Unsung Silence into Unheard Existence: Vocalizing the Black Artist in the Poetry of Langston Hughes
What does it mean for one to be silent? What does it mean for an entire race to be silent? For Langston Hughes, to be silent was to not exist. The twentieth century’s prejudice toward an Anglocentric literary canon subsisted on the burial and silencing of black artists especially, relegating their art as lowbrow or uncultured. Hughes is, of course, best known for his usage of such condescended art in his poetry, e.g. the blues form, and how he lifted that perception into acceptance. However, as I examine in some of his selected poems, Hughes invokes “higher” or more established art in order to emphasize the great divide between the black artist and the white artist. He does this primarily through the character of Pierrot: in writing an established and predominantly silent character to represent the black artist he knowingly understands the expectation for the black artist to stay silent and as an object of comedy. The black artist has no voice, and he is meant to stay obscured in the background while white artists continue to thrive in his absence. Hughes portrays the voice of black artists in a progression from non-existing silence into existence through his poems “Black Pierrot” and “Pierrot” toward “I, Too,” and it is by that progression where he reveals the existence of the black artist’s voice to be further developed by other black artists.
First, Hughes’ professed aim is best derived from his 1926 essay, “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain,” as an effort to shed the societal shame unfairly placed on the black artist’s experience. The mountain is analogous to the barrier that prevents the black artist from flourishing because he is criticized by both white and black perspectives as the mindset toward black artists is tainted and made “to be ashamed… when it is not according to Caucasian patterns” especially by what he refers to as the “high-class Negro” who strive to be seen “like white folks” (Hughes, “The Negro Artist” 140). This dichotomy is the unfortunate reality that Hughes and other black artists lived in: “whiteness” as nobility versus “blackness” as peasantry. In order to enact the social change Hughes saw necessary to lift the black artist, he had to strike at the dichotomy by proving himself among the noble: “If anything was going to convince a ‘white’ America of the humanity and equality of blacks, it would have to be ‘culture,’ that realm where human beings differentiate themselves from the ‘savage’ and aspire to the divine” (Dawahare 27). While Professor Anthony Dawahare asserts this in his essay, “Langston Hughes’s Radical Poetry and the ‘End of Race’”, in the political sense, it applies as well to the literary elitism in which “culture” was beyond what black artists were capable of. Hughes examples this by contrasting the hymnals in white churches versus black churches, where “spirituals” are shed in favor for white status quo: “We don’t believe in ‘shouting.’ Let’s be dull like the Nordics” (Hughes, “The Negro Artist” 141). Of course, this is further perpetuation of silence in black artists, unable to possess a voice because of white perception and especially by fellow black artists. “Shouting” is seen as barbaric, and proper presentation of culture (for black artists) is best exhibited either by deferring to the white artists or by staying silent.
The support for black artists in Hughes’ time was minimal and “the same kind of encouragement one would give a sideshow freak… or a clown” (Hughes, “The Negro Artist” 141), in the sense that silence was preferred. But silence is non-existence, especially for the authentic voice of the black artist, which is why “Black Pierrot” and “Pierrot” are masterful subversions of the concept of staying silent. With these poems, Hughes simultaneously leans into and satirizes the false dichotomy by utilizing the cultured character of Pierrot to elevate black artists to stay consistent with the entertainment white-minded people received from ridiculing the black artist. Onwuchekwa Jemie’s essay, “Or Does It Explode?”, explores much of Hughes’ work in comparison to America, but particularly states that the “clown” is among the more common roles blacks were relegated to: “Forced to play ‘the dumb clown of the world,’ the black man finds a limited victory in laughter… The comic exterior is the black entertainer’s particular stereotype” (136). Intersecting culture and stereotype with “Black Pierrot” and “Pierrot” only serves to demonstrate how the black artist is kept silent, and Hughes is emphasizing the white perspective forbidding a voice.
The most telling aspect of “Black Pierrot” working against the concept of silence is the fact that the titular speaker is vocalizing the poem, i.e. not being silent. Rather, there is a spoken declaration of identity refrained throughout the poem that breaks the established notion of the Pierrot character: “I am a black Pierrot” (Hughes, The Weary Blues 43). Hughes also details color and pronoun use as particular aspects in how the speaker interacts with his environment. The speaker is specifically “a black Pierrot” whose actions align with what is colored, exampled in the lines where he “crept away into the [black] night,” “wept until the red dawn,” and “went forth… / To seek a new brown love” (Hughes, The Weary Blues 43). But the unrequited lover is both unidentified and colorless, which represents the relationship between the black artist and America. The lack of color indicates the white mindset that does not allow for the speaker (the black artist) to receive the love he so desires, resulting in a push away from his own identity as a artist of color: “My once gay-colored soul / Shrunken like a balloon without air” (Hughes, The Weary Blues 43). For Hughes, America is the unrequited lover whose inability to love the black Pierrot drives him toward vocalized expression of his story and to “seek a new brown love” (Hughes, The Weary Blues 43) which would emphasize the black experience as a mode for poetry for the artist.
On the surface, it seems as though Hughes in “Pierrot” works against the analysis of “Black Pierrot” by portraying the titular Pierrot as the established silent and comedic character; however, upon inspection it reveals Hughes’ belief in a radical turn of expectations in how a black artist should be as to what he is supposed to be, especially in comparison to Simple John. Simple John is a character that adheres to the norms the white mindset prefers in that he works to buy a house, loves one wife, and lives life in service to the Lord, but meanwhile in contrast, Pierrot is portrayed as languorous, adulterous, and sinful as he embodies the antithesis to that ideal (Hughes, The Weary Blues 49). This contrast is all the more significant due to the decision to have Simple John vocalize his ideals while Pierrot is silent and his flaws are narrated. What the audience knows about Pierrot is what we are told by the white mindset and not by Pierrot himself, whereas Simple John is given the authority to speak on his own behalf. We are simply meant to laugh at Pierrot, given how his flaws are given the end rhyme in each melodious stanza. But what is particularly significant to note is Pierrot’s attitude in regards to love, specifically in how “Pierrot left Pierrette” (Hughes, The Weary Blues 49). The poem implies the reasoning is that Pierrot could not be faithful to just one woman—unlike Simple John—to the extent where he runs away “with the burgher’s wife” (Hughes, The Weary Blues 50). What Pierrette and the burgher’s wife represent is critical to how Hughes perceives the future of black artists: Pierrette is the expected spouse, sharing the name indicates a sharing of Pierrot’s comedic qualities, whereas the burgher’s wife certainly reflects white America. Despite Pierrot’s silence, he manages to capture the “cultured” wife’s heart: essentially what Hughes intends for the black artist to do. This is the ideal that Hughes envisioned for the black artist, to be able to prove that he can be just as loved to the white mindset and maintain the black experience.
While “Black Pierrot” and “Pierrot” seemingly contradict each other in terms of Hughes’ beliefs, it only proves how resilient the false dichotomy of black versus white is, even in the mind of someone like Hughes. How can he both lift the black artist and appeal to the white artist if the black artist is wholly unable to appeal to the white artist? On one hand, the black artist might never receive encouragement from the white artist and so it would be better to forgo that influence; however, on the other hand what good is a voice if it is not heard by the majority? Hughes’ struggle with his own poetry matches his struggle in identity as a poet and as an American, in which the overbearing constraint of silence undermines the sharing of an authentic voice. His dilemma is best described by Raymond Smith in his essay, “Langston Hughes: Evolution of the Poetic Persona,” as to “strive to maintain his objectivity and artistic distance, while at the same time speaking with passion through the medium he has selected” (122). Hughes must both maintain a voice for the black artist while maintaining his role as an American poet, by which he “attempted to integrate the two facets of double consciousness (the American and the Negro) into a single vision” (Smith 123). Hughes’ personal and national identity come to a head in his poem, “I, Too.” In this poem, the personae of the black artist and the American culminate together to lift the black artist not through the white mindset, but in spite of its restrictive bias.
The most instrumental aspect of “I, Too” is the first-person pronoun representing more than Hughes as an individual. In his novel, Which Sin to Bear?, David Chinitz recognizes Hughes’ usage of “I” as a technique “to figure a universalized ‘Negro’ who speaks for ‘the race…’ [where] the ‘Negro’ embodies a collective voice and articulates a historical consciousness that binds the past to the present” (Chinitz 43). It is this history that the black artist needs to overcome: the black artist does not need to become an American because the black artist has always been an American. It is not a question of fitting the black artist to America, rather it is America changing to better represent its own history: “The black man’s roots in American soil are as deep, indeed deeper than the roots of most whites. Therefore Hughes, too, celebrates America, but… not the America that is but the America that is to come” (Jemie 139). When the speaker mentions America, it does so in the present tense: “I, too, sing America… / I, too, am America” (Hughes, The Weary Blues 91). There can be no mistaking that this poem serves to emphasize the national pride black artists should feel, despite what they have been denied.
The other aspect to the poem is in terms of the speaker’s voice, and how it is decidedly not silent. From the outset there is a vocalized proclamation of identity with the speaker: “I, too, sing America” (Hughes, The Weary Blues 91). This poem is the culmination of Hughes’ ideals set into words and not merely expression that needs interpretation. It is a call to arms for the black artist to use their voice, to laugh and eat well and grow strong so that their mindset is not diluted with tendencies toward white adherence. Rather, the voice of black artist would grow so strong even if it is never heard by anyone other than fellow black artists because what is important is that the voice is not silent and exists unto itself. What is of utmost significance indicating this as Hughes’ belief are the concluding stanzas:
They’ll see how beautiful I am
And be ashamed,—
I, too, am America. (Hughes, The Weary Blues 91).
Particularly, the singled-out mention that “they” will “see” the speaker—and not hear him—is indicative of the transition that Hughes feels is best. If Noah Standish’s perceived aim for Hughes is “turning historical pain into racial pride and artistic renewal” (41) in his essay, “Pain, Pride, & Renewal: How Langston Hughes Embodied the Harlem Renaissance,” then Hughes succeeds in this poem. Before with “Pierrot,” he wrestled with the dichotomy and attempted to solve it by proving it false while staying within its confines. But now it is apparant that Hughes lauds the voice of the black artist to be imperceptible to the white artist who has none of the black artist’s experiences, no longer desiring to run off with the burgher’s wife having found his new love.
If there is any essential evidence for Hughes’ poetry transitioning silence into an existence meant for the black artist, it would be with William Grant Still’s composition of “A Black Pierrot.” This vocalized form of Hughes’ original poem serves to represent the fulfillment of Hughes’ vision where the black artist may flourish outside the ears of the white audience. The arrangement begins with the solemn recounting of the black Pierrot’s unrequited love, but as the song goes on the melody becomes lighter and more jovial. This is especially apparent as the concluding lines are repeated in a triumphant proclamation in which the new “brown” love is found, as Still’s tribute to Hughes amplifies the future that Hughes envisioned. The white mindset has no choice but to “see” the success of the black artist, but “hearing” it is a different choice made on one’s own accord.
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