ston Hughes is best known as a harlem renaissance poet whose lyrics celebrate and document 20th-century African-American life. Committed to expanding poetry's capacity to promote racial justice, his work consistently spoke to and communicated with people left to the margins of literary and political representation. In The Big Sea (1940), the first of his autobiographies, Hughes articulates his belief that literature should be a direct engagement with people: "[T]here came a time when I believed in books more than in people—which of course, was wrong" (332). An immensely prolific writer, Hughes worked in a variety of literary genres: poetry, plays, autobiographies, essays, short stories, novels, and musicals. Hughes's voice—familiar, direct, and appealing—remained consistent throughout his astonishing literary output. And yet his poetic persona had a supple flexibility, as a wide variety of characters speak and sing in his lyrics. In the work that draws on dialect and folk performance, one can hear the echoes of Paul Laurence Dunbar, whom Hughes read and emulated as a child. Hughes also shared Walt Whitmans faith in poetry's potential for recording history and inspiring a democratic and inclusive American culture. Sympathetic and musical portrayals of working people demonstrate the influence of Carl sandburg, whose work Hughes greatly admired. Hughes's use of jazz syncopation as a compositional principal was encouraged by the active rhymes and rhythms of Vachel Lindsay's poetry
As a cultural icon and a literary ambassador, Hughes was a crucial role model for young artists. He provided practical and moral support to younger poets, such as Russell atkins and Amiri baraka, among many others. His incorporation of themes and techniques from jazz and the blues paved the way for such poets as sherley Anne Williams and Michael S. harper, who weave together jazz rhythms and political critique. In 1964 Hughes edited the anthology New Negro Poets: USA, marking his dedication to keeping the canon of African-American literature open to innovation and change.
Hughes was born in Joplin, Missouri. His father moved to Mexico early in his life and became a businessman and landowner there. Following his fathers departure, his mother moved Langston to the home of his grandmother in Lawrenceville, Kansas. His grandfather had been an abolitionist and Republican politician. Hughes's mother had to travel to find work; as a result, Hughes had an itinerant, often impoverished childhood, attending school in Topeka, Cleveland, and Lincoln, Illinois. A poet and amateur actress, his mother fostered Hughes's enthusiasm for literature and theater. He recalled, "My mother used to take me to see all the plays that came to Topeka like Buster Brown, Under Two Flags, and Uncle Tom's Cabin. We were very fond of plays and books" (325). Hughes's talents were recognized early. In high school he published verse and short stories in Central High Monthly Magazine and the Belfry Owl, became editor of his high-school annual, and was elected class poet. Many of his fellow classmates were children of European immigrants; they exposed him to left-wing periodicals, such as the Liberator and the Socialist Call, as well as European philosophers, such as Frederich Nietzche, and writers, such as Guy de Maupassant.
After graduation, Hughes spent an unhappy year with his father. As his train to Mexico crossed the Mississippi, Hughes composed "the negro speaks of rivers," which was published in W. E .B. DuBois's journal the Crisis. Hughes was 19 years old, and "The Negro speaks of Rivers" marked the beginning of a distinguished writing career. In 1926 Hughes wrote "The Weary Blues," which won the first prize in poetry in Opportunity magazine's literary contest. After meeting such Harlem Renaissance stars as Alain Locke, Arna Bontemps, Zora Neale Hurston, and Carl Van Vechten (who helped him arrange a book contract), Hughes published The Weary Blues (1926), and his landmark manifesto "The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain" (1926).
Hughes's talent and productivity were consistently recognized with awards and honors. With the success of his novel Not without Laughter (1930), Hughes received a Harmon Foundation Medal. In 1936 Hughes won a Guggenheim Fellowship, in 1941 a Rosenwald Fund Fellowship to pursue playwriting, in 1946 an award for distinguished service as a writer from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and in 1960, in the midst of the Civil Rights movement, received the spingarn Medal, the highest award of the
National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). A year later he was inducted into the National Institute of Arts and Letters.
"The Negro Speaks of Rivers" (1921) is one of Hughes's finest poems. Arnold Rampersad writes that, with this poem, "the creativity of Langston Hughes . . . suddenly created itself" ("Origins" 180). It is a deeply affirmative poem, and Hughes recalls that before writing it, "I had been thinking about my father and his strange dislike of his own people" (351). This poem foresees Hughes's role as a celebrated figure in the Pan-African movement, as the speaker describes his involvement in and proximity to the great rivers of Africa (the Euphrates, the Congo, and the Nile) as well as the Mississippi. The poem is built through a series of repetitions and the expressive refrain, "My soul has grown deep like the rivers." Hughes orchestrates the image of the river with ease and elegance; it is a figure for the spirit, suffering, and achievement that resonates in the land and history of African people. "The Weary Blues" (1925), another infectious poem from Hughes's early body of work, describes the emotional effect of hearing a blues musician play on Lenox Avenue in Harlem. As the poem progresses and enacts the slow melancholic cadence of the blues, the musician's song and the poet's lyric become one. Near the end of the poem, a couplet attests to the song's dramatic effect: "And far into the night he crooned that tune. / The stars went out and so did the moon."
While Hughes was primarily a poet of joy, as his poetry developed it identified specific sources of injustice and delved further into anger. The poem "Mulatto" (1926) begins with the reprimand, "I am your son, white man!" A condensed drama, the poem enacts the hateful epithets and denials the boy receives in response to his declaration, incorporating lines that voice the white man's objectifying views of black women: "What's a body but a toy?" In The Big Sea (1940), Hughes describes working on "Mulatto" every night for an entire summer and reading the poem at James Weldon Johnson's home. Listeners were moved and considered it a breakthrough in Hughes's work (Rampersad 394). In the 1930s, aspects of Hughes's work began to change as events, such as the Scottsboro trial, in which a group of black teenagers was wrongfully accused of raping a white woman and sentenced to death, and the Spanish civil war, emphasized the necessity of direct and radical political action. Poems, such as "Good Morning Revolution" (1932), which was published in New Masses, announced Hughes's commitment to Marxist ideals: In this poem revolution is personified as a friend who will help workers own the means of production, therefore eliminating hunger and greed, instability and oppression. "Goodbye Christ" (1932) is perhaps Hughes's most controversial poem. It condemns Christ as an outmoded and fictitious figure that has been oversold to those who wield power through influence and violence. In Christ's place, he will insert "A real guy / Marx Communist Lenin Peasant Stalin Worker ME —." When the poem appeared without his permission in the Saturday Evening Post in 1940, it not only inspired controversy but protests too. Later, under pressure from the forces of McCarthyism, a period of anticommunist suspicion in which many people were questioned about their political affiliations before Senator Joseph McCarthy's committee on subversive activities, Hughes renounced "Goodbye Christ" as a youthful mistake.
Yet he did not renounce poetry. In fact when asked to testify before McCarthy in 1953, Hughes had recently published one of his strongest and most innovative poetic works, montage of a dream deferred (1951). An elegant and panoramic epic of urban black life, Montage displays Hughes's sharpened call and response skills, his full repertoire of lyrical voices and styles, and his knowledge of modernist literary movements, such as the work of those in the imagist school (see modernism). The rhymes in Montage spark with wit; the rhythms are interjected with bitterness of unrealized dreams. A sensitive portrayal of voices embedded in a specific place and time, Montage is played for the ears of all Americans, as it continually asks: "Ain't you heard" of our "dream deferred"?
Deliberately accessible but deceptively simple, Hughes's work reveals the complexities particular to composing a life within the socioeconomic frames of racism and insists upon the importance of African Americans' contributions to and participation in American literature, art, and history.
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