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Langston Hughs Essay, Research Paper


In the vast history of our world, there have been many great artists who have had an adverse influence on the field of art that they were concentrated in. William Shakespeare, Homer, Leonardo Da Vinci, Vincent Van Gogh, Ludwig van Beethoven, and Amadeus Mozart, to just name a few, are some of the most influential writers, painters, and musicians of their times. The works of the aforementioned pioneers in their prospective fields of the arts still have a great influence on the many different artists of today. In the literary field of art, there is such a large pool of great poet laureate’s, authors, and playwrights that the list goes back almost to the beginning of time and the birth of what we know as communication through words and speech. One of the greatest poets of the 20th century (and, in my opinion, that has ever graced the Earth) was Langston Hughes. Possessing an intelligence and brilliance which, according to the white supremacist dominated world of the early 20th century, wasn’t supposed to be bestowed onto the lowly ranks of the black race, Hughes put his heart, soul, mind, body, and spirit onto the paper when he wrote. All of the fears, the hardships, the pain, and the hopes of the black community were told as vibrant stories that drew you into in his poetry. He embodied the true meaning of what it was to be a Negro in America in each of his poems, and invited each reader to get a taste of the Negro experience in his words. To truly understand the depths of his soul and the millions of souls of his slave ancestors that he traversed in order to get the inspiration for his powerful poetry, we must first look at the life that he lived.

James Langston Hughes was born on February 1, 1902 in Joplin, Missouri, the second of two sons born to James Nathaniel Hughes and Carrie Mercer Langston (his brother perished soon after birth almost two years to the day of his birth on February 8th, 1900). A man whose poetry spoke the words embodied by his race s fight for freedom and racial equality, he was born into a family of abolitionists, with the prominent freedom fighter and politician, Charles Henry Langston, as his grandfather; John Mercer Langston, African-American congressman from Virginia and later the United States Minister to Haiti, as his great-uncle; and Lewis Sheridan Leary, who was killed fighting with John Brown to free a group of slaves in the famous raid on Harpers Ferry, as his grandfather (his grandmother married Charles Langston after his death). His parents, sadly, separated when he was a small child, with his father leaving the family to live in Mexico City in search of a better life (although he left his family back in America, mainly because his wife didn t see the reason why he was leaving all that they knew behind, he still sent them money). Langston then moved in with his maternal grandmother Mary Sampson Patterson Langston at the tender age of six-years-old, and until her death when he was only 12, she was his main caretaker. Langston himself noted that his grandmother made sure to instill a very deep sense of pride for his family and his heritage in him every chance that she could, from telling him stories of triumph in the struggle for civil and equal rights for the black race in America to telling him of his proud heritage of abolitionist grandparents and his linkage to the great statesman Henry Clay (his father s grandfather, also named James Hughes, was a relative of the Clay family). When his grandmother sadly passed away, Langston then loved in with some of his mother s close friends for a time, and from there met up again with his mother, her new husband Homer Clark, and his new little step-brother Gwyn (10 years his minor; lovingly called Kit by his family) in Lincoln, Ohio, from which they all moved to Cleveland in search of better jobs and more money. As can already be seen, Langston did not ever truly have a stable home environment to live in when he was young, which can somewhat help to explain the lack of any long-term romantic relationships throughout his adult life or ever get married or have any children. His mother depended on him for more affection, love, and emotional and financial stability than she was ever capable of giving him, and his biological father was not an easy man, and from him Langston received even less emotionally than he had derived from the time that he had spent with his mother. He moved around about 7 different cities while he was young, and even as an adult never truly found a place that he could call home. By the time that he was only a junior in high school, Langston was living on his own in Cleveland. It was around this time that he really started writing poetry, and it was his skill at his art that actually persuaded his father to pay for him to attend Columbia University in New York City (his father originally wanted him to become a successful businessman like himself and go to college in Switzerland to become a mining engineer, but after the wide publication of his poem The Negro Speaks Of Rivers, the elder Hughes conceded with his son s wishes to attend Columbia). Although Langston had yearned to go to Columbia so passionately (mainly for the reason of being able to live in New York and be near Harlem and it s large black community), after a year of schooling Langston decided to leave the university. In the short time that he attended Columbia University, though, Langston had many of his works published in The Crisis, the NAACP magazine started by W.E.B. DuBois, and through the friendships and acquaintances that he made (mainly with Carl van Vechten, a well known white writer who was also a key player in the Harlem Renaissance who showed Langston s work to his publisher Alfred A. Knopf, and got Langston s first book of poetry, The Weary Blues, published when he was only twenty-four) broke into the world of mainstream poetry. After traveling overseas to broaden his horizons in Africa, France, and Italy, Langston, on the scholarship provided by a rich elderly white lady that he became an acquaintance with while in New York he attended and graduated from Lincoln University with a B.A.

Throughout his life, Hughes was not only known as an exceptional poet (who was nicknamed the poet laureate of Harlem ), but also as an accomplished writer who wrote short stories, novels, and plays as well as poems. His poems from his developmental years as a writer emphasized the many hardships that the black community had been put through ever since the beginning of time, as in his dramatically compelling poem Negro. This poem is so gripping that even though it isn t one the poems that I am analyzing for my project I felt that I must include it for the benefit of passing on it s message of the timelessness of racism in American and abroad and what all people of African descent have had to go through for hundreds of years. It also spoke of the many ignored accomplishments that the black race has made all across the globe.


I am a Negro:

Black as the night is black

Black like the depths of My Africa

I ve been a slave:

Caesar told me to keep his doorsteps clean

I brushed the boots of Washington

I ve been a worker:

Under my hand the pyramids arose

I made mortar for the Woolworth building

I ve been a singer:

All the way from Africa to Georgia

I carried my sorrows songs

I made ragtime

I ve been a victim:

The Belgian s cut off my hands in the Congo

They lynch me now in Texas

I am a Negro:

Black as the night is black

Black like the depths of My Africa

In his latter years, Hughes poetry was mainly concerned with the ongoing racism that the black community in America was facing and the many civil rights efforts that were going on to hopefully someday remedy the dire situation. In one of the poems that he wrote shortly before his death named Floatsam, though, he gave the impression that he didn t feel that he had truly made any contribution to the fight for civil rights and didn t know what was so exceptional about his work:


On the shoals of Nowhere

Cast-up my boat

Bow all broken

No longer afloat

On the shoals of Nowhere

Wasted my song-

Yet taken by the sea wind

And blown along.

Little did he know how much of an influence that his career had on not only the Harlem Renaissance of which he spearheaded and is the most notable poet to come from that great period in literary history, but also for telling the stories of what his entire race has had to endure for so long to generations and generations of African-Americans to come. His many works include: Not Without Laughter (1930); The Big Sea (1940); I Wonder As I Wander” (1956); The Weary Blues (1926); The Negro Mother and other Dramatic Recitations (1931); The Dream Keeper (1932); Shakespeare In Harlem (1942); Fields of Wonder (1947); One Way Ticket (1947); The First Book of Jazz (1955); Tambourines To Glory (1958); and Selected Poems (1959); The Best of Simple (1961). He also played a part in editing several anthologies in an attempt to help popularize black authors and their works. Some of these were: An African Treasury (1960); Poems from Black Africa (1963); New Negro Poets: USA (1964) and The Best Short Stories by Negro Writers (1967). Sadly, his career only spanned four decades or so, for Langston Hughes died at only sixty-seven years of age on May 22nd, 1967 of heart problems and a prostate infection in his beloved Harlem. He was cremated, and his funeral was not a sad one but rather a celebration of his life with all of the many friends that he had made over the years attending. Langston even had a jazz band play at his funeral, and I Dream A World , taken from the libretto of the opera Troubled Island was read:

I dream of a world where man Whatever race you be

No other man will scorn Will share the bounties of the earth

Where love will bless the earth And every man is free

And peace it s paths adorn. Where wretchedness will hang it s head ,

I dream a world where all and joy, like a pearl,

Will know sweet freedom s way. Attend all the needs of all mankind.

Where greed no longer caps the soul Of such I dream

Nor avarice blights our day Our world!

A world I dream where black or white

This excerpt and the final paragraph of the biographical account The Life of Langston Hughes: Always Moving On, written by James S. Haskins, embody the heart and soul that was behind Langston Hughes as the poet laureate and Langston Hughes the man: There were no family members to mourn Langston. He never married or had children. He never even had a long term love relationship with another person. The lack of love he had received from his parents when he was a child seems to have prevented him from developing the ability to either give or receive it as an adult. But Langston was able to love a people-his people-and the words he wrote out of love for black people will live forever.

One reason why Langston Hughes poetry was so compelling was that it was straight to the point and went instantly for your heart, soul, and mind. The topics of his poems weren t extremely complex, but at the same time caused you to ask questions, think, and delve into the workings of your very soul. Also, another thing that set Langston Hughes apart from any other poet in the Harlem Renaissance was that he never had a specific voice or a set writing style or rhythm. Every new poem from him that you read introduced you to a new part of not only his soul, but yours as well, for you could never be sure whether it was Langston himself talking, one of his many interesting characters (Madam Alberta K., Simple, etc.) telling you their story, or your own heart telling you what it truly feels regarding the subjects covered in the poems. Some of his poems were short and sweet; some were long and took the form of a story; some took on the form of a good old warbling blues tune; and even more still took on the form of a good old Sunday morning church sermon down South. With Langston Hughes, each new poem was a welcome surprise. In his poem Theme For English B, which starts off seemingly simplistically with a professor giving him an assignment for his English class at Columbia, he makes the point that although there is rampant racism plaguing the world which is mainly based on the ignorant long standing myth of black inferiority and white superiority, we are all human beings with a lot of the same likes and dislikes, basically similar hopes and dreams, and we all possess the same types of emotions and feelings. My favorite part of the poem is towards the end when he starts talking about the connection that we all share with one another, even if we hardly ever truly admit it, because it drives the point home that no matter what race we are, where we come from, or what religion we are associated with, we all share the same planet, the same life force, the same society, and this unity transcends all age, gender, and racial barriers. Here is the excerpt:

I guess being colored doesn’t make me not like

the same things other folks like who are other races.

So will my page be colored that I write?

Being me, it will not be white.

But it will be

a part of you, instructor.

You are white–

yet a part of me, as I am a part of you.

That’s American.

Sometimes perhaps you don’t want to be a part of me.

Nor do I often want to be a part of you.

But we are, that’s true!

As I learn from you,

I guess you learn from me–

although you’re older–and white–

and somewhat more free.

This is my page for English B.

In another one of his great poems dealing with the racially oppressive society in America, Let America Be America Again, Hughes speaks of the duplicity of America. He dissects the hypocrisy of the morals that America was built on, and expels all of the many lies that America was truly built on. From the first stanza on ( Let America be America again, Let it be the dream it used to be. Let it be the pioneer on the plain Seeking a home where he himself is free.), he not only talks about the harsh social realities that the black race in America has had to face for so long, but also about the many hardships that the many other races have had to endure, including poor whites and Caucasian immigrants who came to our country from abroad. Basically, Let America Be America Again speaks of the America that never was, and, by the state of our society now, the America that will never be; Langston s dream for the nation that he could never truly call his home nor would except him as it s own during his lifetime-or mine for that matter. The passage of Let America Be America Again that I felt best summed up Langston s feelings toward the racial situation in America and the true shape of American society is the one that I included below. Although he spoke in four different voices (that of a Negro, that of a poor White man, that of an Native-American, and that of an immigrant that has just come over) in this stanza, I really think that this, along with the poem The Negro Speaks of Rivers, is an example of his true voice, for he is not only stating what the Negro has to go through, but also all the other races that he calls brothers and their many trials and tribulations.

I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart,

I am the Negro bearing slavery’s scars.

I am the red man driven from the land,

I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek–

And finding only the same old stupid plan

Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.

There are said to be seven crucial and integral parts of modernism: response to social breakdown; fragmentation; remote/detached point of view; allusions; poems like riddles; purpose of art; and an elitist attitude. In this case, Langston Hughes wasn t a modernist in the true sense of the word. He wasn t concerned too much with allusions or the purpose of art, and he didn t possess an elitist attitude (unlike the renowned late great modernist poets T.S. Eliot, W.B. Yeats, and Ezra Pound).

From when I was 5 years old until I was ten years old I attended P.S. 161 in Brooklyn, New York. I live in Crown Heights, a heavily Jewish populated neighborhood, but my elementary school had many children from many different races. Sadly, in my entire six years there I only had one black teacher, and the thing that I most remember out of all the things that she taught me was to have great pride in my African-American heritage and never be ashamed no matter what obstacles came in my path. Mrs. Alexis was her name, and for the entirety of my 5th grade school year she made just about everyday a day celebrating the greatness of the black race and it s many prominent members, with Langston Hughes as one of the many great African-American writers that she taught us about. She told our class that he was her favorite poet because he never bit his tongue about the evils of racism and although he showed his love for all of the races, he always placed his own race at the top of the heap. He promoted self-love-something that seems so simple that it is almost always neglected, but was sadly lost to some African-Americans of his time who grew to despise themselves due to their dire racial situation. Hughes wanted his poems to be able to reach out and touch everyone s heart and soul, and therefore wrote in a style that could be understood and comprehended by just about anybody, not just college educated and wealthy elites. He also didn t concentrate his message towards one race or one class of society, although the majority of his poems did reflect the thoughts, hardships, dreams, fears, doubts, worries, and pain of the African-American race. Hughes wanted to touch all of the races, for he truly believed in his heart that all of the races are united in brotherhood, even though by the many evil actions that have been carried out against each other we have forgotten where we all came from. Langston Hughes poetry spoke volumes of his dedication and passion towards the goal of attaining social and racial equality for his race. Although he didn t lead any marches or start any boycotts or sit-ins, Hughes kept alive the most important part of the civil rights movement in each and every one of his writings: the spirit. He embodied the heart and soul of the civil rights movement and in his poems he brought to life in bright and vivid intensity the realities that have always plagued not only his African race across the globe but also American society as a whole. He never asked for much from the country that his ancestors had no choice in being taken to after they were raped from their homeland; the nation that went to such great lengths to impede the progress of an entire race as to uphold blatantly racist practices in the highest courts and legislatures in the land; the land and the people that drained the life force from an entire race just so that they may excel and prosper when it was that same race that they are killing that helped to build the foundation for their treasured prosperity. All Langston yearned for was the same thing that each and every living, breathing human being wants in life: freedom-the one thing that America has deemed the cornerstone of it s foundation for so long but has denied so many for so long. Langston Hughes didn t address any radical ideas or mean to cause any serious controversy with his poetry, but he did want to get his message across that America needed to repay it s debt of freedom and equality to the races. The messages embodied in Langston Hughes poetry transcend all ages and societies, and will be preserved in the hearts and minds of each and every lucky reader of his work until time without end.

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