Essay on Poetic Theory

200 Years of Afro-American Poetry (1965)

by Langston Hughes
The most famous contemporary protest writer, James Baldwin, him­self a poet in prose, was at the beginning of his career inclined toward “non-propaganda” writing, coupling an essay of his in Perspectives USA 2, 1952, denouncing Uncle Tom’s Cabin with one by Richard Gibson denouncing what might be termed the négritude of American Negro literature.(4) Both pieces were published together under the heading, “Two Protests Against Protest.” Today, fifteen years later, no black writer writes stronger protest literature than Baldwin. The weight of the Negro problem has caused him to out-Tom Uncle Tom’s Cabin. I imagine some of the young Negro poets of the avant garde schools today who insist on writing non-racially very well might, after a few more years of Ku Klux Klan headlines, become ardent—or even chauvinistic—racialists themselves, especially should they happen to be visiting Harlem during a night of riots, or feel a white cop’s club against their poetic heads. My point is not that all young poets should perforce write racially if they are black. It is simply that in America it is almost impossible for Negro poets not to do so.

Among the most interesting young Negro poets writing today are the exciting LeRoi Jones (also a playwright of no mean ability), Julia Fields (who was in Birmingham at the height of its racial disturbances), Julian Bond (of the Student Non-violent Committee), and David Henderson (only twenty-one, of Greenwich Village), all of whom are most intense in their poetic fervor against injustice.(5) “The Negro in Western civi­lization has been exposed to overwhelming historical and sociological pressures that are bound to be reflected in the verse he has written and inspired,” wrote Arna Bontemps, which he balances by saying, “The fact that he has used poetry as a form of expression has also brought him into contact with literary trends and influences. How one of these forces or the other has predominated, and how the results may be weighed and appraised are among the questions to which the poetry itself contains answers.” In the Annual Poetry Issue of the Negro Digest (September, 1965) there is a poem by Dudley Randall of Detroit,(6) “Black Poet, White Critic,” which ends with a question that is also in its inverse way an answer:

A critic advises
Not to write on controversial topics
Like freedom or murder,
But to treat universal themes
And timeless symbols
Like the white unicorn.

A white unicorn?

Does it believe in integration?

And why not a black unicorn?

 

NOTES

(1) Hughes intended this piece as an introduction to Jean Wagner’s Anthology de la Poésie Negro-Américaine, which was translated as Black Poets of the United States: From Paul Laurence Dunbar to Langston Hughes (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1973). The pome to which Hughes refers is “Bar Fight,” by the African American writer Lucy Terry (ca. 1730-1821).

(2) Jupiter Hammon (1711-ca. 1806), the first published African American writer, was a poet, essayist, and preacher; George Moses Horton (ca. 1797-ca. 1883), the first African American to use verse to protest slavery; Frances Ellen Watkins Harper (1825-1911), African American novelist, poet, essayist, and orator.

(3) William Waring Cuney (1906-1976), one of the lesser-known poets of the Harlem Renaissance.

(4) Richard Gibson, African American journalist.

(5) Julia Fields (1938-), African American poet, short story writer, teacher, and dramatist; Julian Bond (1940-), African American activist, historian, and educator; David Henderson, African American poet and biographer.

(6) Dudley Randall (1914-2000), African American poet, publisher, and editor.

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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