I’m working on a thing partly about the third poem in this document – http://www.english.uiuc.edu/maps/poets/g_l/Hughes/alabama.htm. It’s weird to be working on a piece of literature. Lots of revision needed, I’ll make those changes right in this post. Feedback welcome.
Denning identifies Hughes as a widely read author in the cultural wing of the Popular Front (218). Hughes served for a time as vice-president of the League of American Writers, an important Popular Front organization. (Rampersad, The Life of Langston Hughes, 23; “Notes on writergate – harassment against League of American Writers” Monthly Review, May, 1995 by Franklin Folsom. Denning refers to the League of American Writers as a Popular Front organization, 223-224; define popular front. See also _Days of Anger, Days of Hope: A Memoir of the League of American Writers_ by Frank Folsom) Hughes’ role in the Popular Front is a topic for another time. I hope it suffices to say that Hughes’ had an agenda in society tied to the Popular Front but also had an agenda within the Popular Front.
Read the chapter on the Black Lincolns in Kelley’s Race Rebels
“Dear Brother at Home,” appeared in the Abraham Lincoln Battalion’s publication, The Volunteer For Liberty in 1938. It was later reprinted in the Communist Party USA’s newspaper The Daily Worker, also in 1938. Hughes’ audience were African Americans and white Americans, fighting in Spain and back in the United States, tied to the Communist Party and beyond the Communist Party. Like several other of Hughes’ poems from the Spanish Civil War, “Dear Brother at Home” takes the form of a letter from an African American antifascist. By this choice, Hughes accomplishes several things at once, in relation to the diverse readership addressed in the poem. Hughes links racism, colonialism, fascism, and the role of African Americans in the struggle against these forces both in Spain and around the world.
The poem’s title and opening line address the reader “Dear Brother.” The term “brother” has several meanings. On the one hand, the term had long been used as a form of address in the American labor movement. (For instance, it’s all over the Minutes of IWW Founding Convention in 1905.) The term may have been a form of address among some African Americans at the time. The term may have also been a small divergence from the customary Communist term “comrade.” Finally, the term references a long history of fraternal understandings of war and soldiering and appeals to the shared masculinity of writer, speaker, and readers.
The poem’s speaker signs his letter “Johnny.” The name might signify closeness and informality, appropriate to the title and the opening line, “Dear Brother at home.” The name may also be a subtle attempt at emphasizing a sense of proximity, on two levels. On the one hand, the name indicates commonality across racial lines between African Americans and white Americans volunteering in Spain. On the other hand, the name suggests commonality between the volunteers in Spain and ordinary American men – Johnny is a sort of everyman name. (According to the United States Social Security Administration’s records, the name John was the most popular male baby name in the United States from 1900 to 1923, the second most popular from 1924 to 1928, and the third most popular from 1929 through 1938. http://www.ssa.gov/OACT/babynames/)
The poem’s first stanza sets up the movement between Johnny and the captured Moroccan soldier which characterizes the entire work, from distance and proximity and back again. As the last line of the stanza sates, the Moroccan soldier fights “against the free,” which also identifies the International Brigades as fighting for freedom. Johnny refers to the soldier as a Moor, indicating the boy’s foreignness. The stanza simultaneously expresses a tentative solidarity or recognition between the two people. The soldier is vulnerable, a wounded boy, and is “just as dark as” Johnny.
When Johnny asks the soldier why he is fighting in Spain, Johnny against can’t understand the answer, again indicating distance. The translated answer, however, again moves the soldier closer to Johnny. The soldier was “nabbed” from his home, a condition which may recall the theft of Africans from their homes in the slave trade as well as the disappearances of African Americans in the Jim Crow south.
The soldier continues, saying that he was forced to fight in the fascist army. He expresses both pessimism about the future and nostalgia for home. The soldier concludes with some degree of recognition of the wrongness of the fascist cause and expresses ignorance about “the folks he had to fight.”
Treating the Moroccan soldier in this way allows Hughes to shift the blame from Moroccans to Franco and the fascists. This shift would have been important for Hughes, as someone who maintained a commitment to anti-fascism, anti-racism, anti-colonialism. Some images in circulation against the Moroccans in the fascist cause were reminiscent of racist images against African Americans. (See Franco’s Black Spain http://www.lqart.org/francosbspn/blackspn.html and this anti-fascist poster’s depiction of Moroccans http://orpheus.ucsd.edu/speccoll/visfront/nacionales.html) Even if Hughes did not see these images, it would have been obvious that Moroccans fighting under Franco did not aid the struggle for freedom in Africa.
[Going to bed now. Back to this later.]