The poem, “Aunt Sue’s Stories” by Langston Hughes, is a text entrenched within the oral tradition that exists within a community, especially within the black community in America where folklore, folktales, and oral story-telling have been a part of their generational history. This poem tells the real story of the struggles of the African-American population who were bound into slaves and made to labor over a large period of time. The poem ends up as a testament to this side of history while being as gentle on the reader and the listener within the poem as possible. In this poem, the storyteller is Aunt Sue who is sustaining this tradition of oral narration.
Aunt Sue’s Stories | Analysis
Aunt Sue is a familiar elder woman figure who is shown in a warm and comfortable atmosphere where she is telling stories to a dark/brown-faced child sitting in her lap. This imagery provides the reader with a glimpse into how oral tradition is kept alive even in the smallest, seemingly insignificant moments of time. History happens even when no one is listening or watching.
Aunt Sue’s Stories | Analysis, Stanza 1
Aunt Sue has a head full of stories.
Aunt Sue has a whole heart full of stories.
Summer nights on the front porch
Aunt Sue cuddles a brown-faced child to her bosom
And tells him stories.
The poet draws inspiration from his own life and experiences of being with his grandmother and aunt who might have told him stories of their community and lives. The child is not unlike Hughes, in the fact that they are both never enslaved, but was born in a free country, and they’re learning about their culture and history through the tales and stories their older family members tell them. Aunt Sue’s stories are said to both occupy her ‘head’ as well as her ‘heart’, in the sense that the memories live on in her mind, and these are facts of her own experiences, yet she is emotionally connected to these tales, and by extension, a thread runs through the community, a thread of emotions and experiences. This constitutes her ‘heart’.
The readers are lulled into a sense of comfort and familiarity as they read this poem, much like the child who is listening to the stories. The readers, through this act, become listeners themselves and thus, a part of the thread connecting the past to the present. This ensures that the story remains a part of people. As long as someone reads this story, the poet’s and Aunt Sue’s stories live on in the world.
Aunt Sue’s Stories | Analysis, Stanza 2
Working in the hot sun,
And black slaves
Walking in the dewy night,
And black slaves
Singing sorrow songs on the banks of a mighty river
Mingle themselves softly
In the flow of old Aunt Sue’s voice,
Mingle themselves softly
In the dark shadows that cross and recross
Aunt Sue’s stories.
Aunt Sue is recollecting the memories and experiences of slavery and the way black people were forced to give up their lives and had to ‘work’ under the wealthy white people for the advancement of America. The stories are the sole surviving testament of this heinous practice from the perspective and viewpoint of the slaves. Even though documents exist that speak of slavery and how many slaves there were, none testify to the individual’s story and perspective. Black people are reduced to numbers in the formal historical texts, however, these stories that Aunt Sue and thousands of other people tell their kids and grandkids keep this part of history alive. The child learns of the pains and labors that his predecessors went through before they could achieve freedom from this oppression. Even though formal slavery has ended, it hasn’t fully liberated the black community from oppression. The child, however, is not born into slavery and that is one achievement of his previous generations. The child must know about his own history in order to keep the resistance ongoing.
The songs that the slaves sang, of sorrow and pain, are interwoven and ‘mingled’ with the voice of Aunt Sue. These songs sung during a hard time, the songs that kept the slaves in harmony, belong to the very tradition that Aunt Sue is sustaining through her stories. The songs and stories are both testimonies of history. Hughes lived during a time when blues and jazz were on the rise. The black community thriving under the Harlem Renaissance and the music they brought with them is audible and visible in this poem. Hughes was greatly influenced by the music he was surrounded with, the music that was the emblem of black joy and resistance. The blues and jazz rhythms find their way into his poetry, almost naturally, considering he was an influential African-American poet of his time.
This oral tradition and story-telling include the blues genre. Slave songs of pain and joy were transformed into music that encapsulated and communicated their emotions. This music originated on the same plantation sites where there was a history of violence and intense hardships. This is how the blues, which literally means “sadness,” became known as a type of music and storytelling associated with the African-American population. Hughes is seeking to incorporate this same music into his poem and through that, place his works within the history and tradition of the community.
One thing that stands out within the second stanza is the imagery of nature and the inclusion of the picaresque. The picture of songs sung on the ‘banks of a mighty river’ evokes the spiritual and deep connection that the black community has with the great rivers in Africa as well as America, such as the Nile, the Congo river, the Niger, and also the Mississippi, where they were auctioned and sold as slaves.
The stanza also puts the spotlight on how the trauma from the slavery and dread caused by oppression are passed down through generations. Discrimination continues to loom over the next generation. Aunt Sue ensures that the following generation remembers the past, and knows the history, by sharing stories from the past. By listening and paying attention to these stories, the younger generation ‘crosses and recrosses’ paths with their forefathers and learns to retain the history of enslavement while simultaneously working towards a more egalitarian future, with the collective work of memorializing history and persevering in their resistance.
Aunt Sue’s Stories | Analysis, Stanzas 3 & 4
And the dark-faced child, listening,
Knows that Aunt Sue’s stories are real stories.
He knows that Aunt Sue never got her stories
Out of any book at all,
But that they came
Right out of her own life.
The dark-faced child is quiet
Of a summer night
Listening to Aunt Sue’s stories.
Langston Hughes was a key figure in the Harlem Renaissance, both as a thinker and a writer. This was also due to the fact that he had lived in Harlem and was writing about his experiences in his writings, which inspired the African American community as a whole. He had a strong feeling of racial pride and, through his endeavors and efforts, he helped to shape the movement’s political and literary foundations.
The theme of collective memory pertains to African Americans’ memories of Africa, the slave trade, plantations, and quotidian tyranny. Folklore serves as a method to carry forward the voices of the older generations and cultures, often lost within the politics of the oppressive world. Teaching the youth this underside of history is necessary for them to promulgate this tradition. Hughes was able to keep the past alive in the poems with this theme, ensuring that it was not forgotten. He wanted Black people to remember their forefathers and the hardships they faced. This idea is conveyed through the employment of dark languages and musical styles. He makes his work his own by allowing vernacular voices to mold it. “Aunt Sue’s Stories,” his poetry, best exemplifies the role of collective memory.
This poem can be seen as a subversion of power within the white-black structure grounded on racism and colorism, and the creation of a space for the narration of self-history, a place within the white-normative history that is continuously put forward by the white oppressors. The macro-history overshadows and consumes the micro-narration of the oppressed and subaltern class and races. Only through a continuous expression of these traditions and stories can the community strive within a system that works towards eliminating these same stories. In the last two stanzas, the child is said to be dark-faced as opposed to the brown-faced description in the first stanza. This is to show that racism exists regardless of the shade of the skin, as long as it is not white.
The child has come to the realization or maybe he was already in the possession of this knowledge that the stories he is listening to his aunt tell him are not fictional nor fantastical, but are very much grounded in reality, within the experiences that happened to real people within his community. He realizes the harsh past his aunt lived through, and of slavery and its pains. Through these stories, the child is now connected to the web of his community, connected to his ancestors and forefathers, and to the history that has been hidden from his view till now. He is now a part of the resistance. He is now one of many people who are lighting the path to a better future, a future that remembers. In the child’s silence lies enlightenment, realization, resistance, and hope.