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Langston Hughes was born at the turn of the century in America. Hughes spent a rootless childhood moving from place to place with his mother who was separated from his father. During one year in high school, Hughes spent time with his father in Mexico, a light-skinned man who found an escape from racism in ranching. With aid from his father, Hughes attended Columbia University, but soon became disgusted with university life and immersed himself in his first love - the poetry and jazz and blues in Harlem. Hughes supported himself in odd jobs such as nightclub doorman and steward while he traveled to places as remote as West Africa, Italy, and Paris. During this time Hughes wrote poems that earned him a scholarship to Lincoln University in Pennsylvania. His first book of verse was published in 1926. In this work, the rhythmic, lyrical nature of his poetry is evident as is his belief that only by staying connected to their African roots could African Americans find understanding. We see this in Cross, "My old man died in a fine big house / My ma died in a shack. / I wonder where I'm gonna die, / Being neither white nor black?" (Langston 2).
The poems of Langston Hughes share a relationship in that they most typically depict the African American experience in the midst of an oppressive white mainstream culture. Some of the poems are strident political protests or social criticism, while other depicts Harlem life including poverty, prejudice, hunger, hopelessness, and other themes. Hughes tried to maintain an artistic detachment despite his deep emotions with respect to the feelings expressed in his poems. He tried, though unsuccessfully in some poems, to depict the universal while at the same time specifically using African American issues, themes, and speech. We see this in color, "Wear it / Like a banner / For the proud - / Not like a shroud" (Langston 2). We can see in this poem that Hughes' work depicts the universal experience of being ostracized or oppressed for what one cannot change, but we also see it is directly targeting the black experience with such conditions.
Hughes' poems often have a musical rhythm to them, as his lyrics typically rhyme in the ABAB CDCD ABAB CDCD scheme. The music of Harlem, the spirituals of Negro slaves, and other influences like Walt Whitman and W.
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Some of Hughes' poems were critical enough of society that during the 1950s and McCarthyism the poet was accused of being a communist. Further, Hughes revised many of his poems in the 1940s and 1950s to make them softer. Despite this, he was often criticized by critics - even African American critics. James Baldwin regularly reviewed Hughes' work. Baldwin felt that Hughes was unable to be "within the experience and outside it at the same time" when writing poetry (Hughes 1). In his review of Selected Poems of Langston Hughes, Baldwin wrote in the New York Times, "Every time I read Langston Hughes I am amazed all over again by his genuine gifts - and depressed that he has done so little with them" (1).
Despite such criticisms, Hughes is at his best when he is depicting the loneliness and isolation of being an African American in an oppressive white society. In a poem called Crossing from a section entitled Death in Harlem, we see the sad, hopeless state of such individuals, "Then I went down in the valley / And I crossed an icy stream, / And the water I was crossing / Was no water in a dream, / And the shows that I was wearing / No protection for that stream. / Then I stood out on a prairie / And, as far as I could see, / Wasn't anybody on the prairie / That looked like me" (Colum 3). If such poems fail to keep an objective distance from such an experience, it may be less the fault of the poet than the environment which produced him. A poet is often polished by the grating forces of society, much as a pearl receives its luster from grating bits of sand. As such, Hughes was raised in an oppressive, racist, hostile environment. It is so difficult to imagine the feelings and emotions this environment engendered in him overpower his abilities? It is not that hard to imagine if we turn to Mary M. Colum's 1942 review for the New York Times of Hughes' Shakespeare in Harlem. In her review we see the awful racism that existed during the period, "We agree with Count Keyserling that great art is bound to come out of the Negro; some has come already, but it looks at the moment as if the richest Negro minds had not gone into literature" (Colum 3). Thus is the speakers in the poems in Shakespeare in Harlem are deeply sad, forlorn, and even hopeless, we might understand why such individuals as artists have limitations.
Hughes is a master of language in his poems. Aside from their lyrical quality, the poems use symbolism and code language because they not only depict the African American experience but they typically criticize white America. This is why in many of Hughes' poems the word choice takes on much more meaning for African Americans than it does for many white Americans. We see this in the beginning of one poem, "Hey, pop! / Re-bop! / Mop!" (Langston 2). These words had much more meaning and significance in Harlem than it does to the average reader.
In conclusion, it is difficult to imagine that any writer ever writes in a fashion that is not influence by his or her personal experiences. These efforts are often limited by a variety of factors including economics, health, culture, religion, education, the environment, and others. While these experiences may engender powerful emotions that are beautifully expressed in poetry, they may also limit or develop the artist. In this way we see that many perceive the works of Langston Hughes as limited. These individuals argue his emotional power is not in yoke with his intellectual abilities. I disagree. I believe that Hughes does pull back in many of these works to show the universal human being behind the African American human being, but in order to convey the harsh emotional experiences had by African Americans he chooses to make his poems harsh. This is a symbol not artistic limitation. As such, when Hughes does achieve a perfect mixture of emotion and intellect we truly feel his emotion and our own humanity a little more deeply, "To fling my arms wide / In some place of the sun, / To whirl and to dance / Till the white day is done. / Then rest at cool evening / Beneath a tall tree / While night comes on gently, / Dark like me - That is my dream!" (Baldwin 1). To be ourselves, find a place in the sun, fling our arms open freely, and rest is a dream we all might share but one that was elusive for African Americans in Hughes' day and environment.
Anonymous. Langston Hughes (1902-1967). Available: http://www.kirjasto.sci.fi/lhughes.htm, 2002: 1-3.
Baldwin, J. Sermons and blues (Review: Selected Poems of Langston Hughes by Langston Hughes). Mar 29, 1959: 1-2.
Colum, M. M. The new books of poetry (Review: Shakespeare in Harlem by Langston Hughes). New York Times, Mar 22, 1942: 1-5.