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Langston Hughes' "Cross"

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

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 title implies two meanings: he is the "cross" between two individuals, as are all human beings a cross between their parents.

But this speaker's special situation of being a cross between two races causes him to suffer a burden, as in the idiom "cross to bear."

The poet Langston Hughes, who penned this piece, was black, and so were his parents: about his parents, Hughes has remarked, "My father was a darker brown. My mother an olive-yellow."

Thus, he is not speaking from the experience of a mixed-race individual but instead is relying on stereotypes as he explores the possible, and perhaps even likely, feelings of a bi-racial man.

(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.")

Cross

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"

Commentary

One of Langston Hughes’ less successful pieces, his poem, "Cross," does not succeed in dramatizing the actual feelings of a mixed race man.

The piece, instead, relies heavily on mere stereotypes, such as a rich white father and a poor black mother—rich father dying in a mansion, poor mother dying in a shack.

Supposedly, this situation leaves the bi-racial speaker wondering where he will die because he, incongruously, considers himself of neither race (of course, he is of both.)

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 father is white while his mother is black. The speaker is thus an adult looking back over the events of his life as he remembers them, but it remains unclear how old the speaker may be at the time of his musing.

It may be assumed that he has seen enough of life to find that being a bi-racial individual can be a burdensome experience; thus, he is claiming he has had a heavy cross to bear during his lifetime.

The speaker then admits that in the past, he has spoken ill of his "white old man," but now he has had a change of heart and wants to retract those inflammatory words. The speaker offers no reason for his changing his mind about his father, but the poem moves along with a fine, rhythmic, well-rimed clip.

While speculation about the motives or intentions of a speaker in a poem may remain unhelpful or even counterproductive, one can quietly assume that the speaker has just decided that forgiveness leaves the conscience more peaceful than hanging on to a grievance.

Because the poem relies only on stereotypes of what life is like for a mixed-race individual, it is likely that the poet is just configuring his words to fill out his poem with possible riming sounds that move along in a pleasant meter.

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 wishing 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 now even "wishes her well."

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

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, perhaps even by neither. Stereotypically, he has his father, the "white old man," die in a "fine big house." So he, at least, knows where his father lived unless he is merely guessing based on stereotype.

Stereotype again intact, he has his "black old mother" dying "in a shack." Again, it remains unclear if the speaker was raised by the mother, even though that is likely. If the speaker were raised by his mother, he would likely assume he would die as she did.

If the speaker had been raised by the father in a "fine big house," again, he would assume that he would die as his father did. These assumptions 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's socio-economic status is ultimately irrelevant, however.

The speaker's focus in his dramatic rendering is on his lot in life that has caused him the diminishment and pain of bearing his cross because he sprang from a bi-racial couple.

That the speaker sees himself as "neither white nor black" begs an interesting question, however: why does he not think of himself as both white and black? Biologically, he is, in fact, both white and black. What would that acceptance imply for the speaker's confusion?

Such speculation goes beyond the scope of this poem or any commentary about it; the poet, Langston Hughes, had no doubt been acquainted with individuals who expressed such mixed feelings.

Still, because Hughes was a master craftsman, who composed many fine, genuine pieces of writing, the poem clips along at an entertaining pace, even though it lacks the luster of a poem such as Hughes' "The Negro Speaks of Rivers," which genuinely offers enlightenment of its subject.

Sources

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes