Langston Hughes holds a place in the history of American literature as a great poet, novelist, playwright, short story writer, and newspaper columnist. It was his work during the Harlem Renaissance that immortalized Langston Hughes. The Harlem Renaissance was a blossoming period for African American art, literature, music, and culture in the United States led primarily by the African American community-based in Harlem, New York City, after World War I. Though the Harlem Renaissance began in Harlem, New York City, it soon spread to other black communities in the Western World. The Harlem Renaissance created a new literary genre that included the works of Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin, Zora Neale Hurston, and Langston Hughes (Yarbrough, 1). These writers fired a public interest in African American culture and experiences. Langston Hughes’s writing often revolved around controversial, racial themes, and in his attempt to portray his people realistically, he faced many problems in real life. Hughes was most powerful in his poetry. Without giving up the regular classical poetic structure, he was able to incorporate musical rhythms particularly those of jazz and blues, and the storytelling traditions of African American culture (Sullivan, 1). His poetry revolved around themes of racial injustice, and other social and political issues. Langston Hughes used his poetic talent to express his social protest.
In 1926 Hughes published his first volume of poems, The Weary Blues and it was followed by Fine Clothes to the Jew in 1927. Hughes succeeded in bringing about a fusion of vernacular culture with the realm of high art. In the title poem of his first volume of verse, The Weary Blues (1926), one finds that Hughes’ language takes on the rhythm of the pianist’s music through the lyrical choice of words. He then includes blues stanzas into the poem. This integration of rhythm, blues, and poetry seems to evoke the image of a black man playing the piano with a transcendental force. Hughes’s main asset was that he had the wit and wisdom to study and understand the life of black Americans from many angles. He succeeded in recording faithfully the small and beautiful nuances of black life as well as its frustrations. In simple form and using simple words, he wrote with hidden meanings: “Last week they lynched a colored boy / They hung him to a tree / That colored boy ain’t said a thing / But we all should be free / Yes, m’am! / We all should be free” (Sullivan, 1). Hughes’s willingness to draw on folk-blues, popular music, and various “art” music traditions simultaneously is evident during the 1950s – in his explicit formal and thematic references to bebop generally in Montage of a Dream Deferred and in his great utopian poem “Projection, ” from Montage, where the speaker dreams that “Paul Robeson / will team up with Jackie Mabley” (CP 404). One of Hughes’s last protest blues poems was “Backlash Blues” which appeared in “The Panther and the Lash” (Tracy, 2001, 217). In this last poem, Langston Hughes poses audacious questions to the whites as a strong social protest against racism. “Mister Backlash, Mister Backlash, Just who do you think I am? Tell me, Mister Backlash, Who do you think I am? You raise my taxes, freeze my wages, Send my son to Vietnam” (ML, 1).
In the poem “The Negro Speaks of Rivers”, Langston Hughes uses allusions to the Old Testament iconography of place by which enslaved blacks identified themselves with the enslaved Israelites in Egypt and Babylon. The word “downriver” refers to all the horrible places in the South where slaves were traded and “the riverside” refers to the relative safety of plantations. Hughes is thus able to relate his geographic settings to twentieth-century perspectives of places of belonging and entitlement, beyond enslavement. This usage of spiritual geography has been the common feature of the oral traditions of enslaved Americans of African descent and in the narrative texts of former slaves, and Hughes uses it as a figurative strategy in many of his writings (Tracy, 2004, 66).
The poems of Hughes in the early thirties revolved around issues of inequality, exploitation, and injustice in America. The poem “Good Morning Revolution” addresses the allegorical figure of Revolution, which is also called a “troublemaker, an alien-enemy”. During this time his poetry was mainly “literary” in a modernist vein and was meant for the relatively small, interracial though the largely white group of people interested in modern literature. This included the lyrics collected in Dear Lovely Death (1932) and his early short stories. These works were full of feelings of alienation, fragmented identity, and failed attempts in constituting family and community. Hughes also wrote on the uplift of the African American community in the form of dramatic monologues such as “The Negro Mother,” “The Colored Soldier,” and “The Black Clown”. He exposed the tendency to project a false kind of black consciousness in his poems “The Black Clown” and “The Big-Timer” where Hughes employed symbolism to convey layered meanings. For example, he used minstrel images as symbols for black false consciousness. He also wrote “revolutionary” poetry, prose, and drama which supported communistic thought. The 1940s saw Langston Hughes writing less with bitterness and more with humor. Apart from Jim Crow’s Last Stand, a pamphlet of poems issued early in the 1940s, protest almost disappears from Hughes’s writing. His poem “Me and the Mule” makes the transition to the new approach: “My old mule, / He’s got a grin on his face. / He’s been a mule so long / He’s forgotten about his race. / I’m like that old mule Black—and don’t give a damn! You got to take me Like I am”. An example of this new approach is his collection of poems in “Shakespeare in Harlem” which bear the characteristic hallmarks of Hughes’s poetic style since the war – emphasizing jazz rhythms and the light mood (Dickinson, 86).
Hughes’s poetry in the late 1940s and early 1950s, particularly Montage of a Dream Deferred (1951) was engaged with “neo-Modernist” poetics that referred to the powerful trend among black and white writers, to base their work on “high” Modernist work of the early twentieth century, particularly the work of Eliot and Pound, and to a lesser extent Stevens and Crane. The “high” Modernist analog of Hughes’s Montage, is seen in the work of William Carlos Williams (Tracy, 2004, 160).
In his poem “Poet to Bigot”, Langston Hughes writes about the power he wields through his poetry. Though it seemingly looks powerless in the face of bigots, his poetry is like a flower with the power to conquer whereas their power is like a stone and can achieve nothing. When Hughes was ordered to appear before Senator Joseph McCarthy’s subcommittee on subversive activities in 1953, he had to defend his twenty-five or so published books that were accused as being very dangerous. Hughes appeared before McCarthy’s committee and responded skillfully. Without implicating anyone, he trumpeted free speech, free press, and other civil liberties (Wallace, 60). He adopted a neutral tone without being friendly or hostile. His response was later published as the McCarthy Hearings (Mickenberg, 331). His anger and indignation over being treated unfairly are reflected in the poem “Un-American Investigators” published posthumously in The Panther and the Lash (1967) (ML, 1).
Hughes’s poems help in bringing to light many hidden problems of the black community: economic hardship (“Hard Luck”); sexual exploitation (“Ruby Brown”); and the threat of violence and loss (“Song for a Dark Girl”). It also made the Communist Party of the United States of America draw Hughes into its circle in the early 1930s. His poems of this period emphasized the struggle for rights and he participated prominently in the Left-led struggle to save the nine Scottsboro defendants from execution, as well as in other Left-initiated campaigns. He wrote a radical piece that was jazz-influenced and titled “Scottsboro Limited”. It was enacted in many placed around the world to save the Scottsboro defendants.
Hughes desired to create a popular radical art that would appeal to all kinds of audiences and this materialized with the rise of the Popular Front era in the mid-1930s. One of the main characteristics of Popular Front aesthetics is the conscious fusion of genres and media – “of “high” and “low, ” of “popular” and “literary, ” of Whitman and Eliot, of folk culture and mass culture, of literary and nonliterary documents” (Tracy, 2004,145). Another characteristic was that it generated interest in race and ethnicity factors and promoted sentimental multiculturalism. It is of social impact that the poetics of the Popular Front shaped and were shaped by Hughes’s poetry, especially in such poems as “Broadcast on Ethiopia, ” “Air Raid over Harlem, ” and “Seven Moments of Love, ” as well as his “poetry-play” (and musical) “Don’t You Want to Be Free?” and his “Simple” stories.
Langston Hughes can be seen as a national African American literary institution by himself during the 1950s and 1960s. His constant reading and lecture tours, his wide contacts domestically and abroad, his syndicated “From Here to Yonder” column in the Chicago Defender, his work as editor of the poetry anthologies Poetry of the Negro (1949 and 1970) and New Negro Poetry (1964), and his prolific letter writing were some of the important factors that made Hughes a socially powerful literary person.
Harlem’s position as an iconic African American landscape that was both special and typical, was mainly due to the works of Langston Hughes during the 1940s and 1950s. The “Simple” stories and the poetry sequence Montage of a Dream Deferred are two aspects that helped Harlem have a position in the literary world through otherwise it was associated with refugees, homeless people, and prisons.
Hughes was also an influential model for other African American artists and intellectuals who were trying to imagine and define a “Black Aesthetic.” He had created a distinctly African American literary diction through his poems, sketches, stories that drew on the typical African American resources of jazz, the blues, gospel, r & b, toasting, badman stories and songs, tall tales, black vaudeville humor, street corner and barbershop conversations, sermons, and so on since the 1920s. Such a literary diction was followed by other black artists and intellectuals such as Baraka, Touré, and Larry Neal. Hughes supported younger black writers, both formally and informally. On a formal level, Hughes offered recommendations and letters of support for obtaining grants, fellowships, etc for young black writers, such as Amiri Baraka, Ron Milner, and Conrad Kent Rivers, as well as for older writers who would play significant roles in the Black Arts Movement, such as Margaret Danner (Bontemps and Hughes, 53). He also informally wrote letters of encouragement to young writers and never lost an opportunity to be amongst them. He supported the proto-Black Arts institutions as the Market Place Gallery readings organized in Harlem by Raymond Patterson (Rampersad, 311). Hughes, with a huge passion for networking introduced writers and intellectuals to each other. Hughes is remembered today for his remarkable efforts in many genres over so many years and also for his efforts to create a social impact in many ways. His drive to remain relevant in the present while acknowledging the historical past along with his passion for connecting his work with his values and their relevance in society makes him a great writer who had a tremendous social impact.
Bontemps, Arna, and Langston Hughes (1990). Letters, 1925–1967. Paragon Publishers, New York.
Dickinson, C. Donald (1967). A Bio-Bibliography of Langston Hughes, 1902-1967. Archon Books Publishers, Hamden, Connecticut.
Mickenberg, L. Julia (2006). Learning from the Left: Children’s Literature, the Cold War, and Radical Politics in the United States. Oxford University Press US,
ML (Meyer Literature) (2009). Langston Hughes. Web.
Rampersad, Arnold (1988). The Life of Langston Hughes, Volume II: 1941–1967, I Dream a World. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1988.
Sullivan, T. Edward (2002). Celebrating Langston Hughes. Book Links.
Tracy, C. Steven (2001). Langston Hughes & the Blues. University of Illinois Press.
Tracy, C. Steven (2004). A Historical Guide to Langston Hughes. Oxford University Press, New York.
Wallace, O. Maurice (2008). Langston Hughes: The Harlem Renaissance. Marshall Cavendish.
Yarbrough, Wynn (2009). Patronage and the Harlem Renaissance Movement: The Case of Langston Hughes and Charlotte Mason. Web.