fact that he sings a "little" blues signals the reader that Monroe's anguish is so deep-seated that the most he can manage is nothing more than a whimper.

Billie Holidayappears in Song for Billie Holiday

The poem "Song for Billie Holiday" was written for and about the famous American jazz and blues singer of the same name. Holiday's life was tragic, but the tragedy of her circumstances was what fueled her to be able to sing the blues so richly and so well. Hughes' question, "What can purge my heart / Of the song / And the sadness?" speaks to the listener's inability to separate Holiday's music from the life she lived. In the second stanza, the speaker poses another question: "What can purge my heart / But the song / Of the sadness?" Here, the reader is being asked to recognize the utility of Holiday's music as somehow purgative. Her music, for the speaker, has the power to cleanse and purify one's heart. Billie Holiday (also known as "Lady Day") died in 1959. Her life was marred from the beginning by sexual abuse, poverty, drug abuse and alcoholism. Nevertheless, she is still considered one of the most talented and tormented figures in American jazz.

Harlem, New York City, New Yorkappears in Harlem

While it is a city, Harlem, to Langston Hughes, was much more than just a geographical location. To the author, and certainly to others born and living there during the 1920s and 1930s, the city was an entity in and of itself. During the rebirth of Harlem, there was an electricity, a vibrancy that was unmistakable to those residing there. Harlem was the center of black life in New York City. It was alive with jazz (and later be-bop) and the mood was one of progress, hope and possibility. Harlem was its own music, its own place and Hughes and others were well aware of the effect the city had on on them. Multi-layered and fluent in its own kind of blues, the city became a haven for black Americans and even today it reflects a certain character and representation of blackness in America that is strongly felt.

The Trumpet Playerappears in Trumpet Player

It is obvious from his writings that Langston Hughes placed music (jazz, blues, be-bop) and musicians like the trumpet player in a category of their own. In the poem entitled "Trumpet Player" the musician, while a modern man, still represents something of black America's past. The notes from his trumpet sound sweet and low-down, but the notes also register to remind the speaker of the bittersweet experience of the African-American life. There is remembrance of slavery in the trumpet player's eyes, and yet he continues to romance the horn, calling up desire and ecstasy. At the same time, his music is a drug to his soul. He cannot help playing his trumpet as it is part of what feeds his soul.

Dorothyappears in Ballad of the Girl Whose Name is Mud

Dorothy is the subject of a poem entitled "Ballad of the Girl Whose Name Is Mud." The character by all accounts was raised in a proper, sober home. However, this fact seems to have escaped Dorothy, who gets "in trouble" because of her involvement with a man of dubious integrity. The assumption here is that Dorothy has become pregnant. The father of Dorothy's baby abandons her and Dorothy is subsequently shunned by the decent people in her neighborhood. No one will have any dealings with Dorothy and she is branded a "hussy" and promiscuous. Most unfortunate, however, is Dorothy's own admission that given the opportunity she would behave the same way. What is most shocking is the fact that no one ever hears Dorothy complain about being mistreated and walked out on by such a low character. That Dorothy would willingly entangle herself with the same man or another just as disreputable proves that upbringing can only do so much for a person.

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