A film I watched recently—a film neither bad nor fantastic, and not the subject of the day in any case—in its best moments called to mind the poem “The South” by Langston Hughes. And once that poem was on my mind I could not get it off, so here it is.
The lazy, laughing South
With blood on its mouth.
The sunny-faced South,
The child-minded South
Scratching in the dead fire’s ashes
For a Negro’s bones.
Cotton and the moon,
Warmth, earth, warmth,
The sky, the sun, the stars
The magnolia-scented South.
Beautiful, like a woman,
Seductive as a dark-eyed whore,
That is the South.
And I, who am black, would love her
But she spits in my face.
And I, who am black,
Would give her many rare gifts
But she turns her back upon me.
So now I seek the North—
The cold-faced North,
For she, they say,
Is a kinder mistress,
And in her house my children
May escape the spell of the South.
This poem was first published in the 1920’s and, while I think it a beautiful poem in context, I think it so outside of context as well. There is a certain theme here that doesn’t really have anything to do with the North or South of Hughes’ day…nor necessarily with race.
It’s to do with home or that one place (or even that one person). It’s the place that raised you or fostered you, and it flows in your veins. The good, bad and ugly of it. Not everyone is going to have so contentious a relationship with a given place as that described in “The South”, but many do and it’s a heart-breaking thing.
The imagery Hughes provides puts into the mind’s eye a picture of a woman—a provocatively alluring woman—shamelessly scorning a man who would do almost anything for her. It’s sad enough when put in such finite, personal terms. But if that woman is a place? A city? A country? A way of life?
It’s a maddening push-and-pull as in the song Mehendi Rachi: “Though I’d love to leave some day, I dare not ever go”...though perhaps the other way around: though I’d love to stay someday, I dare not, I must go.
(And, by the by, it’s not entirely unlike Jane Eyre, who was fiercely tied to Mr. Rochester—and he to her—but she had to leave him first because he would have had her stay as a paramour rather than as a wife. And that would have been wrong and demeaning to her. Satisfying at once, and damaging in the long run.)
The circumstance the poem most reminded me of, though? That of Iraq, oddly enough.
Iraq is a place with beauty and history and roots and violence and prejudice. It is often called Bilad Al-rafidayn: The land of two rivers. Or Wadi Al-rafidayn (valley of two rivers, sometimes simply translated “Mesopotamia”.) These two rivers are the famous Tigris and Euphrates.
However there is a saying—common enough to have become the title of a book, even—that Iraq is the land of three rivers. There are two versions of what this saying means: Some claim the third river is blood. Others claim it is tears. They say this because the history of violence in Iraq is much longer and more complicated than our witness of the past decade.
And yet Iraq can make itself loved in spite of it all. When Iraqi poet Shawqi Abd Al-Amir catalogued a visit to his native country in 2007 he mentioned it’s allurement, despite his long absence.
(translations mine, from original)
“None of us had dared to talk or suggest an outing, but the sun of Baghdad, the relaxation of Friday, and my arrival from Beirut all, in silence, called us to go out on this sort of tour, but we all know the dangers hidden behind such an endeavor.”
And, later, he makes note of people spiting the state of chaos in which they live. By living.
“The baffling thing is that when you are coming in from abroad—coming from the channels of television screens by which you only see the place bloodstained with its people, and blackened in appearance and imagery—when you enter the street and see how people are living and how they engage in their lives and daily work schedules, you almost forget. You forget all you’ve seen and you go down to the coffee shop and sit just like everyone else sits, as though nothing ever happened. This is precisely how life is more infectious than death.”
…and it is how the blood-ties remain in spite of everything. And why Langston Hughes wrote that he would love the South and give her gifts though she was passionate and cruel. And it’s why the ending of the poem is so painful. It doesn’t sound like a joyful flight from misery. It sounds like the heavy-hearted pulling away from a dangerous loved one. I wonder and wish if he could have—or should have—stayed and tried again to wipe the blood off her mouth.
Hard to love a place that might kill you.