Langston Hughes (1902-1967)

Among the many talented black writers connected with the Harlem Renaissance, Langston Hughes was the most popular, the most versatile, and the most durable. Among his important achievements are the incorporation of the rhythms of African-American music into his poetry and the creation of an authentic black folk speaker in the persona of Jesse B. Semple. Along with Zora Neale Hurston, and in contrast to Jean Toomer and Countee Cullen (who wanted to work with purely literary patterns, whether traditional or experimental), he wanted to capture the dominant oral and improvisatory traditions of black culture in written form.

Hughes was born in Joplin, Missouri, and in childhood, since his parents were separated, he lived mainly with his maternal grandmother. He did, however, reside intermittently with his mother in Detroit and Cleveland, where he finished high school and first began to write poetry, and with his father, who, disgusted with American racism, had gone to Mexico. Like other poets in this era–T. S. Eliot, Hart Crane, Edgar Lee Masters, and Robert Frost–Hughes had a mother sympathetic to his poetic ambitions and a businesslike father with whom he was in deep, scarring conflict.

Hughes entered Columbia University in 1920 but left after a year to travel and drift for several more: he shipped out as a merchant seaman, worked at a nightclub in Paris (France) and as a busboy in Washington, D.C. All this time, however, he was writing and publishing poetry, chiefly in the two important African-American periodicals Opportunity and The Crisis. Eleven of Hughes’s poems were published in Alain Locke’s pioneering anthology, The New Negro (1925), and he was also well represented in Countee Cullen’s 1927 anthology, Caroling Dusk. Carl Van Vechten, one of the white patrons of African-American writing, helped get The Weary Blues, Hughes’s first volume of poems, published in 1926. It was in this year, too, that his important essay The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain appeared in the Nation; in this essay Hughes described the immense difficulties in store for the serious black artist "who would produce a racial art" but insisted on the need for courageous artists to make the attempt. Other patrons appeared: Amy Spingarn financed his college education at Lincoln University (Pennsylvania) and Charlotte Mason subsidized him in New York City between 1928 and 1930. The publication of his novel Not without Laughter in 1930 solidified his reputation and sales, enabling him to support himself. By the 1930s he was being called "the bard of Harlem."

The Great Depression brought an abrupt end to much African-American literary activity, but Hughes was already a public figure. In the activist 1930s he was much absorbed in radical politics. Hughes and other blacks were drawn by the American Communist party that made racial justice an important plank in its platform, promoting an image of working-class solidarity that nullified racial boundaries. He visited the Soviet Union in 1932 and produced a significant amount of radical writing up to the eve of World War II. He covered the Spanish Civil War for the Baltimore Afro-American in 1937. By the end of the decade he had also been involved in drama and screenplay writing and had begun an autobiography, all the while publishing poetry. In 1943 he invented the folksy, street-wise character Jesse B. Semple, whose commonsense prose monologues on race were eventually collected in four volumes; in 1949 he created Alberta K. Johnson, Semple’s female equivalent.

In the 1950s and 1960s Hughes published a variety of anthologies for children and adults, including First Book of Negroes (1952), The First Book of Jazz (1955), and The Book of Negro Folklore (1958). In 1953 he was called to testify before Senator Joseph McCarthy’s committee on subversive activities (HUAC) in connection with his 1930s radicalism. The FBI listed him as a security risk until 1959, and during these years, when he could not travel outside the United States, Hughes worked to rehabilitate his reputation as a good American by producing more-patriotic poetry. From 1960 to the end of his life he was again on the international circuit.

Like all the Harlem Renaissance writers (many of whom were not Harlemites), Hughes faced many difficulties in writing a self-proclaimed "Negro" poetry. Could or should any individual speak for an entire "race"? If he or she tried to, wouldn’t that speech tend to homogenize and stereotype a diverse people? Harlem poets, aware that the audience for their poetry was almost all white, had to consider whether a particular image of black people would help or harm the cause. To the extent that they felt compelled to idealize black folk, their work risked lapsing into racist primitivism. African-American it writers questioned, too, whether their work should emphasize their similarities to or differences from whites. Hughes’s response to these problems was to turn his focus away from the rural black population and to the city folk. The shift to the contemporary urban context freed Hughes from the concerns over primitivism; he could be a realist and modernist. He could use stanza forms deriving front blues music and adapt the vocabulary of everyday black speech to poetry without affirming stereotypes. And he could insist that whatever the differences between black and white Americans, all Americans were equally entitled to liberty, justice, and opportunity.

Listen to Langston Hughes read from and comment on "The Negro Speaks of Rivers," taken from the collection "Langston Hughes Reads" (Harper Collins Audio).


The Negro Speaks of Rivers

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. (5)
I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep.
I looked upon the Nile1 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 (10)

I’ve known rivers:
Ancient, dusky rivers.

My soul has grown deep like the rivers.
(1921, 1926)

1. The Euphrates River, cradle of ancient Babylonian civilization, flows from Turkey through Syria and Iraq. The Congo flows from the Republic of the Congo in Central Africa into the Atlantic Ocean. The Nile, site of ancient Egyptian civilization, empties into the Mediterranean Sea.

Mother to Son

Well, son, I’ll tell you:
Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.
It’s had tacks in it,
And splinters,
And boards torn up, (5)
And places with no carpet on the floor–
But all the time
I’se been a-climbin’ on,
And reachin’ landin’s, (10)
And turnin’ corners,
And sometimes goin’ in the dark
Where there ain’t been no light.
So boy, don’t you turn back.
Don’t you set down on the steps (15)
’Cause you finds it’s kinder hard.
Don’t you fall now–
For I’se still goin’, honey,
I’se still climbin’,
And life for me ain’t been no crystal stair. (20)
(1922, 1926)

Morning After

I was so sick last night I
Didn’t hardly know my mind.
So sick last night I
Didn’t know my mind.
I drunk some bad licker that (5)
Almost made me blind.

Had a dream last night I
Thought I was in hell.
I drempt last night I
Thought I was in hell. (10)
Woke up and looked around me–
Babe, your mouth was open like a well.

I said, Baby! Baby!
Please don’t snore so loud.

from The Norton Anthology of American Literature, Shorter Fourth Edition (Nina Baym, General Ed.)

Young Gal’s Blues

I’m gonna walk to the graveyard
’Hind ma friend Miss Cora Lee.
Gonna walk to the graveyard
’Hind ma dear friend Cora Lee
Cause when I’m dead some (5)
Body’ll have to walk behind me.

I’m goin’ to the po’ house
To see ma old Aunt Clew.
Goin’ to the po’ house
To see ma old Aunt Clew. (10)
When I’m old an’ ugly
I’ll want to see somebody, too.

The po’ house is lonely
An’ the grave is cold.
O, the po’ house is lonely, (15)
The graveyard grave is cold.
But I’d rather be dead than
To be ugly an’ old.

When love is gone what
Can a young gal do? (20)
When love is gone, O,
What can a young gal do?
Keep on a-lovin’ me, daddy,
Cause I don’t want to be blue.