About "Come to the Waldorf-Astoria"
In the midst of that depression, the Waldorf-Astoria opened. On the way to my friend's home on Park Avenue I frequently passed it, a mighty towering structure looming proud above the street, in a city where thousands were poor and unemployed. So I wrote a poem about it called "Advertisement for the Waldorf-Astoria," modeled after an ad in Vanity Fair announcing the opening of New York's greatest hotel. (Where no Negroes worked and none were admitted as guests.)
The hotel opened at the very time when people were sleeping on newspapers in doorways, because they had no place to go. But suites in the Waldorf ran into thousands a year, and dinner in the Sert Room was ten dollars! (Negroes, even if they had the money, couldn't eat there. So naturally, I didn't care much for the Waldorf-Astoria.)
from The Big Sea: An Autobiography by Langston Hughes. Copyright © 1940 by Langston Hughes
A recognizably African-American voice was not entirely subsumed in the vision of an essentially raceless America that characterized Hughes's work appearing in the journals of the literary Left during the early and middle 1930s. Hughes's Left poems during this period often feature a racially ambiguous generically "hard-boiled" working-class speaker whose diction derives as much from pulp fiction and the movies as from any actually spoken English. But frequently an African-American voice erupts from within the address of the "hardboiled" speaker, as it does in a section of "Advertisement for the Waldorf-Astoria":
Oh Lawd, I done forgot Harlem!
Say, you colored folks, hungry a long time in
35th Street they got swell music at the Waldorf-Astoria. It sure
is a mighty nice place to shake hips in, too. There's dancing
after supper in a big warm room. It's cold as hell on Lenox
Avenue. All you've had all day is a cup of coffee. Your
pawnshop overcoat's a ragged banner on your hungry frame.
You know, downtown folks are just crazy about Paul Robeson!
Maybe they'll like you, too, black mob from Harlem. Drop in
the Waldorf this afternoon for tea. Stay to dinner. Give Park
Avenue a lot of darkie color--free for nothing! Ask the Junior
Leaguers to sing a spiritual for you. They probably know 'em
better than you do--and their lips won't be chapped with cold
after they step out of their closed cars in the undercover driveways.
Hallelujah! under-cover driveways!
Ma Soul's a witness for the Waldorf-Astoria!
As in "Scottsboro Limited" there is a satire on African-American vernacular language and cultural forms rooted in the rural South, notably that of the rural black church. The narrator adopts a pseudo-folk voice shouting about the glory of the Waldorf-Astoria, which he follows with the bracketed recitations of the harsh economic realities of African Americans and the subaltern peoples of European and American colonies. However, the satire is obviously in the first place a comment on the cultural consumption of wealthy white people who love spirituals and Paul Robeson and only secondly on the rural folk culture. Thus the overall effect of the poem is similar to that of Sterling Brown's "Cabaret," where a commercialization of the folk for white consumption, both simultaneously marketing and obscuring the actual life of the folk is followed by what might be thought of as riffs or fragments of the actual experience of the rural black poor. The difference is that Hughes is more ambiguous here about the rural folk culture that underlies his satirical verses than Brown, who is unabashedly a partisan of that culture. Hughes also makes a connection between the experiences of Africans on rubber plantations, black railroad workers in the South, and unemployed Harlem residents that Brown does not. Unlike the narratorial voice in "Cabaret," the speaker of "Advertisement for the Waldorf-Astoria" locates himself among the black folk, albeit in Harlem rather than the rural South. It is at this moment ("And here we stand, shivering in the cold, in Harlem") that Hughes's speaker steps out of a generic working-class vernacular American role and into a specifically African-American identity, using the pronoun "we" for the first (and virtually the only) time instead of "you." It is notable that in these bracketed passages in which the speaker identifies himself (or possibly herself, though the speaker's male-identified "hard-boiled" diction invites the reader to cast him as male) racially and situates himself in a specific urban Aftican-American community, the work is most formally "poetic" and least "prosaic." The bracketed passages employ much alliteration, assonance, near-rhyme, and internal rhyme, and (with the notable exception of the word "nigger") a relatively "standard" diction. These devices are virtually absent in the unbracketed prose passage of this section of the poem. Thus, as in "Scottsboro Limited," there is an interrelation between plain truth, self-realization, and poetry cast in an unequivocally "poetic" form, as well as a sense that the African-American vernacular derived from southern black culture is something to be transcended even as a specifically African-American voice remains distinct.
From The New Red Negro: The Literary Left and African American Poetry, 1930-1946. Copyright © 1999 by Oxford University Press.
Several contexts animate "Advertisement for the Waldorf-Astoria," another of the poems Hughes wrote during the fall of 1931. He published it in New Masses in December, so that the "CHRISTMAS CARD" ending is, like "Merry Christmas," seasonal. Another occasion for the poem is that, two years into the depression and in the midst of the fight to save the Scottsboro Boys, Hughes read a two-page advertisement in Vanity Fair, the most elegant magazine in America. Along with ads for luxury cars, furs, and expensive clothing--the depression did not exist in the world of Vanity Fair--Hughes encountered an advertisement announcing the opening of the new Waldorf-Astoria "where," as Hughes noted, "no Negroes worked and none were admitted as guests." In his poem, in place of the bold-faced headings in the ad--"PRIVACY," "FREEDOM FROM RESPONSIBILITY," "MODERN CONVENIENCES"--Hughes substitutes such headings as "LISTEN, HUNGRY ONES," "EVICTED FAMILIES," and "NEGROES."
In a prose format like the ad's, Hughes opens up the absurdities and contrasts between his down-and-outers and the luxury of the rich in their new hotel. His approach is to parody the ad, sometimes by using a left language, sometimes an idiomatic language instead of Vanity Fair formality and by directing his flophouse clientele to take advantage of the amenities the hotel provides, to "ankle on down to 49th Street at Park Avenue." Hughes summarizes the "PRIVATE ENTERTAINING" and "PUBLIC FUNCTIONS" the ad describes by intoning of the Waldorf,
It will be a distinguished background for society.
So, when you've got no place to go, homeless and hungry ones, choose the
Waldorf as a background for your rags--
(Or do you still consider the subway after midnight good enough?)
Under the heading, "ROOMERS," "take a room at the new Waldorf," he advises them, "sleepers in charity's flop-houses where God pulls a long face, and you have to pray to get a bed."
For their edification Hughes reprints a luncheon menu of "GUMBO CREOLE CRABMEAT IN CASSOLETTE / BOILED BRISKET OF BEEF / SMALL ONIONS IN CREAM / WATERCRESS SALAD / PEACH MELBA." Then he adds, "Have luncheon there this afternoon, all you jobless. Why not?" To provide an answer, Hughes departs from his dominant tone of high-spirited satiric indignation. He reanimates the left imagery of hands, some cutting coupons while others, exploited by the rich, do hard manual labor. Parodying the ad writer's invitation, Hughes tells his people, "dine with some of the men and women who got rich off of your labor" and then in the emotionally charged, pile-driver rhythms and imagery of left discourse he adds,
who clip coupons with clean white fingers because your
hands dug coal, drilled stone, sewed garments, poured
steel to let other people draw dividends and live easy.
(Or haven't you had enough yet of the soup-lines and the bitter bread of
Walk through Peacock Alley tonight before dinner, and get warm, anyway.
You've got nothing else to do.
In one of his most irreverent sections, under the heading "NEGROES" Hughes shifts from the language of left social protest to the language of black vernacular, a language especially incongruous in the upper-class white world of the Waldorf and Vanity Fair. "Oh, Lawd, I done forgot Harlem!" Hughes breaks in, using "I" for the first time. Then, in the perfectly rendered idiom of the street, Hughes goes on to contrast the reality of hunger on 135th Street with
the swell music they got at the Waldorf-Astoria. It sure is a mighty nice place to shake hips in, too. There's dancing after supper in a big warm room. It's cold as hell on Lenox Avenue. All you've had all day is a cup of coffee. Your pawnshop overcoat's a ragged banner on your hungry frame.
Does the last line heighten the emotional impact not only through the contrast between ease and pawnshop poverty but also through the reinforcing contrast between the street idiom of "shake hips" and " cold as hell" and the more formal, literary metaphor, "a ragged banner on your hungry frame"? Hughes often achieves his effects by juxtaposing contrasting languages, although readers unsympathetic to his literary and political project may respond negatively to the slight elevation of the metaphor of the pawnshop overcoat as "a ragged banner on your hungry frame."
In any case, in the pages of New Masses, writing explicitly to "you colored folks" within the poem but also to a radical white reading audience, Hughes goes on to subvert the upper-class fascination with things Negro. "You know," he writes, "downtown folks are just crazy about Paul Robeson! Maybe they'll like you, too, black mob from Harlem." Of course. Through the comic and slightly ominous incongruity of the "black mob," Hughes deconstructs the 1920s cult of Harlem, "When the Negro Was in Vogue," as he phrased it in a chapter heading of his autobiography, The Big Sea. Hughes cuts even deeper when he invites his "black mob" to
Drop in at the Waldorf this afternoon for tea. Stay to dinner. Give Park Avenue a lot of darkie color--free for nothing! Ask the Junior Leaguers to sing a spiritual for you. They probably know' em better than you do--and their lips won't be so chapped with cold after they step out of their closed cars in the undercover driveways.
Hallelujah! Undercover driveways!
Ma soul's a witness for de Waldorf-Astoria!
At his most acute, Hughes enters taboo territory and deflates the mix of class privilege and racial condescension at the heart of society's affair with the Negro. At the end he perfectly uses black vernacular to diminish those symbols of class and racial inequity, the underground driveways and the Waldorf itself. In the process, Hughes undercuts the religiously tinged Uncle Tom language he himself turns into a vehicle of hard-hitting comic protest.
In the "CHRISTMAS CARD" that ends the poem, Hughes intensifies his irreverent religious satire. Looking ahead to "Goodbye, Christ" and back to "Christ in Alabama," "Merry Christmas," and "A Christian Country," Hughes exuberantly, provocatively sends his radical greetings:
The censors who a decade later hounded Hughes because of "Goodbye, Christ" somehow overlooked the ending of "Advertisement for the Waldorf-Astoria." In "CHRISTMAS CARD" Hughes's cultural politics are as radical as his politics. In presenting Mary as a "little girl--turned whore / because her belly was too hungry to stand it anymore," Hughes vividly connects depression hunger and poverty and that of the Holy Family. He does so with a blasphemy--Mary as whore--that he compounds in relating the immaculateness of the Immaculate Conception to the clean bed Mary needs and the manger of the Waldorf can supply. Hughes's radical politics reinforce and are reinforced by his irreverent cultural politics. The brash announcement that "the new Christ child of the Revolution's about to be born," the injunction "kick hard, red baby, in the bitter womb of the mob," and the final imperative, "listen Mary, Mother of God, wrap your new born babe in the red flag of Revolution" are examples of the radical spirit of 1931, hopeful, optimistic, unintimidated. In "CHRISTMAS CARD" and "Goodbye, Christ," Hughes handles communism as the new religion with more verve and idiomatic force than anyone in the decade.
In "Advertisement for the Waldorf-Astoria" Hughes is also one of the pioneering left poets who incorporated and put to unconventional uses the language of the media--advertising, in this case, the documentary in Muriel Rukeyser's, the movies in Kenneth Fearing's. These poets engaged and tapped into the energy of influential "low" forms and turned them from their prevailingly commercial to left uses. As with the black vernacular and jazz rhythms and improvisation that animate his work, Hughes as much as any modernist delights in "low" forms typically excluded from the "high" art of traditional poetry. They contribute to the immediacy, energy, and accessibility of his work, reinforced in the New Masses by the drawings that frame "Advertisement for the Waldorf-Astoria." The drawings are fanciful satiric line sketches of limousines, upper-class dowagers and top-hatted gentlemen, and decadent partygoers above a panorama of grim-faced working people.
From The Power of Political Art: The 1930s Literary Left Reconsidered. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 2000. Copyright © 2000 by The U of North Carolina P.
If "The Bitter River," written at a time of disillusionment for Hughes in the early '40s, suggests no lasting vision of mass revolution, "Come to the Waldorf-Astoria" demonstrates a point in Hughes' career when such possibilities seemed not only feasible, but likely. I'd like to add to Shulman's observations about the poem's last "Christmas Card" section which, as he points out, takes on similar subject matter and tone as the later "Goodbye Christ"--the section that fully acknowledges his hope for an emerging revolutionary "salvation" which, Shulman also notes, presents communism as a new "religion" in itself. Let me start by talking about how Hughes tries to draw a revolutionary response from the oppressed subjects he writes about.
The entire piece, of course, works as a stinging social commentary on the "fruits" of capitalism--the satiric descriptions of the "swell board," the "Apartments in the Towers," the "undercover driveways," all of which are paid for by "the men and women who get rich off of [the poor's] labor." Hughes intends every bit of the poem's inflammatory tone. His representation of an utterly hypocritical yet heretofore unaccountable "upper crust" targets as its audience not only the rich and privileged within the capitalist system, but also those whose indignation is most warranted: the potentially powerful, dynamic "mob," those hit hardest by the Depression or other circumstances who have the potential to effect real change. Though Hughes divides this "advertisement to action" into distinct sections, addressing the "Hungry Ones," "Roomers," "Evicted Families," and "Negroes" alike, the penultimate heading, "Everybody," unites them in a common cause. The implicit threat--the possibility for strength in numbers--that exists in organizing those who should be able to "draw" their *own* "dividends," rather than reliquish them to the ones "who clip coupons with clean white fingers," can be seen in the class juxtapositions satirically offered throughout the poem.
The unseen observer-speaker presents a stark realism in conjunction with the absurdity of "Tak[ing] a room at the new Waldorf," "choos[ing] the Waldorf as a background for your rags," and inviting black Harlem to "Drop in at the Waldorf this afternoon for tea." Certainly the most invasive image for the privileged readers against whom the poem is directed would be that of "Mary, Mother of God . . . turned whore because her belly was too hungry to stand it any more" birthing her child in a "nice clean bed" at the Waldorf (though, as Shulman notes, critics of the later "Goodbye Christ" overlooked this seemingly volatile image). What does Hughes intend with these improbable juxtapositions? The image of an oppressed poor enjoying the luxuries of the rich they support, perhaps even spoiling or remaking those goods, "de-sophisticating" them (as the Harlem mob "shak[ing] hips" at the Waldorf would change the tenor of the dance, and the soiled bedclothes of the new Conception would literally and spiritually dim all surrounding grandeur), works as an intentionally threatening vision of unified change, one which foresees a *new* "background for society." Class lines are simultaneously blurred and reinforced through this technique; the reality of a capitalist nation sharpens those lines (imagine what would happen if black Harlem really *did* come to the Waldorf to dance), while the potential for a Communist future erases them, bringing the destitute within reach of what has long been their due.
The conversational, yet bitingly sarcastic, tone of the speaker's voice--juxtaposed with black vernacular under the section entitled "Negroes"--comes to its peak in "Christmas Card," the final stanza of the poem. Here the speaker of "Goodbye Christ" is, in some sense, born, rejecting the "old" Christ and offering himself as the new secular Messiah ("Make way for a new guy with no religion at all-- / A real guy named / Marx Communist Lenin Peasant Stalin Worker ME--"). The "new born babe" wrapped "in the red flag of Revolution" will start anew for a better cause, minus the capitalist "baggage" associated with the former Savior: "nobody's gonna sell ME / To a king, or a general, / Or a millionaire." This child, too, must be born in "the best manger we've got" right now, the finely wrought arches of capitalism--but arches, the speaker hopes, that the child will one day perhaps demolish or appropriate for different uses.
The speakers sees a new day dawning, and the "Christmas Card" attempts to send a powerful message of potential redemption and rebirth to those who would receive it--the decision must be to "follow him" or, more broadly, to follow the revolutionary impulse.
Copyright © 2001 by Heather Zadra
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