Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Cross: Summary and Analysis

"Cross" by Langston Hughes: Summary and Analysis

Author: Langston Hughes
Date: Written and Published in 1926
Poem in a nutshell: "I'm both White and Black; yet I am neither. I don't belong."

Original Text
Modern Engish Translation

My old man's a white old man

And my old mother's black.

If ever I cursed my white old man

I take my curses back.

If ever I cursed my black old mother

And wished she were in hell,

I'm sorry for that evil wish

And now I wish her well

My old man died in a fine big house.

My ma died in a shack.

I wonder where I'm going to die,

Being neither white nor black?

My father’s white

And my mother is black.

If I ever wished my father ill, I take it back.

If I ever cursed my mother and wished she

Would go to Hell,

I’m sorry for that I did so.

Now, all I wish is that she were well.

My rich white father died in a nice big house,

And my poor old mother died in a shack.

I wonder where I am going to die,

Since I’m not accepted as white or black?

For me, this is the best poem that I have ever read. In fact, it is my favorite poem (and you read a lot of poems when you're an English major!). What makes this poem so intoxicating is the fact that it's simplicity is an illusion. To the untrained eye, the poem may seem both short and simple, but I assure you that the latter assertion is false. The poem is anything but simple.

It is rich is meaning--encompassing a plethora of connotations and duality.


The narrator of the poem is a young mulatto, expressing his frustration at being both black and white but never fully belonging to either of the two races. He is not accepted by blacks because he is half white, and he is shunned by whites because he is half black. The historical significance of this is that, during the 1920s (in the U.S.), the cultural and racial segregation of African Americans and Caucasians were very defined and apparent. As such, the narrator is stuck in a sort of purgatory/gray area/limbo, for he is deprived of the chance to be immersed in either race due to racial pride. Thus, he is left in a state of confusion, suffering an identity crisis. He has no one with which he can identify.

As the narrator matures, he realizes that he can't blame or hate his parents for who he is. It doesn't make any sense. At the end of the day, he'll still be who he is, so why hate? 

The last stanza emphasizes the poverty of the Blacks versus the wealth of the Whites during this time period. For, the narrator says that his father died in a big house while his mother died in a shack. He still doesn't know how to categorize himself in terms of identity, but he accepts the issue as it is. Once he decides which path to lead--life as a black man or life as a white man--then he'll know where he'll die.



Connotation, in literary terms, describes the association that are attached to certain words. For example, the word "gun" has a negative connotation. Instead of associating guns with a positive thing like "protection," most people associate the word "gun" with death, blood, murder, etc. Connotation is what separates two identical words. So, we all know that "house" and "home" are both places of dwelling and their definitions are almost entirely identical. However, what separates the two words are their meanings. When you say "house," it is impersonal and objective, but when you say "home," we associate things like family, warmth, safety, with it. Get it?

In "Cross," the word cross has many connotations. It can mean practically anything. Although it is not directly written in the poem, the word encompasses the entire essence of the poem. 

The young narrator of the poem is:

 -multiracial, multicultural, mulatto, cross-breed.

-His hybridity is a burden--a cross to bear. This brings about the image of the crucifix, making the narrator or subject of the poem somewhat of a Jesus figure. For, like Jesus, he suffers from constant persecution.

-He is at a cross-roads. Which world does he fit into: white or black?

-He makes a crossover from his previous emotions. At first, the narrator admits that he was angry or cross at both of his parents, but, he later lets go of that hatred and forgives them both.

Who is the Poem Really About?

Some critics argue that the poem is about Mr. Hughe's ethnic roots, reflecting the life of African Americans during the 1920s. The stark poverty of the black population in comparison to the white community showcases the intensity of the racial tensions of the time as well as the injustice of the persecution of blacks.

On the other hand, some literary scholars insist that the poem may be a commentary of the slavery and the long lasting effects that it may have on future generations. As we well know, white slave owners often took advantage of their black female slaves, resulting in mulatto children. Thus, the narrator could easily be the child of a former slave. 


  1. I absolutely love Langston Hughes, and as a mixed-race girl myself I adore this poem. Obviously, this is not how I view my life today, but it really made me reflect on the general difficulties of being neither A or B and not meeting the expectations of society's constricting roles, still relevant today, that the world has constructed for people. Interesting analysis. :)

    1. Thanks so much for your comment. It makes me happy to know that people are actually reading my posts. I am actually trying to build this blog so students can use it as a resource. If you know of any poems that are difficult and are not yet analyzed by any website, please let me know :)

  2. In this poem, Hughes doesn't specify whether the speaker is a male or female. I think Hughes meant for the speaker to be the collective voice of the mixed-race individuals of that time.

    1. I completely agree with you. Though, for me personally, I've always thought of the speaker as a male.

  3. What would you consider the theme of this poem to be?