| The Jackson
State College festival, Mississippi, 1945. Back row,
left to right: Arna Bontemps, Melvin Tolson, Jacob
Reddix, Queen Dodson, and Robert Hayden. Front row:
Sterling Brown, unidentified, Margaret Walker, and
Langston Hughes. From the Melvin B. Tolson Papers,
Library of Congress, but this photo is linked from the Oxford
African American Studies Center
To Save and Destroy:
Melvin B. Tolson, Langston Hughes, and Theories of the Archive
The importance of archives lies
not only in the ways in which their contents can
be used physically to mark history; as Jacques
Derrida shows, the archive also creates within it
implications extending to the exercise of power
and social control. In Archive Fever: A
Freudian Impression, he explains that the
term archive "coordinates two principles
in one": "commencement" and "commandment."
Beginning with the Greek arkhē,
Derrida joins the first principle, "there where
things commence," the "physical,
historical, ontological principle," with the
second, the legal valence "there where men
and gods command," which is also
importantly "there where authority, social
order are exercised, in this place from
which order is given" (1). The historical
and social implications of the making of the
archive are thus always contested. In their work
of the 1950s, African American poets Langston
Hughes and Melvin B. Tolson
intervene into the construction of the archive of
Exploring further the origins of the meanings of the archive (or the archive of meaning), Derrida asserts that the initial meaning of archive derives from the Greek arkheion: "a house, a domicile, an address, the residence of the superior magistrates, the archons, those who commanded." The archons are not only entrusted with guarding the documents in the archive; they are also charged with interpreting them: "Entrusted to such archons, these documents in effect speak the law" (Archive 2). The "dwelling" of the archons and the archive importantly "marks this institutional passage from the private to the public, which does not always mean from the secret to the nonsecret," a process that has significant implications for assigning and consolidating meaning (2–3). "By consignation," Derrida writes, "we do not only mean, in the ordinary sense of the word, the act of assigning residence or of entrusting so as to put into reserve (to consign, to deposit), in a place and on a substrate, but here the act of consigning through gathering together signs" (3). Further, "[c]onsignation aims to coordinate a single corpus, in a system or a synchrony in which all the elements articulate the unity of an ideal configuration." Centering African American history within the narrative of an American history that ignored people of African descent, as both Tolson and Hughes do in their poems, disrupts the unitary system of belief necessary to cohere national identity in the 1950s.
The process of gathering and classifying that Derrida describes is not neutral; it contains—and conceals—within it the power to assign and interpret meaning, to "speak the law" (Archive 2). This power is played out in the institutionalization of the archive: "A science of the archive must include the theory of this institutionalization, that is to say, the theory both of the law which begins by inscribing itself there and of the right which authorizes it" (4). The implication of archive as law has particular import for African American poets Tolson and Hughes writing in pre–civil rights America, as I shall demonstrate by taking Derrida's theory of the archive—and its Freudian underpinnings—and moving African American experience to the center.
Using African American theorists to engage Freud requires that the psychoanalytic paradigm be redrawn. Derrida's psychoanalytic frame—an analysis of the Freudian "death drive"—exposes the "fever" of the unconscious to both save and destroy. Also called the "destruction drive" or the "aggression drive," the death drive is, for Freud, originally a process working within (and upon) the individual. When African Americans are brought into this psychoanalytic context, however, it becomes apparent that one significant manifestation of the death drive is the death drive that comes from without, not from within, the self. Freud himself suggests a mirroring of the processes of the individual unconscious in group dynamics in his assertion in Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego that "[t]he contrast between individual psychology and social or group psychology, which at a first glance may seem to be full of significance, loses a great deal of its sharpness when it is examined more closely" (627). In fact, Freud found individual and group psychology to be essentially the same. Published in 1921, Freud's comments on group psychology, which he defines as being "concerned with the individual man as a member of a race, of a nation, of a caste, of a profession, of an institution, or as a component part of a crowd of people who have been organized into a group at some particular time for some definite purpose" (627–28), provide a useful follow-up to his postulations on the death drive in Beyond the Pleasure Principle, published in 1920.
What I am terming a culture of the death drive works to strip African Americans of humanity, language, and lineage. In reordering the focus of death-drive theory to include the specific circumstances of African American life, we can begin to see the significance of the archive as law for African American poets—particularly those living and writing in the Jim Crow era. In "Prelude to Our Age" and Libretto for the Republic of Liberia, Hughes and Tolson not only address their contemporary moment but also confront the weight of the effacement of black people's agency that was initiated in America's pre-national period even as the colonists spoke out for autonomy from Great Britain. In a letter to Samson Occum published in 1774, Phillis Wheatley elegantly analyzes the multiple hypocrisies of colonists who fought for their own freedom while holding slaves, decrying the "strange Absurdity of their Conduct whose Words and Actions are so diametrically opposite." She wryly concludes, "How well the Cry for Liberty, and the reverse Disposition for the exercise of oppressive Power over others agree,—I humbly think it does not require the Penetration of a Philosopher to determine" (225).
both Hughes and Tolson
rigorously challenge the construction of
Eurocentric historical philosophies that in
various ways conflate blackness with absence. In
addition to the impact of G. W. F. Hegel's broad
pronouncement that the entire continent of Africa
existed outside of history, a viewpoint mirrored
by Europe's colonialist programs, Hughes and Tolson wrote in a context
within which the racial politics of some white
modernist writers reinforced ideologies such as
modernists working in a variety of styles employed
the metaphor of blackness to express such themes
as silence and abjection. These metaphors traverse
both unconscious and conscious states. Consider
In a poem struggling to express "the last crushed vocable," blackness performs the act of silencing: "the thick lips compress / Compendiums of silence—." Inside "the negro centuries of sleep," there is no history, no language (97).
against such multiple forms of erasure, Hughes and
accounts of the accomplishments of people of
African descent not only in
experimental forms produce a fluidity that allows
his poem to flow both backward and forward in
historical time, and in and through a multiplicity
of identities, reflecting a futuristic, global
understanding of the construction of the self.
"Globe-traversing influences, energies, and
resistances—far from being minor deviations from
nation-based fundamentals," Jahan
"have arguably styled and shaped poetry in English
from the modernist era to the present" (332). Transnationality takes on
particular importance for mid-century African
American poets whose
agency as "Americans" was still subjected to legal
restriction, putting the very notion of nationhood
into flux, and under critique. The literal and imagined
"globe-traversing" that Hughes and Tolson undertook in
their lives and writing was rooted in their
historical understanding of the conditions of
slavery and the international slave trade. Hughes's
"Prelude to Our Age: A Negro History Poem"
produces a kind of stasis in which the traumas of
slavery, both those of the past and those
reverberating into the present, do not allow the
future to be imagined. The contrasting movement in
for the Republic of Liberia is generated
formally, in part through the intertextual project
enacted by his own style of modernist endnotes.
Tolson's Afro-Modernist Epic Interventions
For Tolson, the manifestations of what I am calling "poem as archive," as site of preservation, work on multiple levels. First, Tolson utilized the poem itself as a receptacle, or archive, consciously constructing his poems for the preservation of African and African American history through the use of African and African American vernacular forms, including blues lyrics. Indeed, he saw the role of the poet as that of a collector of the idioms of the people: "I like to go about places, hobnob with people, gather rich epithets and proverbs in churches and taverns, in cotton fields and dance halls, in streets and toilets" ("Poet's Odyssey" 184). (Hughes's archival drive is also evident: his many blues poems serve to preserve the unique formal structure of this African American musical form.) Tolson continues to use the poem as a site of collection with the many African proverbs included in Libretto for the Republic of Liberia. His last work, Harlem Gallery (1965), takes this process even further, utilizing vernacular forms as a compositional structure. Rather than simply narrating history, then, Tolson encodes history through the form of the poem itself.
Second, Tolson was concerned with the placement of the poem as object within literature's definitive archive, the canon of so-called great works. In this respect, Tolson had faith in history as the ultimate adjudicator. In anticipation of that judgment, in "The Poet," a poem from Rendezvous with America (1944) that announces Tolson's transition to modernist method, the poet prepares to endure "the wormwood of anonymous years" (Harlem Gallery 28). Tolson had a sense of writing for what John Ciardi in 1958 termed "the vertical audience" (as opposed to "the horizontal audience"): "The horizontal audience consists of everybody who is alive at this moment. The vertical audience consists of everyone, vertically through time, who will ever read a given poem…. All good poets write for the vertical audience. The vertical audience for Dante, for example, is now six centuries old. And it is growing" (35). (Nonetheless, the relation of Tolson's work to the modernist canon continues to be problematic for many.)
self-conscious immersion in modernism in the 1950s
is evident in his highly imbricated allusions in Libretto
Tolson was given the
honorary title "Poet Laureate of the Liberian
Centennial and Peace Exposition" at a ceremony at
the Liberian Embassy in
surmises that Tolson's
appointment to the poet laureate position was also
facilitated by Tolson's
connections at historically black Lincoln
University, the school established for African
American men in Pennsylvania from which both Tolson and Hughes
graduated (108). Horace Mann Bond, a Lincoln
alumnus and member of the Lincoln debate team
along with Tolson,
served on the Liberian Centennial Commission and
was named president of Lincoln in 1945 (107–8).
Farnsworth conjectures: "Bond's appointment as
missionary aspects of the ACS (with their
mirror those of
William Lloyd Garrison, while initially a supporter of the ACS's mandates, finally came out in strong opposition to them, recognizing, as William E. Cain shows, that "Some members [of the ACS] did promote emancipation and the return of slaves to their own continent. But the overriding desire in the society was to siphon off free blacks who jeopardized Southern slavery and white supremacy" (9). In a strongly worded letter dated July 30, 1831, Garrison explains his moral objections to colonization:
[T]he moving and controlling
incentives of the friends of African Colonization
may be summed up in a single sentence: they
have an antipathy against the blacks. They
do not wish to admit them to an equality. They can
tolerate them only as servants and slaves, but
never as brethren and friends. They can love and
benefit them four thousand miles off, but not at
In many respects, emigrants to
Surely there is something bizarre about
a freed American black building "a southern
plantation house" in which to reside while ruling
over indigenous Africans. The colonizers'
influence produced tensions between the immigrants
and indigenous Africans that put in motion the
strife we still see in Liberia. Although
descendants of freed slaves from the
in the magazine Liberia Today, published
by the Liberian Embassy in
The celebratory tone begins in "Do," section 1, which is formed of seven centered stanzas, each opening with a negation. This section forms a kind of backward call and response, telling first what Liberia is not and then what it is, while disposing of stereotypes applied to Africa, including "the Dark Continent" (12), a "Question Mark" (41), and (signifying on T. S. Eliot) a "waste land" (50). The poem opens as follows:
Right away the reader is confronted with
book," "gelded look"—and an unusual verb usage,
"homed," which is an example of what Zora Neale Hurston, in
"Characteristics of Negro Expression," calls
"verbal nouns" (1043). In colloquial language, the
gloss of this passage might go something like
this: Liberia is not a mere footnote to history in
an old book obsessed over by a castrated (or
barren-looking) teacher overly interested in
parading his (or her) academic learning. Instead, we
are told of
second stanza's negation to the repeated question
O East, O West,
Though the surgeon seeks to cut the
tendons, Chang's and Eng's
bodies are part of the same whole, just as East
cannot be separated from West, black cannot be
separated from white, and Africa and
section 2, is framed by a series of sayings that
"The Good Gray Bard in
section 2 to tell of the greatness of African
kingdoms, including Songai.
In addition, "Re" highlights successful African
educational systems of the past, such as the
and recording history, section 5, "Sol," relates
the horror of the Middle Passage and slavery that
the emigrants sailing to Liberia leave behind—"The
brig Elizabeth flaunts her stern / At
auction blocks with the eyes of Cain / And
tells the story of Liberian colonist Elijah
Johnson, who was on board that ship (146–48).
"Sol" rises elegantly into a series of African
proverbs formed into tercets,
such as "'
"It is the grass that suffers
"La," section 6, relates the story of
"Prophet Jehudi Ashmun" (245), "A white
man spined with
dreams" (240) who contributed to the founding of
Calendar of the Century,
The 1953 Twyane edition ends with sixteen pages of endnotes. The endnotes function as their own canto, a kind of section 9 that the reader can read straight through to interesting effect or choose to flip to while reading the poem proper. However, there are no indications within the poem as to what lines lead to endnotes—no endnote numbers are printed in the poem's text—lessening the decoding and authorizing function of Tolson's notes. The reader cannot presume that he or she will be led to the "correct" answer. In addition, the endnotes enact the poem's intertextual project, leading the reader not to explanations but to other texts, particularly primary texts, as Jon Woodson has pointed out. For example, the endnote to line 11, "No corpse of a soul's errand," reads simply, "Cf. Raleigh, The Soul's Errand." The endnote to line 15, "The rope across the abyss," states, "V. Nietzsche, Thus Spake Zarathustra." The notes do not tell us why these texts are important, or what relationship the texts have to the poem or the individual lines to which they are linked, but instead, in effect, direct the reader to a library, with the name of an author and a title. Thus Libretto for the Republic of Liberia is like a web that reaches out ever fuller and wider if the reader takes on the challenge of study and investigation that the poem requires. Libretto leads readers back to the archive.
contrast to the notes that simply list a title,
others contain extended anecdotes or quotations
linked to a single word in the poem. There appear
to be two kinds of notes, then, one that opens out
onto an entire text or texts and another that
closes down into a singular quotation. Both types,
however, are "open," in that each leads out into
an ever more intricate web of knowledge. The poem
becomes, then, less a singular narrative or
"necessary communication" and more a collaborative
learning event, in part because of the
astonishingly diverse array of allusions drawn
from multiple intellectual traditions. Libretto
for the Republic of
Bound by Law:
Hughes's "Prelude to Our Age: A Negro History Poem"
Despite the warnings he outlines, Derrida sounds a positive note toward the end of Archive Fever: "The archontic is at best the takeover of the archive by the brothers. The equality and the liberty of brothers. A certain, still vivacious idea of democracy" (95). Noting Freud's illumination of "the archontic principle of the archive," Derrida writes: "No one has analyzed, that is also to say, deconstructed, the authority of the archontic principle better than he." Perhaps unsurprisingly, given Freud's legacies, it is through the lens of gender that Derrida's optimistic view of the potential effects of "the takeover of the archive" begins to unravel. Derrida admits that "in [Freud's] theoretical theses as in the compulsion of his institutionalizing strategy, Freud repeated the patriarchal logic" by naming "the patriarchal right (Vaterrecht)" as "the civilizing progress of reason." This Vaterrecht has been so successful "that certain people can wonder if, decades after his death, his sons, so many brothers, can yet speak in their own name." And, finally, Derrida wonders what would happen "if [Freud's] daughter ever came to life," if she "was ever anything other than a phantasm or a specter." So too is the black man's hand in Hughes's "Prelude to Our Age" cast in shadow, a specter haunting recorded history: "The shadow of my hand / Across the printed word" (379).
In a time out of joint, American history as portrayed in "Prelude to Our Age: A Negro History Poem" is also haunted, but by both past and then-present African American figures. The presence of these specters represents an "incomplete mourning" of racial traumas, and without an incorporation (a "successful mourning") of that material, the path to the future remains forever unseen. Thus in "Prelude to Our Age," Hughes writes, "On all these rolls landmarking man, / The shadow of my hand: / Negro" (379). Here the black man's hand remains but a shadow, a ghost haunting recorded history: "The shadow of my hand / Across the printed word." According to Jean-Michel Rabaté, "To haunt signifies to 'frequent' a place, to inhabit it frequently, but to do so in the mode of an obsessive absence, of nameless remorse" (4). The shadow in "Prelude to Our Age" exists in a state of being and not being, as implied in the term "obsessive absence." Further, the history of slavery and the histories of black people's triumphs "shadow" American history, and the remorse for slavery's impacts is indeed "nameless." Thus "Prelude to Our Age" is "A Negro History Poem," illustrating that "our age"—that of the American empire—is built upon the backs of black people. In addition, as Hughes's title illustrates, this poem is a "preface," which is further defined as a precursor, or a representation of a preliminary condition. Thus the entire poem is a prelude to another age gestured toward but never realized in the poem. The poem illustrates what has come before, the preliminary conditions of slavery and lack of legal citizenship. However, the new age of achievement of modern selfhood cannot be conjured because the narrative of nationhood that defines the citizenry still excludes African Americans.
The "rolls landmarking man" in Hughes's "Prelude to Our Age" are official histories that exclude black people's accomplishments, and despite the shadow that the Negro's hand casts over the printed word, the "rolls" are still visible, readable. The African American body is twice disembodied here: first, the hand is separate from the body that animates it, and, second, the hand itself is invisible; we see only its shadow. That shadow, or haunt, indicates an unseen body and, importantly, a body without language. The histories of these bodies are absent, then, not represented in the record. In contrast, the struggle that Rabaté outlines in his study of what he terms "Anglo-Saxon 'high modernism'" is an internal one: "the haunted poet struggles against the commonplaces of a 'quotidian' that appears all the more evanescent as it expects the return of the anguishing spirit" (x). Indeed, Rabaté's "central metaphor" is "the transformation of the writer into a specter, because his own past returns whenever he imagines that he can predict, arrange, or control the future" (3). In the world conjured by Hughes, however, the dramatization of this conflict occurs in the social, rather than in the individual, realm. The ghost in Hughes's poem—of black peoples' histories and the black body itself—is both dead and undead, yet never alive, and haunts presently from its place within the shadows, casting itself as palimpsest on the "rolls landmarking man."
Emphasizing the motif of written and unwritten histories, Hughes initiates a mini-tour of the move from oral to written forms of communication in the third stanza of the poem:
At first only
Hughes begins this stanza within an Africanist context, taking note of "[t]he spoken word of bard or chief" and the beating of the drum that carries "instant history." Significantly, the bard and the chief play the same role here, signaling the African griot, the public singer who carries his or her people's history. Hughes acknowledges "the mystery / Of powers beyond sight" held by the spoken word and beating drum—forms of history not written, not "seen"—but moves quickly in the last two lines of the stanza through technologies of writing, from hieroglyphics found on stone to illuminated scrolls. At the end of this history, the poem (and the reader's eye) lands upon an indented couplet: "Homer's / 'Blameless Ethiopians'" (379). Hughes thus moves smoothly from an Africanist context, out to a Western one, and back to an Africanist context, drawing attention to the presence of African people in two foundational Western texts, The Iliad and The Odyssey, and thus to Africans' repressed placement at the center of Western culture. This move early in the poem helps to lay the foundation for the development of a diasporic consciousness. In the notes to the poem, editor Arnold Rampersad asserts, "The reputation of the Ethiopians for piety was established by the time of composition of the Homeric epic poems (around 800 b.c.e.)"; in addition, such information was in circulation among black intellectuals during the 1940s and 1950s. "Hughes probably found this information," Rampersad continues, "as well as other material in the poem, in Arna Bontemps's The Story of the Negro (1948), a volume dedicated to Langston Hughes" (Hughes, Collected Poems 669).
beginning the poem with Homer's Ethiopians, Hughes
draws the reader's attention to the fact that in The
Iliad and The Odyssey, the
Ethiopians are in a position of high privilege:
they are visited by both gods and kings. In book 1
of The Iliad, Zeus and the other gods
feast with the "Aithiopians":
"For Zeus went to the blameless Aithiopians at the Ocean /
yesterday to feast, and the rest of the gods went
with him" (lines 423–24). At the outset of The
Odyssey, the god Poseidon visits the "Aithiopians" as well: "But
Poseidon was gone now to visit the far Aithiopians, / Aithiopians, most distant
of men" (lines 22–23). He returns from
Lorenzo Thomas notes, "The assertion of the Negro's eternal presence—and participation in the great works of many civilizations—is one of the arguments put forward by black nationalists to counter the racist charge that people of African ancestry have had no significant role in history" (185). However, the ideology operating within "Prelude to Our Age" is not Afrocentric; neither does the poet seek to raise the status of Africans by privileging their relation to the classics. Rather, Hughes displays a diasporic consciousness that operates dialectically between these two poles. The ideological position that the poem assumes allows for a fluidity that encompasses the range of experiences, and historical contributions, of people of African descent around the globe. The poem says, in effect, we (people of African descent) are here (and here and here) and always have been. The poem does, then, emphasize "the Negro's eternal presence"; the poem also demonstrates that "the movements of groups always necessarily intersect, leading to exchange, assimilation, expropriation, coalition, or dissension," as Brent Hayes Edwards posits in his theorizing of the term "diaspora" ("Practice" 3). African cultures have affected, and been affected by, the cultures encountered through the movements of people under globalization, or, in an illustration from the poem itself, "Arab and African; the Moors / Gave Spain her castanets / And Senegal her prayers" (379). Thus Hughes's diasporic consciousness operates across national boundaries, displaying in the poem an understanding of the development of cultures within diaspora that foreshadows the development of critical theory in the twenty-first century.
Drawing on the Jewish tradition's linking of the term "diaspora" with the concepts of "redemption" and "return," Edwards explains in his reading of Hughes's Spanish civil war–era works that "we are often told that it is exactly the sort of internationalism at stake in the 1930s that has been superseded by the globalization of the contemporary period" ("Langston Hughes" 691). Edwards argues that "the archives of internationalism can be read for a sensibility—or more precisely, a poetics—that allows diaspora to serve as a critique of the totalizing pretensions of globalization" (691). Edwards shows, finally, the ways that one can read Hughes's work "as a writerly engagement in the politics of capitalist globalization" (691–92). Hughes's work of the 1950s shows not only engagement but also sustained critique.
Significantly, Hughes's global consciousness in "Prelude to Our Age" allows him to demonstrate that blackness is not an unchanging, ahistorical identity. Instead, the "exchange, assimilation, expropriation, coalition, or dissension" brought about through diaspora creates multiple black identities that are dependent, in part, upon local historical and political conditions. This understanding of the multiplicity within diasporic "blackness" becomes important because Hughes distinguishes between "Negro" (African American) identity and those subject-positions available elsewhere throughout the world. This emphasis on the construction of African American identity is emphasized by the fact that Hughes italicizes "Negro" throughout the poem. The only other words italicized in the work are lyrics from spirituals. But while Jeff Westover argues that Hughes is seeking in this poem to "imaginatively realiz[e] an ideal diasporan unity" between America and Africa, my view is that Hughes purposely upholds the contrast between African American identity and other national identities in order to highlight the devastating effects of slavery on African American culture (1221).
to highlight this contrast in "Prelude to Our
Age," Hughes compares people of African descent in
Swing low, sweet chariot,
Who one sees in the poem follows in the next verse: "Phillis, Crispus, Toussaint, / Banneker, Dumas, Pushkin" (380). The linking of these historical figures highlights Hughes's global consciousness:
All of these were me—
Hughes recognizes the connection of the
Negro's struggles in
Hughes deepens this contrast by punning on "right" and "write" when introducing verses of the songs. Here we see his understanding of archive as law: in order to achieve legal rights, one must first be written into the record. Thus the first spiritual is introduced with, "those of us who had no rights / made an unwritten song":
Go down, Moses,
The second ("Swing low, sweet chariot,") is introduced with "we, / Who could not write, made songs." Thus Hughes visually and aurally links the acquisition of rights with the act of writing—"those of us who had no rights" and "we, / Who could not write"—while also showing that African Americans during slavery rebelled through making unwritten songs. With the gesture linking rights with writing, Hughes aligns himself with the themes of the classic slave narrative, such as Frederick Douglass's first autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave (1845), which demonstrates that literacy is the first step toward both mental and physical freedom.
Hughes is careful to make clear that the silent, or unlettered, status of the African American is not race-specific. By drawing the reader's attention to the accomplishments of Alexandre Dumas and Aleksandr Pushkin, for example, "Prelude to Our Age" illustrates that the silence of African Americans is a country-specific predicament brought about by the historical conditions of slavery, and not an inherent feature of the supposed racial inferiority of people of African descent. Thus the United States is specifically indicted for its repression of black history and culture through outlawing, and in other ways impeding, African Americans' acquisition of literacy. The poem teaches us that elsewhere throughout the diaspora (in France, in Russia), writers of African descent contribute to great national literatures.
makes clear throughout the poem that the politics
of the written page are always at stake, as
"Prelude to Our Age" assumes the task of filling
in those pages previously left blank in the
historical record. As the poem develops, the
reader is instructed that the Negro's hand is in
shadow not only in contrast to official,
dominant-culture versions of history. The Negro is
also in the shadow of global diasporic
histories: for example, the Ethiopians in the
Homeric epics; "Aesop, Antar,
Terence, / Various Pharaohs, /
Papers, stories, poems the
whole world knows—
Although the speaker asserts that these are publications "the whole world knows," it as if they are struggling to "catch up" to the advancing historical record in America, as the black hand that wrote them remains in shadow. The official American historical record does not recognize or include these black-authored publications. The "Negro" sees but is not seen, despite the prestige of the black historical figures whom Hughes catalogues. The men mentioned in just one stanza (listed in the poem by last name only) include W. E. B. Du Bois, Carter G. Woodson, E. Franklin Frazier, Arturo Alfonso Schomburg, Claude McKay, and Countee Cullen. For those perhaps lesser-known figures here, Hughes includes full names: Robert S. Abbott, T. Thomas Fortune. Hughes makes sure that these men are seen, while at the same time illustrating their invisibility.
In Specters of Marx, Derrida writes of "the visor effect" (7), "the power to see without being seen" (8). The specter that Derrida theorizes, however, is quite different from that of the disembodied hand conjured by Hughes: Derrida writes of Hamlet's father. The "visor effect" of the King's armor when he reappears as a ghost creates "the basis [from] which we inherit the law" (7). Even when the visor is raised, "its possibility continues to signify that someone, beneath the armor, can safely see without being seen or without being identified" (8). Yet African Americans do not represent law in Hughes's poem—quite the opposite. "Even when it is raised," Derrida writes, "the visor remains, an available resource and structure … [which] distinguishes a visor from the mask with which, nevertheless, it shares this incomparable power, perhaps the supreme insignia of power: the power to see without being seen" (8). The African mask, however—what Henry Louis Gates, Jr., terms "the mask-in-motion"—is inseparable from its performative functions, and "with its immobilized features all the while mobile, itself is a metaphor for dialectic—specifically, a dialectic or binary opposition embracing unresolved or potentially unresolvable social forms, notions of origins, or complex issues of value" (168). The mask contains, as well as reflects, "a coded, secret, hermetic world, a world discovered only by the initiate" (167).
This reference to a "coded, secret, hermetic world" leads us to Du Bois's metaphor of the veil, which further elucidates the African American experience of seeing without being seen. Though the veil obstructs, shutting the young Du Bois out of the white children's world (4), there is movement within the veil: "After the Egyptian and Indian, the Greek and Roman, the Teuton and Mongolian, the Negro is a sort of seventh son, born with a veil, and gifted with second-sight in this American world" (5). Like the baby born with a caul, the Negro is "gifted with second-sight," special knowledge, prescience. Within the veil there is knowledge of the "deeper recesses" of Negro life, "the meaning of its religion, the passion of its human sorrow, and the struggle of its greater souls" (2), the information that Hughes archives in "Prelude to Our Age." Although the placement of the veil "only lets [the Negro] see himself through the revelation of the other world," creating the condition of double consciousness (5), it is important to remember that Du Bois leaves open the possibility for movement and self-possession, for the African American sees both within and through the veil. This possession of second sight differs from that of a white American who, without recognizing it, sees only the veil or, in the words of Paul Laurence Dunbar, "the mask that grins and lies" (71). Within Hughes's poem, the Negro sees his own history and that of the larger, white-dominated American historical record, but the official record does not see or recognize him. The poem represents the movement of Negro history within the veil, detailed by Hughes's many lists, which are starkly contrasted with an inertia and lack of progress outside, where the official "rolls landmarking man" ignore African Americans' contributions.
Significantly, the final enactments in the poem of this contrasting mobility and inertia occur in the legal realm, for the African American subject cannot speak the law but is, instead, subject to it. Even by the end of the poem, when it seems that Hughes has succeeded in displaying African Americans' contributions to democracy, written them into his own archive, the black man still remains in shadow:
Thus I help to build democracy
The opening two lines here illustrate that African Americans' contributions to democracy necessitate a legal claim for inclusion in American history. By this same "decree," however, the Negro is in shadow, and he is placed there by legal requirement. The word "decree" is crucially located in the center of this section so that it is possible to interpret the stanza in these two ways simultaneously: the Negro helps to build democracy for our nation, showing his foundational contributions to American nationhood, yet at the same time he is decreed to be outside of the legal privileges of that nationhood. "Decree" works to link the content of the first three lines, thus legislating the inclusion of blacks "across the history of our land." In addition, "decree" links the last three lines together: "Thus by decree across the history of our land— / The shadow of my hand: / Negro." The dash also does essential work, underscoring the linkage of the first three lines, while setting off the last two. The line preceding the dash— "Thus by decree across the history of our land"—thus works as a kind of toggle, linking up or linking down. The court cases that Hughes cites at the end of the poem mirror this action. Although blacks are decreed equal "All the way from a Jim Crow dining car / To the United States Supreme Court" (383–84), they also remain immobilized because "[a]lthough the Supreme Court ruled in 1946 that a Virginia statute requiring segregated seating interfered with interstate commerce and was thus invalid, … Jim Crow travel laws remained in force in 1954" ("Digest"). Thus blacks are immobilized within the mobilization of the train, moving and yet not moving.
first read "Prelude to Our Age: A Negro History
Poem" on October 15, 1950, at the twenty-fifth Schomburg Collection
dedication exercises (Hughes, Collected Poems
669)—an archive begun in 1926, when the personal
collection of Arturo Alfonso Schomburg
was added to the Division of Negro Literature,
History and Prints of the New York Public Library.
Notably, given the poem's content, the collection
Hughes demonstrates in other poems from the early 1950s that the black man is still "Caught in a crack," as in the poem "Consider Me." The "colored boy" who is "Downtown at eight / Sometimes working late," apologizes to his "Sugar" because "One don't make enough / For all the stuff / It takes to live":
Significantly, there is no way out of the polarizing oppositions of black and white, rich and poor in this poem. The inertia present in "Prelude to Our Age" (one which will be freed up in the movement of Ask Your Mama: 12 Moods for Jazz, a decade later) is given an image in "Consider Me," that of being caught and immobilized by hierarchies of power, a state of being subject to dominant-culture, death-drive violence, rather than modern, self-owning subject. Thus Hughes does not anticipate what will be written upon the page of tomorrow. Bound in the restrictions of Jim Crow America, it is as if the imagination cannot move forward; the song we anticipate to follow the "Prelude" cannot be written until the conditions of today are recognized and rectified:
Toward an Afro-Modernist Future
It was not until the jazz poems of the 1960s that Hughes's use of the page as a field allowed for visual and verbal play, noise rather than silence, bringing the movement of performativity into and onto the former immobility of the black-and-white page. In Ask Your Mama, the "Cultural Exchange" section enacts diasporic identity through the musical scoring that is written down the right-hand side of the page in italics that play off the left-justified "poem" printed in all capital letters. Here, "[t]he rhythmically rough scraping of a guira," a West Indian percussion instrument, is followed by "a lonely flute call" that "merges into piano variations on German lieder" all played against a scene where "amorphous Jack-o'-Lanterns caper" "in the quarter of the Negroes" (477). This scene, where "boundaries" both "bind" and "unbind[ ]" (477), gradually changes into "old-time traditional 12-bar blues up strong between verses until African drums throb against blues" (478). Hughes's attention to visual placement is so exact at this point, that the phrase "between verses" in the right-hand column is placed beside a stanza break in the left. Moving from the blues to African drums and back again, Hughes creates a diasporic modernist form that performs a modern diasporic identity crossing both racial and national borders.
In contrast, Tolson, in "A Song for Myself," which appeared in Phylon in 1945, was already beginning to imagine a way out of what Hughes describes as the "crack / That splits the world in two," prefiguring the dialectical recombination that is so much a part of Tolson's later works. At this point, that space is a "moat," a body of water designed to keep others out, but the possibility remains that the moat can be filled and become animated rather than inert. "Who filled / The moat / 'Twixt sheep / And goat?" the speaker asks. It seems that it will be Tolson's "I," the one who sings not a song "of" myself but a song "for" (him)self. The poem begins:
("Harlem Gallery" 45)
The speaker neither flies above the earth nor burrows below it: "Eagle / Nor mole," his measure is instead what he "saves / From rot," just as Tolson collects and archives proverbs in this poem and others. Tolson's poems highlight a concern with the role of the poet as preservationist, pointing both back and forward in historical time. The poem is less lyrical subject and more archaeological strata.
In another poem from the 1940s, "Dark Symphony" (1941), Tolson animates the past while constructing a path to the future, employing a form that mirrors the historical cataloguing also present in Hughes's "Prelude to Our Age," connecting both poets to Whitman. Tolson writes of the "history-moulding ancestors" of the New Negro who modernized culture and praises the intellectual and cultural accomplishments of the New Negro who "Strides in seven-league boots / Along the Highway of Today / Toward the Promised Land of Tomorrow!" ("Harlem Gallery" 40). The New Negro is depicted as both modern superhero and model citizen: "The New Negro, / Hard-muscled, Fascist-hating, Democracy-ensouled." There is physicality here, a presence and movement along the "Highway of Today" that will lead us to the "Promised Land of Tomorrow." Rather than waiting to turn to a blank page, the unwritten, the highway lays out a path to what Tolson believes will be the "Promised Land" of the future. Tolson's new forms conjure alternative visions of past, present, and future, while Hughes pauses to redress the injustices that have been carried forward into the 1950s in standard narratives of American nationhood. While whites may use metaphors of racialization to express subjective feeling—blackness as "absence," or as a target toward which to cast off the interior violence of the death drive—Hughes and Tolson address the violence, both figurative and literal, of such effacement through the creative act of writing into the record. Their work of the mid twentieth century provides a crucial example of what "archive as law" may mean in the African American context.
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Research for this article was supported
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 For a different take on the relationship between the archive and African American poetry, involving poets' use of archival materials, see Beavers. In his close reading of poems by five contemporary African American poets, Herman Beavers argues that "in turning to the archives, African American poetry has taken up the clarion call issued in the 60s to reclaim the past" (182).
 Esther Sanchez-Pardo theorizes "cultures of the death drive" through a Kleinian perspective.
 In The Philosophy of History (1837), Hegel writes: "At this point we leave Africa, not to mention it again. For it is no historical part of the World; it has no movement or development to exhibit…. What we properly understand by Africa, is the Unhistorical, Undeveloped Spirit, still involved in the conditions of mere nature, and which had to be presented here only as on the threshold of the World's History" (99).
 See also Rachel Blau DuPlessis's reading of Wallace Stevens's 1916 play Three Travelers Watch a Sunrise, in which the two black characters "only serve; they are completely silent or gestural" (DuPlessis 57).
 Frank Guridy offers an illuminating analysis of the historical development of Afro-diasporic consciousness "by participants in the Harlem Renaissance and the Afro-Cubanism (afrocubanismo) movement," as well as Hughes's influence on both. His essay shows "how Afro-diasporic connections can be established across cultural differences," illustrating "the process of diasporization, or the complex social, political, and cultural interactions between people of African descent across national, cultural, and linguistic boundaries that are based on a perceived commonality" (116).
 Such consideration is absent from Ramazani's account of Hughes's transnationality, in which he links Hughes with D.H. Lawrence through their common progenitor, Walt Whitman (340–41).
 For a discussion of the roots of this controversy, which has been ongoing in Tolson scholarship, see Nielsen.
 Robert M. Farnsworth notes that he could find no instances of Tolson's writing about his experiences at the inauguration (218) but suggests that Melvin B. Tolson, Jr.'s, memory of his father visiting him on a stopover in Paris confirms that a trip took place (220). In any case, this trip would have taken place after Tolson's book appeared.
 In 1947, Tolson did win a literary award, but it was for the highly allusive modernist poem "E. & O. E.," on which the editors of Poetry bestowed their annual Bess Hokim prize (Farnsworth 136).
 Tolson's son concurs with Farnsworth: "The original sponsors of Liberia , the American Colonization Society, had also founded Lincoln University, of which [Tolson's] friend and schoolmate Horace Mann Bond had recently become president" (398).
 Espoused by influential persons, the colonization movement became quite popular. The ACS was founded in Washington, D.C., in December 1816–January 1817, and "[b]y 1833, there were 97 local colonization societies in the North and 136 in the South" (Cain 10).
 For a discussion of various responses to the situation in Liberia in the early part of the twentieth century, including critiques written by African American intellectuals, see Hart 166–67.
 In 2006, the BBC reported: "The country's most recent troubles can be traced back to the 1980 coup in which a group of army officers of indigenous tribal origin led by Samuel Doe seized power. Doe forged closer ties with the United States , visiting President Reagan in Washington, and received substantial amounts of aid in return for exclusive trade agreements. His authoritarian regime banned newspapers and political parties, and held staged elections. Civil war broke out in 1989. In September 1990, Doe was overthrown and brutally executed by forces loyal to rebel faction leader Yornie Johnson. The war dragged on until 1996, and a year later warlord Charles Taylor … was elected president. His autocratic rule saw opposition leaders targeted for assassination. War broke out again in 1999. Taylor was eventually ousted in 2003, and exiled to Nigeria " (" Liberia at-a-Glance").
 "[Taylor] was charged with instigating murder, mutilation, rape and sexual slavery during intertwined wars in Liberia and Sierra Leone that claimed more than 250,000 victims from 1989 to 2003" ("Charles G. Taylor").
 Over the summer of 2010, Taylor's trial was highlighted on the international stage with testimony by actress Mia Farrow and model Naomi Campbell concerning Taylor's possession of the "blood diamonds" he allegedly used to obtain weapons (Simons and Lowell).
 All line numbers for Libretto for the Republic of Liberia are taken from the original 1953 Twayne edition; the text is not paginated.
 Maria K. Mootry finds this same formal structure in one of Tolson's war sonnets in Rendezvous with America (1944): "'The Braggart,' while rather simple in its structure of a tale within a tale and its use of character, dialogue, and concluding homily, achieves perhaps inadvertent complexity in its reversal of call-and-response patterns in the pre-modernist, black oral tradition" (138).
 John Cullen Gruesser suggests that Tolson also "puns on the 'foot' in 'footnote' with the words 'bunioned,' 'pedant,' and 'ladder,' thereby contrasting a plodding, earthbound approach to life with the high-flying and mercurial sparrow (Liberia)" (124).
 "Tolson's difficulties send the reader not to dictionaries, atlases, and encyclopedias … but to primary texts, as do the notes in Eliot's ' Waste Land'" (Woodson 34).
 In his review of the poem, J. Saunders Redding finds that Tolson's use of endnotes indicates "that the poet found his talents unequal to the full requirements of the particular necessary communication" (2).
 Jean-Michel Rabaté describes "an 'ethics of mourning' identical with an acceptance of loss in order to go beyond mere repetition. A 'successful' mourning is generally thought to lead to incorporation, which merely reproduces another transpersonal and translinguistic 'phantom' …What occurs when mourning generates another text?" (13).
 In The Oxford English Dictionary online, the first definition of the noun form of prelude is "A preliminary action, or condition, preceding and introducing one of more importance; an introduction, a preface; a precursor."
 Jeff Westover argues that in "Prelude to Our Age" and other poems, including "Drums" and "Danse Africaine," "Hughes makes the drum his instrument for the recuperative work of memory" (1215).
 Gwendolyn Brooks's "The Anniad," in Annie Allen (1949), a "mock-epic," draws on classical foundations as well. Drawing its title from a pun on The Aeneid and The Illiad, "The Anniad" overwrites the male hero with a female one, according to Ann Folwell Stanford, "virtually writing the one male character [Aeneus] who inhabits the text right out of it" (286). Brooks, differently from Hughes or Tolson, uses "the character of the epic" to examine "the process by which gender formation and sexual relationships are, if not wholly determined, at least powerfully shaped by the material culture out of which they arise" (Stanford 286).
 Hughes's identification with African Americans is evident in his use of the pronouns "we" and "our" throughout the poem, naming America as "our land," for example: "Meanwhile Jamestown links its chains / Between the Gold Coast and our land" ("Prelude" 380).
 In Douglass's Narrative, Douglass's master, Mr. Auld, upon finding that his wife has begun teaching Douglass "the A, B, C," states: "If you give a nigger an inch, he will take an ell. A nigger should know nothing but to obey his master—to do as he is told to do. Learning would spoil the best nigger in the world…. It would forever unfit him to be a slave" (78).
 For example, in 1830–31, the state of North Carolina passed a law preventing "all persons from teaching slaves to read or write," on the grounds that literacy "has a tendency to excite dissatisfaction in their minds, and to produce insurrection and rebellion" (qtd. in Marable and Mullings 40).