The Tragic Mulatto Theme in Six Works of Langston Hughes

Posted in Articles, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive on 2012-05-08 17:34Z by Steven

The Tragic Mulatto Theme in Six Works of Langston Hughes

Phylon (1940-1956)
Volume 16, Number 2 (2nd Qtr., 1955)
pages 195-204

Arthur P. Davis (1904-1996)

The Weary Blues (1925), the first publication of Langston Hughes, contained a provocative twelve-line poem entitled “Cross,” which dealt with the tragic mulatto theme. Two years later when Mr. Hughes brought out Fine Clothes to the Jew (1927), he included another poem on racial intermixture which he named “Mulatto.” During the summer of 1928 when Hughes was working with the Hedgerow Theatre at Moylan Rose Valley, Pennsylvania, he completed a full-length drama on the tragic mulatto theme, which he also called Mulatto. This play was produced on Broadway in 1935 where it ran for a full year, followed by an eight month’s tour across the nation. From the play, the poet composed a short story, “Father and Son,” which though written later than the play, appeared in The Ways of White Folks (1934), a year before the drama was produced. Returning once more to the theme, Hughes in 1949 reworked the play Mulatto into an opera, The Barrier, the music for which was written by the modern composer, Jan Meyerowitz. The opera was first produced at Columbia University in 1950. And finally in 1952, Hughes published another short story on the tragic mulatto theme entitled “African Morning.” This sketch appears in Laughing to Keep from Crying, a second collection of short stories. In short, for over a quarter of a century, the author has been concerned with this theme; returning to it again and again, he has presented the thesis in four different genres, in treatments varying in length from a twelve-line poem to a full-length Broadway play.

Before discussing Mr. Hughes’ several presentations of the theme, however, let us understand the term “tragic mulatto.” As commonly used in American fiction and drama, it denotes a light-colored, mixed-blood character (possessing in most cases a white father and a colored mother), who suffers because of difficulties arising from his bi-racial background. In our literature there are, of course, valid and convincing portrayals of this type; but as it is a character which easily lends itself to sensational exaggeration and distortion, there are also many stereotypes of the tragic mulatto to be found And these stereotypes, as Professor Brown has so…

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Passing Fancies: Color, much more than race, dominated the fiction of the Harlem Renaissance

Posted in Articles, Book/Video Reviews, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Passing, United States on 2012-02-17 05:09Z by Steven

Passing Fancies: Color, much more than race, dominated the fiction of the Harlem Renaissance

The Wall Street Journal

James Campbell

Harlem Renaissance Novels, Edited by Rafia Zafar, Library of America, 1,715 pages

Harlem in the autumn of 1924 offered a “foretaste of paradise,” according to the novelist Arna Bontemps. He was recalling the dawn of the Harlem Renaissance and was perhaps a little dazzled in retrospect—Bontemps was writing in 1965—by his memories of “strings of fairy lights” illuminating the uptown “broad avenues” at dusk.

A gloomier perspective is found in the writings of James Baldwin, born in Harlem Hospital in August 1924. His novel “Go Tell It on the Mountain” (1953) and his memoir, “The Fire Next Time” (1963), both evoke a Harlem childhood dominated by poverty, fear, brutality, with the dim torch of salvation locked in a storefront church. Baldwin scarcely mentions the renaissance or its principals in all his writings—despite the remarkable coincidence of his having attended schools where two mainstays of any account of the Harlem Renaissance were teachers: the poet Countee Cullen and the novelist Jessie Redmon

…Any rebirth is bound to be bloody, and perhaps the better for it. Grudge, guilt and prejudice notwithstanding, the Harlem Renaissance produced a lot of good writing, some of it worth reading eight decades later. Almost all the novels chosen by Rafia Zafar for the Library of America’s two-volume collection contain scenes of interest, even when the interest is mainly sociological. (The exception is George Schuyler’s 1931 “Black No More,” a far-fetched, burlesque yarn about passing for white that might have been omitted in favor of Van Vechten’s “Nigger Heaven.”) The predominant theme of the majority of novels here—to the point of obsession—is not so much prejudice as plain color. Bigoted white voices are heard, but light-skinned blacks expressing distaste for their darker neighbors speak louder. As the heroine of Nella Larsen’s “Quicksand” (1928) observes: “Negro society . . . was as complicated and as rigid in its ramifications as the highest strata of white society.”

The most arresting tale, in this respect, is “The Blacker the Berry” (1929) by Wallace Thurman, in which poor Emma Lou Morgan, daughter of a “quite fair” mother, realizes that her “luscious black complexion” is despised by those around her, many of whom can pass for white. Emma Lou’s “unwelcome black mask” has been inherited from her “no good” father, who had “never been in evidence.” Ill-treatment from white students and teachers at school is bad enough; but when Emma Lou gets to Harlem, the humiliation turns to cruelty. She tries to rent a room from a West Indian woman. “A little girl had come to the door, and, in answer to a voice in the back asking, ‘Who is it, Cora?’ had replied, ‘monkey chaser wants to see the room you got to rent.’ ” Emma Lou remains, for the time being, homeless. When she shows her admiration “boldly” for an “intelligent-looking, slender, light-brown-skinned” man on Seventh Avenue, he “looked at her, then over her, and passed on.” Far worse are a group of Harlem youths who notice Emma Lou powdering her nose near the same spot…

…It was the same sigh, rather than crude shame, that led Jean Toomer to describe himself on his marriage certificate of 1931 as “white.” His exquisite sequence of prose episodes and poems, “Cane” (1923), is the earliest of the books gathered here. It requires but a sampling of Toomer’s humid Georgia prose to induce in the reader a different quality of intoxication from that brought about by the rough beverages of McKay, Hughes and Schuyler: “Karintha, at twelve, was a wild flash that told the other folks just what it was to live. At sunset, when there was no wind, and the pine-smoke from over by the sawmill hugged the earth, and you couldn’t see more than a few feet in front, her sudden darting past you was a bit of vivid color, like a black bird that flashes in light. With the other children one could hear, some distance off, their feet flopping in the two-inch dust. Karintha’s running was a whir.”…

Read the entire review here.

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Trans-American Modernisms: Racial Passing, Travel Writing, and Cultural Fantasies of Latin America

Posted in Brazil, Caribbean/Latin America, Dissertations, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, Passing, United States on 2011-12-31 18:05Z by Steven

Trans-American Modernisms: Racial Passing, Travel Writing, and Cultural Fantasies of Latin America

University of Southern California
August 2009
311 pages

Ruth Blandón

Dissertation Presented to the FACULTY OF THE GRADUATE SCHOOL UNIVERSITY OF SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA In Partial Fulfillment of the Requirements for the Degree DOCTOR OF PHILOSOPHY (ENGLISH)

In my historical examination of the literary works of Nella Larsen, William Carlos Williams, Langston Hughes, James Weldon Johnson, Jessie Redmon Fauset, and Carl Van Vechten, I investigate U.S. modernists’ interest in Latin America and their attempts to establish trans-American connections. As they engage with and write about countries such as Brazil, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Cuba, Costa Rica, and Venezuela as utopian spaces, these writers often tend to relegate Latin America to the status of a useful trope, one that allows them to negotiate a variety of identitarian and sexual anxieties.

The domestic political landscape that informs the desire for migration to the Latin Americas—whether real or fantastical—in the early twentieth century leads to Johnson’s depiction of the savvy and ambitious titular character in his first and only novel, Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man, to Van Vechten’s, Larsen’s, and Fauset’s fantastical Brazil in their respective Nigger Heaven, Passing, and Plum Bun. Hughes’s translation of Cuban poet Nicolás Guillén’s poetry illustrates his straddling of national and color lines through the translation of language. These writers react to Jim Crow laws, one-drop rules, and color lines in their connections to and fantasies of the Latin Americas. What then of writers who make similar trans-American connections and constructions, but who write from a space of relative privilege, however resistant they are to that privilege? Consider William Carlos Williams, who negotiates the pressures of assimilation in the United States as he attempts to assert his Afro Puerto Rican and Anglo Dominican heritages. Although Williams is commonly recalled as an “all-American” poet, his works betray his constant attempts to harness three perpetually shifting and overlapping identities: that of a son of immigrants, of a first generation “American,” and of a son of the Americas.

The trans-American connections I reveal span the fantastical to the truly cross-cultural. In placing United States modernism and the Harlem Renaissance within a larger hemispheric context, I shift our sense of U.S. modernism in general, but also of the Harlem Renaissance’s place within U.S. modernism in particular.

Table of Contents

  • Dedication
  • Acknowledgments
  • List of Figures
  • Abstract
  • Introduction
  • Chapter One:
    • Reading, Misreading, and Language Passing in James Weldon Johnson’s The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man and Along This Way
    • Blackness under the law
    • James Weldon Johnson’s Along This Way
    • The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man
    • Conclusion
  • Chapter Two:
    • Brazilian Schemes and Utopian Dreams in Nella Larsen’s Passing, Jessie Redmon Fauset’s Plum Bun, and Carl Van Vechten’s Nigger Heaven
    • Historical Context
    • From Liberia to Brazil—A Change of Venue
    • Carl Van Vechten’s Nigger Heaven
    • Jessie Fauset’s Plum Bun, “Home,” and Brazil
    • Larsen’s Passing and Brazil as Utopia/Dystopia
    • Conclusion: Utopia vs. Brazilian Reality
  • Chapter Three:
    • All-American Me: William Carlos Williams’s Construction and Deconstruction of the Self
    • Cultural Context—Casta and Passing
    • Blurring Cultural Boundaries: “Only the whites of my eyes were affected.”
    • The Specter of Blackness: “I had visions of being lynched…”
    • In The American Grain: “I am—the brutal thing itself.”
    • Translation: “El que no a vista Sevilla, […] no a vista maravilla!
    • Conclusion: “I’ll keep my way in spite of all.”
  • Chapter Four:
    • “Look Homeward Angel Now”: Travel, Translation, and Langston Hughes’s Quest for Home
    • Langston Hughes in Mexico and Cuba—1907-1948: Mexico
    • Cuba
    • Langston Hughes and Nicolás Guillén in Spain
    • Translation, Analogy, and the “I”
    • Of Poetry, Jazz, Son, and Rumba
    • The Translations
    • Conclusion: Translating, Travel, and “Home”
  • Bibliography

List of Figures

  • Figure 1: James Weldon Johnson, photographed by Carl Van Vechten in 1932.
  • Figure 2: “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon.” Pablo Picasso, 1907.
  • Figure 3: “Noire et Blanche.” Man Ray, 1926.
  • Figure 4: “Blues.” Archibald Motley, 1929.
  • Figure 5: “An Idyll of the Deep South.” Aaron Douglas, 1934.
  • Figure 6: Bessie Smith, photographed by Carl Van Vechten, 1936.
  • Figure 7: Billie Holiday, photographed by Carl Van Vechten, 1949.
  • Figure 8: The Williams Family
  • Figure 9: “De Español y Mulata; Morisca.” [“From Spaniard and Mulatto, Morisca.”] Miguel Cabrera, 1763.
  • Figure 10: “De Mestizo y d India; Coyote.”[“From Mestizo and Indian, Coyote.”] Miguel Cabrera, 1763.
  • Figure 11: William Carlos Williams, circa 1903.
  • Figure 12: Elena Hoheb Williams
  • Figure 13: Langston Hughes
  • Figure 14: Diego Rivera with Frida Kahlo, photographed by Carl Van Vechten, 1932.
  • Figure 15: Nicolás Guillén

Read the entire dissertation here.

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Accounting for the Audience in Historical Reconstruction: Martin Jones’s Production of Langston Hughes’s Mulatto

Posted in Articles, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, United States on 2011-02-21 03:09Z by Steven

Accounting for the Audience in Historical Reconstruction: Martin Jones’s Production of Langston Hughes’s Mulatto

Theatre Survey
Number 36, Issue 1 (1995)
pages 5-19
DOI: 10.1017/S0040557400006451

Jay Plum, Ph.D.

Although Langston Hughes’s Mulatto holds the record as the second longest Broadway production of a play by an African American playwright (surpassed only by Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun), the reasons behind its commercial success have been virtually ignored. This oversight in part reflects a tendency among theatre scholars to treat the dramatic text as the primary (if not the only) source of a play’s meaning. In the case of Mulatto, academic critics have debated its literary merit according to questions of form and genre. Webster Smalley, in his introduction to the collected plays of Langston Hughes, for instance, defends Mulatto as a tragedy, arguing that the play avoids the tendency of social dramas of the 1930s “to oversimplify moral issues as in melodrama” because of the recognition of Bert’s “tragic situation” (he must kill himself or be killed by an angry lynch mob). For those critics who insist that Mulatto is melodramatic, Smalley advises, “let [them] look to the racial situation in the deep South as it is even today [i.e., 1963]: it is melodramatic.” Smalley presupposes a dichotomous relationship between fiction and reality, advancing a mimetic theory in which representation directly corresponds to the real. Rather than answering specific charges, he defines contemporary race relations as melodrama, implying that Mulatto, even if melodramatic, is “natural” and “accurate.”

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Liminality and Transgression in Langston Hughes’ “Mulatto”

Posted in Articles, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive on 2011-02-21 01:33Z by Steven

Liminality and Transgression in Langston Hughes’ “Mulatto”

Cuadernos de investigación filológica (C.I.F.)
Number 26 (2000)
pages 263-271
ISSN: 0211-0547

Isabel Soto
Universidad Nacional de Educación a Distancia

This essay explores societal fear of the mulatto as charted by Langston Hughes’ play “Mulatto” (1931).  “Mulatto” dramatizes the demand for social incorporation by a mixed-race young man, Robert Norwood, who suffers a double exclusion: from a white body politic, and from the black community, by virtue of his claim to a white heritage.  I make extensive use of the terms ‘liminal’ and ‘liminality’ (taken from the work of anthropologist Victor Turner) to refer to Robert’s status, his attempts to redraw that status, and the representation of space in the play.  I argue that white characters’, and hence white society’s, refusal to grant Robert access their power structures reveals a complex anxiety or fear of the borderland or liminal creature that is the mulatto, born of transgression (and, in Robert’s case, ultimately a transgressor himself).  I will argue that the play is as much about female agency as it about the danger attendant on the (non-white) exercise of power.

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Multiple Passings and the Double Death of Langston Hughes

Posted in Articles, Biography, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, Passing, United States on 2011-01-24 22:44Z by Steven

Multiple Passings and the Double Death of Langston Hughes

Volume 23, Number 4 (Fall 2000)
pages 670-693
E-ISSN: 1529-1456 Print ISSN: 0162-4962
DOI: 10.1353/bio.2000.0043

Juda Charles Bennett, Associate Professor of English
The College of New Jersey

Desire to us
Was like a double death,
Swift dying
Of our mingled breath,
Of an unknown strange perfume
Between us quickly
In a naked

Langston Hughes, “Desire”

At the very beginning of his career and throughout most of his forty years of writing, Langston Hughes repeatedly returned to the theme of racial passing, exploring the subject in two autobiographies, several poems and short stories, a brief scene in his first novel, and at least one play. More than those writers who could easily pass for white—Jean Toomer and Walter White—and more than those writers who have become central to the growing study of passing literature—Nella Larsen and William Faulkner—Langston Hughes examines this figure through all the major genres, and more importantly, with an incredible range and inventiveness. In surveying the work, however, it becomes apparent that Hughes began to abandon the theme of racial passing just as he was beginning to explore the interrelated themes of homosexuality and homophobia. As Hughes moves to this “new” material, he can be found structuring it, perhaps as many authors do, upon his early work, with the more familiar drama of racial passing informing his approach to homosexuality. Perhaps less obvious are the ways that the early representations of racial passing, including…

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On “Mulatto”

Posted in Articles, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, United States on 2011-01-06 03:49Z by Steven

On “Mulatto”

Modern American Poetry
Langston Hughes (1902-1967)
Compiled and Prepared by Cary Nelson

From Langston Hughes (Twayne, 1967)
James A. Emanuel

This dramatic dialogue offers a tensely individualized conflict between father and son that is hardened by the vigor and scorn of the words and broadened by carefully placed, suggestive details from nature. The son’s adamant voice opens the poem, but is transformed into a passive Negro feminine presence exuberantly recalled by the white father, who feels half-pleasurably nagged in his fancied return to the conception and infancy of his son. The poet, employing the past awakened in the white man, leaves him musing and moves the growing child swiftly through years of hostile rejection by his white half-brothers—implying virtual estrangement from his father, whom he no longer reminds of sexual freedom in the Negro quarter….

A Comparison of Langston Hughes’s “The Mulatto” and Claude McKay’s “Mulatto”

John Claborn

Reading McKay’s traditional poetics alongside his contemporary Langston Hughes’s open-form, experimental poetics brings out the specificity of the sonnet’s formalizing force. Consider Hughes’s “Mulatto” (1927) and McKay’s earlier 1925 sonnet, “The Mulatto.” Since slavery, the problem of the mulatto child disavowed by his/her white father-master has been a site of intense emotion and trauma—a problem that these two poems address head-on from the perspective of the mulatto son. Hughes’s “Mulatto” embraces a hybrid form structured by interpolations, multiple voices, and polyphony—in short, the poem is “mulatto” in form as well as content…

Read both essays here.

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Posted in Biography, Books, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, Novels, Passing on 2010-12-30 16:43Z by Steven


W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.
January 2011 (Originally published in 1923)
560 pages
5 × 8 in
Paperback ISBN: 978-0-393-93168-6

Jean Toomer (1894-1967)

Edited by:

Rudolph P. Byrd (1953-2011), Goodrich C. White Professor of American Studies and African American Studies
Emory University

Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and Director, W. E. B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research
Harvard University

A masterpiece of the Harlem Renaissance and a canonical work in both the American and the African American literary traditions, Cane is now available in a revised and expanded Norton Critical Edition.

Originally published in 1923, Jean Toomer’s Cane remains an innovative literary work—part drama, party poetry, part fiction. This revised Norton Critical Edition builds upon the First Edition (1988), which was edited by the late Darwin T. Turner, a pioneering scholar in the field of African American studies. The Second Edition begins with the editors’ introduction, a major work of scholarship that places Toomer within the context of American Modernism and the Harlem Renaissance. The introduction provides groundbreaking biographical information on Toomer and examines his complex, contradictory racial position as well as his own pioneering views on race. Illustrative materials include government documents containing contradictory information on Toomer’s race, several photographs of Toomer, and a map of Sparta, Georgia—the inspiration for the first and third parts of Cane. The edition reprints the 1923 foreword to Cane by Toomer’s friend Waldo Frank, which helped introduce Toomer to a small but influential readership. Revised and expanded explanatory annotations are also included.

“Backgrounds and Sources” collects a wealth of autobiographical writing that illuminates important phases in Jean Toomer’s intellectual life, including a central chapter from The Wayward and the Seeking and Toomer’s essay on teaching the philosophy of Russian psychologist and mystic Georges I. Gurdjieff, “Why I Entered the Gurdjieff Work.” The volume also reprints thirty of Toomer’s letters from 1919–30, the height of his literary career, to correspondents including Waldo Frank, Sherwood Anderson, Claude McKay, Horace Liveright, Georgia O’Keeffe, and James Weldon Johnson.

An unusually rich “Criticism” section demonstrates deep and abiding interest in Cane. Five contemporary reviews—including those by Robert Littell and W. E. B. Du Bois and Alain Locke—suggest its initial reception. From the wealth of scholarly commentary on Cane, the editors have chosen twenty-one major interpretations spanning eight decades including those by Langston Hughes, Robert Bone, Darwin T. Turner, Charles T. Davis, Alice Walker, Gayl Jones, Barbara Foley, Mark Whalan, and Nellie Y. McKay.

A Chronology, new to the Second Edition, and an updated Selected Bibliography are also included.

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“A Little Yellow Bastard Boy”: Paternal Rejection, Filial Insistence, and the Triumph of African American Cultural Aesthetics in Langston Hughes’s “Mulatto”

Posted in Articles, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive on 2010-10-29 18:52Z by Steven

“A Little Yellow Bastard Boy”: Paternal Rejection, Filial Insistence, and the Triumph of African American Cultural Aesthetics in Langston Hughes’s “Mulatto”

Robert Paul Lamb, Professor of English
Purdue University

College Literature
Volume, 35, Number 2
(Spring 2008)
pages 126-153
DOI: 10.1353/lit.2008.0012

When Langston Hughes published “Mulatto” in his second poetry collection, Fine Clothes to the Jew (1927), it was highly praised by both African American and white reviewers. But because it did not seem germane to the heated controversy caused by that volume—over whether the blues were an acceptable poetic form and whether Hughes’s vernacular representations of African Americans were genuine or else racialist stereotypes—“Mulatto” has been mostly ignored by scholars ever since. This richly complex poem demands to be read in several contexts: Hughes’s difficult relationship with his own father, his lifelong near obsession with biracialism, and the poem’s deliberate intertextuality with Jean Toomer’s Cane. Most important, Hughes’s intricate and innovative employment of African American cultural aesthetics—call and response, signifying, and the blues—is essential to any meaningful reading of what is one of the finest poems ever written on the biracial experience in America.

Read or purchase the article here.

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An Anthology of Interracial Literature: Black-White Contacts in the Old World and the New

Posted in Anthologies, Books, History, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, Slavery on 2010-08-10 04:14Z by Steven

An Anthology of Interracial Literature: Black-White Contacts in the Old World and the New

New York University Press
675 pages
Cloth ISBN: 9780814781432
Paperback ISBN: 9780814781449

Edited by

Werner Sollors, Henry B. and Anne M. Cabot Professor of English Literature and Professor of African and African American Studies
Harvard University

A white knight meets his half-black half-brother in battle. A black hero marries a white woman. A slave mother kills her child by a rapist-master. A white-looking person of partly African ancestry passes for white. A master and a slave change places for a single night. An interracial marriage turns sour. The birth of a child brings a crisis. Such are some of the story lines to be found within the pages of An Anthology of Interracial Literature.

This is the first anthology to explore the literary theme of black-white encounters, of love and family stories that cross—or are crossed by—what came to be considered racial boundaries. The anthology extends from Cleobolus’ ancient Greek riddle to tormented encounters in the modern United States, visiting along the way a German medieval chivalric romance, excerpts from Arabian Nights and Italian Renaissance novellas, scenes and plays from Spain, Denmark, England, and the United States, as well as essays, autobiographical sketches, and numerous poems. The authors of the selections include some of the great names of world literature interspersed with lesser-known writers. Themes of interracial love and family relations, passing, and the figure of the Mulatto are threaded through the volume.

An Anthology of Interracial Literature allows scholars, students, and general readers to grapple with the extraordinary diversity in world literature. As multi-racial identification becomes more widespread the ethnic and cultural roots of world literature takes on new meaning.

Contributors include: Hans Christian Andersen, Gwendolyn Brooks, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Charles W. Chesnutt, Lydia Maria Child, Kate Chopin, Countee Cullen, Caroline Bond Day, Rita Dove, Alexandre Dumas, Olaudah Equiano, Langston Hughes, Victor Hugo, Charles Johnson, Adrienne Kennedy, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Guy de Maupassant, Claude McKay, Eugene O’Neill, Alexander Pushkin, and Jean Toomer.

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