Jean Wagner

Jean Wagner: On "The Negro Speaks of Rivers"

Hughes's first poem, published in The Crisis in June, 1921, attracted the attention it did precisely because its author revealed the acute sensitivity to the racial past that Garvey, with his racial romanticism, was then trying to instill in the minds of all. "The Negro Speaks of Rivers" heralded the existence of a mystic union of Negroes in every country and every age. It pushed their history back to the creation of the world, and credited them with possessing a wisdom no less profound than that of the greatest rivers of civilization that humanity had ever known, from the Euphrates to the Nile and from the Congo to the Mississippi. . . .

Yet unlike Countee Cullen, and perhaps because he was the only poet of the Negro Renaissance who had a direct, rather disappointing contact with Africa, Hughes rarely indulges in a gratuitous idealization of the land of his ancestors. If, in spite of everything, the exaltation of African atavism has a significant place in his poetry up to 1931, the reason is merely that he had not yet discovered a less romantic manner that would express his discomfort at not being treated in his own country as a citizen on a par with any other. If he celebrates Africa as his mother, it is not only because all the black peoples originated there but also because America, which should be his real mother, had always behaved toward him in stepmotherly fashion.

From Black Poets of the United States. Copyright © 1973 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois.

Jean Wagner: On "The Cat and the Saxophone"

Interesting, too, is the experimental technique of "The Cat and the Saxophone." Like an orchestra score, the poem consists of two parts, bass and tenor, which the typography enables one to distinguish immediately, and which proceed together. The lines printed in capital letters are, furthermore, the text of a popular song; they constitute the sonorous setting of a cabaret within which there takes place the conversation of two lovers. which is printed in the normal way. On the value of this experiment, Cullen wrote: "This creation is a tour de force of its kind, but is it a poem?"

From Black Poets of the United States From Paul Laurence Dunbar to Langston Hughes. Copyright © 1973 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois.

Jean Wagner: On "The Haunted Oak"

Even less overt is the one poem that attacks lynching, "The Haunted Oak," in which the poet allows the oak to speak. The content is a story told to Dunbar by an old Negro of Howard Town whose nephew had been falsely accused of rape:

They'd charged him with the old, old crime.

The bloodthirsty Alabama mob had dragged him out of prison and hanged him from the branch of an oak tree. The branch had withered instantly, while the others continued to flourish. Dunbar's poem is well contrived, and, though the forcefulness of the protest is somewhat mitigated by the legendary trappings, the poet in any event succeeded in imbuing the story with the mysterious atmosphere that envelops the punitive raids of the Ku Klux Klan. And he actually named, as the guilty parties, the local judge, doctor, and pastor:

Oh, the judge, he wore a mask of black,

And the doctor one of white,

And the minister, with his oldest son,

Was curiously bedight.

At the time, this required a certain courage.

From Black Poets of the United States, from Paul Laurence Dunbar to Langston Hughes. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1973. Copyright © 1973 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois.

Jean Wagner: On "Sympathy"

"Sympathy" is a heartfelt cry of a poet who finds himself imprisoned amid traditions and prejudices he feels powerless to destroy . . . .

From Black Poets of the United States, from Paul Laurence Dunbar to Langston Hughes. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1973. Copyright © 1973 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois.

Jean Wagner: On "Sharecroppers"

Like the democratic ideal, the notion of trade-union solidarity seems unable to bring about, in the foreseeable future, a bond of brotherhood between the races. Either of these goals comes to resemble a trap that has been prepared to ensnare the black. It can lead to death; it does not enable him to live. Witness to this fact is the black hero of "Sharecroppers," shot down by his boss for refusing to reveal the names of the comrades, black and white, whom he had seen at the union meeting. As he gives up his life for his trade-union ideal, he does indeed declare his faith in interracial brotherhood -- but this, it is quite clear, will not be achieved tomorrow.

From Black Poets of the United States: From Paul Laurence Dunbar to Langston Hughes. Copyright © 1973 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois.

Jean Wagner: On :Old Lem"

In Brown’s poetry, the struggle of black against white appears not merely as an unequal battle -- this in full conformity with reality -- but as a conspiracy carefully plotted long before and the execution of which proceeds with all the inexorable precision of a piece of clockwork. This theme is worked out in particularly striking fashion in a poem like "Old Lem," which in its vigor has elements both of Carl Sandburg's somewhat brutal robustness and of the forceful realism of the protest songs of slavery days. In a struggle that finds all the weapons in the hands of one side, neither courage nor even heroism are any use. The result is always foreordained, and the most fanatical resistance will be pulverized in the end. Whether the innocent Negro succumbs to the collective hysteria of a lynch mob set on him ("He Was a Man") or to the mindless panic of a rookie cop ("Southern Cop"), his murderers will always find official justice on their side.

In a certain sense, Brown’s anti-racist poetry may be said to have eased to protest; it has gone far beyond. Protest takes place not only against, but also on behalf of, something. If Brown's forerunners could protest against the injustice that was victimizing their race, that was because they had faith in the democratic ideal the American nation so eagerly flaunted, and they invoked this ideal in demanding justice. Brown, on the other hand, has already lost all illusions concerning the practical efficacy of the "American dream." 

From Black Poets of the United States: From Paul Laurence Dunbar to Langston Hughes. Copyright © 1973 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois.

Jean Wagner: On "Rent Day Blues"

When a couple no longer has enough money to pay the rent, the Lord in his mercy providentially makes available a handful of dollars; but the hint is clear that the daughter in the poem had obtained the money by prostituting herself, so that the devil is partly to be thanked that faith in Providence met with some measure of response.

The arraignment of faith as lacking material efficacy has always been a major theme in Negro poetry, but to it Brown adds his own greater bitterness and more chilling cynicism.

From Black Poets of the United States: From Paul Laurence Dunbar to Langston Hughes. Copyright © 1973 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois.

Jean Wagner: On The Slim Greer Sequence

Among all his humorous poems, in which he exercises his comic vein at the expense of whites no less than of blacks, the most remarkable are assuredly those which relate the adventures of Slim Greer. By uniting this new hero of the tall tale, Brown provided Paul Bunyan and John Henry with a younger brother fully worthy of them. For Slim shows extraordinary skill in extracting himself from the most unbelievable situations. He brings to naught the vigilance of the most vigilant, and at the same time exposes the oddities of the people he brushes up against.

Thus he succeeds, in Arkansas, in passing as a white man, though his skin color is "no lighter than a dark midnight." The white woman he set up house with thinks he is a Spaniard or a Frenchman. He is found out at last, not because of his color, but through his way of playing the blues:

An' he started a-tinklin'

Some mo’nful blues,

An' a-pattin' the time

With No. Fourteen shoes.

 

The cracker listened

An' then he spat

An' said, "No white man

Could play like that. . ."

But he is more agile than the whites and makes his getaway, of course without suffering the least hurt.

"Slim Lands a Job" mocks the demands that southern white employers make of their black employees. Slim is going to be hired as a waiter in a restaurant whose owner is complaining about the slowness of the Negro he already employs, when the latter bursts into the room:

A noise rung out

In rush a man

Wid a tray on his head

An' one in each han'

 

Wid de silver in his mouf

An' de soup plates in his vest

Pullin' a red wagon

Wid all de rest . . .

 

De man's said, "Dere's

Dat slow coon now

Dat wuthless lazy waiter!"

An' Slim says, "How?"

 

An' Slim threw his gears in

Put it in high,

An' kissed his hand to Arkansaw,

Sweetheart ... good-bye!

We meet Slim again in Atlanta, where the whites have passed laws "for to keep all de niggers from laughin' outdoors":

Hope to Gawd I may die

If I ain't speakin’ truth

Make de niggers do deir laughin’

In a telefoam booth.

When told about this rule on his arrival in Atlanta, he feels he is going to explode with laughter. He barely has time to skip past the queue waiting outside the phone booth and to dash inside--after dragging out the Negro who was there already. He laughs for hours on end, and the Negroes waiting in the lengthening queue groan in anguish as they wait their turn. In the end, Slim has to be taken away in an ambulance at the state's expense, so that things may return to normal in Atlanta.

Upon arriving in Paradise, Slim is entrusted by Saint Peter with the job of inspecting Hell. In the description of his departure, and then of his visit to the various regions, Brown proves a master humorist. His gallery of portraits is reminiscent of a large fresco of Dubout’s, in which each detail is a miracle of audacious suggestivity. Representatives of every vice pass before our eyes: gamblers, debauchees, the shameless, hypocritical preacher, the sellers of moonshine. By degrees, these tableaux begin to seem vaguely familiar, and Slim himself cannot refrain from commenting:

. . ."Dis makes

Me think of home –

Vicksburg, Little Rock, Jackson,

Waco, and Rome"

Immediately the devil laughs loudly and "turned into a cracker, wid a sheriff's star!" Slim barely has time to escape and make his way back to Saint Peter, to whom he shamefacedly confesses that he has no report to make, since he had mixed up the South and Hell:

Then Peter say, "You must

Be crazy, I vow,

Where'n hell dja think Hell was

Anyhow?

 

"Git on back to de yearth,

Cause I got de fear,

You'se a leetle too dumb,

Fo' to stay up here ... "

But whites are not the only victims of the poet’s mockery, and Brown's humor, where his own race is concerned, sometimes is so bitter that it borders on cynicism. This is true, for instance, of "Slim Hears the Call," which satirizes the black preachers who grow rich at the people’s expense, and also of "Crispus Attucks McKoy," a mock-heroic poem which criticizes the excessive susceptibility and the misplaced patriotism of certain Negroes.

From Black Poets of the United States: From Paul Laurence Dunbar to Langston Hughes. Copyright © 1973 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois.