Hughes And His Women Essay, Research Paper
Hughes and His Women
Were Eve s eyes
In the first garden
Just a bit too bold?
Was Cleopatra gorgeous
In a gown of gold?
Langston Hughes devoted his art, writing, to the true expression of the lives, hopes, fears, and angers of ordinary black people, without the self-consciousness or sugar coating (Moore). Hughes not only focused on black people s lives in general; he went into detail about their hopes, their fears, their accomplishments, and their failures. Hughes s poetry expressed the pride he held of the black race and his pride in being one, or at least part of one. Hughes would dedicate his entire life to writing poetry and books about his people: the Negro race. One of the subjects Hughes focused on in his poetry were women. Hughes s women were always mistreated, yet always proud and bold, taking matters into their own hands, in most cases. Hughes sympathizes with black women, and writes poems to express the situations they lived through by writing about them, and in some cases expressing his view of women, and writing through a woman s point of view to express the hardships of their lives.
During Hughes s career, he was criticized for his writings as straightforward treatments of the harsh and gritty lives of ordinary black people (Moore). Even black critics and intellectuals, who wanted only the most positive and refined images of black life to be presented for the inspection of white audiences (Moore) were offended by his writings. While Hughes was not unsympathetic to the feelings of such critics, he rejected their assumptions as a willingness to allow the dominant white society to dictate the terms upon which black people, their values, and their lifestyles would be judged. Due to his lifelong affection for ordinary black people, and his vivid and affectionate rendering of their lives in their own language, he has a place in his poetry for the roles of women. Since he is so blunt about the situations of his people his representations of women are successful, primarily because it s a true and honest representation of black women in his time.
Jazzonia (Meyer 1017), Hughes s poem written in 1923, is one of many poems that are influenced by women. Although Jazzonia is not one of Hughes s poems written through a woman s point of view, it establishes the way Hughes feels about black women. He introduces and explains a woman briefly in the 5th and 6th line: “A dancing girl whose eyes are bold / Lifts high a dress of silken gold. Already it is established that this woman is not shy or embarrassed, her eyes are bold, a sign of strength and pride. The setting of the poem is in a cabaret in Harlem. This woman is probably entertaining the men by dancing for them, maybe even stripping for then, yet she is bold. It does not seem to bother her that she is the object of attention in a Harlem cabaret for a group of men. The poem goes on and in lines 9-13 Hughes writes:
Were Eve s eyes
In the first garden
Just a bit too bold?
Was Cleopatra gorgeous
In a gown of gold?
Hughes mentions the bold eyes of Eve, as he mentioned the bold eyes of the woman in the cabaret. Hughes is insinuating that although God created Eve to accompany Adam, maybe Eve wasn t the innocent, na ve woman that it is assumed she was. Then Hughes mentions Cleopatra, probably in reference to the way Marc Antony saw her. Cleopatra is well known for her love affair with Marc Antony, obviously Cleopatra was a bold woman, she had to be since she was the queen of Egypt and involved in a forbidden love affair. In mentioning Cleopatra, Hughes is making an indirect connection to Africa, and tying the woman in the cabaret, a woman of African descent, to Cleopatra through Africa. Hughes mentions Eve because she is the root of all women, black women specifically in Hughes s poetry. In conclusion in Jazzonia, Hughes establishes his view that women are bold. Although he only uses three women in his poem to represent all women, an ordinary woman and two prestigious women, he makes his point clear. He is successful in representing women because of his honesty towards women in his poetry. Hughes refuses to idealize his women, he states they are bold and strong. Perhaps his straightforward approach to explain his women is the reason he succeeds in his representation of women.
Red Silk Stockings (Meyer 1022-1023) , written in 1927, is another one of Hughes s poems that represents women. The poem is written in dialect to represent low and middle class black people. The poem is talking to a prostitute telling her to go out an let de white boys look at yo legs (3-4) . The goal of the prostitute is to have a child with a white man: Put on yo red silk stockings, gal, / An tomorrow s chile ll / Be a high yaller (8-10). Here we see another bold woman, although she is a prostitute she still goes out and does what she has to do. Her accomplishment will be to have a child with a white man, a yaller. Coincidentally, Hughes is a yaller, and he knows and understands what it is like to be of a mixed race. Hughes has taken up this theme so often he was perhaps unconsciously drawn to it (Rampersad 4).
Rent-Party Shout: For A Lady Dancer (Meyer 1023), written in 1930, is a poem that represents the betrayed, yet bold and proud woman. Hughes writes this poem in a woman s point of view. This poem deals with a woman finding out her man is cheating on her:
Mamie s got ma man-
An I can t find him.
. . . . . . . . . . .
If I sees ma man he d
For I ll shoot him in de shoulder,
Else I ll cut him down,
Cause I knows I can find him
When he s in de ground-
Then can t no other women
Have him layin round.
. . . . . . . . . . . .
I m gonna kill that
Man o mine.
Again, Hughes uses dialect to represent the low and middle class blacks. Here Hughes presents an extremely bold woman, willing to go to extremes to make sure her man never cheats on her again. She does not represent a typical woman who would cry and suffer due to a betrayal, she takes matters into her own hand to keep from suffering any further.
Mother to Son (Rampersad, Roessel 30), written between 1921-1930 is a powerful poem. It deals a mother giving her son the best advice she possibly can by using her experience. Hughes’s impulse is to delay the onset of manhood, or the related consequences of his having been brought up without strong male example, in the care of a proud but essentially defeated woman such as his grandmother . . . Hughes as a poetic persona is capable of achieving adulthood in certain moments of poetic creation, when momentarily he assumes full command of his ego. . . . he reaches these moments most brilliantly (as in “Mother to Son”) only when he first becomes a child again, then transcends childhood by celebrating the unique power of the black race to nurture him (Rampersad 45):
Well, son, I ll tell you:
Life for me ain t been no crystal stair.
It s had tacks in it,
And boards torn up,
And places with no carpet on the floor
But all the time
I se been a-climbin on,
And reachin landin s,
And turnin corners,
And sometimes goin in the dark
Where there ain t been no light.
So boy, don t you turn back.
Don t you set down on the steps
Cause you finds it s kinder hard.
Don t you fall now-
For I se still goin honey,
I se still climbin
And life for me ain t been no crystal stair.
Hughes magnificently achieves talking through the point of view of a woman, and in this case a mother. This poem definitely represents a bold and proud woman. This woman never has given up and always has struggled; now she passes her knowledge of life to her son in hope that he will do the same. Hughes uses the black dialect again in this poem, this time to represent a poor woman who has struggled through her life to get where she is now. She, a bold and strong woman, gets her son to realize what life is really about.
Hughes represents women of all statuses in his poetry, from a prostitute to a mother. In writing about women s difficulties and struggles, Hughes seems to sympathize with them. Obviously he held some admiration for woman in order to write poems about how they are bold and strong. Perhaps his sympathy for women deals with the experiences of his own life. Hughes s father abandoned his mother and left her alone to struggle with life, perhaps the poem Mother to Son represents his mother s advice to him. Hughes hated his father, but far from hating his mother, Hughes loved her hopelessly (Rampersad 4). Maybe this is where Hughes gained an admiration for women. Hughes while growing up was raised by his proud but essentially defeated (Rampersad 30) grandmother. In his poems about woman there is always a proud, bold, but defeated woman, just like his grandmother was. In Jazzonia he mentions the woman in the cabaret, a woman who has bold eyes, yet has to submit to dancing for men for money. In Red Silk Stockings the woman is a prostitute and has to go out and have a child with a white man, although she is bold, she seems to be a defeated woman by having to submit herself to sex for money. In Rent-Party Shout: For a Lady Dancer Hughes presents a betrayed woman. She is a bold woman because she is willing to kill her man, yet defeated because her man cheated on her, and she is willing to go to the extreme of killing him. In Mother to Son Hughes presents a defeated mother who has struggled her entire life to get where she is now, yet she is a proud and bold woman because however difficult the struggle, she fought through it. Hughes successfully represents all of these women, and in a sense probably represents all of the black women during the 1920s and 1930s.
In his poetry, Hughes illustrates the defeated, but bold woman, but is this representation accurate? Hughes never mentions bad or mean women; he only gives positive images of women. Hughes s women were always bold, but to consider the situations that they were in, how could any woman be strong or bold, or even proud? Perhaps, Hughes s view of women was always sympathetic, and he never really saw the bad side of women, only the defeated side of women, just like the women of his life, his mother and grandmother. Hughes represents the defeated women because that is how he sees the majority of women. He explains their boldness, only because that is how they survived. They would no longer let themselves be defeated, for example in Rent-Party Shout: For a Lady Dancer , the woman decides to take matters into her own hands so that she will no longer be betrayed and is going to kill that man o mine (21-22) . The women Hughes wrote about had to be bold; it was their way of survival, which was their way of life.
In conclusion, Hughes s portrayal of women is accurate and triumphant. His analysis of women and their boldness in his poetry makes the reader understand the situations these women were put into. Although he was criticized for his own boldness in his poetry, that is what made the poetry regarding women so powerful and realistic.
Hughes, Langston. Jazzonia. Meyer 1017.
—. Mother to Son. Rampersad, Roessel 30.
—. Red Silk Stockings. Meyer 1022-1023.
—. Rent-Party Shout: For a Lady Dancer. Meyer 1023.
Meyer, Michael, ed. The Bedford Introduction to Literature.
Boston: Bedford/St. Mautius, 1999.
Moore, Lisa, ed. Literature Online. 29 Nov. 2000.
Rampersad, Arnold. The Life of Langston Hughes. Vol 1. New
York: Oxford University Press, Inc., 1986.
Rampersad, Arnold, ed., and Roessel, David, ed. The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1994.