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Suitcase in Harlem

The two suffered the humiliations inflicted by their “better class” relations. For “relief,” Hughes sought out the blacks who didn’t care about his family tree or his light skin, and weren’t ashamed of barbecue or the blues. Although he worked briefly as an assistant to the black historian Carter Woodson, he preferred the less rigorous position of busboy at a hotel, where once he slipped some of his poems on Vachel Lindsay’s plate. And, as always, he kept in touch with the world according to Lenox Avenue. The pattern of his life, like his themes, was set: no matter how far he traveled he kept a suitcase in Harlem.


What Carl Sandburg had done for Chicago’s hog butchers and tool makers, Hughes would try to do for Harlem’s elevator boys, ladies’ maids, and crap shooters. His first book, The Weary Blues (1926), with its nude dancers, tomtoms, swaying hips, wine maidens of the “jazz-tuned night,” “sleek black boys in a cabaret,” and “dark brown girls in blond men’s arms,” belongs entirely to the Harlem Renaissance. The Negro was in vogue, but even then Hughes’s repetitive, automatic images were considered loaded. “The rhythm of life / Is a jazz rhythm, / Honey. / The gods are laughing at us.” The question “Does a jazz band ever sob?” and the cries of “strut and wiggle” and “Jazz-band, jazz-band / Play, pLAY, PLAY!” extend by means of their racial context Sandburg’s “Jazz Fantasia” (“sob on the cool winding saxophones. / Go to it, O jazzmen”) to encompass Harlem’s “salt tears,” its dread of the gray dawn, the social reality lurking outside the cabaret.

Fierce identification with the sorrows and pleasures of the poor black—“I myself belong to that class”—propelled Hughes toward the voice of the black Everyman. He made a distinction between his lyric and his social poetry, the private and the public. In the best of his social poetry he turned himself into a transmitter of messages and made the “I” a collective “I”:

I’ve known rivers: I’ve known rivers ancient as the world and older than the flow of human blood in human veins.

My soul has grown deep like the rivers.

I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young. I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep. I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it. I heard the singing of the Missis sippi when Abe Lincoln went down to New Orleans, and I’ve seen its muddy bosom turn all golden in the sunset.
(“The Negro Speaks of Rivers”)

The medium conveys a singleness of intention: to make the black known. The straightforward, declarative style doesn’t call attention to itself. Nothing distracts from forceful statement, as if the shadowy characters Sandburg wrote about in, say, “When Mammy Hums” had at last their chance to come forward and testify. Poems like “Aunt Sue’s Stories” reflect the folk ideal of black women as repositories of racial lore. The story told in dramatic monologues like “The Negro Mother” or “Mother to Son” is one of survival—life “ain’t been no crystal stair.” The emphasis is on the capacity of black people to endure, which is why Hughes’s social poetry, though not strictly protest writing, indicts white America, even taunts it with the steady belief that blacks will overcome simply by “keeping on”:

I, too, sing America.

I am the darker brother.
They send me to the kitchen
When company comes,
But I laugh,
And eat well,
And grow strong.

Whites were not the only ones who could be made uneasy by Hughes’s attempts to boldly connect past and future. The use of “black” and the invocation of Africa were defiant gestures back in the days when many blacks described themselves as brown. When Hughes answered Sandburg’s “Nigger” (“I am the nigger, / Singer of Songs…”) with “I am the Negro, / Black as the night is black, / Black like the depths of my Africa” (“Proem”) he challenged the black middle class with his absorption in slave heritage. Other poems exude the “joy unconfined” of folkways many blacks denied. Similarly, to call the South “honey-lipped, syphilitic” or to say “My old man’s a white old man” was for many to talk too frankly about miscegenation. The question is whether Hughes fulfilled what he saw as the black writer’s purpose: to navigate between the dangers of stereotype and a surface, idealized view of blacks.

Most of the poetry in The Weary Blues, which launched Hughes’s career, written under the spell of the sea, Harlem, Paris, and his own sense of isolation while traveling, falls into his “lyric” category and shows limitations that are sometimes obscured by the rightness of his message. When he departed from large racial subjects and the authority of innocent faith, he seemed to be pretending to have poetic responses to love, wind, or the March moon, as if he couldn’t truly disclose in his poetry any sensations not concerned with race. Moreover, before he found a suitable idiom what he wrote about everyday black life sounded forced (“I work all day / Said Simple John / Myself a house to buy”) or worse (“Ah, / My black one. / Thou art not beautiful”). Almost immediately Hughes discovered that the blues idiom was the language of the black whom he wanted to reveal:

In a deep song voice with a melan choly tone
I heard that Negro sing, that old piano moan—“Ain’t got nobody in 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—
(“The Weary Blues”)

Black music came north when Hughes was growing up. He was enraptured with the low-down sounds of Independence Avenue in Kansas City, State Street in Chicago, Harlem’s rent parties. Fine Clothes to the Jew—published in 1927, the year Hughes resumed his education at Lincoln University, a college in Pennsylvania for black men—used the blues form much as James Weldon Johnson looked to spirituals for his poems in God’s Trombones (1927). In fact, Fine Clothes to the Jew includes “shouts” about Judgment Day and black women crooning in the amen corner, the prayer meeting being to Hughes like the fellowship of the pool room, which is why he was perplexed when a preacher once asked him not to read any more blues poems in his pulpit.

Black an’ugly
But he sho do treat me kind.
I’m black an’ ugly
But he sho do treat me kind.
High-in-heaben Jesus,
Please don’t take this man o’mine.
(“Lament Over Love”)

Hughes kept the rhythm and simple diction of the blues, though he modified the blues pattern of one long line repeated followed by a third line to rhyme with the first two. Even the poems in Fine Clothes not strictly in the blues pattern share the blues mood—“Put on yo’ red silk stockings, / Black gal. / Go out an’ let de white boys / Look at yo’ legs.” Hughes defined the mood as one of despondency, “but when [the blues] are sung people laugh.”

The blues expressed for Hughes black culture’s heritage of warmth, stoicism, and incongruous humor, the “ironic laughter mixed with tears,” the “pain swallowed in a smile.” Respectable blacks disdained the blues as vulgar. Hughes cherished its down-home quality, but his contributions to the blues vocabulary are scrupulous more than anything else. Maybe he was too intent on the nobility of the form to get as low as the real thing gets. “Daddy, eagle-rock with me” is chaste compared to Bessie Smith’s “Empty Bed Blues”: “He boiled my first cabbage, and he made it awful hot. / Then he put in the bacon and it overflowed the pot.” Then, too, the poems can be only approximations of the light-in-the-fish-joint atmosphere: reading a blues poem aloud is not the same as hearing the music.

The stories in the blues mattered more to Hughes than the untranslatable language. Ralph Ellison has defined the blues as “an autobiographical chronicle of personal catastrophe expressed lyrically,” but Hughes’s blues are less personal than social because he speaks through, for or about blacks in general (“When hard luck overtakes you / Nothin’ for you to do. / Gather up yo’ fine clothes / An sell ‘em to de Jew”). None of his left-lonesome, broke-and-hungry, desperate-going-to-the-river, and jobs-are-hard-to-get blues is personal or intimate. Women who swear not to let another “yellow papa” get their last dime, poor boys looking for box cars to take them back South, men who carry their meanness and “licker” everywhere, blue-gummed women with low-down ways, folks who just want to leave their troubles outside in the snow—Hughes’s blues poems are slices of life framed by a great deal of emotional rhetoric. He was drawn to that aspect of the blues that functioned as affirmative speech, as ritual to ease misery. However, to the poet and scholar Sterling Brown:

It is a popular misconception that the Blues are merely songs that ease a woman’s longing for her rambling man. Of course, this pattern has been set, especially by certain priestesses of the Blues cult. Nevertheless, the Blues furnish examples of other concerns. As the lost-lover line may be dragged into a levee moan, so may an excellent bit of farm advice be found in a song about a long-lost mama. Blues will be found ranging from flood songs to graphic descriptions of pneumonia.3

Perhaps Hughes’s generalized concept of the blues is why his work in the idiom lacks the wit and invention of Sterling Brown’s ballads in Southern Road (1932), not to mention the assured handling of dialect. Claims to Hughes’s originality as a poet rest on his blues poems, but as Henry Louis Gates, Jr., has pointed out,4 Hughes seemed content to imitate, whereas Brown explored and elaborated upon the blues tradition.

The themes of Hughes’s poetry and the formulas he employed underwent few changes until Harlem heated up in the Fifties and be-bop became the reigning cool. There are not many surprises in the blues poems of Shakespeare in Harlem (1942) and One-Way Ticket (1949), in the lyrics of Dear, Lovely Death (1931) or Fields of Wonder (1947), and in the great number of poems about the black condition, about lynching or the rent due, that unsuccessfully mix the avenue with “The Man with the Hoe.” Ever literal, the serious truth in Hughes’s poetry is given the plainest wrapper of general statement, as if the black point of view could not afford flight above fact without distorting reality. His poems about black life are really poems about coping with Jim Crow. The poet’s concentration is in his choice of who tells the black side of the segregation story, in his recognition that such voices also belong to the subject of poetry. But once Hughes introduces the speaker he steps back and leaves the story, not the speaker, to hold the stage.

  1. 3

    The Negro Caravan, 1948.

  2. 4

    Figures in Black: Words, Signs, and the “Racial” Self (Oxford University Press, 1987).

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