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American Passages: A Literary SurveyUnit IndexAmerican Passages Home
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3. Utopian Promise   

10. Rhythms
in Poetry

•  Unit Overview
•  Using the Video
•  Authors
- HD (Hilda Doolittle)
- T. S. Eliot
- Robert Frost
- Langston Hughes
- Claude McKay
- Ezra Pound
- Carl Sandburg
- Genevieve Taggard
- Jean Toomer
- William Carlos Williams
- Suggested
•  Timeline
•  Activities

Authors: Langston Hughes (1902-1967)

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

Langston Hughes Activities
This link leads to artifacts, teaching tips and discussion questions for this author.
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.

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