Langston Hughes Essay, Research Paper
18 February, 1999
“Hughes’ efforts to create a poetry that truly evoked the spirit of Black America
involved a resolution of conflicts centering around the problem of identity” (Smith 358). No African American poet, writer, and novelist has ever been appreciated by every ethnic society as much as Langston Hughes was. Critics argue that Hughes reached that level of prominence, because all his works reflected on his life’s experience, whether they have been good or bad. He never wrote one single literary piece that did not contain an underlying message within the specific work; in other words, all his works had a definite purpose behind them. Providing that the reader has some insight about the life of this great poet, he can readily arrive to the conclusion that Hughes’ life effected his works to the fullest extent, even when only breezing through Langston Hughes’ works.
Langston Hughes, “one of the most original and versatile of twentieth-century black writers” (Shirley 1), was born on February 1st, 1902, in Joplin, Missouri. When Hughes was still a baby, his father, James Nathaniel Hughes, abandoned the family and left for Mexico. As soon as she divorced her husband, his mother, Carrie Langston Hughes, a schoolteacher struggling to acquire a permanent job position, had to place him under the caring arm of his grandmother, Mary Sampson Patterson Leary. Hughes’ grandmother “helped inspire in him a devotion to the cause of social justice” (Rampersad 55), for her first husband died fighting at Harpers Ferry under John Brown, and her second husband became a fierce abolitionist. Being always a lonely child, Hughes turned to reading and poetry early in his life. Developing a great respect for writers like Paul Dunbar and Carl Sandburg, he soon began writing his own poems. Shortly after submitting a few poems to the school’s magazine editor, Hughes’ poems could be read by everyone at Central High School, a local Cleveland school he was attending. After his graduation, Hughes attempted to peacefully reunite with his father, who was now a wealthy lawyer in Mexico, in order to ask for money so he could pursue a quality post-high school education. After his unsuccessful attempt, Hughes returned to the United States, deciding that his faith will lie only in his hands. On his way back, Hughes wrote one of his most famous poems “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” readily admitting that he wrote the best when he was sad and depressed” (Early 26). In 1921, Hughes spent a year at Columbia University, however, just to find out that he did not make the right choice, for colleges were still discriminating regularly. Looking for jobs, he landed a position as a seaman on the SS Malone that brought him closer to his own race emotionally, by traveling to Africa and Europe. “Although he was almost constantly at sea, his poems got published regularly in African-American magazines such as the Crisis.” (Rampersad 118). By this time, Hughes already established himself as the young star of the New Negro Renaissance. As time passed, a young, unskilled, position-seeking Hughes became a bus boy at the prominent Wardman Park Hotel in Washington D.C.. After Vachel Lindsay recited three of his poems, which Hughes intentionally left by Vachel’s plate, he received slight attention from different publishers. When Hughes won his first poetry award in 1925 through a contest by a journal called Negro Life, his award winning poem got him further recognition, that would eventually lead to his first book, The Weary Blues. Soon enough, “through his poetry, from a kind and generous woman who had shown interest in his work, came a scholarship” (Smith 359). Four years later, in 1929, Hughes graduated from Lincoln University in Pennsylvania with a B.A.. Never even thinking about his young age, other authors selected Hughes to become the leader of the Harlem Renaissance, a literary circle of black writers focusing on the social problems blacks had to endure. Along with writers like Countee Cullen, Wallace Thurman and others, he struggled to prove that the great spirit or skill of writing tremendous pieces of literature lies within the white and the black mind and body. When jazz stepped into the picture, being the most popular music of that time, Hughes effectively turned a bit more toward jazz, writing his poems in a distinctive rhythm and beat. “I can not recall the name of one single person, who at the age of twenty-seven, has enjoyed so picturesque and rambling existence as Langston Hughes” (Smith 363). Hughes also started writing short novels, plays and songs. His play The Mulatto, a tragic play about racial controversies, made it to Broadway in 1935 and stayed there for about two years after. Again, it can be clearly depicted that Hughes tried to “explain and illuminate the Negro Condition of America” (Shirley 2). Included his works were many pieces such as the novel Fine Clothes to the Jew (1927), Not Without Laughter (1930), Shakespeare in Harlem (1942), and numerous other nationally recognized pieces. During the 1930’s Hughes was lecturing all over the South, desperately trying to persuade more young black Americans to pursue their dreams. Hughes remained unmarried for the rest of his life. He chose to live in Harlem throughout his life, so he could benefit from being among his people by learning something new every day. After being hospitalized in March, 1967, Hughes died on May 22nd, 1967. Authors all over the country preached that Langston Hughes died, but that his work and his spirit will live on forever, making Hughes an immortal poet.
Langston Hughes, “the poet laureate of Harlem” (Shirley 9), wrote many poems,
plays, novels and other literary works. If one reads a Langston Hughes poem, at first he does not know why or for what purpose Hughes wrote the piece. The fact of the matter is that every single creation that Hughes came up with had a significant meaning behind it. Most of his poems speak about the constant struggle of black people in America against the societal problems. It can be portrayed through his writings that Hughes himself saw many problems of the society. His play The Mulatto, making Broadway when Hughes was 35 years old, told about a young, smart boy whose parents were of both races: white and black. Throughout this play the boy struggles within both of the societies, with no one accepting him for who he really is. Hughes intentionally wrote this masterpiece in order to present to the audience, whoever the audience might be, the real-life situations and problems of those times. One of Langston Hughes’ poems, “A Dream Deferred,” asks the reader what happens to a dream that is held back by someone or something: however, he never explicitly explains that the dream is not impossible. Through this poem Hughes tried to show the reader that although dreams at certain times can not be fulfilled because of whichever reasons, they are definitely not unreachable. In this case, the dream which is held back is the dream of freedom, with the white society being the character which is preventing the dream to happen. When analyzed, it becomes evident that this comes from the fact that during his times, the white people often kept the black people from succeeding financially, politically, and socially. “Awakening the spirit of the reader, he intended to spark hope into many of his people’s hearts” (Early 29). Being a poet of democracy, in one of his other poems, “The Theme for English B,” Hughes writes about how in reality there is really one kind: the humans. Hughes, of course, saw that black, just like the white people, had the potential in their lives to succeed, and the black, just like white people have folks that are sometimes a disgrace to the community. By concluding all of this, he knew that deep inside we are all the same, and that is what really matters. Many times, “in his works Hughes talked about the racial issues” (Rampersad 1), just like in the poem “I Too, Sing America.” Seeing that the black man was often treated as although he was not human, Hughes described in this poem how the society treated the Negro at times. At the end of the poem, he wrote how one day the white people will realize that made a mistake, and from that day on they will recognize the blacks as an important part of the society.
During Langston Hughes’ time, the most widely listened to music in the black and white community was jazz, and ironically the music was usually composed by black people. Being a fan of jazz himself, Hughes “borrowed extensively from blues and jazz in his work, and in doing so, set the foundations for a new tradition of black literary modernism influenced by the African American musical vernacular.” (Borshuk Online), and consequently, it must be said that it was well received by all critics. He made the poems sound slow, and relaxing, but at the same time meaningful. This was one of Hughes’ signature acts that he well used, and this can be vividly portrayed in the poem “As I Grew Older,” found in the collection of poems The Weary Blues.
As I Grew Older
By Langston Hughes
It was a long time ago.
I have almost forgotten my dream.
But it was there then,
In front of me, Bright like a sun -
And then the wall rose,
Between me and my dream.
Rose slowly, slowly,
The light of my dream.
Rose until it touched the sky -
I am black.
I lie down in the shadow.
No longer the light of dream before me.
Only the thick wall.
Only the shadow.
My dark hands!
Break through the wall!
Find my dream!
Help me to shatter this darkness,
To smash this night.
To break this shadow
Into a thousand lights of sun,
Into a thousand whirling dreams
“As I Grew Older,” a poem by Langston Hughes is very representative of Hughes’ works, because it incorporates several themes and specific distinctions throughout the entire poem. The first, and maybe the most distinguishable trait of Hughes’ works, is the “ever-present feeling of the problems caused by race issues” (Shirley 4). If one analyzes the poem to the fullest extent, it becomes evident that the first stanza represents the birth of a goal or a dream, just like a child has dreams of becoming a pilot or an astronaut. This, of course, is a positive dream that was in the reach of the speaker, but as it is illustrated later, it is clearly seen that it becomes farther and farther away from him. In the second verse, it becomes conspicuous that there is an outside force, or in Hughes’ words ‘a wall,’ that is actually holding back the writer away from his dream. Since in the last line Hughes includes the words “I am black,” this ‘wall’ symbolizes the hardships of the black people and all the struggles that they have to overcome before they succeed. Hughes never mentions what this wall might be, but it can be assumed that it is the ‘white’ world surrounding him. Again, in relation to a black person’s life, this stanza represents a growing child who realizes that he can not reach his goals, because the society does not give the opportunity to the black people to become pilots or space explorers. The third stanza epitomizes the way many black people give up when something stands in the path leading to their dreams or goals. In other words, with the line “I lie down in the shadow,” the author illustrates how certain individuals merely accept the fact that someone or something (in this case it is the white community) stands between them and their so distantly seeming dreams. This stanza symbolizes the early years of adulthood, when many things seem impossible, and so many people lose their hopes. In the last verse, the reader should notice the abrupt change and the sudden willingness to succeed. The reader should also understand that now the character of the poem is actually taking actions to overcome the obstacles of life, and not just hopelessly accepting the fact that he is being treated unfairly. It is clear that the character realizes that he himself can only contribute to his success, no matter who or what prevents him from doing so. This represents the maturity of the child who once thought that there was nothing he could do about his hardships.
Another specific distinction about Hughes works is the “usage of blues within the poems” (Smith 361). Usually, blues lyrics describe hardships and sufferings, and that is exactly what this poem does. Also, the repetition of certain words throughout the poem resembles the blues music, which is also based on the recurrence of specific key words.
What impact one’s experiences and hardships of life can have on their works and
further philosophies on the role of life, is nowhere better visible than in the works and the life of the great American poet Langston Hughes. Because Hughes chose to live in Harlem for the rest of his life, and because he readily accepted the role as the leader of the Young Negro Movement, it is clear that Hughes intended to write about the culture and the difficult times of the black community. In other words, this makes the reader realize that in fact Hughes wanted to present to the society these problems, and hopefully correct them in some ways. The influence of his grandmother who was a passionate abolitionist, along with influential black persona such as Booker T. Washington, left an enormous effect on his literary works that he produced during his lifetime; furthermore, in his works it is almost impossible not to see the presence of the beliefs of a person who is fighting for a better life. The fact that Hughes lived during a time in which the society’s hatred for blacks was immense, and that he tried to ‘row upstream’ against the society’s flowing beliefs, makes the whole argument that Hughes’ works were influenced by his way of life much stronger. All these ideas and facts vividly draw a picture for the reader showing that, in fact, Langston Hughes’ life experiences affected the creation of his literary works.