Langston Hughes was the first African American to make a Iiving as a professional writer and one of the first to receive serious critical attention from the white literary world.
By Barbara and Åge Rendalen
From the mid 1920s to his death in 1967, he wrote more than sixty books. His literary production covers a wide field: journalism, novels, short stories and plays, but today he is above all remembered for his poetry and in this program, that is what we'll focus on.
Langston Hughes began writing poetry in his teens and eighteen years old, he penned his first masterpiece, The Negro Speaks of Rivers, as he crossed the Mississippi by train on his way to see his father in Mexico.
The Negro Speaks of Rivers
I've known rivers:
I've known rivers ancient as the world and
older than the flow of human blood
in human veins.
My soul has grown deep like the rivers.
I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns
I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled
me to sleep.
I looked upon the Nile and raised the
pyramids above it.
I heard the singing of the Mississippi when
Abe Lincoln went down to New
Orleans, and I've seen its muddy
bosom turn all golden in the
I've known rivers:
Ancient, dusky rivers.
My soul has grown deep like the rivers.
Langston Hughes' father lived in Mexico. He was part white and was full of hatred for black people. He constantly urged his son to move south of the border to get a way from racism and American "niggers", as he so delicately put it. Langston turned from his father in disgust. "I hated my father" he would write many years later in his autobiography. This may help explain why such a light-skinned man as Langston Hughes would devote his poetic talents to the celebration of black culture at a time when other African-American artists would try to tone down their heritage.
In 1922, his father reluctantly paid for him to go to Columbia University, but Langston quit after one year and took a job as a seaman. On board the West Hesseltine, he spent the summer of 1923 trading up and down the west coast of Africa. Hughes was fascinated by Africa, but much to his chagrin, he discovered that Africans refused to believe that he was black. They insisted that he was a white man. The year after, again working as a seaman, he jumped ship in Europe and headed for Paris, where he worked in a hotel for about a year before returning home.
Back in the States in 1925, his poems began to attract a great deal of attention, and in 1926 his first book, 'The Weary Blues', was published. In it, he introduced a number of poems that took their rhythm from black blues and jazz music rather than classical meter. This unique blend of black rhythms and poetry came to be a trademark of his. Here is an excerpt from the title poem, 'The Weary Blues', which he wrote as a 21 year old, after a visit to a Harlem cabaret:
From The Weary Blues
Droning a drowsy syncopated tune,
Rocking back and forth to a mellow croon,
I heard a Negro play.
Down on Lenox Avenue the other night
By the pale dull pallor of an old gas light
He did a lazy sway .. .
He did a lazy sway .. .
To the tune o' those Weary Blues.
With his ebony hands on each ivory key
He made that poor piano moan with
Swaying to and fro on his rickety stool
He played that sad raggy tune like a musical
Coming from a black man's soul.
Hand in hand with Langston Hughes' celebration of black culture went a lifelong commitment to the fight for equal rights. To Langston Hughes, America had been hijacked by its white population. Privilege had been hoarded by its pale majority and those of darker taint were banished to a twilight zone beyond the reach of the American Dream. "Being colored", he once wrote, "is like being born in the basement of life, with the door to the light locked and barred - and the white folks live upstairs".
The scandalous Scottsboro case in 1931 radicalized Hughes, and his racial poems became more aggressive in tone. For a few years, he threw caution to the wind and served his poetic summons on American racists with abandon. Even today we can feel the raw and the provocative power of his Scottsboro poem, 'Christ in Alabama', from 1931:
Christ is a nigger,
Beaten and black:
Oh, bare your back!
Mary is His mother:
Mammy of the South,
Silence your mouth.
God is His father:
White Master above
Grant Him your love.
Most holy bastard
Of the bleeding mouth,
On the cross
Of the South.
Langston Hughes never tired of the paradox that the United States, a country marinated in democratic ideals, should find it so easy to deny its political faith in racial matters. In the midst of the Depression, in 1935, Hughes summed up his feelings about his country in the poem, 'Let America Be America Again'. Here is a verse:
0, let America be America again -
The land that never has been yet -
And yet must be -
The land where every man is free.
The land that's mine -
The poor man's, Indians' Negro's, ME -
Who made America,
Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and
Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in
Must bring back our mighty dream again.
During the war, he penned this little protest ditty:
You tell me that Hitler
Is a mighty bad man.
I guess he took his lessons
From the Ku Klux Klan.
Langston Hughes made frequent use of black American dialect in his poems. Many resented this because they felt it built up under the age-old stereotypes of blacks as illiterate and ignorant people.
But Hughes was determined to let the black voice sound true to life. Here is such a poem, which he wrote when he was twenty. A poor black mother who has worked hard all her life to make ends meet, admonishes her son not to give up.
Mother to Son
Well, son, I'll tell you:
Life for me ain't been no crystal stair.
It's had tacks in it,
And boards torn up,
And places with no carpet on the floor -
But all the time
I'se been a-climbin' on,
And reachin' landin's
And turnin' corners,
And sometimes goin' in the dark
Where there ain't been no light.
So, boy, don't you turn back.
Don't you set down on the steps
'Cause you finds it's kinda hard.
Don't you fall now -
For I'se still goin', honey
I'se still climbin',
And life for me ain't been no crystal stair.
Langston Hughes himself was not ready to listen to good advice from his own parents. His father was a racist who had not wanted him to become a writer, and his mother was too wrapped up in her own failed career as an actress to care for her son. She only began to take an interest in him when his writing started paying off and she made life miserable for him by her incessant pleas for money.
Not everything Langston Hughes wrote was great art. His interest in radical politics and the civil rights campaign tended to turn many of his poems into political pamphlets. Other poems are mere rhymes and ditties intended to bring a laugh. Like this one:
Little Lyric (of great importance)
I wish the rent
Was heaven sent.
Or this one:
Here I sit
With my shoes mismated.
Hughes was not embarrassed by color. In his poem, 'Harlem Sweeties', for instance, he revels in all the colors of the black rainbow as he describes the local beauties.
Brown sugar Iassie,
Sweet enough to eat.
Coffee and cream,
Out of a dream.
Or cocoa brown,
Pride of the town.
Rich cream colored
To plum-tinted black,
In Harlem's no lack.
Glow of the quince
To blush of the rose.
To cinnamon toes.
Virgina Dare wine -
All those sweet colors
Flavor Harlem of mine!
The African-American community had hoped that World War II would be the decicisive event that would put an end to segregation and discrimination. Americans would be bound to realize, they thought, that you can't fight for democracy overseas without extending its privileges to your own population. You can't go to war against tyranny abroad and yet tolerate it at home. And yet the nation did so. The war ended without major changes in the legal standing of American blacks. They were still banned from most occupations and in the South, they still couldn't vote. Once more their dream of a just society had to be deferred. In 1951 Hughes delved into this theme in his poem 'Harlem'.
What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
Like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore -
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over -
Like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
Like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?
It did indeed explode. Four years later, in Birmingham, Alabama, Martin Luther King lit the fuse of a civil rights bomb that was to rock the South and the nation as a whole, when it went off in the 1960s.
Langston Hughes died in 1967, a couple of years after the Congress had passed the landmark civil rights legislation that was to be the crowning achievement of the African-American Civil Rights Movement. To Hughes, it must have been an immensely satisfying experience to see the white day drawing to an end.