Angels of Harlem: An analysis and comparison of Langston Hughes' "Jazzonia" and "The Weary Blues"

To some, the name Harlem conjures up images of a depressed ghetto, a place where the disadvantaged are shuffled where once they had willingly flocked with the promise of a new day, a new future for black men and women. This area of New York City had been birthplace, nurturer, and symbol for all blacks, particularly black artists (musicians, authors, dancers, poets, etc.). Two poets that fed from, or reflected, this Harlem Renaissance of the early twentieth century, are Langston Hughes and Claude McKay; two men who, while embracing many of the same sources of inspiration, took different approaches to the portrayal of black men and women and black culture.

Though Langston Hughes' "Jazzonia" and Claude McKay's "Harlem Dancer" both echo similar themes, imagery, and subject matter, one of the first noticeable differences is their form. McKay makes use of a traditional sonnet form, while Hughes' piece is more modern-seeming, looking more like a song than a tradional poem. "Jazzonia" includes repeated lines, though slightly different in each inclusion, that bear the feeling of a song's chorus. Since music, particularly jazz and blues, was such an encompassing part of the era in which both authors wrote, it is no surprise that Hughes chose such a musical form. This choice reflects not only that music, but also a looking forward to the future, an embracing of the modern. The blacks were coming out of an era that had pegged them as ignorant darkies with no more culture than a handful of melancholy hymns and work songs. Claude McKay's choice of the sonnet as his vehicle of expression, while not necessarily being at all musical in form, was at least a signal to anyone looking - whites in particular - that the black man (or woman) was educated and capable of making use of traditional forms, which would be more likely to appeal to, and be noticed seriously by, traditionalist white audiences. Both Hughes and McKay, through their work, also illustrated that the black poet was just as capable as any white poet of expressing him or herself.

It is not just in form that music is reflected in these two poems; the jazz age is reflected in theme and imagery also. Hughes very directly embraces the jazz era by titling "Jazzonia" after it, and making mention of the "long-headed jazzers" and "dancing girl" (who is the focus of the poem); two types of people you'd have been hard-pressed not to find in the musical Harlem of the 1920s. Considering "Jazzonia" in this musical light, it is reasonable to assume that by "silver", "singing", and "shining tree[s]", Hughes alludes to the microphones that were used by singers and musicians. Claude McKay is no less direct in his use of musical themes and imagery, the focus of "Harlem Dancer" is, after all, a dancing woman who also sings, with a voice "like the sound of blended flutes". The likening of her voice to blended flutes implies, too, that the listener - the narrator of the poem - finds her, in that way at least, beautiful.

Being able to openly express and admire the beauty of black women was not merely a matter of art, it was also a matter of pride - the pride of finally being able to openly embrace being as human as the white population, and the feeling of freedom that comes from being able to throw off the shackles of slavery; a freedom that finally allowed the blacks to pursue all the trappings of humanity, including the arts. Blacks were finally able to "own" beauty, and the expression of that beauty, as Hughes does in "Jazzonia" when he implies that Eve and Cleopatra may have been black women, bold, beautiful, and seductive. McKay, too, expresses the beauty and seductive appeal of black women, when he likens the heroine of "Harlem Dancer" to a "proudly-swaying palm", saying she "danced on gracefully and calm". Though both men express pride in the beauty of the black female form, or at least admiration of it, the tone of "Jazzonia" and "Harlem Dancer" are very different. Hughes' woman is a queen, a woman present since the beginning of human history - yet another expression of pride; but McKay's woman is an object of lust who uses her beauty to mercenary ends - even though the implication is that what she does, why she does it, is for the sake of necessity not maliciousness. She is definitely not connected to what she does, not enjoying her work:

But looking at her falsely-smiling face,
I knew her self was not in that strange place.

Though the scene of McKay's piece is seedy-seeming, with prostitues and "wine-soaked, bold-eyed boys", a theme denigrated by those who wanted not to expose the more negative, unseemly aspects of black culture, it still speaks of some aspect of pride, or at least a willingness to embrace blacks as fully human - good, bad, and ugly. McKay seems to be saying, while expressing the seductiveness, beauty, and ability of black women, that he felt the best way for the black population to be known, was by being fully known - half a truth would lead only to partial understanding, despite the desire of some whites of that era to stereotype blacks based only on slivers of information, especially negative information.

Pride in the self and in being black, strong, and beautiful is a theme that has not lessened over the years, but grown stronger and more definite, and even more commanding. This is evidenced in the work of such poets as Maya Angelou in her piece "Still I Rise" (Appendix A). The focus of this piece, as in Hughes' "Jazzonia", is a bold individual full of sexual potency - a potency of strength rather than one, as in McKay's "Harlem Dancer", used, or at least seen, as a means of escape, lust, or as a way to make ends meet. Angelou's woman (at least for the sake of argument I am assuming she is speaking of a woman, as the gender of the focus of the poem is never stated explicitly), for example, "dance[s] like [she's] got diamonds / At the meeting of [her] thighs". Claude McKay also alludes to the sexual allure and potency of his dancer, when he mentions her "perfect, half-clothed body" and luxuriant hair, and also when he describes the reactions of the onlookers who "devoured her shape with eager, passionate gaze".

McKay, as does Hughes, alludes to the dark past of the blacks when he mentions his heroine has "pass[ed] through a storm". The narrator of the piece finds this woman even more attractive and alluring for having weathered that storm. The allusion to the past that Hughes makes in "Jazzonia", is when he compares his heroine to Eve, intimating that his woman, the black woman, has been part of human history as far back as the beginning. She is a woman dressed in the solid preciousness of gold, whereas McKay's lady is dressed in the indistinct, non-covering elusiveness of gauze - something which suggests this woman is somewhat less definite, less proud perhaps, and less present a person than the bold-eyed dancing girl of "Jazzonia". Note, too, that the boldness mentioned in both poems comes in vastly different forms; whereas Hughes has his lady being bold-eyed, which would indicate strength; McKay's bold people are druken bold-eyed boys whose boldness is not one of strength, but one of lust.

There is a difference between the poems, not only in tone and interpretation of the sexual allure of black women (something that some whites of that era would have been threatened and disgusted by, having previously seen blacks  as little more than breeding stock animals, certainly not as sexually realised human beings), but also in depiction of the place, the scenes of the actions described. Hughes' "Harlem cabaret" is an upbeat place of song, dance, beauty, soul, and strength, where the location of McKay's poem - presumably also a cabaret of some type - is darker, more a place of lust and dirtier passions than one of joy and healthful allure, and a place as indistinct as what little clothing the dancer in it wears. It is an ill-defined place, given its ambiance by those who inabit it more than by any physical description. In fact, the only descriptor given is that of "strange"; a word that seems to be reflected in the detachment of the dancer from what she does and where she is.

Important in the tone of strength in "Jazzonia", are Hughes' uses of exclamation marks. They appear in places where their presence highlights the information in the phrase they come at the end of, and seem to indicate that homage is being paid to the objects of those phrases - the "silver tree[s]" and "shining rivers of the soul". They are definitive points which command we stop and pay attention to them, take note of them. If you interpret these trees as microphones, the reason for such homage becomes clearer. These instruments were used as a tool by which the black voice could be heard more loudly and more distinctly; they were, then, conduits for the black artist and what that person wanted to express - either to his fellows or to the world at large. It could instead be that the silver trees and rivers refer to the music of jazz, the tree-like structure of the notes that make up the bodies of the tunes, and the staves upon which those notes would be displayed. It would certainly be a plausible, and strong, interpretation of the image of the silvery items, yet the free-form nature of jazz - a music that was an expression of the moment - would indicate that much of what was played was not written down, at least not written down in all the myriad forms in which any one tune could be played. This would belie, at least, the concept of the notes being viewed in any physical way - such as when they'd be written in sheet music.

The variety of imagery and tone, of description and people, between "Jazzonia" and "Harlem Dancer", reflects also the variety of the black population in the Harlem of the early twentieth century. This was a very diverse group of people, made up of the poor and well-off, the educated and the ignorant and uninformed, ex-slaves and their descendants, blacks from the south as well as the north, American blacks, West-Indian blacks, and Africans. There was a tendancy amongst some whites to view blacks as all being the same; they did not know, and some probably didn't want to know, that there were differences amongst blacks, differences in personality, in ability, and in culture. Those same people also probably didn't want to know in what ways, if any, the blacks were similar to them - another way in which they could deny the humanity of black men and women. The denial of culture of black populations is not confined to the United States, and is not new, as Australian children were taught, up until a fairly recent point, that the Aborigines had no culture at all.

The description, by McKay, of his heroine's hair as luxuriant, and by Hughes of his heroine as being queen-like, reflect both a richness of person and of culture. It must be noted, however, that both these things are somewhat external, and that little is said of the inward person in either piece, except where McKay refers to his heroine as not being - inwardly - in "that strange place", and Hughes refers to his lady as being bold (though whether that boldness is mere appearance, or an expression of inner bravado, is not explicitly stated). However, it should be mentioned that the blacks expressed their inner selves through something that is heavily present in both pieces in various ways, something that is highly personal, or at least perceived as such - their music; an aspect of black culture that heavily infused even white culture, and something that both women are participating with, however detached one of them may be.

The titles of "Jazzonia" and "Harlem Dancer" are also significant, reflecting more than just tone or place. "Jazzonia" implies that the female focus of the piece is the embodiment of the music of that period and what it expressed. She is the personification and symbol of black strength, beauty, and art. "Harlem Dancer", on the other hand, is more straightforward, more merely a title than is "Jazzonia". It does signal what the piece is about, but only so far as she is a part of the culture of that place and time, not an embodiment of the culture as a whole. Hughes' "The Weary Blues" is also very direct about the subject matter of the piece in the titling; the focus of the poem is not just a man playing blues, and not just the blues and their weary tones, but also intimates the feelings that cause the man to be playing the blues, and what that playing - and those feelings - kindles in him, what it leads him to at the end.

While the three pieces mentioned above reflect musicality, "Harlem Shadows" does not share in that. It, and its title, are about darkness, both physical and figurative; with dark nights, dark places, dark people doing things viewed as dark and unseemly. There is, though, something to be said of rhythm in the piece, however halting and trudging. These are words that are out of syncopated step, not evenly rhythmical, as the women making those halting, trudging steps are out of sync with what the greater part of the population around them would see as a respectable life. They are words that also conjure up a lack of hope on the part of those the words describe, as the words are not ones of purpose, but are more ones of deliberateness, a disinterested deliberateness; there is no hope in those steps, merely an acceptance of what they are doing, where they are, and who they are - a trudging not only of tiredness, but also of despair.

Langston Hughes' "The Weary Blues" is no less a musical reflection than "Jazzonia" and "Harlem Dancer", though unlike "Jazzonia" it does not carry a tone of jubilance. "The Weary Blues" is just that, weary. It is a piece with a "melancholy tone", a "sad raggedy tune". This dampened mood is laid over the piece even from the alliteration of the very first line the player is "droning a drowsy syncopated tone"; a line that pushes the tiredness of the player upon us, and doesn't lift even to the end when that man sleeps "like a rock or a man that's dead". This depressed, droning mood is echoed in Claude McKay's "Harlem Shadows", with the depiction of the "girls of tired feet" who are "trudging, thinly-shod" and who see no rest. These women, as does the woman of "Harlem Dancer", are using their bodies to make money, they "bend and barter at desire's call" and prowl - conjuring up an image of stealthy action, rather than being bold as is the woman of "Jazzonia". Use of words such as "halting", "trudging", and phrases such as "know no rest", denote not only only weariness in "Harlem Shadows", they also express a lack of confidence, confidence so plainly evident in the bold-eyed beauty of "Jazzonia". While Jazzonia is so evidently a symbol of strength, her sisters in "Harlem Shadows" and "Harlem Dancer" are not, reflecting only "the dark night" in which they sell their bodies.

Like "Jazzonia", Hughes' "The Weary Blues" resembles a song in form with its repetition of certain words and phrases ("He did a lazy sway", "O Blues!"), which, like the repetitions in "Jazzonia", seem much more like the chorus of a song. Yet, while the musical tone of "Jazzonia" is somewhat less overt, the players seem only to be characters in the piece, "The Weary Blues" makes frequent use of music-related imagery and terminology; "syncopated tune", "croon", "ivory key" (piano keys), "melody", "sing", and "chords", for example. And though there is much action depicted in both "Jazzonia" ("whirling cabaret") and "The Weary Blues" ("he made that poor piano moan", "swaying", "thump, thump, thump, went his feet on the floor"), the action of the latter is much less energetic; it is of a much slower or methodical pace, indicating not joy and exuberance, but tiredness, sadness, and winding down.

The use of the phrase "ebony hands on every ivory key" which reflects the common use of such words when speaking of the piano, in specific the keys, also creates the image that the player is part of the instrument, making music that is "coming from a black man's soul", which means the music is a part of him as well. It has been observed that the jazz and blues music of that era in particular, seems to be more a part of, and come more deeply from, the people who make it than any other music stemming from an American culture of any age.

There is also a solitaryness running throughout these pieces, even in those that are more upbeat in tone and imagery. The player of "The Weary Blues" sings of loneliness, how he "ain't got nobody in all the world"; the prostitutes of "Harlem Shadows" are engaging in what is viewed, despite its physical closeness, as a pursuit that is emotionally lonely and distancing; the lady of "Harlem Dancer", though in a crowd, is the object, dancing alone, no more attached to what she is doing and where she is, than those who watch her can see beyond what she does; and "Jazzonia", though a more positive person, a more definite soul, dancing to the accompanying jazzers who share in what she does, is still alone - likened to Eve who had not the benefit of much companionship beyond her husband, and Cleopatra, a queen, a role that is seen as solitary despite how many others there may be around.

These images of solitaryness reflect, perhaps, the solitaryness of the black people within the white world, their segregation from it, their feeling alone in a world that wants not to recognise them. They are, as is the venue of the Harlem dancer, alien and strange. Yet "out of the huts of history's shame / Up from a past that's rooted in pain" (Angelou), come women and men like Angelou, Hughes, and McKay, who proclaim with such fervent passions the pain of their pasts, the anguish of their presents, the joys of freedom, the pride in themselves and their fellows, and owning, through their poetic voices, all the sides of themselves - good and bad - that make them as much human as any other homo sapiens who's lived and died on this earth. Their words are evocative and provocative, claiming a royal heritage and historical membership; admitting to their darker sides; and embracing music, one of the keenest expressions of the human soul, and turning that music into poetic forms both traditional and modern in a voice that was - via the Harlem Renaissance - finally able to be heard and allowed to express something more than the melancholy hymns of the slave.

2005 03 16 - 22:40