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Langston Hughes' "Madam's Calling Cards"

Updated on September 25, 2017
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After I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class, circa 1962, poetry became my passion.

Langston Hughes


Madam's Calling Cards

I had some cards printed
The other day.
They cost me more
Than I wanted to pay.

I told the man
I wasn't no mint,
But I hankered to see
My name in print.

He said, Your name looks good
Madam'd that way.

Shall I use Old English
Or a Roman letter?
I said, Use American.
American's better.

There's nothing foreign
To my pedigree:
Alberta K. Johnson—
American that's me.

Reading of Langston Hughes' "Madam's Calling Cards"


Langston Hughes' poem, "Madam's Calling Cards" is from a twelve-poem series, titled "Madam to You," that offers a character study of a woman named Alberta K. Johnson.

The character, Alberta K. Johnson, always insists that people call her "Madam." Each poem in the "Madam to You" series uses a personality quirk of Alberta's to convey some aspect of her character.

The other poems in the series are titled, "Madam's Past History," "Madam and her Madam," "Madam and the Rent Man," "Madam and the Number Writer," "Madam and the Phone Bill," "Madam and the Charity Child," "Madam and the Fortune Teller," "Madam and the Wrong Visitor," "Madam and the Minister," "Madam and the Might-Have-Been," and "Madam and the Census Man."

The poem, "Madam's Calling Cards," consists of five quatrains, each with the rime scheme, ABCB.

First Stanza: "I had some cards printed"

Alberta K. Johnson is speaking; she tells her listeners that a few days ago, she had some cards printed, and it cost more "than [she] wanted to pay." Alberta speaks quite plainly—even if she does so in riming quatrains. Alberta just wanted to see her name in print, so she hatched the idea of having "calling cards" printed.

Second Stanza: "I told the man"

Alberta continues to elaborate on the situation, involving the process of having her cards printed. She reports her conversation with the printer of the cards. She was not happy about how expensive it was just to get her cards printed. She told the printer, "I wasn't no mint."

But she wanted to see her name printed somewhere so she settled on a card so she thus had to spring for this expenditure; since she "hankered to see / [Her] name in print," she continued with the transaction.

Third Stanza: "MADAM JOHNSON"

Alberta then shifts to the process of readying the type for printing. She had her named specified, "MADAM JOHNSON, ALBERTA K." The printer remarks that her name "looks good / Madam'd that way."

Of course, the printer would encourage her in her expensive endeavor; after all, he is being paid to supply Alberta's ego with an object. Thus, he tells her that her name looks good with the term "Madam" affixed to it.

Fourth Stanza: "Shall I use Old English"

The printer asks Alberta what style of lettering she prefers, for example, "Old English" or "Roman"; Alberta replies that she wants him to "Use American." She insists that "American's better."

Of course, she is unaware that there is no particular type called "American." She was simply confused by the foreign sounding "Old English" and "Roman," which are, of course, part of the American style.

Fifth Stanza: "There's nothing foreign"

Alberta then repeats and emphasizes the importance of keeping her calling cards lettered in the American style. She insists that "there is nothing foreign" about "[her] pedigree."

She then repeats her name, "Alberta K. Johnson" and again restates her nationality, "American that's me."

© 2015 Linda Sue Grimes


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