"A little yellow bastard boy": paternal rejection, filial insistence, and the triumph of African American cultural aesthetics in Langston Hughes's "Mulatto".
A few months before his 1927 address to the Whitman Foundation, Hughes had published his second book of poems, Fine Clothes to the Jew, with the prestigious house of Alfred A. Knopf. More unified and more experimental than his first book, The Weary Blues (1926), Fine Clothes is divided into six sections. It opens with "A Note on the Blues," in which Hughes offers his own definition of the term and states that the eight poems of the first section ("Blues") and nine poems of the final section ("And Blues") are "written after the manner of the Negro folk-songs known as Blues"; these, he differentiates from "spirituals" by their "strict poetic pattern: one line repeated and a third line to rhyme with the first two" (1927, 13). (2) The second section ("Railroad Avenue") contains thirteen poems that feature the voices and lives of poor, urban African Americans: hotel employees, prostitutes, cabaret girls, prize fighters, dice players, alcoholics, card players, elevator operators, porters, and night club workers. The third section ("Glory! Hallelujah!") contains nine poems patterned after spirituals, with singers calling out to God. It contrasts with the poems of the first and last sections, although there are resonances of blues in several of the poems, and one poem, "Moan," is nearly in a blues form. The fourth section ("Beale Street Love") takes place in Memphis among the vernacular characters who speak of their sorrows in love; these ten poems evoke a blues spirit, though they are not in the blues form. The eight poems of the fifth section ("From the Georgia Roads") take place in the rural South, although there is one, "Jazz Band in a Parisian Cabaret," located elsewhere, and another, "Laughers," that, in Whitmanesque fashion, itemizes the national black community by occupation: e.g., "Crapshooters, / Cooks, / Waiters, / Jazzers, / Nurses of babies, / Loaders of ships, / Rounders" (Hughes 1927, 77). But the Parisian jazz band is "from Georgia"--which links them to this section--and the "laughers," wherever in America they hail from, are "Dream-singers all" and "Loud-mouthed laughers in the hands / Of Fate" (77-78)--which links them thematically to the mood of the blues. Less easily located in the blues aesthetics of Fine Clothes to the Jew is another fifth section poem, "Mulatto," in which a biracial child calls out to his white father for recognition, and is rebuffed, first by his father and then by his white half-siblings.
"Mulatto" was well received at the time of its publication, and has been highly regarded ever since. Despite this general critical approbation, however, it has never been given its due, either in the canon of American poetry or in the African American canon. Of the major anthologies, it is included only in The Norton Anthology of American Literature and is even missing from The Norton Anthology of African American Literature. Nor has it ever received a reading remotely commensurate with its complexity or importance. This essay, then, will offer the first fully developed reading of "Mulatto": examining how the debates surrounding the reception of Fine Clothes to the Jew led both African American and white critics to overlook the poem; then presenting the necessary contexts (Hughes's concern with biracialism, his relationship with his father, his employment of both call and response and of signifying, and his deliberate intertextuality with Jean Toomer's Cane); and concluding with a detailed analysis that takes into account the poem's intricate formal properties while demonstrating its extraordinary aesthetic and cultural richness.
The Weary Blues had brought the twenty-four-year-old Hughes national attention, and the reviews were overwhelmingly positive. The main point of disagreement hinged on whether the reviewer felt that young poets like Hughes should develop their own African American aesthetics or whether they should, like Countee Cullen, employ the conventions of traditional Anglo-American poetics. The reviews of Fine Clothes to the Jew, although on the whole equally favorable, were more polarized and intense, making the book more controversial than its predecessor. Reviewers focused on two main areas of debate. The first of these was whether the blues form that Hughes had employed was appropriate for poetry; the second was whether an African American poet should write poetry about lower-class black lives that might show the race in an unflattering light. These two issues were, in reality, interrelated, for blues expression was the folk idiom of the very people whom Hughes wrote about and spoke for. Nevertheless, the reviews addressing the blues form of his poetry tended to be civil and academic. It was over the question of his representations of African Americans that readers grew heated.
The angriest responses came from those African American reviewers who feared that both Hughes's subject matter and his poetic forms would buttress the racialist assumptions of white readers. Several reviews in the African American Philadelphia Tribune are a case in point. Orrin C. Evans (O. C. E.) was "unable to find anything of merit" (1997a, 85); Eustace Gay claimed that the book "disgusts me" (Gay 1997, 86); and Evans returned to pay Hughes the compliment of assuming he was "probably" not "depraved" (1997b, 114). Both reviewers articulated their specific concerns. Gay worried that the book would further racist stereotypes already promulgated by white writers who had represented the black lower classes, and theorized on the moral imperatives that should apply to black writers: "Our aim ought to be to present to the general public, already misinformed both by well-meaning and malicious [white] writers, our higher aims and aspirations, and our better selves" (1997, 86). More pointedly, Evans disliked both the "free verse" and the "degenerate" material, and accused Hughes of putting forth "the perversions of the Negro" in order to achieve commercial success with a white audience: "It is highly likely ... that Mr. Hughes is merely following the line of least resistance in the exploitation of the Negro ... in an attempt to ... unblushingly set forth certain of the least desirable characteristics of the race and market it as literature and art" (1997, 92 and 93).This same sentiment was repeated by William M. Kelley in the New York Amsterdam News, who called Hughes a "sewer dweller" and his book "110 pages of trash," claiming that African American poetry should not "debase merely for the sake of debasing--to satisfy the morbid tendencies of a jazz-crazed world" (i.e., white readers fascinated by the "exotic" aspects of African American life; 1997, 91 and 92). In the Pittsburgh Courier, jazz critic and popular historian Joel A. Rogers, in a review entitled "Langston Hughes' Book of Poems 'Trash': Noted Race Critic Attacks Pandering to White Man's Notion of What Race Authors Would Write," also stated that the poems were "designed for white readers, with their preconceived notions about Negroes." He concluded that such books help "to tighten the chains of social degradation" (1997, 97 and 98). A reviewer for the Chicago Whip, purporting to offer "constructive criticism" to "Langston Hughes, poet 'low-rate of Harlem,'" helpfully suggested that he cease writing poetry and "find a job" ("Under the Lash" 1997, 100).
It is easy, in retrospect, to ridicule such reviews, but the anxieties these critics expressed were not without foundation. Even in many of the favorable reviews by white critics, one can see traces of the essentialist racial stereotypes to which the African American reviewers feared Hughes's poetry would contribute. The positive review in the Washington Post claimed that Hughes was about "to assume the laurels of Paul Laurence Dunbar as the poet laureate of his race"--but added that "Hughes has gone for material to the more primitive types of American Negro" (my emphasis) and then unwittingly implied that these "primitive types" represented all African Americans when it asserted that Hughes had presented "the joy, the pathos, the beauty and the ugliness of present members of his race" ("Negro Poet Sings" 1997, 89). In the Philadelphia Inquirer, the white musicologist Sigmund Spaeth stated that Hughes "is filled with the happy-go-lucky melancholy of the Negro race" and that his book "is an honest expression of the American Negro as he is" (1997, 106). The review in the Princeton Literary Observer discerned in the book the "love of pageantry of the Negro people" and claimed that "the poetry itself carries the genuine tone of spontaneity and natural music which has always been associated with the Negro" ("Partly Undigested" 1997, 112). The New York Sun reviewer said Hughes "versifies the sheer emotionality of Negro culture" ("Poetry and Near-Poetry" 1997, 91) and the Ashville Times stated that Hughes "knows every type of Negro" (Pace 1997, 115; my emphasis). The most blatantly racist of these "positive" reviews by white critics came from William Russell Clark in the Dallas Times-Herald. Claiming that "many Negroes are poets without half-way trying to be[,]" he believed that this is because they are a "superstitious race" whose "imaginations run riot." Hughes's poems "mirror the reactions of the race he represents. He has not encroached upon the white man's privileges and prerogatives, but rather he has depicted and laid bare his people and their hearts"--presenting them "as they really are" (1997, 128).
Despite the danger that Hughes's poems might be misread by whites in racially unflattering ways, many prominent African American reviewers defended him against these charges. Far from pandering to a racist white audience, he was, in their opinions, expressing lower-class African American lives in a black cultural/poetic form, attempting to allow into those poems a wide range of African American voices hitherto excluded from literary representation. Dewey R. Jones of the Chicago Defender called Hughes "the real poet of the Race"--the first since Dunbar--who has "interpret[ed] the emotions ... of the great masses of us who are so far down the scale of things." He felt that the poems would show whites that black people, "whom they are wont to despise, do think, dream, fight and love as the rest of them do" (1997, 87 and 88). Noted novelist and journalist George S. Schuyler, a proponent of traditional poetic forms, though still opposed to Hughes's blues aesthetics, nevertheless conceded that "Hughes must be given credit for knowing the Negro proletarian" and correctly predicted that "[i]t is precisely because he knows this type of Negro and portrays him that the Negro bourgeoisie, reviewers and readers, will fall on him like a ton of brick" (1997, 98). In the pages of Opportunity, two major Harlem Renaissance poets came to Hughes's defense: Gwendolyn Bennett predicted that "there are those who will not like his blues poems"--but she was not one of them (1997, 100); and Countee Cullen, the Harlem Renaissance's great lyric poet so often held up by critics as the anti-Hughes, generously praised the collection as "an array of poetical vestments in which any poet can find more than one garment he would be willing to wear" (1997, 100-01). Also in Opportunity, Margaret Larkin compared Hughes to the Scottish poet Robbie Burns, saying he was "squeezing out the beauty and rich warmth of a noble people into enduring poetry"; and she criticized Hughes's African American detractors for their "strong urge to escape" their own culture by moving up into the middle class (1997,101 and 102). Loren R. Miller asserted, "Here is the poetry of Negro life, as we live it" (1997,114) and, in Messenger, Theophilus Lewis claimed that Hughes is "a true artist" who "sees deeper into life and is able to discern movements" that his critics "are unaware of" (1997, 103). A review in another major African American journal, Crisis, pointed out that "while the poems distinctly confine themselves to lowly types, it is the human feeling and longing there that he emphasizes" ("What to Read" 1997, 105). Lewis Alexander offered a rebuff to those who saw Hughes as attempting to speak for all of African American life, as well as to those who believed that the lives of poor African Americans are any uglier than those of other poor peoples: "This poet enters into the spirit of the lives of these people and paints them with a sympathy and understanding not matched in contemporary literature. It is true that there is much sordidness in the lives of the more primitive types of Negro, but yet the same is true of the more primitive types of any racial group" (1997, 120).
Two of Hughes's most powerful African American supporters were Alice Dunbar-Nelson--poet, fiction writer, and widow of Paul Laurence Dunbar, whose mantle of "black poet laureate" was falling upon Hughes--and Alain Locke, major philosopher and theoretician of the Harlem Renaissance. For Dunbar-Nelson, the purpose of poetry was, as Aristotle had said, "an imitation of life. You cannot get away from that." Hughes had created an "absolutely new form" and, like Wordsworth and the "Lake School" before him, had inspired "eminent critics into frothing rages of bitter defenses of the noble art of poetry." But the African Americans in Hughes's poems "live and love and laugh and sing, and there are more of them than there are of the professional high-brows, who draw their robes aside and sneer at real life, at red-blooded Negro life, while they shiver in an emasculated, half-Nordic existence." It is the former, "clamor[ing] for self-expression," for whom Hughes speaks (Dunbar-Nelson 1997, 107 and 108). For Locke, writing in the Saturday Review, Hughes is the "rare genius that can strip life to the buff and still poeticize it"; "never has cruder colloquialism or more sordid life been put into the substance of poetry." Dismissing a century's worth of folklore and dialect writing as "dead anatomy of a people's superstition" and "sentimental balladizing on dialect chromatics," he noted that Hughes's "vivid, pulsing, creative portraits of Negro folk foibles and moods are most welcome." Fine Clothes to the Jew, according to Locke, is "an achievement in poetic realism" and a valuable "folk study in verse of Negro life." After Hughes, he concluded, "there is nothing to be said about the finest tragedy having always to be Greek" (1997, 115-16 and 117).
Ten of the fifty-two known contemporary reviews of Fine Clothes to the Jew specifically singled out "Mulatto" for praise; these appeared in some of the most prestigious African American venues. The review in the New York Age referred to "Mulatto" as "the most poignant" poem in the "From the Georgia Roads" section ("A New Book" 1997, 96), a sentiment echoed by Alice Dunbar-Nelson, who especially praised the poems of "From the Georgia Roads" and noted that "Mulatto" possesses "poignant unforgettable lines" (1997, 108). Margaret Larkin of the National Urban League's Opportunity, the journal that had awarded Hughes first prize for "The Weary Blues" in its 1925 poetry contest, noted the "strong, craftsmanlike handling of 'Mulatto,' one of the best poems in the book" (1997,102). Dewey R. Jones praised "Mulatto" as "the boldest yet most effective" poem in the collection (1997, 88), and Lewis Alexander called the poem "the masterpiece of the book" (1997, 121). Particularly gratifying for Hughes must have been the praise of Countee Cullen, who "[w]ith admiration and some pardonable envy ... fingered the fine-wrought texture" of "Mulatto" (1997, 101). (3) Correctly observing that "Mulatto" is not a blues poem, Alain Locke called it "a lyric condensation of the deepest tragedy of the race problem" (1997, 116). Of the white critics who praised the book, the most influential was V. F. Calverton, Marxist critic and founder of the Modern Quarterly, in which he published Hughes and other Renaissance writers at a time when it was not popular to do so. Calverton would later include "Mulatto" as one of eleven Hughes works in his 1929 collection, The Anthology of Negro Literature, and in what was the earliest review of Fine Clothes, in New Leader, he commented that "Mulatto" is "illustrative not of the Blues, but of a spirit that at times gives his [Hughes's] poetry something of the verve and defiance that may ultimately be transmitted into that exquisite challenge of revolutionary art" (1997, 85).
My purpose in delving into the reviews of Fine Clothes to the Jew is threefold: to show how debates over Hughes's representations of black life became the focus of his contemporary reception; to point out that "Mulatto," as both Locke and Calverton observed, has little to do with such a focus; and to note that, paradoxically, "Mulatto" was still singled out for praise more than any other poem in the collection. Simply put, the poem was well received upon its publication, and has been highly praised ever since. But it has generated little meaningful criticism and it has been poorly understood. In some cases, it has also been stunningly misinterpreted. (4)
Although it is difficult to pinpoint the reasons for this neglect, some speculation is certainly possible. Critics of Fine Clothes to the Jew had divided over two issues: was Hughes genuinely expressing the feelings and thoughts of lower-class African Americans or was he capitalizing on the vogue of portraying such characters in print? and were the blues an acceptable poetic form or not? But neither of these questions was particularly germane to "Mulatto." Although a blues-form context can be teased out in a reading of "Mulatto," as we will later see, the blues were not the prominent African American cultural aesthetic employed in the poem. Rather, a meaningful understanding of what Hughes was doing crucially depends upon two other African American forms--call and response, and signifying. When the white author Paul Horgan (who wrote a favorable review of Fine Clothes) stated that Hughes was at his best in the blues form and that "[m]any of his verses are innocent of any formal arrangement, a sometimes deplorable fact, since a course of stern discipline with more rigid poetic styles might be reflected in a less profuse, less deployed version of ... 'Mulatto'" (1997, 119), he revealed how an ignorance of the African American cultural aesthetics Hughes employed in the poem can make it opaque to readers. In addition, an understanding of "Mulatto" is further deepened by the biographical contexts of Hughes's concern with biracialism and of his own relationship with his father. The absence of these contexts in considerations of "Mulatto" may indeed be the reason why one of the finest poems by one of the greatest poets of the twentieth century, and arguably the single best poem ever written on the experience of being biracial, has managed to slip through the cracks of scholarship.
Two years before Fine Clothes to the Jew appeared, in the fall of 1925, fellow Harlem Renaissance poet Claude McKay had also published a poem
entitled "Mulatto," but although McKay's poem dealt with the same subject--an illegitimate biracial son addressing his white father--the tones adopted by the two poets could not have been more different. The protagonist in each poem seeks his due--what McKay's narrator/protagonist calls "my rightful place"--by defeating the father, but Hughes's protagonist is clever, edgy, and discursively potent while McKay's is filled with Oedipal anger and consumed by his own "searing hate": "When falls the hour I shall not hesitate / Into my father's heart to plunge the knife / To gain the utmost freedom that is life" (2004, 210). (5) Despite McKay's militancy, however, the poetic form he employed was conventionally Anglo-American, while Hughes's "Mulatto," on the other hand, however "caustic" some African American and white contemporary critics might have found it, is a perfect example of his subversive and complex though seemingly simple art. In it, he draws upon call and response, signifying, and the blues to present the biracial male African American's struggle for paternal acceptance and a place in southern society. Whereas McKay's protagonist could not envision triumphing over his father, and thus could only "murder to create" himself, a concept derived from white modernism, Hughes's mulatto, equipped with African American cultural power, finds a way to defeat his adversary and assume a selfhood that is not merely reactive. In effect, he disarms and creates. (6)
Biracialism and paternal acceptance had been deep personal concerns of Hughes since childhood. In his autobiography, The Big Sea, the two are entwined; the second chapter begins with this observation:
You see, unfortunately, I am not black. There are lots of different kinds of blood in our family. But here in the United States, the word "Negro" is used to mean anyone who has any Negro blood at all in his veins. In Africa, the word is more pure. It means all Negro, therefore black. I am brown. My father was a darker brown. My mother an olive-yellow. (Hughes 1993, 11)
Although neither of his parents were white, both of his father's grandfathers were, and on his mother's side there was both French and Cherokee ancestry. His parents separated when he was young, and Hughes was raised mainly by his grandmother; however, at various times he also lived with his mother, strangers, and finally, at age seventeen, with his father. Familial and physical relocations combined with his ancestry to create in him a lifelong near obsession with the figure of the light-skinned, biracial person who is never fully accepted, or able to accept himself, as either black or white--a figure who in the nineteenth century was termed "the tragic mulatto."
In one of Hughes's earliest poems, "Cross" (first published in Crisis in December 1925), the narrator, who is the offspring of a white father and black mother, expresses this sense of not belonging anywhere. The poem concludes: "My old man died in a fine big house. / My ma died in a shack. / I wonder where I'm gonna die, / Being neither white nor black?" (1995a, 59). The title of this poem has a double meaning: the narrator is a "cross" between white and black, and this is also the cross he bears. In a later poem, "Christ in Alabama" (first published in Contempo in December 1931), he images Jesus as "a nigger, / Beaten and black"; Mary as his black mother, the "Mammy of the South"; and God as "his father: / White Master above[.]" In this configuration, Jesus is specifically a mulatto, and, even more than in "Cross" with its "big house" and "shack," in "Christ in Alabama" slavery days and the "economics of rape" (7) are specifically referenced; the father is a "White Master" and Mary is ordered to be quiet ("Silence your mouth"). The narrator's address to the father is a plea for him to accept his mulatto son ("Grant him your love").The poem concludes: "Most holy bastard / Of the bleeding mouth, / Nigger Christ / On the cross / Of the South" (143). "Christ in Alabama" was written in response to the horror of the Scottsboro Case, and this accounts for its radical discourse and sense of urgency. But four other elements also stand out in the poem: the racial trinity of black mother, white father, and mulatto son; the idea that Jesus--who was himself both a "cross" and a "bastard," although of a different sort--is the prototype of the mulatto; the "cross" that Jesus and the mulatto both bear; and the plea to the father in which one can almost hear Hughes ask, "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?"
Hughes's real-life dilemma of racial identity was indeed exacerbated by his own father, who had moved to Mexico in order to be rid of racism in the United States. Much like Sergeant Vernon Waters in Charles Fuller's A Soldier's Play, James Nathaniel Hughes was a very complex man who tried to emulate white people in order to rise above the social and economic limitations imposed by race. In Mexico, he associated mainly with German, English, and American businessmen and was concerned above all else with money and status. According to Langston: "My father had a great contempt for all poor people. He thought it was their own fault that they were poor" (1993, 41). James Hughes hated racists, but he also disliked African Americans, conflating the socioeconomic conditions of black people in the United States with African American culture and with African Americans themselves. As Langston described it: "My father hated Negroes. I think he hated himself, too, for being a Negro. He disliked all of his family because they were Negroes and remained in the United States, where none of them had a chance to be much of anything" (40). By his own admission, Langston "hated" his father (49). But in truth, his feelings toward James at the time were more those of ambivalence than outright hatred. His father wanted him to study engineering in Switzerland or Germany and then settle down in Mexico to pursue a career as a mining engineer. But Langston wanted to see Harlem, to enroll in Columbia University, and to become a writer. His father's response was all too predictable: "A writer? Do they make any money?" His son, he insisted, should learn a marketable skill and not reside in the United States where he would "have to live like a nigger with niggers" (61-62). There were two things in particular that James Hughes did not want his son to be: a poet and an African American. But Langston did something particularly galling; he became an African American poet, celebrating the very culture his father so detested. This eventually led their relationship to become sporadic, but James lived long enough to know that Langston had succeeded, even if that success did not bring him wealth.
One can overplay this biographical context, yet "Mulatto" resonates with the tensions of the Hughes's strained father-son relationship. In the poem's opening line--"I am your son, white man!"--we can hear traces of the abandoned boy and future poet calling out to the father who acts like a white man, not the least in his attitude toward African Americans--"You are my son! / Like hell!" And in the triumphant last lines--"A little yellow / Bastard boy"--we can hear Langston's assertion of pride in his biracial heritage, as well as a taunting of his father (1995a, 100). It was one of the marks of Hughes's genius that in speaking for himself, and by combining the thematic material of biracialism and paternity, he spoke for so many. (8)
In addition to the biographical context of Hughes's relationship with his father, there is another context that must be taken into account. Early in "Mulatto," right after the mulatto son has called out to his white father, the narrator states: "Georgia dusk / And the turpentine woods. / One of the pillars of the temple fell" (1995a, 100). These lines allude to Jean Toomer's Cane (1923), the unified collection of stories, poems, and a play that many consider to be the first major work of the Harlem Renaissance. Specifically, they reference Toomer's poem "Georgia Dusk" from the first part of the book, which takes place in the turpentine woods. In that poem, Toomer called for "some genius of the South" to capture in art the culture of the slaves--an "orgy" of material for the poet, with their "vestiges of pomp" and "Race memories of king and caravan, / High-priests, an ostrich, and a juju man"--before it is forever lost to memory (1988, 15).
Toomer's call in "Georgia Dusk," while invoking race memories of Africa, also itself participates in the aesthetics of the Old World, for call and response is a form that can be traced back through slavery to a wide range of antiphonal cultural practices among west and central African tribes, including the counter-wise dance ceremonies (known in America as the "ring shout") that are communal rituals of worship. Call and response is arguably the single most centrally important tradition in African American culture, a democratic participatory dynamic that melds the individual to the communal and innovation to tradition; it can be seen in such otherwise diverse arenas as the Black Church, spirituals, the blues, jazz, rap music, signifying, oral storytelling, oratory, standup comedy, sporting events, black poetry and fiction, and even the elaborate ritual of young girls skipping rope on a city street. (9)
Toomer's Cane is a book filled with calls. In "Karintha," an anonymous singer, speaking for the community, calls for the smoke to "rise / And take my soul to Jesus." In "Becky," the pines "whisper to Jesus" five times, then "shout to Jesus" in desperation, before whispering one last time. In "Georgia Dusk," the narrator/poet issues his call to "some genius of the South." In "Fern," a mysterious force in Fern cries out "inarticulately in plaintive, convulsive sounds, mingled with calls to Christ Jesus." In "Esther," Jesus finally responds, whispering "strange good words" to King Barlo and presenting him with a vision--"I saw a man arise, an he was big an black an powerful"--which causes him to reject the near-white Esther. In "Blood-Burning Moon," Louisa calls to the evil full moon: "Come out that fact'ry door." In "Rhobert," the narrator calls for someone to sing "Deep River" for Rhobert, and in "Avey" the Howard Glee Cub responds by singing "Deep River." In "Calling Jesus," the narrator twice asks someone to call for Jesus ("eoho Jesus") so that Christ can reunite a woman with the soul she has left in the vestibule. In "Box Seat," the dwarf prizefighter Mr. Barry is a symbol of the slave past, ugly in appearance but possessed of a profound beauty within. He sings to the blue-blood Muriel and offers her a rose with his blood upon the petals, calling for her to accept the slave past, but she rejects his call. Dan Moore, however, hears the call and responds that "JESUS WAS ONCE A LEPER," meaning that, akin to African Americans throughout their history and in their present state, Jesus was imperfect but God was within him. But Dan's response, which is also his call to the crowd, is rejected and he leaves through a "black alley." In "Harvest Song," the reaper/narrator says "I fear to call" and "strains to hear the calls of other harvesters" but is unsuccessful. All of the calls in Cane are either unanswered, partially answered, or rejected until the end of the book. When Father John--the symbol of the slave past "who died way back there in th [eighteen]'sixties"--finally speaks, and condemns white folks for telling Jesus lies, Ralph Kabnis responds by ridiculing him. A biracial northerner and descendent of "Southern blue-bloods[,]" he is cut off from his culture and neither understands nor can stand hearing call and response: "God Almighty, how I hate that shoutin. Where's th beauty in that?" But Carrie Kate, symbol of the African American future, upbraids him for his non-response--"Brother Ralph, is that your best Amen?" And she issues the final call--"Jesus, come." In response, "Light streaks through the iron-barred cellar window" and it embraces "the figures of Carrie and Father John" (Toomer 1988, 4, 7-9, 15, 19, 22-23, 27, 37, 43, 48, 58, 68-69, 71, 117, 114, 108, 114, 117).
Toomer answered his own self-reflexive call for a "genius of the South" by writing Cane, attempting to represent African American life in the South as it was in the process of disappearing, as well as the lives of displaced African Americans in the North. But Hughes also heard Toomer's call, and he was primed to respond. He had already rejected his father's desire that he become an engineer, leave the United States, and figuratively pass for white. Instead, he had enrolled in Columbia University, moved to New York City, experienced success with the publication of "The Negro Speaks of Rivers" in Crisis, and met with the influential W. E. B. Du Bois, Jessie Fauset, and Countee Cullen. Following his father's stroke in 1922, which made James Hughes a less formidable figure, he had left Columbia and taken work aboard a trading ship that sailed the coast of west Africa, seeing at first hand the world of his ancestors. In Paris, he had been employed at a jazz nightclub and begun working jazz rhythms into his poetry, from which emerged the title poem of his first collection, the prize-winning "The Weary Blues." This had led to his meeting with other luminaries of the Renaissance: Carl Van Vechten, who arranged for the publication of The Weary Blues at Knopf; and Alain Locke, who included ten of Hughes's poems in his groundbreaking 1925 collection, The New Negro: Voices of the Harlem Renaissance, alongside works by such major figures of the incipient Renaissance as Toomer, Fauset, Du Bois, Cullen, Arna Bontemps, Zora Neale Hurston, Rudolph Fisher, Anne Spencer, Gwendolyn Bennett, Claude McKay, and James Weldon Johnson. Hughes had also decided to re-enroll in college, but had chosen to attend Lincoln University, an all-black institution in Pennsylvania.
Embracing both art and his African American heritage, Hughes now responded to Toomer's call with Fine Clothes to the Jew, a collection that contains striking similarities to Cane in its arrangement of pieces grouped geographically in northern and southern locations. "Mulatto" itself appears in the fifth section, "From the Georgia Roads." In Cane, the poem immediately preceding "Georgia Dusk" was "Song of the Son," in which Toomer called out to African Americans of a disappearing way of life in the South, "Pour O pour that parting soul in song[.]" Imaging himself as their descendent, he claims: "Now just before an epoch's sun declines / Thy son, in time, I have returned to thee, / Thy son, I have in time returned to thee. / In time, for though the sun is setting on / A song-lit race of slaves, it has not set; / Though late, O soil, it is not too late yet / To catch thy plaintive soul, leaving, soon gone. / Leaving, to catch thy plaintive soul soon gone." One "plum" is saved for the poet, "one seed" to grow into "An everlasting song, a singing tree, / Caroling softly souls of slavery, / What they were, and what they are to me. / Caroling softly souls of slavery" (Toomer 1988, 14). Here as elsewhere in Cane, Toomer hints at the blues with his repetition of lines. He also plays on the homonym of "sun" and "son"; as the sun sets on the African American way of life in the south, he is the son who will preserve it in song. Hughes, too, in another manifest allusion to Cane, opens his "From the Georgia Roads" section with a poem entitled "Sun Song" in which the sun has not yet figuratively set and he is the son who will sing of this past. In "Georgia Dusk," Toomer had called for "some genius of the South" to make "folk-songs from soul sounds" and "Bring dreams of Christ to dusky cane-lipped throngs" (15). In "Sun Song," Hughes announces: "Dark ones of Africa, / I bring you my songs / To sing on the Georgia roads" (1927, 69). These allusions, most especially the specific reference to "Georgia Dusk," are therefore a deliberate tribute from Hughes to an older, much admired contemporary. Like the poem "Mulatto," the section "From the Georgia Roads," and the entire collection Fine Clothes to the Jew, they are a response to the call Toomer issued to African American writers four years earlier.
For many reasons Toomer was an important example to Hughes of a genuine black artist. In Cane, Toomer had dealt forthrightly with the theme of biracialism, and he had employed African American cultural aesthetics, rejecting the strategy of so many previous black writers to employ white literary forms, principally realism and naturalism, in order to make their work accessible to a white audience and therefore commercially successful as well. Toomer had also refused to portray African Americans according to white stereotypes, which would have appealed to a white audience, and refused as well to portray them as "respectable" in order to please a middle-class black audience, whom Toomer referred to as "Dictie" (1988, 53) and Hughes contemptuously called "the Nordicized Negro intelligentsia" (1995b, 94). Of Cane, Hughes wrote: "The colored people did not praise it. The white people did not buy it. Most of the colored people who did read Cane hate it. They are afraid of it.... Yet (excepting the work of Du Bois) Cane contains the finest prose written by a Negro in America. And like the singing of [Paul] Robeson, it is truly racial" (94). (10)
The final element that one must take into account in any serious reading of "Mulatto" has to do with the poem's formal properties: specifically, its use of italics and its employment of three different lengths of line indentation. It would be ludicrous to assume that so careful a craftsman as Hughes would select these poetic devices haphazardly; in fact, there were originally two different lengths of indentation, but when he added line 11 to the poem in 1959, he gave that line its own singular indentation. The failure of critics to examine these forms, especially the different indentations, has led to much confusion and some very odd misinterpretations of the poem (see, for instance, footnote 4). In brief, the italics and indentations provide essential cues as to whether the lines are words spoken or words thought, and the source of these words: whether this be the mulatto, the father, the white half-siblings, the narrator, or the combination of the narrator and the mulatto.
The non-indented lines are the voice of the narrator; the second or shortest indentation, which is limited to line 11, expresses either the thoughts of the father or the voice of the narrator; the third line position or second longest indentation, when in italics, is used for the direct spoken words of the protagonist, his father, and his half-siblings, and, when not in italics (in the fourth stanza), for the thoughts of the father; and the fourth line position or longest indentation represents in free indirect discourse the voices of the protagonist and the narrator. Because the poem presents, within a small space, five distinct voices, and because the differentiation of these voices--upon which the entire meaning of the poem depends--is keyed to Hughes's use of italics and three different lengths of line indentation, it will be necessary for me to reproduce the final 1959 version of the text of the poem before the start of my close reading. For the sake of convenience, I will mark the indented position of each line in brackets on the right, using  to indicate a non-indented line. To summarize, the numbers indicate:
 the voice of the narrator
 either the thoughts of the father or the voice of the narrator
 the spoken words of the protagonist, the father, or the half-siblings when italicized; the thoughts of the father when not italicized
 the voice of the protagonist and narrator in free indirect speech
The complete text reads:
Mulatto I am your son, white man!  Georgia dusk  And the turpentine woods.  One of the pillars of the temple fell.  You are my son!  Like hell!  The moon over the turpentine woods.  The Southern night  Full of stars,  Great big yellow stars.  What's a body but a toy?  Juicy bodies  Of nigger wenches  Blue black  Against black fences.  O, you little bastard boy,  What's a body but a toy?  The scent of pine wood stings the soft night air.  What's the body of your mother?  Silver moonlight everywhere.  What's the body of your mother?  Sharp pine scent in the evening air.  A nigger night,  A nigger joy,  A little yellow  Bastard boy.  Naw, you ain't my brother.  Niggers ain't my brother.  Not ever.  Niggers ain't my brother.  The Southern night is full of stars,  Great big yellow stars.  O, sweet as earth,  Dusk dark bodies  Give sweet birth  To little yellow bastard boys.  Git on back there in the night,  You ain't white.  The bright stars scatter everywhere.  Pine wood scent in the evening air.  A nigger night,  A nigger joy.  I am your son, white man!  A little yellow  Bastard boy.  (Hughes 1995a, 100-101) (11)
The poem opens dramatically with the biracial protagonist issuing a call to his white father: "I am your son, white man!" Before the father can respond to this call, however, the narrator offers his own commentary: "Georgia dusk / And the turpentine woods. / One of the pillars of the temple fell." These lines, as earlier noted, allude to Cane. When Jean Toomer published Cane, one of the "pillars of the temple" of an Anglo-American white literary canon fell. And in the mulatto son's call to his father, one of the "pillars of the temple" of Anglo-American "racial purity" falls, for the figure of the mulatto or mulatta, the contemporary term for a biracial person (also know pejoratively as a "yellow negro" or "yaller nigger"), is by his/her very presence an assault on the temple of race separation or segregation. (12)
Despite the obvious challenge that biracial offspring present to both the ideologies of antebellum slavery and the postbellum color line, the temple had its own response--denial--and thus the white father responds to his black child's call: "You are my son! / Like hell!" The unambivalent finality of the response, a failed response really, is seen in the two exclamation points, as well as in the absence of a question mark following the first line. The manifest biological relationship between father and son will not even be countenanced by the father. Once again, the narrator comments on the words spoken by one of his characters: "The moon over the turpentine woods. / The Southern night / Full of stars, / Great big yellow stars." Here Hughes links the human racial situation to the southern landscape, with the white moon symbolizing the father and the yellow stars symbolizing the literally millions of biracial African Americans who are either the offspring of white rape or the descendents of white rapists.
So far, three voices have been heard in the poem, all in direct speech: the mulatto child's spoken words, the white father's spoken words, and the narrator's written words. Now, we get another form of direct speech: the father's thoughts. Having rejected the son's call, the white father reminisces: "What's a body but a toy? / Juicy bodies / Of nigger wenches / Blue black /Against black fences. / O, you little bastard boy, / What's a body but a toy?" The meaning of this is all too obvious; for the boy, the act that produced him also produced two parents, but for the father the entire meaning of the act was, and in memory still is, circumscribed by the sexual pleasure it gave him. The boy's mother was merely an entity of use, and the boy its by-product.
There is another, slightly variant, and I think better way to read these lines. It is possible that the narrator, after noting the plethora of "yellow stars," offers a rueful comment in line 11, saying the initial "What's a body but a toy?"--which then leads to the white father's reminiscence of his former sexual predations and ends with the father using that line, not ruefully, but in a brutal and matter-of-fact sense: saying, in effect, "Yes, what is a body but a toy?"This would also help to explain why line 11, added by Hughes in 1959, is the only one in the poem with a "position 2" indentation. (13) In this reading, we go from the narrator seeing the many yellow stars/mulattos, which testify to centuries of white men forcing themselves upon black women, and bemoaning this history of mass rape, to the white father/rapist truculently asserting that it is his, and other white men's, prerogative to have non-consensual sex with black women: their bodies are merely objects/toys for white male sexual pleasure. The white father therefore repeats the narrator's line, but changes its meaning by placing it in his own white supremacist context.
Once again, the narrator comments: "The scent of pine wood stings the soft night air." In this line Hughes employs synesthesia, representing one physical modality, touch, in terms of another, smell, as the phallic and physical "stinging" of the black night (mother) by the white pine (father) is described in terms of scent. The narrator's line also opens up hidden and unintended meanings in the white father's earlier depiction of his sex act: that it was indeed rape. The modifier "blue black" makes sense only as implying assault (black and blue) and the "black fences" against which the mother was taken represent, on a figurative level, the legal and social fencing off of African Americans from their inalienable rights to life and liberty, that is, to be legally protected from physical violation. That the white father inadvertently supplies this material for interpretation demonstrates that he is, on some level, aware of the true and full meaning of what he has done. And it is that awareness which Hughes relies upon to make the larger case in the argument of his poem: that white fathers know that these mulattos are their sons just as they know that rape is rape, whether the victim is black or white. But this knowledge is, of course, repressed, and the white father is impressed with the logic of his reasoning, so much so that he subsequently offers it aloud as a follow-up response to his son's initial call: "What's the body of your mother?" In doing this, he goes from his general ruminations about black female bodies to the specifics of his relationship with the boy's mother, an application of white supremacist theory to a particular situation. But this also makes it personal; he does not say "what's a body but a toy" but rather "what's the body of your [my emphasis] mother?" The narrator follows with one line of commentary: "Silver moonlight everywhere." With this statement by means of another projection upon the landscape, the matter seems settled. The white father's voice, here synesthetically represented by the moonlight, triumphs. The boy's initial call for paternal recognition seems doomed and, since call and response is central to the notion of the communal in African and African American culture, the boy's silenced call represents the impossibility of any sort of multiracial family or community.
But the mulatto is unwilling to let the matter rest. Instead, he draws upon another African American cultural form--signifying--to open up the question of paternity once again. Signifying--also called "the dirty dozens," "the dozens," "capping," and "bad talk"--is an intricate verbal game in which two people insult each other's relatives, usually their mothers. Traditionally, the game goes on for twelve insults (thus the "dirty dozens") or until one of the participants loses his/her temper. The main purpose of the game is to demonstrate wit, as it is understood that the insults, no matter how fierce or cruel, are not meant to be taken as serious. Also, in really first-rate signifying, each participant takes something that the other has said, modifies it, and turns it around on his opponent--repeating, changing the meaning and target of the original insult, and upping the ante. In this manner, signifying is itself an assertion of community, since each participant's speech act builds upon the previous speech act of the other. Moreover, signifying is usually done before an audience, which responds with approval or criticism to each speech, thus making the game a community affair in which every speech is a sort of call and the audience's reaction is a kind of response. In a truly successful contest of signifying, each participant skillfully responds to the other's insult by taking some aspect of it, turning it around on his opponent, and increasing the intensity of the insult, all the while the observers respond verbally with an increasing approval, and neither participant loses his cool under pressure but instead maintains enough control to resort to wit rather than anger or violence. The end result is a sort of catharsis for everyone; the emotional control and intellectual skill of the participants has been demonstrated and the community's sense of itself has been enhanced. (14)
After the white father has said to his mulatto son," What's the body of your mother?" and seemingly ended the debate initiated by his son's call, the mulatto turns to his white half-siblings, also the offspring of the white father, and issues a perfect signifying speech, perfect because without even changing a word of what his father said to him, he nevertheless changes the entire meaning of those words by relocating them in another context. Changing the joke and slipping the yoke, he says to his white half-siblings, "What's the body of your mother?" In doing so, he also incorporates his father's reply into an African American blues refrain, the third major African American form in the poem. The repeated second line is right out of the AAB form of the blues (which, like signifying, is a version of call and response), calling for his white half-siblings to come up with the third (B) line. This, of course, is something they are not culturally equipped to do.
But even if they could recognize that they are being invited to participate in blues expression, and even if they had the talent to take up that invitation (or, for that matter, to play the dozens), they would refrain from doing it anyway. As Craig Werner observes:
The significance of this form [the blues] lies in its ability to connect individual and communal experience. In the original forms, the leader of the congregation or work group would sing a line, which would be repeated by the members of the group, who should be understood as collaborators rather than an "audience" in the Euro- American sense.... Transformed into the individual AAB form of the blues, the call and response dynamic both encodes the possibility of communal-individual contact ... and emphasizes a reality. (Werner 1990, 145-46)
For the white half-siblings to participate in blues expression would thus mean an acknowledgment on their part of a multiracial community, not just in their ability to participate in the African American aesthetic of the blues but also because they would be participating with the mulatto. The half-siblings do not wish to "connect" their individual experiences to the communal experiences of African Americans, even though, and especially if, those African Americans are their blood relatives. This is the biological "reality" they either repress or wish to suppress.
But there is yet another "reality"--a social one--that is a sine qua non of the blues, and that also prevents the half-siblings from participating. In "A Note on Blues" at the start of Fine Clothes to the Jew, Hughes states that the "mood of the Blues is almost always despondency, but when they are sung people laugh" (1927, xii). In the second poem following "Mulatto" ("Jazz Band in a Parisian Cabaret") and appearing in the same "From the Georgia Roads" section, a narrator calls to a jazz band: "Play it, / Jazz band! / You know that tune / That laughs and cries at the same time" (74). This is blues laughter--like the humor of other oppressed groups (Jewish humor and Irish humor leap to mind), it is a despair that breaks in laughter because the hopelessness of it allows no other alternative. The white half-siblings cannot understand the despair of the mulatto, and therefore neither can they grasp the laughter of his signifying blues refrain. Given their cultural obliviousness to his tormented psyche, how could they possibly participate in the blues?
The implications of the mulatto's signifying act are that, if his mother was just a sexual toy for the white father, then so too was the white mother who birthed his white half-siblings. The sheer ingenuity of the reply even causes the narrator to celebrate it through a repetition of his own by way of commentary: "Sharp pine scent in the evening air." The sharpness of the mulatto's speech is depicted in terms of scent, a scent already associated with the predatory sexuality of the white father. In effect, he has stung his white half-siblings just as he was just stung by their father, and he's done it by using the father's exact same words. The mulatto's successful act of signifying, which enables him to defeat the father in a way that the narrator could not (especially if line 11 was the narrator's line), draws the narrator closer to him. Now, using the visual device of a position 4 (the longest) indentation, Hughes employs another narrative method that would become a hallmark of both African American and modernist authors: free indirect speech in which the narrator enters into the consciousness of one of his characters and renders that person's thoughts or speech in words that combine the language of the narrator with that of the character. Specifically, the narrator uses free indirect speech to depict the mulatto's joyful emotions over his successful act of signifying on his father at the expense of his siblings: "A nigger night, / A nigger joy, / A little yellow / Bastard boy."
If the mulatto is talented at signifying, his white half-siblings are not. Like their father, they can only reject the mulatto in words devoid of verbal wit: "Naw, you ain't my brother. / Niggers ain't my brother. / Not ever. / Niggers ain't my brother." This response shows that on some level the white half-siblings understand the larger truth of the situation, as we previously saw with the father's inadvertent semi-admission that he raped the mulatto's mother: that they are indeed biologically related to the mulatto. Their sensitivity to this fact can be seen in the way they immediately grasp the implications of the mulatto's signifying speech. Not only are they literally the half-siblings of the mulatto, they are also, as he implies in his speech, figurative "siblings" as well in that they too were produced by the sexual predations of the white father. If the mulatto means so little to this man, then what, implies the mulatto, do these white children mean to him? But, like their father, all they can do is resort to white supremacist theory: i.e., he's a "nigger"; blacks and whites cannot be siblings. And they repeat it like a mantra in lieu of any alternative argument to pursue.
The white half-siblings, like their father, are implacably dense to the biological truths that they reject but cannot refute; however, this is not the case with the narrator, whose rueful but impotent perspective is altered by the mulatto's triumphant signifying speech. Previously, when the narrator noticed the "Southern night" with its white moon and many yellow stars, to him this merely symbolized the fact that white men had fathered many mulatto children. Later, after the white father rejected his biracial son, the narrator saw the "Silver moonlight everywhere" as a sign that the white father's voice had triumphed. But now the mulatto's speech enables the narrator to see something else, or rather, to see what he saw before but in a different way: "The Southern night is full of stars, / Great big yellow stars." There are too many mulattos to be ignored; they, not the moon, dominate the night. In the free indirect speech of the position 4 indentation, the narrator again enters the consciousness of the mulatto, whose emotions have turned from his initial delight at having bested his white half-siblings to a deeper kind of joy in his newfound self-esteem--"O, sweet as earth, / Dusk dark bodies / Give sweet birth"--and the narrator finishes the mulatto's thought with his own position 1 line, "To little yellow bastard boys." Previously, this line was used in the free indirect speech in which the mulatto was relishing his signifying victory. Now, the narrator himself signifies on it, in his own voice, by making it plural. The triumph of the mulatto will become the eventual triumph of all mulattos.
This idea that biracial peoples would eventually force acknowledgment and acceptance by white America--through the combination of endurance, persistence, and sheer numbers--was offered by Hughes in an earlier and much less complex poem, "I, Too" (first published, the year before "Mulatto" was written, in Survey Graphic on 1 March 1925 and later that year reprinted in Alain Locke's The New Negro). Racializing Walt Whitman's "I Sing America," the poet inserts himself into the American song, claiming that although today he must eat in the kitchen when company comes, "... I laugh, / And eat well, / And grow strong." Eventually ("Tomorrow"), he will "be at the table / When company comes" and "Nobody'll dare" send him back to the kitchen. Nor will they want to, for at that moment in time Hughes still maintained an optimism about the basic decency of white America, believing that then they will see "how beautiful" he is and "be ashamed" of their former attitudes (1995a, 46).
At this point in "Mulatto," however, the white half-siblings are still mired in their rejection. Sensing the danger of racial contamination the mulatto presents to them, they, along perhaps with their white father, issue something of their own call in the form of a command: "Git on back there in the night, / You ain't white." But the figurative and the literal have become, by now, one and the same. Although they issue this command to the mulatto, they might as well be issuing it to the yellow stars above, for neither will ever get on back there in the night, something the narrator understands when he comments: "The bright stars scatter everywhere." Figuratively the stars, and literally the mulattos they represent, can be beaten, frightened, and scattered; they can be despised, disparaged, discounted, disregarded, disgraced, dismissed and, in a word, dissed--but they cannot be compelled to disappear. The narrator's next line--"Pine wood scent in the evening air."--repeats his earlier comment after the mulatto signified on his white half-siblings, but removes the word "sharp" as a modifier of the pine scent. The realization of his own power and his eventual victory over the forces of race and racism have softened for the mulatto and the narrator the sharpness of this signifier of the white father's power, and in free indirect speech the two repeat the lines, "A nigger night, / A nigger joy."
To both the white father's response ("You are my son! Like hell!") and his white half-siblings' response ("Naw, you ain't my brother. / Niggers ain't my brother. / Not ever. / Niggers ain't my brother."), as well as to their perhaps combined command ("Git on back there in the night. / You ain't white."), the mulatto now offers his final response: I am your son, white man!" In effect, he responds to his own initial call, in much the same way that Toomer had responded with Cane to his own call in "Georgia Dusk." This idea that one could answer one's own call when one either gets no response to a call or else gets an unsatisfactory response--although not truly compatible with the communal spirit of call and response--nevertheless follows its form. The mulatto's final response repeats his opening call and completes the circle, but even though the words are exactly the same, it is not equivalent to that initial call. In the beginning he called for an acknowledgment of paternity on the part of his white father and he was rebuffed. Now, he is making a statement of fact, one that he has come to by exercising his power of signifying and calling upon the natural world of moon and stars, a non socially-constructed world in which a father is a father and a son is a son. "I am your son, white man!" thus becomes both the call and the response, silencing the other voices as indeed they had tried to silence his, a fact celebrated one last time in the free indirect voice of the narrator and the mulatto (I picture them smiling): "A little yellow / Bastard boy."
This essay is dedicated, with boundless admiration and affection, to Patsy Yaeger. I also wish to thank Marc Dolan, Elizabeth Boyd Lamb, and Simone Nicole Lamb for their generous encouragement and excellent advice throughout the countless revisions.
(1) The event took place a few months before the thirty-fifth anniversary of Whitman's death.
(2) For an extensive study of Hughes's employment of the blues tradition in his poetry, see Steven C. Tracy (1988). For the definitive study of the blues as a matrix of African American cultural expression, see Houston A. Baker, Jr. (1984).
(3) It is interesting to note that Cullen, who most differed from Hughes in his employment of traditional Anglo-American poetic forms, included eleven of Hughes's poems in his 1929 collection of African American poetry, as opposed to eight poems by Claude McKay and eight of his own poems. See Caroling Dusk: An Anthology of Verse by Negro Poets (1927). Far too much has been made of the aesthetic differences between Hughes and Cullen, certainly more than Cullen himself was willing to make of them. Unlike so many others, both authors and critics, Cullen appreciated the diversity of African American poetry and, despite his own poetic practices, did not believe that there was one preferred way for black poets to write.
(4) As a benchmark of how badly this poem can be misinterpreted, I offer the following excerpt, which is by far the fullest reading of the poem to date:
The son's adamant voice opens the poem, but is transformed into a passive Negro feminine presence exuberantly recalled by the white father, who feels half-pleasurably nagged in his fancied return to the conception and infancy of his son. The poet, employing the past awakened in the white man, leaves him musing and moves the growing child swiftly through years of hostile rejection by his white half- brothers--implying virtual estrangement from his father, whom he no longer reminds of sexual freedom in the Negro quarter. "Niggers ain't my brother" is the rebuff so ungrammatically worded as to show the displacement of reason and truth by blind social restrictions. In the last third of the poem, the father's reminiscences of woods, stars, and exploitable black women are slightly rephrased, indistinctly merging the author's voice with the father's. At the end, "I am your son, white man!" is repeated as a challenging accusation, weaker now, yet taking precedence over the phrases enclosing it, the author- father's echoes of earlier sensuous memories. Oddly, this is the father's poem. The delicious memories, the unweakened sense of arbitrary power to take and to withhold, the expansive portents of nature, even though ironically misconstrued--all are his. The son is the catalyst, but the father glows. The author expands his profoundly racial material and so convincingly explores a white father's subconscious that the poet's own hovering irony becomes inseparable from the ambivalent remembrances of his subject. (Emanuel 1967, 111).
Other readings are not quite this bizarre, but they are either cursory or else poor readings.
(5) McKay's poem was originally titled "The Mulatto" but re-titled "Mulatto" in the typescript.
(6) The notion of needing to murder the old to create the new is a hallmark of white modernism, in which previous art forms are seen as incapable of representing the reality of the current times and as an impediment to the creation of new forms that can. The phrase itself comes from T. S. Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" (1915), in which the narrator/protagonist anticipates having figuratively to "murder" his buried self in order to create an appropriate social face at an upcoming party: "There will be time, there will be time / To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet; / There will be time to murder and create" (1958, 4).
(7) The strikingly apt term, "economics of rape," as a descriptor for the southern patriarchal system that turns rape into a means of capital investment is from Houston A. Baker, Jr. (1984, 55).
(8) There is another interesting Whitman intertext in Hughes's relationship with his father. Whitman, too, was alienated from his taciturn and often truculent father, and a part of that discord derived from Walter Whitman, Sr.'s, contempt for his son's ambition to be a poet. After his father's death, Whitman painfully expressed his desire for reconciliation in a verse about the loss of his poetic power: "I throw myself upon your breast my father, / I cling to you so that you can not unloose me, / I hold you so firm till you answer me something. / Kiss me my father, / Touch me with your lips as I touch those I love" (1982, 396). Toward the end of his life, Hughes's attitude toward his father seems to have softened, from "hatred" to a sort of indifference, but he never openly expressed any desire for reconciliation, even after James's death in 1934. Perhaps the difference between the two poets is one of temperament, or perhaps the intersection of racial issues in the Hughes's relationship made the breach into a chasm too wide to cross, even in memory. It is also possible that this is an absence that bespeaks a powerful presence, that the pain of abandonment and disapproval that Hughes felt ran too deep to be expressed and could only emerge in feigned indifference.
(9) The scholarship on call and response is by now voluminous, but three books that have especially illuminated my understanding of it are Lawrence W. Levine (1977), Sterling Stuckey (1987), and John F. Callahan (1990).
(10) Hughes made these statements in "The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain," which was published in Nation on 23 June 1926. This important essay was written shortly after Hughes had composed "Mulatto," which Nation subsequently rejected for publication.
(11) All quotations of "Mulatto" are from the final 1959 version (see footnote 13 below on how this differs from the version originally published in Fine Clothes to the Jew).
(12) According to Werner Sollors, although the word "mulatto" derives either from sixteenth-century Spanish culture and designates the offspring of a black and a white parent, or from the Arabic word for "mixed," nevertheless the term "did become intertwined with the animal that was a cross between two species" and thus as early as the eighteenth century "was looked upon as a term of contempt that some 'men of color' ... would not apply to themselves" (1997, 127-28). But most African Americans of Hughes's time did not consider the term pejorative and neither, from all available evidence, did Hughes.
(13) When "Mulatto" was first published, nearly simultaneously in the January 29, 1927 issue of Saturday Review of Literature and in Fine Clothes to the Jew, line 11 did not appear. Hughes made this revision for the collection Selected Poems of Langston Hughes, published by Knopf in 1959. I use that text, which is the one chosen by the editors of The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes (1995), because it represents the poet's final wishes. Clearly, the unique indentation of line 11 was a conscious decision on the part of the older Hughes, and demands to be carefully considered in any serious reading of the poem.
(14) Although I am here using "signifying" and "playing the dozens" interchangeably, I should of course note that the latter is only one form of signifying, which is a much larger phenomenon that embraces many forms. See Henry Louis Gates, Jr. (1988).
Alexander, Lewis. 1997. "Book Review." In Langston Hughes: The Contemporary Reviews, ed. Tish Dace. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
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Robert Paul Lamb is professor of English at Purdue University. He co-edited Blackwell's A Companion to American Fiction, 1865-1914 and has authored numerous articles on such authors and topics as Melville, Whitman, Twain, Hemingway, abolitionism, naturalism, and pedagogy.
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|Author:||Lamb, Robert Paul|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2008|
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