Madams Calling Cards Analysis Essay


    Chapter 9: The Harlem Renaissance
    (Also known as the "New Negro Movement")

    Langston Hughes

    � Paul Reuben
    October 20, 2016

Outside Links: | LH Bibliography | Modern American Poetry: LH |

Page Links: | Primary Works | Selected Bibliography: 2000-Present | MLA Style Citation of this Web Page |

| A Brief Biography |

Site Links: |Chap. 9: Index |Alphabetical List | Table Of Contents | Home Page|

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"I knew only the people I had grown up with, and they weren't people whose shoes were always shined, who had been to Harvard, or who had heard Bach." - LH

Hughes was the first African American author to support himself through his writing; he produced more than sixty books. He earned critical attention for his portrayal of realistic black characters and he became one of the dominant voices speaking out on issues concerning black culture. He wrote in many genres; starting and continuing with poetry, he turned to fiction, autobiographies, and children's books. His most famous fictional character is Jesse B. Semple, nicknamed Simple, who uses humor to protest and satirize the existing injustices.

I, too, sing America.

I am the darker brother.
They send me to eat in the kitchen
When company comes,
But I laugh,
And eat well,
And grow strong.

I'll be at the table
When company comes.
Nobody'll dare
Say to me,
"Eat in the kitchen,"

They'll see how beautiful I am
And be ashamed -

I, too, am America.

- Langston Hughes, 1925


What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore -
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over -
like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?

- Langston Hughes, 1951

| Top |Primary Works

The big sea, an autobiography. 1940. NY: Hill and Wang, 1963. PS3515.U274 Z5; I Wonder As I Wander, 1956.


The Ways of White Folks, 1934; Simple Speaks His Mind, 1950; Laughing to Keep from Crying, 1952;Simple Takes a Wife, 1953; Simple Stakes a Claim, 1957; Tambourines to Glory, 1958; The Best of Simple, 1961; Simple's Uncle Sam, 1965; The Simple Omnibus, 1978; Not Without Laughter, 1979; Laughing to Keep from Crying and 25 Jesse Simple Stories, 1981; The Best of Simple, 1988; Popo and Fifina, 1993; The Return of Simple, 1994; Short Stories, 1996.


Proletarian Literature in the United States, 1935; A New Song, 1938; The Sweet Flypaper of Life, 1955; The First Book of Africa, 1960; Fight for Freedom, 1962; Something in Common and Other Stories, 1963; A Pictorial History of Blackamericans, 1983; African American History: Four Centuries of Black Life, 1990; Black Magic: The Pictorial History of the African-American in the Performing Arts, 1990; Thank You, M'am, 1991; A Pictorial History of Black Americans, 1995.


The Weary Blues, 1926; Fine Cloths to the Jew, 1927; Four Negro Poets, 1927; Anthology of Magazine Verse for 1928: And Yearbook for American Poetry, 1928; Scottsborro Limited: Four Poems and a Play in Verse, 1932; Shakespear in Harlem, 1942; Freedom's Plow, 1943; Fields of Wonder, 1947; One-Way Ticket(1948), Montage of a Dream Deferred(1951), Selected Poems of Langston Hughes(1959), Ask Your Mama: 12 Moods for Jazz, 1961; Black Misery, 1969; The Panther and the Lash: Poems of Our Times, 1969; Selected Poems of Langston Hughes, 1974; The Panther and the Lash, 1992; Black Misery, 1994; The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes, 1994; The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes, 1995; The Pasteboard Bandit, 1997.

The collected poems of Langston Hughes. Ed. Arnold Rampersad. NY: Vintage Books, 1995. PS3515 .U274 A17

Opera and Drama:

The Negro Mother and Other Dramatic Recitations, 1931; Mule-Bone (with Zora Neale Hurston), 1932; Mulatto, 1935; Little Ham, 1936; When the Jack Hollers, 1936 (was performed); Don't You Want to Be Free?, 1937; Soul Gone Home, 1937; Emperor of Haiti, 1938; Front Porch, 1939; Street Scene: an Opera in Two Acts (book by Elmer Rice, liberetto by LH, and music by Kurt Weill), 1947; The Sun Do Move, 1942; Troubled Island: An Opera in Three Acts(music by William Grant Still, liberetto by LH and Verna Arvey), 1949; Five Plays, 1963; Jericho-Jim Crow (an off-Broadway song-play), 1964 Three Negro Plays, 1987; Black Nativity, 1992.

Duffy, Susan. ed. The political plays of Langston Hughes. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 2000. PS3515.U274 A6

Collected Works:

The poetry of the Negro, 1746-1970. An anthology edited by Langston Hughes and Arna Bontemps. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1970. PN6109.7 .H8

Arna Bontemps-Langston Hughes letters, 1925-1967. Selected and edited by Charles H. Nichols. NY: Dodd, Mead, 1980. PS3503.O474 Z486

Langston Hughes and the Chicago defender: essays on race, politics, and culture, 1942-62. Ed. Christopher C. De Santis. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1995.PS3515 .U274 A6

The political plays of Langston Hughes. ed. Susan Duffy. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 2000.

Remember me to Harlem: the letters of Langston Hughes and Carl Van Vechten. Ed. Emily Bernard. NY: Vintage Books, 2002. PS3515 .U274 Z598

The collected works of Langston Hughes. ed. Arnold Rampersad. Columbia: U of Missouri P, 2001- . PS3515 .U274 2001. The CSUS Library Has: v.1-v.10.

1. The Poems: 1921-1940

2. The Poems: 1941-1950

3. The Poems: 1951-1967

4. The Novels: Not without Laughter and Tambourines to Glory

5. The Plays to 1942: Mulatto to The Sun Do Move

6. Gospel Plays, Operas, and Later Dramatic Works

7. The Early Simple Stories

8. The Later Simple Stories

9. Essays on Art, Race, Politics, and World Affairs

10. Fight for Freedom and Other Writings on Civil Rights

11. Works for Children and Young Adults: Poetry, Fiction and Other Writing

12. Works for Children and Young Adults: Biographies

13. Autobiography: The Big Sea

14. Autobiography: I Wonder As I Wander

16. The Translations: Federico Garc�a Lorca, Nicol�s Guill�n, and Jacques Roumain

Forthcoming: An Annotated Bibliography of the Works of Langston Hughes


The Harlem Renaissance and beyond [videorecording]. Mt. Kisco, N.Y.: Guidance Associates, 1990. Video Cassette PS508 .N3 H37x

Langston Hughes [videorecording]: the dream keeper. South Carolina Educational Television Network, a New York Center for Visual History production. Santa Barbara: Intellimation, 1988. Video Cassette PS305 .V65x 1988 no.6

A Meditation on LH and the Harlem Renaissance: With the Poetry of Essex Hemphill and Bruce Nugent. Sankofa Film and Video. NY: Water Bearer Films, 1992.

| Top | Selected Bibliography: Critical 2000-Present

Bernard, Emily. ed. Remember me to Harlem: the letters of Langston Hughes and Carl Van Vechten. NY: Vintage Books, 2001. PS3515 .U274 Z598

Chinitz, David E. Which Sin to Bear? Authenticity and Compromise in Langston Hughes. NY: Oxford UP, 2013.

Comprone, Raphael. Poetry, Desire, and Fantasy in the Harlem Renaissance. Lanham, MD: UP of America, 2006.

Duffy, Susan. ed. The Political Plays of Langston Hughes. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 2000.

Grandt, J�rgen E. Kinds of Blue: The Jazz Aesthetic in African American Narrative. Columbus: Ohio State UP, 2004.

Green, Tara T. A Fatherless Child: Autobiographical Perspectives on African American Men. Columbia: U of Missouri P, 2009.

Hricko, Mary. The Genesis of the Chicago Renaissance: Theodore Dreiser, Langston Hughes, Richard Wright, and James T. Farrell. NY: Routledge, 2009.

Jarraway, David R. Going the Distance: Dissident Subjectivity in Modernist American Literature. Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State UP, 2003.

Jones, Meta D. The Muse Is Music: Jazz Poetry from the Harlem Renaissance to Spoken Word. Champaign: U of Illinois P, 2011.

Kutzinski, Vera M. The Worlds of Langston Hughes: Modernism and Translation in the Americas. NY: Cornell UP, 2012.

Lackey, Michael. African American Atheists and Political Liberation: A Study of the Sociocultural Dynamics of Faith. Gainesville: UP of Florida, 2007.

Miller, R. Baxter. The Art and Imagination of Langston Hughes. Lexington: UP of Kentucky, 2006.

Miller, W. Jason. Langston Hughes and American Lynching Culture. Gainesville: UP of Florida, 2011.

Richards, Phillip M. Black Heart: The Moral Life of Recent African American Letters. NY: Peter Lang, 2006.

Saul, Scott. Freedom Is, Freedom Ain't: Jazz and the Making of the Sixties. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2003.

Schultz, Kathy L. The Afro-Modernist Epic and Literary History: Tolson, Hughes, Baraka. NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013.

Schwarz, A. B. Christa. Gay Voices of the Harlem Renaissance. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 2003.

Scott, Jonathan. Socialist Joy in the Writing of Langston Hughes. Columbia: U of Missouri P, 2006.

Smith, Katharine C. Children's Literature of the Harlem Renaissance. Bloomington, IN: Indiana UP, 2004.

Vogel, Shane. The Scene of Harlem Cabaret: Race, Sexuality, Performance. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2009.

Wallace, Rob. Improvisation and the Making of American Literary Modernism. NY: Continuum, 2010.

Watts, Eric K. Hearing the Hurt: Rhetoric, Aesthetics, and Politics of the New Negro Movement. Tuscaloosa: U of Alabama P, 2012.

Westover, Jeffrey W. The Colonial Moment: Discoveries and Settlements in Modern American Poetry. DeKalb, IL: Northern Illinois UP, 2004.

Wheeler, Lesley. Voicing American Poetry: Sound and Performance from the 1920s to the Present. Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 2008.

Witalec, Janet, and Trudier Harris-Lopez. eds. Harlem Renaissance: A Gale Critical Companion. Detroit, MI: Gale, 2002.

| Top |Langston Hughes (1902-1967): A Brief Biography
A Student Project by Pamela Harrelson

James Langston Hughes, or Langston Hughes as we know him, was born on February 1, 1902 to Carrie Langston Hughes and James Nathaniel Hughes in Joplin, Missouri (Dickinson 6).  He was an only child raised by his grandmother and a family close to his grandmother in Lawrence, Kansas Langston rarely saw his mother and father due to their struggle to get along with each other.  He had a rather lonesome upbringing because his grandmother wouldn’t allow him to play outside with the other children after school.  Instead, he was only able to read and do his school work (Hill 15). When Langston was thirteen he moved to Lincoln, Illinois with his mother and her new husband.  It was there in Lincoln that Langston wrote his first poem and was declared class poet of his school (Dickinson 9). 

            In Lincoln, Hughes attended Central High School and was greatly admired by his fellow classmates.  A few of his poems were published in his high school magazine, The Belfry Owl, and others were sent off to magazines in New York.  Unfortunately, most of the magazines sent rejection slips back to him with the exception of one from the editor of The Liberator (Dickinson 9). In early 1921, a magazine sponsored by the NAACP entitled The Brownie’s Book offered Hughes his first publishing opportunity.  Two of Hughes’ poems, "Winter Sweetness" and "Fairies," along with a prose description of the Mexican games appeared in the magazine (Dickinson 12).  Six months later, Hughes placed his well known poem "The Negro Speaks of Rivers" in the NAACP's official journal, The Crisis.  This would only be the beginning of Hughes’ frequent and almost exclusive publications in The Crisis.  It was at this time that Du Bois himself became familiar with and impressed by Hughes’ work (Dickinson 13). 

            Langston Hughes was focused on becoming a writer and poet from the early years of his life.  Despite the racial opposition and laws of segregation he faced in his life, Hughes was not stopped by these constantly suppressing forces.  James Hughes, Langston Hughes’ distant and demanding father, expected more of his son than most fathers.  He wanted Langston to excel in whatever profession he chose, but he also expected Langston to be treated fairly by all.  His father was also disappointed to find out his son’s work was not paid for by the magazine (Hill 33).

            Hughes was determined to keep up his writing despite the lack of recognition from his father.  He wanted to attend Columbia University, but didn’t have the money to do so.  He asked his father to pay his tuition upon his acceptance and he agreed to pay for one year.  Hughes was accepted and attended Columbia in August of 1921.  Much to his sadness, he was not accepted well by other students there because of his race (Hill 33).  It was the same unsettling reception by the students of Columbia that drove Hughes to find out about Harlem and the parts of life it had to offer for him. 

            Hughes made the most of his time in New York by enjoying the color and diversity he wasn’t able to find anywhere outside of Harlem.  He would visit the Harlem branch of the Public Library there, along with attending Broadway shows and socializing with the African American intellectuals and artists who were drawn to Harlem as well (Hill 35).  In 1922, Langston Hughes left college for a short time to work various menial jobs, and later experienced a major turning point in his life when he became a sailor.  It was during this time that Hughes vowed to renounce the fantasy worlds most literature and books had to offer.  He dumped all of his books into the ocean and only kept one, Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass (Hill 38).  Through his travels as a sailor, Hughes visited Africa and various parts of Europe. He did not return to the U.S. until November of 1924 (Hill 43). 

Upon his return he was welcomed with great love and appreciation by the magazines and movement taking place in Harlem.  Hughes had published quite a large amount of poetry, literature, and plays before leaving the country.  He was unaware of how much of his works were influential and important to so many.  It was at this time in Langston Hughes’ life that his works received numerous awards and recognition (Dickinson 20).  In 1926 Langston Hughes enrolled in Lincoln University and later graduated in 1929 (Hill 50).

Langston Hughes’ work is known for its "colorful verses on a wide variety of topics." (Hill 31).  His works are heavily infused with the typical aspects of African American life and come alive on the page by his implementation of musical and blues rhythms.  According to James Trotman, these accounts of rhythm can be specifically accounted for in two of his primary works.

As readers we are drawn with him into symbolic, ancestral reflections in "The Negro Speaks of Rivers" (1921) and into autobiographical accounts of his travels recorded later in The Big Sea.  Sounds, particularly the musical quality of words, pulled him into the cultural repository of African American music where he used the blues for lyric poetry (Trotman 4).

Hughes refused to create fantasy stories about life.  He wrote what he knew about and felt that was the way he had the most impact on his readers.  After many tributes and praise given to Hughes after his death in 1967, various critics began to ask questions regarding Hughes and his literary career (Barksdale 132).  These critics are debating the quality of Hughes’ writing, and if by chance he attained his popularity simply because of the era he wrote in.  Additionally, they question his focus on Harlem and wonder if his best works were only before the 1930s (Barksdale 132)?  It seems as though these questions and many more being asked now that Langston Hughes is gone can only recieve speculated answers. 

Today, Hughes still maintains a presence in literary studies, history and core curriculum in the educational system.  This presence itself, along with the impressive movement his work creates in each reader can attest to his true value and exceptional talent as a writer and poet.  Furthermore, from the time of his literary arrival to the present, Langston Hughes has remained a key figure in the literature that is valued and recognized by most scholarly institutions today.  It appears Hughes was aware and conscientious of his goal to make his life experiences and those experiences of other African Americans apparent in his literature and poetry.  He took a realist’s perspective towards expressing himself, like many of the other African American writers in his time and his talents were recognized and supported by the most renowned authors of the Harlem Renaissance period (Dickinson 15).

To further prove the literary talent that is sometimes questioned by critics, Langston Hughes has received various awards and recognitions for his contributions to African American and contemporary literature.  One of the most prestigious awards Hughes received was the NAACP’s Springarn Medal (Hill 114).  He also won first prize for his poetry in an Opportunity magazine contest.  Hughes’ book Simple Speaks His Mind was his first best seller and his play Mulatto was the longest running Broadway play by an African American author (Hill 116).

Works Cited

Barksdale, Richard K. Langston Hughes: The Poet and His Critics. Chicago: American Library Association, 1977.

Dickinson, Donald C. A Bio-Bibliography of Langston Hughes. Conneticut: Archon Books, 1972.

Hill, Christine M. Langston Hughes: Poet of The Harlem Reniassance. New Jersey: Enslow Publishers, Inc, 1997.

Trotman, C. James. The Man, His Art, and His Continuing Influence. New York: Garland Publishing, Inc, 1995.

Study Questions

1. Langston Hughes' central purpose in writing was, in his own words, "to explain and illuminate the Negro condition in America." How do the poems in this volume (Selected Poems) illustrate his attempt?

2. What effect does the image of rivers create in the Black's history? Why are the rivers ancient and dusky?

3. What is the dream Hughes refers to in "Harlem"? Why might it explode rather than dry up? Why should the poem be called "Harlem"?

4. Discuss what Hughes's poetry tells a reader about his theory of poetry.

5. Place Hughes's work in the context of Black musical forms invented in Harlem in the early twentieth century. Is Black poetry the way Hughes writes it, like jazz, a new genre? If so, is it invented or derivative? What are its characteristics? If "Black poetry" is a genre, does Countee Cullen write in it?

6. Hughes's poetry makes room for the experiences of women. Analyze "Mother to Son," "Madam and Her Madam," and "Madam's Calling Card," and explore the way he turns women's experiences into emblems of African-American experience.

7. Traditional critics have not called Hughes's poetry modernist, and yet his poetry reflects modernism both in his themes, his use of the image, and in terms of style. Locate specific points where you can see Hughes's modernism and demonstrate it in an essay.

MLA Style Citation of this Web Page

Reuben, Paul P. "Chapter 9: Langston Hughes " PAL: Perspectives in American Literature- A Research and Reference Guide. WWW URL: (provide page date or date of your login).
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Langston Hughes' poem, "Madam's Calling Cards" is from a twelve-poem series, titled "Madam to You," that offers a character study of a woman named Alberta K. Johnson.

The character, Alberta K. Johnson, always insists that people call her "Madam." Each poem in the "Madam to You" series uses a personality quirk of Alberta's to convey some aspect of her character.

The other poems in the series are titled, "Madam's Past History," "Madam and her Madam," "Madam and the Rent Man," "Madam and the Number Writer," "Madam and the Phone Bill," "Madam and the Charity Child," "Madam and the Fortune Teller," "Madam and the Wrong Visitor," "Madam and the Minister," "Madam and the Might-Have-Been," and "Madam and the Census Man."

The poem, "Madam's Calling Cards," consists of five quatrains, each with the rime scheme, ABCB.

First Stanza: "I had some cards printed"

Alberta K. Johnson is speaking; she tells her listeners that a few days ago, she had some cards printed, and it cost more "than [she] wanted to pay." Alberta speaks quite plainly—even if she does so in riming quatrains. Alberta just wanted to see her name in print, so she hatched the idea of having "calling cards" printed.

Second Stanza: "I told the man"

Alberta continues to elaborate on the situation, involving the process of having her cards printed. She reports her conversation with the printer of the cards. She was not happy about how expensive it was just to get her cards printed. She told the printer, "I wasn't no mint."

But she wanted to see her name printed somewhere so she settled on a card so she thus had to spring for this expenditure; since she "hankered to see / [Her] name in print," she continued with the transaction.

Third Stanza: "MADAM JOHNSON"

Alberta then shifts to the process of readying the type for printing. She had her named specified, "MADAM JOHNSON, ALBERTA K." The printer remarks that her name "looks good / Madam'd that way."

Of course, the printer would encourage her in her expensive endeavor; after all, he is being paid to supply Alberta's ego with an object. Thus, he tells her that her name looks good with the term "Madam" affixed to it.

Fourth Stanza: "Shall I use Old English"

The printer asks Alberta what style of lettering she prefers, for example, "Old English" or "Roman"; Alberta replies that she wants him to "Use American." She insists that "American's better."

Of course, she is unaware that there is no particular type called "American." She was simply confused by the foreign sounding "Old English" and "Roman," which are, of course, part of the American style.

Fifth Stanza: "There's nothing foreign"

Alberta then repeats and emphasizes the importance of keeping her calling cards lettered in the American style. She insists that "there is nothing foreign" about "[her] pedigree."

She then repeats her name, "Alberta K. Johnson" and again restates her nationality, "American that's me."


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