The Vernacular in African-American Poetry: Hughes and Brooks
“I’s gwine to quit ma frowin’ and put ma troubles on de shelf.”
– Langston Hughes, “Weary Blues”
The Soviet literary critic and philosophy Mikhail Bakhtin created a dialogic theory of criticism in his “Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics” (1929) to understand the narrator’s voice or voices, distinguish if a literary work was more monologic or more dialogic, and to see how dominant or “official” ideology interacts with the carnivalesque or “folk” ideologies, which naturally functions through “high” or “low” language (Murfin, Ray, pgs. 48, 107). The 20th African-American writer was positioned in a unique situation ideologically; according to early 20th century African-American scholar, W. E. B. Du Bois, black experience was characterized by the phenomenon of double consciousness: “an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two torn asunder” (Macey, pg. 103). Naturally, and logically, this double consciousness could extend to language: the separation of “official” and “folk” discourse. Therefore, all African-American literature written during the 20th century represents a polyphonic voice: one White and one Black. While certain implications are associated with both voices for the African-American writer, one fact remains certain, African-American perspectives on the vernacular were not united. For instance, while Langston Hughes’ “Weary Blues” and Gwendolyn Brooks’ “We Real Cool” both use African-American vernacular in order to capture the experience of urban nightlife, Hughes essentially celebrates and shares the realism of the “folk” carnival whereas Brooks ridicules and denounces it.
Langston Hughes’ “Weary Blues” is a testament to his racial pride. He embraces the blues tradition and emphasizes the common language of African-Americans in Harlem while remaining “literary” through “official” language and appealing to traditional poetical tropes and embellishments such as alliteration and meticulous rhyming patterns. For instance, he alternates between the voices of his double consciousness when he said “To the tune o’ those Weary Blues. With his ebony hands on each ivory key” (Franklin et al., pg. 2266). Hughes’ deliberately chose the phonically vernacular “o” over the grammatically official “of” which emphasizes his unashamed inspiration of Black folk traditions and language. Furthermore, when Hughes describes the voice of the blues pianist, his speech is completely written in the “folk” dialect and thus further celebrates, improvises, and captures the blues artistic form of expression: “I’s gwine to quit ma frowin’ and put ma troubles on de shelf” (Franklin et al., pg. 2266).
Even though Langston Hughes embraced the Black side of his double consciousness in his poem “The Weary Blue,” it nevertheless stirred much controversy among Hughes’ peers in the Harlem Renaissance, some of whom objected that it was not “literary” enough (Magill, pg. 414); in other words, Hughes’ voice was not White enough—it was too Black. Others argued that poetry in the vernacular was politically regressive because it reinforced stereotypes regarding African-American primitivism. In fact, “The Weary Blues” as a whole show exactly how Langston Hughes’ aesthetic differed from that of the “Talented Tenth,” upper-middle-class black intellectuals who tended to value art that promoted respectability and social advancement through integration; in other words and along the same lines of Du Bois’ socio-racial philosophies on the color line: the African American race can only be saved by an educated tenth who must cross the color line (embrace whiteness and abandon blackness) in order to eliminate social injustices.
While Gwendolyn Brooks was not exactly the prototypical “talented tenth” of Du Bois’ color line philosophy, she nevertheless demonstrates wide-ranging abilities from modernist experimentation to nostalgic intimacy with Harlem and black folk traditions in blues, jazz, and spirituals. Even though she embraces the contextual themes and topics associated with black consciousness, she predominantly and consistently communicates and writes her poetry in “official” discourse of white scholars and intellects. In fact, in her poem, “We Real Cool,” Brooks deliberately ridicules the primitive vernacular of the urban nightlife: “We Lurk late…We jazz June” (Franklin et al., pg. 2540). Brooks is essentially mocking the “folk” voice that Hughes embraces. It is very ambiguous because both writers embrace the traditions of Black folk music, yet while Hughes celebrates the environment in which blues and jazz music manifests, Brooks is repulsed by it.
Ultimately, African-American perspectives on “folk” language were not united. The aesthetics of Langston Hughes was at odds with the aesthetic philosophies driving Du Bois’s talented tenth, exemplified by the poetic, “official” voice of Gwendolyn Brooks. The struggle between appealing to tradition or integration, true freedom and social marginalization, absolutes or compromises is fraught throughout African-American literature during the 20th century. Some writers such as James Weldon Johnson in his “The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man” and Countee Cullen in his “Heritage” rejected blackness in favor for White and Western ideology. These writers followed the philosophies of Du Bois and shared the goal of crossing over the color line, or integrating into middle-high-class White society. Other writers, however, embraced and celebrated blackness in their literature just as Langston Hughes in his “The Weary Blues” and Alice Walker’s short story “Everyday Use.” These writers followed the more traditional path by paying homage to their ancestors by preserving, recreating, and improvising their artistic achievements.
Even so and despite all differences, the 20th century African-American writer still shared a mutual goal: to improve the condition of African-American life socially, economically, politically, and intellectually. Even though, Du Bois and many Harlem Renaissance peers of Hughes disliked his use of stereotypical “folk” language, its artistic function is not used in vain or triviality. Hughes carefully chose his words to depict a striking realist image of the African-American experience as if he were taking a photograph at the blues bar he was sitting at the night he conjured up the inspiration for “The Weary Blues.” Even though Gwendolyn Brooks disliked the use of “folk” language in favor of “official” discourse, she does not necessarily renounce blackness altogether like James Weldon Johnson or Countee Cullen. Her artistic aims were aimed towards seriousness; the African-American situation to Brooks was of the utmost importance: no language but the more precise and thoughtful word choices could have been expressed; for Brooks, in order for the majority of White people to respect her commentary on the African-American situation, they first needed to respect the way in which she said it. While certain implications are associated with both the “folk” and “official” voices of the African-American writer, one fact remains certain, 20th century African-American perspectives on the vernacular were not united.
Franklin et al. (2008). The norton anthology of american literature. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company.
Macey, D. (2000). Dictionary of critical theory. New York, NY: Penguin Books.
Magill, F. (1992). Masterpieces of african-american literature. New York, NY: Harper Collins Publishers; Salem Press, Inc.