Poetry Analysis: Langston Hughes’s “In Explanation of Our Times”

langston hughes

In Explanation of Our Times

By Langston Hughes

The folks with no titles in front of their names

all over the world

are raring up and talking back

to the folks called Mister.

You say you thought everybody was called Mister?

No, son, not everybody.

In Dixie, often they won’t call Negroes Mister.

In China before what happened

They had no intention of calling coolies Mister.

Dixie to Singapore, Cape Town to Hong Kong

the Misters won’t call lots of other folks Mister.

They call them, Hey George!

Here, Sallie!

Listen, Coolie!

Hurry up, Boy!

And things like that.

George Sallie Coolie Boy gets tired sometimes.

So all over the world today

folks with not even Mister in front of their names

are raring up and talking back

to those called Mister.

From Harlem past Hong Kong talking back.

Shut up, says Gerald L.K. Smith.

Shut up, says the Governor of South Carolina.

Shut up, says the Governor of Singapore.

Shut up, says Strydom.

Hell no shut up! say the people

with no titles in front of their names.

Hell no! It’s time to talk back now!

History says it’s time,

And the radio, too, foggy with propaganda

that says a mouthful

and don’t mean half it says–

but is true anyhow:

LIBERTY!

FREEDOM!

DEMOCRACY!

True anyhow no matter how many

Liars use those words.

The people with no titles in front of their names

hear these words and shout them back

at the Misters, Lords, Generals, Viceroys,

Governors of South Carolina, Gerald L. K. Strydoms.

Shut up, people!

Shut up! Shut up!

Shut up, George!

Shut up, Sallie!

Shut up, Coolie!

Shut up, Indian!

Shut up, Boy!

George Sallie Coolie Indian Boy

black brown yellow bent down working

earning riches for the whole world

with no title in front of name

just man woman tired says:

No shut up!

Hell no shut up!

So naturally, there’s trouble

in these our times

because of people with no titles

in front of their names.

Socrates once said “the misuse of language induces evil in the soul.”  Langston Hughes would agree that words have the power to denigrate and belittle, stigmatize and insult.  In his poem “In Explanation of Our Times,” Hughes reflects on language as an instrument of political power.  The poem opens with coming social revolution:

The folks with no titles in front of their names/all over the world/are raring up and talking back/to the folks called Mister” (Hughes 4).  

Right away, we see the world divided into 2 classes: the oppressor and oppressed, the folks with “no titles” and the folks called “Mister.”  

Though language is a discourse each of us participates in everyday, as a poet Hughes respects its power to shape and define our reality.  From the very beginning of the poem, society weaponizes language to define poor people of color as inferior.  The fact that the lower classes possess no “title” in front of their names immediately identifies them as less than; if a formal address like “Mr.” or “Mrs.” denotes esteem and status, the lack of such a title suggests the majority of people regard African Americans as second-class citizens.  Furthermore, the absence of an honorific or professional title implies people of color aren’t treated with the slightest civility or respect.  Generally, you address someone as “Mr.” or “Mrs.” when they’re older or more experienced than you; the fact that African Americans aren’t addressed with such formality proves they are not only oppressed- they are disdained.  The clear split between the downtrodden and oppressed African American on the one hand and the tyrannical white oppressor “Mister” on the other hints at the severity of social division and foreshadows coming civic unrest.  Though disenfranchised and consigned to the most squalid urban ghettos, here African Americans aren’t passively tolerating their marginalization-they’re fighting against it.  But rather than fight physically through riots or protest, people of color are “talking back.”  So though language can be mobilized to subjugate and tyrannize communities, it can also be marshaled to remedy injustice and topple those in power.

 Interestingly, the simple, singular noun “Mister” refers more broadly to racism in general.  By personifying racism as a capitalized proper “Mister,” Hughes reveals the might of those in power.  Racism is not a single law or the isolated opinion of a few bigots-racism is an institutional practice sanctioned and supported by the government to disempower.  Thus, the personification of “Mister” proves the battle against racism will not be easily won.

In the next stanza, we suddenly shift to a direct 2nd person address when the speaker addresses the audience as “you”:

You say you thought everybody was called Mister?” (Hughes 5).  

By employing the 2nd person “you,” Hughes creates a sense of immediacy while he involves us directly in the action of the poem.  Who “you” is, however, depends on who’s reading his verse.  The anonymity of the 2nd person implies the majority of Americans believe “everybody is called Mister,” which suggests most of us haven’t experienced the racism relayed by the speaker.

Though, as an audience, we may be unaware of the hardships African Americans face, Hughes never takes a scolding, condescending tone toward our ignorance; instead, he positions us as mentees/students and the speaker as our guide/teacher:

No, son,” he answers in response to our question, “not everybody” (Hughes 6).  

Here, the affectionate, endearing “son” portrays the speaker-not as a ruthless crusader bent on punishing us for our ignorance-but as a sympathetic friend who simply wants to inform.  In the next few lines, Hughes explains that underprivileged people of color around the world are despised:

In Dixie, often they won’t call Negroes Mister./ In China before what happened/ They had no intention of calling collies Mister./ Dixie to Singapore, Cape Town to Hong Kong/ the Misters won’t call lots of other folks Mister” (Hughes 7-11).  

Much like the ambiguous “you” that shifts depending on who’s reading the poem, “they” is left with no clear antecedent- who “they” is remains open to argument.  By leaving the 1st person plural “they” without a referent, Hughes reinforces the idea that the perpetrators of racism are difficult to spot; the oppressor isn’t just 1 person or even 1 group of people- the oppressor is an entire establishment that exists around the world and is thus difficult to reform.  

In the following lines we see how, once again, those in power manipulate language to disempower African Americans and maintain the status quo:

They call them, Hey George!/ Here, Sallie!/ Listen, Coolie!/ Hurry up, Boy!” (Hughes 12-16).  

If names represent the heart of our identities, the fact that African Americans are only addressed by their first names and not by professional titles reveals their subordinate status in American culture.  Not only are African Americans refused the formality of Mr. and Mrs., but they are denied even the most basic courtesy and respect.  Bossy, aggressive words like “hey!”, “here!”, and “listen!” create a string of commands, positioning African Americans as obedient dogs and white Americans as their masters.  

Hughes admits that “George Sallie Coolie Boy gets tired” from such mistreatment, which proves language can deeply wound and insult (Hughes 18).  Grammatically, “George Sallie Collie Boy” act as a singular subject separated by neither ands nor commas.  This lack of proper punctuation coupled with the presence of “gets”-a singular verb-has the effect of fusing George, Sallie, Collie and Boy together as if they were one person.  Why does Hughes do this?  An English teacher may look at this line and shriek in horror at the subject-verb disagreement but a good reader will realize such grammatical blunders were very much intentional.  By omitting the proper ands and commas and using a singular verb, Hughes depicts African Americans not as individuals but as a class of people, suggesting language has the capacity to dehumanize through stereotype.  

The racist classification of African Americans as “non-Misters” is what Socrates would call a “misuse of language” that arouses evil in the soul.  To use language to deprive other people of rights can only lead, Hughes shows, to chaos.  Angry and outraged as a result of their mistreatment, African Americans are left with no choice but to revolt.  And despite the unrelenting efforts to silence them (“shut up!” is repeated a staggering eleven times over the course of the poem), they refuse to be ignored (“No shut up!” the downtrodden cry, “Hell no shut up!”).  The last stanza confirms that a clash between classes is inevitable:

“So, naturally, there’s trouble/ in these our times/ because of people with no titles” (Hughes 59-62).  

Though refusing to call a black man “mister” may seem petty or insignificant, such subtle acts of racism have devastating effects over the long-term.  As the coordinating conjunction “so” demonstrates, the mayhem and tension of Hughes’s time (and ours) is a direct result of the unfair oppression of a class of people.  Just as the Chinese had “no intention” of ever calling Coolies mister before the Coolies rose up against Chinese power, America-Hughes argues-won’t grant African Americans equal rights until tensions explode in revolution and upheaval.  As history confirms, language is political and its misuse inevitably leads to turmoil.

 

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