illustrated portrait of American poet and author Langston Hughes

Langston Hughes

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What is the theme for the poem "Refugee in America" by Langston Hughes?

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Langston Hughes was the poetic voice of the African-American in the mid-twentieth century.  Often feeling disenfranchised from white society, Hughes’ poetry spoke to the black community to never give up and to keep dreams close to their hearts.  In “Refugee in America,” Hughes speaks more personally about the emotional upheaval of the lack of acceptance in a person’s own country.

In the poem, the poet examines two similar words: freedom and liberty.  Freedom is defined in terms of autonomy, independence—no physical restraints and oppression.

Sweet and wonderful to say.
On my heart-strings freedom sings
All day every day.

On the other hand, liberty represents rights, emancipation, liberation, authorization—control over a person’s own actions.  The differences are subtle but real. 

There are words like Liberty
That almost make me cry.
If you had known what I knew
You would know why.

 The theme of the poem  speaks to the black man feeling free yet not liberated.  The basic rights of all individuals did always apply to the black man; therefore, they  illicit different emotional responses. The word freedom implies that the black man no longer feels the restrictions of slavery and the oppression of his race. He has the physical freedom that his ancestors did not have. When he thinks of freedom, his heart soars and almost breaks into song. 

In the second stanza, the poet strikes a different chord.  Liberty has not come to the African-American. His life has improved but the experiences of his race have not released him or given him complete control over his actions and desires.

Freedom is a release, but liberty holds his race back. During the time that Hughes was writing his poetry, the black man was still holding low paying, subservient jobs, and still in service to the white man. His housing, his prospects, his education—all depended on the whim of the white race.

Freedom enters the heart; however, liberty pierces the spirit of the person.  The difference in the meanings of the words is slight, but important in understanding how the black man felt about his life at this time in America. 

Sadly, the black man felt like an exile in his own country; obviously his hopes and desires have been restricted. Hughes had felt this discomfort when he attended Columbia University and found himself alone in a sea of white faces. He was free to attend the college, but his acceptance and liberty did not come to him. The prejudice and racism exiled him to the symbolic island of isolation and powerlessness.  These restrictions brought an emotional upheaval.

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