Langston Hughes' "Cross"

Updated on March 31, 2020
Maya Shedd Temple profile image

Poetry became my passion after I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class circa 1962.

Langston Hughes


Introduction and Text of "Cross"

The speaker in Langston Hughes' "Cross" is lamenting having been born of a mixed racial couple, a white father and a black mother. The poem plays out in three riming stanzas of tightly metered verse. The poem is obviously intended to scare up sympathy for the mixed race individual, who wonders "where he will die" because he is "neither white nor black."

(Please note: The spelling, "rhyme," was introduced into English by Dr. Samuel Johnson through an etymological error. For my explanation for using only the original form, please see "Rime vs Rhyme: An Unfortunate Error.")


My old man's a white old man
And my old mother's black.
If ever I cursed my white old man
I take my curses back.

If ever I cursed my black old mother
And wished she were in hell,
I'm sorry for that evil wish
And now I wish her well

My old man died in a fine big house.
My ma died in a shack.
I wonder where I'm going to die,
Being neither white nor black?

Reading of "Cross"


The speaker in Langston Hughes' "Cross" laments his having been born of a mixed racial couple, a white father and a black mother.

First Stanza: Cursing the Father

My old man's a white old man
And my old mother's black.
If ever I cursed my white old man
I take my curses back.

The speaker commences his lament by reporting that his "old man" is "white" while his "old mother" is "black." The speaker is thus an adult, but it remains unclear how old the speaker may be. It may be assumed that he has seen enough of life to find being of "mixed race" a burdensome experience.

The speaker then admits that in the past he has "cursed" his "white old man," but now he has had a change of heart and wants to retract those curses. The speaker offers no reason for his changing his mind about his father.

Perhaps the speaker has just decided that forgiveness leaves the conscience more peaceful than hanging on to a grievance. Perhaps, he is just saying this to fill out his poem with possible riming sounds.

Second Stanza: Cursing the Mother

If ever I cursed my black old mother
And wished she were in hell,
I'm sorry for that evil wish
And now I wish her well

As the speaker has formerly cursed his father, he has also cursed his mother, even wished her to be condemned to "hell." But again as with his father, he now wants to retract those curses. And with the old black mother, he even now "wishes her well."

The speaker did not wish his father well; he wished only to take back his curses that he has hurled toward the old man. Therefore, the speaker renders a least a tittle more affection for the mother.

This situation is quite understandable: the speaker was likely raised by the mother, thus in reality he identifies more with his black racial makeup than his white. Plus the very nature of motherhood more than fatherhood lends itself to more affection by most children.

Third Stanza: Remaining in Confusion

My old man died in a fine big house.
My ma died in a shack.
I wonder where I'm going to die,
Being neither white nor black?

Somewhat vaguely, the speaker suggests that he was not raised by both parents. Symbolically, he has his father, the "white old men," die in a "fine big house." So he at least knows where his father lived.

His "black old mother," of course, "died in a shack." Again, it remains unclear if the speaker was raised by the mother, even though that is likely. If the speaker was raised by his mother, why would he not assume that he would die as she did?

If he had been raised by the father in a "fine big house," again why would he not assume that he would dies as his father did? These questions suggest that the speaker has accomplished a life that is not quite as rich as his father's but not quite as poor as his mother's.

The speaker is therefore likely a middle-class individual of the left-wing stripe who is not averse to using his identity to make whatever statement he wishes to make about whatever issue he wishes to address. In other words, the supposed confusion of the speaker of this poem is likely contrived.

Favorite Langston Hughes Poem

Which one of the following poems by Langston Hughes do you like best?

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Which two are blood relatives?


The Cross of "Barry Soetoro"

The poet Langston Hughes did not experience life as a biracial individual, because both of his parents were African Americans. Thus, the poet has created a character in his poem to attempt to make a statement about biracial individuals.

Hughes' poem is not entirely successful in making that statement: the poem depends only on a stereotype, the one that offers the notion that biracial individual will remain confused because they cannot figure out with which race they will identify.

Barack Obama, in his Bill Ayers-ghost-written Dreams from My Father, claims to have suffered the same confusion, but because he was raised by the white side of his family, he clearly absorbed the values of the white, communist ideological spectrum to which that family ascribed. Obama's attempt to identify as "black" came as he discovered the advantages of that now politically advantaged identity group.

Also, instead of sporting the name of his likely true biological father, Frank Marshall Davis, Obama achieves an even further boost at being a cosmopolitan, world citizen, and the ability to jokingly assert that he has a "funny name." In order to achieve that joking stance, Obama changed the name he had been using, "Barry Soetoro," to "Barack Obama"—"Barry" just didn't quite fit the joke of the "funny name."

The vagueness and hypocrisy of taking a stance with which one is not wholly familiar results in formless, vague imagery. Therefore, in Hughes' "Cross," the speaker remains a vague, unformed figure. And such a figure cannot convey a fully formed notion of what it is actually like to have lived life as a biracial individual.

The speaker's goal in Langston Hughes'"Cross," like that of "Barack Obama," is to air a grievance in hopes of achieving an unearned status, not to inform. As Obama remains a crepuscular figure on the horizon, Hughes' poem remains a mere glance at a stereotype—not even close to what a poem needs to be to communicate its message.

Joel Gilbert's Dreams From My Real Father

Opinion Poll

Who is the real biological father of "Barack Obama II"?

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© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes


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