Langston Hughes’s ‘Cross’ – By Sharon Abraham


Langston Hughes was one of the leading figures of the Harlem Renaissance movement and was considered “the most prolific and the most successful[1]”. Hughes was known primarily for his poetry as his poetry “truly evoked the sprit of Black America[2]”. This notion of “Black America” is an idea that is explored problematically in Hughes’ poem Cross. The poem Cross explicitly explores the frustrating issue of being both black and white in 1920s America. The speaker throughout the poem incessantly projects his confusion and displacement, as the speaker feels he does not belong to either of the two races. The theme of a mixed race identity, which Cross explores, is central to understanding the Harlem Renaissance movement as not only was the Harlem Renaissance about creating a “new black identity”, but also wanted to promote the idea that race and identity is something that is not fixed and definitive.

Hughes explores and questions what it means to be a black person in the US during the 1920s. One of the man devices that he uses in his poem Cross is the prevalent theme of the ‘tragic mulatto’. The term ‘tragic mulatto’ “denotes a light-colored, mixed –blood character (possessing in most cases a white father and a coloured mother) who suffers because of difficulties arising from his bi-racial background.[3]” Hughes himself was of mixed race desent, his great grandmother was African- American and his great grandfathers were white slave-owners in Kentucky’[4]. The fact that for some mixed-race people they were the result of their white ancestors raping black slaves cannot be overlooked and adds to the confusion of heritage. Despite the abolition of slavery over a hundred years earlier, Hughes’ poem Cross bears historical significance as in 1920s America the cultural and racial segregation of African Americans and Caucasians were very defined and apparent. However, Hughes has to face the difficulty and confusion of belonging to two races. The title Cross embodies Hughes’ confusion as the title suggests to the reader that he is a ‘cross-breed’ and is in fact at a crossroads as he does not how to categorize himself. What is more, I believe that Hughes is making a broader point that goes beyond his personal experience and feelings. He points out the constructed nature of race and shows that race is something that cannot be defined and it is more complicated than being just ‘black’ or ‘white’.

The fact that Hughes addresses this issue of the ‘tragic mulatto’ gives us an indication of how mixed race people were perhaps feeling during this time. I sympathize heavily with the speaker’s confusion and anger. I think the use of the ‘tragic mulatto’ theme in this poem works as strong critique of racism. At the beginning, the tone of the poem is anger. The first line: “My old man’s a white old man”, is expressed in an angry tone. The speaker prefers ‘My old man’s’ instead of ‘My father’, which shows anger. However, the speaker apologizes for the curses he made earlier ‘I’m sorry for that evil wish’, exemplifying a change in tone from anger to confusion. Hughes highlights the reductive, confusing and limiting nature of racial labeling. Being a ‘mulatto’ meant that you failed to fit in neatly within the categories of being ‘white’ or ‘black’.

It is undeniable that the theme of the ‘tragic mulatto’ was relevant during this time, as it is the cornerstone of Nella Larsen’s novel Quicksand. Larsen, another figure in the Harlem Renaissance, uses the poem Cross as her epigraph to the beginning of her novel Quicksand. The fact that she uses this poem demonstrates that this is an issue that is also close to her. Larsen also battles with the confusion within herself over defining her race, which she depicts through her central protagonist Helga Crane. Both Hughes and Larsen depict the struggle of being defined through race, whilst providing the reader with an insight into their feelings.

Hughes’ poem Cross displays “the racialization of [a] class[5]” divide between black and white people in America. In the poem he states ‘My old man died in a fine big house. My ma died in a shack’. The poem associates dying in a ‘shack’ with being ‘black’ and dying in a ‘fine big house’ with being white. Hughes’ prominent use of the adjectives ‘fine’ and ‘big’ before the word house, exemplifies this idea to the reader that white people are associated with wealth. In addition, the fact that Larsen chose Cross as an epigraph for Quicksand demonstrates that she shares this same notion with Hughes. Throughout the novel, Helga Crane appears to be very ambitious and we see Helga’s ardent desire for material goods. ‘Ever since childhood she had wanted not money but the things which money could give, leisure, attention, beautiful surroundings. Things. Things. Things[6]’. It is undeniable that Helga’s desires are bourgeois, however as Anthony Dawahare argues: “Helga realizes as a Mulatta she is ‘hung on this Cross as she is too optically black to pass for white and therefore cannot escape the black/shack or black/ worker equations[7]‘. Both Hughes and Larsen exemplify this “internalized economic category[8]” that wealth can only be associated with white people and poverty is associated with black people.


The last stanza in Cross not only points out Hughes feeling of alienation and rejection from both races but also brings to the attention of the reader the poverty of black people in comparison to the wealth of the white people during this time. He fails to decipher how to categorize himself in terms of identity and socio-economic standing as he realizes he is a product of both races. Only knowing if he is to live life as a black man or as a white man will he know where he is to die. However, the speaker’s failure to make a decision is borne out through the use rhetorical question in the last line of the poem, this question leaves the reader both curious and unsettled. Neither the reader nor Hughes can answer his question, which makes this poem even more distressing.

Overall, Hughes’ poem Cross demonstrates the flaw in the labeling of race. He projects the idea that race cannot be definitive. His use of the ‘tragic mulatto’ theme in the poem shows why race is problematic as he belongs to two different races. In addition, the ‘tragic mulatto’ theme proved to be relevant during the time as Larsen also explores this in Quicksand. Both Hughes and Larsen show their struggles with racial identity but ultimately they show class is shaped by race. They both clearly associate affluence with white people and poverty with black people, whilst exploring the notion of place and belonging.


[1] Gates Louis, Henry, K.A. Appiah Langston Hughes (New York: Amistad Press 1993 page 120)

[2] Ibid.,p. 120

[3] Edited by Werrner Sollors , Henry B, Cabot M. Anne Interracialism : Black – White Intermarriage in American History, Literature and Law ( United States: Oxford University Press 2000 page 317)

[4] Gates Louis, Henry, K.A. Appiah Langston Hughes (New York: Amistad Press 1993 page 120

[5] Anthony Dawahare, The Gold Standard of Racial Identity in Nella Larsen’s ‘Quicksand’ and ‘Passing’’, Twentieth Century Literature 52, no.1 (spring 2006) page 29

[6] Larsen, Nella Quicksand (New York: Dover Publications 2006page 63)

[7] Ibid.,p.29

[8] Ibid.,p.29

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