Jean Wagner: On "The Negro Speaks of Rivers"

Hughes's first poem, published in The Crisis in June, 1921, attracted the attention it did precisely because its author revealed the acute sensitivity to the racial past that Garvey, with his racial romanticism, was then trying to instill in the minds of all. "The Negro Speaks of Rivers" heralded the existence of a mystic union of Negroes in every country and every age. It pushed their history back to the creation of the world, and credited them with possessing a wisdom no less profound than that of the greatest rivers of civilization that humanity had ever known, from the Euphrates to the Nile and from the Congo to the Mississippi. . . .

Yet unlike Countee Cullen, and perhaps because he was the only poet of the Negro Renaissance who had a direct, rather disappointing contact with Africa, Hughes rarely indulges in a gratuitous idealization of the land of his ancestors. If, in spite of everything, the exaltation of African atavism has a significant place in his poetry up to 1931, the reason is merely that he had not yet discovered a less romantic manner that would express his discomfort at not being treated in his own country as a citizen on a par with any other. If he celebrates Africa as his mother, it is not only because all the black peoples originated there but also because America, which should be his real mother, had always behaved toward him in stepmotherly fashion.

From Black Poets of the United States. Copyright © 1973 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois.

On "Colossal American Copulation"

Adrian Louis's "A Colossal American Copulation" borrows heavily from Walt Whitman, whose poetics have been central to much of the American poetry that would follow. Louis, though, appropriates (as Ginsberg's poetry does) the free verse and cultural catalogues that Whitman used to celebrate and cohere a mid-nineteenth century America for its own later project of denouncing that same America. And while Louis' catalogue of what deserves to be fucked ranges freely over late twentieth century America, there is nevertheless a persistent logic to its categories. It targets violence made even more repugnant for its banality ("Fuck the men who keep their dogs chained./ Fuck the men who molest their daughters.") It especially criticizes acts of state violence. "Fuck the gutless Guardsmen / who were at Kent State...." and "Fuck, no, double fuck the Vietnam War." Beyond its critique of personal and state violence, though, the poem also aims at popular culture ("Fuck...The Immaturity of MTV. Those Monster Trucks.") and what we might simply call bad taste (Fuck...my other neighbor who has plastic life-sized deer in his front yard.") The poem is also free with its condemnations of its contemporary literary scene: "Fuck the Creative Writing programs/ and all the SPAM poets they hatch." "Fuck The Waste Land by T.S. Eliot. And all those useless allusions." And (my favorite): "F*U*C*K the L*A*N*G*U*A*G*E poets." Perhaps it's too generous to explain away those critiques we might have more trouble cheering on--its possible backhanded racism ("Fuck every gangbanger in America") and misogyny ("Fuck...That first pussy I ever touched") by arguing that even the speaker has been corrupted by that which he so doggedly critiques. Nevertheless, all these individual critiques add up to a wholesale condemnation of America and American culture. "A Colossal American Copulation" goes beyond something like reformism to reject the whole American cultural scene and even, I would argue, though they are only obliquely evoked, the foundations of that scene.

The poem begins and ends with a stanza expressing the speaker's resignation:

"They say there's a promise coming down that dusty road. They say there's a promise coming down That dusty road, but I don't see it."

"Promise," in its abstractness, carries multiple meanings. The legal coercion of Indian Removal in the 1830s and 1840s, the promise of "assimilation," which is a nice word, to call forth House Resolution 108 from 1953, for "termination," and finally the promise of cultural autonomy and a decent way of life that goes unfulfilled even today. But that this promise is to arrive "down that dusty road" suggests finally a critique of the promises of Western Civilization and the promises of equality and equal protection under the law contained in the Declaration of Independence and Constitution, the American incarnation of the West. In an interview with Geronimo, a journal of politics and culture, Louis says of the United States

Oh, it's here. I try to ignore it if I can. (Pause) This country was founded on violence. So it's kind of like karma coming back to haunt us, you know. When the Spaniards came into the towns here they killed more Indians than Hitler killed Jews in his ovens. It's a greater holocaust here than there was in Europe during World War II. That's a historical fact. America is a schizophrenic country. On the one hand, it purports to be the peace loving center of the universe. On the other hand, it's got everything it has from violence and taking.

It's an open question whether the violence and barbarity at the source of America undermines any claims it can make for its contribution to democracy and freedom, its promises. For some, the abuses trump whatever good may have or will come. Except in "A Colossal American Copulation," there is no suggestion of those goods, those promises, which are infinitely promised but also infinitely postponed, until the speaker has given up on ever seeing them. Instead, we get the detritus of popular culture and a smug violence, metonymies for the larger culture, all of which the speaker equally, and with pointed language, rejects.

Harry B. Shaw: On "Gay Chaps at the Bar"

It is ironic that here the Black man utters an expression of doubt in a poem entitled "[Love Note I:] Surely."  Although the multiplicity of possible referents in the poem lends itself to a display of artful ambiguity, the persona can be seen using the lover motif to suggest the relationship between Black people and their country.  The sestet of the sonnet helps to unravel some of the ambiguity of the octave.  Read negatively, in light of the sestet, "surely" becomes an expression of doubt rather than certainty. . . .  [T]he use of "surely" in this poem focuses the sarcasm on that about which the Black man would be most secure.  Surely the country and its democracy could not be thought of by the Black man as "mine"; surely to him country had not been "all honest, lofty as a cloud"; surely he would not be assured of the country's love; and surely the country's eyes were not "ungauzed."

. . . "Love Note II: Flags" continues the motif of the unrequited lover to convey the Black soldier's disillusionment over his country's failure to champion his cause in his war for dignity.  Democracy is alluded to here as a lady whose flag the Black fox-hole soldier carries.   Bitter about being whimsically jilted by the fair lady of democracy, the soldier makes a sarcastic proposition in the octave. . . .

"Dear defiance" suggests the indignation provoked whenever the flag and what it represents are invoked by Black people to champion their cause.   The soldier's disgust is shown by his dragging the flag into the foxhole with him and asking derisively, "Do you mind?"

Other poems about the Black man as soldier-patriot . . . reveal as much about the societal mentality against which Black people struggle as about Black people themselves.  The poems depicting the Black man attempting to be a patriot reveal the tension caused by the attraction and the danger of committing to the American dream.  Indeed the danger is sufficient to transform the Black citizen who would be a patriot into a victim of the larger society.  To be sure, each of the patriots discussed so far has been a victim of racism in the larger society.  The Negro hero, for example, was a victim of racism before as well as after his heroic moment.  Most often, however, Black people who are victims of the larger society are not soldiers or patriots but ordinary citizens of the ghetto.  They share, though, the same flirtation with the American dream as do the would-be patriots.  The notion of being able to obtain the good life--or some aspect of it--provides the lure which eventually traps Black people as victims of society.

Shaw, Harry B.  "Perceptions of Men in the Early Works of Gwendolyn Brooks."  Black American Poets Between Worlds, 1940-1960.  Ed. R. Baxter Miller.  Knoxville: U of Tennessee P, 1986.  136-59.