Taken together, how do Hughes's poems provide a critique of relations between Blacks and Whites in America?
I would suggest that part of Hughes' genius in his poetry is that he speaks to both the African- American and White population about the issue of race. In his poetry are the seeds of a dialogue in which both races can better understand the other and the condition of race in America enveloping both of them in the modern setting. For example, in a poem such as "Harlem," there is a statement to African- Americans about the consequences of a denied dream. In detailing the different paths or images of the denied dream. Hughes is validating the African- American experience. It is almost as if Hughes is telling African- Americans that their experiences do not have to be internalized as an individual failure. It is not as if people of color have to believe that somehow their experiences are isolated. Rather, Hughes is speaking to African- Americans to say that he understands their own predicament. The message to White Americans is also brutally evident. It is one in which Hughes seeks to educate White Americans that the condition of racism in American society can and will cause these realities. For White Americans who might have been unaware of the condition of racism in American society, this serves as a "wake- up call," something to be understood and to which immediate response is needed. Essentially, the message is that if White Americans ignore the issue of race in society, the results could be what is presented in the poem along with that haunting and fearful last line.
The same type of dialogue in which education is met with validation of voice can be seen in "The Negro Speaks of Rivers." In speaking to African- Americans, the poem articulates a vision of consciousness that transcends the current condition of racial prejudice that is present in American society. Hughes is able to illuminate the historical condition of African- Americans. Reaching back into a history that spans continents and times, Hughes makes the argument that what is being endured now is temporal and a small entry into a narrative of history that is encompassing. The depth of "soul" that is evoked illuminates a condition of pride and wisdom in what it means to be African- American. For White Americans, this serves as a discussion point in which there is an understanding that being a person of color carries much in way of historical relevance. Hughes is deliberate in countering the ignorance and prejudice that many White people had at the time about African- Americans. In illuminating historical contexts such as the Euphrates, Congo, Pyramids, and the Mississippi, Hughes seeks to educate White Americans in the same light he wishes to connect and validate the experience of Black Americans. In this, a dual dialogue emerges in which the message of racial acceptance and an understanding about the complexities of ethnicity emerge.
Langston Hughes's poems dramatize the plight of African Americans in an unjust, racist society. For example, in "The Ballad of the Landlord," an African American tenant attempts to ask his white landlord to fix a leak in the roof and to repair the steps. When the tenant mounts a complaint, he is arrested, while the landlord escapes scot-free. This poem dramatizes the unfairness of laws that keep African Americans poor and subject to the whims of whites. On the other hand, whites are able to perpetrate violence and unfairness with impunity.
In the poem "Go Slow," the narrator speaks about the way in which whites tell him to "Go Slow" in the face of discrimination and unfairness about where he can eat, live, and work. The poem provides a critique of the double standard with which whites treat African Americans. Hughes believes that this unfair system will end one day. In the poem "History," he writes that while the past has been characterized by unfairness, "That must not be / True of tomorrow." The unjust way in which whites and African Americans interact will not last forever, Hughes suggests.