How does one maintain one’s dignity even when in the clutches of a pre-printed bureaucratic schedule? How does one assert oneself in a world of officials who insist on knowing one—and one’s business? These are questions driving the census poetry of Langston Hughes.

I first learned of Hughes’ poem “Madam and the Census Man” from Kasia Boddy, whose scholarship juxtaposes census taking with the project of writing the “great American novel,” two practices that Boddy shows (in brilliant fashion) to be much more closely interrelated than you’d think.

In his 1949 collection One-Way Ticket, illustrated by the artist Jacob Lawrence, Hughes began the poem like this:

The census man,
The day he came round,
Wanted my name
To put it down.

But the census man “put it down” in more way than one. He did not approve of “Alberta K. Johnson.” To be more precise, he didn’t think the census could accept just a single letter for a middle name. Rather than “K,” he said he’d write “K-A-Y.”

On this point, the poem is wrong, or absurd. No middle names made it into the census. Langston Hughes—who did not himself answer the questions of the enumerator nine years earlier—appears in the 1940 schedules as just plain Langston Hughes. His roommates, similarly: Kit Clark, Dell Ingram, and William Artis (who answered the questions for the others). His neighbor (an inspiration?) appears as Alberta Maynard. Not a middle name among them. Some people did have middle initials—such as the man taking the census that day, Thomas W. Moseley.

The instructions to enumerators in 1940 read: “Enter the last name or surname, then the given name in full, and the initial of the middle name, if any…” (41, para 443) They even allow for a first initial, followed by a full middle name, according to the preference of the person being interviewed. There was no reason a census taker would object to Alberta K. Johnson’s name.

Yet the poem is not wrong that encounters with census takers placed in peril a person’s dignity or self-sovereignty. Boddy highlights the poem’s concern with “who controls identity” (60)—Alberta K. Johnson wrestles her enumerator for the right to be known as she wishes to be, as her mother named her. (The scholar Dellita L. Martin has written, in this vein: “The census taker’s ignorance of the black naming tradition and his arrogance combine to ignite Madam’s temper. He does not know, or even care, that many black people choose to use initials in place of a full name because it signifies distinction, because it marks a privilege to name oneself or one’s own…“(98))

The poem ends:

Furthermore, rub out
That MRS., too–
I’ll have you know
I’m Madam to you!

Here again, a superficial error points to a deeper truth. There’s no place on a census form for labels like Mrs. or Madam. Yet the census taker’s sheet did note, as foundational questions, both:

  • relationship to a (by default, male) head of household and
  • marital status.

“Mrs.” snuck in through a bureaucratic back door.

In the poem, the male census taker refers to Johnson as “Mrs.,/ (With a snort)” Her insistence that she is a “Madam,” not a MRS. is—in this poem and in Hughes’ other “Madam” poems (“Madam and the Rent Man”; “Madam and the Phone Bill”)—an assertion of worth (of being an end, rather than a means) in the face the indignities suffered before men entering her home bearing the authority of powerful, modern institutions—be they the phone company or the Census Bureau.

I’ve quoted previously this statement from Census Bureau officials in the 1930s:

“Every person in the United States, however insignificant he may be, has a permanent place in the history of the country, for a record of his personal life is made by the National Government every ten years and filed away in the government archives. Nobody need feel that he merely lives and dies without the facts about this existence permanently recorded, Census officials have pointed out.”

Census officials argued for their count as a dignifying activity—every single person counted, and the details of their lives were worth recording. Perhaps that’s another reason that Madam Johnson would fight her census taker—why should a stranger be trusted with one’s “permanent place in the history of the country”?

To her country, as Madam affirmed:

There’s nothing foreign
To my pedigree:
Alberta K. Johnson—
American that’s me.

(From “Madam’s Calling Cards”)

Updated 30 June 2018

You can listen to the whole of Hughes’ poem here.

Also: Alberta K. Johnson had powerful company with her single initial. Here’s Harry S. Truman’s 1940 census sheet, courtesy of the National Archives’ “US Presidents in the Census Records”. Truman’s middle name was also just plain S.