Study Guide Prepared by Michael
of Work and Date of Publication
is a lyric poem expressing in first-person point of view the feelings of
a person with a white father and a black mother. (Although Langston Hughes's
parents were both black, he well understood the confusion and conflict
that a person of mixed heritage experienced). Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., published
the poem in January 1926 in a collection entitled The Weary Blues.
By Langston Hughes
old man's a white old man
my old mother's black.
ever I cursed my white old man
take my curses back.
ever I cursed my black old mother
wished she were in hell,
sorry for that evil wish
now I wish her well.
old man died in a fine big house.
ma died in a shack.
wonder where I'm gonna die,
neither white nor black?
Interpretation of the
MY old MANíS a WHITE old
and MY old MOTH erís BLACK.
if EV er
i CURSED my WHITE old MAN
i TAKE my CUR ses BACK.
if EV er i CURSED my BLACK
old MOTH er
WISHED she WERE in HELL,
iím SOR ry FOR that EV il
and NOW i WISH her WELL.
my OLD man DIED in a FINE
my MA died IN a SHACK.
i WON der WHERE iím GON
be ing NEI ther BLACK nor
and Title Meanings
title of the poem contains several meanings, all of which underscore the
main theme: the inner turmoil the speaker feels because of his (or her)
mixed racial heritage. These meanings include the following:
Anger: The speaker
has been angry, or "cross," with his father and mother for passing on to
him an amalgam of genes. After his anger subsides,
he forgives them but remains in turmoil over his mixed heritage.
Burden: The speaker
"carries a cross," his mixed racial heritage.
Crucifix: The speaker
hangs nailed to a cross, like Christ, suffering persecution even though
he has done no wrong.
Traversal: The speaker
"crosses over" from anger to forgiveness, leaving behind his bitterness.
forgiving his father and mother, the speaker stands at a crossroad. The
road to the right is for white people. The road to the left is for black
people. But he must go straight, into an uncertain future.
Crossbreed: The speaker
is a mulatto.
Rhyme, and Meter
poem contains three four-line stanzas (quatrains). The first stanza has
28 syllables; the second, 30; and the third, 30. The first ten lines present
declarative sentences establishing the situation; the last two sum up the
conflict and theme in the form of a question. Lines 2 and 4 of each stanza
contain masculine end rhyme (black, back; hell, well; shack,
black). (Masculine rhyme occurs when the final syllable of one line
rhymes with the final syllable of another line. Feminine rhyme, on the
other hand, occurs when two final syllables of one line rhyme with two
final syllables of another line. Examples of feminine rhyme are repeat,
deplete; farrow, narrow; scarlet; varlet.)
meter of the poem varies, but it is dominated by iambic feet.
poem moves along rhythmically, like a song. Stress, rhyme, and alliteration
all contribute to this musical effect. Note, for example, the use of the
alliterating m and w
sounds in the poem:
old man's a white
Repetition of key words and
phrases also promote musicality in the poem, like the refrain of a song.
For example, the word old occurs six times and the phrase if
ever I cursed occurs twice.
old mother's black.
If ever I cursed my
I take my
If ever I cursed my
black old mother
she were in hell,
I'm sorry for that evil
And now I wish
old man died in a fine big house.
died in a shack.
I'm gonna die,
Being neither white
appeal of Hughes's poetry lies in large part in his ability to express
profound ideas in simple language. Most of the words in the poem contain
a single syllable. No word contains more than two syllables.
a novel, short story, or poem, any writer can become part of the work by
assuming a persona that may or may not resemble his or her own in real
life. The writer may even take the part of an animal or thing. In "Cross,"
Langston Hughes, the son of two black parents, assumes the persona of a
person with a white father and a black mother. Doing so enables him to
present with the force of first-person point of view what he believes are
the thoughts and conflicts of another person. In the poem "My
Last Duchess," Robert Browning assumes the persona of a proud Italian
duke who may have murdered his wife. In the poem "Grass,"
Carl Sandburg assumes the persona of grass that grows over a battlefield.
In the short story "The Black Cat,"
Edgar Allan Poe assumes the persona of a madman. In the novel Moby
Dick, Herman Melville assumes the persona of a young seaman on
a whaling ship.
Questions and Essay Topics
between whites and blacks are more commonplace in America today than in
the past. What is the prevailing attitude of the general population, including
whites and blacks, toward children of mixed racial heritage?
is the origin of the term mulatto (a noun referring to a person
of black and white ancestry)? Does the term have a negative or positive
you are the child of a black and a white, write an essay expressing your
feelings about your heritage.
your parents are both of the same race, interview several persons of mixed
heritage. Ask them whether their heritage affects their perception of themselves
negatively or positively and whether it affects their relationship with
other persons. Also, conduct library and internet research on this subject.
Then form a thesis and write an essay on your findings.
famous Americans are of mixed racial ancestry, including Barack Obama.
Identify other famous persons of mixed ancestry. Then, after conducting
research about them, write an essay that answers questions like those in