illustrated portrait of American poet and author Langston Hughes

Langston Hughes

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How did Langston Hughes's poems influence the Harlem Renaissance?

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Most literary scholars consider Langston Hughes to be the most prominent voice of the Harlem Renaissance writers. Hughes brilliantly captured the zeitgeist, or spirit of the age, that produced some of America's most notable African American artists of the early 20th century. The formation of the African American identity, the ongoing struggle for social and economic equality, the legacy of slavery, and the richness of African American culture figure prominently in Hughes's poems, stories, novels, memoirs and plays.

As a poet, Hughes challenged the omission of African Americans in the laboring class catalogued in Walt Whitman's 1860 poem "I Hear America Singing." His "I, Too," written in 1926, reminds readers that African Americans, "the darker brother" will one day emerge from the kitchen and be counted as citizens and patriots.

"Dream Deferred" poses a series of rhetorical questions to challenge white America. The speaker presents several scenarios as a metaphor for the African American condition and how it will evolve, hinting that a social revolution could "explode."

A third example of how Hughes saw the emergence of African American culture as an artistic and social force to be reckoned with is "The Weary Blues," a 1926 poem that celebrated the music and culture that was bringing white social elites uptown to Harlem to its nightclubs and music halls. At the same time, it contributed to the continuing evolution of canonical poetry by injecting a freer rhythm and informal diction that took the free verse of earlier poets to a new level and increased its approachability to a modern audience.

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Langston Hughes is arguably the most influential poet to come out of the Harlem Renaissance. His legacy and impact are far-reaching, but his influence within the movement was also significant. Hughes was a leader within the Harlem Renaissance, forming groups for artists to belong to and arguing publicly in defense of black art.

The poetry of Langston Hughes was an influence in how it shifted the subject matter and style of the medium. Hughes writes poems about the lives of everyday black folks, even ones who were considered “taboo” by mainstream African American culture. For example, in his poem “Hard Luck” he wrote the lines,

Jew takes yo’ fine clothes,

Gives you a doller an’ a half.

Go to de bootleg’s,

Git some gin to make you laugh.

People reacted with disgust to his poems because they depicted the underbelly of black society, something that many critics felt white people already did in their minstrel shows and works of art. Hughes pressed on in the face of this criticism, arguing that every black person should be represented in art regardless of their social status or vices. His viewpoint eventually won, and his poetry influenced the other art being created in the movement. His depiction of everyday life was something emulated by other artists and recreated across a variety of mediums.

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The Harlem Renaissance refers to a period that lasted roughly from the end of World War I to the mid-1930s and had its main flourishing during the 1920s. During this period, black artists and intellectuals converged on the Harlem neighborhood in upper Manhattan, developing a vibrant arts culture centered around the black experience.

Hughes was an important part of Harlem culture in the 1920s and early 1930s. He was influential because his poetry spoke to the outward concerns of black people and their desire for dignity. While other Harlem Renaissance poets were turning inward and writing obscure, difficult-to-understand verse, Hughes wrote in simple, accessible language. An example would be his 1923 poem, "The Crisis," which uses commonplace words and the rhythmic repetition of the word beautiful to emphasize the natural, innate beauty of the black body and soul:

The night is beautiful,
So the faces of my people.

The stars are beautiful,
So the eyes of my people

Beautiful, also, is the sun.
Beautiful, also, are the souls of my people.

In a racist society, Hughes's praise of the positive aspects of black people and culture, without in any way excusing racism, influenced other poets.

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By writing about the black experience in America in a matter-of-fact and authentic way, Langston Hughes presented the lives of black Americans as real and valuable. His contributions to the literature of the Harlem Renaissance encouraged other black poets to be themselves, as he was wholly himself in his art, refusing to conform to expectations anyone may have set on him, including those of other black people. Hughes prized the individual as well as the culture of black people in a more general sense, and many of his poems convey this sense of pride in himself and in his culture.

Poems like "Harlem Sweeties" and "I Too" celebrate the beauty of being black, while other poems like "Brass Spittoons" and "The Negro Speaks of Rivers" chronicle excerpts from black history. Hughes writes in a musical style influenced by jazz in poems like "The Weary Blues" and "Blues in Stereo." All of these literary contributions, and more, are characterized by Hughes's accessible style, which ensures that his readership, back during the Harlem Renaissance and all the way up to the present, is broad.

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Hughes's poems influenced the Harlem Renaissance for two reasons. First, because he was elemental in exposing the reality of conditions for African-Americans in the 40s and 50s. But perhaps even more meaningful was instilling both a sense of pride and hope: pride in their culture and hope that the American Dream extended beyond "whiteness."

Hughes's poem, "I, Too" is a good example of this argument:

I, too, sing America.I am the darker brother.
They send me to eat in the kitchen
When company comes,
But I laugh,
And eat well,
And grow strong.Tomorrow,
I'll be at the table
When company comes.
Nobody'll dare
Say to me,
"Eat in the kitchen,"
Then. Besides,They'll see how beautiful I am
And be ashamed--I, too, am America.

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