More than sixty years after the end of the American Civil War, African-American writer Langston Hughes used the last line of the chorus of the classic American song "Dixie," popular in the Civil War era, as his refrain.
Now before we get into what Hughes does with that refrain, we have to tell you that this is one majorly controversial song. We're talking a big ol' hullabaloo. Why? Well for one thing, the song uses a really exaggerated form of African American dialect to depict a former slave who longs to go back to the plantation he once worked in the South.
Yeah. You can see why, in some circles, this is not the most pleasant song in the world. Some folks see this song as pro-slavery, plain and simple. But others, to this day, see it as a cultural relic of the old South, as part of its heritage
This song was the Confederacy's unofficial anthem, but in his 1927 poem "Song for a Dark Girl," Hughes turns the whole thing right on its head. We can tell right away that there's no nostalgia for the Confederacy here. Instead, the refrain drips with bitter, heartbreaking irony, and the song becomes something entirely different. It becomes the blues.
See, in the first half of the 20th century, Hughes was at the forefront of the Harlem Renaissance, a movement that brought the country's and the world's attention to black literature, music, and art. This poem is full of the bluesy music and spirit of this cultural rebirth, which brought African Americans a step closer to equality in arts and letters.
Though the Harlem Renaissance was making great strides, African Americans still faced serious obstacles. Discriminatory Jim Crow laws were in place throughout Hughes' life. These laws kept black and white people separate; schools, public transit, and many public spaces were all segregated. But you already know all this.
The important thing here is the social culture out of which these laws emerged. Way down South, these terrible laws came from and perpetuated a hateful and angry mob attitude. Mobs, many led by men of the Ku Klux Klan, would lynch black men—torturing and hanging them, for no proven crime other than the color of their skin.
Hughes' "Song for a Dark Girl" is sung by a girl whose lover is a victim of such a lynching. His death has driven her beyond despair. Just like the twisted tree from which her lover hangs, everything in the girl's life seems gnarled. Even so, she sings on, trying to cope with the terrible tragedy.
At first, this song may seem to be a simple and sad lament. But look closely and you can see that it's a piercing comment on African-American history and the fight for racial equality that continues to this day. On top of that, it's a celebration of the power of the human spirit.
Because it's hard not to. No matter what race you are, this poem is universally heartbreaking. Whose heart doesn't go out to a woman whose lover's been murdered?
That's not to say that this poem should be read outside of its historical context, which is significant. This man wasn't just murdered. He was murdered for the color of his skin. So on top of the ever-so-relatable sadness and grief at the heart of the poem, there's also a horrifying sense of injustice that pervades it, too.
It's that tricky combo—of social injustice and personal grief—that Hughes masters here. We all know how terrible the sting of racial injustice can be. But it's useful to be reminded, every once in a while, that real folks, with real lives, and real stories—individuals, in other words—were torn apart and changed forever.
It wasn't some big, vague, national problem. It was a personal one, too.