An Introduction to Langston Hughes

In Langston Hughes’s landmark essay, “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain,” first published in The Nation in 1926, he writes, “An artist must be free to choose what he does, certainly, but he must also never be afraid to do what he must choose.” Freedom of creative expression, whether personal or collective, is one of the many legacies of Hughes, who has been called “the architect” of the Black poetic tradition. He is certainly one of the world’s most universally beloved poets, read by children and teachers, scholars and poets, musicians and historians.

Langston Hughes became the voice of Black America in the 1920s, when his first published poems brought him more than moderate success. Throughout his lifetime, his work encompassed both popular lyrical poems, and more controversial political work, especially during the thirties. He expressed a direct and sometimes even pessimistic approach to race relations, and he focused his poems primarily on the lives of the working class. When he writes that an artist must be unafraid, in “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain,” he is not only defending the need for his own work, but calling forth the next generation of poets, not only giving them permission to write about race, but charging them with the responsibility of writing about race.

He writes, in the same essay, “I am ashamed for the black poet who says, ‘I want to be a poet, not a Negro poet,’ as though his own racial world were not as interesting as any other world.” For Hughes, who wrote honestly about the world into which he was born, it was impossible to turn away from the subject of race, which permeated every aspect of his life, writing, public reception and reputation. That said, his subject matter was extraordinarily varied and rich: his poems are about music, politics, America, love, the blues, and dreams. No list could be inclusive enough. Hughes wrote poems about ordinary people leading ordinary lives, and about a world that few could rightly call beautiful, but that was worth loving and changing. Unfortunately, as with many of our great American poets (Emily DickinsonRobert Frost), the variety and challenging nature of his work has been reduced in the public mind through the repeated anthologizing of his least political, most accessible work. His most famous poem, “Dreams,” is to be found in thousands of English textbooks across America. Memorized by countless children and adults, “Dreams” is among the least racially and politically charged poems that he wrote:

     Hold fast to dreams
     For if dreams die
     Life is a broken-winged bird
     That cannot fly.

     Hold fast to dreams
     For when dreams go
     Life is a barren field
     Frozen with snow.

Though this is a poem of hope, it seems significant that he writes, in the second stanza, “when” instead of “if,” a testimony to the difficulty of his own life, and the lives he so closely observed in his work. A later poem, “Dream Variations,” articulates that very dream and is only slightly less well-known, or known primarily because of the last line, which became the title of John Howard Griffin’s seminal work on race relations in the sixties.

     To fling my arms wide
     In some place of the sun,
     To whirl and to dance
     Till the white day is done.
     Then rest at cool evening
     Beneath a tall tree
     While night comes on gently,
          Dark like me—
     That is my dream!

     To fling my arms wide
     In the face of the sun,
     Dance! Whirl! Whirl!
     Till the quick day is done.
     Rest at pale evening . . .
     A tall, slim tree . . .
     Night coming tenderly
          Black like me.

This poem is much more characteristic of how Hughes was able to use image, repetition, and his almost hypnotic cadence and rhyme to marry political and social content to the structures and form of poetry.

Some of Hughes’s major poetic influences were Walt WhitmanCarl SandburgPaul Laurence Dunbar, and Claude McKay. He also recognized W. E. B. Du Bois as a master of prose, and the long ignored stories and novels of Charles Chesnutt, which have recently gained more critical attention for both their structural complexity and political content. It was the marriage of these widely varying aesthetics, modernism mixed with an almost religious devotion to the power of repetition and musicality in the blues, that gave rise to Hughes’s voice, which sounded like no other voice that came before it.

Hughes once wrote, “Our folk music, having achieved world-wide fame, offers itself to the genius of the great individual American composer who is to come.” The idea of using the familiarity of music with the structural complications of other traditions is illustrated by a number of Hughes poems. Some of his poems, such as “Po’ Boy Blues,” are so much in the Blues tradition that it’s impossible to read them without hearing the twelve-bar blues behind the words.

     When I was home de
     Sunshine seemed like gold.
     When I was home de
     Sunshine seemed like gold.
     Since I come up North de
     Whole damn world’s turned cold.

The genius here is not that the poem is so markedly different than the blues, but that presenting this form as poetry allowed the blues tradition the intellectual respect it deserved; putting the blues on the page demanded that they be taken seriously, and opened the door to future study and scholarship. However, just as Hughes believed that folk music would inspire a virtuoso composer to transform it, he himself transformed the language of poetry by integrating blues structures into poems such as “The Weary Blues.”

     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.
     With his ebony hands on each ivory key
     He made that poor piano moan with melody.
          O Blues!
     Swaying to and fro on his rickety stool
     He played that sad raggy tune like a musical fool.
          Sweet Blues!
     Coming from a black man’s soul.
          O Blues!
     In a deep song voice with a melancholy tone
     I heard that Negro sing, that old piano moan—
          “Ain’t got nobody in all this world,
             Ain’t got nobody but ma self.
             I’s gwine to quit ma frownin’
             And put ma troubles on the shelf.”

     Thump, thump, thump, went his foot on the floor.
     He played a few chords then he sang some more—
          “I got the Weary Blues
          And I can’t be satisfied.
          Got the Weary Blues
          And can’t be satisfied—
          I ain’t happy no mo’
          And I wish that I had died.”
     And far into the night he crooned that tune.
     The stars went out and so did the moon.
     The singer stopped playing and went to bed
     While the Weary Blues echoed through his head.
     He slept like a rock or a man that's dead.

This poem is much more structurally complex than “Po’ Boy Blues.” The blues that appear in quotation marks are traditional in form: a line is repeated and then altered. But the poetry surrounding those “traditional” blues/lines is much more difficult to classify; each line seems to be influenced by the blues, but also makes its own form, relying on the repetition of a single rhyme for its power at the end, yet departing radically from the “expected” shape of music. At the beginning, the small, indented explanations almost seem like a longing to burst into song, which doesn’t actually happen until later in the poem. There is a modernist quality to this structure in that it borrows the technique of collage, but it isn’t implemented in quite the same way. The quotations that one finds in Ezra Pound or T. S. Eliot have the effect of dividing traditions, as if poems were being cast off the Tower of Babel. In Hughes’s work, the traditions are united.

Formally, however, the poem “Let America Be America Again” is far more ambitious. Like Whitman, Hughes uses the technique of anaphora, or repetition, as a rhetorical device that unifies the disparate elements of the poem:

     I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart,
     I am the Negro bearing slavery's scars.
     I am the red man driven from the land,
     I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek—
     And finding only the same old stupid plan
     Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.

     I am the young man, full of strength and hope,
     Tangled in that ancient endless chain
     Of profit, power, gain, of grab the land!
     Of grab the gold! Of grab the ways of satisfying need!
     Of work the men! Of take the pay!
     Of owning everything for one's own greed!

     I am the farmer, bondsman to the soil.
     I am the worker sold to the machine.
     I am the Negro, servant to you all.
     I am the people, humble, hungry, mean—
     Hungry yet today despite the dream.
     Beaten yet today—O, Pioneers!
     I am the man who never got ahead,
     The poorest worker bartered through the years.

These lines seem as if they could have been pulled straight from Whitman’s poem “The Sleepers” except that Hughes is rhyming at the same time, which doubly unifies the stanzas. And where Whitman’s poetry was open and inclusive, Hughes’s poem is more pessimistic about the nature of America, even angry. The opening lines, which long for the past:

     Let America be America again.
     Let it be the dream it used to be.

are transformed by the end of the poem into:

     O, let America be America again—
     The land that never has been yet—
     And yet must be—the land where every man is free.

As an American poet, Hughes offers a call to change to his readers as an alternative to Whitman’s optimism. With both his politics and his formal innovations, he has influenced countless poets of different styles and schools in the twentieth and twenty-first century including Yusef KomunyakaaAfaa Michael WeaverKevin YoungRobert CreeleyFrank O’HaraGwendolyn BrooksRita DoveMartín Espada, and others. The question for the twenty-first century reader of Hughes’s work is how to read his poems without reducing his work to politics or denying the political complexity. He himself saw the politics and poetry as inseparable writing:

Most of my own poems are racial in theme and treatment, derived from the life I know. In many of them I try to grasp and hold some of the meanings and rhythms of jazz. I am as sincere as I know how to be in these poems and yet after every reading I answer questions like these from my own people: “Do you think Negroes should always write about Negroes?” “I wish you wouldn’t read some of your poems to white folks.” “How do you find anything interesting in a place like a cabaret?” “Why do you write about black people? You aren’t black.” “What makes you do so many jazz poems?”

The formal devices, rhetoric, anaphora, and rhyme as well as his original and compelling integration of the Blues, all of which make his poems so memorable and beloved, come from a cultural tradition that had never had a voice in poetry. In that sense, Hughes’s use of forms was itself is political, not just the content of his poems.

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