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 FRAGMENTS FROM AFRICA:
FROM LANGSTON HUGHES TO MAYA ANGELOU

They dream of the West Coast, the Gold Coast, the Slave Coast, constructing images of flaming sunsets, palm trees, colorful marketplaces, and listening carefully for the distant beat of the obea drum. Through this dream runs the sparkling Nile and the triangles of Pharoah’s tomb cut high into the sky while elephants and jaguars move through tall grasses. This is the Africa of Langston Hughes, and, in that tradition, it is also the Africa of Maya Angelou.

And Faulkner told us long ago in Light in August: “Memory believes before knowing remembers. Believes longer than recollects, longer than knowing wonders.” In these words, we see the diacritical difference, the polarity, between memory and knowing. The project of both Hughes and Angelou is to collapse this polarity, converging memories of slavery with the knowledge of African ancestry thus empowering the African American by reaching back to slavery but transcending that memory by reaching back again, even further, to the knowledge of descent from a great land. Once knowing exists (the conscious mind), it can eventually move into memory (the unconscious mind). Again and again in their poetry, Hughes and Angelou construct romantic images of the land of their heritage; Angelou continues this thematic safari begun by Hughes during the Harlem Renaissance even after asking the question in “Reverses,” “How often must we/ butt to head/ Mind to ass/ flank to nuts/ co-- to elbow/ hip to toe/ soul to shoulder/ confront ourselves/ in our past”? We surmise her answer is “forever” as she continues to construct a positive identity, a positive past for African Americans.

For Hughes and Angelou, the wounds of slavery and civil rights violations were and are fresh. In “October 16,” Hughes writes, “Perhaps/ You will remember/ John Brown./ John Brown/ Who took his gun,/ Took twenty-one companions/ White and Black,/ Went to shoot your way to freedom/ Where two rivers meet/ And the hills of the/ North/ And the hills of the/ South/ Look slow at one another - / And died/ For your sake./ Now that you are/ Many years free,/ And the echo of the Civil War/ Has passed away,/ And Brown himself/ Has long been tried by law,/ Hanged by the neck,/ And buried in the ground - / Since Harpers Ferry/ Is alive with ghosts today,/ Immortal raiders/ Come again to town - / Perhaps/ you will recall John Brown.”

Thirty-six years later, Angelou wrote “My Guilt,” “My guilt is ‘slavery’s chains,’ too long/ the clang of iron falls down the years./This brother’s sold. This sister’s gone/ is bitter wax, lining my ears./ My guilt made music with the tears./ My crime is ‘heroes, dead and gone’/ dead Vesey, Turner, Gabriel,/ dead Malcolm, Marcus, Martin King./ They fought too hard, they loved too well./ My crime is I’m alive to tell./ My sin is ‘hanging from a tree’/ I do not scream, it makes me proud./ I take to dying like a man./ I do it to impress the crowd./ My sin lies in not screaming loud.”

The affinities between these two works are obvious. Hughes chooses a historical moment. Using repetition for emphasis, he asks twice “perhaps you will remember John Brown.” Again he uses repetition in the middle of the second stanza, “and the hills of the North and the hills of the South.” Metonymically, the comparable geography represents the people of both the North and South and the “common ground” they have. This reading is rendered even more legitimate in the next line as the hills are personified and “look slow at one another.” In the second stanza, he reminds the reader that Brown “went to shoot your way to freedom.” Guilt is introduced. Brown died for “you.” Do “you” even remember him? Again, at the end of this stanza, he reminds the reader that Brown “died for your sake.” In the third stanza, Hughes states that although “the echo of the Civil War has passed away,” war crimes are still being committed. Brown “has long been tried at law [note the ironic use of this word ‘law’] hanged by the neck and buried,” because of this, Harpers Ferry (and the Civil War for that matter) “is alive with ghosts today,” alive with haunting memories.

Angelou also writes of historical moments. More general, she envisions a slave auction in the first stanza and a hanging in the last. In the second stanza, she lists dead heroes of civil rights, “dead Vesey, Turner, Gabriel,/ dead Malcolm, Marcus, Martin King.” She too uses repetition for emphasis. For example, the first and last lines of each stanza begin the same way: my guilt - my crime - my sin. For Angelou, the guilt is more explicit than in Hughes’ work. Tautologically, her very title is “my guilt.” She then defines this guilt in her poem, “My crime is I’m alive to tell.” “My sin lies in not screaming loud.” Like Hughes, who is reminding Americans, and specifically African Americans, of their “debt,” so too Angelou expresses this note of obligation. They say, “We are alive or we did not scream loud enough which means we did not fight as hard for freedom as others.” This culpability is persistent, and guilt linked with the memory of not only slavery but also of the atrocities that have followed that injustice is an overwhelmingly painful onus to carry in the memory. Thus both poets battle memory with knowledge.

In the “African Dance,” Hughes writes, “The low beating of the tom-toms,/ The slow beating of the tom-toms,/ Low…slow/ Slow…low - / Stirs your blood./ Dance!/ A night-veiled girl/ Whirls softly into a/ Circle of light./ Whirls softly…slowly,/ Like a wisp of smoke around the fire - / And the tom-toms beat,/ And the tom-toms beat,/ And the low beating of the tom-toms/ Stirs your blood.”

A vivid description of an African dance, this poem imitates in its meter the rhythm of the beating drum that drives the dancer. Using a variation of the anapest dimeter (punctuating the end of the line with a spondee), Hughes literally pounds out a drum beat in the first two lines, “The low beating of the tom-toms, the slow beating of the tom-toms,” varying the rhythm just like a musician, “low…slow/ slow..low/ stirs your blood/ dance!”

The connotative value of the second stanza is crucial, “A night-veiled girl whirls softly into a circle of light. Whirls softly…slowly, like a wisp of smoke around the fire.” These words bring to mind beauty and glamour, celebrating African culture and Africa. The soft alliteration of “s” and “w” further underscores the soft, sensuous nature of this vision. There is no savage here, no coffered slave, but a girl veiled by the night spinning and whirling in the light of a fire. The finesse of the dancer is affirmed with the simile “like a wisp of smoke.” As a wisp of smoke whirls around the campfire so does the girl dance. The double intent that augments the poem is that this same scene could be played out in any jazz club in Harlem.  Perhaps the instruments would change, add a trumpet and the upright bass and a piano; replace the fire with a snoldering ashtray. Still we have the wisps of smoke and the whirling dancer. Returning the scene to Africa, we see Hughes adds knowledge to African-American history thus altering memory through the temporal leap beyond slavery to a proud past.

In “For Us, Who Dare Not Dare,” Angelou too writes of Africa. Whereas Hughes uses the trope of the beating drum, Angelou uses personification. Both poets, however, employ objects that are native to Africa and elude white control: the beating drum of an African musician and the talking images of an African landscape. Angelou muses, “Be me a Pharaoh/ Build me high pyramids of stone and question/ See me the Nile/ at twilight/ and jaguars moving to/ the slow cool draught./ Swim me Congo/ Hear me the tails of alligators/ flapping waves that reach/ a yester shore./ Swing me vines, beyond the Bao-Bab tree,/ and talk me chief. Sing me birds/ flesh color lightening through bright green leaves./ Taste me fruit/ its juice free falling from/ a mother tree./ Know me/ Africa.”

The pharaoh commands, “Be me”: the pyramid requests, “Build me”; the Nile and the Congo say, “See me and swim me”; the tails of alligators demand, “Heart me”; the vine urges, “Swing me”; the birds, “Sing me”; the fruit, “Taste me”; and Africa enjoins the reader to, “Know me.” Using the verbs be, build, see swim, hear, swing, sing, taste and know, Angelou, through the trope of the speaking continent, submerges the reader in action. The reader physically experiences Africa. But Angelou does not stop there, she submerges the reader sensually as well. The Nile sparkles in twilight as jaguars move stealthily in the night breeze. Vines dangle from Bao-Bab trees while birds dart between branches in a flash of color. Alligator tails strike the water causing little waves to reach “a yester shore.”  Angelou looks at the past and creates a kind of Eden. We can almost hear a tribal drum’s rhythm in her use of repetition, “be me, build me, see me.”

To use film analysis parlance, both Hughes and Angelou have “framed out” anything beyond the romantic, alluring Africa. Not only does their imagery contain connotative value it contains political resonance. For these two poets, the construction of an identity that supplements the memory of slavery and civil injustice with the knowledge of roots in an enchanted fairyland assuages some of the pain and guilt and humiliation. By converging memory and knowledge, the African-American begins the transformation from slave to noble hero or heroine in history.

In One Way Ticket, Hughes includes “Negro Servant.” In his yearning for escapism from “the faces that are white,” the narrator uses apostrophe to call on the inanimate symbols of Africa. Whereas Angelou’s Africa spoke to the reader, Hughes’ narrator speaks to Africa, “O, tribal dance!/ O, drums!/ O veldt at night!” He yearns for the beat of the drums that impel the song and the tribal dance around a fire in the veldt, open grassland in South Africa. Since this is impossible, the narrator settles instead for a replication of the scene in a jazz club in Harlem. Tired after work, he takes a bus, the subway, or (on payday nights) a taxi to hear the “drums of life in Harlem after dark!” Again the narrator escapes from “faces that are white!” We wonder what happened after the white faces began invading Harlem for their entertainment. Perhaps that eliminated Harlem as a place for escape reverting escape back to Africa again.

Not every image of Africa is perfect. The very existence of African Americans affirms the “rape” of Africa. In Maya Angelou’s personification in “Africa,” a doubling unfolds. Once Africa, after molestation, “is striding,” so are her children - Africans, African Americans. If this is indeed accomplished, then the convergence of memory and knowledge is complete. The first stanza  enacts the personification. Africa is “sugar cane sweet” (a southern metaphor) with deserts for hair, golden feet, mountains for breasts and two Niles for her tears. The second stanza recounts the rape of the land by colonial powers. Brigands, or bandits, come through frost and icicles bringing missionaries and guns while taking the “young daughters” and “strong sons.” The restoration begins in the third stanza when Africa rises after having remembered her pain and losses. Through synedochal slippage, Africa is also the African (American). When Africa rises after she “knows” her history, so does the African American who knows his or her history. Taking the first and last lines of the last stanza, “Now she is rising…although she had lain,” we watch Africa rise and, with her, the entire African-American nation.

Optimistically, Hughes writes “Dusk,” In this poem, the “dusk” and the “wall” symbolically represent that which obstructs vision and movement; obstructions block learning, knowledge. Only when the walls fall and the dusk turns to dawn, in the third stanza, can the “chains be gone!” Only when the white obstruction of knowledge falls away can the African-American construct his or her own history, knowledge, and then memory. In the “Final Curve,” Hughes tells us, “When you turn into the corner/ And you run into yourself/ Then you know that you have turned/ All the corners that are left.”

Wandering in the dusk of the African sunset, Hughes and Angelou create poems. At the same time, they create a new African-American identity, a proud sense of self. It is no accident that Hughes’ autobiography, The Big Sea, begins with Hughes on a ship on his way to Africa. Standing on the deck of the S. S. Malone, he throws his books over the rails and with them the knowledge of the dominant white American culture, the knowledge of a white university, Columbia. He will seek his own knowledge, his own history and write it for African Americans, and Maya Angelou follows in this tradition. Toni Morrison, when asked why she began to write, replied that she wrote because she had never seen her story, her life, her history represented in American novels. For these authors, know must not stop wondering, know must not stop (re)collecting, know must not stop learning. Know must work until it becomes memory because memory believes.

March 2003

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