The Poetry of Us: Hughes, Dunbar, DuBois and Peele

by Brian Lindenmuth

“This movie is about duality and this idea that for however we define the word ‘us,’ for there to be an ‘us’ there has to be a ‘them,’” said Peele. “It can be your class, your country, your family. The way we think about ‘them’ informs the way we think about ‘us.’” — Jordan Peele

What if I told you that Us is a horror movie that has something to say about African American poetry and poets?

**record scratch**

Wait, what?

Us is densely packed with allusions, references, and, in the modern parlance of our times, Easter eggs. The script is very well thought out and all references in it are likely intended. So, what does that have to do with poetry?

Sit a minute, let me bring poetry into the Us discussion. Don’t worry, I’m talking themes here and Us won’t be spoiled.

For my money, Langston Hughes is the best American poet of the 20th century. If you disagree, he better be in your top five or we can’t be friends.

There is a moment in the film when Adelaide says, “We’re Americans,” when asked who they are.

This odd and unsettling line brings to mind the 1926 Hughes poem “I, Too”; specifically the final line:

“I am the darker brother.

They send me to eat in the kitchen

When company comes,

But I laugh,

And eat well,

And grow strong.

Tomorrow,

I’ll be at the table

When company comes.

Nobody’ll dare

Say to me,

“Eat in the kitchen,”

Then.

Besides,

They’ll see how beautiful I am

And be ashamed—

I, too, am America.”

Langston Hughes’ relevance continues to assert itself today as marginalized voices continue the struggle of being allowed to speak for themselves. But he is one of many great black poets that America has produced.

Before Langston Hughes, there was Paul Laurence Dunbar, a poet whose work is largely forgotten, perhaps because he often wrote in what was then called the negro dialect (a precursor to AAVE that attempted to capture the speech patterns of black Americans in writing). Dunbar doesn’t deserve to be forgotten:

“We wear the mask that grins and lies,

It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,–

This debt we pay to human guile;

With torn and bleeding hearts we smile,

And mouth with myriad subtleties.

“Why should the world be overwise,

In counting all our tears and sighs?

Nay, let them only see us, while

We wear the mask.”

This poem, “We Wear the Mask”, published in 1895 and 1896, makes its themes clear. And even if you’ve only seen the trailer for Us, you can see the indirect and possibly direct influence.

Just a few short years later, W.E.B DuBois would publish The Souls of Black Folk. In it he talks about the idea of “twoness” and “double consciousness”.

It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness,—an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.

These two ideas are explicitly explored in Us. I don’t know if DuBois read Dunbar, but there is a thematic resonance that links their work.

What we have here is a clear path from poet Paul Laurence Dunbar in the late 19th century, through to the well known and important work of W.E.B DuBois in the early 20th century, carried over into the mid-20th century and expanded in the work of Langston Hughes, right on up to the 21st century with Jordan Peele’s Us.

And that’s how you get to Us through poetry.

**drops the needle back on the record**

I got 5 on it

Us DVDs go on sale today, Tuesday June 18, 2019.
Get your copy now.
Brian Lindenmuth* has been writing about crime fiction since 2006. He started off as the mystery/crime fiction editor for Mystery Book Spot and was the longtime non-fiction editor of Spinetingler Magazine. Additionally, his work has appeared in Crimespree Magazine, Heliotrope Magazine, BSC Review, Mulholland Books website, and Galley Cat. He was the head of the reading committee for the annual Spinetingler Awards. The eyebrows are real, and they’re spectacular.

*Bronzeville Books affiliate