Langston Hughes created poetic forms that focused on the experiences of black Americans and spoke in an idiom that blacks would recognize as distinct from the traditions of high art as defined by white artists and white audiences were fully intentional. Hughes’s works – whether poetry or prose – are meant to be read aloud, for his work is fundamentally concerned with rhythm. In many ways, it is a literary embodiment of the same metrical concerns that define jazz combined with the verbal slipperiness of assonance and alliteration. This emphasis on cadence both helped to define Hughes’s work (as well as that of jazz) as a uniquely black idiom. It also gave his words and ideas a resonance and power that they would have lacked had they not been governed by such a fundamental commitment to the rhythms of spoken language. We can see the power that his reliance on rhythm gave to all his works in the poem “Mulatto” as well as in nearly all of his other poems.
Hughes combined both traditional black idioms with still-developing ones and added to them an articulate anger that had been growing throughout Reconstruction over the stagnation of the progress that blacks were making in American society. In “Mulatto” Hughes speaks of both anger and pain. The poem may be in some part autobiographical, for Hughes was rejected by his own father not because of his race but because of his determination to become an artist. The pain that any child feels when rejected by a parent runs through this poem, as does the anger of all of those who have been rejected by society because of how they look rather than who they are.
The poem plays with terms for color, alternately cajoling us and shouting at us. There are “good” colors and “bad” colors in this poem – in the same way, that there are “good” skin colors and “bad” skin colors. One of the reasons that this poem is so powerful is that the same color – yellow, the color of gold – is simultaneously both good and bad. There is the gold of starlight, the gold that lures people into each other’s arms:
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