Langston Hughes was one of the most important figures in the Harlem Renaissance, a movement involving African-American literary and artistic achievements and pride in the 1920s based in New York City. One of his achievements was to write poems that reflected the reality and the real language of African-American urban life, though critics often found fault with him for doing so.
His 1924 collection Fine Clothes to the Jew was roundly criticized, though it captured some of the realities of life in Harlem. The title of the collection came from the practice that many African-Americans had of pawning clothes to Jewish pawnbrokers when they were down on their luck.
While Hughes's poems did not use the abstractions or elevated language common to many esteemed poets of the time, there is no doubt that his work captured the essence of African-American city life. For example, his poem "Theme for English B" reads, in part, "I am twenty-two, colored, born in Winston-Salem./ I went to school there, then Durham, then here/ to this college on the hill above Harlem./ I am the only colored student in my class." This poem tells the story of an African-American student who must write an essay for a college English class. A later line reads, "So will my page be colored that I write?/ Being me, it will not be white./But it will be/ a part of you, instructor./You are white—/yet a part of me, as I am a part of you./ That’s American." The narrator goes on the suggest that the instructor of the class will learn as much from the student as the student will from the professor, even though the professor is white and "more free." It was this assertion of the value of African-American tradition and of life in Harlem that made Hughes's poetry so powerful.
In addition, Hughes's poetry involves a lot of references to and rhythms from jazz, which he considered the highest expression of African-American life. For example, he began his poem "The Weary Blues" with the following line: "Droning a drowsy syncopated tune,/Rocking back and forth to a mellow croon,/ I heard a Negro play." His lines mimic the syncopated rhythm and improvisation of jazz. His work celebrated working-class African-Americans, their music, and their lives and transmitted pride in African-American traditions.