The speaker tells the white man that he (the speaker) is his son. The white man responds, “You are my son! / Like Hell!” The moon rises over the woods and the Southern evening is filled with huge yellow stars. The father claims that the body is only a toy, describes the bodies of “nigger wenches” battered and bruised, up against a fence. He addresses the speaker, calling him a bastard and saying that he, too, is just a toy.
The moonlight is silver and the night is filled with the scent of pine. The speaker asks, “What’s the body of your mother?” It is a “nigger night, / A nigger joy," and he is "a little yellow bastard boy." In response, a white boy rejects the idea of being the speaker's brother, claiming "niggers ain't my brother."
The Southern evening is filled with stars. On the sweet Earth, “dusk dark” women’s bodies give birth to these “little yellow” bastard boys. The stars and the scent of pines are everywhere. It is a “nigger night, A nigger joy," the speaker says, and ends the poem by repeating that he is the white man’s son, "a little yellow bastard boy."
This is one of Hughes’s most intense and incisive poems. It contains extremely potent imagery and thematic content, addressing the cultural role of biracial children in segregated America, father/son relationships, and the enduring legacy of slavery. "Mulatto" appeared as part of Fine Clothes to the Jew, a collection of Hughes's poetry that was published in 1925. Hughes writes from the voice of several different characters, and the structure of the poem is the key to understanding which character speaks which lines. It is written in free verse.
Hughes was not the only poet to write a poem about biracial children. In fact, Charles McKay, another African American poet, published a poem by the same name two years before Hughes’s collection came out. In McKay's poem, the biracial protagonist is anguished, tortured, and prone to violent thoughts about his white father. He thinks the only way to achieve catharsis is to murder the man and then create himself anew. Meanwhile, Robert Paul Lamb's writing on Hughes’s “Mulatto” has practically created and heavily informs popular critical discourse on the poem. Lamb believes that Hughes’s narrator “finds a way to defeat his adversary and assume a selfhood that is not merely reactive. In effect, he disarms and creates.”
Langston Hughes's parents were both mostly black, but his grandfathers each had Cherokee and French blood. Hughes's father was profoundly ashamed of his race and fled to Mexico to escape segregated life in the United States. As a result, Hughes's relationship with his father was painful and tortured, and the elder Hughes emphatically criticized his son's attempts to write poetry that celebrated his racial heritage. Thus, "Mulatto" contains some underlying biographical elements.
Hughes’s own travels to Africa and his experience as a jazz musician also informed his work, particularly in regards to the call-and-response structure, which Lamb deems “the single most centrally important tradition in African American culture.” Call-and-response originated in western and central African, and slaves brought it to America. This “democratic participatory dynamic... melds the individual to the communal and innovation to tradition," Lamb writes, and it still appears frequently in African American cultural expressions, including gospel music, jazz, blues, and hip-hop.
"Mulatto" begins with a son proclaiming to his biological father, “I am your son, white man!” A third voice, either the son or an outside neighbor, describes the scene in the woods against the “Georgia dusk.” The father, responding to his son’s repeated cry, exclaims, “Like hell!” The narrator describes the moon rising in the “Southern night," which is filled with yellow stars. The moon possibly represents the white father and the stars his numerous “yellow bastard” children.
The father muses that the body of a female slave is just a “toy.” He salivates over the “juicy bodies” of the “nigger wenches” and calls attention to their “blue black” color (which could signify dark skin and/or heavy bruising) as he rapes them up against a fence. This harrowing image was a reality on many plantations; white masters would rape (and sometimes impregnate) their female slaves. The slaveowners saw their slaves as property, not human beings, and felt it within their right to rape these women at any time in order to satiate their lust.
The son tries to turn the tables on his father by addressing his white half-brothers and half-sisters, asking them about their mother's body. As Lamb notes, this question is ingenious because if “[the speaker's] mother was just a sexual toy for the white father, then so too was the white mother who birthed his white half-siblings.” The white children refuse to engage in the blues refrain, separating themselves from their biracial half-sibling by saying, “Niggers ain’t my brother.” These lines suggest one of the other cultural legacies of slavery – that white children were taught to be prejudiced from a very young age.
The narrator again evokes the Southern night and the yellow stars hanging in the sky, describing the slaves' “dark dusk bodies” giving birth to “little yellow bastard boys.” The father tells the speaker to go back into the night because he is not white. The speaker describes the “bright stars” scattering everywhere, and calls it a “nigger night, / A nigger joy.” This is indicative of the son's rhetorical victory over his father. After the older man's rejection, the stars disperse everywhere and continue to grow in power and ebullience. Finally, the son boldly proclaims once more that he is the white man’s son. This time, he is responding to his own call, completing the circle.
This poem functions to give a voice to the disenfranchised, in a similar way to "I, Too." The speaker starts by defining himself by his white parentage, but after his blood relatives refuse to acknowledge their connection, the narrator answers his own call. He empowers himself by imagining the other individuals who are just like him. The stars overhead offer him a sense of inclusion - even through his father refuses to accept him, this "little yellow bastard boy" won't feel alone.