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Langston Hughes was a pillar of the African American community in Harlem, New York, during the 1920s and 1930s. He was an integral part of what came to be known as the "Harlem Renaissance," a collective movement of artists committed to celebrating their own artistic achievements and exposing the hypocrisy of segregation and the harm it causes not only to the black citizens of the United States, but to the white populace as well.
Consider his poem, "Theme for English B." In this poem, the speaker is a young African American male, the only black student at a university that had heretofore been a "whites-only" establishment. While the speaker can point to many things that are different in his day versus those of his white counterparts, ultimately, he decides, that they are not very different at all. All people, he realizes, love many of the same things: food, music, and companionship. The big lie has been that whites and blacks are separated by more than race. The truth is, they are more alike than different.
Another of Hughes' poems, "I, Too, Sing America," was written in response to a late 1800s poem by Walt Whitman. Whitman's poem, "I Hear America Singing," recounts the joys of being alive and in harmony in this country. Whitman's poem celebrates the joys of work and leisure, America and Americans. What Whitman leaves out is what Hughes puts in: the unfairness, poverty, and cruelty of being black in America.
I, too, sing America
They send me to the kitchen
When company comes.
But I laugh,
And eat well,
And grow strong.
I'll be at the table
When company comes.
Nobody'll dare say to me,
"Eat in the kitchen."
They'll see how beautiful I am,
And be ashamed.
I, too, am America.
This poem nicely encapsulates the themes that Hughes employs throughout his work. First, he speaks of the mistreatment of the black man. Then, there is a call to action. Finally, once the fight is over, the sameness of both whites and blacks will be acknowledged, equality will be achieved, and reparations will be made.
Social commitment to change and a better world is what Hughes is all about.
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