Academic journal article MELUS

Framing and Framed Languages in Hughes's 'Ask Your Mama: 12 Moods for Jazz.' (Langston Hughes)

Academic journal article MELUS

Framing and Framed Languages in Hughes's 'Ask Your Mama: 12 Moods for Jazz.' (Langston Hughes)

Article excerpt

Ask Your Mama: 12 Moods for Jazz, by Langston Hughes, encapsulates one of the most significantly artistic fusions in African American life. Though the verbal script the-framed language at the center of the page) discloses the voice of the personal narrator who retells history, the musical marginalia (the outer frames) provide the sonorous complement of a communal narrative. Hence, the personal writing on the page speaks to the cultural language literally at its borders and figuratively in its depths. This compulsion to fuse the individual and collective or mythic selves, at once so subjective and objective, is at the root of realism and modernism as well. And, indeed, this constantly recurring dynamic between personal and communal memory reminds us of the degree to which the Black American poetic text dissolves the alleged margins between this literately discursive "me" and this musically feeling "us." Ask Your Mama is, in other words, Hughes's finally sustained rapprochement between the Black intellectual as a talented individual and the Black community at large. What Hughes has left to the structuralists and post-structuralists after him is a volume demanding a constant negotiation between the imperative experimentation of the ever-imperfect and independent artist on the one hand - for every individual derives in part from a cultural tradition of talent - and the authenticating memory of the Black masses on the other.

Ask Your Mama is as much Juvenalian as Horatian in its satiric response to the rising anger of the 1960s. Fusing poetry with jazz, Hughes interweaves myth and history. He moves now into the child's mind and then into the man's; he reverses himself and begins afresh. Through fantasy, travesty, allusion, and irony, he depicts singers, actors, writers, politicians, and musicians. With a deepened imagination, he draws upon the rich themes of his entire career, such as religious humanism, free speech, transitoriness, and assimilation; nationalism, racism, integration, and poverty. He speculates about Pan-Africanism and personal integrity. To this end, he uses. a great many techniques and strategies to reveal the indissoluble signature of race as well as the icy processes of social alienation and aging.

But despite these challenges in his poetic world of streaming consciousness, Hughes keeps faith in the imagery of a dynamic train. This icon signifies not only history and the Underground Railroad of the nineteenth century but the prospects for social progress and racial apocalypse as well. Through the suggestive power of allusions to Jesus Christ and others, Hughes achieves a skillful imagery of vision, of aspiration, and of wonder. All of these symbolic actions are only imperfect signs of the Life Force and Rhythm that inform them. It is, finally, this rhythm, so insistently dynamic, so often inert, so playful yet deadly serious, that binds the narrator's verbal script to the musical one both surrounding and containing it.

While over the last decade the effort has been rather chic to read Langston Hughes"s Ask Your Mama as observing some polite generalities about other African American texts, as integrationist fusions between oral and written forms,(1) the very separation or disjunction of these two dimensions, or the all too convenient dichotomy of them even theoretically, violates the principles behind the literary world of Langston Hughes. What interests Hughes is the psychological process of Black American memory and history. He preoccupies himself at once, in other words, with both the vertical space of modern consciousness and the horizontal space of social record. He is, that is to say, a writer of both mind and time. His standard is that of not only literary or musical form; it is the moral reassessment of our "literary' actions within a tangibly immediate now, within this dynamically current recurrence of human time, within this compulsion for Civil Rights then (1921-1967) and now. …

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