illustrated portrait of American poet and author Langston Hughes

Langston Hughes

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Did Langstons Huhges's cultural background influence his work?

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The term "cultural background," is such a wide one that it would be reasonable to say that every writer in the world has been influenced by his or her cultural background. Only a Russian aristocrat could have written War and Peace. Only a member of the Irish intelligentsia could have written Ulysses. Langston Hughes had a more complex cultural background than most writers, though one which was fairly common among black Americans in the early twentieth century. His ancestors included both slaves and slave owners. He experienced a great deal of racism while growing up in small towns in the Midwest. However, his grandmother, Mary Patterson Langston, who brought him up while his mother traveled in search of employment, instilled in Hughes a sense of racial pride and dignity. She also taught him that it was his duty to help and speak on behalf of those who were less fortunate and well-educated than he was.

This element of Hughes's background is evident throughout his work. He is eloquent about the evils of racism, but his compassion extends to encompass everyone who is oppressed. This is particularly clear in his poem "Let America be America Again." Here, Hughes points out that the ideals of freedom and equality upon which America was founded have never applied to him and other people of color, hence the caustic observation that "America never was America to me." However, Hughes is careful to note that there are plenty of other people excluded from the American Dream:

I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart,
I am the Negro bearing slavery's scars.
I am the red man driven from the land,
I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek—
And finding only the same old stupid plan
Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.

Just as all writers are influenced by their cultural background, no writer is entirely explained by this one factor. Hughes is always a thoughtful writer, whose political and social concerns develop over time. Nonetheless, it is clear that much of his concern with the dignity of oppressed people and the need for social change was inculcated in him by his background, and the influence of his grandmother in particular.

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