Langston Hughes 101
Few American artists loomed larger in the 20th century than Langston Hughes. He rode steamships to West Africa, toured the American South, traveled to Spain to cover the Civil War, rode the Trans-Siberian Railway, and saw his own reputation shift from Harlem Renaissance star in the 1920s to Communist activist poet in the 1930s to public figure in the 1960s. His literary output was similarly prodigious and unprecedented, and he was one of the first black poets to make a living solely from writing. He wrote novels, plays, short stories, films, librettos, children’s verse, newspaper columns, translations, and memoirs and edited several important anthologies. But most of all, he remained a poet. In his poems, he explored social conscience and class difference with lyric beauty and music. He managed to capture, in deceptively simple poems, the wide range of African American experience—from the horrors of the Jim Crow South to the be-bop hustle of Harlem life—and significantly expanded the vocabulary of American poetry. These poems, arranged in order of publication date, represent just a small cross section of his varied work.
“The Negro Speaks of Rivers”
Hughes wrote this poem, one of his best known and most celebrated, on the back of an envelope when he just 17 years old. As he recounts in his autobiography The Big Sea, he was traveling to visit his father when his train crossed the Mississippi, and he “began to think what that river … meant to Negroes in the past.” In the poem, the river offers both pain and the possibility of identity: it connects Hughes not only to the history of slavery but also to a much greater African American ancestry—one that he can trace back, along a series of rivers, to the very cradle of civilization. This short composition introduces many of his enduring themes, and it brought him onto the national stage when it was published by W.E.B. Du Bois in the Crisis.
Carl Sandburg and Walt Whitman were great early influences on Hughes, and this poem from his first book, Weary Blues (1926), might be read as a reckoning with these literary forebears. “I, Too” repurposes Whitman’s demotic language and democratic I to do what Whitman could not: imagine a truly equal place at the table for “the darker brother.” Like many of his Harlem Renaissance counterparts, Hughes focused on just this sort of imagination. By giving voice to black America, he shows, as he puts it here, “how beautiful” black experience is.
“Mother to Son”
In this famous dramatic monologue, a mother begins her motivational speech by explaining, “Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.” By putting readers in the position of her son, Hughes allows us to more directly hear and identify with her message, while his use of extended metaphor prevents her struggles from becoming sentimental.
The four hard-luck poems in this suite come from Hughes’s second book, Fine Clothes to the Jew (1927), which the black press criticized for his use of dialect and focus on lower class culture. Hughes may have been the first to bring the blues to poetry, as you can see in these poems, but as a pioneering artist, he endured criticism throughout his career. He was attacked by academics for being simplistic, by the right for being a Communist, by the left for declaiming Communism, and later by black militants for not being radical enough. In his famous 1926 essay “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain,” Hughes wrote, “the road for the serious black artist … is most certainly rocky.” Yet he managed to find a large audience, starting in the 1920s, without compromising his primary ambition: to make art of, for, and about “the low-down folks, the so-called common element” who “accept what beauty is their own without question.”
The Quick and the Dead
First published in Poetry in 1931, this diverse group of poems represents Hughes’s range of styles and concerns. “Lover’s Return” sings the relationship blues with acute attention to love’s toll on women. The staccato ending of “Sylvester’s Dying Bed” recalls Emily Dickinson. “Sailor” is Hughes’s take on Imagism. And the matter-of-fact grimness of “Dying Beast” prepares us for the irreverent metaphysics of “God,” in which the titular deity insists that it’s “Better to be human / Than God—and lonely.”
Made famous years later by Lorraine Hansberry’s 1959 play A Raisin in the Sun, this short poem is part of Hughes’s long sequence Montage of a Dream Deferred (1951). Combining be-bop rhythms and modernist poetics, Montage is a symphony of riffs, solos, and skipped beats, a lyric masterpiece with its ear to the concrete of Hughes’s beloved Harlem. The “dream deferred” here suggests a yearning for a number of things: individual achievement, the promise of Harlem, and America’s supposed equality. But the progression of the poem’s questions also reflects a growing frustration, one that, as the final line suggests, could explode into violence, as it did in the Harlem riots in 1943 and 1964.
“Blues in Stereo”
The stereo of the title refers not just to the uncanny doublings of technologies—the TV that “keeps on snowing” or “the horns” on “LPs that wonder / how the every got that way”—but also to the score that runs down the poem’s right hand margin. Part of his book-length epic Ask Your Mama: 12 Moods for Jazz (1961), Hughes intended the piece to be performed literally in stereo, with his words accompanied by blues and African drumming. Other pieces in the book feature mambo, gospel, and German lieder. Though Hughes never saw the project staged, its multimedia ambitions, dense allusions, and shout-outs to black cultural icons anticipated, way back in 1961, everything from hip-hop to remixes to the Internet’s metamodern Zeitgeist.
Composed in 1930, “Remember” was not published until 2009, when it was discovered, along with “I look at the world” and “You and your whole race,” written in pencil in the back of Hughes’s copy of An Anthology of Revolutionary Poetry. Like much of Hughes’s verse of the early 1930s, the poem is a product of its political climate, a period of economic downturn when Hughes visited the Scottsboro boys in prison and traveled to the Soviet Union. More than 80 years later, its anger remains remarkably powerful and unfortunately relevant. In an era of mass incarceration and police violence, one can still argue, as Hughes does here, that the “days of bondage” have not passed: whether you’re in the Carolinas, Maine, or Africa, whiteness still wields “unscrupulous power.” Hughes did essential work over the course of his career to make us see “with eyes no longer blind,” but more work remains to make the world that Hughes envisioned.
But that’s just the beginning. You can read Langston Hughes’s thoughts on poetry in his own words, in his essays “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain” (1926), “Jazz as Communication” (1956), and “200 Years of Afro-American Poetry” (1965).
Benjamin Voigt grew up on a horse farm in upstate New York. He earned an MFA in poetry from the University of Alabama and is currently a visiting assistant professor of English at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota.