Familial Terms in Hughes

There’s a family theme that runs across the selection of Langston Hughes poems we read for today. Hughes in the least uses familial language as a vehicle for exploring broader social relationships between African Americans, American Indians, and white Americans, rich and poor, and opulent and neglected environments. Hughes starts “Boogie: 1 A.M.” using a paternal address, “Good evening, daddy!” While a capital “D” in daddy might suggest an actual family relationship with the addressee, the use of a paternal address here appears tied to an intimate knowledge between speaker and addressee: “I know you’ve heard / the boogie-woogie rumble / of a dream deferred.” In using “daddy” here, Hughes knowns the experience of his addressee: “I know you’ve heard” which to me suggests a sense of familial intimacy. Like when I botch an explanation of something to a friend, then quickly following it up with “you know what I mean.” Hughes uses a similar sense of tacit knowledge in the line “I know you’ve heard.” Contrastingly, that assurance is questioned in “Dream Boogie”: “[A]in’t you heard”.

“Mother to Son” inverts the address of “Boogie: 1 A.M.” and “Dream Boogie,” from (metaphoric or literal) child to parent, to parent to child.

In “I, Too,” the speaker characterizes themselves as “the darker brother,” furthermore emphasizing kinship, if an implied and understated one, specifically in terms of family relation, and not other types of societal bonds.

In contrast to these familial terms across Hughes’ poems, the poem that most starkly highlights the ideological makeup of the United States is more individualized, even as it rhetorically and formally puts these individualized voices in conversation: “I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart, / I am the Negro bearing slavery’s scars/ I am the red man driven from the land, / I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek— /And finding only the same old stupid plan / Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.” These various I’s are amalgamated into “ME” further down, and then in the finally into “we, the people” (unlike with the Constitution, using a lowercase P), in a way that parallels/contrasts/compliments/undercuts the familial terms and themes of the other poems.