I, too, sing America...
They'll see how beautiful I am
And be ashamed –
I, too, am America.
These are some of the words of African-American and Harlem Renaissance poet, Langston Hughes. His works have inspired and touched the lives of many Americans throughout the ages — black and white alike. With a soul that has 'grown deep like the rivers' and a talent for articulating the thoughts of the human heart, Hughes was a distinguished Harlem Renaissance poet and writer, whose life and work are still celebrated today. His influential style revolutionised prose and poetry forms and blazed a path for other black writers to follow.
The Life of Langston Hughes
Born 1 February, 1902, in Joplin, Missouri, James Langston Hughes was the only child of James Nathaniel Hughes and Carrie Mercer Hughes. After his parents divorced when he was a small child, Hughes was raised by his grandmother until the age of 13, whereupon he went to live with his mother and her husband in Lincoln, Illinois. Because they moved frequently due to his stepfather's work, Hughes's life was constantly in transition. As he grew up, Hughes perpetually moved among the households of his grandmother, mother and various other surrogate parents, leaving him with the feeling of having slept in 'ten thousand beds' by the time he was an adult. Out of that feeling, he found books to be a constant and dependable source of comfort amidst the chaos, and grew to love them.
In 1920, he graduated from Cleveland, Ohio's Central High School and moved to Mexico City to live with his father for a year. On the train ride there, the 19-year-old Hughes wrote the poem that would become known as The Negro Speaks of Rivers. After more travelling, Hughes returned to his mother, who was then living in Washington DC. There, after winning the first prize in poetry in Opportunity magazine, Hughes was discovered by famed writer Carl Van Vechten and poet Vachel Lindsay, who even read some of Hughes's work to his own audience. Suddenly, the world became curious about the 'Negro busboy poet'.
In 1926, Hughes published his first book, The Weary Blues, and began attending Lincoln University in Pennsylvania. Only a year later, his second book, Fine Clothes to the Jew, was published. The young Hughes received much praise but also some criticism in regard to his work and his writing style for incorporating rhythms, sounds, and syncopations of jazz into his poems. The Weary Blues has such a natural and driving beat to it that when read aloud the jazz-like rhythm is impossible to ignore. Despite criticism, Hughes continued to write and received backing from patron Charlotte Mason, who also supported other Harlem Renaissance writers such as Zora Neale Hurston and Alain Locke. With Mason's financial support and literary advice, Hughes published Not Without Laughter, his first novel, in 1930. However, after the book's publication, he left the security of Mason's patronage as his 'integrity meant more [to him] than any luxuries her wealth could provide...' and decided to make his own way in the world.
As World War II began, Hughes praised America's ideals and goals abroad, but criticised the government for not applying those same ideals to its own people. Thus, in his Chicago Defender column, the character of Jesse B Semple or 'Simple' was born. In his short stories about Jesse B Semple, Hughes focused on bringing out the horrible tensions and relations between blacks and whites in America socially and politically. Hughes continued to write prolifically throughout the rest of his life, leaving readers with a large body of poetry, 11 plays, and copious selection of prose before he died of complications from surgery for prostate cancer on 22 May, 1967.
The Negro Speaks of Rivers
The piece that first brought Hughes into the national spotlight was his poem The Negro Speaks of Rivers:
My soul has grown deep like the rivers.To understand why this is such a landmark and extraordinary piece, one must look at its context as well as the content. Notably, Hughes, an African-American wrote it in the 1920s. Although slavery had been abolished, blacks were still not truly accepted into mainstream society. They were confined to work menial jobs and had to use segregated areas and facilities, such as buses, restrooms, drinking fountains, restaurants, etc. Despite all of these racist obstacles, Hughes stepped forth and wrote this beautiful poem, remarkable not only because of these obstacles, but because he was just 19 years old. What gives this poem such literary significance is the broad, sweeping scope of it and how it reaches out to the masses, embracing a universal message for equality.
I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young.
I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep.
I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it.
The folk have roots, ties to the earth, while the masses whose joys and sorrows, both material and moral, are depicted by Hughes in the sometimes shocking hues of the naturalist palette...for the most part are flotsam, uprooted human beings as yet ill-fitted from the harsh, unfamiliar environment to which the barriers of segregation and the economic necessities of the epoch had driven them.
– French critic Jean Wagner
Wagner continued in his praise of Hughes, saying in The Negro Speaks of Rivers Hughes pushes Negro history back so far into the past that it gives the reader a sense that blacks possess '...a wisdom no less profound than that of the greatest rivers of civilisation that humanity has ever known...' Professor George Hutchinson explored the clever structure within Hughes's poem, stressing that even though the poem is about the depth of the Negro soul, Hughes '...avoids racial essentialism while nonetheless stressing the existential, racialised conditions of black and modern identity'.
The Weary Blues
Excerpt from The Weary Blues:
And far into the night he crooned that tune.
The stars went out and so did the moon.
The singer stopped playing and went to bed
While the Weary Blues echoed through his head.
He slept like a rock or a man that's dead.
Besides writing profound, stirring poems such as The Negro Speaks of Rivers, Hughes also delved into his contemporary surroundings and allowed the culture to seep into his writing. The Weary Blues is a shining example of what would later be called jazz poetry. It emulated the rhythms of jazz to create a wonder of imagery inside the reader's head. Hughes has been credited with being the first true jazz poet. Steven C Tracy of the University of Illinois discussed the brilliance of this innovative piece, explaining that the combinations of the blues, emphasising black roots:
...touches of vaudeville blues as the roots were being 'refined', pride in African-American creativity and forms of expression, and a sense of the weariness that ties together generations of African-American.
Hughes's use of rhythmic jazz in his poetry helped in the acceptance of the style in music, giving it more respectability and improving on its 'rowdy' image. The Weary Blues brings out the beautiful beat of jazz and paints a glowing picture of the 1920s black culture, giving it a more refreshing and riveting image to a vast, universal audience, while at the same time drawing the reader into the poem, making it engaging and exciting.
Unlike other poets, Hughes didn't probe into the winding corridors and catacombs of his own mind, but rather connected to the external world — its music, politics, pleasures and pains, forging 'his identity with that of his people. He was principally a poet of the urban masses, celebrating the dynamism and decrying the alienation of big cities'. This is the genius of Hughes. This is what makes his message so beautiful and so refreshing and what has allowed his writing to remain vibrant through the years.
Jesse B Semple
Hughes impacted American history through the character he lovingly and cleverly called Jesse B Semple, better known as 'Simple'. This black, Harlem-everyman character evolved from Hughes's frustrations that the American government were not providing the same freedoms for its citizens at home that it was advocating for people abroad. The 'Simple' stories began to appear first in the Chicago Defender in the 1940s during World War II and afterwards, as black soldiers returned home to racist American cities after having been heralded as heroes by the French. Inspired by English author DH Lawrence, Hughes was very direct with his message in these short stories and was unafraid to address problems within American society in regard to black and white relations. With the 'Simple' stories, he raised the questions that no-one wanted or dared to ask, making the American people confront the growing problem of race relations and segregation. Although these were uncomfortable issues, he believed they needed to be addressed on personal and national levels.
Langston Hughes and His Works Today
Langston Hughes was clearly an accomplished man. He produced over 62 major works along with hundreds of other poems, short stories, plays, essays, novels and lyrics. In addition to his prolific writing, Hughes also nurtured other young, aspiring, black writers. He was the second African-American man to make a living as a writer and, in 1959, was proud to 'have lived longer than any other known Negro solely on writing — from 1925 to now without a regular job!!!!!'. In 1961, Hughes was inducted into the National Institute of Arts and Letters.
His voice still resonates today, with young people and old people, Black people and White people...he spoke to all people — about freedom, about dignity, about Black mothers and fathers, about Black American life and loves and dreams.
- Charles Whitaker.
Revolutionising prose and poetry forms, Hughes has become an enduring poet and voice of the American spirit. His life and works continue to inspire and touch the lives of readers and writers across the country and around the world. Professor Baxter Miller of the University of Georgia reminds Americans:
There's a reason why Hughes has had an impact on four successive generations of writers. There is a kind of innocence in his voice — a smile, a wink — that lure people in, and once you're lured in, you're hooked. That's why people will never let Langston Hughes die...
In 2002, the American Academy of Poets dedicated the month of April to Hughes, with festivals celebrating his life and works across America. Beyond these facts and statistics it is important to remember the beauty and the timelessness of his works.