Movies, Modernity, and All that Jazz: Langston Hughes's Montage of a Dream Deferred.
This inattention to Hughes's fascination with the instruments of mass culture goes hand-in-hand with a general critical neglect of Hughes's radical politics. When treated at all, Hughes's radical commitments have often been reduced to the proletarian poetry of the 1930s that has generally been taken as a kind of hiccup--an abrupt disruption and departure from issues of race and community that most concerned him in the 1920s and that he would return to in the 1940s and for the rest of his career. Ryan Jerving, for example, places Hughes's jazz poetry directly against such commitments, arguing that Hughes's "early handling of jazz--and his virtual abandonment of it for almost two decades--bears the telltale marks of an entertainment industry form that could not be articulated confidently or without a certain ambivalence to black identity or to anticapitalist critique until after the Second World War" (661). (2)
I want to suggest, however, that while Hughes does in his late poems return to jazz and blues, his handling of them is still very much caught up in the ambivalence and anticapitalist critique that had marked his radical poetry of the 1930s. His insistence on the authenticity of jazz as an African American art form as well as a form of social critique, most evident in his depiction of bebop in Montage, is asserted against the standardization of jazz by a (white) U. S. culture industry, whose "most powerful agent," Walter Benjamin reminds us, "is the film" (221). Under this culture industry, as Krin Gabbard has argued, the movies became a powerful site for producing a mythology of jazz--that "other history" of a commercial music that is so often neglected by scholars in favor of a few unusually talented composers and performers (1-2).
I will show how Hughes incorporates both jazz and film form into his poems, placing them in dialectical contention, to emphasize both the music and one of its most pervasive mediums. This dialectic is played out in a number of discursive registers--oral/visual, black/white, embodiment/disembodiment, sex/impotence, and primitivism/progress--that Hughes foregrounds in an attempt to offer a specifically black subjectivity that becomes a point of negotiation of mass modernity as well as a productive alternative to it. (3) Formally, the poem itself becomes a forum for staging this dialectic and ultimately Hughes's poetry serves to help articulate a point of political resistance beyond the realm of the poem.
Movies and Mass Modernity
From the early days of silent cinema, African Americans have had a complex relationship with film. They were, not surprisingly, generally caricatured and ridiculed on the silver screen, often by white actors in blackface. As a coherent audience to which films were actually aimed, African Americans were generally ignored, and as several scholars have pointed out, the very standardization of a Classical Hollywood style--with its emphasis on the invisible continuity of image and sound--was dependent on a stable notion of whiteness. (4)
While Hollywood reinforced the more general cultural marginalization of African Americans in the first half of the twentieth century, it also presented an opportunity for black filmmakers to not only direct "race films" to a black audience, but to correct some racial misrepresentations in the process. To this end, the Lincoln Motion Picture Company was founded in 1915, with the goal of presenting positive images of African Americans, encouraging black pride without disrupting the social order. Shortly thereafter, the homesteader-novelist Oscar Micheaux would begin to make his own race films, becoming the most prolific African American filmmaker of the first half of the twentieth century. Micheaux's films, however, were highly critical of blacks who turned their backs on their race in an attempt to enter the American mainstream. As Pearl Bowser and Louise Spence have argued, Micheaux's silent films in particular "deflated the pretensions of the expanding black middle class by providing images of victimization and poverty too reminiscent of racist portrayals that were supposedly defining characteristics of the race and the essence of the African American condition" (6).
It is into this volatile mix of a dominant Hollywood, a race-based rejoinder, and a rogue radicalism that Hughes in midcareer--at about the same time he came out from under the influence of jazz and blues--expressed an interest in film. As Phyllis Klotman has explained, Hughes was one of several African American authors who attempted the transition to screenwriting in the 1930s. Following the initial rejection by Paramount of a film adaptation for his short story "Rejuvenation through Joy," Hughes found some success with Way Down South. Though the screenplay helped Hughes financially, its stereotypical depiction of a plantation setting felt to Hughes like compromise, causing him some degree of embarrassment. Feeling, perhaps, that he was unlikely to circumvent this sense of compromise, Hughes never seriously pursued a career in film.
But the cinema would have a profound effect on Hughes's poetry, influencing both its subject matter and its form. Scattered references to the movies can be found throughout his oeuvre. Hughes's "Air Raid over Harlem," for example, is subtitled "Scenario for a Little Black Movie." In "Note on a Commercial Theatre," Hughes criticizes filmic and other mass-cultural appropriation of African American tradition. In "Madam and the Movies," he suggests the failure of the overly romanticized movies to account for Madam's lonely life.
The phenomenon, however, is most closely explored in Hughes's sequence Montage of a Dream Deferred, which highlights film as a mass-cultural form inattentive to black experience. In "Shame on You," Hughes points to the inability of Harlem to integrate its racial history into its everyday entertainment:
A movie house in Harlem named after Lincoln, Nothing at all named after John Brown. Black people don't remember any better than white. (ll. 6-9)
In choosing to name what is presumably a "race theater" movie house after Abraham Lincoln, a man who abolished slavery out of economic and political necessity, rather than John Brown who, though a white man, was committed to black emancipation and gave his life to the cause, blacks are as neglectful of a history of black oppression and resistance as whites are. The reference to Lincoln is also an indictment of the Lincoln Motion Picture Company, which--named after Abraham Lincoln and adopting his portrait as its logo--is itself guilty of glossing over a tumultuous history in its unproblematic representation of the African American condition.
On one hand, the (mis)naming of a movie house is not very different from the other sin of the poem, forgetting those great and clever contemporary blacks "[e]xcept on holidays" ("Shame on You" l. 5). On another, however, the naming of a movie house is of particular importance. It marks in the middle of black Harlem a site largely independent from dominant Hollywood culture, a potential site for meaningful black representation. Instead, however, it becomes just another site of racial indifference in which mass culture is consumed without regard to historical memory.
In "Not a Movie" Hughes imagines this potential as he moves from the site of mass cultural production to the cultural product itself:
Well, they rocked him with road-apples because he tried to vote and whipped his head with clubs and he crawled on his knees to his house and he got the midnight train and he crossed that Dixie line now he's livin' on a 133rd. (ll. 1-8)
A black man's attempt to escape north in order to get away from the brutal oppression and racial violence of the KKK--a journey metonymic of the Great Migration itself--goes beyond the reach of Hollywood entertainment. In this sense, these experiences do not make a movie. They exist beyond what can easily be represented and received. In another sense, though, the scenes (each stripped down to a line and punctuated in succession with those "ands") are highly cinematic and lend themselves readily to filmic representation. Still, such representation, like a film by Micheaux, would be highly critical of filmmaker and audience and by Hollywood entertainment standards could hardly be called a movie.
Hughes is not only interested in the supply-side question of what makes a movie, however. On the demand side, he is also interested in how an African American audience responds to the movies as well as the political potential in this response, which I consider in the next section.
Laughing in the Wrong Places
As Hughes explains in "Movies," the restricted definition of a movie makes it difficult for the Hollywood entertainment industry to connect with the people of Harlem:
The Roosevelt, Renaissance, Gem, Alhambra: Harlem laughing in all the wrong places at the crocodile tears of crocodile art that you know in your heart is crocodile: (Hollywood laughs at me, black -- so I laugh back.)
While Hughes does not make the subject of the poem explicit, a likely candidate would be one of those films such as The Jazz Singer or The King of Jazz that either portrayed jazz musicians in blackface or praised their white imitators--one of those films that openly mocked African Americans and their cultural contribution. (5) A Harlem audience would understandably feel alienated by such depictions of both blacks and jazz, and would likely not have the same reactions to the film that a largely white audience might. The audience is left "laughing in all the wrong places." Laughing at unintended sites of cultural consumption---in Harlem theaters aptly named Roosevelt and Renaissance--and laughing at the wrong points in the film.
This alienation has potentially profound formal and political consequences. As the film theorist Christian Metz has argued, the classical cinematic viewing experience, where the viewer is restrained in his seat, physically and socially incapable of much movement, and with eyes necessarily directed towards the screen, is analogous to the Lacanian mirror stage. In this instance, Metz claims, the film is like a mirror and the voyeur "is very careful to maintain a gulf, an empty space, between the object and the eye, the object and his own body: his look fastens the object at the right distance, as with those cinema spectators who take care to avoid being too close to or too far from the screen" (421). Agency is minimized and one's role in watching the film is not unlike that of an assembly-line worker at the mercy of a machine.
This is more than just an apt metaphor. As Mary Ann Doane has argued, much of the standardization and rationalization of time in the cinema "can be linked to changes in industrial organization and perceptions of an affinity between the body of the worker and the machine" (5). Doane goes on to claim that the "pressure of time's rationalization in the public sphere, and the corresponding atomization that ruptures the sense of time as exemplary continuum, produce a discursive tension that strikes many observers as being embodied in film form itself" (9). The classical film-viewing situation, then, stands in for a modern shock experience seen as much in the streets as on the factory floor. In this way, film indexes anxieties about the loss of subjectivity that are expressive of modern urban life more generally and are the hallmark of the culture industry itself.
As several critics have noted, however, Metz's description is an ahistorical one that ignores (among other things) the specificity of gender, class, and race. With respect to African American viewing situations in particular (and these, too, should not be homogenized), critics have suggested how an inability or unwillingness to identify with the subject matter on the screen, or the fact that many audience members are caught up in a self-aware viewing situation--brought on by such things as segregated theaters--denies the kind of art-house constraint Metz outlines and promotes a more dynamic and potentially more oppositional reaction, often involving interruption, talk-back, and laughing in the wrong places. As Jacqueline Najuma Stewart has argued, "Black viewers attempted to reconstitute and assert themselves in relation to the cinema's racist social and textual operations" as a means of negotiating an increasingly mobile and urban modernity like the one Doane describes (94). They enacted a "negotiated reception" that employed "primitive" viewing habits--meant to invoke the often condescending manner in which both people of color and pre-Classical cinema are treated--that should be understood as a "multiply determined, contradictory, modernist form of Black urban performance" that attempts to circumvent cinematic restraint (110). Similarly, Manthia Diawara proposes a kind of "resisting spectatorship" that allows black spectators to contend with some of white culture's most oppressive products and to productively view such films as Griffith's The Birth of a Nation (212). bell hooks, among others, has also considered the conjunction of gender and race, arguing specifically for the black female's oppositional gaze.
Such negotiating and oppositional viewing strategies are important not only for the individual spectator and immediate viewing environment, but potentially for the larger culture industry as well. If, as Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer have argued, the film (and the sound film in particular) is a potent purveyor of the culture industry that provides standardized entertainment as an alibi for modern work and the general condition of urban modernity--predictably directing the audience as to when they should cry and when they should laugh--the Harlem audience, laughing in all the wrong places, would seem to fall outside the reaches of this industry. It would, rather, potentially uncover the power of individual and collective agency in the face of cultural oppression that Walter Benjamin points to in his oft-quoted essay "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction."
Against Adorno and Horkheimer's damning indictment of the film industry, Benjamin argues for film as an instrument of social action, claiming that "[m]echanical reproduction of art changes the reaction of the masses toward art.... With regard to the screen, the critical and receptive attitudes of the public coincide. The decisive reason for this is that individual actions are predetermined by the mass audience response they are about to produce, and this is nowhere more pronounced than in the film" (234). As opposed to Adorno and Horkheimer, who see film (and mass culture in general) as a top-down process, determined by an industry of producers who ensure a hegemonic response, Benjamin recognizes a greater potential for negotiation and action. The animating impulse is at the point of reception and those groups--such as black moviegoers in Harlem--who receive a cultural product in a way other than the way it was intended by the culture industry, potentially occupy a site of critical resistance that allows for a negotiation and rearticulation of mass culture to other (possibly subversive) aims. Harlem becomes one of the last bastions of resistance, not only for African Americans, but for the American public and the modern individual more generally. While the audience lacks the capital and the social clout to change Hollywood's racism and alienation of African Americans, it can--precisely because of this alienation--recognize the movie's constructedness, and with this recognition, can also challenge the culture industry's hegemony.
In this context, laughter is a powerful affective response--all the more so because it isn't scripted. What at first appears to be a misunderstanding of the rules of the game, or an inability to suspend disbelief, becomes a powerful critical position. At the same time, however, laughter in itself is a rather weak display of resistance, offering little in the way of action. It does, however, in its recognition of crocodile tears and crocodile art, open up a space for more authentic expression (often taking place at the same theatrical sites), which, in turn, holds out the possibility of revolutionary action. As I will suggest in the next section, Hughes and many around him saw this authentic expression in bebop jazz.
Bebop, Rebop, and the Art of Jazz
Hughes explains his bebop influence in his introductory note to Montage of a Dream Deferred:
In terms of current Afro-American popular music and the sources from which it has progressed--jazz, ragtime, swing, blues, boogie-woogie, and be-bop--this poem on contemporary Harlem, like be-bop, is marked by conflicting changes, sudden nuances, sharp and impudent interjections, broken rhythms, and passages sometimes in the manner of the jam session, sometimes the popular song, punctuated by the riffs, runs, breaks, and disc-tortions of the music of a community in transition. (387)
In addition to outlining crucial elements of his poetic technique (to which I will return shortly), Hughes forwards in this note a definition of bebop music itself: it's black, it's popular, it's historical, it's urban; it is, as Ralph Ellison put it, "a momentous modulation into a new key of musical sensibility--in brief a revolution in culture" (448). This definition of bebop that informs Hughes's sequence can be starkly contrasted with the culture industry's mass dissemination of canned jazz. That is to say, the kind of jazz Adorno had in mind when he wrote in his infamous 1936 essay "On Jazz," that:
The capital power of the publishers, its dissemination through radio and above all, the sound film have cultivated a tendency toward centralization which limits freedom of choice and barely allows for any real competition.... The pieces that play a decisive role in the broad social appeal of jazz are precisely not those which most purely express the idea of jazz as interference, but are, rather, technically backward, boorish dances which only contain mere fragments of these elements. These are regarded as commercial. (475)
While Adorno's essay has been attacked by jazz scholars on multiple grounds (it neglects the most artistically innovative American performers in favor of bad European knockoffs, it highlights Adorno's distaste for jazz, it takes race out of the equation altogether), it is important to read it for what it is, a fairly accurate depiction of what most people most of the time were listening to: bad jazz. (6) With this understanding, Adorno's conception of jazz can be seen as very much in line with his conception of film outlined above: as another mass distraction designed to placate capitalism's victims.
With this general reading of mass distraction in mind, the essay can, as Susan Buck-Morss has pointed out, be read dialectically against Benjamin's "The Work of Art" essay. Adorno saw his essay as the critical answer to Benjamin's affirmation of film; at the same time Benjamin applauded Adorno's essay as illuminating his subject from the other side (148-49). I want to push this observation a bit further to suggest that jazz and film are not simply random examples of mass culture through which Benjamin's and Adorno's more abstract arguments could be made, but that jazz and film can themselves be read dialectically. Just as Adorno acknowledges that popular jazz is most powerfully experienced through the medium of the sound film, we can in another turn of the dialectic read this against the critical capacity that Benjamin attributed to the film audience and which Hughes locates specifically in Harlem. That is to say, just as the audience holds the capacity to be critical of the film in general, it is also potentially critical of the jazz which is conveyed by and which helps to structure the film. But while audience members lack the capacity to offer up another film in its place, many of them can make another jazz.
Bebop is the supreme example of this jazz. It resists being co-opted by the culture industry and the jazz film, and offers a way of scaling what Hughes saw in his 1926 essay "The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain" as the racial mountain "standing in the way of any true Negro art in America--this urge within the race toward whiteness, the desire to pour racial individuality into the mold of American standardization, and to be as little Negro and as much American as possible" (32). There is no longer the same need to make individual black experience fit mass American culture. Black experience is American culture. Bebop simply breaks the mold to become the new authentic American music and if whites attempt to play it, they will be the imitators. As Simple simply says, "Re-Bop was an imitation like most of the white boys play. Be-Bop is the real thing like the colored boys play" (Hughes, "Bop" 177-78). Bop has its pop not only because it functions outside of and against the official structures of the culture industry, but because its very form refuses to be co-opted and standardized. As I will suggest in the next section, the same can be said for Hughes's poetry, which juxtaposes the forms of jazz and film while at the same time resisting imitation.
Jazz, Film, and a Dialectical Poetics
Hughes's Montage does not simply function as discourse about jazz and film; it formally embodies these phenomena. While a number of scholars have pointed to Hughes's use of jazz and blues forms in the sequence, few have considered his appropriation of film even if the title begs for such consideration. A notable exception is Daniel C. Turner, who has argued that Hughes's sequence relies on pictorial montage and jazz performance as complex framing devices. "Hughes," he writes, "offers us a musical montage, in which hearing is made equivalent to seeing" (25). Turner asserts that this blending of sound and vision "signals the integration of a modernism practiced by predominately black artists (jazz) and one practiced by predominately white artists (modernist poetry)" (28).
I wish to complicate Turner's explication, however, by arguing that Montage is not merely the intermingling or conflation of sound and image, but a reenactment of the film/jazz dialectic that poses a continuous deferral of lyric subjectivity and a possible overcoming of it through the poetic form itself. Just as the montage elements of the poem enact scenic deferrals, bebop makes connections across scenes; just as montage disembodies, bebop brings back the body. Formally, both film and jazz are transcribed into Hughes's poetics, which offers a space where the two can be placed in dialectical contention and in its appeal to both the visual and the oral--suggests a final, though deferred, synthesis.
Brent Edwards has argued for such a "poetics of transcription" in which "the form of a poem ... is able to suggest or mimic the form of a particular music" (584). Edwards recognizes that since the time of the Renaissance there has been a shift in the poetic lyric from melos (to be sung) to opsis (a pictorial representation of signs on the page), so that the poem itself is a closed, static object (582). This leads to his specific explanation of Hughes's blues poetry, a claim that it "demands to be considered as much a formal transcription of a performance ... as a score to be realized. Perhaps the power of the blues poem as a form is intimately linked to the fact that we are not offered a realization; the performance setting and musical backdrop are absent or unavailable" (585). In suggesting that the text is cut off from musical performance, Edwards would seem to uphold the notion of the auratic performance as an originary ritual scene that cannot be accessed but only indexed by the poem.
In Montage, however, we are not directed to originary scenes of action. Rather, we get transcriptions of scenes that mediate performance in much the same way film mediates mass jazz. Like film, these scenes are often dependent on the visual, as in the conclusion to "New Yorkers": "She lifted up her lips / in the dark: / The same old spark!" (ll. 15-17), or "Neon Signs," a poem that depends on typography and placement on the page, so that it must be seen as much as read. Poems specifically about jazz performance, such as "Flatted Fifths," are mediated by the visual as well, where "[l]ittle cullud boys" would "at a sudden change" turn to "sparkling Oriental wines / rich and strange / silken bathrobes with gold twines" (ll. 1, 6, 7-9). On a more global level, individual poems are placed against one another to achieve a montage effect, where illuminated frames are placed in rapid succession and mediated by the white space of the page, just as filmic images are mediated by the darkness of the closed shutter, giving the illusion of movement.
As such, montage is a dynamic metaphor for black/white relations. Just as black print is set against the white of the page and is mediated by white space, black identity, is necessarily set against white experience and is mediated by a white culture industry. Montage attempts to make connections across poems, bridging scenes and making black experience immediate. But this does not mean that everything goes grey. Rather, black and white retain their designations but are brought intimately together, as illustrated in "Subway Rush Hour":
Mingled breath and smell so close mingled black and white so near no room for fear.
Breath and smell, production and reception, are so juxtaposed as to be nearly indistinguishable. The two actions, like the mingling of black and white itself, cannot be reduced to a third term. As in cinematic montage, there is a continual deferral of synthesis in the black/white dialectic.
This montage-logic is embedded in the reading experience itself. To consider only the filmic elements of the sequence, the reader would seem to be constrained by and drawn into the driving succession of poems, just as Metz's film viewer is drawn into the succession of images reeling before him. As we have seen, however, the African American viewing experience potentially offers a means of negotiating and resisting this montage-logic as it interrupts the succession of scenes, supplements images with live sound and other theatrical embellishments, and dwells on particular moments in the film. In much the same way, Hughes provides formal points of resistance in the reading of Montage, complicating a straightforward, linear narrative that moves from poem to poem in easy succession.
As such, Hughes challenges the recent critical understanding of how filmic elements are integrated into what Turner points to as a predominately white modernist poetry. As Susan McCabe has argued, modern poets were confronted with a central modernist paradox: "a desire to include bodily experience and sensation along with an overpowering sense of the unavailability of such experience except as mediated through mechanical production" (3). She goes on to suggest that modern poetry and film share a concern for hysteria brought on by the repetitions and dissociations of modernity, so that "the hysterical body was not simply a figure depicted in the modernist poem or film, but more provocatively, coincided with the fragmented and dissociated bodies created as montage" (5). This results in a "phenomenology of fragmentation," in which cinematic bodies "haunt, permeate, fragment and are fragmented by representation" (7).
While Hughes shares anxieties about film with Pound, Eliot, H. D., and the other modernist poets that McCabe identifies, he also offers a way out of this hysteria, this disembodiment, this loss of subjectivity to mechanical reproduction and the culture industry. Hughes challenges the phenomenology of fragmentation by encouraging a resistant reading of Montage that parallels African American resistant viewing. In doing so, he promotes a sense of unity that overcomes fragmentation. But rather than a personal, phenomenal self-unity, this is a social sense of collective unity: unity of individual viewers in the theater; unity of poems in the sequence; and, most radically, unity, of readers together reading the sequence. Through his encouragement of collective reading practices, Hughes challenges the individual, internalized scenes of reading that have characterized discussions of modern poetry.
The resistance to serial succession also opens up the possibility for reading across poems, which in Montage is best characterized by the turn to bebop. The shared images, tropes, words, and voices of the poems come together (as Hughes explains in his introductory note) in conflicting changes, broken rhythms, sharp nuances, and interjections. These bebop "changes" threaten the lyric stability and cohesion of many of the individual poems--the form privileged by strategies of close reading that treat the poem as a discrete, coherent object--but take on great significance as the poems are read together. The poem's transcription and verbalization of bop allows Montage to move from a critical gesture to an affirmative one, recouping its loss of a private, lyrical subjectivity and instituting in its place a communal one.
Though the full meaning of the sequence as a whole cannot be grasped by reading poems in isolation, they are nonetheless important for punctuating particular scenes in Montage in a way that one long, continuous poem could not. There is also, just as in a jazz performance, a forward momentum to the sequence that is dependent on the ordering of the poems. I do not, then, mean to argue for the bebop elements of the sequence over the cinematic ones. Rather, I am suggesting that Hughes's sequence enacts a formal deferral through montage while at the same time invoking a jazz that cuts across juxtaposed moments to answer that deferral. The sequence refuses to resolve this dialectic of film and jazz but continuously plays it out with each reading of the poem, so that the individual reader articulates its message in performance, even as he or she moves on, leaving behind the husks of words on the page. As I will argue in the final section, this places the reader in a position of connection and disjunction, both to herself and to her community, so that this dialectic is articulated on a political level as a dream and the deferral of that dream.
Dream ... Deferral
Bebop has often been identified with black militant movements of the 1940s and '50s as a music that signaled and represented revolution or rebellion. As Eric Lott has suggested, "bebop was intimately if indirectly related to the militancy of its moment. Militancy and music were undergirded by the same social facts; the music attempted to resolve at the level of style what the militancy fought out in the streets" (459). With specific reference to Hughes and his appropriation of this bebop style, John Lowney has argued for "the significance of bebop in Montage for reclaiming Harlem as a site for both black cultural pride and militant anger, a site of memory that recalls the utopian promise of the Harlem Renaissance but also appeals to the postwar skepticism of a younger generation of black artists" (358). In this vein, I want to suggest that bebop holds out--through an immediate, embodied identification of musician, listener, and music--a possible resolution of subject and object that can serve as a template for the proletariat's recognition of itself as the subject and object of history, so that class consciousness in general can be understood as stemming from a particular black praxis. Bebop brings about a way of enacting the dream that has haunted Hughes since his earliest poems. (7)
Such a possibility is already evident in the first poem of Montage, "Dream Boogie." The poem (and the sequence as a whole) opens with a traditional ballad stanza, a-b-a-b rhyme scheme, in which we are introduced to a "boogie-woogie rumble / Of a dream deferred" (ll. 3-4). Music is accompanied by the movement of "feet" that are "beating" out both poetic rhythm and potential militant violence (ll. 6-7). It is not a happy beat. As a rumble, this is subtextual, under the radar, "something underneath" (l. 12). But just as we are presented with this possibility, we are told in both a musical and a literal sense to "Take it away!" (l. 17). The meter and rhyme begin to break down; the stanza is cut off with an italicized interruption, a break in the rhythm. In the third stanza it breaks again. The poem turns into a dialogic interplay of roman and italicized voices--of questions and answers--and while the fourth stanza seems to return to the pattern of the first, the two words, in accordance with the established metrical and rhyme scheme, which would seem to be deferred, are precisely "dream deferred" (l. 4). But even here there is a holding out, a final striving for affirmation: "Y-e-a-h!" (l. 21).
The poem presents the dream and the dream deferral, the invocation of the primitive in the face of the progressive, and the very question of resistance as it would come to dominate the sequence. But to realize the call to action demands a coming to terms with history. Harlem is itself important for this history. Film, jazz, and the Harlem theaters in which both were presented were not only key sites for collective action, but also for re-presenting the past and coming to grips with historical memory that in ways may be crippling but also potentially liberating. Montage, a poetic sequence set in Harlem, has likewise become a part of that history, extending and challenging the lessons of the past, itself becoming a cultural product to be learned from and challenged.
History is also represented throughout the sequence by the trope "daddy," which functions not only as slang, but also as a stand-in for masculinized black tradition and a connection to the primitive. (8) As David Chinitz has argued, Hughes's rejection of his early primitivism was never complete because he didn't give up his association of African American music with primitivism. Chinitz claims, with specific reference to Hughes's story "Rejuvenation through Joy," that "Hughes continues to believe, at times almost mystically, that jazz expresses and addresses a realm of the human psyche that Western civilization had suppressed; that the African American retains easier and more immediate access to this spirit; and that implicit within jazz is an alternative mode of being" (69-70). This primitivism--which, as we have seen, has also been used to characterize the black oppositional viewing experience--can be read against Adorno and Horkheimer's claim that mankind, "whose versatility and knowledge become differentiated with the division of labor, is at the same time forced back to anthropologically more primitive stages, for which the technical easing of life the persistence of domination brings about a fixation of the instincts by means of heavier repression.... The curse of irresistible progress is irresistible regression" (35-36). While an appeal to the Adornian primitive is on the one hand regressive, it can also be understood as resistance to the onslaught of mass modernity, and in this way holds out a utopian end to revolution that coincides with what several critics have recognized as the sequence's foregrounding of religion.
To conclude, then: the contrasting expressions of jazz and film, as well as their curious co-mingling in such places as the jazz film, are key for understanding Langston Hughes's Montage of a Dream Deferred. Through its enactment of a continuous and unresolved film/jazz dialectic, the sequence presents a succession of punctuated lyrical moments that are augmented and challenged by the talk-back and crossover of bop. This structuring of the sequence is a formal working-through of the larger social dialectic of film and jazz, characterized by an African American opposition to the white culture industry and the resulting possibility of a black artistic affirmation. This critical resistance and creative production in turn allows for the possibility of political resistance and revolutionary action. Action, however, is ultimately left to the readers, who must collectively interpret and act upon the lessons of Montage, so that its liberating message is no longer a dream deferred.
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hooks, bell. "The Oppositional Gaze: Black Female Spectators." Diawara, Black American Cinema 288-302.
Hughes, Langston. "Bop." 1961. Writing Jazz. Ed. David Meltzer. San Francisco: Mercury House, 1999. 177-78.
--. The Collected Works of Langston Hughes, Vol. 3: The Poems, 1951-1967. Ed. Arnold Rampersad. Columbia: U of Missouri P, 2001.
--. "The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain." 1926. The Collected Works of Langston Hughes, Vol. 9: Essays on Art, Race, Politics and World Affairs. Ed. Arnold Rampersad. Columbia: U of Missouri P, 2002. 31-36.
Jameson, Fredric. Marxism and Form: Twentieth-Century Dialectical Theories of Literature. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1974.
Jerving, Ryan. "Early Jazz Literature (And Why You Didn't Know)." American Literary History 16.4 (Winter 2004): 648-74.
Klotman, Phyllis. "The Black Writer in Hollywood, Circa 1930: The Case of Wallace Thurman." Diawara, Black American Cinema 80-92.
Lowney, John. "Langston Hughes and the 'Nonsense' of Bebop." American Literature 72.2 (June 2000): 357-85.
Lott, Eric. "Double V, Double Time: Bebop's Politics of Style." O'Meally 457-68.
McCabe, Susan. Cinematic Modernism: Modernist Poetry and Film. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2005.
Metz, Christian. "The Imaginary Signifier." Film and Theory: An Anthology. Eds. Robert Stam and Toby Miller. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2000. 408-36.
O'Meally, Robert G., ed. The Jazz Cadence of America. New York: Columbia UP, 1998.
Stewart, Jacqueline Najuma. Migrating to the Movies: Cinema and Black Urban Modernity. Berkeley: U of California P, 2005.
Tidwell, John Edgar, and Cheryl R. Ragar, eds. Montage of a Dream: The Art and Life of Langston Hughes. Columbia: U of Missouri P, 2007.
Turner, Daniel C. "Montage of a Simplicity Deferred: Langston Hughes's Art of Sophistication and Racial Intersubjectivity in Montage of a Dream Deferred." Langston Hughes Review 17 (Fall-Spring 2002): 22-34.
(1.) The origins of current interest in Hughes's jazz and blues poetry can most readily be traced to Steven C. Tracy's Langston Hughes and the Blues (Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1988). Also see Chinitz; Anita Patterson, "Jazz, Realism, and the Modernist Lyric: The Poetry of Langston Hughes," Modern Language Quarterly 61.4 (December 2000): 651-82; Lowney; Michael Borshuk, "Noisy Modernism: The Cultural Politics of Langston Hughes's Early Jazz Poetry," Langston Hughes Review 17.1-2 (2002): 4-22.; and Jerving. Tidwell and Ragar's edited collection, Montage of a Dream: The Art and Life of Langston Hughes, has furthered this interest in the blues with Steven C. Tracy, "Langston Hughes and Aunt Hager's Children's Blues Performance: 'Six-Bits Blues,' " in Tidwell and Ragar 19-31, and Trudier Harris, "Almost--But Not Quite--Bluesmen in Langston Hughes's Poetry," in Tidwell and Ragar 32-38.
(2.) This neglect, however, has not been absolute. William J. Maxwell has emphasized Hughes's ties with communism in pointing to more widespread connections between the Harlem Renaissance and the American Left. James Smethurst has focused his attention on Hughes's much-neglected poems of the 1930s. More recently, Robert Young has made a claim for Hughes's "red" poetics, that Hughes's understanding of Marxism and of the base/superstructure dialectic is formally apparent in his poems. He has also attempted to push Hughes's socialist sympathies back to Hughes's youth and argues that his 1920s poems of racial oppression can be read as a specific manifestation of a more general economic concern. See Maxwell, New Negro, Old Left: African-American Writing and Communism between the Wars (New York: Columbia UP, 1999); Smethurst, The New Red Negro: The Literary Left and African American Poetry, 1930-1946 (New York: Oxford UP, 1999); Young, "Langston Hughes's 'Red' Poetics," Langston Hughes Review 18 (Fall 2004): 16-21; and Young, "Langston Hughes's Red Poetics and the Practice of 'Disalienation,' " in Tidwell and Ragar 135-46.
(3.) My use of the term dialectic properly refers to a negative dialectics, as conceived of by Benjamin and articulated by Adorno. As Jameson puts it in Marxism and Form, "a negative dialectic has no choice but to affirm the notion and value of an ultimate synthesis, while negating its possibility and reality in every concrete case that comes before it" (56).
(4.) For more on the connection between Classical Hollywood and whiteness, see Classic Hollywood, Classic Whiteness, Daniel Bernardi, ed. (Minneapolis: U of Minneapolis P, 2001).
(5.) Gabbard has commented on these films in Jammin' at the Margins, as has Michael Rogin in Blackface, White Noise: Jewish Immigrants in the Hollywood Melting Pot (Berkeley: U of California P, 1996); Arthur Knight in Disintegrating the Musical." Black Performance and American Musical Film (Durham: Duke UP, 2002); and Ryan Jerving in "Jazz Language and Ethnic Novelty," Modernism/modernity 10.2 (April 2003): 239-68.
(6.) This was a jazz characterized by what Jerving has seen as a "Fordist relentless regularity of dance-ready rhythm, a Taylorist efficiency in the arrangement of musicians and sounds" characteristic of such band leaders as the aptly named Paul Whiteman (652).
(7.) Several of these poems, such as "Dreams," "Dream Variations," and "The Dream Keeper," deal explicitly with the possibilities and difficulties of the dream.
(8.) For example, in "Dead in There," one of the deceased purveyors of jazz is seen as "a cool bop daddy" (l. 5). Further, the phrase "Good morning, daddy!" is repeated in the opening of "Good Morning," a poem which recalls the making of Harlem, where "colored folks spread / from river to river," pouring out of the great migration until they formed a "dusky sash across Manhattan" (ll. 4-5, 16).
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|Publication:||African American Review|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2011|
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