Essay on Poetic Theory

The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain (1926)

by Langston Hughes


(1) Hughes is likely referring to Countee Cullen (1903-1962), a classically trained African American writer whose poems largely adhered to European traditions of form and meter.

(2) Raquel Meller (1888-1962), popular Spanish singer and actress; Clara Smith (1895-1935), African American blues singer who incorporated vaudeville and comedy routines into her shows, which often contained risqué sexual references.

(3) Charles Waddell Chestnutt (1858-1932), prolific African American writer best known for his conjure tales and his novels of social purpose dealing with the psychological and social costs of the color line; Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872-1906), African American poet, novelist, and short story writer, was both praised and chastised for his dialect poems, which some critics felt reinforced popular stereotypes of a romanticized Old South.

(4) Hughes is referring to what is now known as the Harlem Renaissance, a sociocultural movement of the 1920s that witnessed a florescence of African American literary, musical, and visual arts. During this period many whites, fascinated with African American art and culture, made trips to Harlem to experience its exciting nightlife.

(5) Charles Gilpin (1878-1930) became the first African American to be widely recognized as a serious actor when the played the title role in Eugene O’Neill’s The Emperor Jones in the early 1920s.

(6)  Hughes is likely referring to himself in this anecdote.

(7) With its blend of short fiction, poetry, arcane line sketches, Cane, published in 1923, is considered one of the most stylistically sophisticated works of the Harlem Renaissance, but it offended some critics with its frank representations of sexuality and racial violence. Jean Toomer (1894-1967) considered Cane a swan song, a final mediation on his own conflicted relationship with African America and the rural South. After its publication, Toomer refused to be classified as a black writer. Paul Robeson (1898-1976), renowned African American singer, actor, and advocate for global human rights.

(8) Winold Reiss (1888-1953), German artist whose portraits of African Americans were featured in Alain Locke’s Harlem Renaissance anthology, The New Negro.

(9) Bessie Smith (1894-1937), the “Empress of the Blues,” made over eighty recordings during her short career; Rudolph Fisher (1897-1934), was a leading African American novelist, short story writer, and essayist during the Harlem Renaissance; Aaron Douglas (1898-1979), once referred to as the “Dean of African American painters,” was encouraged by Winold Reiss to incorporate African motifs into his art.

Langston Hughes, “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain” from The Collected Works of Langston Hughes, published by University of Missouri Press. Copyright © 2002 by The Estate of Langston Hughes. Reprinted with the permission of Harold Ober Associates Incorporated.
Originally Published: October 13, 2009

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 Langston  Hughes


Langston Hughes was first recognized as an important literary figure during the 1920s, a period known as the "Harlem Renaissance" because of the number of emerging black writers. Du Bose Heyward wrote in the New York Herald Tribune in 1926: "Langston Hughes, although only twenty-four years old, is already conspicuous in the group of Negro intellectuals who are dignifying Harlem with a genuine art life. . . . It is, however, as . . .

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Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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