By Jamison Valentine
Throughout the time period of American Literature that involves works produced by African Americans, there have been a number of changing themes that have been explored in such works. Some of the most significant developments were made during the Harlem Renaissance. Like other Harlem Renaissance writers, Langston Hughes used a very unique approach that many other writers such as Countee Cullen deliberately steered clear from. He emphasized the raw experience of blacks in America and wanted their identities to be acknowledged as they were, for the creativity and value they encompassed as a result of their oppression. He lamented the path that other African American writers preferred by attempting to avoid being labelled according to their race. In his poems “Madam and Her Madam,” “Madam’s Calling Cards,” “Visitors to the Black Belt,” “I, Too,” and “Theme for English B,” Hughes’s methods and general philosophy can be derived from the recurrent use of African American experience as the primary theme. Through his poetry, Hughes revealed and referenced the continued lows of African American life only to point to the resiliency of the people that he felt should be embraced.
One of the most effective techniques that Hughes employs to portray the experience of black people in America is through a series of poems and novels featuring characters intentionally constructed to serve that purpose. One of these characters, Alberta K. Johnson, referred to as “Madam,” appears in a number of poems by Hughes. The two poems that will be examined here are “Madam and Her Madam” and “Madam’s Calling Cards.” In the former, Madam speaks about a woman who she was employed by and who represents White America. As Dellita L. Martin points out in her “The Madam Poems as Dramatic Monologue”, “Madam addresses an identifiable but silent listener at various points of tension (dramatic moments) in her life… this persona is white society” (97). The greatest takeaway from this poem is the awareness that Madam’s relationship with her employer is symbolic of the general experience of black people in America during that time. Speaking to her employer, Madam asks, “You trying to make a / Pack-horse out of me”? The employer responds, “Oh, no! / You know, Alberta, / I love you so” (Hughes 15-20). This exchange is an exemplification of the limited relationship that is based on the African American’s ability to bare the burdens that White Americans are not expected to and very often benefit from.
In “Madam’s Calling Cards,” the experience of African Americans is related to by the enduring double-consciousness that they must always operate behind. Although she has been marginalized and exploited as a result of the circumstances that come with being black in America, she still exerts her claim as a valued member of the society she lives in when she replies to the printer’s question, “Shall I use Old English/Or a Roman letter?” by saying, “Use American./ American’s better” (Hughes 13-16). She doubles down on this demand by reasserting, “There’s nothing foreign / To my pedigree:/ Alberta K. Johnson-/ American that’s me” (Hughes 16-20). Although it is clear that she is not entirely alike others that are of the dominant race, she still wants to emphasize that she shares the common title of “American” and is deserving of whatever that entails. This entire exchange is emblematic of the larger experience of African Americans who are distinguished by their African roots but who nonetheless feel that their ancestry and their unique path to citizenship should not keep them from the equal status that they are entitled to. Hughes successfully portrays the African American experience and their working efforts via Madam’s character.
Hughes also uses another character that he created for the purpose of illuminating the African American perspective. This male character, nicknamed Simple, possibly served his purpose better than his creation of Madam. Hughes first brought this character to life when writing for the local newspaper as Phillis R. Klotman mentions in her “Langston Hughes’s Jess B. Semple and The Blues,” “He [Simple] was born in the columns of the Chicago Defender on November 21, 1942” (68). Simple was later the protagonist of a number of novels and even a musical play. Through the dialogue of Simple and a frequent juxtaposing character named Boyd, the reader is given the opportunity to witness the war between idealism and the actual limitations imposed by race. The ultimate effect of these exchanges between Simple and others is an understanding that life for an African American is much more complex than it would seem, a idea that mirrors the concept of double consciousness explored by W.E. B. Dubois, as Susan L. Blake alludes to in “Old John in Harlem: The Urban Folktales of Langston Hughes” (100). Hughes chooses to shed light on the perspective of blacks in America, not to perpetuate feelings of despondency, but to encourage black readers to take a look at just how resilient they truly are. In his view, there is truly an advantage that should be embraced by having such a unique experience. Blake echoes this sentiment in her statement regarding the characterization of Semple: “Langston Hughes characterizes Jesse B. Semple, Harlem roomer, as the personification of the accumulated black experience. But what is especially significant about Simple is that he not only acknowledges his past, but uses it to shape his present” (100). This is why Hughes’s creation of Simple may be the best possible clue to understanding his intention behind painting the Black American experience in the way that he does in his works, especially his poetry. Klotman furthers this idea in her synopsis: “Inherent in Hughes’s philosophy, throughout all of his works, is his recognition of, and pride in, the fact that the Afro-American has developed (or perhaps had innately) the ability to endure … all of the racial calumnies devised by white society to deframe its black citizens” (72). Hughes perpetuates this philosophy by portraying Simple as a commoner that African Americans can easily relate to and see themselves in.
Moreover, what makes the character of Simple such an effective medium for spreading Hughes’s philosophy is the fact that it does not only appeal to black people. It can translate to all American citizens who can relate to Simple in a number of ways. This idea ties into the fact that Hughes relies on the recognition of basic human qualities to show how African Americans experience America negatively in the simplest scenarios. Klotman describes this technique perfectly with the summation that “It is therefore Simple’s basic humanity with which the larger audience identifies” (73). Hughes avoids the perception of inferiority and, instead, allows the reader to empathize with the character regardless of their outward appearance.
The character of Jess B. Semple provides a perfect transition into the world of Blues that was so integral to the writing of Hughes. The techniques and philosophies used in his poetry mostly derive from the genre of Blues and likely even further back to basic Negro spirituals. This is consistent with Klotman’s assertion that an “important characteristic of the blues, however, is that it was created by a people determined, like Simple, to survive” (76). Yusef Komunyaka describes Blues music in another way in his “Langston Hughes + Poetry = The Blues.” He points to the observation that “the music seemed to cry, but the words somehow laughed” and concludes that “it is the simultaneous laughter and crying that create the tension in Hughes’s blues poetry” (1140). In this sense, Hughes goes further than simply speaking of the misfortunes of African Americans. He uses the adversity as a precursor to emphasize the ability of black people to overcome and still have something to be proud of in themselves. His desire to emulate aspects of Blues music in his poetry gives us further insight into his approach in portraying the African American experience. It is also important to note that he also uses storytelling methods from the folk tradition. The chief advantage of this approach, as Blake puts it, is that “Folk literature […] isolates the experience of a socially defined group” (100). Blake enumerates the ways in which Hughes joins the character of Simple with folk tradition and concludes that he “picks up the folk tradition and carries it on toward the goal of social change in the real world” (104). Hughes continuously drew on other popular art forms that allow him to deliver his message to an audience in a familiar way.
Hughes’s poem “I, Too,” can be seen as a total embodiment of his philosophies and writing techniques in regards to African Americans’ experience in the country. The poem is a simple and straight-forward dialogue between the speaker, who symbolizes African Americans, and America itself. From the outset of the poem that starts with, “I, too, sing America,/ I am the darker brother,” the speaker makes it known that they should not be looked at separately from the everyone else. In the succeeding lines, “They send me to eat in the kitchen / When company comes,” the speaker reveals the purpose behind their desire for acknowledgement; he feels that they are only accepted as a part of the family, as an equal, behind closed doors. In the next few lines, the powerful theme of resilience that is characteristic of so many of Hughes’s works presents itself: “But I laugh,/ And eat well,/ And grow strong” (5-7). The speaker continues, “Tomorrow/ I’ll be at the table” (8-9), giving a direct admission that they will continue to transcend their lower status and persevere. Ultimately, the speaker has faith that their humanity will be acknowledged in the eyes of White America, and that they will finally be considered equal: “They’ll see how beautiful I am/ And be ashamed-/ I, too, am America” (16-19). The poem’s progression embodies exactly what Hughes feel should be celebrated, the very ability of black people to reshape negative, undesirable experiences into positive ones.
One can also derive symbolism of setting in Hughes’s works by looking at the frequent references that he makes to Harlem. He depicts Harlem, the birth place of the enamored cultural renaissance that he is considered a part of, in a different light than those who looked at it as a hub of artistic treasure and entertainment. Arthur P. Davis provides an in-depth examination of Harlem as a recurrent theme in Hughes’s catalog and concludes that when Hughes “depicts the hopes, the aspirations, the frustrations, and the deep-seated discontent of the New York ghetto, he is expressing the feelings of Negros in black ghettos throughout America” (283). This summation provides valuable context from which to view Hughes’s poetry and enables a reader to get a more accurate interpretation of his later works, particularly “Visitors to the Black Belt” and “Theme for English B.” In the former, the speaker starts with a comparison between an outsider’s perception and the reality of someone who lives within the large neighborhood: “You can talk about/ Up in Harlem-/ To me it’s here/ In Harlem” (5-8). He continues by describing the actual conditions of resident living, “Kitchnettes/ With no heat/ And garbage/ In the halls” (13-16). Here he presents his audience with a truthful account of the area that they romanticize and fail to see for what it actually is. The audience is presented with the speaker’s true intent behind this exchange in the final lines, “Who’re you, outsider?/ Ask me who am I” (17-18). By using Harlem as a simple representation of black people, Hughes yet again demands acknowledgment from his audience, the outsiders that make up White America.
Hughes uses this same approach in his “Theme for English B,” where the speaker in, once again, a resident of Harlem. Although the speaker shares same title as others in the setting, he reveals his feeling of isolation and difference when he makes it clear that he is “the only colored student in the class” (10). This, of course, is an allusion to the experience of black people as Americans. Reflecting on these circumstances, the speaker asserts that he is not different from the rest, saying, “I like to eat, sleep, drink, and be in love/… I guess being colored doesn’t make me not like/ the same things other folks like who are other races” (21-26). In what is supposed to be a typical literature exercise in school, the speaker does the unexpected and reveals his awareness of the fact that his race has inevitably had just as much influence over his life as their shared nationality. There is irony observed at the end of the poem: “I guess you learn from me-/ although you’re older-and white-/ and somewhat more free” (38-40). It is ironic that the teacher learns from the student; the older learns from the younger; the white person learns from the black. What the use of irony here does is convince the instructor, who represents White America, that in spite of and maybe as a result of their perceived lesser status, African Americans have a great deal to offer in the larger scope of things. In this encounter, Hughes offers another perspective that is birthed in consequence of the experience of black people in America.
By examining the various methods that Hughes uses to deliver his message, the intention behind his poetry becomes clear. He uses the familiar characters in Madam and Simple to provide individual accounts of the black experience in America who all people could relate to. He also frequently references the iconic neighborhood of Harlem as a representation of black resident life in White America. Combined with the techniques derived from his attraction to Blues music, Hughes successfully depicts the ill-fated African American experience to convince his audience of the value that they contribute to society.
Blake, Susan L. “Old John in Harlem: The Urban Folktales of Langston Hughes.” Black American Literature Forum, Vol. 14, No. 3, pp. 100-104, JSTOR, Stable URL: https://www.jstor.org/stable/3041659.
Davis, Arthur P. “The Harlem of Langston Hughes’ Poetry”. Phylon (1940-1956), Vol. 13, No. 4, pp. 276-283, JSTOR, https://www.jstor.org/stable/272559.
Levine, Robert S., editor. The Norton Anthology of American Literature, 9th ed., Vol. 2: 1865 to the Present, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. 2017.
Klotman, Phillis R. “Langston Hughes’s Jess B. Semple and the Blues.”Phylon (1960-), Vol. 36, No. 1, pp. 68-77, JSOTR, https://www.jstor.org/stable/274846.
Komunyakaa, Yusef. “Langston Hughes + Poetry = The Blues.” Callaloo, Vol. 25, No. 4, pp. 1140-1143, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/3300276.
Martin, Dellita L. “The Madam Poems as Dramatic Monologue.” Black American Literature Forum, Vol. 15, No. 3. pp. 97-99. JSTOR, .
I strongly encourage you to consider submitting this essay to the Wake Review literary magazine (submission details at https://clubs.waketech.edu/wake-review/submissions/).