The lazy, laughing South
With blood on its mouth.
The sunny-faced South,
The child-minded South
Scratching in the dead fire’s ashes
For a Negro’s bones.
Cotton and the moon,
Warmth, earth, warmth,
The sky, the sun, the stars,
The magnolia-scented South.
Beautiful, like a woman,
Seductive as a dark-eyed whore,
Honey-lipped, syphilitic —
That is the South.
And I, who am black, would love her
But she spits in my face.
And I, who am black,
Would give her many rare gifts
But she turns her back upon me.
So now I seek the North —
The cold-faced North,
For she, they say,
Is a kinder mistress,
And in her house my children
May escape the spell of the South.
Summary and Analysis
The first two lines use personification to describe how The South is a laid back, easy going merry place who is unaware of the blood it carries in its mouth. This is a reference to the Southern Elite who led lavish carefree lives as all their work was done by the slaves they kept. These elite people did not care to think of these slaves as human beings, let alone citizens of the state. They carried the blood of torture on these same mouths through which they laughed out loud
In the next three lines he says that the South is a warm place, it looks like a beast when it comes to strength but when it comes to having a mind of its own, it is an “idiot”.
Hughes compares The South to that of a small child who is fickle, indecisive, mischievious and unable to move forward. The North held a patronising stance towards The South. For the North, the states of the South were unable to progress for the better of the world. The southerners thought of slaves the same way the north was thinking of the south. For the southern elite, the slaves were children entirely dependent on their masters for survival. Hughes is turning using this age old patronising view against the South by calling it “child- minded”. They did not want to let go of slavery and adopt human decency. Although the world was changing its views on African Americans, the South was still searching for the bones of the Negroes in the “dead fire’s ashes”. The South kept on harassing the slaves and was rigid in its views.
Now, suddenly the poet’s tone changes to love and longing for the south, opposite to that of hatred in the first 8 lines. He talks of the moonshine and the white cotton that grows in the fields, the radiance and warmth the climate has to offer and the fragrance of magnolias that grew in abundance there. Although the poet begins with acknowledgement of the racial injustice and harsh reality that the south has to offer for the African Americans, he cannot stop himself from describing the beautiful landscape and imagery that The South has to offer.
These lines move in and out of attraction, love and hatred, dislike. In the first line, he likens the south to that of a beautiful woman but this woman is suddenly transformed into a prostitute who is very attractive and seduces men. She is both brimming with passion and burning with cruelty. Her lips are sweet but to kiss them is to get infected with syphilis. The poet is basically lured by the agricultural and fertile bounty the south has to offer. But to stay means to torture oneself with the inhospitability and cruelty of the masters and the extremely discriminatory Southern society.
Now, he further extends the metaphor of calling The South a seductress. To the poet, the South is not just a seductress, she is someone who ensnares people with her beauty and bounty and then crushes them to death by rejecting them. The poet wants to actually give her all his love but she vehemently rejects this love by spitting in his face. Although his identity is that of a black man, he would like to shower her earth with gifts. But he faces outright rejection just on the basis of his appearance. His entire race is rejected by the South because for her, they are nothing more that slaves.
Post this unfair rejection faced by the poet and his race, he is forced to turn the North, who is also not entirely welcoming but is better that the south in some ways. In the North, people were against slavery but racial discrimination continues in many other ways. The poet and the African Americans had to chose the north and it was only a little kinder mistress that the south. Even in the north, they had their fair share of struggle to carve a place for themselves. In this ordeal to leave their homes in search of better opportunities and treatment, the African Americans were torn between the both in their minds. Their attachment with the South remained etched in their minds even if they had to live in the North.