The Poets Langston Hughes (1902-1967)


About the Poet

The master poet of the Harlem Renaissance and one of America's most translated authors, James Mercer Langston Hughes captured the blues stanza and the dialect music of mainstream black America. The rare professional poet and playwright who earned a living from publication, at the height of the Harlem Renaissance, he became America's first internationally known black writer. He attempted most literary venues, including short and long fiction, songs, history, humor, journalism, travelogue, juvenile literature, stage comedy, and screenplay. Hughes was an inveterate collector of bits of Afro-Americana gleaned from chance encounters, sonorous sermons, jingles and advertisements, and snatches of jazz tunes.

Hughes was born on February 1, 1902, in Joplin, Missouri. He grew up in Lawrence, Kansas, on a literary diet of the Bible and Crisis, the NAACP magazine. When his parents divorced in 1913 and his mother married a white man, he lived in her ramshackle apartment in Lincoln, Illinois. He served as class poet of his elementary school.

Hughes attended Central High School in Cleveland. After graduation, he lived in Mexico for fifteen months with his father, from whom he wheedled tuition to Columbia University. On the dismal train ride to Mexico, he displayed his literary promise with "The Negro Speaks of Rivers," which he wrote while crossing the Mississippi River near St. Louis. On his return north in 1921, he published it in Crisis.

Hughes left college after two semesters and worked as a truck farm laborer, waiter, and valet before accepting a berth as seaman aboard the S. S. Malone on a transatlantic haul to west Africa. This was his first trip abroad, and he anchored his optimism on the support of Joel Spingarn and Jessie Fauset and letters from Countée Cullen and Alain Locke. He became the only member of the Harlem Renaissance artists to sample the atmosphere of Nigeria and Angola. He reveled in the exotic fragrances and sights of the Canary Islands, Dakar, Timbuktu, and Lagos, source of his anti-European manifesto, "Liars."

In 1924, Hughes cooked and washed dishes at Le Grand Duc, a chi-chi cabaret in the fashionable Montmartre section of Paris. After capturing dawn hours on the Rue Pigalle in "The Breath of a Rose," he welcomed the tutelage of Locke, who escorted him to the city's landmarks and the Piazza San Marco of Venice. Hughes returned to New York and published eleven poems in Locke's anthology, The New Negro (1925).

While busing dishes at the Wardman Park Hotel, Hughes left a few sheets of verse for the perusal of a diner, poet Vachal Lindsay. The next morning, the newspapers reported that Lindsay had discovered a prodigy among the kitchen help. By age 23, Hughes netted a poetry prize from Opportunity magazine for "The Weary Blues," a masterwork about a pianist he had heard at the Cotton Club. Hughes gained the ear of critic Carl van Vechten, who passed him on to publisher Alfred A. Knopf and encouraged the editors of Vanity Fair and American Mercury to publish a glittering new talent. On a Southern tour, he won the admiration of playwright Eugene O'Neill and poet James Weldon Johnson but met with smug, eloquent racism at Vanderbilt University, where Allen Tate declined to meet the celebrated Harlemite.

In 1926, Hughes completed the groundbreaking Afro-American manifesto "The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain." He asserted that blacks must free themselves from a pervasive self-loathing for being black and from the styles and topics indigenous to white literature. To express his individuality, a first stand-alone title, The Weary Blues (1926), assimilated black music and verse. He completed a B.A. in literature at Lincoln University and worked at the Association for the Study of Negro Life in Washington, D.C. While living in Westfield, Pennsylvania, at the beginning of the Depression, he published a novel, Not Without Laughter (1930), a depiction of small-town life in the Midwest that earned enough royalties to free him from patrons.

In the spring of 1931, Hughes collaborated with folklorist Zora Neale Hurston on Mule Bone, a three-act folk comedy. After a quarrel over how to pay a typist, the duo ended their friendship. The play remained unperformed until its debut in February 1991 at New York's Lincoln Center.

As the Harlem Renaissance slowly fizzled, Hughes, influenced by the verse of Paul Laurence Dunbar, Carl Sandburg, and Walt Whitman, absorbed the essence of Harlem street life and characterized the Negro's plight in America in Fine Clothes to the Jew (1927) and Dear Lovely Death (1931). In addition, he wrote The Dream Keeper (1932) and Popo and Fifina (1932) for young readers and translated socially conscious verse by black poets from Cuba, Haiti, and Mexico. He wrote for New Masses, a Communist journal, and, in 1932, toured Russia, China, and Japan, a journey that brought FBI scrutiny during the paranoid McCarthy era. He collaborated with musician James Price Johnson on a stage work, De Organizer (1932), and crafted Scottsboro Limited (1932) for the stage, a propaganda piece that hammered out the message that the South still denied justice to blacks. In 1935, he composed "To Negro Writers," an essay demanding a world free of Jim Crow laws, lynchings, and handouts.

In 1939, Hughes established Los Angeles's New Negro Theater, which produced his plays Trouble Island, Angela Herndon Jones, and Don't You Want to Be Free? Resituated at Chicago's Grand Hotel, he wrote an autobiography, The Big Sea (1940), that mourned the decline of interest in black culture, as did the essay "When the Negro Was in Vogue." In addition to adult literature, Hughes assembled four volumes of children's stories about the adventures of a doughty, Harlem-based scamp, Jesse B. Semple, called "Simple." The adventures of the optimistic, street-smart youngster ran in the Chicago Defender and New York Post and dominates Simple Speaks His Mind (1950), Simple Takes a Wife (1952), Simple Stakes a Claim (1957), The Best of Simple (1961), Simple's Uncle Sam (1965), and a Broadway musical, Simply Heavenly (1957). Favorites of poetry anthologizers are "Dream Variations," "Harlem," and "Theme for English B" from his Harlem cycle, Montage of a Dream Deferred (1951).

Into the 1960s, Hughes continued to make headlines. He published a poetry anthology, Ask Your Mama: Twelve Moods for Jazz (1961), and his play Tambourines to Glory (1965) ran on Broadway. He died of cancer on May 22, 1967; a posthumous title, The Panther and the Lash (1967), rounded out his twelve published volumes.

Chief Works

In a burst of youthful genius, Hughes wrote "The Negro Speaks of Rivers" when he was only 20 years old, at the height of Marcus Garvey's "Back to Africa" movement. It mimics Sandburg in its omnipresent first-person speaker. The persistent parallel observations — for example, "I bathed," "I built," "I looked," "I heard" — survey Asian, African, and North American scenes over millennia as though a single long-lived observer relished the beauties of each. Rich with a distilled wisdom, the poem turns on an image in lines 2 and 3 that merges flowing waters with the human circulatory system. The muddy depths are the primal source of rebirth, both for the speaker and the budding poet.

Without naming the hardships of the black race, Hughes epitomizes the speaker's peaceful, life-affirming experiences as a parallel of the sun's daily cycle. Life as a black has benefited the speaker, who claims "My soul has grown deep like the rivers." The image suggests that historical events and the cyclical rise of civilizations have amassed an invaluable heritage. The speaker's depth of soul is the strength that stabilizes black people, who survive weather shifts in world power as easily as water flows to the sea.

In 1926, the poet wrote one of his most compressed, lyrically self-expressive poems, "Dream Variation." An intensely physical image of spontaneous, joyful whirling and dancing in sunlight gives place to a symbolic night, which brings rest, cool, and a subtly powerful reminder that darkness and blackness are his birthright and the source of his creativity. A three-syllable beat buoys the speaker into a second verse. In rhapsodic mode, the dancer again gyrates in sunlight and into the shady darkness, which tenderly enfolds the body at rest into a reassuring blackness. Hughes's final line, "Black like me," was an awakening to people hungry for a reason to take pride in self. The phrase served as the title of Richard Wright's autobiography.

At the crest of his poetic powers, Hughes crafted "The Weary Blues," a deliberately winsome, vernacular hymn to a Lenox Avenue jazz pianist. Like a Scott Joplin rag, the poem melds African rhythms and themes with European verse traditions. Lightly, almost fondly, it illuminates old-style complacence. Like a dismal dog, the player sounds out old woes and thumps the floor with his foot as heavenly lights wink out. By early morning, the pianist, dreaming his bluesy theme song, lies moribund, as lifeless as a rock or corpse.

The controlled artistry of the poem summons blues syncopation and repetitions, linking lines with a loose rhyme scheme comprised of simple monosyllables — for example, tune/croon, play/sway, and night/light. At high points in the development, the poet moves to a dominance of oo and ooh sounds. The subdued sound, like a jazz lament, overwhelms the text with a self-induced inertia that condemns the singer for his soul-paralyzing melancholy, the result of a lifelong indulgence in self-pity.

In 1927, Hughes perpetuated his music-based verse in "Song for a Dark Girl," a twelve-line ditty that develops a keen-edged irony through repetitions of "Way Down South in Dixie," the closing line of the Confederacy's unofficial national anthem. Stoutly rhythmic, the three-beat lines alternate feminine and masculine rhymes of Dixie/me to land firm-footed on the monosyllabic "tree," a fusion of the lover's lynching site with a symbol — "wood" — which stands for the device on which Christ was executed. The intense wordplay links "cross roads" with the Christian cross; alliteration unifies "gnarled and naked" for a stark picture of Southern injustice in an area also famed as the Bible Belt, center of fundamentalist religion.

An example of Hughes's easy conversational mode and lithe tone, "Madam's Calling Cards" (1949), depicts a woman in conference with a printer about an order for personal cards. Her surname, Johnson, is common among black Americans; Alberta is a favorite female given name. Both appear alongside an honorific, "Madam," which the printer approves. Misunderstanding his question about which font to use, Old English or Roman, she asserts that she is completely American and wants nothing foreign appended to her heritage. Beyond the lighthearted exchange, Hughes implies that the speaker, presumably a strong black woman, has paid dearly for her nationality, which derives from enslaved African forebears.

Late in Hughes's poetic growth, he composed "Harlem," a crisp, bleak succession of rhetorical questions about oppression. Opening on a series of alliterated d sounds, he inquires about the effects of suppressed artistry and self-expression. His deceptively simple parallelism begins with an image of a crinkling raisin, a putrescent sore, and reeking rotted meat, then retreats to a less loathsome vision of a sweet, a symbol of black behaviors that mask mounting discontent with sugary manners. Abruptly, Hughes shifts the rhythm and rhyme of his brief ten lines to a vision of a sagging burden. He concludes with a single question in italics — an ominous warning that Harlemites are capable of postponing dreams, but may someday lose control to erupt in riot and rebellion.

Discussion and Research Topics

1. Characterize Langston Hughes' disdain for Jim Crow mannerisms in "Harlem" and "Merry-Go-Round." Apply his warning to prose predictions in Richard Wright's Black Like Me and Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man.

2. Contrast Hughes' ear for native dialects with Countée Cullen's preference for polished literary lines and Mari Evans's standard English.

3. Determine the source of rage in Hughes's poems "Notes on Commercial Theater" and "Harlem," August Wilson's play Fences, and Toni Cade Bambara's short story "Blues Ain't No Mockin' Bird."

4. What does the image of night symbolize in "Dream Variation"?