Whitman and Hughes: An Identity Deferred?

While reading Langston Hughes’s work, I saw him uniting different voices and experiences, much like Walt Whitman. However, I think that Hughes takes a very crucial next step toward a transcendence of the need to categorize identities, where Whitman celebrates differing identities and just stops there. Whitman points out differences among people and embraces those differences. Even though he celebrates all people, he implicitly acknowledges the hierarchy of their stations in life by the inherent value in their respective categories. In “Song of Myself” he places the prostitute next to the President. He highlights the fact that most people believe that someone as low as a prostitute has no place next to a President. Whitman reassures her that he will not jeer at her just because of who she is and what she has done. But even though Whitman sings the song of her, he still defines her by her prostituteness. Limiting her to an identity as a prostitute, she cannot truly be free of the category that keeps her marginalized.

In Montage of a Dream Deferred, Langston Hughes tries to break free of those kinds of ideas of representation and identity. Throughout Montage, Hughes sings the song of human experience, specifically in Harlem. But I think “Harlem” is an idea, or an identity, or a dream. This “Harlem” shows up in “Juke Box Love Song,” where Hughes invokes “the Harlem night” as well as a “sweet brown Harlem girl.” This “Harlem girl” could be an actual young woman who lives in Harlem to whom this poem is addressed, but I think she is a more generalized or ambiguous figure. In “Juke Box Love Song,” Hughes implores us to “take Harlem’s heartbeat, / Make a drumbeat, / Put it on a record, let it whirl.” To Hughes, Harlem’s heartbeat is a drumbeat. Music is an integral part of Harlem and musical expression is the essence of life there. Hughes masterfully weaves elements and themes of jazz and be-bop into the fabric of Montage. Jazz and be-bop are highly improvisational forms of music, effusing infinite possibilities. This need to express the idea of infinite possibilities is crucial to Hughes in Montage. Though Hughes writes a poem that acknowledges and celebrates the characteristics of the African-American experience, he tries to resist a singular idea of African-Americanness. Though Montage sings a song of an identity, it refuses to be defined by it, or limited by it, or defeated by it. Hughes, Montage, and the “brown Harlem girl” hope to transcend that idea of identity. By transcending it, maybe they could find some kind of freedom.

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One Response to Whitman and Hughes: An Identity Deferred?

  1. Justine Rowe says:

    I am driven to respond to your post because my post is generally about the same thing, except opposite. I feel that Hughes is making a valiant attempt at shaking up representations of identity, but is still working to define an identity, an African American one. However, I do think you make a great point about the use of music, especially the improvisation in jazz and how we can relate that to the possibilities of identity. As for Whitman, while I agree with you that by referring to the woman as a prostitute he is defining her as such, his juxtaposition and epic lists of different people and experiences makes an attempt to find a shared human identity beneath the different lives we all lead.

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