On "The Backlash Blues"


Steven C. Tracy

One of Hughes's last protest blues poems appeared in The Panther and the Lash.

In this poem Hughes raises questions about the identity that white society has imposed on the black man and the method by which the system attempts to guarantee the failure of the black man in that society. A literal white backlash is, of course, something with which slaves would be very familiar, but that is now to be countered by a backlash of global proportions as people of color unite. The final stanza is similar in set-up to stanza 1, but the final response line changes from portraying the passive receiver of action to portraying the speaker's action. The final coda completes the turnaround: the next "backlash blues" will be the white man's. The white man's control over identity, economics, education, the family, and politics would then be at an end. Hughes's poem is a cousin to Bessie Smith's "Poor Man Blues":

Mister rich man, rich man,
Open up your heart and mind.
Mister rich man, rich man,
Open up your heart and mind.
Give the poor man a chance,
Help stop these hard, hard times.

While you're livin' in your mansion
You don't know what hard times means.
While you're livin' in your mansion
You don't know what hard times means.
Poor workin' man's wife is starvin',
Your wife is livin' like a queen.

from Steven C. Tracy, Langston Hughes and the Blues. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1988. Copyright 1988 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois.


Return to Langston Hughes