Monday, February 10, 2014

Is Langston Hughes’ “Song for a Dark Girl” a Religious Poem?

Song for a Dark Girl
by Langston Hughes 
Way Down South in Dixie
 (Break the heart of me)
They hung my black young lover
 To a cross roads tree.
Way Down South in Dixie
 (Bruised body high in air)
I asked the white Lord Jesus
 What was the use of prayer.
Way Down South in Dixie
 (Break the heart of me)
Love is a naked shadow
 On a gnarled and naked tree.

Is Langston Hughes’ “Song for a Dark Girl” a Religious Poem?
by Casey Sean Harmon
In Langston Hughes’ “Song for a Dark Girl,” readers are given the opportunity to experience the aftereffects of a tragic situation through the eyes of an African-American girl during the days of slavery in southern America. Many believe that the author’s use of religious-themed allegories suggests a likeness between the incident and the tragic death of Christ, although the author’s intentions are not clear. One thing that is clear: it is very difficult to ignore the pain felt by the speaker, or to disregard the grief felt by the African-American people as a whole.
            Readers can see by the title that the poem, or “song”, is for “a dark girl.” The title may not only be referring to the dark color of the girl’s skin, but also the darkness, or sadness, felt by the girl, as the word “darkness” is commonly used to describe a state of unpleasantness. The speaker may also be trying to reach out to anyone who has experienced the grief and suffering bore by so many African-Americans in the days of slavery.
            The first line of the poem, “Way Down South in Dixie,” inspires thoughts of the American deep south, and comes from the upbeat pro-slavery anthem, “Dixie.” (The ever-controversial song was meant to poke fun at the African-American slaves, insinuating that they “loved living on plantations, and preferred slavery over freedom;” it was also a rivalry tool against the north, who sought to end slavery.) But it is made clear by the second line, which is emphasized by parenthesis to represent an internal emotion, that this poem is no “ode to joy.”
            The narrator reveals the girl’s distress by saying, “Break the heart of me,” followed immediately by the girl’s cry, “They hung my black young lover to a cross roads tree.” Readers are now shockingly aware of the tragedy at hand: the girl’s lover has been hanged—and, as was common in those days, more than likely for no reason.
            The first possible representation of Christ is the fact that the girl’s lover was hanged “on a cross roads tree.” Some believe that this is a tree located on the corner of a four-way intersection, where people passing by can see and mock the dead body. However, it is curious why the author spells “crossroads” with two words instead of just one, which is the customary way of spelling it. Perhaps the author is trying to emphasize the word “cross” in hopes of bringing to mind a crucifix—which, according to the Bible, is where Jesus was hanged, also for no reason.
            The fourth line repeats the first line, “Way Down South in Dixie,” to again remind readers of the pro-slavery song. By now readers can easily see the irony in the author’s decision to include the line, which is that “Dixie” is not the slave-respecting place it so arrogantly claims to be. The sixth line, “Bruised body high in air,” (which again is in parenthesis to represent internal emotion) places the girl’s dead lover at center stage. Now readers are given a bit more insight into the wicked nature of the slave’s murderers: not only did they hang him, but they first beat him until he was covered in bruises. What’s worse is the realization that the young girl probably witnessed the whole ordeal.
            The final possible implication of Christ is also presented in the sixth line. For those who are familiar with the Biblical account, it is hard to read the line without thinking of Christ, bruised and bloody, hanging on the cross.
            The seventh and eighth lines reveal the hopelessness, as well as the anger, of the speaker: “I asked the white Lord Jesus what was the use of prayer.” This is powerful in two ways: the apparent Christ-believing speaker has fallen so low that she now doubts her religion, and the fact that she refers to Jesus as “white Lord Jesus” is a further indication that she has lost all faith in white people. She must be thinking, “Why would I want to pray to someone who is white, just like those who have brought so much pain to my people?”
            The ninth and final paragraph reminds readers one last time of the infamous song that was a slap in the face to all slaves: “Way Down South in Dixie.” Immediately following is another reflection of the speaker’s inner emotions, “Break the heart of me,” which now seems much darker and maybe even revengeful. Readers are also now able to understand the speaker’s pain at an all new level; the word “break” suddenly stands out as something much more forceful, like a crash or explosion.
            The author uses the final two lines to sum up the poem: “Love is a naked shadow on a gnarled and naked tree.” That is, her “lover,” dead and exposed for the world to see, is hanging on the tree. This could also mean that this is how the speaker now views life: people live, suffer, and ultimately end up as a “naked shadow” on an ugly, “gnarled tree.” Again the speaker is asking with much dismay, “What is the point in living?”
            The possible religious implications of this poem have been challenged since its conception in 1927. Regardless of the author’s intentions, by use of irony and deep emotions, Hughes certainly succeeded in helping generations to see slavery from a different point of view.


Casey Harmon
Literature Class
February 10, 2014

 Copyright 2014 by Casey Sean Harmon.

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