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The correlation in themes is representative in Langston Hughes’ play “Mulatto,” and his poem “Cross,” as well as August Wilson’s play “Fences,” and Junot Diaz’s book “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.”


The four stories combine to cover fiction, poetry and drama. In this essay, the three authors’ common concerns will be outlined. The authors share the same cultural and literary concerns when they portray their themes in the literature. These themes are supported and developed by the writers in several different ways, but they all have a similar message. These authors have distinct ways of supporting and developing the themes through the character development, plot, style and genres. It is generally the characters who provide the base of the stories and their development and actions. Themes from each of the stories are conveyed through the characters, as they go through their life experiences and outlooks. The themes used are significant for each of the author’s cultural background and timeframes. These four works are vivid examples of how generational relationships, the anger and bitterness from being condemned and considered unworthy, and the negative results of racism.

In “Mulatto,” Diaz is discussing race. Mulatto talks about a person who is of half white and half black descent. It takes place in rural Georgia. The play is quite negative and it is about the struggle to find identity. This is something that Diaz communicates in many of his other works, including his book “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.” The daily desire to find one’s roots and true identity is ever more complicated through the character that he portrays in his writing.

The expression of rejection and racism is perhaps mostly pronounced out of the four stories in “Mularro.” The play is set in the “Big House” on a Georgia plantation, which creates a dreary environment that the author needs to portray the depression and gloominess that he wants to communicate the audience. This setting isn’t changed at all throughout the play, and it gives it a feeling of entrapment. There is a real sense of solitary in the play and it makes the audience feel claustrophobic. This is perhaps done to communicate how the character, Robert, feels. He is trapped in an environment where he doesn’t want to be and this struggle consumes him until he can’t take any more. This struggle of identity due to racial issues is apparent in the other works as well, and it adds to texture of rejection that many of the characters in all of the stories feel.

Lewis’s character is struggling in his day-to-day affairs as the Colonel Thomas Norwood, who is the white plantation owner and he is frustrated with him. Robert perhaps has the hardest time out of all the children. He is the son of the Colonel’s housekeeper Cora, who is an African American. His sister Sallie is having a difficult time with her identity, but her personal problems are made worse by the Colonel because he is upset and frustrated that Sallie is late in catching the train to go to school. The Colonel wants Sallie to go to school and so he discusses the issues with Sam, who is his African American servant.

Robert isn’t the only character who feels troubled by the position he is in. As the reader has seen, there are siblings of his who are having just as hard of a time, and they have little motivation to do things like go to school. Robert is responsible for driving Sallie to the train station so that he can go to school, but he has gone to buy radio tubes and he wasn’t given consent by the Colonel, who is angry and says that Robert should be picking cotton in the field. He then threatens to whip him for his transgression. That is one of the examples in the works that talks about the low status that many of the characters had, simply because of their race. This was truly a time where many Mulatto’s and African Americans were disrespected and told they weren’t worth anything. This fueled the hate that these children and other characters in the works felt towards those who had control over them. That control that Robert and his siblings were under is the feeling that is pronounced throughout the play, as the characters are unable to continue their lives in the way that they want to live them because they are under the pressures of those who dominated their lives. This is a very suffocating feeling, and the reason why I think Hughes decided to keep the play in a designated area in Georgia.

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This deep south setting was chosen by Hughes because it is in the deep south where people who aren’t white are most exposed to racism. The conflict between the white plantation owner and Robert is the center of this play because the Colonel refuses to see Robert as being his son, which is what happened after the Colonel and his servant slept together. The conflict that Robert feels with his identity and the rejection of his father is the most challenging aspect that Robert feels. He has taken a stand, much like other characters in the other works did, about becoming a servant to a master. He tells his father that he will not participate in the cotton picking. All this took place during the Great Depression, which further made the rebellion challenging because Robert couldn’t simply leave and get a job. This created a further claustrophobic setting in the play.

Hughes’ poem “Cross” has a similar theme. It discusses the issues around being a black and white person. And the work can take on many meanings. For example, the title could be taken to mean the inner turmoil of the speaker, and the way they feel about being a mulatto. This mixed racial heritage is apparent and the struggle that the speaker feels is obvious in the tone of the poem. The speaker may be angry with his mother or father because of the genes that has been passed onto him. This is similar to the way that Robert feels in “Mulatto.” Hughes is certainly partial to the turmoil that is experienced in characters who have multiple races. Both the speaker in “Cross” and Robert in “Mulatto” are trying to find their ways in the world and this is a deeper problem for them more than anyone else because of the multiple races they possess. Furthermore, the speaker in “Cross” appears to be quite young, which can also be said for Robert in “Mulatto.” This is an age where the average person is already struggling to find their way and it is only accented by the fact that these characters don’t have a true racial identity.

The speaker in the poem could also be said to be carrying a cross because of the burden that has been put on him due to his race. The cross is heavy on his back and this could be why Hughes decided to name the poem, “Cross.” But the title takes on other meanings too, that help explain what the story of the speaker’s life is really all about. For example, the title could be taken to mean crucifix. So this infers that the speaker in the poem is nailed to the cross, simply for being who he is. He hasn’t done anything wrong, but because he is who he is, the speaker is punished immensely, just like Jesus was for not doing anything wrong. But the title could also be used to discuss the traversal of crossing over from being extremely angry, to forgiving. This is something that doesn’t happen in “Mulatto,” which indicates the changes in emotion that Hughes might be feeling about his own life. The speaker could be wanting to leave behind the bitterness that he has about his situation. But judging by Hughes’ attitude in “Mulatto,” the reader would lean towards the conclusion that the speaker has not found forgiveness for the poor life that he has been put into. The title could also be interpreted to mean crossroad. This might be represented in forgiving his mother and father, and in doing so, he is at a crossroads on what he believes is the right thing to do. One of the roads that he can go down is that of the black people, which the other one is into a future that is uncertain. He isn’t able to go down the road of the white people, he believes, because they wouldn’t be accepting of his mixed race.
In its entirety, the poem goes through the frustration that a person who is half black and half white feels in the aftermath of slavery in the United States. The speaker is struggling to accept their identity in the world because there is a lot of racism at this time in history. This is the same dilemma that Robert felt in “Mulatto.” Not really being accepted by either the whites, nor the blacks was extremely problematic for personal struggles of identity. The speaker in the poem is a former slave whose father is white and mother is black, just like Robert in “Mulatto.” The speaker is challenged because they are stuck in the middle of the poor black America that was not respected at all by the white Americans. On the other hand, the white people were looked at as being the ideal specimen. The black people looked at the whites with hate and amazement. It was particularly challenging because the speaker, and Robert in “Mulatto,” was looked at as being the enemy by the black people, due to the white tone of their skin. On the other hand, the characters were looked at as being among the black people, and deserving of oppression. The whites thought that they would be outcast if they welcomed someone with and African American blood.


By the end of the poem, the speaker apologizes for having the thoughts that he has. This could either be because he doesn’t actually blame his mother and father for the life that he has, or it could be because he has been brought up to not speak his mind on any issues. He may have been told all of his life that he isn’t allowed to have anything negative to say about the situation he is in, or of the people who put him in that situation. At the time, black people were also not very respected for their intelligence. He may be so conflicted that he feels that the black part of him makes him dumb, and unaware of the actual ways of the world. This could cause him to doubt himself when he discusses some of the issues that he is having. At the beginning of the poem, he makes threats towards his parents, and this shows that he has a lot of anger at them for creating him. This is also what Robert feels in “Mulatto,” as these characters deal not only with their identity crisis but also with the rage they feel towards their parents and the world that they are being brought up in. After the speaker apologizes for his threats at the middle of the poem, he comes across as being confused. I think these three periods of dialect: anger, apologetic and confusion, represents the inner turmoil that the character is going through. He isn’t allowed to express his anger, and when he does he feels that he needs to apologize, because he was likely punished in the past for speaking out. He doesn’t have the confidence to say what he means, because he is afraid that he might be reprimanded for saying what is truly on his mind. This has likely been a continual battle for him, much like it was for Robert in “Mulatto,” and has caused both these characters to not have much confidence in truly saying what they mean. They are also young and at the mercy of those around them, so speaking out will not do them any good, as they need the food and shelter that is provided to them for survival.

Wilson’s “Fences,” is yet another story that discusses the challenges faced by African Americans in the 1900s.This is about the race relations between black people and white people during the 1950s. In this play, Wilson’s lead character, who is actually older than the Characters portrayed by Hughes, is Troy, 53. He is the head of a household and he is struggling to provide food and shelter for his family. He is also obsessed with cheating death. This play takes on a different setting than the works of Hughes, it is in a city, but it is never really specified about where it is. The lead character, Hughes, was a fantastic baseball player when he was younger. He spent the time of most of his days practicing while he was in prison for accidently killing someone when he was committing a robbery. Even though Troy was such a great baseball player, the color barrier had not yet been broken in the Major Leagues. He wasn’t able to make much money at anything and saving money was certainly out of the question. This is another struggle that is being faced by another black person in these stories. It was because of the race of Troy that he wasn’t able to play professional baseball and make a good living. If he were to live today, he wouldn’t likely have much of a problem playing professional baseball and making good money. This is similar to the other characters, who wouldn’t have a hard time in life because of their mixed races. Unlike the characters in Hughes’ stories, Troy wasn’t of mixed race, as he was only black.

Instead of making millions of dollars playing ball, Troy had to trash collect and this was his way of making enough money to survive on. He did manage to make a significant leap in the race barrier by taking a job as a driver, rather than being a barrel lifter. This was a relatively respectable job for someone who was black at the time, though the pay was terrible. He needed as much money as he could get, as he lived with his wife and son. Troy was fortunate in the play, at the expense of his brother, Gabriel, who was injured during battle when he was a soldier and he now has mental problems. The money that Gabriel received was used by Troy to buy a house. Gabriel doesn’t live in the house with him, but instead lives in a rented room elsewhere in the same city.

One of the most prominent aspects to the play is the right of black people to work the same jobs that white people do. Troy is frustrated that he can’t play professional baseball, and this is something that he carries with him. This is the reason why Troy decided to ask if he could become a garbage truck driver. He goes to his boss and he asks him that questions. This is at the beginning of the play and it sets the stage for the rest of the piece, about how Troy’s life is what it is because he isn’t treated the same as how white people are treated.

Diaz’s book “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao,” is quite different than the other three works in many ways, though they do have some commonalities. There is the concept of a curse of doom, or fuku. This is specifically a curse of doom in the new world. The book goes through distinct phases and various settings, which is unlike the other three works, which are pretty static in their locations. Oscar de Leon is the lead character in the book and he is from a Dominican family. While he is also of color, like the characters in the other stories, he isn’t as oppressed as the rest because he is living during a time when there was more acceptance of black people. He is also not from African descent, like the other characters are. Oscar is not like many of the other Dominicans, who are savvy with females. He is more like a nerd, and this is challenging for him, particularly because he lives in the ghetto, and being a nerd is not considered something that can be ignored. He was an outcast in high school and he was often teased. After he falls in love with someone and starts dating her, she dumps him and he then goes into an introverted frenzy and begins to focus all of his energy on writing science fiction or fantasy stories, which are basically focused on the end of the world. This could represent the inner turmoil he is feeling toward life, much like the struggles that are faced by the characters in the other stories that have been discussed. Unlike the other characters, Oscar has an outlet for his frustration about life, and that is through writing. He wasn’t challenged with racial discrimination like the other characters were, but to a certain degree, he was. It is as if people were harder on him because of what they expected him to be like, due to his Dominican upbringing and the stereotypes that are attached to that. He was a much more heavy person that many of his peers, and this could be one of the reasons why he had such problems with finding a girlfriend. But people gave him such a hard time for the way that he was, simply because he was different, just like all of the characters that are discussed in these stories.

The references to the science fiction and fantasy that are made in the story, provides the perfect example of the desire to get away from ones problems. All of the characters didn’t like the life they were living and they wanted to find peace and freedom away from their daily struggles. The science fiction and fantasy also bring out the world that Oscar is living in and it creates a cohesive line between the supernatural events that are happening in the fantasy and the history of the Dominican people. The fantasy world of living in the middle earth is linked to the life that is lived in the Dominican Republic. Diaz uses a lot of sci-fi references in the piece, and they help to explain the psychology that the lead character is going through. There are also other interesting references, and Diaz sometimes uses them as the titles to her work. For example, “The Mongoose” is the title of a chapter in which she uses the Mongoose to describe the guardians of the family. This small and fast mammal is sociable and cunning. This animal was taken from its African and Asian home to the Dominican Republic. At this same time, Oscar’s family was being forced out of their country. So as something that is alien was being taken to the Dominican Republic, something that is indigenous was being taken out. The mongoose is considered to be the counter spell to the zafa. This is exemplified when Beli is beaten in a canefield and this animal motivates her by singing to her and guiding her away from the canefield. This is her protector and this is how she is able to get away. Again, the Mongoose is there for her, as it stops a bus that is right in front of her, and she could have been killed or seriously injured if there was an impact. The mongoose further protects her by taking her to safety. In a similar situation, Oscar finds a golden mongoose that saves him from killing himself by throwing his body off of a bridge. Then, the mongoose saves him again when he is being beaten in the canefield. This is similar to the time when Beli was saved by the mongoose. Unlike the characters in the other four stories, these characters had a protector. This was much needed for them to overcome the obstacles that were facing them. The other characters could have benefited from that same kind of protection, but they had no such luck. It should be noted that the four stories represent an evolution of the struggles that are faced by people who are of a different color. The stories paint a relatively clear picture of the types of dilemmas people of different races experienced through the 20th Century.

The challenges that these characters face are often an example of the cultural identity of the authors. For example, Diaz was born in the Dominican Republic and raised in New Jersey, this is a similar situation as to what was experienced by his lead character, Oscar. Also, just like Oscar Diaz is a writer. He could be using the novel to express his own life, and the desire he had to perhaps have something, such as the mongoose be there for him to help guide him through the challenging times that he was experiencing. Similarly, Langston Hughes is a mulatto and he was perhaps experiencing in his life the same things that his character Robert was going through. Robert would have been about the same age as Hughes when he wrote “Mulatto.” The type of identity crisis that he was experiencing could be the same that he was portraying in Mulatto. However, instead of having one black and one white parent, both Hughes’ parents were African-American and both his paternal great grandfathers were white slave owners in Kentucky. This provides an interesting look at perhaps the motivation behind “Mulatto,” as his character Robert could portray one of his ancestors who was the son of a slave owner and who likely had an affair with one of his servants. In the case of Wilson, I believe he was influenced largely by the life of his mother, who was forced to raise children on her own and found it extremely hard to have enough money to pay for her family’s many needs. This is similar to the experience that his lead character Troy had in providing for his family. Like Troy, Wilson’s mom has a dirty job. But unlike being a garbage collector, she was a cleaning lady. She was also living in a neighbourhood that was economically depressed and it was likely in Pittsburgh, which is where Wilson was born and it was indicated in “Fences” that it is where that play took place, due to the landmarks that were included in it. The racial themes of these stories all appear to be a reflection of the type of life each of the writers was living.

Works Cited

Diaz, J. (2008). The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. New York: Riverhead Trade. Academic
Search Premier

Elam, H. (2009, March). Blood Debt: Reparations in Langston Hughes’s Mulatto. Theatre
Journal: Johns Hopkins University Press. ProQuest

Hughes, L. (2002). The Play to 1942: Mulatto to the Sun Do Move. New York: University of
Missouri. Academic Search Premier.

Shih, E. (2007, October). Review: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar WAO. Bergen County: The
Record. ProQuest.

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By Hanna Robinson

Hanna has won numerous writing awards. She specializes in academic writing, copywriting, business plans and resumes. After graduating from the Comosun College's journalism program, she went on to work at community newspapers throughout Atlantic Canada, before embarking on her freelancing journey.

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