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American Passages: A Literary Survey

Rhythms in Poetry Langston Hughes (1902-1967)

[4768] Aaron Douglas, The Negro Speaks of Rivers (1941), courtesy of The Walter O. Evans Collection of African American Art.

Langston Hughes stands as one of the most prolific writers in American history: he wrote poetry, two novels, two autobiographies, three volumes of short stories, several plays and musicals, over twenty years of newspaper columns, twelve children’s books, and countless essays. Born in Joplin, Missouri, James Langston Hughes spent most of his childhood in the Midwest. Hughes moved to Harlem in 1921, where the famous Harlem Renaissance was taking shape under the leadership of intellectuals like Alain Locke and benefactors like Carl Van Vechten. It didn’t take long for Hughes’s literary talent to be recognized. Before the year’s end, Jessie Fauset, perhaps the most prolific novelist of the Harlem Renaissance, published Hughes’s first short story, “Mexican Games,” in The Brownie’s Book. Also, Hughes’s widely anthologized poem dedicated to W. E. B. Du Bois, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” appeared in Crisis. Despite his success, Hughes left the electrifying Harlem atmosphere for a two-year trip to Africa and Europe. His travels inspired in him a sense of awe for ancient and non-Western civilizations, an awe that reveals itself in the imagery of his later poetry.

Upon returning to America, Hughes worked as a busboy in a Washington, D.C., hotel until he was “discovered” once again, this time by poet Vachel Lindsay, and his poems were published in Opportunity and Alain Locke’s The New Negro. Hughes’s first collection of poetry, The Weary Blues, was published in 1926 with the help of his benefactor Van Vechten. In the same year, “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain,” Hughes’s groundbreaking essay on the obstacles facing black artists, appeared in response to George Schuyler’s essay “Negro Art Hokum,” which argued that there was no such thing as a quintessentially Negro art. Both essays were published in The Nation, and they sparked a dialogue that resonated throughout the Harlem community. Hughes’s essay was important because it defended the possibility of an American art uniquely expressive of the black experience and because it challenged the elitism that often surfaced in the influential writings of Du Bois. For the last few years of the decade, patron Charlotte Mason, who also offered Zora Neale Hurston assistance, supported Hughes. By the end of the decade, Hughes had become synonymous with the Harlem Renaissance.

When the Great Depression struck the United States, Hughes, like many of his contemporaries, including Genevieve Taggard, turned to social and political activism. He embraced communism with its emphasis on working-class issues and racial equality. After his visit to the Soviet Union in 1932, Hughes wrote radical essays and articles and reported on the Spanish Civil War for the Baltimore Afro-American. While he continued to publish poetry throughout his life, he also began writing plays and books for children. In 1953 his radical activities brought him before Senator McCarthy’s committee, and the FBI considered him a security threat until 1959. During those six years, Hughes was unable to leave the United States.

Often called the poet laureate of Harlem, Hughes became famous for his innovative poetry, which appropriates the language, rhythm, and form of jazz and the blues. “The Weary Blues,” for example, mimics the traditional form of twelve-bar blues. With its syncopated rhythm, southern dialect, and crooning diction, it is no surprise that much of Hughes’s poetry has been set to music. While many intellectuals looked down on jazz and the blues as unrefined forms created by seedy characters, Hughes respected the artistry and originality of this new brand of African American music and recognized the unique contribution that it was making to American culture. Hughes wished to write about the black experience honestly. To Du Bois’s dismay, he insisted on using dialect and portraying a range of characters, not just the educated upper class, and he wrote with compassion and dignity about working-class African Americans in poems like “Brass Spittoons” and “Elevator Boy.” Hughes also wrote passionately about the American-ness of blacks at a time when political leaders like Marcus Garvey were encouraging scores of blacks to migrate back to Africa. Influenced by the work of Walt Whitman and Carl Sandburg, Hughes’s poetry unites racial self-awareness with a larger American identity.

Teaching Tips

  • Hughes’s poems are meant for the ear as much as the eye. Have your students close their books and begin your discussion of “The Weary Blues” by reading the poem aloud to them. Ask them how they imagine the speaker actually performing this song.
  • It is useful to point out that Hughes did not write the kind of poetry that Harlem Renaissance leaders like W. E. B. Du Bois and Alain Locke advocated. The intellectual leaders of the movement believed that art would bring about racial equality only if white audiences realized that black artists could produce polished works that were erudite and aesthetically sophisticated. The speakers in Hughes’s poems, however, range from vagabonds to blues singers. You might begin a discussion of almost any Hughes poem by asking students to point out what is radical in the work and how the speaker differs from Alain Locke’s concept of the “New Negro” and from the speakers of some of the elegant sonnets by Claude McKay.

Author Questions

  1. Comprehension: In “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” Hughes offers a list of famous rivers. Where are these rivers? Why might he choose these specific rivers? What do they have in common?
  2. Comprehension: In “I, Too” the speaker says, “I am the darker brother.” What does he mean? Why does he eat in the kitchen? What does he mean when he says that he’ll eat at the table “tomorrow”? What connection is the speaker making to America? What is the significance of the title?
  3. Context: “Mulatto” was written at the height of the Harlem Renaissance. How does this poem conflict with the values and goals set forth by the leaders of this movement? Why might people like W. E. B. Du Bois and Alain Locke have objected to this poem?
  4. Context: Hughes pays close attention to the structure of his poems, but he has a very different attitude toward poetic form than his contemporary Claude McKay. How does Hughes’s verse differ from McKay’s? Why do you think Hughes makes the choices he does? What is Hughes trying to convey about black experience and identity through his form?
  5. Context: “Note on Commercial Theater” was written almost two decades after the Harlem Renaissance. What is Hughes objecting to in this poem? Are the same issues still relevant today?
  6. Exploration: Hughes seems particularly concerned about American identity in his poetry. Why do you think he writes so often about America as opposed to Africa? How do poems like “I, Too” and “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” treat identity?
  7. Exploration: Compare “I, Too” to the opening section of Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself.” Why does Hughes allude to this poem? What does the allusion add to his work?

Selected Archive Items

[3099] Anonymous, Panorama of Joplin, MO (c. 1910), 
courtesy of the Library of Congress. 
Langston Hughes was born in Joplin in 1902 and spent his childhood in Kansas, Illinois, and Ohio. He wrote his first poem in eighth grade and was named “class poet.”

[3329] Anonymous, Langston Hughes in Honolulu, Hawaii, August, 1933 (1933), 
courtesy of Yale University, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, and the Langston Hughes estate. 
Hughes vacationing in Hawaii. By his early thirties, Hughes had traveled to France, where he experienced a society in which race mattered little, and to Africa, where he was first exposed to ancient, non-Western cultures.

[4554] Prentiss Taylor, Scottsboro Limited (1931), 
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZC4-4717]. 
Lithograph from Scottsboro Limited, a collection of four poems and a play by Langston Hughes protesting the incarceration, conviction, and death sentence of the Scottsboro boys, nine African American youths unjustly accused of raping two white women.

[4768] Aaron Douglas, The Negro Speaks of Rivers (1941), 
courtesy of The Walter O. Evans Collection of African American Art. 
Drawing of an African American man in a natural setting for Langston Hughes’s poem “The Negro Speaks of Rivers.” Aaron Douglas’s art arose out of the Harlem Renaissance and New Negro Movement.

[5100] Gordon Parks, Portrait of Langston Hughes (1943), 
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USW3-033841-C] and the Langston Hughes estate. 
Following the depression, Langston Hughes’s vocal support of communism led to his being called on to testify before Congress in 1953. Hughes was drawn to communism’s emphasis on racial equality.

[5183] Valerie Wilmer, Langston Hughes in Front of Harlem Apartment (1962), 
courtesy of Yale University, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library and the Langston Hughes Estate. 
Like William Carlos Williams and Carl Sandburg, Langston Hughes admired Walt Whitman and created literary personas that spoke to more than his own experience. In particular, Hughes was committed to portraying everyday African American life in his poetry.

[5196] Anonymous, Langston Hughes at Age 3 (n.d.), 
courtesy of Yale University, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, and the Langston Hughes estate. 
Langston Hughes was raised by his maternal grandmother, the widow of Lewis Sheridan Leary, who was killed at Harpers Ferry, and for his great-uncle, John Mercer Langston (brother to his grandmother’s second husband), who also played a part in the raid at Harpers Ferry.

[5198] Anonymous, Langston Hughes at Age 22 (1924), 
courtesy of Yale University, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, and the Langston Hughes estate. 
Poet Langston Hughes sought to portray the experiences of African Americans with honesty and challenged the elitism of W. E. B. Du Bois. Like Du Bois, however, he was an active social critic who fought for civil rights.

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American Passages: A Literary Survey


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