When one looks at the life of Langston Hughes, it becomes apparent that his life experiences had a profound impact on his writings. Langston Hughes used his writing as a way to fight the injustice that blacks in America faced daily; he viewed his book as his weapon for African American equality (Ostrom 81). Others, who read Hughes’ work during his lifetime, were very much influenced, despite their race. Non-blacks learned to accept and learn that African American artists were an essential part of American art and culture and would continue to be as time advanced.
With his career in writing, Hughes was not interested in the fame it brought; he just wanted others to understand the message he was trying to send, “Perhaps the mission of an artist is to interpret the beauty to the people-the beauty within themselves” (Dace 70). Langston Hughes did not often focus on the brutality of American racism as a theme for his poems. A rare instance of the brutality used as a theme for a poem of his is shown in Hughes’ poem entitled, “Song for a Dark Girl.”
Hughes writes: “Way Down South in Dixie (Break the heart if me) They hung my dark young lover To a cross roads tree. Way Down South in Dixie (Bruised body high in the air) I asked the white Lord Jesus What was the use of prayer. Way Down South in Dixie (Break the heart of me) Love is a naked shadow On a gnarled and naked tree.” (Barksdale 77) The poem is written entirely in the tone of bitter irony. The poem’s focus is on violence towards a young black woman, and also on the grief she experiences (Dace 73).
Another social issue which became an essential theme in the writing of Langston Hughes was economic justice. Hughes became interested in the subject during the Great Depression of America during the 1930’s. Hughes often traveled extensively due to his participation in complicated, annual lecture tours, because of this he often gained knowledge and related and compared black lifestyles and treatment in America to that of other society’s treatment of blacks.
After visiting Russia for three weeks, having the mindset that socialism would end the issue of economic injustice, Hughes changed his mind. He saw that people were not equal and the government did not do their part to help improve that (). While visiting France and seeing that the French society as a whole treated him very well and as their equal, Hughes imagined having this sort of freedom and luxury at home in America.
Although Hughes did not often focus on the theme of racism in his poetry, he did usually focus on the comparison of whites and blacks. Hughes constantly remained well informed about everything to come and everything taking place in the black society of America (Dace 77). Hughes had many influences to his poetry writing, including Walt Whitman and Carl Sandburg, these two men wrote about the humanity of all people regardless of factors such as class, race, gender, and age, this was very important to Hughes.
Hughes’ very first collection of poetry, entitled The Ways of White Folks, shows his effort to present a clear and distinct gap between white and African American ways and views of life. It also focuses on the obvious hypocrisy of whites in matters dealing with race. In all of Hughes’ writing dealing with the matter of differences between races, Hughes uses a distinctly ironic and unsentimental tone. Steven C, Tracy, writes on Langston Hughes, “The acceptance that Hughes sought was not only for himself but the black oral tradition…” (Barksdale 116).
As an African American himself, Hughes wanted to express not only his personal experiences as a black American but also that of the experiences of the community of blacks in general. Hughes, however, was not entirely considered a part of the people for whom he wrote about and loved so much. Due to Hughes’ “mixed blood” and the fact that he was a lighter skinned African American, with an arrogant family who chose to move in white crowds, attend white schools, and with a father who looked down upon the lower black class, Hughes was viewed by American blacks as an outsider (Dace 86).
Despite all of that, Hughes was proud to be an African America, he loved Africa, his land of ancestry and was extremely devastated to find that, in Africa, he was considered to be a white man. Hughes’ first commitment in his writing was to that of the African American community and that his writing reaches out to all readers. He wanted to capture the dominant traditions of black people in written form. Hughes’ purpose may have been achieved, as today his book of poetry, The Crisis (1921), can be considered the most important journal of black life (Dace 90).
In his writing, Hughes celebrates the beauty of African American speech, and the black community’s jokes, stories, music, and church sermons. One community Hughes never tired of writing about was that of the black community on Seventh Street in Washington D.C., he loved the sights, sounds, and spirits of the people here and he tried to capture all of it in his poetry. With his writing, Hughes helped lift the spirits of blacks and make them proud of their culture’s history and heritage (Dace 101).
To be black and American were two highly separate identities in the eyes of Langston Hughes; they were two despairs within the same soul. In Hughes’ early poems on segregation, such as “I, Too, Sing America” Hughes focuses in on the difficulties of being black, but shows that he is also proud: “I, too, sing America. I am the darker brother. They send me to eat in the kitchen When company comes, But I laugh And eat well, And grow strong. Tomorrow, I’ll be at the table When company comes. Nobody’ll dare Say to me, ‘Eat in the kitchen,’ Then. Besides, They’ll see how beautiful I am And be ashamed– I, too, am America.” (Dace 103)
Hughes was very passionate about the mistreatment of blacks in the south, the fact that blacks had to move off of the sidewalks for whites to pass, and there was no eye contact allowed to those of black to whites, greatly angered and disturbed him, driving him to write more poems about the mistreatment of him and his people.
His later poems dealing with equality, although still somewhat pessimistic, suggested that idea that at some point in the future, the lifestyle of African Americans would be bright (Dace 125).
Langston Hughes is greatly known for his writing on the Harlem Renaissance, an era of celebration for African Americans and their arts. Hughes viewed Harlem as more than a place; he was interested in its people and everything about them, from their manners to their dreams. He used the people and things in Harlem in much of his writing, from murder in the streets of Harlem to the gospels sung in church on Sunday mornings. The Harlem Renaissance allowed Hughes the freedom to focus on exclusively blacks and their lifestyle and to leave the issue of the conflict of races alone (Barksdale 123).
Langston Hughes is a great figure in the history of African Americans, and in the history of our country as a whole. His ideas and unique methods of writing have developed into great techniques for many other artists and are still used today. Hughes was never afraid to write on topics close to him and did this with great pride and ability. He dealt with his emotions, the issues of his race’s past, and critical social issues taking place during his lifetime. He has earned a lot of respect not only for himself through his writing, but also for his culture of people as a whole.
Barksdale, Richard. Langston Hughes: The Poet and His Critics. Chicago: American Library Association, 1998.
Dace, Tish. Langston Hughes: The Contemporary Reviews. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997.
Ostrom, Hans. Langston Hughes: A Study of the Short Fiction. New York: Twayne, 1993.
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