Langston Hughes Questions for English 222 American Literature, CSU Fullerton



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From "The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain" (Norton Vol. D 348-50); All Poems (Vol. D 871-80): "The Negro Speaks of Rivers" (Vol. D 871); "Mother to Son" (Vol. D 871-72); "I, Too" (Vol. D 872); "The Weary Blues" (Vol. D 872-73); "Mulatto" (Vol. D 873-74); "Song for a Dark Girl" (Vol. D 874-75); "Genius Child" (Vol. D 875); "Visitors to the Black Belt" (Vol. D 875-76); "Note on Commercial Theatre" (Vol. D 876); "Vagabonds" (Vol. D 876-77); "Words Like Freedom" (Vol. D 877); "Madam and Her Madam" (Vol. D 877-78); "Freedom {1}" (Vol. D 878); "Madam's Calling Cards" (Vol. D 878-79); "Silhouette" (Vol. D 879); "Theme for English B" (Vol. D 880).

From "The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain" (Norton Vol. D 348-50)

1. In "The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain," what basic argument does Langston Hughes advance regarding the development of African-American art in the United States? How is jazz central to his argument? That is, what qualities does jazz possess that supposedly make it ideal as a vehicle for a genuinely "black" mode of expression?

"The Negro Speaks of Rivers" (Vol. D 871)

2. Who is the "I" that speaks in "The Negro Speaks of Rivers"? The Rivers the rivers in this poem are obviously charged with symbolic meaning in that they reference historical experience and the flow of time. But what more specific connotations can be found in some of the eight or so references to rivers? For example, the Euphrates, the Congo, or the Mississippi that carried Abraham Lincoln to New Orleans?

"Mother to Son" (Vol. D 871-72)

3. What is the most important piece of advice that the mother in "Mother to Son" imparts to her son? What should we make of the "crystal stair" metaphor that she uses at the beginning and end? Consider, for example, that it could be an allusion to the story of Jacob's dream about a ladder ascending to heaven, a dream he had while fleeing from his brother Esau – see Genesis 28:10-19. How would that kind of allusiveness affect the poem's meaning?

"I, Too" (Vol. D 872)

4. The first line of "I, Too" is rather Whitmanesque in its claim to "sing America." What kind of song does the speaker go on to sing, if we are to take the poem's content as the equivalent of a song? What does the verbal form "am" in the poem's final line (rather than a repetition of "sing") add to our understanding?

"The Weary Blues" (Vol. D 872-73)

5. In "The Weary Blues," how does singing the blues, according to the speaker who heard a black man singing them, affect the singer? How do the lyrics given to us (i.e. the material in quotation marks) compare to the effect described by the speaker throughout the poem and especially towards its conclusion?

"Mulatto" (Vol. D 873-74)

6. In the form of a partial dialog between a mixed-race child and his white father, "Mulatto" describes the rape of a black woman by a white man in the South. The italicized words make up the dialog, of course. What's the substance of that argument, and if there's a winner, which party is it? Moreover, what about the non-italicized portions of the poem -- how do they affect the meaning of the conversation itself?

"Song for a Dark Girl" (Vol. D 874-75) and "Silhouette" (Vol. D 879)

7. Both "Song for a Dark Girl" and "Silhouette" are poems about the abominable Southern practice of lynching black men for various alleged offenses or violations of a strict racial code. How do these poems, their imagery and perspectives or voices taken together, convey the horror of lynching?

"Genius Child" (Vol. D 875)

8. In your view, who is the genius child in "Genius Child"? What attitude does the poem develop with respect to such a child? Why should the song be sung "softly," and what might happen if the song were to "get out of hand"?

"Visitors to the Black Belt" (Vol. D 875-76) and "Note on Commercial Theatre" (Vol. D 876)

9. Hughes' "Visitors to the Black Belt" and "Note on Commercial Theatre" both deal with fundamental matters of identity and authenticity amongst African Americans living in places such as New York City and Chicago. In at least one of these two poems, what is the speaker's point of contention with white American culture – how does the speaker deal with the error in perspective that he is calling to account?

"Vagabonds" (Vol. D 876-77)

10. Hughes' "Vagabonds" is a brief, almost Blakean poem about the desperate plight of America's poor. One could, of course, easily voice one's sympathy for impoverished and homeless people in ordinary prose. What does the poetic form of Hughes' lament add to the critique?

"Words Like Freedom" (Vol. D 877) and "Freedom {1}" (Vol. D 878)

11. "Words Like Freedom" turns on a distinction between two words -- "freedom" and "liberty" -- whose meanings overlap but are not identical. What, then, is the distinction between them and how does that distinction perhaps account for the speaker's different reaction to the two words? (It may help to recall that the word "liberty" has strong roots in the discourse of the American Revolution: "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness," as in the Declaration of Independence.)

12. In "Freedom {1}," Hughes takes issue with the common C19-20 white-culture insistence (an insistence that became quite loud during the 1950s when the modern Civil Rights Movement got underway) that any attempts on the part of African Americans to gain full equality were somehow premature and impatient. How does the poem counter that notion? How does the speaker give the desire for genuine freedom an undeniable urgency?

"Madam and Her Madam" (Vol. D 877-78) and "Madam's Calling Cards" (Vol. D 878-79)

13. Madam Alberta K. Johnson is one of Langston Hughes' personae in his poetry. What kind of personality jumps out at us in "Madam and Her Madam" and "Madam's Calling Cards"? What, that is, animates Alberta? How does she assess her own value and circumstances? (In responding, you might want to have a look at another short Hughes poem, "Madam's Past History", which isn't in our anthology but offers us a bit of Alberta's back-story.)

"Theme for English B" (Vol. D 880)

14. The speaker in "Theme for English B" is assigned a brief version of what today would be called a personal essay in which he's supposed to tell the reader something he considers true, something expressive of his own identity. Why does he find that seemingly straightforward one-pager so hard to formulate -- wherein, for him, lies the complexity of the task, and how does he resolve the difficulty, if you think he does?

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