What is the theme and message of "Refugee in America" by Langston Hughes?

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Langston Hughes was the poetic voice of not just a generation, but of an entire race. Born in the mid-west in the early 1900’s, his work became synonymous with the struggle for equality during the middle of the twentieth century. His work “Refugee in America” is a short verse with haunting echoes.

There are words like Freedom

Sweet and wonderful to say.

On my heart-strings freedom sings

All day everyday.

The first stanza of the poem references freedom as a mystical idea which brings with it nothing but hope and a yearning for greatness. He personifies freedom as being able to sing to the rhythm of his heart, indicating to the reader that freedom is an integral part of being American, if not human.

There are words like Liberty

That almost make me cry.

If you had known what I knew

You would know why.

In the second and last stanza of the poem Hughes analyzes liberty which is often used inter-changeably with freedom. Hughes hints at the dichotomy between the two as the message. Liberty, the ability to act out on freedom, is not an abstract quality of society but a real and defined set of rules or law. The laws hamper blacks, effectively robbing them of liberty despite the freedom they are guaranteed.

The theme of the poem is the struggle of blacks to achieve equality in early twentieth century America. There existed a dual reality for blacks. They were free from the bondage of slavery, yet were not fully liberated from the effects of it due to Jim Crow laws and covert racism across America. The message the poem sends is clear; regardless of the words applied to a group of people, it is the actions which compel those ideas that matter. The title conveys a powerful message as well. Blacks felt like refugees despite living in America. They were lost and seeking liberation even though they had freedom.

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