Langston Hughes, an inspirational, black poet, was first recognized as an important literary figure during the “Harlem Renaissance” in the 1920’s. In fact, in many of his poems, he adds in “Harlem” to give meaning and experience to his writing. He was the first black writer in America that earned enough from his writing to support himself. Hughes’s “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain” 1926, demonstrates his belief in the character and how they must overcome obstacles and “climb the mountain” to free themselves from inequality.
Langston Hughes wrote poetry from the heart and chose as his themes unsolved conflicts from his real life experiences. First and foremost he was a Negro who could expound upon the sufferings of the people of his black culture yet do so with pride. He embraced the Negro culture and had distaste for those who tried to emulate the life of whites. His strong roots within the Harlem renaissance were reflected in his poetry. Hughes felt sorry for blacks who felt they had to try to write as white poets. Many of his poems reflected the struggle for African American freedom. He also showed empathy for the struggle of all races, and dismay regarding the failure of the American dream. He illustrated how similar all cultures are with the feeling that we are all bonded together as Americans. Music was an important part of his life and he incorporated the rhythm of jazz into many poems encouraging further appreciation of the poetry when set to music or read aloud.Order now
“I want to be a poet-not a Negro poet” a young Negro poet said to Hughes. It is explained that black children normally grow up never being taught to see the beauty of their own people. They are told things like “Don’t be like niggers” when they do something bad, and “look how well a white man does things” when things are not done as well as they should have been. If all their life they are taught how to be better, and by being better, subconsciously means to be “white” then how are they supposed to see the good in their own people? Many times they are taught to be ashamed of the qualities that are not “white.” Hughes writes about how these black children need to have pride in their race, and see the beauty in it. Living life as a Negro should not be measured against the life of a white person. A true American Negro Artist is one who can accept what beauty is their own without any question, contain individuality, and not be afraid to express himself. Hughes wants Negroes to ask themselves questions such as, “Why should I want to be white? I am a Negro-and beautiful?” (The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain). One should not be ashamed of his race and not be ashamed of what he accomplishes. Americans are free to choose what they do, but should never be afraid to do what they choose.
Another one of Hughes’ aesthetics is to express “Negro spirit” meaning not to always try and be like the “white people” and more of having pride in one’s own race. The “mountain” in the title is symbolic for overcoming a barrier that sets you back in the world and doesn’t allow you to be yourself. If the black poet never overcomes that “mountain” then they are never going to be able to love themselves for who the truly are. In Hughes’s, “Hold fast to Dreams” the line “life is a broken-winged bird” is a metaphor saying that life has its flaws and it is never perfect. “Bird” has a strong connotation of freedom. Every American is different, but should be treated equally, so why not be yourself and have pride in the race that you were born into? The struggles of a black woman are outlined in the poem, “Mother to Son.” Stairs are a metaphor for the uphill battle of life. The mother’s diction reflects her lack of education as does her informal dialogue about the hardships she endures, illustrated by “tacks and splinters.” “Cause you find it’s kinder hard don’t you fall now” is saying that life is difficult but it is important to overcome the battles and forge ahead. It is important to not give up because you only have one life, and the life you are given is your own individual one, not to be influenced negatively by others.
One should embrace cultural influences. Hughes was inspired by rhythm and jazz. Jazz is musical expression of life. His poems, “Dream Boogie,” “Same in Blues,” and “The Cat and The Saxophone” contain a beat, a rhythm that can be set to music. For those who may not take the time to read poetry, the rhythm and beat of jazz may capture their attention. Jazz music was seared into the souls of blacks and its rhythm and excitement was contagious to whites.
Many of his poems and songs emphasize, “Harlem” so that it is clear where he comes from. This is evident in, “Theme for English B.” “…then here to this college on the hill above Harlem” This line is saying how it is above Harlem, meaning better than it, and how this school was so far away from the “black” neighborhoods. His repetition of the word “colored” separates him from others yet he makes it clear that his dreams and desires are the same as everyone else’s. “I guess being colored doesn’t make me not like the same things other folks like that are other races. So will my page be colored that I write?” He is proud of his race, and even though his life was hard at times, he was never ashamed of who he was.
Hughes addresses what America is, or should be in “I hear America Singing.” He categorizes groups of Americans according to occupation, not race. The common working man, such as carpenters, boat men, and a wives and mothers, are all strong and happy. This American theme is revisited in “Let America be America again.” Many in America have been oppressed. Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness is a dream for the future, this America has never been. The American dream has not yet been achieved but many have struggled for it.
Hughes is everyone who has been oppressed in “Let America Be America Again.” “I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart /I am the Negro bearing slavery’s scars/ I am the Red man driven from the land/ I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek/ and finding why the same old stupid plan/ of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak” (Let America be America again). In this parallel repetition, all races have something in common with each other. He is saying there it is the way of the world for the powerful to take advantage of the less advantaged people. He has a dream of America being free and equal. The dream of what could be is what keeps people going. “America never was America to me and yet I swear this oath, America will be.”
Another prominent theme running through many of these poems are dreams that are not yet realized. In his “hold fast to dreams” life without a dream is compared to a barren field frozen with snow. Again, in Harlem two, what happens to a dream deferred? Hughes uses visual as well as sensory imagery to describe the dream that is set aside. It may “fester like a sore, stink like rotten meat, or crust and sugar over like a syrupy sweet.”
Langston Hughes’s poetry eloquently discusses racial inequality as well as the failure of the American dream. His messages however, have an optimistic quality about what can someday be achieved. He paved the way for many others in the literary as well as political world to address the racial divide in America. He truly was proud to be an African American and embraced his culture’s history as well as detailing his hopes for the future.