Langston Hughes' Poetry

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Langston Hughes' Poetry


What was the dream that brought our ancestors to America? It was rebirth, the craving for
men to be born again, the yearning for a second chance. With all of these ideas comes the
true American dream—Freedom. This is the condition in which a man feels like a human
being. It is the purpose and consequence of rebirth. Throughout the life of Langston
Hughes he presented ideas in his writings that help to define his perception of the
American dream.In beginning, Langston Hughes was born on February 1, 1902 in Joplin,
Missouri. His father was James Nathaniel Hughes, a man who studied law but was unable
to take the examination for the bar because he was black. His mother was Carrie Hughes,
a woman who studied at the University of Kansas in an ongoing struggle to earn a living
outside of domestic labor. Langston's father left home to live in Cuba and then Mexico to
free himself from the Jim Crow laws and Segregation. Hughes then went to live with his
grandmother in Lawrence, Kansas until he was thirteen. His grandmother, Mary Sampson
Patterson Leary Langston, was very prominent in the African American community of
Lawrence. Her first husband was killed at Harper's Ferry while fighting with John
Brown; her second husband, Hughes' grandfather, was a prominent politician in Kansas
during the Reconstruction. During the time that he lived with his grandmother, however,
she was old and poor resulting in little to eat and forcing them to rent out part of their
small house. Unable to give Langston the attention he needed and his feelings of hurt and
rejection by both his mother and father caused him to grow up very insecure and unsure
of himself. In the second grade Langston was introduced to books and soon became
fascinated with them and found it as an escape from his world into the wonderful world
inside of them. At the age of thirteen Hughes went to live with his mother in Lincoln,
Illinois and then Cleveland, Ohio where he went to high school. It was in Lincoln that
Hughes wrote his first poem after being elected class poet by his fellow classmates.
Hughes, the only black at his school, said that the only reason that he was elected was that
his peers felt that he must have a good sense of rhythm because of the color of his skin.
This position of class poet sparked Hughes' love for poetry and was the start of his life as
a poet. Hughes soon began to write poetry quite frequently and he kept it all in a journal

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secret from other people. Langston Hughes is most famous for his poetry yet he also had a
number of different careers throughout his lifetime. He was an author, poet, playwright,
song lyricist, and lecturer starting in 1921. In the years of 1920-1921 he was an English
teacher in Mexico. In the years of 1949-1950 Hughes can be credited with founding
community theatres in major cities across the United States such as Harlem, Los Angeles,
and Chicago. In following, what is the American Dream? When asked, this question
would receive a variety of responses, yet the main response would probably be freedom.

One distinctive mark of the great writing of the Harlem Renaissance includes the
development of a creative voice that both explains Black history and pain and transforms
this explanation into "High" art, despite its association with "Low" people. Some writers,
such as Langston Hughes, attempt this transformation by seeking to elevate the sense of
crudeness associated with blackness. In many ways, Hughes sets the standard for this
distinctive mark: his writing consistently exhibits a voice that embraces the
African-American experience through art in an act of glorification rather than shame.
Throughout much of his poetry, Hughes uses an intelligent, perceptive grasp of language
to elucidate the plight of the African-American and the shortcomings of anti-Black
society. In addition, Hughes embraces human pain -- specifically Negro pain -- as a
means of healing. In doing so, he develops a "Blues aesthetic" which incorporates both
the reality of 1920s Harlem and an honest, gripping view of the human condition.
Hughes' use of this Blues aesthetic serves several functions; it brings an active quality to
the complexities of pain and it allows a reality of human understanding to come alive in
his poetry. Although White society tended to view Hughes' appreciation of the folk as
primitive, "Low" art because it was so base, the poignancy and immediacy with which it
touched the lives of Harlem -- as well as the degree to which it still comprises an
inextricable part of the literary world -- makes apparent the egregious error of this view.
The intelligence and perceptive description in Hughes' work effectively delineates the
complexities of the African-American experience, thus elevating his writing to a state of
"High" art. Similarly, his "Blues" pieces allow human struggles to exist as both poetic
engagements of physical existence and healing processes in and of themselves,
illustrating the artistic power of this transformation. In his poem "Negro," Hughes
outlines various historical aspects of Black identity. He relates, "I've been a slave: Caesar
told me to keep his door-steps clean. I brushed the boots of Washington" (4 - 6). The
simplicity and directness of these statements allows a certain poetic immediacy, making
misunderstanding nearly impossible. Additionally, Hughes' mention of Caesar and
Washington contributes an informed intelligence to his writing, as does the specificity of
"the Woolworth building" (9) and "the Belgians cut[ting] off [his] hands in the Congo"
(15). Hughes' narrator, as a Black representative, has also "been a worker: under [his]
hands the pyramids arose" (8). This observation illustrates the productivity and power
that the African-American has the capability to possess, while the acknowledgment that
"they lynch [him] still in Mississippi" (16) speaks for the anti-Black resentment of this
power. In his journey toward higher art, Hughes even makes mention of the institution of
art as a facet of Negro identity: "I've been a singer: all the way from Africa to Georgia I
carried my sorrow songs. I made ragtime" (10 - 13). Hughes combines these diverse
elements of African-American identity -- slavery, workmanship, artistry, victimization --
to portray Blacks as many do not wish to see them: intelligent, hard-working, artistic, and
unjustly oppressed. This poetic depiction both forces the African-American into a
multi-dimensional state of being and exalts those qualities which have typically been
considered negative or inconsequential. Hughes accomplishes these objectives while
claiming his identity with beauty and poise: "I am a Negro: black as the night is black,
black like the depths of my Africa" (17 - 19). In a similar vein, Hughes demonstrates an
astute, attentive, descriptive voice in his poem "The South," which examines "the lazy,
laughing South with blood on its mouth" (1 - 2). Hughes exhibits an extremely refined
sense of language in his descriptions: "beautiful, like a woman, seductive as a dark-eyed
whore, passionate, cruel, honey-lipped, syphilitic -- that is the South" (13 - 17). In his
accurate attribution of these qualities to Southern society, Hughes creates an intense
awareness of both the seductive charisma and the severely problematic nature of the
South; he thus calls the reader's attention to the oppressive elements of Southern society
as well as elevating the African-American -- and simultaneously, his art -- by engaging in
an intelligent, perceptive quest toward "the cold-faced North, for she, they say, is a kinder
mistress" (24 - 26). Hughes' discussion of "the child-minded South scratching in the dead
fire's ashes for a Negro's bones" (6 - 8) further emphasizes his point that the Southern
way of life has halted in its development and failed to evolve into modern America -- an
America in which "the dead fire" represents slavery and Blacks have succeeded in
reducing it to "ashes," struggling to rise above racism like smoke. This emphasis
pragmatically dismantles any aggrandized view of the South, elucidating its
discriminatory nature with effective poetic language that amplifies Hughes' artistic
power. Finally, his declaration that "I, who am black, would love her but she spits in my
face" (18 - 19) exemplifies the contemptible character of Southern society as well as the
unjust persecution of Black Americans. This serves to elevate both the Negro's place in
society and the quality of Hughes' writing. Hughes does not merely develop a wise and
sensitive poetic voice; he uses this voice to develop, in turn, an active, perceptive "Blues
aesthetic." In one of his most famous poems, "The Weary Blues," Hughes relates a
poignant experience of witnessing an African-American man play the Blues. As Hughes
describes the man "droning a drowsy syncopated tune, rocking back and forth to a mellow
croon" (1 - 2), he brings a heartfelt motion to the poem, generating a strong feeling of
realism for the reader. He continues this motion and realism when the man makes "that
poor piano moan with melody" (10); the man, the music, and the piano all become fully
engaged in the poem as active elements. When he mentions the "ebony hands on each
ivory key" (9), Hughes creates a simple, subtle, intelligent reference to the many issues of
a polarized black and white society. While he does not elaborate on the complexities of
these issues, much of the beauty of the poem lies in the fact that he does not need to: the
Blues stand on their own, largely because they have an unquestionably solid background
of complex racial and societal issues. Finally, Hughes paints an audio-picture of the
oh-so-common Harlem reality of a man lamenting his life: "I got the Weary Blues And I
can't be satisfied. Got the Weary Blues And can't be satisfied -- I ain't happy no mo' And
I wish that I had died." (25 - 30) This elucidation gives rise to a fascinating notion:
although the man has wished for death, the music itself remains very much alive, both
within himself and within the poem. The very act of "The Blues" has become a healing
process in and of itself. As the man laments "in a deep song voice with a melancholy
tone" (17), he purges a deep pain. Through the experience of this purging, the poem itself
becomes an act of survival -- and thus, a dignified appreciation of the folk, and a distinct
form of "High" art. Hughes does not limit his Blues aesthetic to a male perspective, and
this is perhaps why his poetry manages to become readily accessible to such a large and
heterogenous group of readers. "Midwinter Blues" chronicles the lament of a middle-aged
woman in regards to her lost love. She remarks, "Don't know's I'd mind his goin' / But
he left when the coal was low. Now, if a man loves a woman / That ain't no time to go"
(9 - 12). Despite its simple, Southern language, this rhythmic account of sad misfortune
sheds an extremely perceptive light on the politics of love and the harsh reality of a Black
woman's world. Similarly, when the woman says, "He told me that he loved me. He must
a been tellin' a lie. But he's the only man I'll / love till the day I die" (15 - 18), she brings
a heartfelt, poignant honesty to poetic representation of 1920s reality. Hughes' use of
repetition both reaffirms the truth of this ethos and brings a bit of humour to the plight of
Negro womanhood, particularly in the last stanza: I'm gonna buy me a rose bud An' plant
it at my back door, Buy me a rose bud, plant it at my back door, So when I'm dead they
won't need No flowers from the store. (19 -24) In a manner similar to the last part of
"The Weary Blues," the last bit of "Midwinter Blues" seems surprisingly life-affirming.
Although the woman blatantly addresses her physical death and the emotional death of
her relationship, the notion of planting flowers indicates a concrete movement toward life
and cyclic hope. In this fashion, "Midwinter Blues" also becomes a fully realized product
of Hughes' Blues aesthetic, healing itself while wallowing in its pain. Throughout his
work, Hughes develops and relies on a sensitive, self-conscious poetic voice -- a voice
which sheds light on the African-American experience through its incisive use of simple,
direct, descriptive language. This application allows his writing to transcend from mere
poetic documentation to esteemed art in its own right. With his evocations, Hughes plants
and harvests his Blues aesthetic again and again. He brings incredible intelligence and
poignancy to the every-day struggles of marginilization, loss, and human difficulty.
Rather than simply rehashing the agony of being human (and Black) into poetic whining,
however, Hughes turns pain into a beautiful process of healing by embrace. This active
grasp of the human condition gives unspeakable power to his Blues aesthetic, which in
turn gives power to Hughes' overall artistic endeavor, leading his readers "far into the
night [to] croon that tune" (The Weary Blues, 31).


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