Lyric Structure and Lyric Sanctuary: Black Feminism and Langston Hughes' Madam Poems

Annie Persons

Ultimately, a black feminist reading of these poems reveals the matrix of oppression for black women as well as the particular role that poetry plays in combating this subjugation. Poetry allows room for light and for hope while also exposing dark complexities, dark truths.

 

As both an African American and a modernist, Langston Hughes wrote to capture and express the African American experience while reaching out to the masses through poetry. However, unlike many of his male contemporaries, much of Hughes’s work depicts the experience of both African American men and women, defying the androcentric and often-misogynistic work of his male contemporaries. Specifically, his persona poems “Madam and the Movies” (CP 284) and “Madam and Her Madam” (CP 285) illustrate the marginalized position of black women in the twentieth century. These Madam poems document dramatic moments from the life of Alberta K. Johnson, creating what scholar Dellita L. Martin in her essay “’The Madam Poems as Dramatic Monologue” calls “an extended affirmation of the experience of urban black America” (Martin 97). Martin also rightly notes how “[Alberta] is a fairly realistic portrait which Hughes endows with just enough ambiguity to transcend stereotype” and that “her poems express a communal lyricism from the female perspective” (Martin 97). The madam poems express both a complex and distinctly feminine view of African American life. However, Martin’s argument may overlook the extent to which these poems articulate and speak to African American women.

According to scholar Patricia Collins, black feminism developed to illuminate a distinctly black woman’s perspective. It seeks to encompass the experience of all African American women, aiming specifically to examine the “matrix of domination” or interlocking systems that oppress African American women. These systems of oppression include marginalization through race, class, and gender. Shedding light on the matrix of domination aims to expose the reality of black women’s lifestyle and resist stereotypical views of them perpetuated by white society. Black feminism seeks social change as well as the creation of black female sphere of influence—a sanctuary created by black women, for black women. Though he was male, by cataloguing the plight of black women through Alberta’s voice in the Madam poems, Hughes accomplishes both of these goals (Collins 11-15).

Primarily, “Madam and the Movies” creates gray area between fantasy and reality as well as between strength and weakness. This ambiguity illustrates Alberta’s suffering: both fantasy (romance films) and reality (home life) weaken Alberta. Use of the ballad form grants Alberta a colloquial tone that alludes to potential dishonesty and even sadness, or, conversely, suggests strength. However, the lyric itself represents an a-temporal space apart from reality, much like a movie theater, aligning the poem itself with an escape. Conversely, in “Madam and Her Madam,” both her gender and her working class status oppress Alberta, offering a more explicit (though no less realistic) portrayal of black women’s oppression. Here, the ballad form allows for similar ambiguity; it symbolizes black feminism’s matrix of domination. However, Alberta’s defiance within this space makes it a safe space. Her resistance through tone and meter shows the possibility of resistance to oppression. Ultimately, as seen through the lens of black feminism, “Madam and the Movies” and “Madam and Her Madam” portray the complex sufferings of black women and the possibility of resistance to this suffering.

The title of “Madam and the Movies” introduces its ambiguity and consequent portrayal of black women’s suffering. Rather than Madam at the movies, the title is Madam and the movies, emphasizing the contrast between reality and fantasy coupled with the relationship between the Madam and the romance films as well as the Madam’s experience at or in the movie theater. This contrast also mirrors the distinction between the lyric space—visually on the page and in the reader’s mind—where Alberta speaks freely. The lyric space and poetry more generally thus represents a form of escape, much like a movie theater, where viewers, like readers, visually and emotionally experience the movies that they watch within the dark and contained space of the theater. “Madam and the Movies” will escalate these tensions as the poem progresses.

The poem begins with a first person declaration, “I go to the movies / Once-twice a week.” The meter of “Once-twice,” a spondaic substitution for the traditional ballad iambic tetrameter, underscores Alberta’s authorization through first person and the directness of her statement. “Once-twice” also gives the poem a colloquial tone, although this casualness could be forced, which would imply that Alberta visits the movies more frequently. This statement thus seems awkward, a sentiment compounded by the metrical irregularity. The following statement “I love romance” introduces the notion that this casualness hides a deeper pain. Alone on the line, this statement signifies that the Madam loves romance in general, meaning romance experienced in reality. But preceding lines imply that this statement refers to romance genre movies, a form of escapism. She goes to the movies regularly to escape her reality. The poem itself mirrors this contrast. Alberta speaks freely to the reader from within the poem, but, like a theater, the poem is a structured lyric space: safe but separate from reality.

This contrast and consequent ambiguity increases as the poem continues. Alberta states that the movie theater is the only place where she is “weak.” Perhaps this weakness derives from the emotional quality of romance films themselves. However, while the Madam says the “only time” she feels weak is in the theater, the poem’s formal elements suggest otherwise. “Weak” rhymes with and even visually mirrors “week,” linking the repetitiveness of her trips to the movies to weakness: it is something she repeatedly experiences. The following line “I love romance” creates metrical ambiguity that corresponds to the poem’s ambiguous meaning. If Hughes means for the line to be iambic, stressing the word “love,” then love—true love or a lack thereof—becomes the crux of the line, like the possible crux of the poem. In other words, love (and lack thereof) becomes central. Alberta craves love, and only experiences it in movies. However, this analysis also designates “romance” as an iambic word, deviating from American pronunciation at the time—an unlikely pronunciation both from Hughes and Alberta.

Moreover, the next time Alberta refers to romance, it is to say that “real life ain’t got / no romance-man.” Here, “romance” is certainly trochaic. And the last line, “Romance any more,” echoes this trochaic meter. This meter deviates from traditional ballad meter, stressing “romance” as opposed to “love.” Stress on “romance” emphasizes the notion of a romance films idealized version of love, a version created for capital gain by production companies, as opposed to authentic love. This reading supports the black feminist critique on class oppression. Metrical ambiguity surrounding the word “romance” thus heightens the poems ambiguous message about the Madam’s frequent visits to the movies—it either critiques consumer culture and escapism or reveals the Madam’s deep and human need for love. Similarly, the next stanza begins with a “But,” implying both a caveat and doubt. The speaker states that she “never could / understand” why “real life” doesn’t have the “romance man” of her films. Either she cannot separate fantasy from reality, or she cannot understand why her reality does not contain this same fantasy. In either case, to some degree, the Madam suffers.

Formal elements increase this tension between fantasy and reality as well. In the third stanza, the rhyme of “hours” and the verb “flowers” represents the romance that the Madam craves. She only experiences “true love” flowering (a pun on the development of love and the stereotypical romantic gift of love) when she is in a movie; her need to experience this love is so great that she pays for it herself (she declares, “I pay”), extends the juxtaposition of the Madam’s autonomy—she has her own spending money—and her oppression, as she uses this money for escapism. This stanza also subtly alludes to the final stanza, where the Madam states, “Romance reigns” in the movies. Alliteration in this phrase underscores the importance of “reigns,” which denotes rule or domination. Alberta desires domination from romance as opposed to, it is suggested, another force contrasting romance that controls her life. This significance of this force ranges from the narrative of romance movies themselves, which infatuate her, to an oppressive force at home. The poem continues its ambiguous yet troubling message about Alberta’s need for escape.

In the final stanza, the Madam continues her narrative, “Then I come home.” Though it echoes the first person directives leading up to it, this statement creates dramatic turn both through the diction “Then,” which portrays the continuance of action as well as a change, and the physical act of leaving the sacred space of the theater and returning “home.” At home, “there ain’t no / Romance any more.” Because the poem, like the theater, represents a safe space, Alberta does not mention her home until the poem’s final lines. The concluding image of Alberta unlocking the door is the only description of her home, her reality. The double negative of these last two lines compounds the poem’s ambiguity—“ain’t…no” implies the possibility that there is romance at home; however, this double negative could also be a simple colloquialism. Doubtless, though, the concluding image and lack of description of her home life is ominous. It symbolizes her departure from the theater to return home as well as her departure from the space of the lyric, the space where she can speak.

The following poem, “Madam and Her Madam” illustrates gendered oppression of women, an oppression compounded by the matrix of oppression of black women. The poem demonstrates the second category of Hughes’s Madam poems, where the Madam speaks to white society (Martin 97). This gesture is subversive in and of itself. Yet, like the piece preceding it, this poem exemplifies Hughes’ use of ambiguity to empower the black figures in his poetry while portraying their suffering. Collins describes this facet of black feminism as it applies to domestic workers specifically:

[these] women knew that they could never belong to their White ‘families.’ They were economically exploited workers and would thus remain outsiders. The result was being placed in a curious outsider-within social location, a peculiar marginality that stimulated a distinctive Black women’s perspective on a variety of themes. (Collins 11)

In “Madam and Her Madam,” Hughes depicts this peculiar, deplorable marginality. Alberta knows, and the poem expresses, that she can never “belong” to her white Madam. Nor does she want to. In revealing this oppression, through both the ballad form and the poem’s defiant tone and diction, Hughes illuminates both the oppression experienced by black women and the possibility of resistance within this oppression.

Overtly, the title of “Madam” gains double meaning in this poem, unlike any of the other madam poems. Because both the black woman—the Madam—and her white mistress are both “Madams,” Hughes dually equates the women and their shared experience as humans confined to domestic spheres and compounds the wrongness the white woman’s oppression of Alberta. However, resistance exists. It appears first through the poem’s title itself, which begs the question: which Madam owns the other? Here, “Madam” represents what Martin points out is the more respectful form of the word “Madam,” that of a mistress (Martin 97). Again, ambiguity of authority typifies this poem, which overtly illustrates the matrix of domination yet, in the space of the poem, allows for subversion and even empowerment within this space.

Like “Madam and the Movies,” “Madam and Her Madam” opens with a direct, first-person “I” statement: “I worked for a woman.” This line presents the duality between the speaker and the anonymous white woman, paralleling the sad doubleness of women’s oppression by other women and a fundamental component of black feminist criticism. Alberta states that white Madam “wasn’t mean” even though “she had a twelve-room / House to clean.” These lines create a sardonic tone. Alberta continues to catalogue her chores: the white woman makes Alberta clean her entire house as well as cook all of the meals, “breakfast, / Dinner, and supper, too.” These lines create tension: though the list structure oppresses the Madam underneath the weight of her duties, her sarcasm empowers her as well.

However, the following line, “then take care of her children,” escalates the poem’s black feminist critique. Alberta reveals that she fulfills every domestic female gender role burdened upon the white woman. The phrase “nearly,” or, essentially, “broke me down” creates the image of actual, physical as well as mental burden, elucidating the seriousness of black female oppression. The image of the Madam as “pack horse” painfully represents this burden. It also harkens back to the notion of being broken down ending the stanza before it. Here, though, the Madam characterizes herself as an animal. That is, if Alberta is the poem’s main speaker—though the tone and content of the poem suggests otherwise, the lack of quotation marks surrounding these instances of dialogue suggest that the white Madam has a voice in the poem. This ambiguity connects to that of “Madam at the Movies.” It also emphasizes the black feminist message of this poem. Alberta’s race and gender oppress her, but allowing interpretive room for the white Madam’s voice in the poem underscores the white woman’s gendered oppression.

However, this white woman’s feigned shock at the possibility of her own oppression—“Oh no!”—illustrates her as cruelly apathetic. The white woman extends her own suffering to a back-breaking burden on Alberta. This gesture is heinously ignorant, portraying white society’s ability to overlook their labored oppression of African Americans, from slavery to the context of this poem (and still today). However, when Alberta states at the end of the poem that she will be “dogged” if she loves the white madam, she is defiant. Diction of “dogged” connotes animals as well. Yet, by showing this oppression and giving Alberta a voice in the lyric, he also immortalizes her voice and characterization of black female oppression.   

Subversion within the poem’s ballad form heightens the message of defiance within the lyric enclosure of the poem. Alberta subtly undermines this meter to emphasize her insolence. For example, spondees in the brief lines “Wash, iron, and scrub” and “Walk the dog” underscore the burden that each of these chores gives to the madam, the burden and the drudgery. Alberta also builds authority through repetition of the iamb “I said” that begins the fourth and last stanza. Emphasis on “said” compounds Alberta’s vocalization of the poem, her ability to speak, and, as the poem itself shows, to keep speaking. These lines also suggest that Alberta speaks directly to the Madam, an empowered act that echoes the poem’s broader empowerment. Alberta speaks to her mistress in the poem, just as the poem itself speaks to readers. A black feminist reading of this empowerment designates the poem, then, as a safe space of community and support for black female readers who likely suffer from the same oppression as Alberta.

Use of the past tense, particularly as seen through “said,” heightens this ambiguity and the tension between defiance and oppression. On the one hand, past tense implies that the Madam did not actually say these things to her Madam. It also underscores the “orality” of the Madam poems, where “power comes from performance” as well as the first-person authority (Martin 97). Past tense allows room for performativity, specifically through and exaggerated tone. Martin goes on to point out the inherent hope and empowerment ultimately expressed by the Madam poems as a whole, particularly as it applies to “Madam and Her Madam.” She states, “[the poem] illustrates that pride and self-reliance do not prevent Alberta…from working at any job to support herself,” noting how she “confronts her ‘madam’ with the awareness of the latter’s motives” (98). Alberta is defiant and self-aware, intelligent. However, Martin may overlook the complexity of the poem’s formal aspects. It is this ambiguity that strengthens Hughes’ broader feminist critique—the Madam’s resistance in spite of complexities and doubts makes her strong. The concluding lines, “But I’ll be dogged if I love you!” exemplify this empowerment. “Dogged” compounds the notion of Alberta taking back the animalistic language used to describe her; she uses the white Madam’s language to denounce the white woman. Alberta exhibits triumph and authentic expression of empowerment even within the confines of form.

Prominent black feminists have written persuasively about the need for attention to black female writers. Both Deborah E. McDowell and Barbara Smith elucidate this need in and through literary theory. Both scholars express a need for the exposure of black women writers and for the black women’s suffering beneath a matrix of domination and racism from whites and even from white feminists. Langston Hughes, though male, wrote often in a woman’s voice. Alberta is certainly fictional, yet she also embodies the black woman’s experience called for by McDowell and Smith, among others. Moreover, Hughes’ deft use of ambiguity in tone, diction, rhythm and meter, and the ballad form gives Alberta autonomy a voice within the space of the poem, a space that represents both an oppressive structure and a sanctuary. This doubleness allows readers to view both black female oppression and opportunities for black female refuge from and defiance against this domination. Ultimately, a black feminist reading of these poems reveals the matrix of oppression for black women as well as the particular role that poetry plays in combating this subjugation. Poetry allows room for light and for hope while also exposing dark complexities, dark truths.

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