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. Though the society is brimming with inequality, the system manages to contain and siphon off discontent and revolution by presenting itself as “natural,” as the way things should and have to be. Gramsci says that this unstable equilibrium is infrequently punctured with dissent. One of these punctures was the 1919 race riots, out of which poured resentment over the social, economic, and political inequality between whites and blacks. The riots amounted to a revolt against the structure of society; rioters challenged legal standards, legal institutions, property rights, and stability by using violence and vandalism. In an awakening of assertive black consciousness, the Harlem Renaissance also emerged as a puncture in a different level of society, the superstructure. It challenged what Professor Jacobson calls, “the unexamined, unarticulated assumptions throughout society,” the popular beliefs, myths, and ideologies of American culture. Countee Cullen’s poetry, in the case of his poem, “Tableau,” took part in this cultural puncture by reversing society’s definition of nature and naturalness in human relations. Before actually venturing into the poem, it is interesting to focus upon Countee Cullen’s difficulty in reconciling politics and art. Cullen saw that the artistic community beheld the “Negro poet” as an inferior to the “poet,” and thus wanted his own works to be “solely… the expression of a poet- with no racial considerations to bolster it up.”1 Alain Locke also recognized the stigma that earlier black artists had placed upon themselves. Locke criticizes them for their “pathetic overcompensations of a group inferiority complex,”2 explaining that “they felt art must fight social battles and compensate social wrongs” (50). In Cullen’s mind, there existed a rift between art and the politics of racial identity, so he sought to win recognition as an artist by transcending his race.
Houston A. Baker, Jr., A Many-Colored Coat of Dreams (Detroit, Michigan: Broadside Press, 1974), p.29. Alain Locke, The New Negro (New York: Touchstone, 1992), p.48.
However, Marx affirms that “in the social production of their life, men [sic] enter into definite relations that are indispensable and independent of their will… It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary their social being that determines their consciousness.”3 Marx thus predicts Cullen’s inevitable failure to escape his racial identity. Cullen admits, “In spite of myself… I find that I am actuated by a strong sense of racial consciousness… it colors my writing, I fear, in spite of everything I can do” (Baker, 29). However, Cullen’s capitulation to racial identity does not compromise his poetry. Rather, it enriches his art. Regarding the black artist’s social condition, Alain Locke asserts that “their material handicap, is their spiritual advantage” (47). Cullen’s identity invades and becomes an essential part of his art: “The newer motive… in being racial is to be so purely for the sake of art” (Locke, 51). This motive becomes evident in the title of his poem, “Tableau.” Webster’s dictionary defines “tableau” as “a striking or artistic grouping.” While Cullen’s social grouping of a white boy and black boy makes an undeniably political statement, Cullen implies that it is, at the same time, artistic. He attempts to treat his identity as an African-American as an aesthetic asset rather than sociopolitical baggage. The basic scenario of “Tableau” centers on a black boy and white boy walking together. These two boys are likened to day and night, both of which are described positively. The black and white boy, the day and night, are both beautiful and complementary. The first stanza portrays this harmony. The second stanza introduces the antagonist, society. Black and white people watch the boys with bitter disapproval. In the third stanza, the boys are victorious in this conflict, shrugging off the racial prejudices around them. They “blaze a path,” indicating that others will follow in their example. In this portrayal of racial harmony, Cullen is careful to point out that the rest of society does not share this kind of equality. The black people in the poem are passive; they “stare” while
Raymond Williams, Marxism and Literature (New York: Oxford University Press, 1977), p.75.
the white people “talk.” Also, “here” of line 6 sounds like “hear.” Thus we feel like saying, “the dark folk stare and hear the fair folk talk.” We must correct ourselves since the written word is “here,” but Cullen forces upon us an inclination to say that black people listen quietly to white people. The black people are hidden with blinds so that they see and hear without being seen or heard themselves. This unnatural segregation and its conflict with the naturalness of the boys runs throughout the poem. Cullen echoes Rousseau’s ideas and his famous phrase, “Man is born free; and everywhere he is in chains,” by associating nature with the good and the structure of civilization with the bad. It is the conventional and artificial forces of society that threatens to stifle, or chain up, the natural fraternity and goodness of the boys. The boys are constantly associated with images of nature: day, night, lightning, thunder. Consequently, they carry themselves with an unfettered and unaffected naturalness, completely ignoring the social standards that menacingly encircle them. They are “oblivious,” bereft of societal wisdom and knowledge. The rest of society, on the other hand, is associated with civilization and artificiality, represented by the “blinds.” The word “blinds” (line 5) ostensibly refers to the curtains of the neighborhood’s houses, but it also comes to express the people’s blindness. Though they “stare” (line 5) they cannot see the truth and beauty inherent in the boys’ harmony. This idea again harkens back to Rousseau; the “blinds” are a social construct that obstructs the true nature of man. The formal structure of the poem follows after a general iambic rhythm of down-up, down-up, giving it an optimistic tone. Cullen uses stanzas of alternating tetrameter and trimeter lines, rhyming abab. There are several notable deviations from this structure that yields meaning in the poem. The first deviation appears immediately with the sudden power and emphasis of the spondee, “Locked arm.” Though the form of the poem dictates that the line should have started with an unstressed word, Cullen turns this convention upside-down by choosing the stressed
word, “locked.” This word is ironic; though it usually implies bondage and constraint, Cullen reverses the traditionally pessimistic tone of this word to portray the liberation of the boys from social constraints that claim that a black and white boy cannot walk together. The boys abuse conventions of social propriety just as the word “locked” abuses conventions of form and meaning. The middle stanza of the poem includes the words, “dark folk stare” and “fair folk talk.” These two groups of words are the only instances in the poem in which there are three consecutive stressed syllables. It has the effect of slowing down and depressing the poem, functioning as a bump in the path of racial harmony. Just as these words obstruct the natural flow of the poem, the judgements of society seeks to impede upon and hinder the progress of the boys. The spondee, “these two,” that appears in the middle of line 7, sounds like a condemnation and strongly marks the boys with ignominy. The double-stress reminds us that all attention is focused on the boys, that everyone is looking at and talking about “these two.” However, all these consecutively-stressed words appear in the middle and not at the end of the poem. We read past them and the poem resumes its down-up flow, indicating that the boys, though they may experience difficulty, can scale and pass over the prejudices of society. Though the next stanza is one complete sentence, line 10 can be read in isolation to yield a different meaning. “They pass, and see no wonder” can mean that they see nothing peculiar or spectacularly special, a casual attitude that is consistent with their portrayal of naturalness and obliviousness throughout the poem. Because of the comma in line 10, “They pass” can also be read in isolation to mean that they have passed a test of fire by plowing through the disapproving stares and whispers of close-minded neighbors. Cullen drives home his critique on convention and naturalness in the last stanza. Lines 10 and 12 conform perfectly to the down-up, down-up pattern of the poem, but they have two peculiarities. They both have seven syllables instead of six, and they are the only two lines in the
poem that do not end with a stressed syllable. The last extra syllable, “-er” in “wonder” and “thunder,” is soft and escapes the formal structure of the poem like a quiet whisper. The boys also seem to exert no effort in their practice of breaking through convention. It is this very naturalness, the unthinking camaraderie they experience as two friends and not as two people of different races, that passively defies the structure of the poem and of society. The thunder and lightning of the poem’s last two lines serves two themes. First, it emphasizes nature, which is associated with and emanates from the naturalness of the boys. Secondly, it is the culmination of the sight/sound motif. Among the blindness of the staring, talking, and hearing onlookers is the powerful and sense-shattering brilliance of lightning and the tremendous volume of thunder. While ignoring “look and word” from others, the boys make a powerful statement without uttering a sound by themselves. Thus, their passivity is more forceful than the active criticism of society. In this poem, Cullen challenges what Gramsci calls “hegemony.” Hegemony inspires spontaneous allegiance by making the system seem “natural.” “Tableau” exposes the artificiality of racial segregation and seeks to re-define naturalness in a picture of racial harmony. It leaves us with the image of thunder and lightning that is both political and beautiful. Whether Countee Cullen ever fully reconciled his convictions about art and identity or not, he has left an indelible puncture in the equilibrium of American cultural history as an African-American and as a poet.
TABLEAU 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 Locked arm in arm they cross the way, The black boy and the white, The golden splendor of the day The sable pride of night. From lowered blinds the dark folk stare And here the fair folk talk, Indignant that these two should dare In unison to walk. Oblivious to look and word They pass, and see no wonder That lightning brilliant as a sword Should blaze the path of thunder.
think historically theoretical/historical material from class (religion is the opium of the masses- get people thinking about the afterlife so that they don't act up over the present condition of things (probably irrelevent)) what political conversation is it engaged in? tensions/contradictions in the text? Marx: "In the social production of their life, men [sic] enter into definite relations that are indispensable and independent of their will." Despite Cullen's efforts to transcend race in poetry, Cullen identifies with black America in an identity that is independent of his will and this identification is indispensable to his poetry. could not and perhaps did not want to escape his identity. "It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness." Cullen tried to write poetry as a poet, not as a black man. However, his social being, as an African-American, still invades his poetry and makes him one of the icons of the Harlem Rennaisance; he has become immortalized not simply as a poet, but an African-American poet. poetry is part of the superstructure, according to Prof as the "unexamined, unarticulated assumptions throughout society." culture contains revolution. system desires to reproduce itself, perpetuation. accounts for the overall stability of society, though constantly frought with inequality only occassionally punctuated with dissent. myths that tell us the culture serves us (kind of like the myth of religion). however, those occasional punctuations manisfested itself in the race riots of 1919. that was a widespread phenonmenon, a small-scale revolution; something tipped the scale. it's no coincidence that it's concurrent with the Harlem Renaissance. Whereas the race riots were an expression of dissent against the structure in the way it defied the structures of society (police, legal standards and institutions, property rights (vandalization), challenged the social order). Need more info on 1919 race riots. The Harlem Renaissance is a created similar punctures in the superstructure by challenging the popular beliefs, myths, ideology of American culture. Conclusion: Superstructure works its way down to the base (Marx or Bromche?). Today there is desegregation, affirmative action seeks (though fails) to give minorities a greater share in the means of production. Legacy of the Harlem Rennaissance, of which Cullen was an indispensable part. Is there critique of other superstructure, structure, and base in Cullen's poems? inversion revision erasure- taking out, erasing discontent from certain absurd situations. hegemony- spontaneous allegiance. system experienced as "natural." see system as serving themselves. (Bromshe) unstable equilibrium- because dissent is always a possibility, culture both contains and criticizes the system (Bromche)
myth of the North as the promised land propagated by Northern organizations like the Chicago Defender? does Cullen challenge this? Alain Locke: "their material handicap, is their spiritual advantage" (47); "Our poets have now stopped speaking for the Negro- they speak as Negros" (48) (?) "pathetic overcompensations of a group inferiority complex" (48) (?) "They felt art must fight social battles and compensate social wrongs" (50) "The newer motive, then, in being racial is to be so purely for the sake of art." (51) "we are at last spiritually free, and offer thorugh art an emancipating vision to America." (53) (?) Library book: "Though he made a strong case for the Black artist's freedeom from limiting categories (hoping that any merit that might reside in his own works would 'flow from it solely as the expression of a poet- with no racial considerations to bolster it up'), he found himself insensibly drawn into writing racial verse. In 1926, he said: "In spite of myself... I find that I am actuated by a strong sense of racial consciousness. This grows upon me, I find, as I grow older, and although I struggle against it, it colors my writing, I fear, in spite of everything I can do." (28-29) "Negro poet" and its inferiority to the "poet". “Tableau” obvious summary: oblivious to “look” (of the blacks) and “word” of the whites. both the day and the night described positively; different colors but both cooperative and beautiful. first stanza: introduction of the harmony of the two boys. 2nd stanza: introduction of the conflict, of the antagonist. 3rd stanza: victory over the antagonist. they “blaze the path” indicating that others will follow. They are revolutionaries; they change the structure of society. In the same way, Cullen is seeking to be a revolutionary by using superstructure to change the structure of society. “oblivious”; innocence. the boys associated with nature, likened with the beauty of nature: “day” “night” “lightning” “thunder” power and beauty of nature and naturalness. the boys are not highly affected. the rest of society associated with artificiality, structure: lowered blinds. bring in Rousseau; was Marx influenced by Rousseau? most of society does not share the equality that these two boys express by walking in “unison”. note the passivity of the black people; they “stare” while the white people “talk”. also, “here” sounds like hear; we are naturally inclined to say “the dark folk stare and hear the fair folk talk”. we must correct ourselves since the written word is “here”, but Cullen forces upon us an inclination to say that black people listen quietly to white people. thus, Cullen still speaks from the perspective of a black person and not one from a sort of removed racial objectivity. that may be also why Cullen emphasizes “black boy” with a strophee. the dark folk are hidden with blinds; they see and hear but they themselves remain unseen and unheard. dark fold stare, fair folk talk; only places in poem with 3 consecutive stresses, slows down and depresses the poem, makes it laborous; the judgements of society impedes upon, hinders, obstructs the flow of the poem. however, this bump appears in the middle of the poem; the poem
plows right through it and resumes its down-up flow. thus Cullen asserts that the boys’ fraternity, though it may experience difficulty, can scale and pass over the prejudices of society. “Oblivious…They pass” in lines 9 and 10. line 10 can be read in isolation from the rest of the sentence as “They pass, and see no wonder”- meaning they do not see anything peculiar. similarly, that line of the poem has no deviation from the iambic rhythm of the poem. general iambic rhythm,down-up, down-up, is optimistic and energetic. ballad stanza, alternating iambic tetrameter and trimeter lines rhyming abab. “One of the conventions associated with the ballad or hymnal stanzas is an illusion of primitive sincerity and openness.” (Fussell, 134) the word “locked” is ironic, since it usually implies bondage and constraints. Cullen has turned this word upside-down to portray the liberation of the boys from social constraints that claim that a black boy and white boy cannot walk together. They abuse conventional social rules just as Cullen abuses conventionally pessimistic uses of the word “locked.” spondee (double-stress) at beginning of a line: “Locked arm”; grabs attention immediately to something dramatic that is going on. emphasis, sudden-power. “these two”; spondee in the middle of the sentence strongly marks the boys ignominiously; attention is focused on them, everyone is looking at and talking about “these two.” sounds like a condemnation, a verdict of dissaproval. tableau: defined as “a striking or artistic grouping” by Webster’s Dictionary. it is striking because it makes a sociopolitical statement. at the same time it is artistic. Cullen’s dualistic allegience to both the sociopolitical baggage of his identity and his art. makes his political identity into an artistic thing. lines 10 and 12 conform perfectly to the down-up-down pattern of the poem, but they have two peculiarities. They both have seven syllables instead of six, and they are the only two lines in the poem that does not end with a stressed syllable. The last extra syllable, “-er” in “wonder” and “thunder,” escapes the formal structure of the poem, quietly like a whisper. The boys seem to exert no effort; the rhythm of these two lines flow naturally and doesn’t miss a beat. But it is this very naturalness, the unthinking comraderie they experience as two friends and not as two people of different races, that passively and unwittingly breaks through the structure of the poem and of society. The fact that they “see no wonder” is that it seems completely natural to them, like nothing spectacularly special. The comma in line 10 enforces a pause; the remainder of the poem can be seen as a description of what takes place within this pause. “They pass” but they have a lasting effect. can this passivity, at the same time, lead to political inactivity? is it thus launching a critique against the system but shies away from attacking it directly? i don’t think so.
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