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The Pioneering American Poet, Langston Hughes

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Langston Hughes is a renowned African American poet who wrote numerous poems mostly depicting the struggle that African Americans went through, as well as glorifying their heritage. His poems got great prominence, and he is considered one the greatest poets in America and the world beyond. He is also considered to have provided American poetry with a strong foundation. His works, just like works of many other great poets in history, received both applause and criticism. His poems still receive applause and criticism the way they did when they were still fresh, which is certainly an indication of the timeless nature of his work. He is considered a key figure in the literary world in the 1920s, a period which is popularly referred to as the “Harlem Renaissance.” The name came about because of a large number of African American writers in the literary world. Hughes was conspicuous in this group of Black intellectuals, very passionate, subjective, with great keenness and sensitivity towards beauty. His musical sense was unimpeachable. A review of Langston Hughes’ poems reveals a great poet whose writings were greatly influenced by the life and prevailing social, political, and economic conditions, as well as developments in the literary world, “Harlem Renaissance.”

Langston Hughes’ understanding of life can immensely contribute to the understanding of his works and their contribution to the literary world. Hughes was born in 1902 in Joplin, Missouri. He was born in a family that had a long history of fighting for the rights of African Americans. He was a great-great grandson of Charles Henry Langston, the brother of John Mercer Langston who is remembered for being the first African American to be elected in 1855 into a public office (Leach 3). He was a member of a great abolitionist family. Hughes’ poems were mostly dedicated to his maternal grandmother Mary Langston, who lost her husband, a member of the John Brown Band, at Harpers Ferry. Her second husband, the grandfather of Hughes, was also a militant abolitionist. Hughes’ desolation caused by parental neglect drove him to books which are likely to have inspired him to write (Leach 1). He began writing poems while in the eighth grade at Central School in Cleveland, Ohio. His first published poem became his greatest poem “The Negro Speaks of Rives.” It was published in several magazines and other publications (Leach 15).

After leaving Columbia, Hughes spent the following years working in a range of menial jobs. He travelled and labored on a freighter near the West African coast, then he spent several months in France before returning to the U.S. in 1924 (Leach 21). Through his early life, Hughes’ poetry was influenced by several writers and personalities. The strongest early influences came from Carl Sandburg and Walt Whitman and black poets such as Claude McKay and Paul Laurence Dunbar. McKay was a radical abolitionist who wrote amazing lyrical poems, while Dunbar was accomplished at both standard verse and dialect. Hughes, however, stated that Sandburg was his “guiding star,” for being influential in leading him towards adopting free verse alongside a radical and democratic modesty presentation of poetry.

His love of African American music is yet another aspect that influenced his literary career. The love of music encouraged him to develop a fusion between blues and Jazz, which were popular in Harlem, with conventional verse in his early books, The Weary Blues and Fine Clothes to the Jew written in 1926 and 1927 respectively (Wulff 4). The focus on lower-class, black life in these books, especially the latter, stirred harsh criticism from the black press. It is this book that made him a force to reckon in the Harlem Renaissance. Hughes supported the need for artistic independence and race pride. This was clearly argued in his essay “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain” in 1926 which was perceived as a manifesto for the Harlem Renaissance movement.

In 1929, he graduated from Lincoln University in Pennsylvania while being in the middle of one of the most defining relationships in his life with his patron or Godmother Mrs. Charlotte Mason, who supported him for two years starting in 1927 and supervised writing of his first novel (Rampersad 156). The novel Not Without a Laughter published in 1930 presented a story of a black, sensitive Midwestern boy and the struggles he encountered in life. Hughes’ relationship with his Godmother ended before the novel was published leading him to enormous personal disillusionment and unhappiness. This was the beginning of Hughes’ turn to far-left politics. He subsequently spent a year in the Soviet Union from where he wrote his most radical verses. Later, while in California, he wrote a collection of short stories compiled in the book The Ways of the White Folks in 1934 (Rampersad 289). The stories were filled with pessimistic ideas about racial relations and sardonic realism.

His travels between Europe and America influenced his writing and at the onset and during the Second World War, he shifted to the political center. Despite strongly attacking racial segregation, his writing had no leftist sympathies. That was the stance he maintained after the Second World War and during the civil rights movements period that followed the war.

Hughes’ activities in Harlem were influenced by his life experiences. For instance, he revealed his passion for writing after he was engaged in long book sessions caused by the distance between him and his parents during his childhood. He proceeded to write borrowing insight from his rich abolitionist background and the constant battle of people of color to gain a place in American social, political, and economic spheres. He was further influenced by African American culture in Harlem, especially music such as blues and Jazz, his travels between America and other places such as Europe, Asia, and Africa, and political ideologies such as leftist views.  

            The author’s works depict all these influences. He explored various literal genres ranging from poems, short stories, fictional novels, historical writings, plays, humorous books, cultural works, biographical and autobiographical writings, librettos, lyrics, scripts, articles, and translations. The influence of his African American heritage and struggle for a place in American society is visible right from the first poem to be published “Negro Speaks of Rivers”, which made him famous (Rasche 7). This is a free verse poem with no rhymes but with a movement of a raging river. The poem seems to have three parts: the world’s famous rivers’ part, the “my soul has grown deep as rivers” part, and the “I have known rivers” part. The first part sits comfortably in the center of the poem, while the second and third parts come at the end of the poem.  Repetition is also evident creating a musical sound. Enjambment is evident creating a zigzag movement typical of rivers. The poem exhibits the influence of Whiteman, who one of Hughes’ greatest influential poets. For instance, the repetition of “I” is similar to Whitman’s repetition of the word in “A Noiseless Patient Spider” (Rasche 8). Hughes uses the term “negro”, a term that was used by African Americans for solidarity and self-identification, to show that the poem would share the experience of African Americans. The musical nature of the poem is based on the African American identity of Jazz and blues. The poem concentrates on humanity from the earliest times in Mesopotamia to the abolition of brutality in the form of slavery along the Mississippi.

            Another interesting work by Hughes is the poem “I too Sing American” (Rampersad, 95). This poem embodies the oppression and violence that slaves experienced under their white masters and their hope that one day it would all end and they would become proud Americans. This is yet another free verse poem by Hughes, with no specific pattern. The poem also has a first-person narrator, as the pronoun “I” is used. Again this poem is inspired by Whitman. Hughes wrote it in response to Whitman’s “I hear America Singing.” Unlike most of Hughes’ poems, I Too Sing America does not contain blues or jazzy rhythm; it is rather a collection of short declarative sentences communicating the message.

The Weary Blues, which is another poem by Hughes, also has the features found in the poems mentioned above. It also shows strong influence by Whitman; it is a free verse poem with a strong musical rhythm. The rhythm flows naturally like speech, with longer pauses and musical rhymes. The Weary Blues also proves the influence of blues and Jazz on Hughes. It also uses a single first-person narrator like the previous two poems. The poem is set in the 1920s, when there was a ban on alcohol, and traders sold alcohol in unmarked containers. The action takes place in a bar that is crowded and can afford electricity, so the narrator could see the musician clearly. From the bar, the musician goes home to sleep. In this poem, Hughes reported on the African American life in the 1920s America. The Wear Blues is a product of the impact of Jazzy nightlife in Harlem on Hughes (Wulff 4).

All the poems mentioned above were a free verse, following the influence of Whitman and other poets. The poems had a jazzy or blues rhythm, which resulted from the influence of African American heritage. Born when African Americans were largely marginalized and were struggling for their position in American society, Hughes’ poems depicted this struggles and had literary characteristics of the Harlem Renaissance. Furthermore, the poems depicted what was happening in America and in some other parts of the world, for example the ban on alcohol in the 1920s, the Second World War, and the civil rights movement.

In conclusion, Langston Hughes is a renowned poet and writer whose literary work was greatly influenced by his own life, his mentors, and the forces of the Harlem Renaissance. The poems show the influence of his African American heritage such as Jazzy and blues rhythms, the influence of African American struggles, prevailing political ideologies, and other trends in Harlem. He died in 1967 after developing complications caused by an abdominal surgery. His last book The Panther and the Lash was published posthumously.

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