American Literature/20th Century/Langston Hughes
Black people know that things are happening to them that they can’t explain, and systems are compromising them in ways that they never imagined (until they get caught up in the system). Just like during “separate but equal,” Blacks always knew that equal was never equal, but separate was definitely separate. Today, there is no legal “separate” (but there is a separate), and equal is still not equal, but the real problem is that the black community, in the collective, haven’t figured out how to fight “colorblindness,” which is the new Jim Crow. Blacks are conflicted as to where the struggle is, and who is on the frontline, and they constantly ask each other, “What are you doing to help the struggle?” It’s hard to fight when most don’t know where the fights are, and which fronts to fight on. And those who are fighting, see “the frontline” based on where they are.
For those of us who maintain some constant involvement in the many, many conflicts that face Blacks in the 21st Century, individually and in the collective, what one fights for and who one is fighting for, seems to always be a point of contention for some people. While some understand the complexities of black struggle – that racism manifests itself on many levels and thus has to be fought on many levels – others see the “struggle” on the one level that they deal with, and think that fight is the only battle black people are facing. Thus, if you’re not in that particular fight, you’re not fighting at all.
Langston Hughes was born February 1, 1902 in Joplin, Missouri. After his parents divorced when he was young, Langston moved from place to place in the United States. He became an avid writer while he was in school, writing for the school newspaper and yearbook as well as writing stories, poems, and plays. During 1920 Hughes spent time with his father in Mexico. To please his father he studied engineering at Columbia University, but he only stayed there a short time. He became a crewman on a ship in 1923, and went ashore at Paris, living there for a few months with other black expatriates. He returned to the United States and eventually graduated from Lincoln University in Pennsylvania. For most of his adult life he lived in Harlem, New York City. Hughes died May 22, 1967 from complications arising from prostate cancer.
Movement and Style
Hughes was part of a movement called the Harlem Renaissance that included James Weldon Johnson, Wallace Thurman, Claude McKay, Countee Cullen, and Richard Wright. This movement stressed pride in the black race and a desire to overcome racial discimination in the United States. It helped lay the foundation for the Civil Rights Movement.
He incorporated the rhythms of blues and jazz music in his poetry. He also included elements of black folk culture and the music of the African American church. The opening lines of "The Weary Blues" contain examples of these elements:
- Droning a drowsy syncopated tune,
- Rocking back and forth to a mellow croon,
- I heard a Negro play.
- Down on Lenox Avenue the other night
- By the pale dull pallor of an old gas light
- He did a lazy sway. . . .
- He did a lazy sway. . . .
- To the tune o’ those Weary Blues.
In all his works Hughes celebrated his own blackness and demonstrated pride in his African American (and ultimately African) heritage. In these lines from "The Negro Speaks of Rivers" Hughes looks wistfully back to the ancient past of the African people:
- I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young.
- I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep.
- I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it.
Hughes attempted to record the positive qualities of African American people and hoped to inspire and encourage other African Americans to rise above the injustices and inequality then prevalent in the United States. In his book Montage of a Dream Deferred he wrote a series of poems linked by the idea that the dream of equality for African Americans had been deferred. One of the poems, "Democracy," presents this long-awaited aspiration in the opening lines:
- Democracy will not come
- Today, this year
- Nor ever
- Through compromise and fear.
- I have as much right
- As the other fellow has
- To stand
- On my two feet
- And own the land.
- Read the poems "I, Too, Sing America" and "Let America Be America Again." Write a paragraph explaining the narrators' feelings about America during his own time and his dreams for America's future.
- Read "The Weary Blues" and "Po' Boy Blues." Write an essay detailing the relationship of each poem to actual blues music and it's presentation of the experience of African Americans.
- Selected Books of Poetry
- The Weary Blues. Knopf, 1926
- The Dream Keeper and Other Poems. Knopf, 1932
- Montage of a Dream Deferred. Holt, 1951
- Selected Books of Fiction
- Not Without Laughter. Knopf, 1930
- The Ways of White Folks. Knopf, 1934
- Simple Speaks His Mind. 1950
- Laughing to Keep from Crying, Holt, 1952
- Selected Plays
- Don't You Want to Be Free? 1938
- Emperor of Haiti. 1936
- Tambourines to glory. 1956
- Black Nativity. 1961
- Hughes at Poets.org contains a brief biography and texts and audio files of some poems by Hughes.
- Hughes at Modern American Poetry contains biographical essays, critical discussions of Hughes's writings, and a bibliogrphy.
- Hughes at America's Library contains interesting biographical essays.
- Hughes at Perspectives in American Literature contains an excellent bibliography and some study questions.
Associated Wikimedia for Langston Hughes