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

Kathy Lou Schultz

        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 U.S. history, using their poems to comment upon the making of national identity. As African Americans situated under the historical weight of the state using the entire force of its various apparatuses—religious, economic, and legal—to destroy the history and culture of people of African descent in order to preserve the institution of slavery, Hughes, in "Prelude to Our Age: A Negro History Poem" (1951), and Tolson, in Libretto for the Republic of Liberia (1953), "write back" by using the poem form to archive African American accomplishment. Hughes and Tolson write into the voids in official records, making their own histories, highlighting the fact that the construction of the archive—of memory—must constantly be tended. "There is no political power without control of the archive, if not of memory," Derrida reminds us; "[e]ffective democratization can always be measured by this essential criterion: the participation in and the access to the archive, its constitution, and its interpretation" (Archive 4n1). Combating potential effacement by the social and legal conditions of daily life for black men in mid-twentieth-century America, Hughes and Tolson present a revisionist agenda constituted not only by the conscious, assertive action of writing people of African descent into the historical record, but also by a palimpsestic writing onto, an action of overwriting. In doing so, each overwrites accepted narratives of American nationhood.

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.[1]

 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.[2] 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).

Furthermore, 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 Hegel's.[3] White 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 Laura (Riding) Jackson's "O Vocables of Love":

O vocables of love,
O zones of dreamt responses
Where wing on wing folds in
The negro centuries of sleep
And the thick lips compress
Compendiums of silence—

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).[4]

Working against such multiple forms of erasure, Hughes and Tolson produce accounts of the accomplishments of people of African descent not only in America , but also throughout the diaspora. The flowering of global diasporic consciousness evident in their poems is informed by an understanding that the flow and collision of peoples and cultures result in identities that are in flux, rather than fixed.[5] In "Prelude to Our Age," Hughes writes and unwrites history, reflecting the mobility and stasis, the starts and stops, on the path toward achievement of modern selfhood in a culture determined to defer indefinitely African Americans' freedoms. In Turning South Again (2001), Houston A. Baker, Jr., "re-thinks" his own theory of black modernism, pointing out: "Primarily, black modernism signifies the achievement of a life-enhancing and empowering public sphere mobility and the economic solvency of the black majority…. black modernism is coextensive with a black citizenship that entails documented mobility (driver's license, passport, green card, social security card) and access to a decent job at a decent rate of pay" (33). Baker also highlights the achievement of voting rights as evidence of black modernism. It is important to note that in order to become "modern," African Americans needed to secure rights that were already given to the white majority. These public-sphere rights are under investigation in "Prelude to Our Age." Without these legal rights, African Americans' history in Hughes's poem "shadows" the narrative of American nationhood, as a ghost whose silhouette is cast from the margins.

In contrast, Tolson's 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 Ramazani asserts, "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.[6] 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 Tolson's Libretto 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.)[7]

Tolson's self-conscious immersion in modernism in the 1950s is evident in his highly imbricated allusions in Libretto for the Republic of Liberia. Libretto is an eight-section, serial epic structured on the do-re-mi diatonic musical scale. Completing the octave, the poem ascends to a final futuristic, utopian vision displaying an optimism that distinguishes it from Hughes's work of the same decade. Tolson's vision of Liberia is constructed through both imaginative flights and extensive research. An article in the Washington, D.C., newspaper Evening Star announcing the upcoming release of Libretto declares, "After five years of work, which included the reading of 500 books, the poem, an epic, is ready" ("Liberian Laureate"). The sixteen pages of notes to the poem contain ample evidence of that research, though no firsthand observations of the country itself. In fact, Tolson may never have visited Liberia . The writer of the Evening Star article conjectures, "surely he is the first poet laureate of a country he has never seen." Tolson's papers at the Library of Congress contain invitations to attend events in Liberia, January 1–9, 1956, celebrating the inauguration of Liberian president-elect William V.S. Tubman, but there is no evidence that Tolson actually went ("Programme of Ceremonies").[8] This circumstance becomes important as we consider the ways in which in the making of his poem Tolson constructed " Liberia " out of texts.

Tolson was given the honorary title "Poet Laureate of the Liberian Centennial and Peace Exposition" at a ceremony at the Liberian Embassy in Washington, D.C., in July 1947 (Farnsworth 108). His unusual journey toward becoming poet laureate of Liberia and writing Libretto for that country's centennial reflects the conflicts and complexities contained within diasporic identities. The Evening Star proclaims that Tolson achieved his laureate status "by virtue of having won in 1947 the National Poetry Prize of the American Negro Exposition" ("Liberian Laureate"). This detail is likewise included in a Washington Post article taped to the same piece of paper in Tolson's archive in the Library of Congress, hand-dated January 17, 1954. The reference may be to Tolson's first-prize award for "Dark Symphony," which he won at the American Negro Exposition in Chicago, an event that took place in 1940, not 1947.[9] Tolson biographer Robert M. Farnsworth speculates that the critical and popular success of Rendezvous with America, of which the award-winning poem "Dark Symphony" is a part, played a major role in Tolson being named poet laureate of Liberia . Farnsworth remarks upon two aspects of the Rendezvous collection: "the strong assertion that Tolson makes for black Americans being a part of a national American identity from its beginning," and Tolson's "view of America … playing a part in the worldwide movement toward democratic self-realization," an important issue in colonial Africa following World War II (108). The Liberian centennial was of great interest to many African Americans. The centennial commission, based in Washington, D.C., distributed a reprint of an editorial from the Oklahoma newspaper The Black Dispatch dated December 28, 1946, which states: "All of the 13 million Negroes in the United States should be intensely interested in the Liberian Centennial which will be celebrated by the Republic of Liberia July 26, 1947. Founded by ex-slaves 100 years ago, Liberia is today the only republic in Africa in which Negroes control their own government" ("Liberian Centennial").

Farnsworth 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 president of Lincoln University unquestionably enhanced his position as a member of the Liberian Centennial Commission. It seems reasonable to assume that he thus played a key role in the appointment of Tolson" to the position of poet laureate of Liberia (108).[10] Lincoln University had a strong historical connection to Liberia: both the university, originally called Ashmun Institute in honor of Jehudi Ashmun, a founder of the nation of Liberia, and the Liberian venture itself were sponsored by the American Colonization Society (ACS) (Farnsworth 108).[11] (Ashmun Institute was renamed Lincoln University in 1866, after President Abraham Lincoln.) Illustrating the Lincoln University–Liberia connection, Tolson writes in endnote 245 to Libretto, "The memory of the white pilgrim [Jehudi Ashmun] survives in old Ashmun Hall and in the Greek and Latin inscriptions cut in stones sacred to Lincoln men."

The missionary aspects of the ACS (with their attendant problematics) mirror those of Lincoln University, examples of which are praised in a 1928 issue of Lincoln University Herald:

When the dedicatory sermon was preached at the founding of Lincoln University (then Ashmun Institute), Rev. C. Van Rensselaer, D.D., the preacher, took as his theme, "God will be glorified in Africa." The missionary purpose in the founding of the institution has been carried out not only by its first graduate, but by some thirty others who have gone as missionaries to South Africa , Liberia , Nigeria , and during the war to the native troops in East Africa.

                                                                                                                        (Johnson 5)

Although the "back to Africa" movement in its various forms—from the ACS to Marcus Garvey and the Universal Negro Improvement Association—appeared to contain liberating potential, one also recognizes the oppressive influence of the goal of "Christianizing and civilizing" Africans, as missionaries from Lincoln University sought to do, a justification that had been used for the continuation of slavery in North America ("Colonization"). Frederick Douglass had clearly recognized the ways in which the colonization project could be used to extend the reach of slavery throughout the U.S. In a column in The North Star dated January 26, 1849, he calls the Liberian venture the "wrinkled old 'red herring' of colonization" and "a ruse to divert the attention of the people from the foul abomination which is sought to be forced upon the free soil of California and New Mexico, and which is now struggling for existence in Kentucky, Virginia and the District of Columbia" ("Colonization").[12]

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 home.
                                                                                                     (qtd. in Cain 10)

In addition, Garrison recognized the potential for calamity in U.S. colonization of the west coast of Africa. In "Exposure of the American Colonization Society"(1832), Garrison presciently notes: "I avow it—the natural tendency of the colony at Liberia excites the most melancholy apprehensions in my mind. Its birth was conceived in blood, and its footsteps will be marked with blood down to old age—the blood of the poor natives—unless a special interposition of Divine Providence prevent such a calamity" (24–25). Indeed, the importation of European American culture by blacks from America to Liberia resulted in strange confluences:

In many respects, emigrants to Liberia re-created an American society there. The colonists spoke English and retained American manners, dress, and housing styles. Affluent citizens constructed two-story houses composed of a stone basement and a wood-framed body with a portico on both the front and rear, a style copied from buildings in the southern American states from which most of the emigrants came. Liberia 's president lived in a handsome stone mansion that resembled a southern plantation house.

(" Liberia ")

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.[13] Although descendants of freed slaves from the Americas constitute only about 5 percent of Liberia 's current population, members of this group have continued to rule the country ("Liberia Country Profile").

As Garrison predicted, Liberia 's history does continue to be marked in blood, the blood of indigenous Africans in particular. In 2007, warlord-turned-president Charles G. Taylor was brought before a United Nations-backed tribunal at The Hague on charges of war crimes. [14] "A descendant of the freed slaves who returned from North America to found Liberia in the 19th century, Mr. Taylor became notorious during his years in power for the treatment of the children who were pressed into the armies he raised" ("Charles G. Taylor").[15] In contrast to the historical consequences of the colonization project that we must consider from the vantage point of the present, the text Tolson produced for the Liberian Centennial Commission enacts a celebration of modern diasporic identity as imagined by him in the late 1940s and early 1950s, when there was optimistic news coming from Liberia heralding "progress," on which Tolson chose to focus.

Headlines in the magazine Liberia Today, published by the Liberian Embassy in Washington, D.C., and found in Tolson's archive, tout "Liberian progress in agriculture" and "democracy at work." Following up on Liberia 's contributions to the Allies' efforts in World War II, the journal also highlights progress in rubber production, including photos from the Firestone plant in Monrovia. The mood surrounding the 1956 inauguration of President William V. S. Tubman is likewise celebratory. The January 1956 issue of Liberia Today opens with a story, "12 Years of Progress," on Tubman's leadership: "The most outstanding feature about Liberia today is the effectiveness of the Development Program initiated and carried out by the Tubman Administration" (2). This celebration of Liberia's potential is reflected in Tolson's Libretto for the Republic of Liberia through the utopian vision of the final section of the poem, "Do," and is represented by a series of futuristic vehicles: "The Futurafrique, the chef d'oeuvre of Liberian / Motors" (lines 575–76); "The United Nations Limited," a train (635); "The Bula Matadi," an ocean liner "diesel-engined, fourfold-decked, / swan-sleek" that "glides like an ice- / ballet skater out of the Bight of / Benin" (663–66); and finally an airplane, "Le Premier des Noirs, of Pan-African Airways" (680).[16] This section is composed of a series of long, proselike lines, the final portion of which forms a visual tower, with flush-left lines balanced on top of shorter, centered lines that are both left and right justified. This visual representation of balance contrasts with the way in which cars, for some white modernists, represent an American culture out of control: in Spring and All XVIII ("To Elsie"), William Carlos Williams writes, "The pure products of America / go crazy—" (217), and there is "No one / to witness / and adjust, no one to drive the car" (219), while in Tolson's Libretto, "The Futurafrique, the chef d'oeuvre of Liberian / Motors slips through the traffic / swirl of axial Parsifal-Feirefiz" (575–77).

The settlers of Liberia , freed slaves who reversed the trajectory of the Middle Passage, are represented in Tolson's Libretto for the Republic of Liberia by the glittering modern vehicle, driving toward a future that Tolson predicts will be bright. Tolson's pyrotechnic vehicle, with an optimistic "accent on youth and speed / and beauty" (581–82), "challenges the snow-lily / diadem of the Europa" (614–15). Tolson thus arrives at different conclusions than Williams as to the uses and effects of modernity's products. Furthermore, for Tolson, his interest in the "Negro kinsmen" for whom "America is my mother, / Liberia is my wife, / And Africa my brother" lies at the heart of his representation of modern black identity, one in which people of African descent throughout the world share intimate familial connections (251–54).

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).[17] The poem opens as follows:

                        Liberia ?
No micro-footnote in a bunioned book
                Homed by a pedant
                With a gelded look:

Right away the reader is confronted with unusual images—"bunioned 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.[18] Instead, we are told of Liberia :

                         You are
The ladder of survival dawn men saw
  In the quicksilver sparrow that slips
                  The eagle's claw!


Liberia is a way up for those on the bottom ("[t]he ladder of survival"), represented by a tiny but clever sparrow who eludes an eagle's grasp. "Eagle's claw" might also represent American imperialism. Dan McCall writes: " Liberia is a symbol of the slave slipping the claws of the American eagle. In his opening image Tolson defines Liberia in terms of flight; the image continues throughout the poem" (540).

The second stanza's negation to the repeated question " Liberia ?" uses more straightforward language but, at the same time, perhaps more unusual images: "No side-show barker's bioaccident, / No corpse of a soul's errand / To the Dark Continent" (10–12). Liberia is not a sideshow to history, nor is it simply the detritus of European exploration of the " Dark Continent." Instead, Liberia is a promised land that lights the way for Africa's future: "The lightning rod of Europe, Canaan's key, / The rope across the abyss, / Mehr licht for the Africa-To-Be!" (14–16). Tolson draws attention to the intentionality of Liberia 's founders, for Liberia is "No haply black man's X / Fixed to a Magna Charta without a magic-square" (18–19). No black man was forced by circumstance to sign on to a document that ultimately does not add up. Instead, Tolson celebrates Liberia among the great civilizations of Africa: "The oasis of Tahoua, the salt bar of Harrar" (23).

Stanza 6 begins, " Liberia ? / No Cobra Pirate of the Question Mark" (41–42). An endnote tells us, "I now know that the Question Mark is rough water between Scylla and Charybdis," a recognition of the conflicts arising from European colonization of Africa (n42). The Scylla and Charybdis are a favorite Tolson allusion, representing the danger of encountering one evil while seeking to avoid its opposite. A literal dissection of binary oppositions is evident in section "Ti" with the image of Siamese twins Chang and Eng:

  O East, O West,
on tenotomy bent,
  Chang's tissue is
  Eng's ligament!


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 America are brought together in African American identity, an experience constructed from the materials of diaspora and made anew in this poem. Throughout the poem, Tolson deconstructs and reenvisions binary oppositions, displaying a break from what Mark A. Sanders calls a "Victorian epistemology … ill-equipped for the twentieth century," a hallmark of which is "dichotomous reasoning" (130). Sanders asserts that such a break is the point of departure for what he terms "heterodox modernism," such as "'native' modernism and Afro-modernism" (130). Although Tolson's work falls historically outside of Sanders's focus on the New Negro Renaissance, Tolson clearly typifies the method of Afro-modernism that Sanders describes.

"Re," section 2, is framed by a series of sayings that "The Good Gray Bard in Timbuktu chanted" (57). Here, Tolson transports Walt Whitman to Africa. Drawing evidence from the Tolson papers housed at the Library of Congress, Aldon L. Nielsen shows that "[w]hat Tolson came to attempt was a decolonizing of American letters, a task which he saw as linking him to Whitman" (244). "I had deserted the great Romantics and Victorians," Tolson states; "Walt Whitman's exuberance was in the marrow of my bones" ("Poet's Odyssey" 195). Tolson's reenvisioning of Whitman epitomizes his ideology of the African American poet's position, one that is formed from all the available materials of the poet's heritages. Libretto for the Republic of Liberia, therefore, is a representation of modern diasporic identity, as well as an ode to the African nation of Liberia . As Keith D. Leonard explains, "Tolson validates his own epic imagination as a component of these nonbinary, Pan-African values of heroism and freedom" (219).

Tolson utilizes 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 University of Sankoré and the "Footloose professors," or "[t]he nomadic pedagogues gathered at Timbuktu" (line 81; note 81). Nielsen points out that "[o]n draft pages of the Libretto [Tolson] notes, 'Culture of 14th Century Africa equal to Europe's' (cont. 9), and in the final version of the poem he transforms his historical researches into lyric genealogy" (249). "The Good Gray Bard in Timbuktu" also warns against the threat of European aggression: "' Europe is an empty python in hiding grass'" (86). "Mi," one of the shorter sections at six quatrains, tells the story of the founding of Liberia, "Black Pilgrim Fathers to Cape Mesurado" (116), and the American Colonization Society. "Fa" celebrates an "interlude of peace" (139) from predators, including a boa constrictor ("the Bola boa lies / gorged to the hinges of his jaws") (126–27), a vulture or "beaked and pouched assassin" (130), and a "tawny typhoon striped with black / torpors in grasses tan" (135–36).

Encoding 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 down-the-river sjamboks"—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 "' Africa is a rubber ball; / the harder you dash it to the ground, / the higher it will rise'" (173–75). At times, multiple proverbs are wedded together to sculpt the tercet form:

"It is the grass that suffers when
two elephants fight. The white man solves
between white sheets his black
"problem. Where would the rich cream be
without skim milk? The eye can cross
the river in a flood.


"La," section 6, relates the story of "Prophet Jehudi Ashmun" (245), "A white man spined with dreams" (240) who contributed to the founding of Liberia and of Lincoln University. "Ti," an extended section employing centered lines, enacts a series of blessings:

        O Calendar of the Century,
       red-letter the Republic's birth!
                     O Hallelujah,
                 oh, let no Miserere
venom the spinal cord of Afric earth!


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.[19] 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.

In 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.[20] Libretto for the Republic of Liberia is more of a task than a text. It is an ongoing conversation, ready to be reentered whenever the reader chooses to pick up the text again, like a telephone line that stays perpetually open. The reader who wants to keep up his or her end must have an array of foreign language dictionaries; reference books; and literary, philosophical, and historical texts at the ready on the telephone table. The task is one that may continue days, months, or years, for this is not a text to be mastered. Tolson consciously resists mastery. He is the professor who has lain out a syllabus for students who are eager to learn but will never master the master himself, Tolson.

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.[21] 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.[22] 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
The spoken word of bard or chief,
And the beaten drum
That carried instant history
Across the night,
Or linked man with the mystery
Of powers beyond sight.
Pictures on stone, hieroglyphics,
Parchment, illuminated scrolls.


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.[23] 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.[24] 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).

In 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 Ethiopia in book 5 (282). King Menelaos also visits the Ethiopians. Describing his sufferings in book 4, Menelaos recounts: "I wandered to Cyprus and Phoenicia , to the Egyptians, / I reached the Aithiopians, Eremboi, Sidonians, / and Libya where the rams grow their horns quickly" (83–85). Although J. W. Gardner notes, "There is general agreement that from Homer onwards references in Classical writers to Ethiopia and the Ethiopians are almost never to modern Ethiopia or to the highland peoples who were the ancestors or predecessors of present-day inhabitants of the Ethiopian plateau" (185), he points out that for classical authors, "one area in particular came to be thought of as the land of the Ethiopians—Nubia, now part of the Sudan." The Ethiopians assume a status in Homer's texts that is both mythic and actual. The interventions of "Prelude to Our Age" are thus literary and historical, textually grounded and historically instructive.

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).

In order to highlight this contrast in "Prelude to Our Age," Hughes compares people of African descent in America with those throughout Europe and Asia. In a parallel move, he highlights the contrast of the written and the unwritten, noting in his Pan-Africanist vision of history that "In other lands Dumas and Pushkin wrote," while in America, under conditions of chattel slavery, "we, / Who could not write, made songs":[25]

Swing low, sweet chariot,
Coming for to carry me home …
Oh, I looked over Jordan
And what did I see—

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—
           Not free:
  As long as one
  Man is in chains,
  No man is free.


Hughes recognizes the connection of the Negro's struggles in America with those of people of African descent worldwide. The difference in America , Hughes stresses, is that due to the history of slavery, blacks in the U.S. must first find their voices through song—through the unwritten. And although Hughes does draw attention to the soundings of black culture with his inclusion of what W. E. B. Du Bois calls the sorrow songs, in this poem silence is specifically marked by exclusion from written history.

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,
Way down in Egypt land,
And tell old Pharaoh
To let my people go …


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.[26]

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.[27] The poem teaches us that elsewhere throughout the diaspora (in France, in Russia), writers of African descent contribute to great national literatures.

Hughes 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, / Sheba , too"; and the Moors (379), in addition to the previous examples of Dumas and Pushkin. Writing onto America 's (literal and figurative) blank page, Hughes uses "Prelude to Our Age" to record the contributions of African Americans to the "ever growing history of man." As African American intellectuals and African American publications come onto the scene, the speaker in "Prelude" notes that "All the time the written record grows" (383). With the advent of The Afro-American, The Black Dispatch, The Crisis, Phylon, Opportunity, and Native Son,

Papers, stories, poems the whole world knows—
The ever growing history of man
Shadowed by my hand:


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
For our nation.
Thus by decree across the history of our land—
The shadow of my hand:


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.

Hughes 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 (renamed the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in 1972) endures as one of the most significant African American archives (" Schomberg Center"). Around the time Hughes presented "Prelude to Our Age," "the NAACP was beginning to support challenges to segregation at the elementary school level. Five separate cases were filed in Kansas, South Carolina, Virginia, the District of Columbia, and Delaware" ("Teaching with Documents"). The final decision in Brown v. Board of Education declaring "separate but equal" public schools unconstitutional was handed down in 1954, three years after "Prelude" was first published. The time of the poem's publication thus represents a tipping point when African Americans were on the verge of achieving legal victories but still subject to the tyrannies of Jim Crow.

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":

Forgive me
What I lack,
Caught in a crack
That splits the world in two


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:

All this
A prelude to our age:
Is another


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:

I judge
My soul
Nor mole:
A man
Is what
He saves
From rot.

("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.


This article first appeared in:
Contemporary Literature. March 20, 2011 52:108-145

Kathy Lou Schultz, assistant professor of English at the University of Memphis, has published a volume of poetry, Some Vague Wife (Atelos, 2002); a collection of prose works, Biting Midge (Belladonna, 2008); and articles on Muriel Rukeyser, Audre Lorde, and Myung Mi Kim. She is writing a book on Melvin B. Tolson, Langston Hughes, and Amiri Baraka, titled "'In the Modern Vein': The Afro-Modernist Epic and Literary History." 978-0230338739

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Research for this article was supported in part by a faculty research grant from the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Memphis. I also wish to thank Rachel Blau DuPlessis, Jeremy Braddock, Leigh Anne Duck, Bob Perelman, Dahlia Porter, Robin Tremblay-McGaw, and Contemporary Literature's anonymous readers for their generous feedback at various stages of this project.

[1] 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).

[2] Esther Sanchez-Pardo theorizes "cultures of the death drive" through a Kleinian perspective.

[3]  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).

[4] 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).

[5] 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).

[6] 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).

[7] For a discussion of the roots of this controversy, which has been ongoing in Tolson scholarship, see Nielsen.

[8] 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.

[9] 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).

[10] 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).

[11] 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).

[12] 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.

[13] 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").

[14] "[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").

[15]  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).

[16] All line numbers for Libretto for the Republic of Liberia are taken from the original 1953 Twayne edition; the text is not paginated.

[17]  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).

[18] 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).

[19] "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).

[20]  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).

[21] 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).

[22]  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."

[23] 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).

[24] 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).

[25]  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).

[26] 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).

[27] 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).