An Investigation of Langston Hughes’ “Third Degree”

By Sarah Starchak

In Langston Hughes’ poem “Third Degree,” the short lines, visual imagery, and repetition of sounds help create the defiant tone and dark atmosphere. The elements express the theme of abuse, and their effect on the reader is anger and ill feeling. Hughes probably called this poem “Third Degree” because it implies multiple meanings—burn, interrogation, and murder to the third degree. The ambiguity allows for many interpretations, but the most probable purpose of this poem is social criticism. It is a reflection of abuse (specifically by police) toward blacks of Hughes’ time.

The first poetic element to notice in “Third Degree” is the structure, which is composed of many short lines. The lines are fast and blunt, especially the “Hit me! Jab me!” (l. 1) and “Slug me! Beat me!” (l. 7). These lines are like punches to the reader which help us understand the persona’s pain. The line length is kept short through most of the poem, with only two or three stressed syllables per line, to express pain and anger. Langston Hughes probably wrote most of the lines using trochaic meter in order to create a sense of hitting and falling, going in and out of consciousness.

The longest lines seem to come at times of detailed description, which also represent the loss of feeling. For example, Hughes adds imagery when he writes “(Faces like jack-o-lanterns/ in gray slouch hats.)” (ll. 5, 6). This line eases the reader in to longer lines and finally the longest line: “I’d make tomorrow. (Bars and floor skyrocket/ and burst like Roman candles.)” (ll. 12, 13). These longer lines create a dream-like state, and the use of parenthesis reemphasizes the departure from reality.

Finally, the persona seems to “fall” at the end as the lines get progressively shorter:

When you throw

cold water on me,

I’ll sign the

paper… (ll. 14-17).

The use of enjambment here accelerates the pace of the sentence to bring the poem to a quick falling end. By ending on one word “paper” the reader is to assume that the persona is losing his fight (maybe he burned up like paper). However the use of an ellipsis at the end suggests hope or at least a continuation. The overall structure of the poem is what creates the harsh tone, and the longer lines create the shift in tone to create scary confusion.

To aid in evoking these emotions, Langston Hughes produces visual imagery that connects the reader to the tortuous situation. When Hughes writes “Blood on my sport shirt/ and my tan suede shoes” (ll. 3, 4) the reader relates to the persona. The “sport shirt” and “suede shoes” produce the image of a gentleman, which makes the reader question why there should be “blood.” Because the persona says “Make me say I did it” (l. 2), one can assume that he is innocent, and therefore this is not only violence but abuse. It is ironic that this man dressed to go out and be socially accepted only to instead be beaten and get blood on his nice clothes, thus reinforcing the unjustness of the situation. This irony is followed by frightening imagery: “(Faces like jack-o-lanterns/ in gray slouch hats)” (ll. 5, 6). The simile of “faces like jack-o-lanterns” produces a haunting image; the reader can imagine the threatening faces of the interrogators. It also represents the beaten persona’s blurred vision as he tries to withstand the torture.

The imagery intensifies as the scene worsens and Hughes provides another simile: “Scream jumps out/ like blow-torch” (ll. 8, 9). The connection between the scream and shooting fire gives the reader a sense of panic. We feel the violence growing, and the persona seems closer to losing consciousness when Hughes writes “… (Bars and floor skyrocket/ and burst like Roman candles.) (ll. 12, 13). Yet another simile comparing the beating to fire, this time it is more intense. The “Roman candles” are like the persona seeing “stars” when hit. Finally, the last image we see is of water and paper, which may imply a surrender or it could mean a continuing struggle. Either way, the visual imagery is quite painful.

In addition to imagery, the poetic sounds contribute to the meaning of “Third Degree.”  The repetition of cacophony creates the sense of violence and pain. For example, Hughes uses the consonants “t,” “j,” and “b” in the first line with “Hit me! Jab me!” (l. 1) and “k,” “d,” and “t” in the second with “Make me say I did it” (l. 2). This pattern continues throughout the poem; he uses words like “Blood,” “Beat,” “Scream,” and “candles” to create harsh sounds from beginning to end. The use of alliteration in some parts also enhances the effect. The sibilance in “Blood on my sport shirt/ and my tan suede shoes” (ll. 3, 4) creates a hissing sound that mimics the spewing blood and the persona’s defiant tone. The repetition of “k” sounds has its own unique effect on the poem. There are three “k’s” in “Three kicks between the legs/ that kill the kids” (ll. 10, 11); this not only represents the violence of the kicks, but also may have purposely been intended to be “three” as in “third degree.” The three k’s may even be a reference to the KKK who also burned, killed, and tortured the Negroes.

In fact, this idea of the sounds being in “threes” presents the possibility that the entire poem was written around the number three. The first stanza is the “first degree.” The second stanza is the first step out of reality (the persona starting to faint). The third stanza is the “second degree,” in which the persona simultaneously slips further out of consciousness. And the fourth and final stanza is the “third degree,” which takes the persona down.

Whether the true meaning of “Third Degree” be murder, burns, or interrogation, we can conclude that Langston Hughes meant to express an increasing struggle. He shows this through the poetic form and structure, which moves the reader’s eye quickly through the chaos. The imagery and sound effects make the reading more explosive so that the end effect is pain and sadness. Langston Hughes most likely wanted to show the injustice of racism and accusations toward black people, because that is what he experienced in his lifetime.

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