Hughes’s ideas about jazz and blues were echoed by other black intellectuals only a few years after “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain” was published. In Duke Ellington’s 1931 essay “The Duke Steps Out,” he says that jazz is more than the American idiom, but rather an essential part of black history, the result of transplantation to American soil and the evolution of the slave song, thus jazz has a history much deeper than mere dance music. “It expresses our personality, and, right down in us, our souls react to its elemental but eternal rhythm,” Ellington states (qtd. in Halliday 147). Like Hughes, Ellington makes a fine defense of jazz as an essential part of black culture, a music form that stems from slave plantation songs, a music that does not lead to laziness, nervousness, or hysteria, but rather a music that was necessary to survive in a white-dominated culture.
Like Ellingston, Hughes did connect jazz to black history, and he saw the music form as an essential part of Harlem, using it to chronicle Harlem from the 1920s to the 1950s. His music-based poems of the 1920s celebrate Harlem’s swinging nightlife, while his post-war music poems address racial segregation and class inequality. In several of Hughes’s early Harlem poems, specifically “Harlem Night Song,” the city comes alive at night when the bands take the stage.
Let us roam the night together
I love you.
The Harlem roof-tops
Moon is shining.
Night sky is blue.
Stars are great drops
Of golden dew.
Down the street
A band is playing.
I love you.
Let us roam the night together
Singing. (The Collected Poems 94)
More so than most of Hughes’s other poems, “Harlem Night Song” has a romantic quality, a speaker who implores a lover to roam the night with him or her while the band is playing and the moon is out. Even the night imagery is given a romantic quality. The moon shines, while the sky is blue and the stars are “great drops/of golden dew.” The poem, particularly the music of the band playing, represents a break from the daily grind, from the “weariness of the white world.” The couple is free to roam at night, to enjoy the music, despite whatever hardships they may face in the day. Like a lot of Hughes’s other poems, “Harlem Night Song” also draws on elements of the blues, particularly the use of the refrain, in this instance the phrases “Come/Let us roam the night together/Singing” and “I love you.” Hughes somewhat subverts the blues form, however, because “Harlem Night Song” is not a lament over a broken heart or racial oppression. Instead, it focuses on promise, of a budding love, a love that is made possible against the backdrop of music and a lively night life.
“Harlem Night Song” is reflective of a 1920s Harlem, what critic Arthur B. Davis refers to as “Jazzonia,” a “joyous city” a “new world of escape and release” (136). He also notes that the time, while the Harlem Renaissance was in full swing, Harlem experienced a cabaret boom. Furthermore, Davis point out that when Hughes came to Harlem at 22 years old as a sailor and beachcomber, it was natural for him to be attracted to Harlem’s nightlife and to view it as “a new world of escape and release, an exciting never-never land” (136). Hughes was one of many immigrants that came to Harlem, and according to Farah Jasmine Griffin’s book Harlem Nocturne, about 1.5 million African Americans moved north between 1916-1930 (7), thus places like Harlem experienced an artistic boom, creating an optimism reflected in Hughes’s early poems.
In later poems, particularly “The Trumpet Player,” Hughes blends African ancestry with the continuing struggle for equality, moving away from depictions of Harlem as a place of cabarets and dancehalls. The poem also reflects Ellington’s idea that jazz is an extension of previous black music forms and black history. The first stanza begins:
With the trumpet at his lips
Has dark moons of weariness
Beneath his eyes
Where the smoldering memory
Of slave ships
Blazed to the crack of whips
About his thighs. (The Collected Poems 338).
Published in 1947 in the collection Fields of Winter, “The Trumpet Player” does mark somewhat of a change from earlier poems, particularly the use of African imagery. Davis states that “in this new Harlem, even the jazz players are infected with sectional melancholy” (139), meaning that the ideals of freedom and liberty promoted during World War II were not evident in Harlem. He adds:
The Depression of 1929, having struck the ghetto harder than any other section of New York, showed Harlem just how basically ‘marginal’ and precarious its economic foundations were. Embittered by this knowledge, the black community had struck back blindly at things in general in the 1935 riot. The riot brought an end to the New Negro era; the Cotton Club, the most lavish of the uptown cabarets, closed its doors and moved to Broadway; and the black city settled down to the drab existence of WPA and relief living (138).
The African imagery evoked in the poem shows the long history of inequality blacks faced, dating back to slavery and continuing after World War II. The opening stanza contains the image of “smoldering memory/of slave ships/blazed to the crack of whips/about his thighs.” This haunting memory of the past has a physical impact on the trumpet player, evident by the “dark moons of weariness/beneath his eyes.” By the third stanza, the poem shifts from memories of the past to the present music.
From the trumpet at his lips
Mixed with liquid fire.
From the trumpet at this lips
Distilled from old desire—
That is longing for the moon
Where the moonlight’s but a spotlight
In his eyes,
That is longing for the sea
Where the sea’s a bar-glass
Sucker size. (The Collected Poems 338).
In Harlem Nocturne, Griffin depicts the 1940s as especially important to black artists in Harlem because of the realization of dreams deferred. In July 1941, there was a plan for a major march on Washington for jobs and equality. However, FDR issued an executive order calling for an end to discrimination in defense industries and federal bureaus, thus the march was called off. However, as late as 1940, 90 percent of New York’s defense plants refused to hire black workers, and a number of bars and restaurants did not serve black patrons (7). Furthermore, throughout the 1940s, J. Edgar Hoover called for a crackdown on black newspapers sympathetic to left-wing causes. He even urged FDR’s administration to use wartime sedition powers to indict members of the black press ( 92).
These issues eventually led to the Harlem Riots, and by August 1, 1943, property damage was estimated to be over $5 million, hundreds were arrested, and six blacks died (Griffin 120). Writing about Harlem for Holiday magazine in 1949, novelist Ann Petry stated, “Rioting mobs broke plate-glass windows, looted stores, causing property damage estimated in the millions. And in the process they seem to have permanently rubbed out that other hackneyed description of Harlem –the dwelling place of dancing, laughing, happy-go-lucky, childlike people” (110). The “hackneyed description” of Harlem Petry refers to is certainly evident in Hughes’s early depictions of Harlem; however, his work evolved to capture the tension Petry refers to and to critique capitalism and inequality.
In his other poems from the 1940s, Hughes addressed the issue of segregation and inequality directly, using sound to do so. One of his poems, “I, Too,” echoes Walt Whitman’s iconic poem “I Hear America Singing,” particularly Whitman’s idea that the downtrodden are also part of America and deserving of praise. Hughes extends the conversation by including blacks as part of America, while using sound, particularly laughter, to protest racial segregation.
I, too, sing America.
I am the darker brother.
They send me to eat in the kitchen
When company comes,
But I laugh
And eat well,
And grow strong.
Tomorrow, I’ll be at the table
When company comes.
Say to me,
“Eat in the kitchen,”
They’ll see how beautiful I am
And be ashamed—
I, too, am America. (The Collected Poems 43).
Written in 1945, about a decade before the Civil Rights Movement, “I, Too,” addresses the service roles blacks had and the segregation that existed, in this case the way the “darker brother” is sent to eat in the kitchen when company comes. Especially striking about the poem is the use of laughter as the one act of protest and challenge to white power.
Regarding form, Hughes isolates the lines “But I laugh/And eat well/and grow strong.” Those lines can also be read as end-stopped lines, meaning there is a natural pause at the end of each line, thus slowing down the rhythm and causing the reader to pause after the persona laughs, eats, and grows strong. Because of the form of those lines and the natural pauses, the acts are given more weight, and they come before the white space and shift to the following stanza, where the speaker is confident that one day he will have a place at the table. Not only is the laughter associated with the act of eating and growing strong, but the idea of one day transcending restrictive racial confines. The laughter is an act of protest that allows the speaker to imagine his body in a place it is currently forbidden in the poem, and it gives the speaker the confidence and strength to imagine one day he’ll have a seat at the table.
Part 3 of this essay will be posted on Friday.