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Syncopating Commemoration: On the Legacy of Langston Hughes

Modernism has proliferated. With the important work of canon expansion has come the extension of modernist studies across temporal, spatial, and vertical dimensions, as part of an urgent effort to challenge the prevailing “West”/Rest framework, in which non-white artists across the globe are figured as mere imitators.[1] The retrospective solidification of modernism as a single aesthetic project centered in Europe, with peripheral experiments elsewhere, is no longer tenable; we have come to recognize the transnational and planetary nature of artistic exchange. It has also become a commonplace to acknowledge how new technologies dissolved traditional distinctions between “highbrow” and “lowbrow,” or art and commodity, challenging an elitist model of cultural production. And many, building on the work of Susan Stanford Friedman, herself building on the sociology of Shmuel N. Eisenstadt, Wolfgang Schluchter, and others, would consider modernism as a loose assemblage of practices across multiple, polycentric modernities over time. Thus, Friedman argues, we must move from nominal modes of defining modernism to relational, adjectivally based ones.[2]

Yet adjectives, too, have their drawbacks—as Friedman readily acknowledges: “The move from singular to pluralist definitions of modernity […] does not guarantee an escape from metonymic practice. Genuine pluralism is notoriously hard to achieve because the move from singular to plural all too often obscures the covert continuation of a model, an ideal type, a yardstick, or point of reference to which divergent others are silently compared” (Friedman, Planetary Modernisms, 42). To put it bluntly, and at the risk of being charged with paranoia, I am suspicious of pluralism. While affirming that a singular term remains problematically static, I worry about reifying the adjective in its wake, given the evaluative power that this tends to reproduce. In the proliferation of differences, to echo Michele Wallace, do we risk “the difference that doesn’t make a difference of any kind?”[3] It is this question with which my essay is concerned. The exploding of “modernism” as an aesthetic project can, on occasion, inadvertently diminish those it seeks to advance. Harlem Renaissance writers, in particular, become associated with a sometimes essentializing “Black experience,” while the familiar litany of names—Joyce, Pound, Eliot—retains the originary “high” aesthetic from which all other modernisms branch away. Moreover, giving Black writers of the 1920s and 1930s a racial or even national designation within “modernism” can obscure the extent to which such artists had competing and even contradictory understandings of their own, particular responses to their modernity. Finally, as critics including Seth Moglen, David James, and Urmila Seshagiri have recently suggested, the loosening of the temporal parameters of modernism’s core period—roughly, 1890–1945—can come at the expense of analytical precision, a shunting of the question of form, at times a denial of its radical possibility.[4] I would add that the formal experiments more traditionally associated with high modernism can just as readily register the urgent efforts of people, including those of color, to respond to catastrophic social conditions; indeed, that these artists helped to create the very forms from which they are so often excluded, and simultaneously critiqued those forms as they emerged from within. Rupture, syncopation, fragmentation, brevity—these are not the exclusive purchase, the “invention,” of a coterie of white writers in Europe. Put another way: Modernism still has the Blues. 

Rather than pluralizing, then, my aim is to suggest that a re-framing of the period as a series of overlapping circles, with history itself at the center, allows us to appreciate the formal poet Langston Hughes as a vital and shaping force of the global literary avant-garde—a “man of 1914” in his own right, on his own terms. To be clear, my point is not that Hughes lies outside the purview of modernist studies as such, but rather that he tends to be understood as existing in tension with modernism’s formal or high aesthetic residua, thus resulting in a segregated historiography of the period that fails to do justice to its interracial circuits, or, alternatively, assumes Hughes’ exemplarity as a Black or Afro-modernist.[5] I am building on work by scholars such as Yusef Komunyakaa and Meta DuEwa Jones, who attend to the sonic materiality of Hughes’ work as a key aspect of his avant-garde experimentalism, and to the movement of a certain quality of subjective consciousness; Jones, for example, reads the poet’s lyrical “break” as the space where the radical “aesthetic implications” of jazz emerge, which challenges historical lines of separation.[6] We must listen, she argues, with “big ears,” to illuminate new and surprising contours in Hughes’s poems, especially those that are irreducible to masculinist racial protest.[7] Consider, then, how we might syncopate our conception of Hughes’ legacy—hearing him as a co-creator of modernism, and a critic of those very forms he engendered—at the centenary of the publication of his earliest poems.

Two men standing in front of house
Fig. 1. Langston Hughes, foreground, shown in his boyhood home of Lawrence, Kansas, ca. 1914, Associated Press.

In the winter of 1922–23, just one year after publishing “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” twenty-one-year-old Langston Hughes took a job as a mess boy on a boat bound for nowhere, the mother ship of a fleet of World War One vessels so poorly built that they were consigned to be mothballed up New York City’s Hudson River.[8] During this period of long, frigid nights, Hughes began writing “The Weary Blues,” the centerpiece of his 1926 collection of the same name. The same year that T.S. Eliot published The Waste Land to widespread critical acclaim, then, Hughes was working through his own disillusion—reading Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and Butler’s The Way of All Flesh, and writing his break-out poem to the sound of the icy sea spray as a Black man on a dead ship. What could be more avant-garde?

Unlike The Waste Land, The Weary Blues attracted criticism from multiple corners. It was deemed overly simplistic, on the one hand (Countee Cullen considered the jazz poems to be “interlopers” in the company of superior verse) and pandering to primitivism, on the other (Jessie Fauset resisted vernacular poetry in her own experimental work, and so her relationship with Hughes—whom she published as editor of The Crisis—was often complex).[9] And yet, the poem’s seeming simplicity—and its commitment to Black vernacular—may be its most highly formal innovation, particularly when grounded in the context of its writing. The Great War’s impact on the poetics of Pound and Eliot has been well documented by scholars including Sarah Cole and Vincent Sherry, but less attention has been paid to its impact on the lives and aesthetics of Black Americans.[10] The migration to France that the war had occasioned—for soldiers, and for artists and intellectuals roving in its aftermath—provided artists of color with an opportunity to experience conditions other than the state-sanctioned segregation of the Jim Crow South. The all-Black 369th infantry regiment, or “Harlem Hellfighters,” were hailed as heroes while abroad, receiving—among other illustrious honors—the French Croix de Guerre, the very first Americans to do so. And Illinois’ 8th regiment army, comprised entirely of Black soldiers and commanding officers from Chicago’s South Side, gained recognition as a key force in finally driving German soldiers from the Aisne-Marne region of France in 1918, just prior to the Armistice.[11] Yet in 1919, such veterans returned from Europe to discover that their service had stoked the ire of white racists, ushering in a series of deadly race riots across major cities nationwide. (This was more or less in keeping with the segregated conditions of the Hellfighters’ pre-war training in Spartanburg, South Carolina, where their white Colonel required them to respond to racist taunts and threats with “fortitude and without retaliation.”)[12]

Men playing instruments in street
Fig. 2. African American musicians of the 369th infantry regiment perform for wounded Americans in the courtyard of a Paris hospital, led by James Reese Europe, 1918.
Men on ship
Fig. 3. The 369th returns home to New York City, 1918, The National Archives catalog. Permission granted by the National Archives and Records Administration.

This tension between the creative freedom and the political possibilities that Europe represented and the senseless violence that it inflamed at home is reflected in the opening stanza of “The Weary Blues,” a poem that uses Blues conventions to flesh out and critique the conditions of its modernity:

Droning a drowsy syncopated tune,

Rocking back and forth to a mellow croon,

            I heard a Negro play.

Down on Lenox Avenue the other night

By the pale dull pallor of an old gas light

            He did a lazy sway…

            He did a lazy sway…

To the tune o’ those Weary Blues.

With his ebony hands on each ivory key

He made that poor piano moan with melody.

            O Blues![13] 

The apparent simplicity of Hughes’ verse is belied by its prosody. We see replicated the twelve-bar, AAB structure of the Blues, yet rendered in half-lines: The rhyming couplet “tune” and “croon” sets up anticipation for a repeat line, which comes in the form of the lyric insistence: “I heard a Negro play,” and an eventual, dilated response, “He did a lazy sway...”[14] The neatness of the rhyme scheme bleeds into an improvisatory syncopation that is not at all random, but rather, as Blues critics remind us, a carefully placed call to express the inexpressible.[15] Thus, the moans of “Oh, Blues!” and “Sweet Blues!” that punctuate the mellifluous quality of the opening stanza, frustrating temporal closure as it does the speaker’s (and our) pleasure at the performance. We are made aware of the vulnerability of the Black body on display, here in the Cabaret as it was at the Marne and would be on a segregated Alabama bus.[16] Continued interruptions of the meter, in the form of spondees like the aural “thump, thump, thump” of a foot on the floor (or a foot in a poem), serve as painful reminders that danger is never far away. The increased visibility of Blackness in the North during the Great Migration leads not to belonging, but to disaster. (On July 27, 1919, Eugene Williams, having committed the crime of floating across an invisible color line on Lake Michigan, is pummeled with jagged rocks. He cannot breathe. He drowns.[17]) But note also how these jazzy intrusions, which theorist James A. Snead calls “the cut” in Black music—as it anticipates and so builds “accidents into its coverage”—begin to converge on a more familiar conception of ‘modern progress’ as teleology inevitably interrupted, or a self that folds back on the moment of its actualization.[18] Expertly woven into a jazz structure, these might also be read as the specters of fallen Black men—fallen, in the words of W. E. B. Du Bois, long before the world could rightly gauge their brightness—here communing with the speaker as ghosts did with Hughes on a dead ship bound for nowhere.[19]

The routinely frustrated meter of the poem critiques the conditions of modernity that brought the Blues into being, with results similar to those found in The Waste Land, marking Hughes as co-creator of this shared aesthetic practice.[20] Consider the concatenation of voices across the poem, creating the same type of aural confusion that you might get from a phonograph or radio broadcast, despite the immediacy of the club setting. It is never entirely clear who the “I” of “The Weary Blues” is, and to what extent this speaker is distinct from the performer. In the opening lines, it would be fair to assume that the musician is the one “droning” and “rocking,” but the syntax of “I heard a Negro play” suggests that the actions are also attributable to the speaker (and to the audience by extension). The ambiguity of the “I” mirrors the ambiguity of “us” in the opening lines of Eliot’s poem: The more general “us” whom winter is keeping warm exists in tension with the specific “us” who are surprised when summer rain showers the Starnbergersee (Eliot, The Waste Land, 4, lines 5–8). Both texts refuse the precision of a single voice, frustrating the reader’s desire to make sense of the past. And just as The Waste Land introduces several other vantage points, so the “I” of “The Weary Blues” goes on to have a seemingly impossible access to the interiority of the Blues singer:

And far into the night he crooned that tune.

The stars went out and so did the moon.

The singer stopped playing and went to bed

While the Weary Blues echoed through his head.

He slept like a rock or a man that’s dead. (Hughes, CP, 50)

The poignancy of this final line reveals a more capacious conception of modern growth as simultaneous destruction. To the extent that the reader—and the speaker—have been enjoying the Blues performance, we are made to feel disgusted for having done so, with the realization that his exhaustion is beyond what the sanguine display suggested. The Black musician is finally rendered instrumental, not even allowed to be the subject of his own line: He slept like a man “that’s” dead, not a man “who’s” dead. This is deeply specific to the postwar conditions of a lonely Black man, living, as Hughes himself did, partially within and partially outside of European conventions, anchored on the moment of his creation in a defunct boat bound for nowhere. At the centenary of 1922, we must syncopate our commemoration of social progress with the ghastly seams of war’s aftermath: A Fifth-Avenue victory parade in honor of the Hellfighters cannot obscure the mass brutality subsequently enacted on U.S. shores during the Red Summer. Hughes tinkered with this ominous final stanza for months aboard the ghost ship.[21] “The Weary Blues” here emerges as a quintessential modernist fragment, a perpetual work in progress.

To be sure, I reject the long critical history of measuring Hughes against a white canonical benchmark. What I am suggesting is in fact something more like the reverse: What might the Blues as an art form originating in Black lifeworlds tell us about modernity as cross-culturally shared? As the Africana philosopher Lewis Gordon has argued, the Blues—though they emerge from Black suffering in particular—may finally speak to the more general condition of “modern suffering itself,” insofar as both are born of “dissatisfaction and the experience of standing on shaky ground” (Gordon, “Is Philosophy Blue?,” 17). Might re-reading white canonical authors according to the many and contradictory frameworks of Black artistry, themselves encapsulated by the call and jerk back of the Blues, have the potential to reconcile what only seemed to be fundamental differences?

Hughes’ simultaneous co-development and critique of modernist style was largely informed by his own migrations, a socio-historical condition central to the lives of many Black Americans. The twentieth century saw the movement of more than six million Black people from the rural South to the urban North, where many were quickly disillusioned by the insidious racism above the Mason-Dixon line. Such transplantation helped to concretize the interracial nationalism so fundamental to Harlem Renaissance innovation in the 1920s. But transnationalism and multilingualism were also important to the confrontation of oppression and Black artistic exchange, as they were to Stein, Eliot, and Pound; Black Americans were finally able to travel of their own volition, and Caribbean nationals began migrating to Harlem, proliferating conceptions of Blackness far beyond national boundaries.

In 1924, having already spent time in Mexico and West Africa, Hughes settled in Paris for several months, where he washed dishes at the jazz club Le Grand Duc. The club drew clientele from across the boundaries of race, place, and class; audiences were said to have included Fred Astaire, Charlie Chaplin, Nancy Cunard, Cole Porter, and Kojo Tovalou Houénou, and performances would last until as late as seven or eight in the morning (Hughes, The Big Sea, 158–63).[22] Despite the Paris setting, then, the club represented a multivocal hybridity not dissimilar to the roving “I” in “The Weary Blues.” Hughes wrote that the Blues of rue Pigalle, “Black and laughing… [moved] like the Mississippi,” as disparate cultures coalesced into the same beating “pulse” (The Big Sea, 162).[23]  

Hughes’ experience at Le Grand Duc clearly inflects the poem “Jazz Band in a Parisian Cabaret,” which—like Melvin Tolson’s Harlem Gallery—reveals the transnationalism of Afro-modernist experimentation. Yet its inclusion in the 1927 collection Fine Clothes to the Jew, which is elsewhere so grounded in the context of violence and labor in the American South, feels strange (Edwards, Practice of Diaspora, 63). “Parisian Cabaret” seems formally to depart from “The Weary Blues.” [24]  Where previously there were rhyming couplets, here there is no clear rhyme scheme, except perhaps for the structuring insistence of “Play it, jazz band!” that acts like the repeat line in a Blues song, but also records the shouts of an unnamed audience or band member. And whereas “The Weary Blues” seems to delineate an “I” that is (at least initially) distinct from the musician, this poem includes a series of polyglot, unmediated voices, weaving in and out of the song like errant eighth notes, or sweaty bodies. The context of the jazz cabaret meanwhile disrupts normative assumptions of class and privilege, as it appeals variously to “dukes and counts, whores and gigolos,” and of course “American millionaires.” (One thinks of Tom Buchanan, the Old Money icon in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. Fitzgerald was a reported regular at Le Grand Duc.)

The dissolution of any lyric “I” comes to a head in the final stanza, with a series of multilingual interjections that could also reflect, as Brent Hayes Edwards argues, audience members’ mis-hearings: “May I? / Mais oui! / Mein Gott! / Parece una rumba” (Hughes, “Jazz Band in a Parisian Cabaret,” lines 14–17). The sequence of phrases places the reader directly into the global jazz setting, escalating from question, to response, to affective (sexual?) overflow. This experimentalism makes “Parisian Cabaret” a decidedly modernist “practice of diaspora,” a cobbling together of fractal experiences temporarily registered in a single space (Edwards, The Practice of Diaspora, 11).[25] It combines the panoply of voices of The Waste Land and the hallucinatory quality of the Circe episode of James Joyce’s Ulysses, texts that are celebrating the same centenary that occasions this meditation on Hughes. And yet, here as before, Hughes ends this poem of mobility and celebration with an ominous reminder: jazz is the medium that registers the underbelly of aesthetic play, as it does the legacy of imperialism. It “laughs and cries at the same time,” because the Black body is always in danger of imminent destruction. This ambivalence is crystallized in the poem’s final word: “Sure” (“Jazz Band in a Parisian Cabaret,” lines 12, 23). This is no mythic love match, or spiritual communion with a Hyacinth girl; it is an agreement like a commodity exchange, a movement of bodies to resist the closure of the night, because afterwards comes another difficult day. The transnational joy of the Paris setting follows from and leads back into the inhumane conditions of the segregated American South.

Let me end by considering how Hughes himself negotiated the Scylla of assimilation with the Charybdis of essentialism. In 1931, Hughes met Pound in the pages of the little magazine Contempo, where his poem “White Shadows” appeared next to Pound’s essay, “Publishers, Pamphlets, and Other Things.” Shortly thereafter, Pound initiated correspondence with Hughes, seeking his help in circulating the works of a German anthropologist in Black schools. Hughes’ delayed response comes, cordially, in April of the following year, wherein he writes:

            I have known your work for more than 10 years and many of your poems insist on remaining in my head, not the words, but the mood and meaning, which, after all, is the heart of a poem. I never remember 10 consecutive words of anybody’s not even my own, poems.

            Thank you for bringing this great German’s work to the attention of American Negroes. I hope something will come of your suggestion and if I can do any more about it I assure you that I will.

            Very sincerely yours,

            Langston Hughes[26]

We can detect a hint of reservation, perhaps even a dismissal of Pound’s self-importance: what remains in Hughes’ head are not the words of his poems, but the mood—certainly, as Hughes well knew, an affront to any Imagist.[27] More than this, I would argue that this letter reflects a re-setting of the relationship on Hughes’ terms, much as he used the Blues to re-frame and refract any simplistic conception of modernity. While recognizing Pound’s profound impact on modern verse, Hughes nonetheless reminds Pound that it is Pound who needs something from him: “I hope something will come of your suggestion.” And rather than assimilating to these canonical forms, or figuring himself as an imitator, Hughes treats Pound’s opinions as nothing more than tertiary to his project. In a subsequent letter, when Pound offers his two cents on Hughes’ jazz poetry, Hughes simply responds with the acknowledgment that he has received it: “Liked your letters and your advice about my poems” (Hughes, Selected Letters, 137).[28] This ‘advice’ cannot be construed as influence, since Hughes, as he himself knows, is a co-creator of the very forms from which Pound and others would seek to exclude him.

Front Page, Contempo 1, no. 9 (Sep. 15, 1931)
Fig. 4. Front Page, Contempo 1, no. 9 (Sep. 15, 1931), courtesy of the Davidson College Rare Book Room.

Hughes goes on to rework imagism, pushing the standard of compression and affective pique further (and more inclusively). His 1951 Montage of a Dream Deferred includes two fragments that speak directly to Pound’s “In a Station of the Metro.”[29] In “Chord,” we get:

Shadow faces

In the shadow night

Before the early dawn

Bops bright.[30]

Pound’s syntactical construction, “the apparition of these faces in the crowd,” is here condensed: The image simply becomes “shadow faces.” And whereas Pound’s poem seems to occur at rush hour, “Chord” suggests—in its musical nomenclature and setting—that these are Black faces returning home in the early hours, “before the early dawn / Bops bright.” As in “Parisian Cabaret,” the meaning of crowd is polyvalent: these are not merely commuters, but also patrons of the jazz club, metonymically rendered in the title “Chord,” a grouping of notes. A subsequent poem in the suite, “Subway Rush Hour,” is a clear titular allusion to Pound’s “Station:”


breath and smell

so close


black and white

so near

no room for fear.[31]

Hughes deploys the fragment structure to call attention to the logic of racial integration: With bodies so close and breath so mingled, why should we be so afraid of one another? Moreover, and unlike “A Station,” Hughes renders every word uncapitalized—compression as a tenet of imagism is taken to the level of punctuation, symbolically asserting the need for all bodies to be treated equally, and with equal care. The image of bodies flowing doggedly towards their destination meanwhile recalls the zombie crowd crossing London Bridge—where “each man fixed his eyes before his feet”—in the penultimate stanza of the first section of The Waste Land (Eliot, The Waste Land and Other Poems, 57, line 65). And yet, as before, Hughes’ poem is not without a tinge of brutal irony. It should be so, “no room for fear,” but of course, in the same year as the execution of the Martinsville Seven, it is not.[32] Beat forward. Cut back. Hughes calls, and the nation responds, having failed to hear him well.

Multiple modernisms as a critical paradigm has done undeniable good. Conceived as a reaction to the “badness” of many white Eurocentric practitioners, it has helped us to recognize the contributions of people of color, whose lives and artistic legacies are only beginning to receive their proper due.[33] In 2022, as our commemoration of modernism’s watershed year coincides with the toppling of racist monuments, we should celebrate the work of scholars who have helped to shepherd a more inclusive conception of modernist studies in this new era. And yet, we must also insist upon the dialectic of the Blues as a fundamental and shaping force within modernism per se, and of Blackness as a philosophical and rhythmic condition that speaks to a syncopated conception of global modernity, of the kind I have been sketching here. I have focused on Hughes, in part, because it seems to me that we have largely failed to appreciate his vast and profound contributions to modernism as it was—as a series of connected aesthetic forms—even after the proliferation of differences that occasioned the planetary turn. If definitions of modernity and modernism should never be fixed, then we should also ask if pluralism does not itself risk slipping into singularity, obscuring the complex, interracial overlap of a transnational poetics. Modernism is multiple. Or sometimes, it’s not. Let us replace the ‘or’ with the potentiality and possibility of the ‘and’? Can we listen with two ears at once, to really hear modernism’s Blues? 


My grandmother, Mary Henry (pictured below) turned ninety-nine this year. Seventy-one years ago, she met Langston Hughes during one of his many tours of the South, when he gave a reading at the segregated, store-front library in Winston-Salem, North Carolina where she then worked. On the legacy of his life and writing, she says: “He spoke from the heart of Black people.”

Group sitting in room
Fig. 5. Mary Henry (seated right), convening the Horton Branch Library Young Adult Library Club (June, 1952), where Hughes had come to read the previous year.
Langston Hughes with unidentified children, 1940
Fig. 6. Langston Hughes with unidentified children, 1940, Josephine Dibble Murphy collection, Atlanta University Center Robert W. Woodruff Library.


I would like to thank my editor, Andrew Frayn, for his incisive eye and thoughtful feedback throughout the entire publication process. Thanks are also due to two anonymous peer reviewers for commenting helpfully on an earlier version of this piece. Finally, my heartfelt gratitude to Jennifer Fleissner and Nikki Skillman for their generosity, time, and unwavering intellect.

[1] Douglas Mao and Rebecca L. Walkowitz, “The New Modernist Studies,” PMLA 123, no. 3 (2008): 737–48.

[2] Susan Stanford Friedman, Planetary Modernisms: Provocations on Modernity Across Time (New York: Columbia University Press, 2015). See also two special issues of Daedalus, “Early Modernities,” 127, no. 3 (1998) and “Multiple Modernities,” 129, no. 1 (2000).

[3] Stuart Hall, “What Is This ‘Black’ in Black Popular Culture?” Social Justice 20, no. 1/2 (1993): 104–14, discussing Michele Wallace, “Modernism, Postmodernism, and the Problem of the Visual in Afro-American Culture,” in Out There: Marginalization and Contemporary Cultures, ed. Russell Ferguson et al., (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1990).

[4] David James and Urmila Seshagiri, “Metamodernism: Narratives of Continuity and Revolution,” PMLA 129, no. 1 (2014): 87–100; Seth Moglen, “Modernism in the Black Diaspora: Langston Hughes and the Broken Cubes of Picasso,” Callaloo 25, no. 4 (2002): 1188–205.

[5] On Hughes’ exemplarity, especially as a Blues poet, see Kristin Grogan, “Langston Hughes and the Exemplary Blues Poem,” Critical Quarterly 61, no. 1 (2019): 54–66.  

[6] Meta DuEwa Jones, The Muse is Music: Jazz Poetry from the Harlem Renaissance to Spoken Word (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2011), 80; and Yusef Komunyakaa, “Langston Hughes + Poetry = The Blues,” Callaloo 25, no. 4 (2002): 1140–43. See also Florian Gargaillo, who aptly points out that “Hughes believed that authenticity in African American art depended on play, difference, and experimentation,” in “Langston Hughes, Blues Poetry, and the Distance between Poems and Songs,” Modernism/modernity 28, no. 3 (September 2021): 498.  

[7] The term “big ears” is theorized by feminist historians Sherrie Tucker and Nichole Rustin, extended in Jones’s work on Hughes’s later verse of the 1950s. Big Ears: Listening for Gender in Jazz Studies, ed. Sherrie Tucker and Nichole Rustin (Durham: Duke University Press, 2008). Jones queries masculinist interpretations of jazz poetry, charting the intersection of race, gender and sexuality in this tradition as it develops across the midcentury. I believe that this syncopated or “multivocal” framework can also be usefully applied to Hughes’s earliest poetry—which Jones does not consider—and to our critical commemorative and anti-commemorative impulses around “1922” more specifically.

[8] Langston Hughes, The Big Sea (New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press, 1986), 90–98. Here, Hughes links the genesis of “The Weary Blues” to his experiences on board the ‘haunted ship,’ while noting that the poem is about “a piano player I heard in Harlem,” 92.  

[9] Margaret Larkin wrote in a review of Fine Clothes to the Jew (1927) that Hughes’ poetry is “a valuable example for all poets of what can be done with simple technique and ‘every day’ subjects,” in contrast to "the neurotic fantasies of more sophisticated poets.” Quoted in George Hutchinson, The Harlem Renaissance in Black and White (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1995), 187. Fauset and Cullen are also quoted in Hutchinson, 156, 188. Moreover, Hughes frequently ignored Fauset’s advice. On the back of a letter she sent him in the 1920s, Hughes wrote, ahead of The Weary Blues publication: “There will probably be uproar enough that one of their leading (?) poets, and a public representative of the Race allows such a ‘delightfully fantastic career’ to be exposed to the world. They would have me a ‘nice boy’ and a college graduate. In other words,a good example. Middle-class colored people are very conventional” (Hughes quoted in Hutchinson, 156). Casting Fauset as an experimental writer might read as something of a stretch, given her deployment of the ‘novel of manners’, as in There is Confusion (1924), and the frequent emphasis on upper middle-class Black women across her works. Nevertheless, as Anne Fernald suggests, Fauset worked within available lexica to subvert those expectations and call attention to the crucible of Black female ambition, thus offering “an underexplored perspective on the question of changing your mind.” Fernald, “Choice and Change: Modern Women, 1910-1950,” Modernism/modernity Print Plus 2, cycle 2 (2017): n.p.

[10] Consider the final third of “The Burial of the Dead,” as the speaker wanders through London, that “Unreal City,” where “death had undone so many.” T. S. Eliot, The Waste Land and Other Poems, ed. Frank Kermode (New York: Penguin, 1998), 57, lines 59–63. On the impact of the Great War on Eliot and Pound see, for example, James Longenbach, Stone Cottage: Pound, Yeats and Modernism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988); Vincent Sherry, The Great War and the Language of Modernism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003); and Sarah Cole, At the Violet Hour: Modernism and Violence in England and Ireland (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012). On the “collective remembrance” of the Great War in European culture, see Jay Winter and Vaunda Micheaux Nelson, Sites of Memory, Sites of Mourning: The Great War in European Cultural History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995). Mark Whalan’s work helpfully considers the effects of the war on Black artists, specifically the New Negro Movement. See The Great War and the Culture of the New Negro (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2008).

[11] Bronzeville’s Victory Monument, located at 35th Street and King Drive, commemorates the “Fighting 8th.” On the neglected history of South Side Chicago architecture, see Lee Bey, Southern Exposure: The Overlooked Architecture of Chicago’s South Side (Chicago: Northwestern University Press, 2019).

[12] Mark Whalan, “‘The Only Real White Democracy’ and the Language of Liberation: The Great War, France, and African-American Culture,” in Paris, Capital of the Black Atlantic: Literature, Modernity, and Diaspora, ed. Jeremy Braddock and Jonathan P. Eburne (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013), 52–77. On the conditions of Black soldiers’ training, and Hayward’s requirements, see Peter N. Nelson, A More Unbending Battle: The Harlem Hellfighters’ Struggle for Freedom in WWI and Equality at Home (New York: Basic Civitas Books, 2009), 39.

[13] Langston Hughes, The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes, ed. Arnold Rampersad (New York: Knopf, 2002), 50.

[14] On Hughes’ use of half-lines to greater visual and poetic effect, see David Chinitz, “Literary Authenticity: The Blues Poems of Langston Hughes,” Callaloo 19, no. 1 (1996): 177–92.

[15] Lewis Gordon, “Is Philosophy Blue?,” The Johannesburg Salon 7 (2014): 15–20. Gordon argues: “An important element of improvisation is that it is not random, and the improviser faces responsibility for each creative formulation. As with jazz, melody, harmony, and rhythm set the stage for what could no longer be expressed with words. It signals the call, always, to express the ineffable” (19).  

[16] Hughes was not alone in recognizing syncopation as constituent of modernity broadly construed. Gwendolyn Brooks combined the syncopations of Black vernacular with the conventions of a Petrarchan sonnet in poems such as “The Rites for Cousin Vit.” See also musicologist Hao Huang’s analysis of “The Weary Blues,” in “Enter the Blues: Jazz Poems by Langston Hughes and Sterling Brown,” Hungarian Journal of English and American Studies 17, no. 1 (2011): 9–44.

[17] The murder of Eugene Williams triggered the Chicago race riots of 1919, and ushers in the Red Summer more generally.

[18] James A. Snead, “On Repetition in Black Culture,” Black American Literature Forum 15, no. 1 (1981): 146–54. He argues: “A culture based on the idea of the ‘cut’ will always suffer in a society whose dominant idea is material progress—but ‘cuts’ possess their charm! In European culture, the ‘goal’ is always clear: that which always is being worked towards… Black culture, in the ‘cut,’ builds ‘accidents’ into its coverage, almost as if to control their unpredictability. Itself a kind of cultural coverage, this magic of the ‘cut’ attempts to confront accident and rupture not by covering them over, but by making room for them inside the system itself” (150).

[19] W. E. B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk, ed. Brent Hayes Edwards (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), 4. Hughes bet another crew member that he could survive the night alone in the hull of a nearby “haunted” ship, storied for its mutiny, in the cabin where the first mate was slain. He did (Hughes, The Big Sea, 95–97).

[20] Others have noted the symmetry between The Waste Land and Jazz. Ralph Ellison, in Shadow and Act, was heard to state: “The Waste Land seized my mind… Somehow its rhythms were often closer to those of jazz than were those of the Negro poets, and even though I could not understand them, its range of allusion was as mixed and varied as those of Louis Armstrong,” quoted in T. Austin Graham, The Great American Songbooks: Musical Texts, Modernism, and the Value of Popular Culture (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 71. Graham further suggests that The Weary Blues may have been alluding to a 1917 World War I song by W.C. Handy, “The Kaiser’s Got the Blues (He’s Got Those Weary Blues),” 142. 

[21]“I could not achieve an ending I liked, although I worked and worked on it—something that seldom happens to any of my poems,” Hughes wrote in The Big Sea, 92.

[22] See also Brent Hayes Edwards, The Practice of Diaspora: Literature, Translation, and the Rise of Black Internationalism (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003), 62–64.

[23] The language recalls the movement of rivers in his first published poem, “older than the / flow of human blood in human veins,” written en route to Mexico to visit his estranged father (CP, 23, lines 2–3).

[24] Hughes, “The Weary Blues,” in The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes, ed. Arnold Rampersad (New York: Knopf, 2002), 60.

[25] Edwards argues for an internationalism “that necessarily involves a process of linking or connecting across gaps—a practice we might term articulation,” (The Practice of Diaspora, 11, emphasis in original).

[26] Selected Letters of Langston Hughes, ed. Arnold Rampersad and David Roessel (New York: Knopf, 2015), 132.

[27] See Jonathan Gill, “Ezra Pound and Langston Hughes: The ABC of Po’try,” in Ezra Pound and African American Modernism, ed. Michael Coyle (Orono, ME: National Poetry Foundation, 2001), 79–88. While Gill asserts that Hughes and Pound had a similar aesthetic practice, his account of their correspondence is much more congenial than mine; rather than diffidence, for instance, Gill sees Hughes as “gushing” to establish a direct bond with the poet, and he credits Pound with deeper insight into Hughes’ work than I would (81).

[28] See also Peter Kalliney, who notes that Pound’s original letter includes the paternalistic flourish, “I don’t know whether you want yr / great granddad’s opinion or not.” Commonwealth of Letters: British Literary Culture and the Emergence of Postcolonial Aesthetics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 63.

[29] Meta DuEwa Jones is the first to point out these resonances, in “Listening to What the Ear Demands: Langston Hughes and His Critics,” Callaloo 25, no. 4 (2002), 1144–75. Jones argues that an overemphasis on Hughes’s racial identity has foreshortened critical interpretations of his work, though her reading of the fragments emphasizes Hughes’ allusions to Pound, rather than a self-conscious wrestling with the aesthetic tradition the poets co-created. The significance of 1922 is not considered.

[30] Hughes, “Chord,” in The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes, ed. Arnold Rampersad (New York: Knopf, 2002), 422.

[31] Hughes, “Subway Rush Hour,” in The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes, ed. Arnold Rampersad (New York: Knopf, 2002), 423.

[32] In February 1951, seven African American men from Martinsville, Virginia were executed for allegedly raping a white woman in 1949, the largest mass execution for reported rape in the United States. They were posthumously pardoned by Virginia’s governor on August 31st, 2021. For more on the racial disparities that led to their sentencing, see The Martinsville Seven Project, “Fact Sheet: Reasons Why Governor Northam Should Pardon the Martin,” January 19, 2021, In 1931, Hughes famously campaigned on behalf of the Scottsboro Boys, a similar case involving nine Black teenagers from Alabama accused of raping two white women—and he even appealed to Ezra Pound in the process. Pound responded with a statement in support of the effort, condemning the “flagrant injustice” of their imprisonment (quoted in Gill, “Pound and Hughes,” 83). The event inspired Hughes’s poem “Christ in Alabama,” which also appears on the front page of Contempo, the subsequent December 1, 1931 issue; it was reissued as part of a larger series, The Scottsboro Limited, with illustrations by Prentiss Taylor. See Suzanne W. Churchill, “‘Mammy of the South / Silence Your Mouth’: The Silencing of Race Radicalism in Contempo Magazine,” Modernism/modernity Print Plus 1, cycle 1 (2016): n.p.  

[33] See Bad Modernisms, ed. Douglas Mao and Rebecca Walkowitz (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2006).