James Mercer Langston Hughes, an African American, became a well known poet, novelist, journalist, and playwright. During the Harlem Renaissance, Langston Hughes gained fame and respect for his ability to express the Black American experiences in his works. He was one of the most original and versatile of the twentieth century black writers. Influenced by Paul Laurence Dunbar, Carl Dandburg, and his grandmother Carrie Mercer Langston Hughes, Langston Hughes began writing creatively while he was still a young boy (Barksdale 14).
Born in Joplin Missouri, Langston Hughes lived with both his parents until they separated. Because his father immigrated to Mexico and his mother was often away, Hughes was brought up in Lawrence, Kansas, by his grandmother Mary Langston. His grandmother embedded Hughes sense of dedication. Her second husband (Hughes’s grandfather) was a fierce abolitionist. She helped Hughes to see the cause of social justice. Although she told him wonderful stories about Frederick Douglas and Sojourner Truth and took him to hear Booker T. Washington, Hughes did not get all the attention he needed. Furthermore, Hughes felt hurt by both his parents and was unable to understand why he was not allowed to live with either of them. These feelings of rejection caused him to grow up very insecure and unsure of himself. Because his childhood was a lonely time, he fought the loneliness by reading different books.
Books began to happen to me, and I began to believe in nothing but books
and the wonderful world in books where if people suffered, they suffered
in beautiful language, not in monosyllables, as we did in Kansas (Hughes 16).
Langston Hughes began writing in high school, and even at this early age was developing the voice that made him famous. High school teacher and classmates recognized Hughes writing talent, and Hughes had his first pieces of verse published in the Central High Monthly, a sophisticated school magazine. An English teacher introduced him to poets such as Carl Sandburg and Walt Whitman, and these became Hughess earliest influences.
In 1921 he entered Columbia University, but left after an unhappy year. Langston was very fascinated and influenced by Harlems people and the life itself, there. The Big Sea, the first volume of his autobiography, provided such a crucial first person account of the era that much of what we know about the Harlem Renaissance we know from Hughess point of view. One of his first poems that were affected by Harlems life, where he lived attending Columbia University, was called The Weary Blues, which Hughes said was about a piano player he heard in Harlem. In New York, he wrote poetry, entered it into contest and was invited to the banquet where he became acquainted with Van Vechten and submitted some poems to him. These poems were published and appeared in the book The Weary Blues. Langston received many different prizes for his poetry and essays. He also attended many parties and banquets and met many well know and wealthy painters as Miguel Covarrubias, Aaron Douglas, Winold Reiss, and Arthur Spingarn. Langston Hughes met his sister law Amy Spingarn and she became his secret benefactor. She also financed his education to Lincoln University, which was an all-male, black college in Pennsylvania. During his stay there, Hughes wrote many pieces of poetry. Fine Clothes to the Jew was published in February 1927 and had mixed reactions from critics. Many critics objected to the book. To show his dissatisfaction, J. A. Rogers wrote:
The fittest compliment I can pay this latest work by Langston Hughes is to
say that it is, on the whole, about as fine a collection of piffling trash as is to
be found under the covers of any book. If The Weary Blues made readers of
a loftier turn of mind weary, this will make them positively sick. (Mullen
Although Fine Clothes to the Jew was not well received at the time of its publication because it was too experimental many other critics believed the volume to be among Hughess finest work. DuBose Heyward, who wrote for New York Herald Tribune Books, stated that: In Fine Clothes to the Jew we are given a volume more even in quality . . . (Mullen 47). Even as he worked as a deliveryman, a messmate on ships to Africa and Europe, a busboy, and a dishwasher his poetry appeared regularly in such magazines as The Crisis (NAACP) and Opportunity (National Urban League). As a poet, Hughes was the first person to combine the traditional poetry with black artistic forms, especially blues and jazz. As a leader in the Harlem Renaissance of the twenties and thirties Hughes became the movements best-known poet. He published two poetry collections, The Weary Blues (1926) and Fine Clothes to the Jew (1927). Mainly because of the depression Hughes became a socialist in the 1930s. He never joined the Communist party, but he wrote many radical poems and essays in magazines like New Masses and International Literature and spent a year in the Soviet Union (Barksdale 250).
In 1939 Hughes moved away from the political scene. During the war he supported the Allies with patriotic songs and sketches and published a collection of poems Shakespeare in Harlem (1942). He attacked segregation, especially in his column in the black weekly Chicago Defender, where he created a comic but keen black urban every day man, Jesse B. Simple. In 1947, as a lyricist with Kurt Weill and Elmer Rice on the Broadway opera Street Scene, Hughes received great success. Hughes still feared for the future of urban blacks. His point of view became immense and included another book of poetry, almost a dozen children’s books, several opera libretti, four books translated from French and Spanish, two collections of stories, another novel, the history of the NAACP and another volume of autobiography, I Wonder As I Wander. He also continued his work in the theater, pioneering in gospel musical plays.
Blues began in the south and slowly made its way into the great cities of the North. As
the great migration began people took what they knew in south to the north. This included music. Langston Hughes living in Harlem was caught up in the new rhythm of music and based many of his poems on it. As a boy he remembers hearing the blues performed in Kansas City. Hughes was fascinated with black music, he tried his hand at writing lyrics, and was taken with the possibilities of performing music and poetry together Besides having both a love of this music and the black people it was created by, one of the reasons that Hughes began to draw on to the blues tradition for writing his poetry is that he hoped to capitalize on the blues craze.(Barksdale 46) Though the markets for music and poetry were quite different, he thought he could somehow merge the two. Langston Hughes employed the structures, rhythms, themes and words of the blues that he heard in the country, the city, the field, the alley and the stage. When he used the musical and stanza structures of the blues to write his poetry he most often relied on the twelve-bar blues structure. That is often called blues in the classic form and about half of his blues poems fit this structure. Langston said, I tried to write poems like the songs they sang on Seventh Street. Hughes was a major figure in the Harlem Renaissance. He borrowed extensively from blues and Jazz in his work, and in doing so, set the foundations for a new tradition of Black literacy influences from Black music.
For example, in The Weary Blues:
By the pale dull pallor of an old gas light
He did a lazy sway
he did a lazy sway
To the tune of those weary blues(Hughes 86)
In this beautiful poem, Hughes delineates a distance between the narrator of a poem and the blues man playing as if to make known to the world the distance between the poet and his people. Not having been born in the South or having relations who were slaves, Hughes often considered himself an outsider when writing about slave experiences. He was a poet who was not exactly rooted in the experience. Poems like The Weary Blues are most successful because they transcend the absence of actual music by capturing the spirit of the blues song in its cadence of lines, and extend the limits of oral tradition by changing or modifying the existing structures or themes of the blues. The range of Langston Hughess knowledge of the blues tradition and his attempts to utilize aspects of the oral blues tradition in his work demonstrate his creative genius in recognizing the blues as a truly great folk art itself (Emanuel 78).
The poem as I grew older is concerned with growing up. It explains how as a child a
person may have many dreams. But as they get older certain things get in the way of those dreams. In this poem it is the color of the dreamers skin that interferes and casts a shadow on his dream. The poem also depends on interplay between brightness and darkness. This is used to symbolize the subjects that interfere between a dream the speaker has. For instance when he implies about the wall. This wall is like the problems that come between someone and their dreams. As the speaker begins to break through the wall he is cast upon with rays of light. So the poem is implying that you should not let anything get in the way of your dreams (Jemie 34). One of Hughes most famous and one of his first poems is The Negro Speaks of Rivers. The poem is a virtual thirteen lines of the history of African people. The rhythmic chant of the line, “I’ve known rivers”, serves to emphasize the worldly experience Hughes felt was embodied in the soul of every African-American. Lines five through eight are a miniature primer on the
high points of African history, “I bathed in the Euphrates . . . I built my hut near the Congo . . . I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids . . .” (Hughes 10). The three-line gap following these lines is Hughes’ representation of the void left in the history of his people by the spectrum of slavery. The Poem Harlem Night Club tells the story of how when together in the in Harlem blacks and whites get along. They dance together and sing together but as tomorrow comes no one knows what paths they will go. It is as if the night acts as a disguise. It hides the color of the skin. And when tomorrow comes with the bright sun revealing the true person they shy away from each other because their identity has been revealed (Hughes 67).
Both Blacks and Whites have enjoyed Langston Hughes poetry for many years. Not only was he the first man to express the rhythm of blues in to words but he told the story of how it was to be a black person in his time. He used his Poetry in sense to speak out against racism. It was not easy growing up in a society where white domination was hardly of any support to the then growing black geniuses of literature like Langston Hughes. Though many obstacles came in his life, he was able to over come them without ever giving up. As a poet, he was truly an amazing writer finding ways to express the forbidden feelings of African Americans in his little poems and other literary works. Although his works were written in a simple language, they delivered a much greater meaning that was not seen on the surface of its innocence.
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Barksdale, Richard. Langston Hughes: The Poet And His Critics. Chicago: American
Library Association. 1951
Emanuel, A. James. Langston Hughes. Boston: G. K. Hall & Co., 1967
Hughes, Langston. The Big Sea: An Autobiography. New York:
Thunders Mouth Press. 1940
Jemie, Onwuchekwa. Langston Hughes: An Introduction To The Poetry. New York:
Columbia University Press. 1976
Mullen, J. Edward. Critical Essays on Langston Hughes.Boston: G. K. Hall & Co.,
Jackson, Blyden. A History of Afro-American Literature. Volume 1.Baton Rouge and
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