James A. Emanuel

James A. Emanuel: On "Goodbye Christ"

An example of a miscarriage of poetic point is Hughes's controversial "Goodbye Christ," a poem which, in the 1930's and 1940's especially, attracted gusts of misinterpretation and calumny. Such repercussions bore upon the refusal of the Los Angeles Civic League in August, 1935, to let Hughes speak in a local YMCA building, and upon the picketing and circularizing by Gerald L. K. Smith's America First Party in April, 1943, at Wayne State University when the Student Council invited the poet to speak there. Hughes defense of the tough-guy poem as not anti-Christ but as "an ironic protest against racketeering in the churches" and as "anti-misuse of religion" implies that the gist of the poem is in these lines about the New Testament:

But it's dead now.

The popes and the preachers've

Made too much money from it.

They've sold you [Christ] to too many

Kings, generals, robbers, and killers--

Even to the Tzar and the Cossacks. . . .

The fact that the poem also excoriates "big black Saint Becton/Of the Consecrated Dime," the Harlem preacher shown as a charlatan in The Big Sea, has not redeemed features disliked by detractors. Redemption was not needed in the eyes of other readers, such as the Reverend Charles C. Hill, Chairman of the Citizens Committee of Detroit, who answered a letter from Gerald L. K. Smith by saying that Hughes "was expressing the feeling of most Negroes toward white Christianity as displayed every day." Emphasizing that a distortion of Christianity was the poet's point of attack, he added: "I can join Langston Hughes with teeming others in saying 'Goodbye Christ'--the Christ as held up by the white supremacists. . . .

From Langston Hughes (Twayne, 1967).

James A. Emanuel: On "Mulatto"

This dramatic dialogue offers a tensely individualized conflict between father and son that is hardened by the vigor and scorn of the words and broadened by carefully placed, suggestive details from nature. The son's adamant voice opens the poem, but is transformed into a passive Negro feminine presence exuberantly recalled by the white father, who feels half-pleasurably nagged in his fancied return to the conception and infancy of his son. The poet, employing the past awakened in the white man, leaves him musing and moves the growing child swiftly through years of hostile rejection by his white half-brothers--implying virtual estrangement from his father, whom he no longer reminds of sexual freedom in the Negro quarter. "Niggers ain't my brother" is the rebuff so ungrammatically worded as to show the displacement of reason and truth by blind social restrictions. In the last third of the poem, the father's reminiscences of woods, stars, and exploitable black women are slightly rephrased, indistinctly merging the author's voice with the father's. At the end, "I am your son, white man!" is repeated as a challenging accusation, weaker now, yet taking precedence over the phrases enclosing it, the author-father's echoes of earlier sensuous memories. Oddly, this is the father's poem. The delicious memories, the unweakened sense of arbitrary power to take and to withhold, the expansive portents of nature, even though ironically misconstrued--all are his. The son is the catalyst, but the father glows. The author expands his profoundly racial material and so convincingly explores a white father's subconscious that the poet's own hovering irony becomes inseparable from the ambivalent remembrances of his subject.

From Langston Hughes (Twayne, 1967)

James A. Emanuel: On "We Wear the Mask"

[T]he poem that most often moves readers of the 1970s to credit him with racial fire: 'We Wear the Mask." Significantly an early poem, it is spoken by black people and for black people. Too well known to demand full quotation here, it nevertheless has features that should be mentioned. In the opening lines, for example—"We wear the mask that grins and lies, / It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes"--Dunbar is careful to show that the mask is grinning, not the black man. Although the poet's use of the word "lies" is probably simple, it might not be. If the mask is lying to the wearer, the anguish of the black man shown in "Vagrants" is brought into play. If the mask is lying to white people, the psychology later explored by Ralph Ellison's Dr. Bledsoe and the grandfather and the black physician in Invisible Man enters the poem. The hiding of cheeks and eyes is the concealment of those features that reveal tears and that give quality to smiles. To be blinded to these parts of a person's countenance is to be blinded to his special humanity--which Langston Hughes considered artfully in writing his well-known poem "Minstrel Man." Skipping to the end of the stanza, where Dunbar says that black people "mouth with myriad subtleties," one notes the precise usage of the verb "mouth," which intensifies the mask theme by suggesting pretense, affectation, grimacing, and distortion of one's genuine features. In attributing to these actions "myriad subtleties," Dunbar indirectly commends the imaginative creativity that black people have been forced either to waste or to narrow because of the vagaries of white racism.

The wealth of implication in only three lines of this poem indicates what a thorough examination of it ought to yield. It must suffice here to make two more observations. By indicating in the second stanza that the world would be "overwise" in sympathetically enumerating the miseries of black people, Dunbar recognizes that individuals risk their psychological equilibrium in immersing themselves too long or too deeply in the catastrophes of others. In short, they know too much for their own good. And when that unwanted knowledge brings guilt, real or assumed, for the almost irremediable ills of victimized millions, the wisdom of sympathetic involvement diminishes. Although Dunbar questions the prudence of such commitment, he sees the trap that white bigots have set for themselves: they continue dreaming. Let them dream, concludes the poet, knowing that dreamers have only two destinies: they either die in their sleep or they wake up. And when these wake up, they will face what William Blake and Edgar Allan Poe foresaw in mystical terms as the destruction of the mind.

From "Racial Fire in the Poetry of Paul Laurence Dunbar" in A Singer in the Dawn: Reinterpretations of Paul Laurence Dunbar. Ed. Jay Martin. New York: Dodd, Mead & Co., 1975. Copyright © 1975 by Jay Martin.

James A. Emanuel: On "The Haunted Oak"

"The Haunted Oak," written and publsihed in 1900, could have been based on one of the 105 lynchings that occurred that year, but it was inspired in Washington, D.C., by a story that Dunbar heard an old black man relate concerning his nephew in Alabama who bad been hanged on an oak tree by a mob of whites after having been falsely accused of "a grave crime." According to the story, shortly afterwards the leaves on the limb used for the lynching yellowed and fell off; and, unlike the rest of the normal tree, the offending bough shriveled and died. Townspeople began to call the tree "the haunted oak." Dunbar, using the ballad form to enhance the superstition, personifies the tree and makes it the most sensitive and remorseful participant in the crime.

Perhaps the narrative style and the limitation of feeling and thought to that tolerable in the personification prohibit strong individual expression on the author's part. On the other hand, it is relatively easy to miss the sharpness of the satire in the following crucial stanza describing the nightriders:

Oh, the judge, he wore a mask of black,

And the doctor one of white,

And the minister, with his oldest son,

Was curiously bedight.

Within the racial context, what more economical, low-tension attack could have been launched against the lie of white justice, the lie of white solicitude for the sick, and the lie of white godliness?

From "Racial Fire in the Poetry of Paul Laurence Dunbar" in A Singer in the Dawn: Reinterpretations of Paul Laurence Dunbar. Ed. Jay Martin. New York: Dodd, Mead & Co., 1975. Copyright © 1975 by Jay Martin.