The twentieth century was the era of the African-American cultural movements and numerous, besides, successful attempts of African- Americans to present themselves as talented art workers. The ending of the American Civil War and the rights given to the black Americans gave way to a new trend in art called “Harlem Renaissance” that made a lot of African-Americans well-known and popular among a wide range of audiences. Still, racial discrimination and a humiliating image of “blacky” still existed in American society, and many African-American writers touched upon those problems in their works, and August Wilson and Langston Hughes were among them. So, in this paper, I will compare the portrayal of African-Americans in the works of both writers.
No one can deny how difficult it was to be an African-American writer living in the white American society of the XXth century, making poems praising the talents and perfect erudition of African-Americans. However, this is exactly what made August Wilson and Langston Hughes popular and recognized writers all over the USA. Their poetry touches the hearts of those who care about racial discrimination, injustice, and abasement that black people confront. So, let us consider the portrayal of African-Americans by each of them in particular.
When talking about August Wilson, we should mention his own life experience of being insulted and humiliated, that was reflected in his plays and poetry. Many black American critics found Wilson’s plays utterly similar to their own life experiences.
I felt that this man had somehow peeped into my own past to reinvigorate a part of my life that had for years lain dormant in my memory (Sandra G. Shannon, vii).
In one of the New York Times publications, Wilson was considered as the playwright considered “devoted to the alternative culture of black Americans (Isherwood, Charles)”.
In Wilson’s play “Radio Golf” African-American identity is the main focus. Moreover, the author represents different modifications of this identity. Each character has his/her own variation of identity. Roosevelt sees his identity in what he can receive from life right now. Sterling’s identity lies in the framework of what is good and what is bad. Old Joe’s identity lies in his memories from the past. Another important theme disclosed in “Radio Golf” is the theme of money. Money is not only the means of dictating the actions of the main characters, but it also determines the characters themselves. The author focuses on the main story line of the play, which is monetary transactions: Old Joe has back taxes; Aunt Ester’s house is illegally sold.
In “Fences” Wilson discloses the theme of race and racial discrimination. “Fences” is a story of a black American man, Troy Maxton, and his family.
They live in the late 50’s to early 60’s when the African-Americans seem to have the same rights as the white ones. The idea of being insulted by white people still exists in Troy’s mind, that is why he refuses to allow his son to join the football team, thus, ruins his son’s future.
His wife, Rose, dreams about having a happy and friendly home and family. She had an unstable past and now she is afraid her agonizing past may repeat again. That is why when she finds out that Troy has love affairs with another woman, she is devastated, disappointed, full of regret and despair.
“Fences” is a play in which Wilson wanted to depict African-Americans living in a new age but still having distressful past memories of being disgraced by white people.
He presents new Afro-Americans having the past consciousness.
His ability to stimulate his audience’s consciousness to produce atavistic images from their cultural past or memories of actual experiences is fundamental to his skills as a dramatist (Sandra G. Shannon, vii).
When talking about Langston Hughes, one should mention that the vast majority of African-American writers roundly criticized his works first. They regarded Hughes’ manner of portraying black life to be unattractive (Poetry Foundation). Some of them even called ‘the poet low-rate of Harlem’. Hughes himself used to say that his works were about
“workers, roustabouts, and singers, and job hunters on Lenox Avenue in New York, or Seventh Street in Washington or South State in Chicago—people up today and down tomorrow, working this week and fired the next, beaten and baffled, but determined not to be wholly beaten, buying furniture on the installment plan, filling the house with roomers to help pay the rent, hoping to get a new suit for Easter—and pawning that suit before the Fourth of July.” (Langston Hughes (1902 – 1967)).
With the lapse of time, Langston Hughes was becoming a more and more popular and recognized among the wide range of black critics. Throughout his works, he uses various themes to analyze the interrelations between people of different racial backgrounds in the USA. In his “Song for a Dark Girl”, he expresses his views about injustice in society and cries out to the white God Jesus. While reading “Jazz Band in a Parisian Cabaret”, the reader can track the way Hughes expresses the idea of national unity. Despite the color of skin, he depicts African-Americans to be the members of American society who can contribute a lot to its culture.
“Critics have often focused on his passionate love of the blues aesthetic and the artistic labors he devoted to making the blues into a nationally popular literature” (Scott, Jonathan, 106).
The play “Harlem” is a kind of response to the dreams about freedom of African-Americans living in the USA. Wilson made an attempt to represent people of American descent who were deprived of freedom and normal attitude towards them. This idea arises in the very first line of the poem where Hughes depicts the society where millions of individuals have dreams which are put off indefinitely:
Does it dry up
Like a raising in the sun?
Or fester like a sore –
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over –
Like a syrupy sweet? (X.J. Kennedy, Dana Giola, 291).
In the poem “Slave on the Block”, Hughes also touches upon the theme of sex and sexuality. Anne Carraway admires Luther’s physical appearance and watches him while he is sleeping, desiring to paint him naked “or at least half nude.” However, when she gets to know that Luther is having sex with Mattie, she is exclaims that it is “Simple and natural for Negroes to make love.” (X.J. Kennedy, Dana Giola, 356)
The poem “I Too” focuses on racial issues. It begins with the words “I, too, sing America” that shows Hughes as a black man proud of whom he actually is. He is not ashamed of being “the darker brother” trying to explain to people that he is like everyone else, though, the color of his skin is black. He declares himself as a member of the American society who should be treated just like any other member of it. Besides, Hughes does not lose hope in the happy future of African-Americans, saying:
I’ll be eating at the table
When company comes.
Say to me,
“Eat in the kitchen,”
Then.” (X.J. Kennedy, Dana Giola, 286)
Hughes’ poems should not be considered from a socio-cultural perspective only. His poetry is full of a new and original rhythm. The uniqueness of Hughes’ works lies not only in the problems that he considered but also in the writing techniques he used. Reading his poems is similar to listening to blues that an African-American is singing – full of both submissive sorrow and in some way optimistic notes.
Both August Wilson and Langston Hughes wrote about racial prejudice and humiliation of African-Americans in their works. The ideas they conveyed in their works were identical, as both touched upon socio-cultural problems related to the American society of the XXth century. However, the form of expressing ideas was different. Wilson depicted a new African-American living in a modern American society and having more rights. Hughes’ works are more transpierced with the feeling of resentment for black people and objection against existing racial prejudice.
Isherwood, Charles. “August Wilson, Theater’s Poet of Black America, Is Dead at 60.” New York Times. 2005.
“Langston Hughes (1902- 1967)”. Poetry Foundation. Archive.
Scott, Jonathan. Socialist Joy in the Writing of Langston Hughes. University of Missouri Press, 2006.
Sandra G. Shannon. The Dramatic Vision of August Wilson. Howard University Press, 1995.
X.J. Kennedy, Dana Giola. Backpack Literature An Introduction to Fiction, Poetry, Drama, and Writing. 2nd Ed. New York: Pearson Longman, 2008.