Poet and writer Langston Hughes stood at the center of the Harlem renaissance, and advocated the preservation and communication of African American traditions across the genres of music, poetry, and theater. His own poetry often used the musical patterns of spirituals and the blues as received forms. In the 1960s, when this essay was published, Hughes’ refusal to convey a definitive political stance in his work caused some tension within the African American community, where conversation was dominated by the voices of Martin Luther King and Stokely Carmichael.
“200 Years of Afro-American Poetry” was originally intended as the introduction to Les Poetes Negres des Etats-Unis (1962, ed. Jean Wagner), which was published in the U.S. in 1973 as Black Poets of the United States: From Paul Laurence Dunbar to Langston Hughes.
In this essay, published two years before his death, Hughes offers an historical examination of the trajectory of African American poetry, beginning with the work of Lucy Terry, a slave, in 1746, and continuing through Phillis Wheatley and Paul Laurence Dunbar to the rising generation of African American poets in the 1950s and 60s, including LeRoi Jones, Julia Fields, Julian Bond, and David Henderson.
Hughes examines how the themes, and use of plantation dialect, in the early poets’ work impacted the extent of these poets’ successes among white and African American audiences. He praises James Weldon Johnson’s groundbreaking approach to the African American poet’s dilemma of wanting to convey and preserve racial elements in poetry while struggling against the limited vocabulary of plantation dialect. Johnson’s approach to this challenge, followed by Hughes and many other African American poets, was to use standard English to frame, and preserve, cultural idioms rather than poetry composed entirely within the limitations of dialect.
Finally, Hughes examines why most African American poets have been protest poets. As he notes, “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.” While acknowledging the desire of many African American poets— and their critics—to address different, or more “universal” themes in their work, the prevalence of racism in the daily lives of African American poets makes its avoidance in poetry a near-impossibility, if, as Hughes asserts, “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.”
Poets and versifiers of African descent have been publishing poetry on American shores since the year 1746 when a slave woman named Lucy Terry penned a rhymed description of an Indian attack on the town of Deerfield, Massachusetts, a quarter of a century before the revolt of the New England colonies against Britain.(1) And it was a Negro woman, Phillis Wheatley, who in one of her poems applied the oft quoted phrase “First in Peace” to General George Washington before he became the first President of the United States, From his rebel field encampment the General sent the young poetess a note which read in part, “If you should ever come to Cambridge or near headquarters, I shall be happy to see a person so favored by the Muses, and to whom Nature has been so liberal and beneficent in her dispensations. I am with great respect, Your Obedient Humble Servant, George Washington.”
Born in Senegal, Phillis Wheatley fortunately had been purchased at the age of seven or eight by a kindly master and mistress who took a fancy to the little black girl offered for sale on the decks of a slave ship in Boston Harbor. Of course, the tiny African spoke no English, and nobody knew her name, so she was given her master’s name, Wheatley, and her mistress, who called her Phillis, taught her to read and write. In her teens, the black youngster began to write poetry. Before Phillis was twenty, she was well known throughout the New England colonies for her poems. She wrote herself to freedom, modeling her verses after those of Milton, Dryden, and Alexander Pope (as was the fashion of her times) and, as a representative of colonial culture, Phillis Wheatley was sent to England where her book, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and
Moral, was printed in London in 1773. It was the first bound volume of poems by an Afro-American to appear in print.
Previously, a Long Island slave, Jupiter Hammon, had published broadsides as early as 1760. But it was more than fifty years before another actual book by a Negro poet was published. Then in 1829 George Moses Horton issued The Hope of Liberty while still in bondage in North Carolina. Later other volumes followed, but Horton’s books never sold enough copies, as he had hoped they might, to buy his freedom. Perhaps this was because Freedom was often the subject of his poems, and such a subject was no more pleasing to white southerners a hundred years ago than it is today in this century of Mississippi madness. Horton had to wait until the end of the Civil War to become a free man. Once liberated, he continued to protest in writing concerning the sad fate of the black man on American shores, in slavery or out. Almost all Negro poets—except the French speaking Louisiana Creoles—wrote plaints against slavery. The best of the black anti-slavery poets was a free woman in Baltimore, Frances E. W. Harper, whose books are said to have sold more than fifty thousand copies.(2) Hers was distinctly a poetry of protest, as has been most Negro poetry for two hundred years—which has limited its appreciation in America to a comparatively small circle of readers.
The first Negro poet whose work had a wide appeal for the white public was Paul Laurence Dunbar, born in Ohio in 1872 of parents who had been slaves. His mother could not read or write so, after Paul acquired some book learning in school, he began to teach his mother. But fortunately, the little boy did not erase from his mother’s tongue the quaint broken speech of the slave period. Her plantation dialect, and that of other elderly negroes who had known bondage in the Deep South, injected the folk flavor in much of Dunbar’s poetry. The charm and humor of this now almost unreadable slave English gave unique color to his work. Unfortunately, this idiomatic flavor is well nigh impossible to translate into European tongues—or even to put successfully into contemporary English—just as Chaucer or Shakespeare’s original language loses much of its patina when transcribed into modern speech. Paul Laurence Dunbar was Negro America’s first major (albeit minor) poet. A half century after his death, some of his poems are still read and recited by the Negro people, and some like Li’l’ Gal have been made into charming songs.
Oh, de weathah it is balmy an’ de breeze
is sighin’ low,
An’ de mockin’ bird is singin’ in de locus’
by de do’,
Dere’ a hummin’ an’ a bummin’ in de
lan’ f’om eas’ to wes’,
I’s a-sighin’ fo’ you, honey, an’ I nevah
know no res’,
Fu’ dey’s lots o’ trouble brewin’ an’
a-stewin’ in my breas’,
Li’l’ gal . . . . . . . .