Study Help: "The South" by Langston Hughes
The lazy, laughing South
With blood on its mouth.
The sunny-faced South,
The child-minded South
Scratching in the dead fire’s ashes
For a Negro’s bones.
Cotton and the moon,
Warmth, earth, warmth,
The sky, the sun, the stars,
The magnolia-scented South.
Beautiful, like a woman,
Seductive as a dark-eyed whore,
That is the South.
And I, who am black, would love her
But she spits in my face.
And I, who am black,
Would give her many rare gifts
But she turns her back upon me.
So now I seek the North–
The cold-faced North,
For she, they say,
Is a kinder mistress,
And in her house my children
May escape the spell of the South.
Analysis & Meaning
Langston Hughes’ poem “The South” in his collection The Weary Blues, published in 1926, is a kind of meditation which attempts to organize and characterize the speaker’s complex love-hate relationship to his home in the South in order to decide whether or not to abandon his beloved home to seek a supposedly “a kinder mistress,” in the North (26). For many African Americans the choice to leave the South was not a simple as one might assume. Despite the South’s deep connection to the suffering of an entire race through the legacy of slavery as well as its reputation as the sight of continued oppression and violence of blacks, it had been home to black Americans for nearly two hundred and fifty years. Many people were extremely attached to their South, making the decision to move North painful, but even so blacks left the rural South for the urban centers of the North in droves throughout the late nineteenth and twentieth century in order to find work and to escape some of the cruelties and oppression that existed there. Hughes describes this complex relationship through a string of juxtaposing images which act as a strange call and response in which a romanticized image is responded to with an ugly and violent truth. In the end, the speaker decides to leave his beloved and cruel South, but as becomes apparent by his characterization of the North, the struggle is far from over. While the North is freer than the South, it is still remarkably oppressive and racist towards black Americans.
Hughes begins his meditation on the South by first presenting the reader with the classic image of the “lazy, laughing South” (1). Using few descriptive words, Hughes evokes a cultural stereotype of the nonchalant niceties of the southern elites, who lazily fraternize in the slow hot air of a southern summer. Furthermore, the alliteration of “lazy” and “laughing” create a lulling and smooth atmosphere congruent with the imagery he evokes. However, Hughes quickly undermines this romanticized vision of southern life with the incredibly violent and graphic image of the South having “blood on it’s mouth” (2). According to this image the South and the southern elite have consumed the flesh of the speaker’s people with that same lazy and laughing manner spoken of above, so that they bear the gruesome evidence upon their mouths. In this first image deployed by Hughes, the South is a cruel mistress in that she pretends to be unaware of her cruelty, while at the same time cannibalistically savoring it as one does a delicious piece of meat.
In the following image, Hughes steps away from the conception of the South as a cruel mistress and instead characterizes it as an ignorant child. Hughes makes use of the long-standing attitude of the North toward the South, which held that the South was like an ignorant child, still too young to understand the finer concepts of human decency and permanently stuck in the realm of childish cruelty and ignorance. Ironically, this patronizing vision the North held for the South was the same patronizing views held by many slave masters in the South who viewed their slaves as ignorant children dependent upon the guidance of their master. Hughes evokes this traditional patronizing imagery by depicting the South as a “child-minded” entity who unknowingly “scratch[es] in the dead fire’s ashes/ For a Negro’s bones” (8). Here the child who represents the South has a morbid curiosity for the destruction he has caused in the past. It also seems that the child is unable to and leave anything buried long enough to let the wounds heal. This inability to leave the wrongs of the past buried echoes the South’s inability to bury its racist and oppressive tendencies in order to move forward. Instead, the wrongs of the past were continually brought anew and put to new use by organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan that wished to keep the fear of the past alive for their own goals.
Even after acknowledging the South’s violent past, the speaker can’t help but be seduced by the romantic and lulling imagery of the South’s “warmth” and beauty (10). The speaker recalls the “cotton and the moon” and the “magnolia-scented South” with an airy sense of longing which the speaker then characterizes as “Beautiful, like a woman” (13). But as with the previous romanticized images, this beautiful woman is immediately transformed into a “seductive” and “dark-eyed whore” (14). Clearly for the speaker, his relationship with the South is wrapped up in a certain amount of visceral desire, although the object of his desire is deceptive and furthermore diseased and “syphilitic” (16). By describing the South as a beautiful woman or a whore, Hughes is drawing upon the common association of the South with a certain degree of seductive fertility, due to its agricultural climate. The land is rich and sensual, but it is also harsh and inhospitable to those who had to work it.
It seems that, in the eyes of the speaker, the South is not simply a seductress; she is a cruel seductress who seeks to ensnare the black population with her beauty only to heartlessly reject those she seduces. Once the speaker has been captured by her deadly charm, he wishes to “love her,” but “she spits in [his] face” then he wishes to “give her many rare gifts,” but “she turns her back upon” him (18-22). In the end it is not the South’s morbid and violent past that causes the speaker to turn his back on her, it is the sharp and clear rejection of him on the basis of who he is. After this rejection, the speaker turns to the “cold-faced North” hoping that she will welcome him (24). However, the use of the term “cold-faced” does not bode well for the speaker since it not only a refers to the actual climate of the North in opposition to the “warmth” of the South, it also refers to the stereotype of northern people as cold and impersonal (10). In a way this impersonal nature, is kindred to the rejection the speaker feels from the South, except that now it is devoid of the romanticized imagery and “passionate” nature of the South. Furthermore, the speaker describes the South as another “mistress” although a “kinder” one (26). By describing the North as a mistress he is evoking the same master slave relationship that pervades his conception of the South. This draws into question whether or not the North is really any better of an option, since while it is freer than the South, it still supports some of the same oppressive institutions that exist in the South in order to keep the black population firmly under her thumb and in their proper place.
In this poem, Langston Hughes toys with the popular imagery connected to the idyllic South and twists it to explain the complex relationship that many blacks had with their home by juxtaposing the classic idealized imagery besides those of extreme violence, sorrow and rejection. For many, the South was their home, the only place they had known, but it was also their tormentor. The experience of being forced to choose between home and opportunity was faced by nearly all blacks in the years after Emancipation. For those that did make the decision to go North, as Hughes himself did, their love affair with the South lived on in their minds. Her nonchalant and seductive air was an ever-constant presence in their psyche. In a place like Harlem, whose black population grew exponentially in the nineteenth and twentieth century, this version of the South as a beloved tormentor would have been a very real phenomenon. In capturing this complex relationship and accurately capturing the rationale that many used to escape it, Hughes documented not only his own experience, but the experience of the black masses which were so essential to his mission as an artist.