James Mercer Langston Hughes was an American novelist, poet, playwright, social activist, and columnist. He made his career in New York City, where he shifted when he was quite young. Langston Hughes was one of the innovators of the new genre poetry known as jazz poetry. He is also known as the leader of the Harlem Renaissance. He wrote about the period when Negro was in trend, and this period was rephrased as when Harlem was in trend.
Hughes became a creative writer from a very early age, growing up in different Midwestern towns. Hughes attended high school in Cleveland, Ohio, and after graduation attended Columbia University, New York City. He was dropped out of the university; still, he got a notice from the publishers in New York City. He was immediately recognized in the creative community in Harlem because of his writing, particularly poems. Besides poetry, Hughes also wrote short stories and plays. He also published some nonfiction works. He immensely wrote about the civil rights movement (from 1942 to 1962) in a weekly column.
A Short Biography of Langston Hughes
Langston Hughes (James Mercer Langston Hughes) was born on 1st February 1902 in Joplin, Missouri. When he was a young child, his parents got separated, and his father shifted to Mexico. Until the age of thirteen, he was raised by his grandmother. Afterward, Hughes went to Lincoln and started living with his mother and his foster father. The family then settled in Cleveland, Ohio. Hughes started writing poetry in Lincoln. He spent a year in Mexico after passing out from the college that was followed by a year at the University of Columbia in New York City.
He also had some meek jobs during this time like launder, assistant cook, and busboy. Working as a seaman, he also traveled to Europe and Africa. He shifted to Washington, D.C., in November 1924. In 1926, Hughes published his first book of poetry The Weary Blue in the Alfred A. Knopf publishers. He graduated from Lincoln University, Pennsylvania, in three years. His first novel, Not Without Laughter, received the Harmon gold medal for literature in 1930.
The primary influencers of Hughes included Carl Sandburg, Walt Whitman, and Paul Lawrence Dunbar. Hughes is regarded for his own insight and the colorful portrayal of the black life in America 1920s to 1960s. Hughes wrote short stories, poetry, novels, and plays; he was greatly engaged with the world of jazz and is also known as the earliest inventor of jazz poetry. He wrote a book-length poem, Montage of a Dream Deferred in 1951, influenced by jazz.
The artistic revolution of the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s is greatly shaped by both life and works of Langston Hughes. Hughes did not differentiate between the common experience of black America and the personal experience of Black America, unlike other prominent black poets of the twentieth century – Claude McKay, Countee Cullen, and Jean Toomer. He narrated the stories of people and reflected the real and actual culture of his time. He also talked about their suffering and problems, as well as their love of laughter, language, and music.
Besides a large body of poetic work, Hughes also wrote plays (eleven in number), and other countless prose work that includes a celebrated “simple: books such as Simple Speaks His Mind, Simple Stakes a Claim, Simple Takes a Wife, and Simple’s Uncle Sam.
He also edited the collection The Book of Negro Folklore and The Poetry of the Negro. He also wrote a much-admired autobiography, The Big Sea, and co-wrote the play Mule Bone with Zora Neale Hurston in 1991.
On 22nd May 1967, Langston Hughes died of difficulties from prostate cancer, in New York City.
Langston Hughes’ Writing Style
In the introduction to Modern Black Poets: A Collection of Critical Essays published in 1973, Donald B. Gibson says from the black poets that among predecessors, Hughes is different from most of them in the sense that he wrote and addresses his poetry for people, particularly for black people. He says that the twentieth-century poets and writers turned to write about inward, obscure, and esoteric poetry for particular readers. Whereas, Hughes turned to write outward poetry, employing the theme, language, ideas, and attitude recognizable by all types of readers, even to the people who can simply read. He spread his message through poetry by employing humor in the apparently serious subject to them all across the country. His poetry has been read by more people than any other American poet.
The Essential Characteristics of Langston Hughes’ Literary Work
The following are the essential characteristics of Hughes’ work. Since he has written a larger body of poetry than prose work, the characteristics are mainly based on his poetic works.
The Use of Simple and Familiar Language
The main goal of Hughes was to spread his literary work, and particularly his poetic work, to the people belonging to any race. The black people are usually the mouthpiece of his works. Therefore, Hughes employed simple and unsophisticated language in his work. In addition to this, he uses free, unconventional, and decoded verse form in poetry. For example, the poem “I, Too, Sing America” is the best example in which the speaker expresses his dream.
“I, too, sing America.
I am the darker brother.
They send me to eat in the kitchen
When company comes,
But I laugh,
And eat well,
And grow strong.” (Lines 1 to 7)
The simple language in the poem is both rhetorical and poetic. The language is poetic because it runs into the main characteristic of poetic discourse: the language is coherent, connoted, condensed, and implicit. Similarly, the language is rhetorical because it has eleven (in the overall poem) rhetorical devices such as refrain, repetition, humor, irony, metaphor, kenning, foregrounding, image, symbol, ellipses, and hyperbole.
In his novels and short stories, Langston Hughes employs popular dialect or familiar language. For example, in the novel, Not without Laughing, Hughes employed a popular dialect with almost no ambiguities. Similarly, in poetry, Hughes also uses popular dialect. For example, in the poem “The Weary Blues”:
Thump, thump, thump, went his foot on the floor.
He played a few chords then he sang some more—
And far into the night he crooned that tune.
The singer stopped playing and went to bed
While the Weary Blues echoed through his head.
He slept like a rock or a man that’s dead.
The Use of the Politically Essential Language
The literary works of Langston Hughes appear to be concerned in order to overcome and fight the factual and institutional slavery. In the Afro-American Movement of Harlem, Langston Hughes is among the frontline activists. Along with other black poets of America, he is also influenced by W.E.B. Du Bois.
The participation and the general obligation, to produce a literary and artistic expression, in connection to the existing identity of black people, in general, and of Afro-American, in particular, unite the social activists of the Harlem Renaissance.
In his poem “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” (published in 1921), Hughes clearly shows the experience and miseries of black slaves transported through the oceans and rivers. Basically, the poem is a nostalgia for the rivers that have developed the soul of the speaker and echoes the endurance, perseverance, life, death, victory, and wisdom. Inside the poet, a fire burns that nourishes his deep urge to write poetry and take from it a function of emancipation, justice, equity, and elevation. By using these political themes in his poetry, Langston Hughes became one of the greatest poets of all time. Hughes, like the Euphrates in the poem, bathed “when the dawn was young.”
Langston Hughes desires America to be the land of equality and freedom for all, blacks and whites. His poem, “Let America be America again,” published in 1936, advocates the liberation of American slaves.
“Let America be the dream the Dreamers dreamed
Let it be that great strong land of love
Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme
That any man be crushed by one above.”
The Use of the Radical and Protest Tone
The tone of Langston Hughes is radical and revolutionary, along with protesting. Hughes appears to be outrageous and shocked because of the everlasting division between the different sects of people that has been entered insidiously into Harlem and North America. The physical and financial conditions of the black working class had not been improved since ages. The killings and executions in the south of America were countless, regardless of the involvement of Blacks in the Allied armies of the Great War.
In his literary works, Hughes rebels against this particular dark side of America. In his poetry and other works, he does not appear to believe in Christianity. He also revolts against the people who use religion, particularly the principles of Christianity, as a shield to hide their oppressive actions. These ideas inspire him to write the poem “Goodbye Christ.”
Langston Hughes revolts against this generally dark state of American life. He does “t trust the Christian religion. It is a revolt against the people who use Christianity as a mantle under which are hidden their oppressive actions, which inspired him to write his poem “Goodbye Christ.” In the poem, he writes,
You did alright in your day, I reckon —
But that day’s gone now.
They ghosted you up a swell story, too,
Called it Bible —
But it’s dead now,
The popes and the preachers’ve
Made too much money from it.”
Indeed, Hughes is not against Christ, nor he denounces his faith in Christ. However, he denounces the authority of white people over the religion, Bible, and church who use religion to exclude blacks.
Hughes got highly inspired from the 1932 trip to the Soviet Union, where every citizen – Whites, Blacks, Asians, and Europeans – was treated equally; even the blacks were treated more equally. It is because of this reason that Hughes wrote such revolutionary poems like “Good Morning Revolution” and Goodbye Christ.”
Due to such revolutionary poems and poems written in favor of Russian, Langston Hughes was accused of being a communist. However, he denies the allegation put on him before the American Senate and says that Communism only inspires him to criticize the enslavement, injustice, and insecurity encountered by the Afro-American for ages. According to Hughes, the only power able to liberate the Negros is of God; he has a firm belief in God. He believes that God acts according to his own will. In the poem “Who but Lord,” Hughes expresses his belief and hope in God.
“I said, O, Lord, if you can,
Save me from that man!
Don’t let him make a pulp out of me!
But the Lord he was not quick.
The Law raised up his stick
And beat the living hell
Out of me!”
Various Themes in Langston Hughes’ Works
The work of Langston has been greatly influenced by the life of Black Americans. In the works of Hughes, Andrew identified almost 16 themes. These themes include parental rejection, racism, miscegenation, the pride of blacks, the history of deportation, the dignity of blacks, the anger, the protest, the fight of equality, the oral tradition of Africa, social injustice, jazz, and the blues, suffering, and race. Here is a brief description of some themes explored in the works of Langston Hughes.
In the most basic sense, hybridity means mixture. The contemporary uses of the term are dispersed across several academic disciplines and are noticeable in popular culture. Basically, the term hybridity clearly demonstrates that how different cultures claim to be pure or authentic turned out to be a representation of mixture, overlap, and influence.
Langston Hughes was multicultural and mulatto. The theme of hybridity is clearly and profoundly treated in his works. For example, his poem “The Cross” is the best example of hybridity. For black and mulatto, hybridity is a burden: it is a cross to be tolerated. This poem also involves the Cross on which Jesus Christ was crucified. Just like Jesus, blacks also suffer from consistent oppression by the white people. The narrator of the poem is a mulatto, a hybrid, and is on crossroads constantly thinking about to whom he shall assimilate: white or black, or none?
The poem “Cross” is a free rhymed verse. It is written in a common and simple language. The poem is sung by the speaker “I,” who is most probably the poet himself. The theme of hybridity is hidden inside the title of the poem. The connotative meanings of the word cross are many, such as anger, bitterness, apologies, threats, crossroads, confusion, Christ’s crucifix, traversal, and crossbreed.
The goal of the speaker in the poem is to illustrate the anger, bitterness, and confusion for being and hybrid or bi-racial. In American societies, being bi-racial was the biggest problem that affects the life of bi-racial individuals and society. Such people had no identity, and they found it struggling to integrate and assimilate with society.
The tone of the first line of the poem, “My old man’s a white, old man,” is spoken in an angry tone. The speaker is giving threats to his/her parents right from the beginning of the poem; however, when the poem progresses, somewhere in the middle, the speaker apologizes and takes back his words. The lines “I’ m sorry for that evil wish” and “I take my curses back” show that the speaker is apologizing for his threats and curses that he gave earlier. At the end of the poem, the tone of the poem turns to confusion, and the speaker does not know whom to assimilate, white or black.
The poetry of Langston Hughes is everlasting. His poetry served to be a great impact not only on his own community but also on other communities around the world. The reading of the poem “Cross” is significant as it discusses the major issues the world is facing. The poem’s concerns are the undergoing conflicted, bitter, and enigmatic conditions that make people revolt against with perseverance and determination to conquer the important values such as justice, human dignity, emancipation, elevation, and equity.
Langston Hughes never regarded himself as white. He was proud of being hybrid and belonging to the black race. He believes in the notion the awareness of black origin at root contains the fact that to act in full awareness of being intentionally created black by God, and this makes a person equal to all human beings. Thus, a person who is conscious about his black origin shall not submit his soul before anyone and must struggle to liberate himself against all the powers that attempt to imprison him.
In the poem “Negro” published in 1922, Hughes says that he is a Negro; his complexion is as dark as night, dark as the African depth. Similarly, in the poem “To the Black Beloved,” published in 1924, he addresses his beloved as his black and says that you are not beautiful, but you are lovely and surpasses the beauty.
Similarly, his novel “Not without Laughter” also deals with the black pride and depicts the ordinary life of black people in simple language.
The History of the Transportation of the Blacks
Hughes’ novels, short stories, and several poems deal with the theme of deportation of transportation of the black slaves through the deep and wide rivers and oceans.
In the poem “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” published in 1921, the speaker is a black slave saying that he has known the rivers; he knows them from ancient times, even older than the “flow of human blood in the human vein.” This shows that the oppressed slaves are slaves for generations, and they have been deported to one place and other like donkeys and carts.
Crying for the black Americans, Langston Hughes, in his poem “Negro,” claims to be a singer (a black slave who has been transported) who carries his songs of sorrows “all the ways from Africa to Georgia.”
The Struggle for Equality
Langston Hughes’s writing is intensified with the issue of social equality. The major aim of Hughes in his writing is to encourage Blacks to struggle and fight for their rights for equality. He asserts that all humans are created equal; that blacks should be treated equally to white. In the poem “I Dream the World,” Hughes dreams about America, where there will be the rule of peace, love, freedom, and quality among all citizens.
In the poems, he says that he dreams about the world where no man will scorn the other man; The world full of blessing and peace; a free of any race; all sharing the bounties of the earth equally; a world where every man is free.
Since, from the beginning of the deportation of the slaves in 1562 until 1865, the African-American slaves were living in a state of misery and inhuman conditions. The year 1865 is marked as years of legal elimination of racial isolation. Hughes wrote several poems, short stories, and novels describing the miseries of black slaves in America. The poem, “Let America Be America Again,” published in 1936, echoes the miseries of black slaves.
“I am the farmer, bondsman to the soil.
I am the worker sold to the machine.
I am Negro, servant to you all.
I am the people, humble, hungry, mean—
Hungry yet today despite the dream.
Beaten yet today—O, Pioneers!
I am the man who never got ahead,
The poorest worker bartered through the years.”
The Use of the Jazz and the Blues
Music with strong rhythms is known as jazz. The music was originally created by African-American Musicians. Likewise, Blues are slow and sad music with strong rhythms. It was also developed by the musicians of African American living in the southern U.S. The blues is the style that illustrates the ill-being and originates from the songs held by blacks during their works.
Langston Hughes also employed the two styles of African American music. He would spend nights in clubs to listen to jazz music. Certainly, he was not seduced by the song; nonetheless, he was a radical follower of Black Consciousness. The only artistic form of the Black slaves was the jazz and the blues, and Hughes loved it the most.
The desire to assimilate and accept the white culture is choked by the two forms of blacks’ music, and Hughes rather celebrated the blacks’ only inheritance and creativity of art. In his book “The Negro and the Racial Mountain” that jazz for him is one of the inherent expressions of the life of Negros in America; It is the everlasting drum (tom-tom) beating in the hearts of Negros; it is the tom-tom of upheaval against the disillusionment in the world of white people; it is the tom-tom of laughter and joy, and pains absorbed in smiles.