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Langston Hughes Essay, Research Paper
One distinctive mark of the great writing of the Harlem Renaissance includes the development of a creative voice that both explains Black history and pain and transforms this explanation into “High” art, despite its association with “Low” people. Some writers, such as Langston Hughes, attempt this transformation by seeking to elevate the sense of crudeness associated with blackness. In many ways, Hughes sets the standard for this distinctive mark: his writing consistently exhibits a voice that embraces the African-American experience through art in an act of glorification rather than shame. Throughout much of his poetry, Hughes uses an intelligent, perceptive grasp of language to elucidate the plight of the African-American and the shortcomings of anti-Black society. In addition, Hughes embraces human pain — specifically Negro pain — as a means of healing. In doing so, he develops a “Blues aesthetic” which incorporates both the reality of 1920s Harlem and an honest, gripping view of the human condition. Hughes’ use of this Blues aesthetic serves several functions; it brings an active quality to the complexities of pain and it allows a reality of human understanding to come alive in his poetry. Although White society tended to view Hughes’ appreciation of the folk as primitive, “Low” art because it was so base, the poignancy and immediacy with which it touched the lives of Harlem — as well as the degree to which it still comprises an inextricable part of the literary world — makes apparent the egregious error of this view. The intelligence and perceptive description in Hughes’ work effectively delineates the complexities of the African-American experience, thus elevating his writing to a state of “High” art. Similarly, his “Blues” pieces allow human struggles to exist as both poetic engagements of physical existence and healing processes in and of themselves, illustrating the artistic power of this transformation.
In his poem “Negro,” Hughes outlines various historical aspects of Black identity. He relates, “I’ve been a slave: Caesar told me to keep his door-steps clean. I brushed the boots of Washington” (4 – 6). The simplicity and directness of these statements allows a certain poetic immediacy, making misunderstanding nearly impossible. Additionally, Hughes’ mention of Caesar and Washington contributes an informed intelligence to his writing, as does the specificity of “the Woolworth building” (9) and “the Belgians cut[ting] off [his] hands in the Congo” (15). Hughes’ narrator, as a Black representative, has also “been a worker: under [his] hands the pyramids arose” (8). This observation illustrates the productivity and power that the African-American has the capability to possess, while the acknowledgment that “they lynch [him] still in Mississippi” (16) speaks for the anti-Black resentment of this power. In his journey toward higher art, Hughes even makes mention of the institution of art as a facet of Negro identity: “I’ve been a singer: all the way from Africa to Georgia I carried my sorrow songs. I made ragtime” (10 – 13). Hughes combines these diverse elements of African-American identity — slavery, workmanship, artistry, victimization — to portray Blacks as many do not wish to see them: intelligent, hard-working, artistic, and unjustly oppressed. This poetic depiction both forces the African-American into a multi-dimensional state of being and exalts those qualities which have typically been considered negative or inconsequential. Hughes accomplishes these objectives while claiming his identity with beauty and poise: “I am a Negro: black as the night is black, black like the depths of my Africa” (17 – 19).
In a similar vein, Hughes demonstrates an astute, attentive, descriptive voice in his poem “The South,” which examines “the lazy, laughing South with blood on its mouth” (1 – 2). Hughes exhibits an extremely refined sense of language in his descriptions: “beautiful, like a woman, seductive as a dark-eyed whore, passionate, cruel, honey-lipped, syphilitic — that is the South” (13 – 17). In his accurate attribution of these qualities to Southern society, Hughes creates an intense awareness of both the seductive charisma and the severely problematic nature of the South; he thus calls the reader’s attention to the oppressive elements of Southern society as well as elevating the African-American — and simultaneously, his art — by engaging in an intelligent, perceptive quest toward “the cold-faced North, for she, they say, is a kinder mistress” (24 – 26). Hughes’ discussion of “the child-minded South scratching in the dead fire’s ashes for a Negro’s bones” (6 – 8) further emphasizes his point that the Southern way of life has halted in its development and failed to evolve into modern America — an America in which “the dead fire” represents slavery and Blacks have succeeded in reducing it to “ashes,” struggling to rise above racism like smoke. This emphasis pragmatically dismantles any aggrandized view of the South, elucidating its discriminatory nature with effective poetic language that amplifies Hughes’ artistic power. Finally, his declaration that “I, who am black, would love her but she spits in my face” (18 – 19) exemplifies the contemptible character of Southern society as well as the unjust persecution of Black Americans. This serves to elevate both the Negro’s place in society and the quality of Hughes’ writing.
Hughes does not merely develop a wise and sensitive poetic voice; he uses this voice to develop, in turn, an active, perceptive “Blues aesthetic.” In one of his most famous poems, “The Weary Blues,” Hughes relates a poignant experience of witnessing an African-American man play the Blues. As Hughes describes the man “droning a drowsy syncopated tune, rocking back and forth to a mellow croon” (1 – 2), he brings a heartfelt motion to the poem, generating a strong feeling of realism for the reader. He continues this motion and realism when the man makes “that poor piano moan with melody” (10); the man, the music, and the piano all become fully engaged in the poem as active elements. When he mentions the “ebony hands on each ivory key” (9), Hughes creates a simple, subtle, intelligent reference to the many issues of a polarized black and white society. While he does not elaborate on the complexities of these issues, much of the beauty of the poem lies in the fact that he does not need to: the Blues stand on their own, largely because they have an unquestionably solid background of complex racial and societal issues. Finally, Hughes paints an audio-picture of the oh-so-common Harlem reality of a man lamenting his life:
“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.” (25 – 30)
This elucidation gives rise to a fascinating notion: although the man has wished for death, the music itself remains very much alive, both within himself and within the poem. The very act of “The Blues” has become a healing process in and of itself. As the man laments “in a deep song voice with a melancholy tone” (17), he purges a deep pain. Through the experience of this purging, the poem itself becomes an act of survival — and thus, a dignified appreciation of the folk, and a distinct form of “High” art.
Hughes does not limit his Blues aesthetic to a male perspective, and this is perhaps why his poetry manages to become readily accessible to such a large and heterogenous group of readers. “Midwinter Blues” chronicles the lament of a middle-aged woman in regards to her lost love. She remarks, “Don’t know’s I’d mind his goin’ / But he left when the coal was low. Now, if a man loves a woman / That ain’t no time to go” (9 – 12). Despite its simple, Southern language, this rhythmic account of sad misfortune sheds an extremely perceptive light on the politics of love and the harsh reality of a Black woman’s world. Similarly, when the woman says, “He told me that he loved me. He must a been tellin’ a lie. But he’s the only man I’ll / love till the day I die” (15 – 18), she brings a heartfelt, poignant honesty to poetic representation of 1920s reality. Hughes’ use of repetition both reaffirms the truth of this ethos and brings a bit of humour to the plight of Negro womanhood, particularly in the last stanza:
I’m gonna buy me a rose bud
An’ plant it at my back door,
Buy me a rose bud,
plant it at my back door,
So when I’m dead they won’t need
No flowers from the store. (19 -24)
In a manner similar to the last part of “The Weary Blues,” the last bit of “Midwinter Blues” seems surprisingly life-affirming. Although the woman blatantly addresses her physical death and the emotional death of her relationship, the notion of planting flowers indicates a concrete movement toward life and cyclic hope. In this fashion, “Midwinter Blues” also becomes a fully realized product of Hughes’ Blues aesthetic, healing itself while wallowing in its pain.
Throughout his work, Hughes develops and relies on a sensitive, self-conscious poetic voice — a voice which sheds light on the African-American experience through its incisive use of simple, direct, descriptive language. This application allows his writing to transcend from mere poetic documentation to esteemed art in its own right. With his evocations, Hughes plants and harvests his Blues aesthetic again and again. He brings incredible intelligence and poignancy to the every-day struggles of marginilization, loss, and human difficulty. Rather than simply rehashing the agony of being human (and Black) into poetic whining, however, Hughes turns pain into a beautiful process of healing by embrace. This active grasp of the human condition gives unspeakable power to his Blues aesthetic, which in turn gives power to Hughes’ overall artistic endeavor, leading his readers “far into the night [to] croon that tune” (The Weary Blues, 31).
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