Long recognized as the “Poet Laureate of Harlem,” Langston Hughes (1902-1967) spent most of his writing career as a cynic mocking the concept of racism in the United States. He infused his writings with colloquial language and became a major influence on African Americans at a pivotal and turbulent time in US history. As an educated man from a prominent family, Hughes was aware of his responsibilities to his community and his race. He did not waiver from the positions he took on racial issues regardless of the ideological affiliations of his audience. His political views often sparked criticism from various figures at opposite ends of the political spectrum.
From the time the author attended college, he accepted socialist principles in American society and as time marched on, he was drawn more deeply into communist ideology. He was heavily influenced by the likes of Friedrich Nietzsche, Theodore Dreiser, and W. E. B. Du Bois, the last of whom had perhaps the greatest impact on the political thinking of Hughes. In his classic work The Souls of Black Folk, DuBois differentiated himself from other black leaders like Booker T. Washington. Whereas Washington saw African Americans of the future as subservient to white Americans, Du Bois favored empowering black people by speaking out against racism. Hughes adopted DuBois's attitude of verbal confrontation as a means of advancing the causes of African Americans.
Hughes affected American politics in a unique way. Unlike other black writers of his era, he did not write primarily to pacify white audiences with slave narratives or other subjects they expected to hear from black authors. He encountered his audiences directly with two-sided perspectives on issues in hopes of prompting meaningful discussions among the races. For example, in his poem “Visitors to the Black Belt,” he writes:
You can talk about
Across the railroad tracks –
To me it’s here
On this side of the tracks.
Hughes continues his “Visitors” poem with the opposite perspective:
You can say
Jazz on the South Side –
To me it’s hell
On the South Side
After comparing the vantage points, Hughes concludes:
Who’re you, outsider?
Ask me who I am.
Langston Hughes did not limit his political lessons for Americans to racial issues affecting black men alone. For example, in one of his most significant poems, “Mother to Son,” he demonstrates his appreciation for the modern struggles of women and the need for the voices of women in American society:
Don’t you fall now –
For I’se still goin’, honey,
I’se still climbin’,
And life for me aint been no crystal stair.
Showing the mother’s vision of hope for her son is Hughes’s method of altering the stereotypical political vision of African Americans of the era. This is the poet’s way of affecting American politics through his writing.
In another powerful example, he begins his poem “I, Too” with the single line, “I, too, sing America.” He ends the poem as follows:
They’ll see how beautiful I am
And be ashamed –
I, too, am America.
Hughes wrote in other genres as well. His plays, music, fiction, and nonfiction writings carried the same political messages as his poetry. He directly attacked difficult issues with his career-long themes of humanism, acceptance, tolerance, and integration. He focused on the problems associated with being a poor black man in a racist society. He expressed his political views by means of exposure through literature. His work empowered American citizens of all races and genders.