Famous American Negroes by Langston Hughes

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Critical Context

(Critical Edition of Young Adult Fiction)

In writing for young adult readers, Hughes maintains the famous attitudes and purposes that characterized his career as a writer and poet. His pan-Africanism, assertiveness, self-assurance, and willingness to articulate African-American experiences are displayed in an easy style with a high-minded purpose. Hughes’s eight books for young readers, published between 1952 and 1960, not only teach facts but also illustrate a cultural heritage.

Each of these works transmits a hard-earned legacy. As he was writing near the end of his life, Hughes understood that young African Americans, and the United States itself, were entering a new era. Attitudes that were later turned into such slogans as “black is beautiful” and “black pride” are articulated in these works through the consciousness of a great storyteller. The influence of W. E. B. Du Bois is apparent, but Hughes’s tone is not heavy-handed or defensive, in contrast to more militant activists. The lessons are real, and the voice is that of one who has shared the common struggle and survived.

The stories, in groups with “famous” or “first” in their titles, do not teach competitiveness for the prizes of a materialistic society: They simply refuse to apologize or condescend to any race. Hughes’s writing is refreshingly clear in comparison to textbook treatments of social issues. It is obvious that Famous American Negroes was written before the Civil Rights movement, but it fills in many historical gaps and calls attention to neglected parts of American society. It successfully strikes a delicate balance between maintaining a racial identity and accepting a rightful place in the mainstream.