African American Poetry (1870-1926): A Digital Anthology

Langston Hughes, "A Song to a Negro Wash-woman" (1925)

Oh, wash-woman,
Arms elbow-deep in white suds,
Soul washed clean,
Clothes washed clean,—
I have many songs to sing you
Could I but find the words.

Was it four o'clock or six o'clock on a winter afternoon, I saw you wringing out the last shirt in Miss White Lady's kitchen? Was it four o'clock or six o'clock? I don't remember.

But I know, at seven one spring morning you were on Vermont Street with a bundle in your arms going to wash clothes.
And I know I've seen you in a New York subway train in the late afternoon coming home from washing clothes.

Yes, I know you, wash-woman.
I know how you send your children to school, and high-school, and even college.
I know how you work and help your man when times are hard.
I know how you build your house up from the wash-tub and call it home.
And how you raise your churches from white suds for the service of the Holy God.

And I've seen you singing, wash-woman. Out in the backyard garden under the apple trees, singing, hanging white clothes on long lines in the sun-shine.
And I've seen you in church a Sunday morning singing, praising your Jesus, because some day you're going to sit on the right hand of the Son of God and forget you ever were a wash-woman. And the aching back and the bundles of clothes will be unremembered then.
Yes, I've seen you singing.

And for you,
   O singing wash-woman,
   For you, singing little brown woman,
   Singing strong black woman,
   Singing tall yellow woman,
   Arms deep in white suds,
   Soul clean,
   Clothes clean,—
   For you I have many songs to make
   Could I but find the words.

Published in The Crisis, January 1925

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