Cultural Exchange Analysis by Langston Hughes

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This poem analysis focuses on the poem ‘Cultural Exchange’ by Langston Hughes, and is divided into three parts – context, rhyme scheme and rhetorical devices, and the two forms of cultural exchange.


Context: This part of the poem analysis focuses on the context in which ‘Cultural Exchange’ was published. It was published as the first poem in the collection Ask Your Mama: 12 Moods for Jazz, which was published in the year 1961. It is one of Hughes’ later works. Unlike his poetry of the 1920s or 1930s which is milder in tone and talks about inclusion of African-Americans into mainstream white society, this poem is more sceptical. It shows that he had become disillusioned with such inclusivist dreams by now, and preferred for his fellow African-Americans to be politically aware in remembering their past, and standing up for their rights to make their future better.

Rhyme Scheme and Rhetorical Devices: This part of the poem explanation talks about how Hughes conceived a melody that the reader was supposed to keep in mind while reading the poems in Ask Your Mama, and how ‘Cultural Exchange’ follows that melody. This melody was inspired by jazz music, and can be seen in ‘Cultural Exchange’ on two instances. At the opening of the poem, Hughes writes parts of a sentence (“In the” and “In the quarter” in the first and second lines) before finally writing the full sentence (“In the quarter of the negroes”). The hesitations here can be compared with the artful hesitations of jazz, or with the dramatic warming up sequence of a jazz musician. Again in the tenth stanza he repeats the line “Won’t let it go until it thunders” twice, and the line “In the shadow of the negroes” no less than thrice with intervals of a single line between each of the repetitions. Here too the rhyme scheme of ‘Cultural Exchange’ follows the typical melody of a free jazz composition.

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This poem explanation would be incomplete without mentioning Hughes’ use of the rhetorical device of alliteration, deriving his inspiration from the call and response patterns of the slave songs from which African-American dominated forms of music such as the blues and jazz ultimately evolved. For example, in the first stanza, he uses alliteration in the lines “Where the doors are doors of paper/ Dust of dingy atoms”. Again in the ninth stanza, he uses alliteration in the lines “Lieder, lovely Lieder/ And a leaf of collard green/Lovely Lieder Leontyne”.

The Two Forms of Cultural Exchange: In this poem, Hughes introduces two forms of cultural exchange between the African-Americans and the whites. The first form is the good one, represented by the music of Leontyne Price. This combines good elements from both cultures, and the end product brings joy to a lot of people, and pride to the African-American people. The second form of cultural exchange is the bad one, represented by the African-Americans taking over American society from the whites. This is in itself not a bad thing, but what makes it bad is that the blacks would perpetuate the same oppressions on the whites that they had been subjected to when the whites were ruling over them. Hughes is not naive enough to believe that this can actually be a reality, and that’s why he calls it both a dream and a nightmare. The point is that the whites have only taught the African-Americans how to oppress, not how to treat their underlings justly. Hence, the rule of the African-Americans will be just as unfair and brutal as that of the whites. It will be informed more by a sense of revenge than that of fair governance. Hence Hughes has written this poem to make the whites feel guilty about their conduct and perhaps to change it enough that the African-Americans are at least not as badly oppressed as they have been till now.

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