illustrated portrait of American poet and author Langston Hughes

Langston Hughes

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How did Langston Hughes's revolutionary work inspire modern African Americans?

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Langston Hughes was revolutionary in addressing his work to black people. There are two elements to this this point. The first is obvious: Hughes's work was directed primarily towards a black audience rather than a white one. However, the second is equally important: Hughes wrote for "the people" in the sense of having a genuinely popular audience rather than trying to win the approval of critics, academics, and literary editors. He was explicit and unapologetic on both these fronts. In his essay "The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain," he wrote:

We younger Negro artists who create now intend to express our individual dark-skinned selves without fear or shame. If white people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, it doesn’t matter. We know we are beautiful. And ugly too.

In writing for a popular audience, Hughes alienated many critics, black and white. In fact, other black writers, such as James Baldwin, were some of his most caustic detractors. The paradox here is that such critics tended to argue that Hughes presented an unflattering picture of African Americans in his work. However, Hughes was not concerned with making black people look good precisely because he was not writing for white people. This is one of the reasons why he was so important to the next generation of black writers—one of whom, Lindsay Patterson, wrote that Hughes was "the most abused poet in America" by literary critics. However, he retained his influence over a wide audience because

Hughes, more than any other black poet or writer, recorded faithfully the nuances of black life and its frustrations.

This made Hughes an inspiring figure, not only to other writers, but to black people in all walks of life.

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