Meltzer’s narrative of Hughes’s life is an example for young people who want to see how a talented African American could achieve greatness as a writer in spite of the barriers set up by the racist laws and practices of the Jim Crow era. The book is written from the viewpoint of a friend and an admirer, for Meltzer knew Hughes well and even collaborated with him on two collective biographies.

The introduction explains Meltzer’s attitude toward Hughes and toward his story as exemplifying the triumph of African-American talent. It meets head-on the controversy over Hughes’s depiction of African-American life. Meltzer begins with a defense of Hughes as a kind of bard or folk poet who articulated the worldview of the ordinary African-American person rather than the scholar, celebrity, or political leader. Therefore, the author argues, Hughes was able to show African-American achievers not as rare exceptions but as people making the best of the situation in which society had placed them. The author’s attitude reflects Hughes’s own as expressed in “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain,” a famous essay published in the periodical The Nation in 1926. Hughes and Meltzer see people of color who are artists in the Americas as having special obstacles to overcome. In handling these obstacles, the African-American artist has developed a distinctive voice, a unique sound—in both music and literature—that has its own justification for existence.

Hughes is first and foremost a poet in this biography, no matter how many other literary forms he produced,...

(The entire section is 652 words.)