House In the World
I’m looking for a house
In the world
Where the white shadows
Will not fall.
There is no such house,
Dark brothers,
No such house
At all.

-- Langston Hughes

Originally Published: March 25th, 2008

Major Jackson's books of poems are Holding Company (2010, Norton) and Hoops (2006, Norton), both finalists for an NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Literature-Poetry, and Leaving Saturn (2002, University of Georgia Press), which was awarded the Cave Canem Poetry Prize for a first book of poems and was a finalist for the National Book...

  1. March 25, 2008
     Major Jackson

    Langston Hughes' poem "House in the World" is brutal and harsh. My friend Emily Bernard, a Langston Hughes scholar, recently invited me to discuss this poem with her. She also bid me two years ago to contemplate the poem's multiple meanings and figurative dimensions.
    It would be too easy to merely read the poem in light of American racial politics. The degree to which one agrees or disagrees with Hughes could serve as a barometer by which one detects (or not) the footprints of imperialism, colonialism, and racism across the globe, by which one cares (or not) about the ravages and impact of Western powers, thought, and arrogance on non-Western and “third-world” nations.
    We know "white shadows" do not exist, but in Hughes' metaphoric mind, they do. Hughes was a deeply sensitive poet who could not turn his aesthetic eye away from history, from the injustices done to his “dark brothers.” This “turning away” is an unbridled privilege we “poets” exercise, and maybe it is very, very necessary.
    I, for one, try not to take this for granted, especially as I consider this poem on the fifth anniversary of America’s war in Iraq.

  2. March 25, 2008
     Annie Finch

    Thanks for posting this powerful poem. It's one of the most spine-tingling I've read recently by a poet I frequently find spine-tingling. The sounds of the w's in the first stanza contrasted with the u sounds in the second stanza are part of it, but it's really everything---syntax, imagery, feeling--making a dense whole, a talisman poem.
    To me the crux is the word "world"--the impossibility of a house in the world, of unmitigated presence in the world, the irony of having to try to deconstruct one's inheritance in order to gain access to what we know on some level should by rights have been "natural"ly available before the inheritance was ever made conscious. But it isn't.
    As does so much of Hughes, this poem evokes the tragedies of racism so aptly that it feels to me it also evokes the pain of other kinds of tragedies that dispossess us from ourselves and from having a place for ourselves in the world.
    Thanks again Major.

  3. March 25, 2008
     Francisco Aragón

    Thank you for this.
    Hughes' poem made me think of this one:
    en cada casa
    hay un cuarto
    entre paredes
    de otros cuartos
    a los hombres
    no les parece
    lo consideran
    lo más normal
    de la vida
    pero viven ahí
    en esa mazmorra
    sin ventanas
    lla madre
    la hija
    la esposa
    in every house
    there is a dark
    by the walls
    of other rooms
    it doesn't seem
    to bother
    they consider it
    the most normal
    thing in life
    but there inside
    that cell without
    windows live
    the mother
    the daughter
    the wife
    my translation from the Spanish
    New and Selected Poems

  4. April 10, 2008

    Dear Major,
    Thank you for sharing this poem.
    Hope to see you soon.
    Warm wishes,