For Langston Hughes, knowledge is freedom. Hughes uses his knowledge and extensive travels to exhibit complexity in “The Negro Speaks of Rivers”, and because of knowledge the speaker says, “My soul has grown deep like rivers”. In “Theme for English B”, the speaker has hope that knowledge could connect him to his white teacher, “As I learn from you, I guess you learn from me”. In “Deferred”, the speaker finds value in knowledge, even if it is not applicable to the life they are leading, “I always did want to study French. It don’t make sense—I’ll never go to France”. Hughes celebrates and advocates seeking knowledge.
I think that is why the word “knowledge” seemed particularly misplaced in Jean Toomer’s, “Harvest Song”. In his isolation, the reaper says, “I fear knowledge of my hunger.” In his poetry, Hughes gives the reader no reason to fear knowledge, so it surprised me when the speaker in “Harvest Song” says that so directly. We said in class that the speaker is telling the reader that his body is not enlivened by the labor he is doing. I’d go further though, that perhaps he is numbing his mind as means to carry on. While he desires intellectual and social stimulation (he knows “It would be good to hear their songs”), he is unable to participate because he is hungry, chilled, fatigued, and has a dry throat. In the same stanza that he admits his fear of knowledge, he also says, “I fear to call.” and “I fear I could not taste [their grain, oats, or wheat, or corn]” if others were to offer them to him. It seems that he knows what his desires and needs are, yet cannot overcome his fear because he dreads being let down.
I wonder if the joy that Hughes finds in knowledge could give a voice to Toomer’s reaper.
I agree that knowledge is freedom to Hughes, but I don’t necessarily think it always brings him joy. Empowerment, sure, but there are some solemn poems and moments when knowing the truth about something, its true source, probably breaks Hughes’s heart. I think this is the knowledge Toomer is talking about. There still is an element of fear, though. The hunger he has in him is deeper than he wants to admit, and he is afraid to face it.