Essay on Poetic Theory

200 Years of Afro-American Poetry (1965)

by Langston Hughes
Written in the Nineteen Twenties during the period of Harlem’s “Negro Renaissance” Waring Cuney’s No Images, about the proscribed beauty of a brown girl has, of all his work, been the most widely reprinted.(3)

She does not know
Her beauty,
She thinks her brown body
Has no glory

If she could dance naked,
Under palm trees
And see her image in the river
She would know.

But there are no palm trees
On the street,
And dish water
Gives back no images.

Directly concerned with the race problem, my own poem, I, Too, written in 1920 when I was eighteen years old, has over the years been translated into many languages and is still being reprinted in anthologies around the world.

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.

Tomorrow,
I’ll sit at the table
When company comes.
Nobody’ll dare
Say to me,

“Eat in the kitchen,”
Then.
Besides,
They’ll see how beautiful I am
And be ashamed—

I, too, am America.

The desire to be an integral part of the life of the country whose soil the Negro people have inhabited for three hundred years is a majority desire. The Black muslims who wish a separate state, and the African Nationalists who advocate a return to the ancestral homeland, are the exceptions—and a small part only of twenty-two million colored Amer­icans. In any case, over the years, the basic and most pertinent subject matter of Negro poetry has been not love, roses, moonlight, or death or sorrow in the abstract, but race, color, and the emotional problems related thereunto in a land that treats its black citizens, including poets, like pariahs. Only a very few Negro writers have been able to escape the impact on their lives of this white shadow across America.

It would seem to me then only fitting and proper—if art is to be an intensification or enlargement of life, or to give adequate comment on what living is like in the poet’s own time—

that Negro art be largely protest art. Our time today is the time of color from Selma to Saigon, and of the heartaches and heartbreaks of racial conflict from Cape Town to Chicago. A poet may try to hide in the bosom of Ezra Pound as much as he wishes, but the realities of conflict are inescapable. The color problem is a drag on the whole world, not just on Negro poetry.

The only Pulitzer Prize winning poet of color, Gwendolyn Brooks, has written that Negro poets “are twice-tried. They have to write poetry, and they have to remember that they are Negroes. Often they wish that they could solve the Negro question once and for all, and go on from such success to the composition of textured sonnets or buoyant villanelles about the transience of a raindrop, or the gold stuff of the sun.” But, she continues, “The raindrop may seem to them to represent racial tears—­and those might seem indeed other than transient. The golden sun might remind them that they are burning.”

Langston Hughes, “200 Years of Afro-American Poetry” 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

Biography

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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