Lowney’s essay examines how Langston Hughes’s cultural work in the 1950s and early 1960s illustrates the challenge of developing a progressive black transnationalist literary culture. It concentrates especially on Hughes’s longest and most ambitious poem, Ask Your Mama: 12 Moods for Jazz (1961), which renders his dual commitment to a black transnationalist public and an innovative African diaspora jazz poetics. Ask Your Mama features the interaction of African cultures in the Americas and Africa, with its evocation of Afro-Caribbean as well as African American music and its movement among different sites of black revolutionary struggle. In this context, jazz plays an explicitly political role in expressing the revolutionary desire for black liberation in the United States, Africa, and the Caribbean. This is most evident in the opening mood of Ask Your Mama, “Cultural Exchange,” which introduces the black transnationalist network of musical forms, proper names, and social locations that reverberate throughout the poem. Lowney’s essay discusses the implications of Hughes’s ironic allusion to the “cultural exchange” of African American “jazz ambassadors,” who were funded by the US State Department to perform in Africa in the 1950s. In doing so, it draws from recent research in jazz studies by Penny Von Eschen and Ingrid Monson to underscore the historical complexity and political incisiveness of Hughes’s enactment of a black transnationalist public in the poem.
John Lowney; Jazz, Black Transnationalism, and the Political Aesthetics of Langston Hughes’s Ask Your Mama. American Literature 1 September 2012; 84 (3): 563–587. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/00029831-1664719
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