Jim Beatty

Jim Beatty: On "The Bitter River"

Langston Hughes’s "The Bitter River" is a complex analysis of how racial and class oppression operate in an articulated fashion, which suggests that the "two" facets of identity cannot be as easily separated as current critical treatments of them too often do. The poem offers not only an astute account of dominant oppression in the US, it teaches lessons that contemporary critical theory would do well to heed.

First, there seems to be a subtle, dual thrust to the recurrent reference to the speaker’s "dream." Hughes goes beyond the dream of equal treatment and civil rights ominously referred to in "Harlem" (i.e. the explosive nature of "a dream deferred") to give the "dream" specific, divergent content in "The Bitter River." The first mention of the "dream", strangled by the lyncher’s noose in line 16, is followed by a description of it as education and vocational training. This seems to be the dream of accommodation and "separate but equal" famously endorsed by Booker T. Washington among others. Hughes undercuts to validity of this dream by placing the same ideals in the white platitudes offered in lines 38-47. In line with Du Bois’ critique of Washington, then, Hughes dismisses this dream as a fantasy. Yet he intensifies his obliteration of the "dream" of vocational training as a means to better fit in the place relegated to African Americans in a racist system by showing that even a phantasmatic dream of racial progress is violently denied.

In the next reference to the speaker’s dream in line 61, however, the context signals a shift in content. This "dream" is not even serious enough for the racists to kill–they merely mock it. This "dream" is mentioned right after the speaker affirms that the lynched Charlie Lang and Ernest Green are his "comrades," and the horrific insult of their murder is heaped upon the exploitation of the speaker’s "labor." This "dream," then, at least evokes a communist struggle for class solidarity in the capitalist-racist system. Rather than Washington’s "dream" of the proper training for menial/wage-slave jobs fully endorsed yet murdered by the racist dominant class, this new dream is of salvation not through occupational subservience but rather through labor equality. It is interesting that the dubious dream offered by the white speakers must be killed but the more valid dream of labor solidarity and equality is merely "spit" upon. This seems to suggest that the latter, more valid dream is less of a threat to the capitalist-racist elite than even Washington’s subservient fantasy.

Hughes intensifies this connection between the violent suppression of black aspiration and the aloof contempt for a class-conscious racial struggle in lines 74-75: "Tired now of the bitter river, / Tired now of the pat on the back." The parallel structure here equates the rage about the lynchings the speaker imbibes from the Southern river with an equal rage concerning the paternalistic dismissal of a class-based revolutionary consciousness. While the literal lynching of African Americans is obviously a more immediately pressing problem, Hughes suggests that the symbolic lynching of class-based African-American struggles for equality may be just as damaging to the race in the end. The lyncher can be clearly identified and materially resisted. The wage-enslaving capitalist, who can enact on a large scale what the lyncher can only do one Black man at a time, however, is a much more elusive target for resistance.

It is also impressive that Hughes maintains this connection between physical, violent, and murderous oppression and a more subtle, class-based oppression through starvation 25 years later in "The Backlash Blues." In lines 5-6 the speaker again articulates economic and bodily oppression by mentioning "taxes," "wages," and "Vietnam" in the same breath. This poem too gestures towards a wider solidarity. Here, however, the speaker shows a more confident certainty in the eventual success of this class-based resistance, for he affirms a global solidarity. The "backlash" and the slaver’s whip symbolically enacted through economic oppression shifts by the end of the poem to a more literal "backlash" against the capitalist-racist elite once the more numerous "non-whites" of the world rise up and wrest control away from the real "minority" in global terms: the white, racist capitalists. Instead the tension between racial and class politics that Shulman seems to read in the various versions of "Justice," both "The Bitter River" and "The Backlash Blues" show Hughes’s remarkable ability to treat race and class in an articulated manner throughout his career.

Jim Beatty ©2001

Jim Beatty: The Economics of Race Relations in John Beecher’s "Beaufort Tides"

John Beecher’s "Beaufort Tides," takes an astute critical perspective on the history of race relations in the US, especially in the South. The first stanza of the poem sets up a decaying picture of the South. The poem evokes an end to economic prosperity in the same breath that it alludes to the end of slavery. Since the result of "No slavers" conducting commerce is "Rotting hulls / are drawn up on the shore," slavery as a system of racial oppression is articulated to a notion of slavery as the very foundation of the US’s economic power. The industrial revolution was truly built on the backs of African slaves. When that foundation of capitalism is taken away from the South, the overt supporters of the system suffer, setting up a stark contrast to the ostensible opponents of slavery, who continued to enjoy the benefits of a capitalist economy born from the enslavement of Africans and people of African descent. In 1934, this scene of economic decay could apply to the entire country–the sins of the South finally coming home to the equally guilty North.

The second stanza begins what is perhaps the most remarkable achievement of the poem, i.e. the articulation of "free, white" subjectivities with that of "enslaved, black." In a number of contemporary critical registers, important theorizings of subjectivity have noted how oppressive economic systems of domination produce not only the subjectivities of the dominated but also that of the dominators. For in example, in postcolonial studies many have noted that both colonial discourse and the material enactments of colonial policies have produced both the colonizer’s and the colonized’s subjectivity. One of the most famous examples of this argument in an overly exclusively discursive register can be found in the work of Homi Bhabha. Similar arguments have long been made concerning the predication of "whiteness" in the US based upon all the attributes of "blackness" that it is not, a process that could be called "negative identification." Studies by Toni Morrison (Playing in the Dark), Eric Lott (Love and Theft), and even Leslie Fiedler (Love and Death in the American Novel) have demonstrated this phenomenon in US literature and popular culture. And even before these important critical elucidations, arguments that slavery produced–and degraded–both enslaver and enslaved subjectivities have been widespread, especially in the African-American tradition. Such arguments can be found in sources as diverse as the writings of Booker T. Washington, his nemesis WEB Du Bois, as well as numerous 18th and 19th century anti-slavery activists such as Douglass, Walker, and the infamous "Confessions" of Nat Turner.

What is remarkable in "Beaufort Tides" is that an Anglo poet in the 1930s could construct a model of mutually constitutive subjectivities for the South and, by extension, the nation as a whole. The poem describes how the settling of the so-called "New World" was carried out not only by European invaders but also by the African slaves who did all the work: "chained each to each by destiny." Since the Europeans are "chained" just as the Africans are, their subjectivities are just as degraded by the system as those who horrendously suffer its material effects.

In the third stanza, this connection is further solidified, for the Anglos and the Africans are tied not only by the place ("tides") but also by a common history ("time") and even biology ("blood"). This common "blood" evokes the common humanity of slaver and enslaved. It also alludes to the widespread inter-racial sexual affairs in the South, all too often forced upon female slaves by white masters. This only intensifies the "master’s" "fear," for the emancipation his slaves defiantly celebrate is also a defiance by the children he has rejected. (Langston Hughes’s "Mulatto" comes to mind here). New conflicts arise within these fundamentally mutually dependent groups when the formal means of one’s domination over the other have been over-turned.

The final stanza abruptly brings us of out of the past and into the narrative present, where both the oppressor and the oppressed now share a common "fear," for the economic collapse brought about by removing the foundation of industrial capital has come home in the Great Depression to threaten both groups. Not only do African Americans continue to suffer under a legacy of slavery and oppression–their former enslavers and current oppressors are also "captives of their [common] history." Since the very subjectivities of both the enslavers and the enslaved have been produced by the evils of slavery, their degraded selves are not equipped to deal with an industrial capitalist machine that is grinding to a halt without the blood that fuels it. Ironically, the "future tide" that will save them was not the founding of a new social-economic order but rather a new infusion of blood into the machine from WWII. In 1934, however, the poem can end with a plaintively hopeful note that both the white enslavers and the black enslaved can be "free"of a mutually degrading history by forging a new common identity that is not based on a hierarchy of power and oppression. "Beaufort Tides" gives a remarkably complex, compact elucidation of the material/economic bases of US race relations.

Jim Beatty © 2001