Langston Hughes and the African-American Dream
Until the first part of the 20th century the world of poetry was dominated by white artists. White poetry written about the experiences of white people was the only kind of verse most people had ever heard, read, or known. With the advent of the Harlem renaissance in the 1920’s, this relatively genteel world of American poetry was shaken to its foundations. Strong black voices, writing with African American rhythms and cadences broke out all over the country. Of this remarkable creative outpouring, one voice rose among all of the rest. This was the voice of Langston Hughes.
Langston Hughes captured the power of the soul of black people and with melancholy experience, history and inspiration, he wrote his poetry. Born on February 1, 1902 as James Mercer Langston Hughes, did not live a simple life, as was common with most African-Americans at that time. His parents separated soon after his birth, so he was raised mostly by his mother, grandmother, and friends of the family. Hughes grew up and lived in poverty until he began to write. His father looked down on anyone who was poor, and therefore they did not get along. Hughes quickly became an accomplished writer though. Between 1926, when he started writing, and 1967, when he died, Hughes published sixteen books of poetry, two novels, three collections of short stories, four volumes of editorial fiction, twenty plays, musicals, and operas, three history books, eight books for younger writers, two autobiographies, twelve radio and television scripts, and dozens of magazine articles. He also edited seven anthologies during this time.
Langston Hughes was born in Joplin, Missouri to a family of abolitionists. His grandfather was James Mercer Langston, the first black American to be elected to public office in 1855. After high school Hughes went on to Columbia University to study engineering but soon dropped out to pursue his first love, poetry. He never looked back. Hughes moved to Harlem at the height of its golden era. He would also go on to make voyages of self-discovery to Africa and Europe, and return to the States with a freer, more confident vision of his own identity as an African-American, and an artist.
The poetry Hughes crafted over the course of his lifetime is filled with rhythm and beat. His stanzas weave wildly smooth tunes about life as a black American. Indeed, Hughes always acknowledged that his primary poetic influences were the blues and jazz. He once remarked “blues had the pulse beat of the people who keep on going.”
Hughes did not confine himself to revealing just the cadences of black music to his readers. Rather, he wanted his audience to taste the whole of the African American experience.
In A Negro Speaks of Rivers, Hughes expresses his feelings about the plight of black people through time to the present. He does it in a very personal way, but using poetic devices, such as repetition, rhyme, and rhythm, he gives it a more universal feel.
Hughes newly aware of the spiritual strength of migrant southern Negroes and feeling emotionally cast by his estranged parents, received melancholy inspiration from the sunset gold upon the Mississippi he was crossing by train. Submerging that feeling into thoughts of mighty rivers in his ancestral past (and having wrestled all day with the problem of hatred of Negroes so vocal in his father who awaited him Mexico) he reconciled his isolation in a river-like fusion in which history became rebirth, self-justification, and veiled prophecy.
This pinpoints the art of Hughes work.
In A Negro Speaks of Rivers one can clearly see Hughes themes expressed through his masterful use of lines and historical reference. I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep, is an important historical reference as the Congo is the river that segregated white Africa from black Africa. The next two lines are appropriately placed as their meanings are rather meaningfully juxtaposed. I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it. I heard the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln went down to New Orleans. The first of the two lines gives a sense of power, as the pyramids are a huge and amazing piece of history and architecture. The second line is more familiar. It is in the US, and the use of the name Abe instead of Abraham reinforces the sense of familiarity. The reference brings light to the issue of slavery, as Abe Lincoln and the south are very clearly related to slavery. So these two lines juxtaposed, can quite literally be interpreted as the move from power and greatness to slavery and the domination of blacks by whites. The I in the poem can be viewed as a holistic, all-encompassing I, in which Hughes includes all black people, in history, and in the present. This poem is full of rich use of language that demonstrates the connection of his life and ancestral past to several mighty rivers.
Another poem in which style and words come together to demonstrate racial issues is I, too. In this poem there are no biblical or distinctly historical references, but the meaning is still quite evident. They send me to eat in the kitchen, is a phrase very indicative of oppression, and the shame that is felt by whites when there is an immediate association with blacks. But I laugh, is the response of the speaker as he accepts that there is shame. When someone laughs about a degrading situation, it can be interpreted as a survival mechanism, or that they have a deeper understanding of what is going on, which in a sense makes them more powerful. Besides, Theyll see how beautiful I am and be ashamed, is a statement that comes near the end of the poem, and is a demonstration of the speaker taking a proud stance. He has known all throughout the poem that he was beautiful, and that someday they would have to see that. They will be ashamed is appropriately placed because there has been hidden shame throughout the poem, and now, at the end, at liberation, the shame can be recognized. I, too, am America, is a beautiful finish because although he has been deprived of pursuing the American dream, he is still a part of America.
Hughes often plays the idea of the America dream off the reality of the black life. In his poem, Let America be America Again, he acknowledges the American dream and how it is even lost to those who once knew it. But with physical disconnect, namely separation of stanzas and parentheses, he shows that the Negroes never had that; It was never America to me.
In Hughes style, one can clearly see the racial influence. His style also includes such devices as being very rhythmic, obviously the jazz and blues influence, but sometimes to point where he sounds as if he is preaching. Yet this too demonstrates black influence, because the tone is that of a black sermon. His poetry is easily read through its conversational quality as well. There are some rhymes, but often irregular, and lots of repetition. He uses these devices in a way that is unique to him, and through these and the use of metaphors, images, and familiar ideas or references, he conveys his thoughts and emotions.
Hughes feels strongly about his ancestral past, and the importance of African Americans. He believes in their soul. He has trouble reconciling the oppression and suffering they faced, especially in America. America, where everyone was supposed to be equal. He successfully took issue with the idea that the American dream only applied to white people. But in the quagmire of suffering and loss of hope, Hughes often stumbled upon a deeper reality, one in which he thoroughly believed. This reality is that black people, no matter how degraded, are a rich and glorious people, and that their history could not be diminished, regardless of others attempts.
Langston Hughes has earned a place amongst the greatest poets America has ever known. But more than that, Hughes has given a voice to the African American experience. Like the sharp peal of a jazz trumpet, Hughes poetry announced to the world that the streets of black America contained a culture rich and vibrant and fiercely poetic. This announcement became his lifes mission.
Among his many poetry titles; Let America be America Again, I, too, and A Negro Speaks of Rivers, argue passionately a belief in human equality, a wish for color-blind brotherhood, and a growing disillusionment with the American dream. As those dreams began to bear fruit in the tumultuous 60’s, Hughes was lionized with increasing frequency. He continued to devote his pen to the ideals of his youth, as well as to take an increasing interest in the movement toward Afro-centric values for black Americans.
He died in his beloved Harlem on May 22, 1967.
Emanuel, James A. Langston Hughes. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1967.
Jemie, Onwuchekwa. Or does it explode? Langston Hughes: Critical Perspectives Past
and Present. New York: Amistad, 1993. 135-169.
Jemie, Onwuchekwa. Langston Hughes: An Introduction to the Poetry. New York:
Columbia University Press, 1976.