Selected Poems

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The brutality of human exploitation and strategies of survival : A study of the African-American experience as depicted in Langston Hughes’ Selected Poems, Five Plays and Not Without a Name.

Tafirenyika Makombe

Midlands State University - August 2005


Langston Hughes’ work is driven by the black struggle against oppression. The struggle has a powerful link with the history of the African-Americans. Hughes’ fiction mirrors this history; it is part of the history; it is literature of struggle.
The black struggle is for political power and economic well being, has always manifested itself as racial conflict. This means the Negro’s struggle against racial discrimination is in essence a war against economic exploitation. Eric Williams argues that slavery and racial discrimination were creations of economic needs: “... the use of Negroes was not imposed by any racial doctrines in the formative years of the system. Negro slavery paid better than did the enslavement of Indians or the use of Irish or Scottish prisoners-of-war or the use of indentured servants who were a kind of white slaves for the duration of their contracts.”1 This means the black skin was used as an excuse to economically exploit the Negro. It also follows that the conflict between the Negro and the Whites is not essentially a racial war, but an economic one. This Negro/White conflict, which often manifests itself as racism, is the African-American experience. It is the specific aim of this essay to trace Langston Hughes’ analysis of this experience, and how the Negro survived the brutalities of the exploitation inherent in the experience.
Slavery aimed to convert the Negro into a natural resource. The slave trader aimed to do this by denying that the Negro was human with an identity by attempting to reduce him to the level of a beast and making him a tool of capital. On the slave ship he/she was like cargo or any other commodity which could be bought or sold like a beast such as a donkey, horse or cattle.* The slave trader treated the Negro like articles of trade and not as human beings. At the harbours they were inspected like cargo and the plantation owners who bought the Negro slaves treated them just like pieces of property equivalent to farm animals. The Negro was commodified.*
The Negro, however, did not accept this degradation and dehumanization. He/she insisted on his humanity and identity as shown by Kunta Kinte in Roots. In Hughes’ presentation this manifests itself through a glorification of the Negro’s blackness, the beauty of Africa and the strength and indestructibility.
In the poem “My People” the beauty of the night is paralleled to the beauty of the Negro, “The night is beautiful,/So the faces of my people.”2 The aim here is to counter the negative view of black as evil and ugly. In “Dream Variation” the night is presented as welcoming and comforting. This is in direct contrast to the White held false notion that the night is evil. The line “Black like my Africa”3 in “Negro” reveals nostalgia and yearning for Africa. The possessive reference in “my” is a powerful assertion of the Negro’s identity as African, which he/she is a distinct human being with an identity. In “Madam and the Census Man” the battle between Alberta and the census man is in essence Alberta’s battle for her identity. The attempt to alter or change her name is an attempt to erase her identity and give a new one by the stroke of a pen. Her refusal is a fight to retain her distinct identity.
“I Too” and “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” reflect the dual heritage of the of the African-American. He/she has an African origin on which has been added Americanhood. The darker brother asserts his Americaness and he is not ashamed of it. The bathing in the American and African rivers confirms the African-American’s double heritage. The Negro is fighting for a brotherhood based on the equality of races. Also the idea of brotherhood is a declaration of humanness; he/she is not the brute that the slave trader and plantation owner would like the world to think that he/she is.
The Negro struggle is thus characterized by the need to assert one’s true identity and humanity. The Negro embraces his African heritage without shame. He also demands his Americaness with full and equal rights. The African-American is thus a full human being with a double heritage.4
The relationship between Negro and White is also characterized by violence. In the slave era it manifested itself through the liberal use of the whip and mutilations of the body. The frequency of the violence perpetrated on the Negro salve is succinctly captured by C.L.R. James in The Black Jacobins:Toussaint L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution when he writes, “The slaves received the whip with more certainty and regularity than they received their food.”5
After emancipation the violence of the whip returns in the form of the Ku Klux Klan lynching – the ultimate weapon of Southern terror. The Negro is lynched for any reason: threatening a white man who has raped the Negro’s wife as in “Blue Bayou”, “White man/ Makes me work all day/ And I work too hard/ For too little pay-/ Then a White man/ Takes my woman away./ I’ll kill old Greeley./ The blue Bayou/ Turns red as fire/ Put the black man/ On a rope/ And hang him higher!”6 Or for speaking for freedom as in “Southern Mummy Sings”, “Last week they lynched a colored boy./ They hung him to a tree./ That colored boy ain’t said a thing/ But we all should be free.”7 O r for refusing the claims of racial supremacy as in “Ku Klux”, “A Klansman said, `Nigger,/ Look me in the face - / And tell me you believe in/ The great white race.`”8
Most lynchings, however, were for a black man having “raped” a white woman. In the South it was extremely rare that a Negro man actually raped or even attempted to rape a white woman. Sexual contact between the two had always been initiated by the white woman. The results of this sexual contact was always the inevitable lynching of the Negro man. If he accepted, he would always be found out and lynched; if he refused she would always cry rape and he would be lynched. The rape-and-lynch psychosis is aptly illustrated in “Silhouette”. The poem illustrates the hypocrisy of the Southern white woman which leads to the lynching of the Negro man, “Southern lady,/ Be good!/ Be good!/... They’ve hung a black man/ ... / For the world to see/ How Dixie protects/ Its white womanhood”.9 Lynching the Negro for any reason becomes a way of asserting white supremacy.
“Third Degree” reflects how organized White violence frequently attacks black genitals, “Three kicks between the legs/ That kill the kids/ I’d make tomorrow”.10 These actions are actuated by myths which create sexual paranoia in which the common line is the obsession with Negro genitals.
The reason for this violence against the Negro is his/her vulnerability; and precariousness of his existence. The violence is pervasive both in the South and North. The police in the North parallel the Ku Klux Klan in the South as evidence in “Who but the Lord”, “Being poor and black/ I’ve no weapon to strike back”.11 The power of the poem lies in the humorous articulation of the vulnerability fo the Negro. The poem makes clear that the Negro has no protection from either the law or God. The law, which is supposed to protect him/her, is the perpetrator of the crime as evidenced by the policeman who hits the person for no reason other that he is black and can do nothing about it. In the poem Hughes also seems to censure God and criticize black religiosity.
Langston Hughes also warns that the Negro will not always remain docile, patient and non-violent; he will retaliate. The poem “Roland Hayes Beaten” illustrates this warning, “Negroes,/ Sweet and docile./ Meek, humble, and kind./ Beware the day/ They change their minds”12 In these lines, Hughes could have been making reference to the new wave of militancy personified by individuals like Malcolm X and movements like the Black Panthers.
Violence against the Negro is part of the African-American experience. In the South he is lynched, and in the North the law brutalizes him/her. All this is possible because of the extreme vulnerability of the Negro. The spirit of resistance to the violence is not dead; it lives on in the hearts fo the Negro. It is also imprtant to note that the violence is way of perpetuating the exploitation of the Negro.
The abolition of slavery did not necessarilly bring the era of economic boom for the Negro. He/She continued to exist in slave-like poverty as succinctly narrated W.E.B. Du Bois in an essay entitled “Of the Black Belt”.14 The system did not allow for the economic emancipation of the Negro hence the chronic poverty of the African-American. “Share Croppers” is a graphic illustration of this debilitating penury, “When the cotton’s picked/ And the work is done/ Boss man takes the money/ And we get none,/ Leaves us hungry, ragged/ As we were before./ Year by year goes by/ And we are nothing more”.15 Through the persona we can see that the cause of the penury is the bossman i.e. the white man, through the system of share-cropping. This chronic poverty makes the Negro feel he has no need to stay in the South. Life is unbearable, so he/she joins the great trek to the North. “West Texas” and “One Way Ticket” are manifestations of this trek to the North. Hughes’ plays set in the Harlem reveal that the North is false el dorado for the African-American.
The American system, which is white controlled, breeds extreme poverty in the Negro house. The system has no room for Negro advancement and the whites continue to enslave and exploit the blacks in a number of different ways.
Hughes’ view is that the African-American should demand freedom since it can never come freely. This view finds voice in “Democracy” were Hughes writes, “I have as much a right/ As the other fellow/ To stand/ O n my two feet/ And own the land”.15 There is no compromise in this stance, which contrasts sharply with that of Booker T. Washington’s compromise as articulated in the “Atlanta Exposition Address”.* Hughes’ further militancy is reflected in “In Explanation of Our Times” in which he writes, “Hell no! It’s time to talk back now!”16 The militancy is captured in the use of words like “hell”, “no” and the use of the exclamation mark in the poem. In this instance there is no room for niceties like “Sir” or “Madam”.
The poem also addresses oppression on a world scale as evidenced by mention of Dixie, Singapore, Cape Town and Hong Kong in the same breath. This reflects Hughes’ Marxist leanings at this stage of his artistic career. He had found in communist ideology a fresh perspective and a tool for social analysis. It was a broader conception of the black struggle as part of a world wide struggle against exploitation. This puts the black struggle on the material road.
In describing America Hughes pays particular attention to the South. This is because the Negro’s lack of freedom is more pronounced in this part of America. The South is a perfect illustration of the country as a corner full of ugliness. This picture appears in the poem “The South” in which America is presented as bestial, sub-human, a predator, a scavenger and a syphylitic whore. The image elicits revulsion, even in the seductive eyes of the whore. This the America in which the Negro is trapped and is being exploited. In painting this ghastly image, Hughes is urging the destruction of this kind of America. It is a lethal trap from which the African-American must escape by destroying it, or he/she will be destroyed by it.
Hughes also explores the predicament of the Mulatto in his fiction. The predicament is presented in tragic terms as Arthur P. Davies argues out. The question of the Mulatto is dealt with “Cross”, “Mulatto” the poem and Mulatto the play.
In “Cross” the issue boils down to a fruitless search for a father and a sense of loss, “My old man died in fine big house/ My ma died in a shack./ I wonder where I’m gonna die,/ Being neither white nor black?”17 Here the Mulatto seems to pity himself because of a sense of not belonging. In “Mulatto” the poem and the play Mulatto the central theme is violent rejection of the Mulatto by the white father. Colonel Norwood strikes Bert when he calls him “Papa”, “He went run’ up and grabbed a-holt de Colonel and yelled right in front o’ de White folks’ faces, `O, Papa, Cora say de dinner’s ready, Papa!... And Colonel Tom knocked him right backwards under the horse’s feet.`”18 Bert is further rejected when Colonel Norwood refuses to shake hands with him19 and finally when the Colonel calls him a bastard.21
In the poem rejection is emphasized by that both half brother and father brutally rebuff the Mulatto; it is a two generation rejection, “You are my son!/ Like hell!/ ... Naw, you ain’t my brother./ Niggers ain’t my brother./ Not never./ Niggers ain’t my brother”.22 The rejection is sadistically final and decisive especially through the degrading of the Mulatto’s mother, “What’s the body of your mother”23 but a toy? Here we the Negro woman’s body being reduced to a play thing.
The Mulatto’s life is thus characterized by violence, loneliness, divided loyalty, frustration and a tendency to destroy themselves. The Mulatto, however, is inclined to gravitate towards the Negro half. Bert’s return to his mother is a realization of his identity as a black man. It is a journey of self-discovery which makes clear the growth in Negro consciousness.
The works discussed so far reveal the condition of the Negro in America. The picture that emerges is the painful starkness of African-American existence; it a very tragic version of the slave experience. The Negro is vulnerable, his existence is precarious and he lives at the edge of survival. There is also the shocking poverty and the realization that the Negro can be killed at any moment. Not Without Laughter and Soul Gone Home present graphically the horrors of Negro existence. The question then is how has the Negro been able to survive these horrors and callous brutalization which have been engendered by the need to economically exploit the Negro?
In Not Without Laughter in the family of Aunt Hagar Williams we see various survival strategies which the Negro employs. Tempy is the archetypal black character who attempts to escape the predicament of the Negro by aspiring to be a member of the middle class. We see her failure through Sandy. Aunt Hagar survives through her indestructible nature – she confronts the starkness of life and still goes on. Harriet refuses to work for the whites and turns to music instead. This is a form of protests for in essence he is refusing the whites the chance to prosper form his labour. It is a way of declaring his independence. Jimboy uses his wit and music while Anjee decides to wait and make a lifestyle of denying herself.
Hughes provides other strategies of survival in his poems and plays. First, the Negro survives through humour, which is a characteristic quality of his art. To him lack of humour is unnatural; it is something that is akin to lack of humanity. He speculates that they might be some connection between lack of humour and rabid racism. This sense of humour is seen in Hughes’ characters who are capable of noticing the lighter the side of their lives. “Who but the Lord?” and Little Ham are perfect examples. In the poem the Negro’s fate depends on who wins the race – God or the policeman. The policeman wins and the Negro sees hell, “But the Lord he was not quick/ The law raised up his stick/ And beat the living hell/ Out of me.”24 Here the vulnerability of the Negro is raveled through profound humuor and wit – the law is swifter than the Lord. It is this ability to perceive the brutality in a witty way that allows the Negro to confront adverse circumstances and live to tell the tale.
The humour also provides an avenue to launch an a serious attack on the essence of what America stands for. Little Ham catalogues poverty, compulsive gambling, adultery, hustling and so on as essentially what characterizes Negro life in America. Essentially the picture that is presented is that of race that is hopelessly brutalized. However, the way the evil is enacted reveals the absurdity of the system when one looks at it from the Negro’s point of view. It is a portrait that makes one laugh. An example is the arrest and discharge of Little Ham, which clearly illustrates the absurdity of the law and its naked prejudice against the Negro.* The humour has thus become a way of confronting and fighting white racist exploitation.
Secondly, the Negro has been able to survive through sheer strength and an inability to despair. Poems like “I Too”, “Negro”, “The Negro Mother”, and “Mother to Son” arraign wrongs perpetrated against the Negro over the centuries. Despite this impressive array of wrongs, none of his ability to endure has been destroyed and he/she is still full of hope. The poems are a celebration of the strength through which the Negro has been able to survive these wrongs. The poems show a clear sign of hope and ultimate triumph.
The use of the present tense in the declaration “I am a Negro”* is in defiance of white orchestrated violence and destruction. The Negro is still here and intact. In “I Too” the Negro is confident of surviving when the persona declares he/she will claim his/her full rights as an American, “Nobody’ll dare/ Say to me/ `Eat in the kitchen`/ Then.”25 “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” draws parallels between the growth of Negro souls and the indestructiveness of mighty rivers like the Congo, the Nile, the Euphrates and the Mississippi. The growth of the rivers shows the growing strength of the African-American in the face of brutal white exploitation, “My soul runs deeper like the rivers”*. The black American has drunk of their life giving essences and thereby borrowed their immortality. As the rivers deepen with time, so the Negro’s soul grows in strength; as their waters ceaselessly flow, so will the Negro continuously survive. Thus, the African-American’s survival is also due to the strength to endure and a phenomenal degree of hope.
Thirdly, through Little Ham, Hughes attempts to argue that Negro survived by redefining himself, and creating a new personality. This personality went beyond the plantation survivor who needed sheer brute strength to make it. Little Ham survives through wit, cunning and intelligence. The African-American hero has been redefined, and the muscled giant has been replaced by the clever little man. Personality is now the key to survival.
Simple, who is as typical Harlemite as Little Ham, provides the fourth dimension which explains Negro survival. Simple is an ordinary Negro with common likes, dislike, fortunes and misfortunes. Through Simple, Hughes wants to say that the Negro race is like any other race. He is stating that because the exploitation perpetrated against that race through racial prejudice was monstrous does not mean that the Negro became a monster. Simple’s triumph is the triumph of race that has refused to be dehumanized; it the mark of a race that has refused to die and has survived.
Finally the African-American has been able to survive because of the strength of spirit as illustrated in Tambourines to Glory. In the play, the crux of the battle is between good and evil. The survival of Essie, the cleansing of Laura, and the destruction of Buddy means the triumph of good over evil. Essie is clearly the embodiment of the strength of the Negro spirit and the essence of her victory is the indestructibility of this spirit which enables the Negro to survive. This is the triumph that Bert claims in Mulatto claims through a suicide that cheats the crackers off the joy of lynching a Nigger. His is the triumph of the spirit which is free and untouchable.
The play which seems to suggest that the Negro will perish is Soul Gone Home. The central theme of the play is isolation. The play presents a tragic and poignant picture of a people so alienated from each other that the establishment of meaningful emotional relationship is no longer possible. The isolation, extreme poverty, disease and the uncertainty of the mother tends to suggest despair and it follows, perishing.
In conclusion we can say that this essay attempted to catalogue hoe the African-American was exploited brutally by means of denying him his identity and humanity, lynching, police brutality, poverty, trapping him/her in a system that lives him vulnerable and attempting to reject his/her Americanhood. To survive the African-American has had to employ strategies like humour, wit, sheer physical strength, hope, maintaining humanity and spiritual strength.

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