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?
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:
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:
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“