Critical Overview

(Poetry for Students)

Langston Hughes is considered one of the most influential and prolific African-American poets of the twentieth century. He published poetry from the Harlem Renaissance, a period during the 1920s when African-American artists and their works flourished in Harlem, to the Civil Rights and Black Arts movements. Following the Civil Rights movement, the Black Arts movement of the 1970s combined militant black nationalism with outspoken art and literature. Onwuchekwa Jemie, in his book Langston Hughes: An Introduction to the Poetry, interprets the poem as a militant outcry against racial injustice. Jemie argues that the images in the poem build in intensity until "the violent crescendo at the end." Jemie writes, "rotten meat is a lynched black man rotting on the tree. A sweet gone bad is all of the broken promises of Emancipation and Reconstruction, ... integration ... and Equal Opportunity. It might even be possible to identify each of the key images with a generation or historical period ..." These interpretations are not shared by many critics, but Jemie's reading is notable for its departure from the widespread black opinion that Hughes's writing was not militant enough to remain relevant in the wake of the Black Arts movement. By finding radical implications in Hughes's earlier poetry, Jemie revives poems such as "Harlem" for politicized contemporary readers.

Commenting on the innovative musical structure of the volume in which "Harlem" is a keynote...

(The entire section is 355 words.)