Tag Archives: Poetry

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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Countée Cullen’s ‘Uncle Jim’ – By Jack Perkin

“White folks is white,” says uncle Jim;
“A platitude,” I sneer;
And then I tell him so is milk,
And the froth upon his beer.
His heart walled up with bitterness,
He smokes his pungent pipe,
And nods at me as if to say,
“Young fool, you’ll soon be ripe!”
I have a friend who eats his heart
Always with grief of mine,
Who drinks my joy as tipplers drain
Deep goblets filled with wine.
I wonder why here at his side,
Face-in-the-grass with him,
My mind should stray the Grecian urn
To muse on uncle Jim.

 Uncle Jim by Countee Cullen (1922)

The title of Countée Cullen’s Uncle Jim (1922) concatenates “Uncle” – a signifier of older, African-American men (as in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852)), and “Jim”, recalling the African-American ‘Jim Crow’ stereotype of the nineteenth-century. The poem imagines a dialogue between this “Uncle Jim”, the elder figure, and a “[y]oung fool”: it is, in this respect, an illustration of the opposition defined by A. Phillip Randolph in The Messenger in 1919 as “the Old Crowd” and “the New Crowd”, or “the New Negro”[1].

This thesis does not rest entirely upon Uncle Jim’s age or the other, anonymous protagonist’s youth (despite Randolph’s claim that, “the New Crowd must be composed of young men”[2]). Rather, Uncle Jim asserts that “White folks is white”, which, if it means ‘superior’ (thus lending a weight of bathos to the other protagonist’s counter-arguments) strikes one as apathetic in the same way as, “the meek will inherit the earth” (Matthew 5:5) and “you may take all this world but give me Jesus” which, according to Randolph, “the old crowd still preaches”[3]. This apathy justifies Cullen in his evocation of the pacific Uncle Tom of Stowe’s novel, who is an apologist for his oppressor: “O Mas’r! don’t bring this great sin on your soul! […] Do the worst you can, my troubles ‘ll be over soon.”[4] The recurring theme is Christianity; Black submissiveness was associated with the ‘virtues’ of Jesus, and Christianity had an active ideological function in the disenfranchisement of African-Americans. After the First World War, many Black intellectuals, particularly on the left, attained a consciousness of this. For example, in ‘Socialism The Negroes’ Hope’ in 1919, W.A. Domingo writes, symptomatically sardonic, “[Socialism] intends to do for human beings what Christianity promises to do for them in less material regions”[5].


To “White folks is white”, the “[y]oung fool” replies “A PLATITUDE”. ‘Intellectual’ diction such as this is incongruous with Jim’s misuse of “is”, and demonstrates that he is “educated”. But the “young fool” is not also a “radical”[6]. Indeed, he is a-political, and not through any want of being “ripe” as Jim supposes. “I wonder why…”, the protagonist asks:

“My mind should stray the Grecian urn/ To muse on Uncle”

The disenfranchisement of African-Americans is ubiquitous; it is a persistent distraction from “the Grecian urn”. This is, of course, a reference to John Keats’ Ode on a Grecian Urn (1819). For Countée Cullen, Keats is a means to transcend politics, just as in his To John Keats, Poet, at Springtime (1925), Keats transcends death itself:

““John Keats is dead”, they say, but I / […] Know John Keats still writes poetry.”[7]

The implication – in this poem as in Uncle Jim – is that art is extraneous to politics. In fact, it is suggested that art is the more permanent: the attic echo of “muse” lingers over the thought of Uncle Jim, and his essentially political, ‘Uncle Tom’ attitude. The suspicion of race and its corollary, politics, as artistic subjects developed after 1927, writes Darwin T. Turner, when “Cullen argued with increasing vehemence that Negro poets should not be compelled to write about their race”[8]. So nascent in Uncle Jim is what Alain Locke called in 1928, “the one fundamental question for us today – Art or Propaganda. Which?”[9]

In his ‘Criteria of Negro Art’ in The Crisis in 1926, W.E.B. Du Bois answered this “fundamental question” with ‘Propaganda’[10]. But a major difficulty in Du Bois’ argument – aside from a prose-style described by George S. Schuyler as “limpid”[11] – is that it confuses the existence of art itself with its subject-matter. It may be so that “whatever art I [that is, Du Bois] have for writing has always been used for propaganda”[12], but as the founder of the N.A.A.C.P., Du Bois’ writing and the Association’s political ideology will have converged more out of co-incidence than necessity. It is more difficult to see how, say, Cullen’s To John Keats, Poet, at Springtime is ‘propaganda’. However, Du Bois is more convincing in his opinion that, “until the art of the black folks compels recognition, they will not be rated as human”[13]. The very existence of African-American art is, Du Bois says, political. Although Cullen’s Uncle Jim is political in that it is a comment on the ubiquity of the ‘race problem’ in the consciousness of a Black poet during the Harlem Renaissance, it is also ‘Propaganda’ by virtue of its existence.

To extend this, it might be said that the influences upon which African-American art of the Harlem Renaissance chose to draw – and therefore how it saw itself within a wider tradition – is propagandistic. In Uncle Jim, Cullen is the inheritor, via John Keats, of the Greco-Roman tradition. When “face-in-the-grass” with “a friend” (who may or may not be Uncle Jim), Cullen is drawing on Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass (especially Section 6[14]). The irony of a socially disadvantaged African-American poet recalling the author of Democratic Vistas[15] is effective. Langston Hughes does much the same thing in his I, Too (1925)[16], albeit more explicitly than Cullen. It must not be forgotten, of course, that to draw on poets such these entails a simultaneous rejection of Modernism (Uncle Jim was published in 1922, the same year as Joyce’s Ulysses and T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land). There is nothing definitively ‘Modernist’[17] about Uncle Jim’s aesthetics (aside from the capitalised “PLATITUDE”), and I would suggest that Cullen and other Black poets of the Harlem Renaissance, including McKay, felt alienated from Modernism because of its interest in Primitivism. By way of example, of Josephine Baker at the Folie Bergère in 1926, E.E. Cummings wrote for Vanity Fair “And still we find ourselves remembering the jungle”[18]. This is symptomatic: Baker fulfils Cummings’s pre-conceived idea (it must be pre-conceived in order to be “remembered”), and is not an active generator of her art.

In terms of its pre-occupations, Uncle Jim (1922) is of a complexity that belies its simplicity. It is less influential today, of course, than in 1922 if only because it is less readily-available. Whereas in 1926 W.E.B. Du Bois talked specifically of “the recognition accorded Cullen”[19], he is today conspicuously under-represented in both criticism and anthologies of African-American literature. The achievement of Uncle Jim is to express disillusionment with the “all art is propaganda”[20] dogma (which, in Du Bois’ formulation, it anticipates) in ways that are themselves subtly propagandistic, and subversion of this kind surely ought to be less short-lived than Cullen’s popularity.


[1] A. Phillip Randolph, ‘A New Crowd – A New Negro’ in Voices from the Harlem Renaissance ed. by Nathan Irvin Huggins (New York: Oxford University Press, 1976), pp. 18-20, p. 18.
[2] Ibid., p. 20.
[3] Ibid., p. 19.
[4] Harriet Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom’s Cabin (London: Everyman’s Library, 1995), p. 456.
[5] W. A. Domingo, ‘Socialism The Negroes’ Hope’ in The Messenger Reader: Stories, Poems, and Essays from The Messenger Magazine ed. by Sondra Kathryn Wilson (New York: The Modern Library, 2000), pp. 332-4, p. 332.
[6] Randolph, ‘A New Crowd – A New Negro’, p. 20.
[7] Countée Cullen, ‘To John Keats, Poet, at Springtime’ in The Norton Anthology of African American Literature ed. by Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Nellie Y. McKay (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1997), pp. 1314-15, p. 1315.
[8] Darwin T. Turner, In a Minor Chord: Three Afro-American Writers and Their Search for Identity (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1971), p. 70.
[9] Alain Locke, ‘Art or Propaganda?’, National Humanities Centre Resource Toolbox (2007) <http://nationalhumanitiescenter.org/pds/maai3/protest/text10/lockeartorpropaganda.pdf&gt; [accessed 04 March 2014], (para. 1 of 5).
[10] W.E.B. Du Bois, ‘Criteria of Negro Art’, W.E.B. Du Bois.org (2008) <http://www.webdubois.org/dbCriteriaNArt.html&gt; [accessed 04 March 2014], (para. 29 of 38).
[11] George S. Schuyler, Black No More (Mineola, N.Y.: Dover, 2011), p. 54. Schuyler actually describes the prose of “Dr. Shakespeare Agamemnon Beard”, a thinly-disguised parody of W.E.B. Du Bois.
[12] W.E.B. Du Bois, ‘Criteria of Negro Art’, (para. 29 of 38).
[13] Ibid., (para. 37 of 38).
[14] Walt Whitman, ‘Song of Myself’ in Leaves of Grass and Selected Prose ed. by Christopher Bigsby (London: J.M. Dent, 1993), pp. 27-80, pp. 31-32.
[15] Ibid., pp. 496-550.
[16] Langston Hughes, ‘I, Too’ in The Norton Anthology of African American Literature ed. by Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Nellie Y. McKay (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1997), p. 1258.
[17] That is to say – although an imperfect definition of ‘Modernism’ – ‘self-consciously experimental’.
[18] E.E. Cummings, ‘Vive La Folie!’ in Miscellany ed. by George J. Firmage (London: Peter Owen, 1966), pp. 159-63, p. 62.
[19] W.E.B. Du Bois, ‘Criteria of Negro Art’, (para. 18 of 38).
[20] Ibid., (para. 29 of 38).

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