18 August 2011

Must Leave, Don't Want to Go

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,
            Beast strong,
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,
            Passionate, cruel,
            Honey-lipped, syphilitic—
            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.


  1. I don't think that I had read that Langston Hughes poem. It was painful, due to the sorrow as well as the imagery. I would add Israel to that type of list...the South, Iraq and Israel.
    I really enjoy hearing you talk about Iraq because you have such a unique and beautiful take on the country that is so ubiquitous in the news.

  2. Thank you...although, you know what happens every time you use the word ubiquitous? I think "Ah yes. The ubiquitous Baldwin brothers." And I blame you for this.

    At any rate, the reason the poem came to mind so quickly is because--a few weeks ago--I was bored and picked up my book of Langston Hughes and started reading them out loud to myself. This one just undoes me.

  3. Love the imagery of Iraq and your love for the country and its' people. Not sure how the Baldwin brothers fit in though :-)

  4. I'm not entirely certain either. I just have a distinct memory of myself and a variety of my family members discussing the word "ubiquitous" (and no, I really don't remember why) and someone (Shannon, I think) decided that the Baldwin brothers were the best at-hand example of something that was ubiquitous.

  5. That is hilarious. I don't remember that conversation but I really hope that I was the one that suggested that they were the best example of ubiquitous...because that is really funny, and I hope that I am that cleverly funny.

  6. Je suis française, et je ne comprend vraiment pas le poème :(
    Quelqu'un pourrais m'aider ?

  7. I'm happy to explain it but I don't really speak French and I don't know how effectively google-translate can put this through...but I'll try:

    In the American South, racial tensions and divisions were especially high and the poet, Langston Hughes, wrote often (and beautifully) on the subject of the Black experience in America. The South is often thought of as a warm, traditional place where people sit on the front porch and talk to each other, drinking tea in the warm summer air (and this is often true)...but especially during the poet's time there was a great deal of prejudice and violence and the Black community struggled under unjust laws.

    The North was seen as a place of progress, but also cold and industrial.

    The poet loves the South, with all its richness and beauty and warmth, but he thinks she is too cruel to endure much longer, so he will leave her and go to the North, which not as warm and intoxicating, but also hopefully not as cruel.

    (Here's the google translate version of what I just said):

    En Amérique du Sud, les tensions raciales et les divisions ont été particulièrement mauvaise dans le temps du poète, et il (Langston Hughes) a écrit souvent (et joliment) sur le thème de l'expérience noire (afro-américaine) en Amérique.

    Le Sud est souvent considéré comme un endroit chaud et traditionnel où les gens s'assoient sur ​​le perron et de parler les uns aux autres, boire du thé dans l'air chaud d'été (et cela est souvent vrai) ... mais surtout pendant le temps du poète, il y avait beaucoup de préjugés et de violence et de la communauté noire lutté en vertu des lois injustes.

    Le Nord était considérée comme un lieu de progrès, mais aussi froide et industrielle.

    Le poète aime le Sud, avec toute sa richesse et la beauté et la chaleur, mais il pense qu'elle est trop cruel à supporter beaucoup plus longtemps, donc il va quitter son et aller vers le Nord, ce qui n'est pas aussi chaude et enivrante, mais aussi, espérons ne pas en cruel.

    I hope that was a semi-comprehensible translation! I wish my French were good enough to make sure.