‘Daddy’ and Anacruxis: On Langston Hughes’ “Dream Boogie”

It is worth noting that throughout Fred Moten’s In the Break: The Aesthetics of the Black Radical Tradition and the text’s engagement with the black avant-garde, one literary figure remains conspicuously absent: Langston Hughes. While Moten investigates jazz and free jazz, Hughes’ late-career interest in be-bop is analogous to the questions Moten asks through cultural figures like Frederick Douglass and jazz vocalist Abbey Lincoln. Seeing Hughes’ poem “Dream Boogie” through the lens of Moten’s approach, Hughes’ poetic innovations enact a similarly radical relationship with his readers through relationality, doubledness, and anacrusis.

In the Break: The Aesthetics of the Black Radical Tradition traces multiple modes of black avant-garde resistance to objectification. [1] For Moten, blackness continuously troubles the “equivalence of personhood and subjectivity” (1)—in particular, Moten discusses how blackness evades the object’s economic exchange-value by a kind of call and response of passionate utterances that form via anacrusis, or modes of expression that oppose speech and writing (22). The primary example of anacrusis, as Moten interprets Frederick Douglass, is hearing Aunt Hester’s screams as “‘the blood-stained gate’ through which [Douglass] entered into subjection and subjectivity” simultaneously, an understanding of personhood as related to slavery and the freedom/pain of crying out at the same time (21). Moten then locates anacrusis in the world of free jazz through Abbey Lincoln’s screams in the song “Protest,” which push her voice beyond linguistic understanding, prompting existential questions like: “What is the edge of this event? What am I, the object? What is the music? What is manhood? What is the feminine? What is the beautiful? What will blackness be?” (22). As Moten explains, these questions come from the anacrusis enacted in Lincoln’s voice, the tradition it carries with it, and meaning that escapes containment by language, creating analogic space for Moten’s understanding that “black radicalism is (like) black music.” And while not treated by Moten in his critical work, Langston Hughes approaches just these considerations in Montage of a Dream Deferred (1951) and its opening poem “Dream Boogie.”

Questions of subjectivity pervade “Dream Boogie” with every stanza of Hughes’ poem depicting conversation between unnamed people over the course of twenty-four hours in Harlem. Whether via questions, directives, or exclamations, “Dream Boogie” exists as a multivocal dialogic space always in relationship with music. From the first line’s declaration of “Good morning, daddy!” [2] identities are in uncertain relation—“daddy” might be an older man, friend, a lover. The uncertainty of apostrophe calls into question the speaker of this opening line as well: is this a woman, a man, a musician or a fan, and are they the same or different from who speaks in the italicized portions? Through this ambiguity, the poem immediately defamiliarizes by simultaneously calling the reader daddy, incorporating them into the dialogue in which they have no stable identity and yet are compelled to “Listen closely” and “Listen to it closely” again (line 5, 10).

Such doubledness of so many lines in this short poem builds a confusion of subjectivity in order to cue the reader to read for “something underneath” the poem’s words (12). One of the prime examples of this doubledness is the second and third stanzas and the poem’s command to listen closely because “You’ll hear their feet / Beating out and beating a – // You think / It’s a happy beat?” (6-9). The feet beating connote time-keeping, rhythm and music-making, and protest all at once, carrying with it the underlying present and historical notion of being physically hit or harmed. The repetition of ‘beat’ brings with it an anxiety over all the term could mean: “beating out and beating a - … beat” (7, 9); to beat a beat brings potential violence and political voice to music—“You think / it’s a happy beat?” (8-9) Through their discussion and enactment of rhythm, Hughes’ speakers push the reader’s understanding of music into one of relationship to a living black radical tradition as it continues to articulate its “dream deferred” (4).

Instead, the poem’s musicked language rushes toward its ending anacrustic moment. Within its final italicized lines, the poem returns to the unitalicized beginning and remakes the relationship with the reader into an improvisatory breakdown of language, responding to its own deverbalized sound: “Hey, pop! / Re-bop! / Mop! // Y-e-a-h!” (18-21). By reshaping “daddy” into pop, then into music, then into a nonsensical word that rhymes with all that came before and yet defamiliarizes again, Hughes invests his poem with a political project of resistance to and relationship with language, poetry, and his American context. In the final line of the poem, Hughes takes his dialogue into a space of critical questioning—“take it” (what?) “away!”—“Y-e-a-h!” signals both a desire to continue the music, an emotional high point in the music and the poem, as well as an expression to connote all that remains outside of language in the black tradition. By breaking the word into individual letters via dashes, Hughes both prolongs the word, extended like a scream, bringing the reader close to that uncertainty. Hughes’ be-bop response to his reader is exclamation, exaltation, grief, protest, denial of shared language coalescing all at once.

By reading Hughes’ “Dream Boogie” through Moten, Hughes’ investigation of poetry’s avant-garde capabilities comes to the fore. Hughes’ expression of be-bop prompts the reader to question: what is the purpose of language? how many ways can a single line or word mean? to whom do these words mean? who am I addressing and who is addressing me? how do I respond? Reading Hughes via Moten, questioning is central to his poetry’s radical blackness from (before? beyond?) the voice’s start.


[1] Fred Moten. In the Break: The Aesthetics of the Black Radical Tradition. (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2003).

[2] “Dream Boogie,” Langston Hughes. The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes. (New York, NY: Knopf, 1994).

Jeremy Michael Reed’s poems and essays have been published in Still: The Journal, Valparaiso Poetry Review, Western Humanities Review, and elsewhere. He is an Assistant Professor of English for Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri.