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