What are the notions of being "American" in Langston Hughes' writing?

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Ashley Kannan | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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In much of Langston Hughes's writing, the notions of being "American" mean being heard despite experiencing conditions that might seek to silence individual voice.

Hughes affirms an essential part of American identity is the ability for individuals to have their voices heard.

Despite the preponderance of racism and discrimination, Hughes believes that a notion of being American is having one's voice validated. For example, in Hughes's "Montage of a Dream Deferred," the opening question of "What happens to a dream deferred" involves different experiences of individual voice. The different conditions in the poem such as a "festering sore," or "crust and sugary over," or "sagging like a heavy load" are conditions where silence results. However, Hughes believes that these narratives must be articulated. In giving voice to that which is silent, Hughes suggests that a notion of being American lies in the ability to be heard even if situations might seek to deny it.

In "The Negro Speaks of Rivers," Hughes suggests that we have to listen to the voice of historical consciousness.   Tracing heritage back over generations, Hughes ensures that the history of people of color will be recognized. As a result, Hughes suggests that the struggles of the African-American can be seen in a larger context, one where voice will emerge over time.  The ending of "My soul has grown deep like the rivers," articulates how giving voice to one's historical identity is an essential element to being American.

In "I, Too, Sing America" "the darker brother" refuses to be silenced and "sent to the kitchen."  He "sings" another vision of America.  Hughes suggests that all Americans have songs to sing, and music that is to be heard. Even in short stories like "Thank You, Ma'm," Hughes places an emphasis on hearing the narratives of those who might be silent. Roger and Mrs. Jones might not be heard because their stories are commonplace in America. However, Hughes believes that even the most "regular" of people have a story to tell.

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