Before Hughes, few African American authors wrote for a juvenile or young adult audience. After his decisive influence, many did. A significant portion, perhaps as large as a quarter, of his many volumes of prose and poetry was written for young people. Walt Whitman, Charles Waddell Chesnutt, and Paul Laurence Dunbar were among his own distant influences, and all wished directly to address and teach a younger generation. Yet Hughes’s most immediate influence was the milieu of the Harlem Renaissance, that period between the end of World War I and the onset of the Great Depression when black writers and artists called for aesthetic opportunities unknown to previous ages. Novelists, biographers, playwrights, and sculptors were among the figures seeking newer, larger audiences. Poets were their acknowledged leaders, and Hughes, although young, captured the heady mix of ancestral obligations and newfound privileges in his 1926 essay “The Negro and the Racial Mountain.” He used his connections within the world of publishing to obtain contracts for a score of writers of young adult literature.
Hughes also provided an important example for handling content. He was as honestly straightforward as his famous character Jesse B. Semple, the Harlem philosopher from newspaper columns and short stories. Simple, as he is also known, is the soul of home-grown simplicity, common sense, and innocence. He calls fraud and propaganda for what it is. He does not court the painful, but he does not run from it either. Although at times indignant at racial injustice, he is guided not by fear or paranoia but by a wise tolerance. Just so, Hughes said, did young people need an introduction to the world that they shall inherit—-without cynicism or psychological inhibition. The lessons that he would teach were those most easily ignored: the strength of love, a salutary optimism, and the simple joy of being alive.
Don’t You Turn Back is unusual among Hughes’s works because its shape and structure were determined by people other than the poet himself, yet it is also a measure of his success. It represents the happy but uncommon circumstance of a work compiled posthumously by others fulfilling the poet’s intentions. Few have been so lucky.