This is essay is divided into three parts. Part two will post on Wednesday, and part three on Friday.
While many critics have noted the influence of blues and jazz on Langston Hughes’s poetry, little has been written about Hughes from a sound studies standpoint. His sonic landscapes not only chronicle Harlem from the 1920s to 1950s, but also challenge the sonic color-line, specifically ideas from the Enlightenment Period about sound and logic, ideas that still persisted in the first half of the 20th Century, evident through early criticism of ragtime and jazz. In defending black music forms and using specific sounds in his work, including blues, jazz, and laughter, sounds of interwar and post-war Harlem, Hughes challenges 19th Century notions that only white speech is clear and reasoned and sounds unable to be pinned down, particularly sounds of the racialized Other, are purely emotional and non-logical; Hughes’s sonic landscapes also serve as a protest against racial segregation and a critique of American capitalism.
Before addressing Hughes’s poetry and his essay “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain,” it is important to give definition to the sonic color-line and understand some of the key ideas regarding sound from the Enlightenment Period that Hughes’s work reacts against, especially since such ideas still persisted just as Hughes’s career was beginning. The idea of the sonic color-line can be attributed to Jennifer Stoever-Ackerman’s work on sound studies, specifically her essays “The word and the sound: listening to the sonic colour-line in Frederick Douglass’s 1845 Narrative” and “Splicing the Sonic Color-Line: Tony Schwartz Remixes Postwar Nueva York.” In her first essay, she notes that the sonic colour-line describes race through “aural signifiers as well as visual ones” (21). The racial etiquette of the 19th Century distinguished between white sounds and black sounds, and included aural behavior, such as musical tastes, public displays of emotion, vocal tones, and accents in speech (22). Furthermore, the dominant cultural of the time labeled black sounds as non-logical. Because the sounds did not conform to white European standards, they were considered non-logical, overly emotional, and wild.
In her other essay, “Splicing the Sonic Color-Line,” Stoever-Ackerman notes that the idea of the sonic color-line stems from W.E.B. Du Bois’s idea of the visual color-line in the Souls of Black Folks and his re-imagining of the color-line in Dusk of Dawn (65). She adds that we see race as well as hear it, and “sonic phenomena like vocal timbre, accents, and musical tones are racially coded, like skin color, hair texture, and clothing choices” (65).
Stoever-Ackerman’s work points to several examples of the sonic color-line existing in the 19th Century, but it was also evident in early criticism of jazz and ragtime music, specifically the way critics linked the black music forms to wildness and nervousness. In Anne Shaw Faulkner’s 1921 essay “Does Jazz Put Sin in Syncopation?”, published in Ladies’ Home Journal, the author writes, “In almost every big industry where music has been instituted, it has been found necessary to discontinue jazz because of its demoralizing effect” (qtd. in Halliday 144-145). She adds that after the workers indulged in such music, there was an unsteadiness and unevenness to their work product.
Other critics and record companies saw a distinction between jazz for a white audience and jazz for a black audience. Greg Goodale notes in his book Sonic Persuasion that record companies tried to manipulate Americans into categorizing music based on race and forced black bands to play “hot jazz” to cater to what they perceived to be the black sound (82-83). Hot jazz often had poor connotations and was frequently associated with drunkenness and sexual frenzy. These negative depictions of jazz, constructs of race, and ideas left over from the Enlightenment Period drew strong reactions from Hughes not only in his poetry, but also his manifesto “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain.” First published in 1926, the essay is critical of black poets that try to be white and avoid using black music forms. Hughes writes:
Let the blare of Negro jazz bands and the bellowing voice of Bessie Smith singing Blues penetrate the closed ears of the colored near-intellectuals until they listen and perhaps understand. Let Paul Robeson singing ‘Water Boy,’ and Rudolph Fisher writing about the streets of Harlem, and Jean Toomer holding the heart of Georgia in his hands, and Aaron Douglas drawing strange black fantasies cause the smug Negro middle class to turn from their white, respectable, ordinary books and papers to catch a glimmer of their own beauty. We younger Negro artists who create now intend to express our individual dark-skinned selves without fear or shame. If white people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, it doesn’t matter. We know we are beautiful. And ugly too (151).
The essay was published shortly after critic George S. Schuyler criticized Hughes in The Nation for his reliance on black music forms. Schuyler’s criticism echoes Counte Cullen’s review of Hughes’s debut poetry collection, The Weary Blues, for Opportunity in 1926. Though the review was generally favorable, Cullen was critical of Hughes for relying so much on jazz and blues.
Taken as a group the selections in this book seem one-sided to me. They tend to hurl the poet into the gaping pit that lies before all Negro writers, in the confines of which they become racial artists instead of artists pure and simple. There is too much emphasis here on strictly Negro themes; and this is probably an added reason for my coldness toward the jazz poems—they seem to set a too definite limit upon an already limited field (39).
To Hughes, however, jazz was a fundamental part of black life and essential to Harlem, what he labeled in the “Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain as “the eternal tom-tom beating in the Negro soul—the tom-tom of revolt against weariness in a white world” (150).
Hughes’s defense of jazz may have come because he realized jazz was a way for whites to transcend their racial identity and subvert negative constructs of black sound, thus realizing the music does not lead to hysteria or drunkenness. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, black jazz musicians played with white musicians in recording studios and in bars. In 1931, Louis Armstrong was arrested outside of a club in Los Angeles for smoking marijuana with white drummer Vic Berton (Goodale 83). It became more and more common to see integration on stage, even if major record companies tried to construct sound in terms of race and market to white and black audiences.
This integration is represented in Hughes’ 1926 poem “Harlem Night Club,” and like a lot of his other 1920s poems, it represents the optimism of the Harlem Renaissance that black art forms could be a way to transcend racial barriers, or more specifically a way for whites to enjoy black music forms and overcome racial constructs and identity.
Sleek black boys in a cabaret.
Jazz-band, jazz-band, ––
Play, play, PLAY!
White girls’ eyes
Call gay black boys.
Black boys’ lips
Grin jungle joys.
Dark brown girls
In blond men’s arms.
Sing Eve’s charms!
White ones, brown ones,
What do you know
Where all paths go?
Jazz boys, jazz boys—
Play, PlAY , PLAY!
Tomorrow…. Is darkness.
The poem presents a mixing of races, brought together by the jazz music, a scene that would have been common in the larger cities in the 1920s and 1930s. The “white girls’ eyes/Call gay black boys” while “Dark brown girls” dance “in blond men’s arms.” The speaker of the poem implores the jazz band to keep playing so racial barriers can be overcome and young whites can transcend racial identities, particularly the ideas that whites should not like this type of music, but the poem also poses the question “Tomorrow…who knows?”. That question can be read two ways. Either the speaker believes that the jazz movement could lead to the erosion of racial barriers, or the speaker understands that once the music stops and once the listeners step outside, they will be re-introduced to racial constructs. The later idea is more likely since the speaker admits in the final stanza, “Tomorrow…Is darkness/Joy today!.” For at least the moment, however, while the band keeps playing, racial barriers are non-existent and the whites realize that listening to this music has no negative effects.
Furthermore, the poem mirrors the syncopation of ragtime music and early jazz, employing syncopation so no regular meter or rhyme scheme is established. The opening stanza has a rhyme scheme of a-b-a-c-a. Two out of the lines in the stanza rhyme with nothing else, thus disrupting the pattern. Hughes does this throughout the rest of the poem as well, establishing what appears to be a rhyme scheme, before breaking it with one or two lines that do not adhere to the structure. In addition, Hughes changes the capitalization of the words “play” in the first and last stanza, also disrupting the rhythm. Like a lot of Hughes’s poems that employ music, his form mirrors the content.
Visit TheThe again on Wednesday for part two.