top of page

The W(e)are Blues
Annie Jonas

How Paradoxes within African-American Elegy Frame the Black Experience in America

Jahan Ramazani begins his analysis of Langston Hughes in his book Poetryof Mourning: The Modern Elegy from Hardy to Heaney by describing “the phrase ‘African-American elegy… [as] either a contradiction in terms or a redundancy” (135). At first glance, it does make sense that there is an irony and almost cruel mockery created by combining these two polarized terms. But what Ramazani does not account for in his observation of the phrase is the importance of such seeming contradictions. African-American elegy is not “diminished when placed merely in this [European] genealogy” (Ramazani 135) but heightened because it protests, changes, and redefines notions of traditional elegy to fit its own unique purpose as a compilation of dichotomies and contradictions. African-American elegy both borrows from “this [European] genealogy” and produces its own legacy in order to make clear the duality that comes from opposition. James Baldwin explains this phenomenon of oppositional dualities in his essay “Notes of a Native Son” when he remarks that “[i]t began to seem that one would have to hold in the mind forever two ideas which seemed to be in opposition” (603). Part of the Black experience is “the Negro’s real relation to the white American” (Baldwin 603), a relation rooted in oppression and unimaginable violence. Experience–– specifically that which is oppressive and violent–– is what separates African-American elegy from traditional elegy. Whereas traditional elegy takes on an observational and distant perspective of the deceased, African-American elegy takes on a personal perspective, where the elegist experiences firsthand what is being elegized. Blues authors such as Langston Hughes, Robert Hayden, James Baldwin, and Gwendolyn Brooks take on the role of both the elegist and the elegized in their work; they mourn the death of individuals, of a collective history, and ultimately, of themselves through experience. Paradoxes and contradictions are an integral part of their work because they represent perpetual and inherited collisions that are not only definitive of African-American elegy, but of the African-American experience in a country founded on the oppression and discrimination of their ancestors.

Ramazani outlines three main types of paradoxes in his essay that guide the way he sees African-American elegy in conjunction to traditional elegy: the blues (Ramazani 143), literary versus “folk culture” (Ramazani 144), and the individual versus the collective (Ramazani 173). We will also use these three types of paradoxes to illustrate their importance in framing the Black experience.

The blues is “already a blues for the blues” (Ramazani 145), a macro-level term made up of micro-level paradoxes, such as affirmation vs. hopeless weariness or melancholia vs. mourning. The blues is “synonymous with melancholia … [because] characteristics of melancholia are shared by the blues and the modern elegy” (Ramazani 139-140). Melancholia is itself a paradox, for it “opposes” mourning by supposedly being the “diseased” form. But melancholia is not definitively separate from mourning, but instead is an oppositional duality; you need both mourning and melancholy for elegy. The blues thrives off of its paradoxes in order to represent “the sociopolitical experience of African-Americans” (Ramazani 140) within the pathological concept of melancholia. The blues is “diseased” because it is “protracted and unresolved … [and] self-berating” (Ramazani 140); it is a complex mesh and mess of elegiac and racial history expressed through both oral and written tradition. The simultaneous normality and abnormality that the blues expresses as a genre, that blues poets write about, and that blues singer sing about is a paradox, a unity of two unlike things that prove to be cohesive (Ramazani 140). Affirmation–– often referring to spirituals, a form of “normative mourning,” or consolatory mourning (Ramazani 142)––and hopeless weariness are two polarized terms that are united by their collision. Affirmational blues is consolatory and spiritual, while hopeless weariness is disconsolate and melancholic. But despite their opposition, there is a “duality of the blues–– the genres [intentional] tendencies toward both affirmation and self-negation, both consolatory mourning and melancholia” (Ramazani 144).

Along with the blues, the paradox between “literary and ‘folk’ culture” (Ramazani 144) is a crux of African-American elegy, for it embodies the racial and historical differences between African-American and European culture that converge and diverge through modern elegy. To begin, there is a historical collision between oral and written forms of storytelling cross-culturally; oral storytelling has its heritage in African culture while written forms of storytelling are historically based in Europe (Ramazani 143). And yet, African-American elegy transcends this dichotomous history by combining both oral and written forms of storytelling through the blues as a musical and written movement. While the Harlem Renaissance and the Great Migration were both revolutions of Black culture, they were also reminders of the merciless injustice shown to Black people despite the juridical shift towards supposed racial equality. There is dissatisfaction and there is frustration within each of these movements, and from that place of discontent blues poets and blues musicians are born. Langston Hughes writes “The Weary Blues” in 1925 in the midst of a Black cultural euphoria where blues music is the anthem and blues poetry the manifesto. And Hughes becomes not only a master poet but a master elegist by combining oppositions, such as oral versus written tradition / culture. Hughes is a master elegist because he is able to combine elegiac histories and traditions that are deeply confrontational into a modern form of elegy that is cohesive in its conflict. There is a cyclical nature to Hughes’ poetry, in which he writes poetry about blues singers who are singing about Black history. This is a complicated mesh of oral and written forms of storytelling and culture; blues singers are singing melancholically (an oral form and traditionally African), to which poets respond by writing poetry (a written form, paradoxical because written storytelling is European) about blues singers (oral) and about the Black experience and history (historically told through oral rituals such as call-and-response work songs). Thus, blues poets become a vessel through which these seemingly oppositional forces come together to frame the Black experience in its turbulence and collision, an experience which is both individual and collective.

Blues poetry straddles the gap between the individual and the collective, unlike traditional elegy that creates a distance between the elegist and the elegized. For blues poets, “death is no abstract possibility [as it is in pastoral, European elegy] but an omnipresent and everyday reality” (Ramazani 157). And because of death’s godlike presence, elegy is a means through which death plays an active role, which we see in the paradox of the individual versus the collective. The blues poet writes for an individual that represents a collective, but oftentimes that individual is the poet himself. As in the case of Langston Hughes’ or Robert Hayden’s poetry, the poet becomes like death, omnipresent and able to enter into the role of the individual who is being elegized while simultaneously mourning himself from the perspective of writer; the poet becomes both the elegist and the elegized, a duality that unites death, perspective, elegy, and the Black experience into one cohesive unit. The individual, then, becomes synonymous with the collective, a duality that seems discontinuous but in reality is continuous. African-American elegy is unique in its simultaneity; it is both self-elegy and social-elegy, a cooperative balance that unites unique perspectives with a greater history of racism, oppression, and injustice. The individual mourns the history he comes from, the present he lives, and the legacy he will bestow in the future, creating a time-transcendence, a dual freedom and imprisonment within the Black experience in America. And unlike traditional elegy in which a chorus mourns the dead, the elegist himself is the chorus, is both a singular and plural entity. And perhaps this form of mourning––as a self-mourner–– is the most truthful because the elegist is the elegized, he has lived and died, he has been remembered and forgotten at the same time. He knows the depths of his own death, and is, then, the most reliable source to write the elegy.

We see the paradox of affirmation versus hopelessness across blues poetry but specifically in Langston Hughes’ poem “The Weary Blues.” Hughes begins his poem by creating a rich blues rhythm and drowsy atmosphere through alliteration and diction; the words “droning” and “drowsy” assert a lexical symmetry and continuity, while “droning,” “drowsy,” “mellow,” and “pale dull pallor” evoke an ease and informality that starkly contrast the very structured rhyme scheme. These seemingly oppositional structures lay the foundation for a poem that reflects the dissatisfaction and hopeless weariness Hughes writes about. Hughes continues by creating a divine relationship between the blues singer, his piano, and the song he sings, where the singer, the piano, and the song fuse together into “a [single] melancholy tone” (50). The blues simultaneously comes “from a Black man’s soul,” from “that poor piano [that] moan[s] with melody,” and from “the deep song voice [of the song]” (50). Even though these three voices are “divine” in their trinomial simultaneity, they are not affirmational or spiritual because they are “melancholy” and “can’t be satisfied” (Hughes 50). The very title of the poem––“The Weary Blues”––and the lyrics to the song being sung prove otherwise: “I got the Weary Blues / And I can’t be satisfied … / I ain’t happy no mo’ / And I wish that I had died” (Hughes 50). The unsatisfactory nature of the song, along with its isolation (“Ain’t got nobody in all this world”) suggest that this blues song is not affirmational, but hopelessly weary, and it will perpetually stay weary, as “the Weary Blues echoed through his [the singer’s] head” (Hughes 50). The very last lines of the poem suggest a kind of blues that is both weary and wary; the singer “slept like a rock or a man that’s dead” (Hughes 50) because his life is in perpetual danger as a Black man in a nation that legally, socially, and economically has proved him subordinate, forgotten, and to many Americans, already a dead man. Taking the blues into the wary perspective implies a sense of lived wariness, a sense of perpetual danger that is instinctual to the Black experience. Poets such as Hughes and Hayden and memoirists like Baldwin all infuse their work with a repetitive, and seemingly interminable caution for danger because they themselves live that danger. Just as there is a cyclical nature to Hughes’ poetry, there is also a cry for help, a woeful and wary song. Hayden similarly institutes a sense of wary blues through revisiting the circumstances surrounding Uncle Henry’s––“murdered Uncle Crip” (436)––death. Baldwin describes the ways that he lives an opposition and the ways in which he can never truly be a “native son” in a nation that juridically institutes him subordinate through alienation and criminalization.

Hayden masters European elegiac form (a form that is very similar to Hardy’s), but he redefines it and literally reshapes it to become an African-American elegy by using the paradox of oral vs. written / folk vs. literary culture / African vs. European tradition. The separation of the poem into eight sections that function as snapshots borrows from and protests against European elegiac form. Hayden uses eight sections, as opposed to seven–– which would be a traditionally biblical number (i.e., seven days of creation)––to literally and figuratively insert African-American elegy into elegiac tradition by rewriting, or protesting, traditional elegiac and theocratic forms. The first of his eight “snapshots” uses sensual language (“alley stench,” “maggots,” and “glistening like tears”) to create a repulsion between the reader and the writing, but also between the “junkie” and “the policemen,” expressing the “hatred for our [Black Americans] kind” (Hayden 436). By using rich imagery, a traditionally European structure, to protest police brutality, Hayden is emphasizing the aforementioned paradox to show the tension of the Black experience, a kind of wariness for the infiltration of European traditional form into African-American historical oral and folk tradition.

The relationship between the individual versus the collective is seen most notably in Baldwin’s essay “Notes of a Native Son,” in which he describes his father’s death as a microcosm for the Black experience, as well as the previously noted paradox. Baldwin explains that “there is not a Negro alive who does not have this rage in his blood––one the choice, merely, of living with it consciously or surrendering to it” (592). In this quote, there are two perspectives going on: the “I” vs. the “we,” and the “us” vs. the “them.” The “I” vs. “we” is a relationship that exists amongst African-Americans and the “we” vs. “them” between African-Americans and Caucasians. The individual and the collective are often synonymous in African-American elegy because the individual is a microcosm for the collective; individual experiences translate into collective tribulations. In the case of Baldwin’s life experiences, he is an active participant in both the “I” vs. “we,” and the “we” vs. “them.” There is a sense of community in knowing that “there is not a Negro alive who does not have this rage in his blood” and yet Baldwin still struggles with the “choice [of] merely living with it [the rage] or surrendering to it.” Neither of the two options offer “getting over” the rage or “moving past it”: just like melancholy, or the blues, “the rage” is disconsolate and unmoving. Baldwin, through the act of writing, elegizes himself as an individual and as a collective entity, finding himself in the position as both historian of his life and eulogizer of his death, for “[his] life, [his] real life, was in danger, and not from anything other people might do, but from the hatred [he] carried in [his] own heart” (Baldwin 594). He faces his own self-annihilation by being both the victim of the dangers of life and the vessel through which the hatred for such dangers is held. But he does not shrink from these oppositions; instead, he turns them into oppositional dualities by which his life experience as a Black man in America is founded. The following comes to fruition in his mind:

It was necessary to hold on to the things that mattered. The dead man mattered, the new life mattered; blackness and whiteness did not matter; to believe that they did was to acquiesce in one’s own destruction. Hatred, which could destroy so much, never failed to destroy the man who hated and this was an immutable law. (Baldwin 603)

Baldwin takes these seemingly oppositional factors and turns them into a paradox, where they at first seem discontinuous, but turn out to be a cohesive unit through which he experiences life.

Both elegy and the blues have their own unique histories and legacies that seem contradictory but in fact intersect. And that intersection point is African-American elegy. Building upon elegiac tradition and history as well as “folk culture” and the blues, African-American elegy is a duality of supposed inconsistencies. The paradoxes that exist within African-American elegy serve as examples of the opposition and perpetual conflict that Black people experience in America. African-American elegy, then, serves a special purpose in that it mourns both the living and the dead. It, like melancholia or the blues, considers death an everyday reality and living a constant state of mourning. It is both self-elegiacal and social-elegiacal, microcosmic as well as macrocosmic. To use Baldwin’s words, it is like “hold[ing] in mind forever two ideas which [seem] to be in opposition” (604). African-American elegy, then, calls into question the extent to which the Black experience is like “two ideas which [seem] to be in opposition,” simultaneously within and without of freedom, haunted by a violent, oppressive, and discriminatory past. This haunting is a kind of wariness, which comes to fruition through confrontations; these confrontations between oppositional dualities express a perpetual and a perpetuated wariness that defines the Black experience in America. It is through African-American elegy that this wariness is written into elegiac form as a record and a renovation. African-American elegy is modern elegy because it not only expresses revolutionary combinations of weary-wariness and wary-weariness, but it causes the reader to become wary and weary of their place in the world, “to hold in the mind forever two ideas [weariness and wariness] which seemed to be in opposition” (Baldwin 603) but prove ultimately unanimous.

Works Cited

James Baldwin. Notes of a Native Son . edited by James Baldwin, Beacon Press, 1955, pp. 587-604.

Hayden, Robert. “Elegies for Paradise Valley.” Collected Poems of Robert Hayden , edited by Frederick Glaysher, Liverwright Publishing Corporation, 1978, pp. 436-440.

Hughes, Langston. “The Weary Blues.” A.A Knopf, 1926, pp. 50. .

Ramazani, Jahan. Poetry of Mourning: The Modern Elegy from Hardy to Heaney. University of Chicago Press, 1994, pp. 135- 175.

bottom of page