Essay on Langston Hughes

Langston Hughes focused on the working-class African-American lifestyle, painting their lives as either saintly or stereotypical. His poetry and stories used black characters and employed rhythmic black forms of expression to tell the story of the average African. He merges his personal artistic black point of view to create certain effects in his poetry. His poetry shares a point where traditional black reality and imagination mix to share common meanings. Hughes’ early poetry explored domestic and musical themes, particularly jazz and blues, in African American life, and his work grew increasingly political as the status of working class African Americans wore on and his mind. Hughes used art forms that would best represent his heritage such as what he saw and heard on the streets of Harlem. He wrote about what he saw in the hustle of New York, in churches and dance halls, and transformed those everyday experiences into written works that celebrated black life, survival, black pride, and black humor. He was able to communicate the essential reality of black men and women and represent the basis of black culture.

Like a zealot, he pursues his way in subject matter, photography, and rhythmical treatment, of whatever obstructions time and tradition have placed before him. To him, it is essential that he be himself. Music, particularly blues and jazz, permeates Langston Hughes’s oeuvre. Many of his poems have an identifiable rhythm or beat. The lines read like the verses in a blues song and echo themes that are common in blues music, like sorrow, lost love, anger, and hopelessness. Hughes frequently alludes to music that originated during the era of slavery, using a ‘call and response’ pattern for auditory effect and to create a link between the past and the present. By invoking the musical traditions of slaves, Hughes connects himself to the painful history of African Americans. Hughes’s poetry, like jazz and blues, has a distinct and expressive tone, often depicting tales of sorrow, alienation, and loneliness.

Many of Langston Hughes’s poems invoke the theme of the American Dream. In 1931, James Truslow Adams defined the American Dream: ‘life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement.’ Hughes, however, addresses this concept from the perspective of the country’s disenfranchised, including African Americans, Native Americans, downtrodden immigrants, and poor farmers. He portrays the glories of liberty and equality as out of reach for these populations, depicting individuals who are trapped under the fist of prejudice, oppression, and poverty. Their dreams die or are forgotten in a life defined by a desperation to survive. However, Hughes does often end his poems on a somewhat hopeful note, revealing his belief that African Americans (and others) will one day be free to pursue their dreams.

During Langston Hughes’s time, his African American readers felt that the poet’s work directly explored their lives, their hopes, their fears, their past, and their dreams – as opposed to the obtuse modernism of poets like T.S. Eliot or Ezra Pound. The African American characters in Hughes’s oeuvre embody all the complexities of life in a segregated America. He writes from the point of view of struggling jazz musicians, frustrated dreamers, disenfranchised students, biracial children, and so on, finding dignity in their daily struggles. Like W.E.B. DuBois, Hughes’s work calls attention to his characters’ strength, endurance, and the purity of their souls. He praises their physical beauty as well, defying the ‘white’ standards of beauty that dominated popular culture during the early 20th Century.

Hughes often writes about aspirations as dreams. He explores hidden dreams, lost dreams, dreams regained, and dreams redeemed. African Americans, from the time of slavery to the oppression of the Jim Crow era, were treated like second-class citizens in the eyes of the American law. Hughes believed that this inferior social status forced most African Americans to hide their dreams behind a protective psychological barrier. For many of Hughes’s characters, the American Dream is completely unattainable. Hughes expresses the power of dreams in different ways throughout his work. In one poem, Hughes comments that despite the difficulty of realizing these dreams, it is important for the disenfranchised to keep them alive in order to sustain the will to live. In another poem, Hughes writes that if these dreams remain dormant for long enough, then they might explode.

While Langston Hughes’s tone is softer than that of Malcolm X or the Black Panthers (not surprising, since Hughes lived in a different era), he has his own way of denouncing racism and depicting the oppression that African Americans experienced at the hands of the patriarchal system. He alludes to lost and forgotten aspirations, insinuating that African Americans are not allowed access to the American Dream because of their race. In “Mother to Son,” the mother describes the various vicissitudes she has faced, exacerbated or directly caused by the color of her skin. In “On the Road,” one of Hughes’s best known short stories, he depicts racism as being tied up with religious hypocrisy. Hughes is realistic about the discriminatory environment that he lives in, but he also expresses hope that one day, the racial inequality in America will start to even out.

While the word “wisdom” does not specifically occur this particular collection of Langston Hughes’s poems, he clearly alludes to its attainment in many places. Hughes shows wisdom being passed down through generations, such as the mother who tells her son to never give up, even when the road is hard. Wisdom is a result of experience, and can inform one’s decision to persevere in the face of adversity. Courage can lead to wisdom – there is priceless knowledge to be gained from confronting one’s demons. Finding a mode of expression for sorrow – like music or poetry – is a form of wisdom in that a person can learn how to separate him or herself from bad experiences.

In his sermons, Hughes has working for him the power and the beat of negro speech and negro music. Negro speech is vivid largely because it is private. It is a kind of emotional shorthand by means of which negroes express not only their relationship to each other, but their judgement of the white world. As the white world takes over this vocabulary it is forced to become more complex in order to preserve the private or collective experience. Hughes was the first to experiment with the blues and use them in his poems. The blues were “sad songs” that carried a melancholy theme that was caused by an oppressed people. Hughes sought to mimic this expression of conflicting emotions in his poetry. He was the first to incorporate the gloomy feel of the blues into his poems and succeed in doing so.

Be-bop itself is an African American modernist form comparable to the modernist forms of collage and montage. Hughes saw in be-bop the growing fissure in Afro American culture, the myth of integration and American social harmony. Hughes saw in be-bop more than just a mood but a form where he could build a longer poem out of a number of shorter poems. Hughes realizes that the successful merging of poetry and politics depends on the poets reconciliation with the common element, the common people. Hughes develops a strategy that allows him to combine aesthetic and political commitments and effect the masses of people in the form of social art. Hughes recognizes the urgent need to find unity within difference. He reaches out to negro writers saying that they must write to the negro masses while also appealing to the white readers.

Hughes went to the Soviet Union as a member of a group that was selected to participate in a film on black life in the United States. While Hughes was in Russia he wrote of the tolerance he was given. He commented on the Moscow Grand Hotel saying “No toilet paper and no Jim Crow.” Hughes applauded the absence of discrimination on the basis of race in Soviet life. Hughes poems frequently featured representations of jazz musicians as well as jazz environments. His poems were frequently composed according to that of a jazz aesthetic. Hughes is especially prescient in his recognition of the music’s importance to America’s National culture.

Presentation is the technique for presenting the reality one perceives through the structures of culture and language that give meaning to his works. Hughes talent is that his style has developed to allow him to interpret, with the precision of poetic techniques, what he perceives from a personal, black point of view. When discussing working-class life, Hughes consistently “asserts blacks as fully complex, fully human, and equals in the American democratic experiment” and does not play into the thought that blacks should be kept down. Through his writing he makes the population aware of the deep-set oppression put upon the black community.

Hughes uses a simple unsophisticated language in his works in order to reach the masses of black folk. He uses the dialect and the free, decoded, unconventional verse.“I, Too, Sing America” for example, is a poem expressing the speaker‟s dream. At the end of his lecture programs in the South, Hughes would recite his poem “I, Too, Sing America”. As often as he invoked this poem, he would be reaffirming his faith in the American dream. Hughes poetic arsenal allows him to combat that of institutional and factual racism. Langston Hughes clearly shows in his poem ‘The Negro Speaks of Rivers’ the experience of the black slave deported through the rivers and oceans. The poem is mainly a reminiscence of these rivers that have enriched the soul of the narrator and represent the life, death, endurance, perseverance, the wisdom and the victory. Langston Hughes wishes that America was the house of freedom and equality for all, whites and blacks.

Langston Hughes is mulatto, he is multicultural. Hybridity is a burden for the mulatto, black, a cross to bear. As Jesus, the black suffers from the constant persecution by the white man. Langston Hughes has never considered himself as white. He was rather proud of his color and black race. At root or at its primary origin black awareness includes the fact of acting in full consciousness of being deliberately created black by God and as such being equal to all human beings. Therefore, a real conscious black man should not surrender his soul to anybody and has to struggle against all the forces that try to imprison it.

The problems of social equality will take more and more magnitude in all the writings of Langston Hughes. His fight will be that of the NAACP of which he will be the historian and one of the standard-bearers. “ His revolt will be that of the son at age who asks to be the equal of his father, while preserving for the latter the respect that must be given to an elder. Langston Hughes has therefore chosen to be a writer. He will from now on exert the rights, and will assume all responsibilities. The two forms choked in the poet the desire of the assimilation and the acceptance of the white culture but rejoiced rather in the black inheritance and creativity.Hughes wrote in ‘The Negro and the Racial Mountain ‘: But jazz to me is one of the inherent expressions of Negro life in America; the eternal tom-tom beating in the Negro soul ; the tom-tom of revolt against weariness in a white world, a world of subway trains, and work, work; the tom- tom of joy and laughter, and pain swallowed in a smile.

He explains Harlem as a black metropolis and he never tires of the changing moods of that ghetto. He loves the way in which the Harlemites speak, and being one himself, he can relate to their problems and interests. In his early works Hughes expresses Harlem as a joyous “jazzonia” were jazz and blues flood the streets. It is later that we realize Harlem, in spite of surface appearance, was a sad and gloomy place. He attempted to make Africa a literary homeland for young negro writers, as well as himself. The alien and exile theme portrayed young negro writers as aliens, estranged and deeply nostalgic over the loss of their beautiful home lane. Hughes states or implies the superiority of black beauty and black wisdom to the foolishness of the whites. He protests being taken from his African homeland and caged in the circus of civilization.

Work Cited

  1. Hughes, Langston, 1902-1967. The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes. New York :Knopf : Distributed by Random House, 1994. Print.
  2. Bertschman, Don. “Jesse B. Simple and the Racial Mountain: A Bibliographic Essay.” The Langston Hughes Review, vol. 13, no. 2, 1995, pp. 29–44. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/26434430.
  3. Cobb, Martha. “LANGSTON HUGHES: THE WRITER, HIS POETICS AND THE ARTISTIC PROCESS.” The Langston Hughes Review, vol. 2, no. 2, 1983, pp. 1–5. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/26432636.
  4. DAVIDAS, LIONEL. “‘I, Too, Sing America’: Jazz and Blues Techniques and Effects in Some of Langston Hughes’s Selected Poems.” Dialectical Anthropology, vol. 26, no. 3/4, 2001, pp. 267–272. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/29790660.
  5. Miller, R. Baxter. “‘OH, MIND OF MAN’: The Political Imagination.” The Art and Imagination of Langston Hughes, University Press of Kentucky, 2006, pp. 67–98. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt130hvcw.10.
  6. Reid, Margaret A. “LANGSTON HUGHES: RHETORIC AND PROTEST.” The Langston Hughes Review, vol. 3, no. 1, 1984, pp. 13–20. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/26432686.
  7. Cobb, Martha. “LANGSTON HUGHES: THE WRITER, HIS POETICS AND THE ARTISTIC PROCESS.” The Langston Hughes Review, vol. 2, no. 2, 1983, pp. 1–5. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/26432636.
  8. Bloom, Harold. Twentieth-Century American Literature. Vol. 4, pp.1934-1948. Chelsea House Publ., 1986.
  9. Chinitz, David. “Literacy and Authenticity: The Blues Poems of Langston Hughes.” Callaloo, vol. 19, no. 1, 1996, pp. 177–192. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/3299349.
  10. HOKANSON, ROBERT O’BRIEN. “Jazzing It Up: The Be-Bop Modernism of Langston Hughes.” Mosaic: An Interdisciplinary Critical Journal, vol. 31, no. 4, 1998, pp. 61–82. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/44029735.
  11. Thurston, Michael. “Black Christ, Red Flag: Langston Hughes on Scottsboro.” College Literature, vol. 22, no. 3, 1995, pp. 30–49. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/25112207.
  12. Sanders, Leslie. “‘Interesting Ways of Staging Plays’: Hughes and Russian Theatre.” The Langston Hughes Review, vol. 15, no. 1, 1997, pp. 4–12. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/26434457.
  13. Borshuk, Michael. “‘Noisy Modernism’: The Cultural Politics of Langston Hughes’s Early Jazz Poetry.” The Langston Hughes Review, vol. 17, 2001, pp. 4–21. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/26434738.