Hughes, (James) Langston 1902–1967
Hughes was a black American poet, novelist, short story writer, playwright, children's book author, editor, and translator. Original, insightful, and musical in his verse, he became the "poet laureate of Harlem" during its literary renaissance of the twenties. A poet of the city, he wrote of racial injustice, social struggle, and interracial relations in poetry which has its roots in jazz and the blues. Hughes's style is simple and colloquial in its use of slang, dialect, and humor. Many of his poems have been set to music. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 5, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.; obituary, Vols. 25-28, rev. ed.)
If, as other critics suggest, [Simple, the protagonist of Hughes's The Best of Simple,] is the universal-black man in the street, the average and typical Afro-American, the cause of his (their) problems is not his lack of cultural awareness of his misdirected efforts to champion his négritude: "White folks is the cause of a lot of inconveniences in my life." White America has tried to give him a false sense of culture and to replace his black pride with a desire to be white. In both instances, Jesse B. Semple, the prototype for black Americans, has repulsed white America's efforts. (pp. 162-63)
If Langston Hughes's character has any shortcoming it is that while Simple is laughing to keep from crying, most of his readers are only laughing—laughing and failing to recognize the tragic ethos that Simple symbolizes. His efforts to acknowledge the cultural, social, and political assets of négritude are challenged by lovers, friends, states, and institutions. Nevertheless, he perseveres, he endures. He refuses to believe that Negroes are "misbred, misread, and mislead." He is not sophisticated enough to diagnose the racist psyche, but he does know that he is not the problem. Simple is not made for defeat. He is just simple, and in his simplicity and compassion and bufoonery he exposes his soul, truly hurt by a racist country; he illustrates, sometimes too humorously, the reason he is lonesome inside himself. He knows he is equal; what he wants is to be treated equal. He prays a prayer that we learn to do right, that we learn to get along together because he "ain't nothing but a man, a working man, and a colored man at that." (p. 163)
Julian C. Carey, "Jesse B. Semple Revisited and Revised," in Phylon, XXXII (copyright, 1971, by Atlanta University), Second Quarter (June), 1971, pp. 158-63.
Langston Hughes is generally acknowledged to be the major Afro-American poet of the twentieth century, yet the myth persists that despite his over nine hundred published poems he was more an entertainer than a serious poet…. Because so many of his early volumes are out-of-print and available only in rare book collections, the general public and many critics are unaware of the vast number of revisions Hughes has made over the years.
These changes vary from minor alterations in punctuation to additions of entire stanzas reflecting changes in Hughes's philosophical stance. (p. 115)
Selected Poems contains twenty-two revised poems from The Weary Blues and Fine Clothes to the Jew, Hughes's first two volumes of poetry. In most cases the revisions consist merely of eliminating commas preceding dashes at the end of lines. Another revision found often in poetry from these two volumes is the elimination of a Dunbar-like dialect that Hughes had enjoyed using in his late teens and early twenties. In his autobiographical The Big Sea Hughes revealed that the first real poems he wrote were "little Negro dialect poems like Paul Lawrence Dunbar's and poems without rhyme like Sandburg's…." (pp. 115-16)
Many of Hughes's revisions reflect his realization that certain passages had become outdated and obscure. (p. 116)
Often Hughes's changes make his poems more specific. In "Sinner" … Hughes describes the sinner as "Po' an' bowed." In Selected Poems this is changed to "Po' and black," more nearly reflecting Hughes's experience with the black evangelical churches in Harlem. (p. 117)
One of Hughes's most controversial poems is "Christ in Alabama."… Hughes indicates in I Wonder As I Wander how he barely escaped with his skin because of [this] poem which described how Christ would be accepted if he...
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The most outstanding feature in [The Weary Blues] was the use of Negro music as a model for a number of poems. The blues and jazz, the distinctive music of Negro life, provided the form for the title poem and several others. This stylistic experimentation was one of the major elements in Hughes's work. In this first volume the young poet also introduced the two major themes that would characterize his poetry throughout his long career. First, he expressed a deep commitment to the Negro masses…. His verses reflected a keen insight into the life of the Negro masses, including a vivid picture of the poverty and deprivation of their life. (p. 60)
The second theme that Hughes introduced in his first volume of poetry was Harlem. Although he depicted Negro life in the rural South, and occasionally in his native Midwest, Hughes was essentially an urban poet, and life in the Negro metropolis was a basic element in his work throughout his career. (pp. 60-1)
More clearly than most other Renaissance writers he saw that beneath Harlem's glitter was an oppressive, melancholy slum; the excitement of jazz contrasted sharply with the weary blues…. (p. 61)
As Hughes developed his portrayal of the black lower classes and their ghetto environment, he became more and more preoccupied with the question of the Negro's racial identity. Hughes had begun his search for the meaning of the racial experience in America shortly after he graduated from high school. In his first mature poem, "A Negro Speaks of Rivers," he found an analogy between the river that flowed through his native Midwest and the ancient rivers that watered the lands where his race was born…. (pp. 63-4)
Hughes continued this investigation in several directions. First, like many of his contemporaries, he looked to Africa, where he found few answers but a great many questions…. In his poetry Africa became a symbol of lost roots, of a distant past that could never be retrieved….
As one who had grown up in America's heartland [Hughes] seemed content with his conclusion that American blacks were Americans, not Africans, and consequently he focused his attention on the Negro's identity problems in this country. In particular, on several occasions he looked into the role of the mulatto in American society…. Very quickly, very directly, Hughes moved beyond anger and resentment to expose the isolation that was the real tragedy of the mulatto in a racist society. He followed [the early poem "Cross"] with an equally dramatic, but a more bitter examination in "Mulatto." Here he wove together two themes, an angry confrontation between an illegitimate youth and his white relatives, and a taunting description of the violent act of miscegenation…. (p....
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The short fiction of Langston Hughes …—from The Ways of White Folks (1934) to Laughing to Keep from Crying (1952) or Something in Common and Other Stories (1963), and particularly the Simple pieces, Simple Speaks His Mind (1950), Simple Takes a Wife (1952), Simple Stakes a Claim (1957)—is in my opinion the best and most likely to endure body of work about Blacks—and Whites—by an American Black prior to the beginnings of the new, varied, and vigorous Black literature of the sixties and seventies.
Hughes's narrative method tends to be relaxed and leisurely; he is at his best in his own combination of traditional short story, essay, and autobiographical reminiscence. He tends to be gentle rather than violent, more good natured than bitter, but his stories are deadly serious and highly provocative beneath their smooth surfaces…. [His] stories suggest as much or more about the nature of intolerance and atavistic reactions to Black-White relations as the more militant and often savage work of the James Baldwin-LeRoi Jones-Eldridge Cleaver-Ed Bullins era; at the same time, they constitute a plea for tolerance and understanding with which the average White is most easily able to identify. (p. 233)
William Peden, in Studies in Short Fiction (copyright 1975 by Newberry College), Summer, 1975.
In his poem, "Children's Rhymes," Langston Hughes offers a brief but rewarding glimpse of Black children at play on city streets, complete with jingles that have been improvised out of the Black experience to replace more innocent ditties:
What's written down
for white folks
ain't for us a-tall:
"Liberty and Justice—
The contrast which Hughes offers here is familiar enough: it is the well known contradiction...
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[The] image of home unifies Not Without Laughter. Hughes works within a long tradition, ranging from Homer to Baraka (Jones) in verse…. [The literature of this tradition attempts] to define home and man's relationship to it. This effort indicates a movement from innocence to experience. It implies alienation, happiness or despair. (p. 362)
Not Without Laughter emphasized home and the three levels on which this image has meaning: the mythical, the historical, and the social….
From an initial situation of home, the reader moves first to a disintegration of the Williams family and then to a process of the family's re-creation. (p. 363)
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