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Cross
A Poem by Langston Hughes (1902-1967)
A Study Guide
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Type of Work
Date of Publication
Text of the Poem
Theme
Title Meanings
Structure, Rhyme, Meter
Musicality
Hughes's Language
Assuming a Persona
Study Questions
Essay Topics
See Another Hughes Poem
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Study Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings..© 2008
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Type of Work and Date of Publication

......."Cross" 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.
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Cross
By Langston Hughes
1926
 

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 gonna die,
Being neither white nor black?
 

Interpretation of the Stress

MY old MANíS a WHITE old MAN 
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
and WISHED she WERE in HELL,
iím SOR ry FOR that EV il WISH 
and NOW i WISH her WELL.

my OLD man DIED in a FINE big HOUSE. 
my MA died IN a SHACK.
i WON der WHERE iím GON na DIE, 
be ing NEI ther BLACK nor WHITE.

Theme and Title Meanings

.......The 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.
Crossroad: After 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.

Structure, Rhyme, and Meter

.......The 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.) 
.......The meter of the poem varies, but it is dominated by iambic feet. 

Musicality

.......The 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:

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 gonna die,
Being neither white nor black?

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.
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Hughes's Language

.......The 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. 

Assuming a Persona

.......In 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.
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Study Questions and Essay Topics

1...Marriages 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?
2...What 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 connotation today?
3...If you are the child of a black and a white, write an essay expressing your feelings about your heritage.
4...If 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. 
5...Many 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 number 4.
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