On Newly Discovered Langston Hughes Poems
"As a black writer facing racism on a daily basis, he had a remarkably precise sense of scale, as well as an inspired knowledge of the words and rhythms of speech that would best convey his messages to blacks and whites alike."
Langston Hughes wrote these simple poems* in 1930, as the Great Depression loomed in America. By the end of 1933, in the depths of the crisis, he had composed some of the harshest political verse ever penned by an American. These pieces include "Good Morning Revolution" and "Columbia," but above all, "Goodbye Christ." Here the speaker of the poem ridicules the legend of Jesus in favor of the radical reality of Marx, Lenin, "worker," "peasant," "me." Around 1940, under severe pressure from conservatives, Hughes repudiated "Goodbye Christ" as an unfortunate error of his youth. However, in 1953 he was again forced to condemn this poem when he appeared, by subpoena, before Senator Joseph McCarthy's infamous subcommittee probing allegedly "un-American" activities by some of our leading scholars, scientists, and artists.
At his core, Hughes was a lyric poet entranced by the charms and mysteries of nature. Nevertheless, political protest was a key aspect of his writing virtually from his high-school days, when many of his classmates were the children of Jewish and Catholic immigrants from Europe who taught him the importance of protesting against injustice. A stirring voyage to colonial Africa in 1923, when he was barely twenty-one, only intensified his commitment to protest art.
These discoveries are minor poems, but reflect some of Hughes's abiding concerns and images. For example, in the first poem the words "and be ashamed" echo elements of his popular Whitmanesque poem of 1924, "I, Too, Sing America." In that work, the "darker brother" who is the speaker of the poem is sorry that his white relatives force him to eat in the kitchen "when company comes"; but he eats and grows strong. One day, these whites will be "ashamed" of their conduct and admit that he, too, sings America—he, too, is America. The threat of violence in the ending of the poem that begins "You and your whole race" reflects a molten indignation that Hughes vented consistently over his entire career.
The second poem, which begins "I look at the world," is also cut from Hughes's radical poetic cloth. Again one hears echoes of some of his better-known poems. The line "And this is what I see," followed, as in a sermon-like refrain, by "And this is what I know," is a familiar rhetorical device in his work. Familiar, too, are the conceits of narrow assigned spaces that almost suffocate blacks, "silly" walls that pen them in, and, both ominously and beautifully, "dark eyes in a dark face."
The third poem ("Remember/The days of bondage") is the most American of all. With its references to the Carolinas (in the Jim Crow South) and to Maine (alluding probably to insincere Northern liberalism), this is the most defiant piece. Here, as elsewhere, Hughes uses daubs of vivid paint on a small canvas to create his desired effects. Religion is in play here. "Days of bondage" hints at the Egyptian captivity and the desire of the Hebrews to be free. Urging blacks to "Go to the highest hill," the speaker of the poem invites them to see themselves as, in a way, Christ tempted by Satan—but also reminds them and us of their suffering and possible crucifixion. Calling whites thieves and liars, this is the bitterest poem.
The brevity of these poems conserves their power and, in doing so, prevents them from becoming boring. Again, they are simple—but we must remember that Hughes lived as an artist by the idea that simplicity at its best is or can be complex. Surely these three poems do not widely expand our knowledge of Hughes or his art. However, they remind us poignantly, in their lancing grace, of the qualities that made him the poet laureate of his people and an American master.
Hughes saw such poems both as "mere" propaganda and also as necessary acts of the committed poet. As a black writer facing racism on a daily basis, he had a remarkably precise sense of scale, as well as an inspired knowledge of the words and rhythms of speech that would best convey his messages to blacks and whites alike. The truth is that we cannot have too many poems by Langston Hughes, no matter how modest they seem to be on the surface.
*These poems were written in pencil on the endpapers of Langston Hughes’s edition of An Anthology of Revolutionary Poetry (Active Press, 1929). They were discovered by Penny Welbourne, a rare book cataloger at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University, where the Hughes Papers are housed. This is their first known publication. Please visit poetryfoundation.org to see a facsimile slideshow of the original.
Arnold Rampersad is the author of the two-volume The Life of Langston Hughes (Oxford University Press, 1986 and 1988) and Ralph Ellison: A Biography (Alfred A. Knopf, 2007). He is also editor of The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes (Alfred A Knopf, 1994).