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The Voices of The Voiceless: Comparing The Poetry of Langston Hughes and Countee Cullen

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As two key figureheads in what is now deemed the Harlem Renaissance, Langston Hughes and Countee Cullen served as voices for a previously voiceless population. Their poetry speaks of the enduring struggles of being an African American, and the effort required to merely survive in such a discriminatory society. However, despite being poets with similar senses of purpose, their employed methods differed dramatically; Hughes and Cullen approach the field of poetry at two vastly different vantage points. While Hughes and Cullen differ in selections of speaker and audience, their core concepts of struggle, a faulty society, and a wise, complex narrator remain mutual.

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As blacks in 1920s America, Hughes and Cullen were victims of widespread (and, at the time, socially acceptable) discrimination. These circumstances provided the primary themes for much of their poetry, inspiring them to write on the daily battles of life as a second class citizen. The theme of rising above struggle can be found in both author’s works. In Langston Hughes’s poem “Mother to Son”, the narrator explains to her son that while the stairs may be unstable and dark, he must continue ascending and follow her. Symbolically, the narrator is telling her son that while life for them is filled with setbacks, they must continue to persevere on. A similar theme of finding strength and perseverance is apparent in Cullen’s poem “Incident.” In this text, the narrator recalls a time when he was called a “Nigger” while in Baltimore. However, before receiving this insult, the narrator describes himself as “heart-filled, head-filled with glee” (2). Like Hughes’s narrator that keeps climbing up, the narrator in “Incident” finds light-hearted happiness despite living in a world of discrimination. We again find this positivity in Cullen’s “Yet Do I Marvel.” Though the narrator describes the frustrating struggle of a “never-ending stair” (symbolism reminiscent of the stairs found in Hughes’s “Mother to Son”), he still expresses a jovial tone in this dilemma: “Yet do I marvel at this curious thing: / To make a poet black, and bid him sing!” (13-14). Again and again, Cullen and Hughes express their resilience in the face of racism through their poetry.

While both poets write on the discrimination that surrounds them, it is worth noting that neither author directly labels the “white man” as the cause. Rather, the blame is placed upon a more vague, general sense of society and the world in which they live. This is evident in Hughes’s work “I, Too.” When the narrator is sent to the kitchen to eat, who sends him is merely described with the pronoun “they.” Though the narrator is the victim of presumably white supremacy, the poem never specifically terms “them” as whites. Cullen utilizes a similar approach. In “Yet Do I Marvel,” God himself is blamed for the black poet’s tragic fate, rather than the work of white men. Additionally, “Incident” describes the speaker of the racial slur simply as a “Baltimorean,” rather than identifying his race. In all three of these works, Hughes and Cullen spoke of a broader cause of discrimination, rather than simply the whites around them. The poets allude to a deeper racism than merely the words and actions they experience; rather, they are victims of an entire social system that turns individuals like the “Baltimorean” into vocal racists. Hughes and Cullen recognize that discrimination does not start and end with the way they are treated; it is woven into the fabric of American culture, and it is much grander in scale than merely those who take part.

A final commonality shared between the works of Hughes and Cullen is the recurring complexity and development of the narrator. Both authors give depth and persona to the voices telling of their experiences. They are more than actors in a discriminating world; they are individuals who have pasts that have established who they are today. In Hughes’s poem “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” the narrator describes a wide array of dramatic experiences, ranging from building the pyramids to witnessing Abe Lincoln traveling the Mississippi River. While these statements are metaphorical in nature (to be further examined later in this analysis), they give the reader an idea of the narrator’s accumulated wisdom. The recurring line “My soul has grown deep like the rivers” confirms a connection between past experiences and personal development. Similar self-exploration is found in Cullen’s “Heritage,” in which the narrator explores his sentiments towards his African ancestry. While he feels distant from the jungles of Africa and a culture that seems as foreign to him as it would to any white man, the narrator still feels some sense of obligation to take interest and pride in his heritage. This character is given a fully developed persona, filled with guilt, conflict, and curiosity. Both Hughes and Cullen give depth to their narrators, revealing them to be individuals who have been shaped by their past experiences.

Despite the similarities in content and thematic developments, the works of Hughes and Cullen differ greatly in stylistic elements. While Hughes shapes his work around a general idea that fits the archetypal African American, Cullen works from specific personal experiences. Hughes feels a sense of obligation for speaking on behalf of a population previously unheard. His stories are made applicable to the entire black population, speaking of experiences that are broad and not able to be experienced as a single individual in the literal sense. This is found in “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” where Hughes writes, “I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young. / I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep” (5-6). One can safely assume the narrator has not literally had these experiences personally, rather they speak to the experiences of the black archetype. While the man who built the pyramids is not the same man who saw Abe Lincoln visit New Orleans, they are men of the black community to which the poet seeks to offer a voice. Hughes generalizes to give broad application of his poems to the true experiences of black Americans. Not wanted to exclude his community by speaking on only his personal experiences, Hughes offers himself as a voice to the archetypal black life.

In contrast is the work of Cullen, which consistently tells specific stories of personal experience. Cullen too sought to be a voice for the black community, however, he believed this could be achieved through the recounting of his individual tales. For example, “Incident” tells the story of a man who is called a “Nigger” while in Baltimore. Though this is a specific experience, it is a situation to which most black Americans of the era could relate. Both Hughes and Cullen seek to be relatable to the black community, and yet two vastly differing approach are taken in pursuit of this goal.

Perhaps the most notable differences in the works of Hughes and Cullen can be found in their choice of language. Hughes seeks to free himself from the shackles of whitewashed literary standards, writing as a black man for a black audience. Cullen chooses to adhere to the traditional poetic rules, proving that it does not take a white man to create high quality literature. These differing attitudes are manifested in chosen vocabulary and syntax. Hughes makes use of black English vernacular, writing the way that the archetypal black man sounds when he speaks. In “Mother to Son,” Hughes writes “For I’se still goin’, honey, / I’se still climbin’” (18-19). In this abandonment of standard English, Hughes places the verbal element of black culture in a literary context. In contrast is the formal, eloquent language of Cullen. In “Yet Do I Marvel”, his vocabulary and sentence structure is far from colloquial: “I doubt not God is good, well-meaning, kind, / And did He stoop to quibble could tell why” (1-2). Cullen asserts his use of formal, standard English as proof of the capabilities of black poets like himself.

Consistent with their attitudes towards traditional literary rules, Hughes and Cullen took differing approaches to poetic structure, specifically rhyme scheme and meter. Hughes employs free verse, allowing him to boundlessly express the black experience to a black audience. His work lacks a regular rhyme scheme and rhythm, with no regular meter to be followed. In opposition is the work of Cullen, which, like his chosen vocabulary, adheres to literary standards. One example is “Incident,” following a regular rhyme scheme and meter. Written in traditional ballad form, its meter alternates each line between iambic tetrameter and iambic trimeter. Its rhyme scheme follows an ABCB pattern, in which the last syllable in the second and fourth lines of each stanza rhyme. Giving the poem structure, Cullen used this technique as further proof of his ability to keep up with even the best literary figures.

While both Cullen and Hughes play significant roles in the Harlem Renaissance, Hughes stands out as the better poet. Cullen clearly expresses his talent and ability to express black life within the confines of standard literature, however, Hughes truly opened the door on a new realm of poetry for generations to come. By breaking the mold on standard English and regular rhyme scheme and meter, he speaks to an audience previous unaddressed and ignored. Poetry was now available for consumption to all who chose to partake, rather than simply the elite world of literature. In addition, his use of black English vernacular helped to legitimize its presence as a true dialect of English rather than simply a butchering of correct speech. Because he speaks for and to the general African American, Hughes offers solidarity to an entire community suffering from discrimination. Though both poets have generated exquisite work highlighting the plight of the African American, Hughes’s work has made a more significant stride for both poetic standards and the black community in the United States.

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As poets of an era filled with horrific racism, Hughes and Cullen offered insight into the darker side of America. Both shared stories of struggling against a society saturated with discrimination, while also offering the reader insight into developed and experienced narrators. However, these stories are told with differing methods: while Hughes uses archetypal stories, black English vernacular, and free verse form to resonate with an entire community, Cullen maintains a specific, individual perspective, using formal English and regular rhyme scheme and rhythm. Through their similarities and differences, Cullen and Hughes both prove themselves to be groundbreaking poets for the African American community.

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