Langston Hughes has been recognized as one of the most important figures of the Harlem Renaissance and his emergence in the 1920’s as a major poet and writer took the American literary world by storm. His first breakthrough came around 1924 when a review about his work appeared in the New York Herald and Tribune which described him as ‘already conspicuous in that group of Negro intellectuals who are lending dignity to Harlem with a vibrant and genuine art life’. Hughes went on to be a blistering critic of lynching and other injustices against blacks especially in the Deep South. He also collaborated with other important literary and political figures such as WEB Dubois and Walter White and his poems all speak about the daily humiliation and discrimination against blacks which was so pronounced in some parts of the United States.
Harlem by Langston Hughes
This is probably one of the most powerful poems by Langston Hughes in the sense that it refers to dreams which can never be attained. One can also find a reference to the lynching of black Americans in the way the words, ‘rotten meat’ and ‘sags – like a heavy load’ are described, these are all subtle allusions to black bodies hanging on trees. The unbearable nostalgia of dreams is also an important part of the poem since these are described as ‘being deferred’. Hughes imbues all his poems with an unbearable nostalgia and he is also extremely poignant about proceedings, seemingly alluding to what has happened in his past life.
In his article, Tom Hansen describes Harlem as a poem which leaves a number of questions without answers. The rhetorical questions posed by Hughes seem to imply a number of unresolved conflicts but he also finds imagery and beauty in the poem. Hughes is implying that so many dreams remain unfulfilled and just dreams after all. There’s no denying the longing that the poem creates and when one combines this with its open ended conclusion, the effects of Hughes’ writing can be seen in their stark crudity.
Song of a Dark Girl:
Way Down South in Dixie(Break the heart of me)They hung my black young loverTo a cross roads tree.Way Down South in Dixie(Bruised body high in air)I asked the white Lord JesusWhat was the use of prayer.Way Down South in Dixie(Break the heart of me)Love is a naked shadowOn a gnarled and naked tree.
Langston Hughes’ ‘Song of a Dark Girl’ is a direct reference to a lynching. Here the poet places himself in the shoes of a young black woman probably somewhere in the rural South such as Mississippi or Alabama where lynching was an almost daily occurrence. The first lines set the scene with an almost uncanny presence; ‘They hung my black young lover to a cross roads tree’. The allusions with trees as well as black bodies are one of the most common aspects of lynching.
The crude allusion to Dixie is another swipe which Hughes attempts to take at American tradition where the black man is treated with disdain and is almost worse than a dog. The hopelessness and anger at the lynching is brought out in the lines, ‘I ask the white Lord Jesus what was the use of prayer’, here we have a comparison to the white man who will certainly not administer any sort of justice to the black man who is left to hang on a tree.
The last stanza is particularly powerful where Hughes refers to the girl’s broken heart and there is also a comparison to love and a tree with its ‘gnarled nakedness’ – this is a typical comparison to a lynched black body which would more often than not be riddled with bullets after it would be hung, if not burnt to the stake and only a few embers remaining. In just a few lines, Hughes manages to convey the terrible violence and shocking injustice of lynching and makes us creep into ourselves as we retreat from this terrible certainty.
In this poem, Langston Hughes was undoubtedly inspired by what had occurred during several lynchings in the 1920’s although he was also influenced by a historic address by George Darrow during a trial on a supposed assault on a white woman in Detroit in 1925.
Walter White’s novel, ‘A Fire in the Flint’ was also an important literary influence on Hughes since it had caused a huge sensation when it was first published in 1924. White was quite an inspiring figure in his own right, he had an early brush with a lynch mob and also went on to investigate no less than forty one separate cases of lynching as well as being one of the nation’s main opinion leaders against the abhorrent practise. His personal experiences thus served him very well when writing this novel about the subject. Hughes modelled his poem on a particular experience which is recounted in the book, a young black woman is made to observe her boyfriend being strung up like a chicken and left to hang as an example to all blacks who dared to be upstart.
The Negro Sings of Rivers
THE NEGRO SPEAKS OF RIVERS, 1921
(To W. E. B. DuBois)
I've known rivers:I've known rivers ancient as the world and older than the flow of human blood in human veins.
My soul has grown deep like the rivers.
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.I heard the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln went down to New Orleans, and I've seen its muddy bosom turn all golden in the sunset.
I've known rivers:Ancient, dusky rivers.
My soul has grown deep like the rivers.
In this classic poem, Langston Hughes compares the plight of the Negro to that of the Jews in Israel. The comparison to rivers of blood recreates the situation where Moses parted the Red Sea to lead his people out of bondage. The allusion to the Mississippi is also poignant and the poem’s dedication to WEB Dubois is also poignant and direct. Slavery is never far from Langston Hughes’ mind especially with his reference to Abraham Lincoln and New Orleans which was the slave capital of the United States for hundreds of years. Hughes also has a heavy heart in his writing especially when he compares his soul ‘having grown deep like rivers’. There is also an element of history when Hughes traces the beginnings of the Euphrates River is Mesopotamia following on to the Nile and finally to the ‘Father of the Waters’, or the Mississippi.
I TOO, 1925
I, too, sing America,
I am the darker brother.They send me to eat in the kitchenWhen company comes.But I laugh,And eat well,And grow strong.
Besides, they'll see how beautiful I amAnd be ashamed,--
I, too, am America.
In this poem, Hughes makes a stark and crude reference to the injustices meted out to blacks as they were sent to eat in the kitchen far away from their masters on a regular basis. This daily ritual of humiliation emphasises the disdain and inferiority with which blacks were treated in the households of their white masters. Hughes does not accept this ritualistic humiliation and we can almost imagine him standing up to the white master and telling him in his face, ‘I too, am America’. The poem is a question of identity with the black man proudly acknowledging that he is equal and not in any way inferior.
All four poems treat the question of racial discrimination in different ways. Probably the most powerful of the poems is the one which describes the lynching of a black man in front of his young girlfriend. Although the poem was written much earlier, it seems to describe the horrible lynching of Claude Neal in Florida which occurred in 1933 and which was probably the most bestial of all lynchings ever committed. The horrible mutilation of Neal’s body could be compared to the gnarled tree which Hughes’ talks about and the recreation of these black bodies, mutilated and burnt seems to run throughout the poem. Although they are not strictly violent, the other three poems also plumb to the depths of discrimination which was the daily lot of the black man in the 1920’s.
As the leader of the Harlem Renaissance, Langston Hughes was an important figure in the struggle for equality that was to culminate in the Civil Rights Act of 1964. He died just three years later but his vast body of work, especially his poetry continues to be discussed to this day.
Hansen Tom: ‘On Harlem’, Retrieved from: http://www.english.illinois.edu/maps/poets/g_l/hughes/harlem.htm
Hughes, Langston (2001). "Fight for Freedom and Other Writings on Civil Rights" (Collected Works of Langston Hughes, Vol 10). In Christopher C. DeSantis (ed.). Introduction, p. 9. University of Missouri Press ISBN 0-8262-1371-5
Hutson, Jean Blackwell; & Nelson, Jill (February 1992). "Remembering Langston". Essence magazine, p. 96.
Joyce, Joyce A. (2004). "A Historical Guide to Langston Hughes". In Steven C. Tracy (Ed.), Hughes and Twentieth-Century Genderracial Issues, p. 136. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-514434-1
Nero, Charles I. (1997). "Re/Membering Langston: Homphobic Textuality and Arnold Rampersad's Life of Langston Hughes". In Martin Duberman (Ed.), Queer Representations: Reading Lives,