In “Song for a Dark Girl,” African-American poet Langston Hughes (1902-1967) employs allusions to bring into the poem external contexts that contribute to its theme and tone. The primary allusion is repeated at the beginning of each stanza: “Way Down South in Dixie” (1, 5, 9). The phrase refers to the refrain of the famous mid-nineteenth-century song “Dixie” that celebrates the glory of the American South. Ironically, it was often sung in minstrel shows by white musicians performing in “blackface,” a popular theatrical convention of the day that patronized and demeaned African Americans. The repeated allusions to “Dixie” incorporated into the content of the poem make “Song for a Dark Girl” enormously ironic.
The word “song” carries ironic force, as well. Songs often suggest joy or celebration, but this song proves to be extraordinarily tragic. Hughes could have established this immediately by choosing a different title, such as “Lament for a Dark Girl,” but instead he catches us by surprise, not only by using the title he does employ but also by beginning the poem with the first line he chooses. The opening line suggests a nostalgic evocation of the attractive Southland. It is not until we read line 2 that we begin to realize this will be a very sad song indeed.
The fact that the speaker in Hughes’s poem is a girl is important. The word “girl” suggests she is relatively young and innocent, which makes the brutal murder of the young man she loves seem all the more unbearable. If the poem were titled “Song for a Dark Woman,” the effect perhaps would be less poignant, since the speaker would be older and presumably more experienced in coping with loss. It is largely the contrast between the vulnerable innocence of the girl and the wicked power of the lynch mob that makes the poem so striking.
The diction (choice of words) in the poem is simple and directdiction that seems entirely appropriate for the young, unsophisticated speaker, but the artistry of the poem is often subtle. Notice, for instance, the structure of line 2: “(Break the heart of me).” The syntax (order of words) is unusual; the more conventional expression would be “They broke my heart.” Through the unusual syntax, Hughes emphasizes both the crucial verb and the crucial pronoun, which are stressed by their respective positions at the beginning and the end of the line. The girl’s suffering occurs in the present (“Break”), rather than in the past (“broke”), and the unconventional syntax of the line suggests that the depth of her torment exceeds a conventional expression of it.
Only in lines 3 and 4 do we discover the cause of the dark girl’s pain: The man she loves has been lynched on a “cross roads tree.” This phrase refers literally to a tree located at a public intersection where roads cross. For his murder to have occurred in such a public place implies that the lynch mob is utterly shameless: No attempt was made to hide the crime by hanging the victim in an obscure location. Instead, the poem suggests, the mob wanted the body to be seen by as many people as possible. The lynching, apparently, was intended not only to punish the victim for some unspecified reason but also to warn anyone else, especially anyone of color, who might somehow offend the mob.