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Mulatto by Langston Hughes: Poem & Analysis

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  • 0:04 ~''Mulatto~''
  • 1:35 Analysis
  • 2:10 Harlem Renaissance
  • 3:15 Themes
  • 4:23 ~''Mulatto~'' & Jazz
  • 5:24 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Ian Matthews

Ian teaches college writing and has a Master's in Writing and Publishing

Langston Hughes is probably the most well-known voice of the Harlem Renaissance, a movement of African American writers living in New York in the 1920s and 30s. ''Mulatto'' isn't as well-known as Hughes's other poems, but its sharp commentary and jazzy tone are worth examining. Let's take a look.

''Mulatto''

by Langston Hughes

I am your son, white man!

Georgia dusk
And the turpentine woods.
One of the pillars of the temple fell.

You are my son!
Like Hell!

The moon over the turpentine woods.
The Southern night
Full of stars,
Great big yellow stars.

What's a body but a toy?
Juicy bodies
Of nigger wenches
Blue black
Against black fences.
O, you little bastard boy,
What's a body but a toy?

The scent of pine wood stings the soft night air.

What's the body of your mother?

Silver moonlight everywhere.

Sharp pine scent in the evening air.

A nigger night,
A nigger joy,
A little yellow
Bastard boy. Naw, you ain't my brother.
Niggers ain't my brother.
Not ever.
Niggers ain't my brother.

The Southern night is full of stars,
Great big yellow stars.

O, sweet as earth,
Dusk dark bodies
Give sweet birth

To little yellow bastard boys.

Git on back there in the night,
You ain't white

The bright stars scatter everywhere.
Pine wood scent in the evening air.

A nigger night,
A nigger joy. I am your son, white man!
A little yellow
Bastard boy.

Analysis

''Mulatto'' is the story of a mixed-race son approaching his white father and being rejected. The father refuses to recognize the speaker as his son, since he's not white -- he's a ''little yellow bastard boy'' who should ''git on back there in the night.'' And his mother is just a ''toy,'' not a person, because of her race. But by the end of the poem, the speaker reclaims that night, and his heritage, from his racist father -- it's a ''nigger night, a nigger joy.'' He proudly reminds the other character: ''I am your son, white man!''

Harlem Renaissance

The Harlem Renaissance really began around 1917, as African-Americans who had moved to New York - Harlem, to be exact - started creating and performing written works, plays, art, and music at places like The Apollo and the Savoy Ballroom, many of which are still around today. Mainstream (white) cultural acceptance of art by African-American creators paved the way for many artists working today; without Langston Hughes, we might not have Kanye West.

Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald were among the many jazz musicians who got their start during this time. Writers who became famous during the Harlem Renaissance include Zora Neale Hurston, Claude McKay, and, of course, Langston Hughes.

Hughes, himself of mixed-race, was especially interested in showing what everyday life was like for African-Americans during this time. This shows up especially in poems like ''Mulatto'' in which Hughes confronts common issues like racism and poverty. Hughes saw finding self-worth as a virtue, even in the face of extreme poverty and racial prejudice.

Themes

This idea of accepting yourself as a mixed-race person in the face of racism really defines ''Mulatto.'' The poem moves from the speaker, who proudly says ''I am your son, white man!'' to the white man, who can't even consider the idea. To the white man, the body of the speaker's mother is just a toy - not even human - so she can't have a child.

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