Break It Down: Ask Your Mama–Excerpt from “Horn of Plenty”

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“Break It Down” is an HBW Literary Blog initiative that strives to offer critical interpretations of song lyrics, excerpts from novels, and poems.

This week, Blog Contributor Alysha Griffin has analyzed an excerpt from Langston Hughes’s Ask Your Mama: 12 Moods for Jazz. She continues her conversation from yesterday as she looks at an excerpt from “Horn of Plenty.”

                                                                                                         “Hesitation
                                                                                                         Blues” 8 bars.
I MOVED OUT TO LONG ISLAND                                                    &nbspTACIT““Hesitation Blues” is a jazz song with a chorus that asks “How long do I have to wait? Can I get it now? Do I have to hesitate?” Hughes’s is asking how long do black folk have to wait for social equality?
EVER FARTHER THAN ST. ALBANS
(WHICH LATELY IS STONE NOWHERE)
I MOVED OUT EVEN FARTHER FURTHER FARTHER
ON THE SOUND WAY OFF THE TURNPIKE—
AND I’M THE ONLY COLORED.

GOT THERE! YES, I MADE IT!
NAME IN THE PAPERS EVERY DAY!
FAMOUS—THE HARD WAY—
FROM NOBODY AND NOTHING TO WHERE I AM.
THEY KNOW ME, TOO, DOWNTOWN,
ALL ACROSS THE COUNRTY, EUROPE—
ME WHO USED TO BE NOBODY,
NOTHING BUT ANOTHER SHADOW
IN THE QUARTER OF THE NEROES,
NOW A NAME! MY NAME— A NAME! This speaker has just become internationally famous. But after moving from the ghetto to the suburbs only to find that they are the only black person in the neighborhood, the speaker conveys a sense of ambivalence.

YET THEY ASKED ME OUT ON MY PATIO
WHERE DID I GET MY MONEY!
I SAID, FROM YOUR MAMA! Offended by a neighbor’s question as to how they acquired their fortune, the speaker retorts to a response rooted in the African American tradition of the dozens. It is an insult.
THEY WONDERED WAS I SENSITIVE
AND HAD A CHIP ON MY SHOULDER? ! The neighbor doesn’t understand why the speaker is upset.
DID I KNOW CHARLIE MINGUS? AND WHY DID RICHARD WRIGHT
LIVE ALL THAT WHILE IN PARIS
INSTEAD OF COMING HOME TO DECENT DIE
IN HARLEM OR THE SOUTH SIDE OF CHICAGO
OR THE WOMB OF MISSISSIPPI?
AND ONE SHOULD LOVE ONE’S COUNTRY
FOR ONE’S COUNTRY IS YOUR MAMA. The neighbor now wants to know what other famous black people the speaker is associated with. They then ask about Richard Wright, author of Native Son and Black Boy, who moves from the United States to Paris to escape racism. Wright’s works often convey frustration and anger towards the condition of African Americans. The neighbor assumes Wright hates his country and implies that he should not.                                                Figurine. Background succession of music notes.

LIVING IN ST. ALBANS St. Albans is a prestigious black suburb in New York
SHADOW OF THE NEGROES
WESTPORT AND NEW CANAAN These are also prestigious suburbs (not sure if they were mostly black at the time, they aren’t now)
IN THE SHADOW OF THE NEGROES—
HIGHLY INTEGRATED
MEANS TOO MANY NEGROES
EVEN FOR THE NEGROES –
ESPECIALLY FOR THE FIRST ONES
WHO MOVE IN UNOBTRUSIVE                                                              Gently
BOOK-OF-THE-MONTH IN CASES                                                        yearning
SEEKING SUBURB WITH NO JUKEBOX                                                  leider
POOL HALL OR BAR ON CORNER                                                        on
SEEKING LAWNS AND SHADE TREES                                                  piano
SEEKING PEACE AND QUIET                                                                delicately
AUTUMN LEAVES IN AUTUMN                                                                sedate,
HOLLAND BULBS IN SPRING                                                                 quietly
DECENT GARBAGE SERVICE                                                               fading
BIRDS THAT REALLY SING                                                                    on the word The speaker speaks with only a piano accompaniment.
$40,000 HOUSES—

PAYMENTS NOT BELATED—                                                                 belated. . . .
THE ONLY NEGROES IN THE BLOCK                                  &nbsp                 TACIT.
INTEGRATED. Speaker suggests that African Americans who moved into suburban neighborhoods and out of the “quarter of the Negroes,” did not like other African Americans to move in because of the connotations associated with blackness and city life.

HORN OF PLENTY                                  &nbsp                                               Again
IN ESCROW TO JOE GLASSER. Possible a reference to Louis Armstrong’s arrangement with Al Capone’s associate to play at his Sunset Cafe                         &nbsp                                    the old
THE SERMON ON THE MOUNT                              &nbsp                               “Hesitation
IN BILLINGTON’S CHURCH OF RUBBER. Reference to Dallas Billington, preacher of the Akron Baptist Temple in Akron, Ohio. The church had a staff of over 800 and an annual budget of over $620, 000. Before being a preacher, he was a rubber worker.                   &nbsp                            Blues”
LOVE THY NEIGHBOR AS THYSELF                   &nbsp                                  against the
IN GEORGE SOKOLSKY’S COLUMN. George Sokolosky was a columnist who voiced concerned over America’s influence on the Chinese, but also worked with Joseph McCarthy.                   &nbsp                                  trills
BIRDS THAT REALLY SING. The speaker is suggesting that these “birds” found in the suburbs are actually shady character and counter productive to eradicating class and racial oppression.                   &nbsp                                                of birds,
EVERY DAY’S TOMORROW                  &nbsp                                                but the
AND ELECTION TIME                  &nbsp                                                           melody
IS ALWAYS FOUR YEARS           &nbsp                                                           ends in
FROM THE OTHER This goes back to the notion of waiting for social change that has yet to come.           &nbsp                                                                     a thin
AND MY LAWN MOWER                                                                          high
NEW AND SHINY                                                                                     flute call. As the speaker begins to allude to people that represent counter-productive ideas towards the struggle for economic and racial uplift, “Hesitation Blues” begins to play again bringing back the anxiety of waiting for equality.
CUTS MY HAIR ON CREDIT. Hughes explains in the liner notes, that this is a reference to people who “think they make money.”
THEY RUNG MY BELL TO ASK ME                                                        TACIT.
COULD I RECOMMEND A MAID.

I SAID, YES, YOUR MAMA. Because the speaker is black, their neighbor assumes that the speaker knows another black person to recommend for a maid. The speaker recommends that the neighbor consult his or her own mother for the job.                                                                     Figurine.