Analysis of The Panther and the Lash by Langston Hughes

An Analysis of the poems in The Panther and the Lash

Langston Hughes was an African American writer who published his first works of poetry during the Harlem Renaissance. The Panther and the Lash was published posthumously in 1967. The title of the collection is a representation of the power dynamics Hughes is trying to expose. “Panther” stands for the America’s currents political system and “Lash” is its oppressive power. Langston Hughes’ poetic vision is to depict the racial inequality, violence, and oppression experienced by African Americans. Hughes is not concerned with a regular meter and rhyme scheme, but he is interested in rhythm, which he achieves through the repetition of words and/or lines as well as the use of other formal devices like alliteration, rhetorical questions, and internal rhymes. The poems are in open form, and stanza breaks, when present, are not constant.

The collection is divided into seven sections. The first, “Words of Fire,” depicts the economical disadvantage of colored citizens in Harlem. In the second, “American Heartbreak”, Hughes goes on to describe different events of historical significance to African Americans in their fight against slavery. “The Bible Belt,” the third section, offers a collection of poems that focus on African Americans in the south and the violence done against them. The fourth section, “The Face of War,” raises the false notion of equality and honor in African American participation in wars to protect the USA. With the next section, “African Question Mark,” Hughes moves to the African continent; the poems in this section draw a parallel between the struggle of Africans and African Americans. In “Dinner Guest: Me,” Hughes criticizes many white Americans for their ignorance and apathy towards black injustice. The last section is titled “Daybreak in Alabama,” and it summarizes the book by bringing in flavors from the previous sections, and ending with hope for (a song of) racial integration.

Hughes Love of Repetition

In The Panther and the Lash, Hughes uses repetition to achieve rhythm and create an echo effect. For example, in the poem “Harlem”, Hughes uses a first person plural speaker to stress the communal and Harlem as a whole. Another important literary device present in the book is the rhetorical question. For instance, in “Merry-Go-Round,” rhetorical questions serve to mock the efficacy of the Jim Crow laws and the lack of answers make the reader experience the uncertainty and confusion of the young female speaker. Through the collection, Hughes uses the voice of different speakers (male, female, old, and young) and the tone changes from poem to poem, the speaker can be angry, confused, show innocence, feel pain, be ironic, pessimistic, and optimistic. Through these shifts in tone and speaker, Hughes shows different flavors of the same experience. He also employs vivid and powerful imagery of death, blood, and suffering that when contrasted with his simple diction and clear lines, these images have a shocking and lasting effect on the reader.

Hughes’s The Panther and the Lash has the power of history and the beauty of language, aiming to give an account of the discrimination and disadvantages faced by African Americans.

Hughes, Langston. The Panther and the Lash. New York: Vintage Books, 1967.

© Yaneirys Cruz, 2013- Poetry Blog

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