This powerful poem discusses social inequity between Black and white men and women. The speaker’s father in this piece was white, and his mother, Black. His two parents died in every different circumstance, alluding to the historical inequities between the two races. The speaker is biracial, making him wonder what his future holds. While he doesn’t explicitly state it, the poem ‘Cross’ alludes to the difficulty that some men and women have navigated the world with two different heritages to contend with.
‘Cross’ by Langston Hughes is a thoughtful piece about what it means to be biracial in an unequal and racist society.
In the first lines of ‘Cross,’ the speaker begins by noting that he was born to a white father and a Black mother. He says that he’s sorry for any of the bad things he said about his white father in the past. He feels regret about them. He also regrets ever having said anything bad about their Black mother. He thinks of her in a much more loving light now. In the final stanza, the speaker notes that their father died in a nice home, and their mother died in a run-down house. He wonders if he’ll die in a nice home or a dilapidated one considering that he’s biracial.
You can read the full poem here.
My old man’s a white old man
I take my curses back.
In the first stanza of ‘Cross,’ the speaker begins by describing his mother and his father. The father is white, and the mother is Black. It becomes clear later in the poem that both of these parents have passed away. Now that they’re gone, the speaker is expressing regret for anything bad he might’ve said about either. He takes his curses back that he might’ve aimed at his father.
Readers will immediately note that the speaker continues to emphasize the fact that his father was “white” and his mother was “Black.” These are essential elements of the poem that have informed the speaker about life.
If ever I cursed my black old mother
And now I wish her well.
The second stanza takes a similar form to the first. The speaker takes back his curses on his “black old mother,” who he sometimes wished “were in hell.” He tells the reader that now he only wishes her will.
There is a certain equality between the “old father” and the “old mother.” To the speaker, both were owed curses at one point. It didn’t matter which was white and which was Black. And now, both are owed an apology.
My old man died in a fine big house.
Being neither white nor black?
In the final stanza, the speaker explains that both of his parents are dead now. The white “old man” died in a “fine big house,” and his “Black” ma died in “a shack.” These two different homes are evocative of the social inequities in his society and speak to the different sides the speaker senses inside himself. He wonders at the end of the poem whether he’s going to die as a white person or a Black person since he is neither.
These lines allude to his mixed heritage. He is biracial and has some difficulty reconciling the two sides of himself.
Structure and Form
‘Cross’ by Langston Hughes is a three-stanza poem that is divided into sets of four lines, known as quatrains. These quatrains follow a rhyme scheme of ABCB, the traditional pattern of a ballad stanza. The poem also uses a common meter or alternating lines of iambic trimeter and iambic tetrameter. This is the pattern most commonly seen in poems that use the ballad rhyme scheme.
Throughout this piece, the poet makes use of several literary devices. These include but are not limited to:
- Enjambment: occurs when the poet cuts off a line before its natural stopping point. For example, the transition between lines one and two of the first stanza as well as lines one and two of the second stanza.
- Juxtaposition: can be seen in the first stanza when the poet emphasizes the “white old man” and the “old mother’s” black skin.
- Alliteration: occurs when the poet repeats the same consonant sound at the beginning of multiple words. For example, “man” and “mother” in lines one and two of the first stanza.
The tone is descriptive and questioning. The speaker does not use a great deal of emotion in the poem. He only alludes to times he might’ve felt more passionately negative towards his parents.
The purpose is to explore the speaker’s biracial heritage and discuss how he lives within a socially unequal and troubling world. The poem relies on stereotypes when it dramatizes the man’s feelings.
The speaker is not Langston Hughes. Instead, he is channeling a stereotypical version of a biracial man who is dealing with very real issues.
The themes at the heart of this poem are racism and identity. The speaker is struggling with the latter because of the former. He has felt anger at his parents in the past, but that’s faded now that they’re gone. But he’s still trying to come to terms with who he is.
Readers who enjoyed this piece should also consider reading other Langston Hughes poems. For example:
- ‘Beale Street Love’ – a short, powerful poem that speaks on the nature of love on Beale Street, an African American cultural hub.
- ‘Dreams’ – focuses on the importance of dreams and how they might die.
- ‘Democracy’ – is focused on the fight for equal rights under the law including the ability to vote for African Americans.