James Smethurst: On "Come to the Waldorf-Astoria"

A recognizably African-American voice was not entirely subsumed in the vision of an essentially raceless America that characterized Hughes's work appearing in the journals of the literary Left during the early and middle 1930s. Hughes's Left poems during this period often feature a racially ambiguous generically "hard-boiled" working-class speaker whose diction derives as much from pulp fiction and the movies as from any actually spoken English. But frequently an African-American voice erupts from within the address of the "hardboiled" speaker, as it does in a section of "Advertisement for the Waldorf-Astoria":

NEGROES

Oh Lawd, I done forgot Harlem!

   Say, you colored folks, hungry a long time in

    35th Street they got swell music at the Waldorf-Astoria. It sure 

    is a mighty nice place to shake hips in, too. There's dancing 

    after supper in a big warm room. It's cold as hell on Lenox 

    Avenue. All you've had all day is a cup of coffee. Your 

    pawnshop overcoat's a ragged banner on your hungry frame. 

    You know, downtown folks are just crazy about Paul Robeson! 

    Maybe they'll like you, too, black mob from Harlem. Drop in 

    the Waldorf this afternoon for tea. Stay to dinner. Give Park 

    Avenue a lot of darkie color--free for nothing! Ask the Junior 

    Leaguers to sing a spiritual for you. They probably know 'em 

    better than you do--and their lips won't be chapped with cold 

    after they step out of their closed cars in the undercover driveways.

    Hallelujah! under-cover driveways!

    Ma Soul's a witness for the Waldorf-Astoria!

As in "Scottsboro Limited" there is a satire on African-American vernacular language and cultural forms rooted in the rural South, notably that of the rural black church. The narrator adopts a pseudo-folk voice shouting about the glory of the Waldorf-Astoria, which he follows with the bracketed recitations of the harsh economic realities of African Americans and the subaltern peoples of European and American colonies. However, the satire is obviously in the first place a comment on the cultural consumption of wealthy white people who love spirituals and Paul Robeson and only secondly on the rural folk culture. Thus the overall effect of the poem is similar to that of Sterling Brown's "Cabaret," where a commercialization of the folk for white consumption, both simultaneously marketing and obscuring the actual life of the folk is followed by what might be thought of as riffs or fragments of the actual experience of the rural black poor. The difference is that Hughes is more ambiguous here about the rural folk culture that underlies his satirical verses than Brown, who is unabashedly a partisan of that culture. Hughes also makes a connection between the experiences of Africans on rubber plantations, black railroad workers in the South, and unemployed Harlem residents that Brown does not. Unlike the narratorial voice in "Cabaret," the speaker of "Advertisement for the Waldorf-Astoria" locates himself among the black folk, albeit in Harlem rather than the rural South. It is at this moment ("And here we stand, shivering in the cold, in Harlem") that Hughes's speaker steps out of a generic working-class vernacular American role and into a specifically African-American identity, using the pronoun "we" for the first (and virtually the only) time instead of "you." It is notable that in these bracketed passages in which the speaker identifies himself (or possibly herself, though the speaker's male-identified "hard-boiled" diction invites the reader to cast him as male) racially and situates himself in a specific urban Aftican-American community, the work is most formally "poetic" and least "prosaic." The bracketed passages employ much alliteration, assonance, near-rhyme, and internal rhyme, and (with the notable exception of the word "nigger") a relatively "standard" diction. These devices are virtually absent in the unbracketed prose passage of this section of the poem. Thus, as in "Scottsboro Limited," there is an interrelation between plain truth, self-realization, and poetry cast in an unequivocally "poetic" form, as well as a sense that the African-American vernacular derived from southern black culture is something to be transcended even as a specifically African-American voice remains distinct.

From The New Red Negro: The Literary Left and African American Poetry, 1930-1946. Copyright © 1999 by Oxford University Press.

Details

Criticism Overview
Title James Smethurst: On "Come to the Waldorf-Astoria" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author James Smethurst Criticism Target Langston Hughes
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 19 Oct 2015
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication The New Red Negro: The Literary Left and African American Poetry, 1930-1946
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