Nicolás Guillén
Nicolás Guillén

I, too, Sing America. I am the Jewish Brother

Por Eduardo Zeind Palafox

This piebald comparative inquiry is the kernel of two experiences with two wenches. As I was gallivanting across a rut of kennels of a street of New York, I saw a hairlanked black woman, and I wooed her by using my most poetical and knightly resources and polite letters. Amid that hectic cityscape she accepted my words, which at that moment were only an echo of a line of a poem written by Lord Byron: “She walks in beauty, like the night” (1). She smiled, and we are good records of love now. I did the same thing in Mexico with another coloured lass. Decorum does not permit me to describe her barbarian reaction.

By reason of this I remembered some lines of Morison that deal with the variegated issue of the primitive American settlers: “and in contrast to the Negroe, who adopted the culture of each European race that enslaved him, the Indian has firmly resisted four centuries of intense European pressure” (2).

Every true skald has a mission, which is to register the objects, places, words, and so on, wherein the unseen is joined to the seen. In different terms, a poet gives figurative words to those empirical intuitions that do not have concepts to be objectively expressed still. There are two writers, I thought, who have ascertained the reason why a black man, in the land of Walter Whitman, is a seen personage of substance, but an accidental, an unseen one in Latin America, and they are Langston Hughes and Nicolás Guillén. I Too, written by the former, and Riddles, teared by the latter, were my work materials. And since these poems are in the public heart, it is unnecessary to transcribe them here.

First of all, Guillén transforms reality by presenting conundrums compounded of ingenious antitheses, whose answers represent social spirits. The rejoins are: a black man, hunger, the sweet, or rather drunkard cane, noisy alms, and himself. The human lyrical aspect, as we can see, appears in the poem two times through the offensive word “negro” and the psychological term “I”. “Hunger”, “cane” and “alms” stand for sociological struggles, such as material poverty, blasé and religion, respectively.

Hughes, contrariwise, does not multiply reality, but reduces it to two forces, namely: “they”, the pale folk, and “I”, the “darker brother”. Why did I say “pale folk”? Because the minstrel embraces the comparative resource saying “dark-er”. If one wishes to be a factual part of the muckraked reality caught by the Cuban bard, the result only can be a kind of artificial social incrustation. A baroque reality just admits, or in a better word, forges, grotesque beings. In the second case the result can be either a thunderer and mortal clash or a gradual synthesis.

We perfunctorily perused the cosmological machinery displayed by both writers. Guillén depicts a man whose inward is a smiling glee (3), and whose exterior is a nightly pelt, who is guided by an imperious damsel, Hunger, and helped by a tinkling providence, and at the same time is the perspirative master of Nature. If every worldview is based on the idea of freedom, and if a freed man is one who has the power to deviate himself from necessary continuities and successions (4), then the poet is painting a tragic man who only has the treasure of his ghostly life. It is useless to be the master or the son of something that can not rescue us from poverty, by the way.

The machinery contrived by Hughes is more simple. He talks on deeds that happen in America, a place, as the tale says, where some brothers are ashamed by the presence of the darker people. After two efficient lines we pass, by means of a bathos, from the notion of nation to a fruitful kitchen. He eats “in the kitchen”, or rather is hidden there, when friends or family are mustered. Meanwhile the wise man smiles, takes a good potlook, and increases his beauty. In days to come this blind society will be able to appreciate him, who yesterday was a mere stain on the familiar embroidery.

The plot of Guillén is a hectic one, which includes colors and multifarious abstract characters intermingled by captious questions. His dialectical tirade is, to use the language of Alejo Carpentier (5), an example of “boundless eloquence” (“la noche en el pellejo”), of “pathos” (“harás lo que ella te mande”), of “pomp of tribune” (“esclava de los esclavos”), and an “echo of romantic cheer” (6) (“una mano que nunca ignora a la otra”; “llorando con la risa”). But Hughes is carding with two ideas, videlicet: that of nation, and with the idea of a society forked by a blindness caused by social prejudices, which are not everlasting. We have, then, a Latin American inferno, and an American purgatory.

The poem worded by Guillén tells us of a body that represents the night, the obscurity, through its skin, and the day, the light, through its teeth. This is a philosophical, ancient, Aristotelian metaphor, which splits substances and accidents. Our skin, affirms the keener, is an accident, but our soul has the properties of the substantial. The sorrow of the protagonist is an accidental one, who is breasting a terrible contradiction. The reader, perusing these verses, firstly thinks the smile stands for the joy of a dawn, but then he discovers that it is something learnt in order to hide his tears. If this is so, then a black man is not a man, but an instrument, an object without a will. And, by reasoning, it is tethered to the dingy conception of destiny.

The artistic ploy embraced by Hughes is more optimistic (7). He, too, distinguishes the substantial from the accidental by affirming every man is a member of the essential brotherhood. The protagonist is, specifically, a colored variety of mankind. But, to me, the most interesting part of the trick of his poem is this: “they”, the pale people, can not see the beauty of their “darker brother” because he is “dark”. “They”, we read, will be “ashamed”. This simple statement expresses the faithful attitude of the poet.

From a page of hermeneutics I gathered the following wise precept: a man endowed with good taste spiritualizes the raw materials of life. Hughes does not say “skin”, but “brother”, a term with which he connotes, suggests we are made of bones, blood and flesh. In this humdinger there are no loopholes. But the verses of Guillén can be modified. We can say, instead of “night”, “sorrow”, “pain”, “pity”, and so on, and we will extract the same effect. But we can not modify those of Hughes and affirm “the darker father”, “the darker uncle”, “the darker stooge”. This reminds us of the semiological concept of pragmatism, which forces us to appeal to that of harmony, which obliges us to conceive each artistic work as a totality or constellation, which is a conception that settles us upon an atomistic paradigm.

America, or rather that place divided by the steeled hectic cityscape sung by Walter Whitman, and by the mental rivers of Faulkner, in the sight of Hughes is a familiar table, or a political place, where with “my voice, my pen, my vote” (I am uttering some words I heard from the American historian David Blight, who has registered the life of Frederick Douglass), I can be America too. America, as Samuel Eliot Morison says confirming the aged notion, was “a New World” (8). But it is an “invention” before the eyes of the flower of the tragic Latin American historians, for instance.

A concrete new place deserves a new science, a new language, new feelings, new institutions, that is, inventions. But an abstract “invention”, which without matter is a mere berth for the ships of our mind, tends to use the products of our reproductive imagination, which come from the past. It is not perchance that the intellectual frontiers of Latin America are Alfonso Reyes, the “universal” writer, in the north, and Jorge Luis Borges, the “writer” of the universal, in the south. These cosmopolitan men were, above all, scrutinizers of the preterit.

That agora called “table”, I guess, represents a new America. Hughes mentions thrice the future by saying “tomorrow”, “nobody’ll dare/ say to me” and “They’ll see”. Guillén, differently, mentions the future once by launching a menace: Hunger will be your whip. In short, in New York I am a foreshadowed guest, a “Jewish brother”, but in Latin America I am a tyrant without slaves, that is, a riddle.-


(1) Hebrew Melodies. In comparison with this, we can adduce some proxemic verses written by the Mexican poet José Juan Tablada, which expresses a contrary experience: “Oh, mujeres que pasáis por la Quinta avenida,/ tan cerca de mis ojos, tan lejos de mi vida”.

(2) The Oxford History of The American People, America Under Her Native Sons.

(3) We can find the analogy between the outset of the day and the conception of glee among the pages of the Bible de Jerusalem, which says, for instance (Psalm 30: 6): “Sa colère est d'un instant, sa faveur pour la vie; au soir la visite des larmes, au matin les cris de joie”.

(4) As the human being can not shun the arrant arrears that matter imposes, such as hunger, the idea of liberty seems to be a chimera. But this is a poor sensorial delusion. Liberty is attainable if one resolves to live persecuting ideas. “Liberty in a practical sense”, or as vernacularly Kant says, “Freiheit im praktischen Verstande" (Kritik der reinen Vernunft, B 562), is that of the man who breasts the ups and downs of the world with a sedulous moral stance, that is, avoiding relativism.

(5) El discurso del método, Chapter I.

(6) Victor Hugo, mentioned by Carpentier, and Théophile Gautier, Byron, De Quincey, Heine, were inspired by a romantic spirit, as Alexander E. Beers says, who in A History of English Romanticism in the Eighteenth Century states that romanticism is like a blotted figure (“picturesque”) and that classicism is like a perfect circle (“statuesque”). Heine, adduced by Beers, affirms romanticism is the restoration of the life of the Middle Ages.

(7) The American reader acquainted with his national literature remembers that optimism and transcendentalism, or in more concrete names, that Walter Whitman and R. W. Emerson, are perennial metaphysical sways among every page coming from America (William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience, Lectures IV and V, The Religion of Healthy Mindedness). We could say after the last verse of Hughes this Whitmanian line (Song of Myself): Because… “sweet and clear is my soul, and clear and sweet is all that is not my soul”.

(8) Admiral of the Ocean Sea: A Life of Christopher Columbus, Prologue.

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