Robert Shulman

Robert Shulman: On "Come to the Waldor-Astoria"

Several contexts animate "Advertisement for the Waldorf-Astoria," another of the poems Hughes wrote during the fall of 1931. He published it in New Masses in December, so that the "CHRISTMAS CARD" ending is, like "Merry Christmas," seasonal. Another occasion for the poem is that, two years into the depression and in the midst of the fight to save the Scottsboro Boys, Hughes read a two-page advertisement in Vanity Fair, the most elegant magazine in America. Along with ads for luxury cars, furs, and expensive clothing--the depression did not exist in the world of Vanity Fair--Hughes encountered an advertisement announcing the opening of the new Waldorf-Astoria "where," as Hughes noted, "no Negroes worked and none were admitted as guests." In his poem, in place of the bold-faced headings in the ad--"PRIVACY," "FREEDOM FROM RESPONSIBILITY," "MODERN CONVENIENCES"--Hughes substitutes such headings as "LISTEN, HUNGRY ONES," "EVICTED FAMILIES," and "NEGROES."

In a prose format like the ad's, Hughes opens up the absurdities and contrasts between his down-and-outers and the luxury of the rich in their new hotel. His approach is to parody the ad, sometimes by using a left language, sometimes an idiomatic language instead of Vanity Fair formality and by directing his flophouse clientele to take advantage of the amenities the hotel provides, to "ankle on down to 49th Street at Park Avenue." Hughes summarizes the "PRIVATE ENTERTAINING" and "PUBLIC FUNCTIONS" the ad describes by intoning of the Waldorf,

    It will be a distinguished background for society.

So, when you've got no place to go, homeless and hungry ones, choose the

    Waldorf as a background for your rags--

(Or do you still consider the subway after midnight good enough?)

Under the heading, "ROOMERS," "take a room at the new Waldorf," he advises them, "sleepers in charity's flop-houses where God pulls a long face, and you have to pray to get a bed."

For their edification Hughes reprints a luncheon menu of "GUMBO CREOLE CRABMEAT IN CASSOLETTE / BOILED BRISKET OF BEEF / SMALL ONIONS IN CREAM / WATERCRESS SALAD / PEACH MELBA." Then he adds, "Have luncheon there this afternoon, all you jobless. Why not?" To provide an answer, Hughes departs from his dominant tone of high-spirited satiric indignation. He reanimates the left imagery of hands, some cutting coupons while others, exploited by the rich, do hard manual labor. Parodying the ad writer's invitation, Hughes tells his people, "dine with some of the men and women who got rich off of your labor" and then in the emotionally charged, pile-driver rhythms and imagery of left discourse he adds,

    who clip coupons with clean white fingers because your 

    hands dug coal, drilled stone, sewed garments, poured 

    steel to let other people draw dividends and live easy. 

(Or haven't you had enough yet of the soup-lines and the bitter bread of 

    charity?)

Walk through Peacock Alley tonight before dinner, and get warm, anyway.

    You've got nothing else to do.

In one of his most irreverent sections, under the heading "NEGROES" Hughes shifts from the language of left social protest to the language of black vernacular, a language especially incongruous in the upper-class white world of the Waldorf and Vanity Fair. "Oh, Lawd, I done forgot Harlem!" Hughes breaks in, using "I" for the first time. Then, in the perfectly rendered idiom of the street, Hughes goes on to contrast the reality of hunger on 135th Street with

the swell music they got at the Waldorf-Astoria. It sure is a mighty nice place to shake hips in, too. There's dancing after supper in a big warm room. It's cold as hell on Lenox Avenue. All you've had all day is a cup of coffee. Your pawnshop overcoat's a ragged banner on your hungry frame.

Does the last line heighten the emotional impact not only through the contrast between ease and pawnshop poverty but also through the reinforcing contrast between the street idiom of "shake hips" and " cold as hell" and the more formal, literary metaphor, "a ragged banner on your hungry frame"? Hughes often achieves his effects by juxtaposing contrasting languages, although readers unsympathetic to his literary and political project may respond negatively to the slight elevation of the metaphor of the pawnshop overcoat as "a ragged banner on your hungry frame."

In any case, in the pages of New Masses, writing explicitly to "you colored folks" within the poem but also to a radical white reading audience, Hughes goes on to subvert the upper-class fascination with things Negro. "You know," he writes, "downtown folks are just crazy about Paul Robeson! Maybe they'll like you, too, black mob from Harlem." Of course. Through the comic and slightly ominous incongruity of the "black mob," Hughes deconstructs the 1920s cult of Harlem, "When the Negro Was in Vogue," as he phrased it in a chapter heading of his autobiography, The Big Sea. Hughes cuts even deeper when he invites his "black mob" to

Drop in at the Waldorf this afternoon for tea. Stay to dinner. Give Park Avenue a lot of darkie color--free for nothing! Ask the Junior Leaguers to sing a spiritual for you. They probably know' em better than you do--and their lips won't be so chapped with cold after they step out of their closed cars in the undercover driveways. Hallelujah! Undercover driveways! Ma soul's a witness for de Waldorf-Astoria!

At his most acute, Hughes enters taboo territory and deflates the mix of class privilege and racial condescension at the heart of society's affair with the Negro. At the end he perfectly uses black vernacular to diminish those symbols of class and racial inequity, the underground driveways and the Waldorf itself. In the process, Hughes undercuts the religiously tinged Uncle Tom language he himself turns into a vehicle of hard-hitting comic protest.

In the "CHRISTMAS CARD" that ends the poem, Hughes intensifies his irreverent religious satire. Looking ahead to "Goodbye, Christ" and back to "Christ in Alabama," "Merry Christmas," and "A Christian Country," Hughes exuberantly, provocatively sends his radical greetings:

[….]

The censors who a decade later hounded Hughes because of "Goodbye, Christ" somehow overlooked the ending of "Advertisement for the Waldorf-Astoria." In "CHRISTMAS CARD" Hughes's cultural politics are as radical as his politics. In presenting Mary as a "little girl--turned whore / because her belly was too hungry to stand it anymore," Hughes vividly connects depression hunger and poverty and that of the Holy Family. He does so with a blasphemy--Mary as whore--that he compounds in relating the immaculateness of the Immaculate Conception to the clean bed Mary needs and the manger of the Waldorf can supply. Hughes's radical politics reinforce and are reinforced by his irreverent cultural politics. The brash announcement that "the new Christ child of the Revolution's about to be born," the injunction "kick hard, red baby, in the bitter womb of the mob," and the final imperative, "listen Mary, Mother of God, wrap your new born babe in the red flag of Revolution" are examples of the radical spirit of 1931, hopeful, optimistic, unintimidated. In "CHRISTMAS CARD" and "Goodbye, Christ," Hughes handles communism as the new religion with more verve and idiomatic force than anyone in the decade.

In "Advertisement for the Waldorf-Astoria" Hughes is also one of the pioneering left poets who incorporated and put to unconventional uses the language of the media--advertising, in this case, the documentary in Muriel Rukeyser's, the movies in Kenneth Fearing's. These poets engaged and tapped into the energy of influential "low" forms and turned them from their prevailingly commercial to left uses. As with the black vernacular and jazz rhythms and improvisation that animate his work, Hughes as much as any modernist delights in "low" forms typically excluded from the "high" art of traditional poetry. They contribute to the immediacy, energy, and accessibility of his work, reinforced in the New Masses by the drawings that frame "Advertisement for the Waldorf-Astoria." The drawings are fanciful satiric line sketches of limousines, upper-class dowagers and top-hatted gentlemen, and decadent partygoers above a panorama of grim-faced working people.

From The Power of Political Art: The 1930s Literary Left Reconsidered. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000. Copyright © 2000 by The University of North Carolina Press.

Robert Shulman: On "White Shadows"

The concluding grim recognition emerges from the interplay of racial-political realities and physical impossibilities. "In the world" of racial and political experience, white shadows are everywhere, although "in the world" of physical experience white shadows do not exist. Hughes's imagery moves us back and forth endlessly between physical and racial-political realities, between the world of physics and the world of power. The white shadows that do not exist are at the same time ominous and omnipresent. The spare form answers to and underscores the elemental, inescapable presence of "white shadows" in an unsparing racial landscape.

The speaker is looking for a shelter someplace in the world "where white shadows / Will not fall." The sense of inescapable white power dominating the entire world, including the world of the speaker and the Dark Brother, shows the impact of Hughes's trip to Haiti in spring 1931. One of his essays about the trip is titled "White Shadows in a Black Land." In it Hughes uses his own observation to document specifically who has the power in Haiti. The U.S. Marines are everywhere. The cafés are filled with the "cracker" accents of the Marines, "drinking in the usual boisterous American manner." Beyond the military, "you will discover," Hughes continues, his eye on the other kind of control that counts, "that the Banque d'Haiti with its Negro cashiers and tellers, is really under control of the National City Bank of New York. You will be informed," he goes on, still concentrating on power and money, "that all the money collected by the Haitian customs passes through the hands of an American comptroller. And regretfully, you will gradually learn that most of the larger stores with their colored clerks are really owned by Frenchmen, Germans, or Assyrian Jews. And if you read the Haitian newspapers, you will soon realize from the heated complaints there, that even in the Chamber of Deputies, the strings of government are pulled by white politicians in far-off Washington--and that the American marines are kept in the country through an illegal treaty thrust on Haiti by force and never yet ratified by the United States Senate. The dark-skinned little Republic," Hughes concludes, "has its hair caught in the white fingers of unsympathetic foreigners, and the Haitian people live today under a sort of military dictatorship backed by American guns. They are not free."

In "White Shadows," as in a politically and racially charged Cubist landscape, Hughes eliminates the particular details and concentrates on the basic power relations and his grim response to them. The Dark Brother of the poem is not only African American but also Haitian and Cuban. He is also a much less hopeful version of "the darker brother" of Hughes's critical and affirmative "I Too Sing America." In "White Shadows" Hughes illuminates the racial impact of the same kind of world-ranging imperialism he had satirized in "Merry Christmas." The extremity of his vision in "White Shadows" is an index of his sense of the power and consequences of American and capitalistic might "in the world." Unlike such works as "Scottsboro Limited," "Tired," and "Union," in "White Shadows" Hughes does not modify his powerful negative criticism with the affirmative promise that black and white workers will make a revolutionary new world.

For readers in the present, Haiti still exists. Hughes's "White Shadows," "White Shadows in a Black Land," and "People without Shoes" take us back to an earlier period of American involvement. The dominance Hughes highlights underlies the current situation even as we have almost totally erased the earlier history from public discourse, so that "White Shadows" and "White Shadows in a Black Land" are involved in both a political and cultural suppression.

From The Power of Political Art: The 1930s Literary Left Reconsidered. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2000. Copyright © 2000 by The University of North Carolina Press.

Robert Shulman: On "Justice"

Hughes put together four of his Scottsboro poems and the verse play in a booklet, Scottsboro Limited, to raise money for the Scottsboro Defense Fund. The copy I used in the Berkeley library is inscribed to another political prisoner, Tom Mooney, the radical who had probably been framed, who had been imprisoned since 1916 for allegedly bombing the Los Angeles Times, and who was the object of repeated "Free Tom Mooney" campaigns. The copy is signed "Langston Hughes."

The collection opens with a four-line poem, "Justice" . . . .

The surface is moderate as Hughes quietly subverts the commonplace about Justice as a blind goddess impartially adjudicating. Instead, "we black[s] are wise" to exactly how blind justice is. Unlike "Letter to the Academy," where the "we" are those in the revolutionary new movement, in "Justice" race is central. Even the apparent typo, "black" instead of "blacks," emphasizes race. Some of Hughes's feelings about southern justice Scottsboro style emerge in the powerful image of the "two festering sores / that once perhaps were eyes." The qualification, "perhaps," opens up an endless prospect of disease, a connotation Hughes underscores in his view of "Dixie justice blind and syphilitic." This prose gloss on the central images of the "blind goddess" and the "festering sores" is from Hughes's Scottsboro essay, "Southern Gentlemen, White Prostitutes, Mill Owners and Negroes," which he wrote at the same time as the republication of "Justice." In the context of Scottsboro is there a subtext in "Justice," a sense that the goddess is not only blind but also white, a white woman with festering syphilitic sores? Has Hughes applied to the deified southern white woman or at least to white justice the stigmata of two of the accused, blindness and syphilis?

For me, "Justice" loses some of its disturbing, subversive power when it is removed from the context of the animating passions and particulars of the Scottsboro case. When Hughes reprinted "Justice" in A New Song, published by the International Workers Order (IWO) in 1938, he did not mention Scottsboro. He did not even connect the poem with Tom Mooney, whose experience deepens the poem, although two pages later Hughes did include his "Chant for Tom Mooney." He also shifted the emphasis from race to class by changing one word: "black" becomes "poor" in A New Song. In the process, we lose the subtext of blind, syphilitic Dixie justice and the specific resonances of Scottsboro, a major instance inspiring and validating the vision of the poem.

"Justice" could usefully be taught along with a group of Hughes's radical poems. This conveniently short, deceptively moderate poem raises the key issue of the importance of historical-political context, of language and energy streaming in from events and circumstances, to paraphrase Josephine Herbst. Scottsboro, the particular historical-political event, is a significant part of what for most students is still the suppressed history of America. In the context of Scottsboro and its suppression, the title, "Justice," invites a complex response. More technically, reading "Justice" in A New Song as part of the sequence "Let America Be America Again" (the 1938, not the usually anthologized version), "Justice," and "Park Bench," gives us a significantly different poem than the one in Scottsboro Limited. Working with the two versions raises the general issues of textual reliability ("black"/ "blacks"?) and textual change (from "black" to "poor") and the particular issue of why or to what effect Hughes made the change. In Hughes's case these technical matters are inseparable from the dynamics of the shifting relations of race and class in 1930s left politics generally and the Popular Front in particular. We will return to these concerns when we look more closely at A New Song.

"Justice" poses still another interpretive issue, because Hughes first published it in 1923 and thus originally Scottsboro was not involved in the meaning of the poem. Placed in its new context in Scottsboro Limited, however, is "Justice" open to the interpretation I have been suggesting or do we ignore the redefinition Scottsboro makes available? How fixed is the meaning of the poem? How do we deal with the different historical contexts, 1923, 1931, 1938? And what role does the interpreter play?

From The Power of Political Art: The 1930s Literary Left Reconsidered. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000. Copyright © 2000 by The University of North Carolina Press.