Friday, March 8, 2013
Langston Hughes and Countee Cullen Essay
The primary goal of any literature is to stimulate, inspire, educate and empower an audience by using writing techniques that employ a masterful and careful manipulation that will motivate the reader to challenge their conventional mode of thinking. This, in my opinion, was the entire goal of not only the Harlem Renaissance but also the goals of Langston Hughes and Countee Cullen.
Let us begin this conversation with the philosophies of the Harlem Renaissance. It was during the early 1900s, that the flourishing African-American middle class activated a new political agenda that encouraged racial equality. The epicenter of this movement was in New York, where three of the largest civil rights groups established their headquarters.
Black historian, sociologist, and Harvard scholar, W. E. B. Du Bois was at the forefront of the civil rights movement at this time.
“By 1905 Du Bois, in partnership with a group of prominent African-American political activists and civil rights workers, met in New York to discuss the challenges facing the black community and by 1909, the group founded the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), to promote civil rights…” (Biography.com)
W.E. B Du Bois felt like many other African American artist that through the abstract thinking required by the reader of literature that the reader grows as in individual and discovers something innovative about their existence in society and it is through tis that the African American artist could and would further their foothold in gaining equality. Additionally the Harlem Renaissance campaigners understood that it was the expression and exposure of the ideas, phrases and artwork would be vital to identifying not only a successful writer in an arena that appreciates social change but also creates that social change.
It is within this framework that African American artist worked, produced and published work that they believed would not only promote themselves as artist but also promote the race.
“Characterizing the Harlem Renaissance was an apparent racial pride that came to be exemplified in the idea of the New Negro, who through intellect and production of literature, art, and music could challenge the pervading racism and stereotypes to promote progressive politics, and racial and social integration. The creation of art and literature would serve to "uplift" the race” (Smith).
There was no single connecting form that surprisingly characterized the art that emerged out of the Harlem Renaissance. Rather, it encompassed a wide variety of cultural elements and styles which would include the traditional form and new experimental forms in literature such as modernism. This duality meant that numerous African-American artists came into conflict with conservatives in the black intelligentsia, who took issue with certain depictions of black life.
If the reinvention of the Negro meant an ability to assimilate while decidedly retaining something called a racial self-consciousness then Countee Cullen and Langston Hughes fit the bill perfectly and could be encapsulated in Hughes’ poem “Bound No’th Blues” that could be applied to the Harlem Renaissance itself.
“Bound No’th Blues”
Goin’ down the road, Lawd,
Goin’ down the road.
Down the road, Lawd,
Way, way down the road.
Got to find somebody
To help me carry this load.
Road’s in front o’ me,
Nothin’ to do but walk.
Road’s in front of me,
Walk…an’ walk…an’ walk.
I’d like to meet a good friend
To come along an’ talk.
Hates to be lonely,
Lawd, I hates to be sad.
Says I hates to be lonely,
Hates to be lonely an’ sad,
But ever friend you finds seems
Like they try to do you bad.
Road, road, road, O!
Road, road…road…road, road!
Road, road, road, O!
On the no’thern road.
These Mississippi towns ain’t
Fit fer a hoppin’ toad (Poem Hunter.com).
Countee Cullen was born on May 30, 1903 (Wikipedia). Countee was something of a mysterious figure as it has been problematic for scholars to place exactly where he was born, with whom he spent the very earliest years of his childhood and where he spent them. James Weldon Johnson would write of Cullen in The Book of American Negro Poetry “There is not much to say about these earlier years of Cullen—unless he himself should say it” (Modern American Poetry: About Countee Cullen's Life & Career). Cullen himself would reveal a disposition that was not exactly secretive but private, less a question of modesty than a tendency toward being encrypted and insightful and in the course of his lifetime never said anything more illuminating.
Cullen was a rather shy black man who more than any other black literary figure of his generation, was being touted and bred to become a major crossover literary figure as he was a black man, in a time and place where it was rare to have a considerable academic training who in all effect could “write white” verse-ballads, sonnets, quatrains much in the manner of his literary idol Keats and other British Romantics. With the publication of “The Ballad of the Brown Girl” Cullen would have encompassing themes that would remain noticeable for the remainder of his career.
“The Ballad of the Brown Girl”
‘I am as brown as brown can be,
My eyes as black as a sloe;
I am as brisk as a nightingale,
And as wilde as any doe.
‘My love has sent me a love-letter,
Not far from yonder town,
That he could not fancy me,
Because I was so brown.
‘I sent him his letter back again,
For his love I valu’d not,
Whether that he could fancy me
Or whether he could not” (Hare).
In time society would come to know that he had a complete understanding of himself as a poet; and it is in this vein that only two other Black American authors before Cullen could be taken so genuinely considered and proficient: Phillis Wheatley and Paul Laurence Dunbar. Cullen believed that traditional verse forms could not be bettered by more modern paradigms. He went further by believing that a writer had “to become conversant with and part of a received literary tradition simply because such a tradition has the virtue of longevity and universal sanction” (Daniel).
Cullen’s first collection of poetry, “Color”, was published in 1925 (Wikipedia) and brought him national fame. “Color” would receive universal critical acclaim and fellow Harlem Renaissance writer Alain Locke would say:
“A genius! Posterity will laugh at us if we do not proclaim him now. “Color” transcends all of the limiting qualifications that might be brought forward if it were merely a work of talent” (Modern American Poetry: About Countee Cullen's Life & Career).
The volume would contain only two pieces which could be considered racial, but the remaining pieces were love poems and other traditional subjects with the overarching theme, as the title implies, was race. It was the themes of racial subjects that captured the attention of critics; the result in this case was exactly what the Harlem Renaissance writers wanted. Cullen was “praised for portraying the experience of African Americans in the vocabulary and poetic forms of the classical tradition but with personal intimacy” (Modern American Poetry: About Countee Cullen's Life & Career). “Color” would establish Cullen as a writer with an acute spiritual vision with sublimity as one of many Cullen’s strong points as the reader would be “brusquely catapulted into the all-too-realistic world of … overt racism” (Daniel). “Color” has the principles of romanticism, whose characteristics are noticeably absent fro the blues-based folk rhythms of Langston Hughes simply because Cullen looked beyond his own rich heritage for authorial standards.
With the publication of “Copper Sun” in 1927 and his involvement in “Caroling Dusk” he was regarded as the leading literary figure of the Harlem Renaissance who according to Gerald Early was “… embod(ying) many of the hopes, aspirations, and maturing expressive possibilities of his people” (Modern American Poetry: About Countee Cullen's Life & Career). Cullen felt that:
“To make a black poet, and bid him sing was a curious thing that G-d had done curious, indeed, that the voice of the black poet had to be assimilated to be harmonized with the bearers of an alien literary tradition” (Daniel).
However difficulties, to an extreme, arose when Cullen stated that he wanted to be known nearly as poet and not “Negro poet”. This issue can be seen as departing the goals of the Harlem Renaissance as “Negro Artist” and working to not only better self but community in the process thus beginning the process of the “white society” in acceptance and equality. The trouble was compounded when Langston Hughes along with others interpreted Cullen’s statement to mean that he was wanting to deny his race; however if one were to do a close reading of his poetry they would find that was unfounded. Countee Cullen himself would respond to these allegations by simply saying:
“If I am going to be a poet at all, I am going to be POET and not NEGRO POET… what has hindered the development of artists amongst us. Their one note has been the concern with their race…none of us can get away from it. I cannot at times. You will see it in my verse. The consciousness of this is too poignant at times. I cannot escape it…. what I mean is this: I shall not write of Negro subjects for the purpose of propaganda. That is not what a poet is concerned with… when the emotion rising…that I am a Negro is strong, I express it”(Modern American Poetry: About Countee Cullen's Life & Career).
Cullen would met Nina Yolande Du Bois, the daughter of W. E. B. Du Bois, the leading black intellectual; and Cullen married Yolande Du Bois in April 1928, it was the social event of the decade, but the marriage did not fare well, and he divorced in 1930. It is rumored that Cullen was a homosexual, and his relationship with Harold Jackman, "the handsomest man in Harlem”, was a significant factor in the divorce. The young, dashing Jackman was a school teacher and, thanks to his noted beauty, a prominent figure among Harlem's gay elite. I bring this up because some scholars have noted that his homosexuality is central to his work, although most African American scholars try to ignore or suppress it (Norton).
Cullen’s attitude in regard to his homosexuality was mixed as his attitudes of his blackness: simultaneously confirmatory and disapproving, triumphant and troubled; however scholars and researchers have stated that Countee’s adoptive father, Rev. Fredrick Cullen, was “a puritanical Christian patriarch and Countee was never remotely that in is life” (Norton). While on the other hand, it has been implied, through research, that Rev. Fredrick Cullen was seen also something of an effeminate man; as he was dressed in girl’s clothing by his poverty stricken mother well beyond the acceptable boyhood age for such transvestism (Norton).
Cullen, hypothetically wrote his poems for his lovers and dedicated poems to his closest gay friends: Alain Locke, Harold Jackman, Carl Van Vechten and Leland Pettit. Cullen is reported to have been “closeted” but was well known in the gay underground (Norton) even though surely his “frankness” about his sexuality posed even greater problems and dangers if fully exposed. This closeted-ness worked to protect Cullen from further discrimination while also holding a firm grip on his creative imagination. However, with all of that said, it is rather difficult to decipher, the creative influence of gayness on Cullen’s literary imagination can be seen through coded references to homosexuality in much of his poetry.
Cullen would develop a multifarious poetry that would incorporate racial themes as well as his complex integration of male-male relationships that although veiled are significant. These poems would include: “Tableau”, “The Shroud of Color”, “Fruit if the Flower”, “For a Poet and “Spring Reminiscence” as well as “Uncle Jim”, “Colors” and “More than a Fool’s Song”.
“Fruit of the Flower”
My father is a quiet man
With sober, steady ways;
For simile, a folded fan;
His nights are like his days.
My mother's life is puritan,
No hint of cavalier,
A pool so calm you're sure it can
Have little depth to fear.
And yet my father's eyes can boast
How full his life has been;
There haunts them yet the languid ghost
Of some still sacred sin.
And though my mother chants of God,
And of the mystic river,
I've seen a bit of checkered sod
Set all her flesh aquiver.
Why should he deem it pure mischance
A son of his is fain
To do a naked tribal dance
Each time he hears the rain?
Why should she think it devil's art
That all my songs should be
Of love and lovers, broken heart,
And wild sweet agony?
Who plants a seed begets a bud,
Extract of that same root;
Why marvel at the hectic blood
That flushes this wild fruit? (Poem Hunter.com)
Langston Hughes was born James Mercer Langston Hughes on February 1, 1902 and by 1921 had published his first poem (Biography.com). Langston’s parents divorced shortly after he was born while his mother and he would settle in the Cleveland area where he would begin to write poetry He would say later in life that his influences for writing were Carl Sandburg and Walt Whitman who was introduced to in high school. It was during this time that he discovered his love of books. From this early period in his life, Hughes would cite as influences on his poetry the American poets Paul Laurence Dunbar and Carl Sandburg. Hughes spent a brief period of time with his father in Mexico in 1919. “The relationship between him and his father was troubled, causing Hughes a degree of dissatisfaction that led him to contemplate suicide at least once” (BronzeBuckaroo).
By 1924 he would live in Paris for a brief period of time continuing to write his poetry. Langston would say in regard to art that “An artist must be free to choose what he does, certainly, but he must also never be afraid to do what he must choose” ( Academy of American Poets). Unlike certain writers of the post-World War I era who became acknowledged as the “Lost Generation”, writers such as Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald, Hughes instead spent time in Paris during the early 1920s becoming part of the black expatriate community (BronzeBuckaroo).
Langston’s poem “The Weary Blues”, written in 1926 was published with the help and support of Carl Van Vechten and was among the very first to use jazz rhythms and dialect to represent the life of urban blacks (Biography.com).
“The Weary Blues”
Droning a drowsy syncopated tune,
Rocking back and forth to a mellow croon,
I heard a Negro play.
Down on Lenox Avenue the other night
By the pale dull pallor of an old gas light
He did a lazy sway. . . .
He did a lazy sway. . . .
To the tune o’ those Weary Blues.
With his ebony hands on each ivory key
He made that poor piano moan with melody.
Swaying to and fro on his rickety stool
He played that sad raggy tune like a musical fool.
Coming from a black man’s soul.
In a deep song voice with a melancholy tone
I heard that Negro sing, that old piano moan—
“Ain’t got nobody in all this world,
Ain’t got nobody but ma self.
I’s gwine to quit ma frownin’
And put ma troubles on the shelf.”
Thump, thump, thump, went his foot on the floor.
He played a few chords then he sang some more—
“I got the Weary Blues
And I can’t be satisfied.
Got the Weary Blues
And can’t be satisfied—
I ain’t happy no mo’
And I wish that I had died.”
And far into the night he crooned that tune.
The stars went out and so did the moon.
The singer stopped playing and went to bed
While the Weary Blues echoed through his head.
He slept like a rock or a man that’s dead (Harold Ober Associates Incorporated).
Langston’s subject matter was astonishingly wide-ranging and resonant, with is work about music, politics, America, love, the blues and dreams, about ordinary people leading ordinary lives and about a “world that few could rightly call beautiful, but was worth loving and changing” ( Academy of American Poets). Langston characteristically has be known for his use of image, repetition and his virtually mesmerizing tempo and rhyme to join political and social content to the structures of poetry. It would be this aesthetic that created a modernist feel with hints of religious devotion to the very power of repetition and the “musicality in the blues, that gave rise to Hughes’s voice” ( Academy of American Poets) which was uniquely his own. Hughes' life and work were enormously influential during the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s alongside those of his contemporaries, Zora Neale Hurston, Wallace Thurman, Claude McKay, Countee Cullen, Richard Bruce Nugent, and Aaron Douglas.
The primary conflict between the artists of the Harlem Renaissance was the representations of the "low-life", that is, the real lives of blacks in the lower social-economic layers and the apparent divisions and prejudices based on skin color within the black community. Hughes wrote what would be considered the manifesto for himself and his contemporaries published in 1926, The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain:
“The younger Negro artists who create now intend to express our individual dark- skinned selves without fear or shame. If white people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, it doesn't matter. We know we are beautiful. And ugly, too. The tom-tom cries and the tom-tom laughs. If colored people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, their displeasure doesn't matter either. We build our temples for tomorrow, strong as we know how, and we stand on top of the mountain free within ourselves” (BronzeBuckaroo).
Hughes was unapologetically black at a time when blackness was no longer fashionable, and, he didn’t go much beyond the themes of black is beautiful as he explored the black human condition in an assortment of depths. His foremost concern was the uplift of his people who he judged himself the acceptable appreciator of and whose potencies, resiliency, bravery, and wittiness he wanted to record as part of the general American experience. Thus, his poetry and fiction centered generally on insightful views of the working class lives of blacks in America, lives he portrayed as full of struggle, joy, laughter, and music. Permeating his work is pride in the African American identity and its diverse culture.
In visual media, Hughes has been the topic of two theatrical plays by African American playwrights whose subject matter involved in part or whole the fact that he was gay, “Hannibal of the Alps” by Michael Dinwiddie and “Paper Armor” by Eisa Davis (BronzeBuckaroo). In the 1989 film, “Looking for Langston” by British filmmaker Isaac Julien, Hughes is recovered as a black gay icon from where there is an unswerving effort to disregard or at least restrain his homosexuality because he is such a towering figure in African American literature; his iconic status among the African American community is believed to be based on his heterosexuality.
The question for the 21st century reader of Hughes’s work is how to read his poems without reducing his works to merely politics or denying the political density. Hughes himself saw the political and the poetic as undividable and went on record by saying:
It has been a distinguished fact that the formal devices, rhetoric, anaphora and rhyme as well as the innovative and captivating incorporation of the Blues come from a cultural tradition that had never had a voice in poetry. As we his readers we are pulled into his work because of its symbolic and ancestral reflections as well as the mere sounds that reverberate the musical quality of words that would drive him into the cultural fountain of African American music and can clearly be seen in “Po’ Boy Blues”.
“Po' Boy Blues”
When I was home de
Sunshine seemed like gold.
When I was home de
Sunshine seemed like gold.
Since I come up North de
Whole damn world's turned cold.
I was a good boy,
Never done no wrong.
Yes, I was a good boy,
Never done no wrong,
But this world is weary
An' de road is hard an' long.
I fell in love with
A gal I thought was kind.
Fell in love with
A gal I thought was kind.
She made me lose ma money
An' almost lose ma mind.
Weary early in de morn.
Early, early in de morn.
I's so weary
I wish I'd never been born ( Academy of American Poets).
One of the greatest ironies in the life of Langston Hughes, The People’s Poet, was his plausible silence regarding the oppression of gays. As a gay man, Hughes lived that secret life, much like Cullen, silently in the confines of a very constricted but well-constructed closet; one that still in many regards shelters him today.
One of Langston Hughes poem called "Tell Me," he talks his sorrow. For instances in "Tell Me" he wrote:
Good evening, daddy
I know you’ve heard
The boogie-woogie rumble
Of a dream deferred
"Boogie: 1 a.m."
Why should it be my loneliness,
Why should it be my song,
Why should it be my dream
overlong? ( Tangient LLC.)”
He was referring to the racism and discrimination that he and his fellow black people faced through. Then he talks about "dream deferred." So what does dream deferred mean? It means when your dreams are postpone or putt off. Most of Langston Hughes poems talk about the dream deferred and that is why it is often repeated. The poem is gestalt in which the phrase “Why should it be my” is used three times to highlight the personal anguish over loneliness and the sheer unattainability of dreams. The “it” of the poem can be seen as racism, poverty, homosexuality or a host of other causes that make the dream unachievable.
Some academics and biographers today recognize that Hughes was a homosexual and incorporated homosexual codes in many of his poems, similar in manner to Walt Whitman and most patently in the short story “Blessed Assurance” which deals with a father's anger over his son's effeminacy and queerness (BronzeBuckaroo).
With tunnel vision, Hughes framed Delmar's story within the structure of the black church, and many of us will recognize his special relationship with the choir director as they sneak off alone to the Village, when the choir visits New York. While the father obsesses over what he considers his son's obvious effeminacy, things come to a head when the director, a Dr. Manley Jaxon, writes and dedicates an original anthem to Delmar based on the story of Ruth in the Bible. Those of us with a queer eye for the bible know that some theologians now consider the story of Ruth and Naomi to be one of a few same-sex relationships remotely possible in the scriptures. Those of us with a working knowledge of black same-gender history will also recognize the peculiar spelling of the doctor's last name as that of Frankie Jaxon, a transgendered musician (Jarrell)”
Like Cullen, Hughes had close alliances with such gay men as Alain Locke, Noel Sullivan, Richard Bruce Nugent, Countee Cullen, Claude McKay and Wallace Thurman.
It is my hope that someday that both Langston Hughes and Countee Cullen’s literary legacy can be used as the cornerstone in which we can rebuild their reputation as the gay poet laureate and the inaugurator’s of the black gay male poetic tradition. As this kind of dialogue continues as the reading public is made aware that sexuality has great consequences for artist creativity, and the closet is deconstructed, surely Hughes and Cullen’s as well as others will take their place just not as race and folk poet, but as one whose multifaceted achievement includes battling oppression through their veiled “homosexual expressivity”. Then we will be able to understand that they were not silent about their gayness after all.
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