restricted access A “High Tension” in Langston Hughes’s Musical Verse
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A “High Tension” in Langston Hughes’s Musical Verse

I’m looking for a house In the world Where the white shadows Will not fall.

There is no such house,Dark brothers,No such houseAt all.

We might be surprised to read a poem resigned to the impossibility of liberating black life from the “white shadows” written by Langston Hughes who, just five years earlier, penned his essay “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain.” In “The Negro Artist,” considered by Arnold Rampersad to be “the finest essay of Hughes’s life” (Volume I 130), Hughes takes on the role of spokesman for the younger generation of artists who formed the core of the New Negro Movement, popularly referred to as the Harlem Renaissance, and boldly asserts their intention to develop a black aesthetic free of white influence.1 He develops the metaphor of the mountain to represent this influence—“this is the mountain standing in the way of any true Negro art in America—this urge within the race toward whiteness” (27)—and insists that only by reaching the mountain’s summit can black artists be “free within ourselves” (29).

The profound distinction between these words of optimism and the sense of resignation and defeat in “House in the World” (1931) reveals perhaps the greatest struggle to emerge from the New Negro Movement: how to effect a black aesthetic within an environment largely monitored and controlled by whites. As Henry Louis Gates, Jr. observes, “New Negro” was intended to signal the formation of a “cleared space” for a “spontaneously generated black and sufficient self,” but as he also suggests, such a project was undermined by the pervasiveness of white influence that stood as an [End Page 165] obstacle to any truly independent black creative sphere (“Trope” 132). In The New Negro (1925), arguably the seminal text of the movement, Alain Locke expresses his optimism that this influence can be overcome. With a renewed self-dependence, he says, the black community is “bound to enter a new dynamic phase, the buoyancy from within compensating for whatever pressure there may be of conditions from without” (4). For Locke and many other artists, one of the keys to breaking free of the “conditions from without” was creating an aesthetic based on black vernacular forms, with a particular emphasis on music. In “The Negro Artist,” Hughes represents the ascent to the mountaintop in terms of a descent, describing the need for black artists to revisit the subterranean world of the “low-down folks,” the common people who “are not afraid of spirituals” and act as if “jazz is their child” (28).2 Whether it is the metaphor of the mountaintop or the underground, Hughes depicts the independent space that will allow black artists to create and perform beyond the “white shadows.”

The bold vision for a black “cleared space” articulated in “The Negro Artist” finds its statement and its counterstatement in the eight lines of “House in the World.” Drawing on spatial metaphors, Hughes juxtaposes a house with the vast expanse of the world. In doing so, he emphasizes the wide disparity between the space that blacks hope to attain (a mere house) and what whites already control; by choosing an enclosed structure to represent that space, he also hints at the insularity that Harlem Renaissance authors tried to effect in their pursuit of a uniquely black aesthetic. This insularity is further reinforced by the disappearance of the world and the repetition of house in the second stanza, symbolically representing the constricting universe of the poem, which we also see when the speaker narrows his intended audience from an unspecified reader (implying a universality) to “[d]ark brothers” in particular. Ultimately, however, the poem’s compression—reinforced visually as the second stanza narrows to the poem’s shortest line—suggests the futility of ever carving out a “cleared space,” as even the smallest black spaces are haunted by the white shadows. Notably, the longest line in the poem, which casts a metaphorical shadow over the rest of the poem, contains the only reference to whiteness, thus echoing the deep pessimism within...