Aunt Sue’s Stories by Langston Hughes

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.

Black slaves
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.

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.

Summary and Analysis

Aunt Sue’s Stories was first released in a collection of poems under the titled The Weary Blues in 1926. The poem introduced a unique poetic device which grounded Langston Hughes as one of the major contributors to the canon of American literature.

In the poem Hughes experimented with the common folk idiom which used the spoken word and was accessible and easily graspable by the common people. He set a precedent for using blues and jazz music and rhythm in poems written for the masses and speaking about their problems and issues. Along with developing and employing the technique of poetry through musical rhythms, the poem is even more interesting because it deals with folklore of the Black society.

The poem is a recitation in the oral tradition of the struggles of the black community in America. It is about remembering through each passing generation and passing down those memories using folklore. Herein, both the performer and the storyteller is Aunt Sue, who is upholding the tradition of American oral folklore.

Stanza 1

Aunt Sue is the storyteller in this poem. She is an older relative and is telling a young child the stories that fill her head and heart. Stories which are not fairy tales or imaginary myths, but actual stories which she experienced in her lifetime. Hughes paints a very believable picture of the scene and infuses it with a picaresque quality of a Southern summer evening. He also draws in from his own experiences of living with his grandmother and his aunt, who might have told him similar stories when he was a young boy. Much like Hughes, the child was never enslaved and were born free, but they learn about this traumatic past through the retelling of the stories from the elder lady of the community. Aunt Sue’s stories are narrated with an intermingling of the head and the heart. These are facts of live that she experienced, hence she remembers them in her head but they also mean a lot to her emotionally and by that extension to the others in the community who have gone through slavery and hence her ‘heart’ too is full of these stories. The readers are immediately drawn into the poem and they become emotionally invested, much like the child who is listening to the stories. By reading the poem, the readers become complicit in the act of listening to her stories.

Stanza 2

She recalls the days of slavery wherein the slaves were made to work, day and night for the benefit of their white masters. There is tension visible in the lines which comes from the sadness of remembering a traumatic past with that of passing down an important facet of their history to the younger generation. The ‘work’ here points towards the physical labour that was put in by the African American community in building the nation of the United States of America. It also symbolises the hard ‘work’ of the child’s predecessors which made it possible for him to be born as a free person in the States.

The songs of sorrow are kept alive through the stories of Aunt Sue. The songs of the ancestors ‘mingle’ with Aunt’s Sue’s stories. They both belong to the same oral tradition through which generations remember and recite their histories by the means of songs and stories. The genre of blues is a part of this oral tradition. The songs of sorrow and happiness from the slaves of the past became music which captured and expressed their emotion. This is how the blues which literally meant ‘sadness’ came to be recognised as a genre of music and storytelling of the Black community. Hughes is attempting to place his poem within that same oral tradition. The symbol of the ‘mighty river’ is also very important in recalling the ancestral past of the Black community which had deep connection with mighty rivers like the Nile, the Congo, the Niger and even the Mississippi, at whose banks they were sold as slaves. You will read more about this is the poem ‘The Negro Speaks of Rivers’. The stanza also throws light upon how trauma of slavery and the fear of oppression passes down from intergenerationally. The shadow of discrimination continues to haunt the next generation. By sharing the stories of the past Aunt Sue makes sure that the next generation remembers. By listening to these stories, the younger generation ‘cross and recross’ paths with their ancestors and learns to remember the history of enslavement but also to look forward and work towards a new future grounded in equality.

Stanza 3, 4

The child realises that these are not stories from books but are in fact the histories of his previous generations. His Aunt has gone through this reality of slavery. Also, while the storyteller is the Aunt, the protagonist is definitely ‘the dark-faced child’. He is the one who listens to the stories, connects with his ancestors and their history, and finally preserves the memory of their past. This way the hardships that they faced are given a meaning and he is the new torchbearer of the hope that was being carried forward by his ancestors. The fight for equality is not over yet, and he will have to look back at past experiences to take this fight forward for a better future.

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