Hughes, whose writing career spanned more than half a century, was diverse in his themes, which included connectedness, transitoriness, racism, integration, poverty, myth, history, and universal freedom. Particularly unique to his work was his integration of his writing with blues and jazz. He wrote operettas, and many of his poems were set to music.
Although Hughes, like most writers, objected to reducing authors to labels, such as “black” or “woman” or “American,” his name is inevitably linked to the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920’s and 1930’s; this movement, centered in New York City, marked an awakening of black American artists. In addition, many of Hughes’s books, such as A Negro Looks at Soviet Central Asia (1934), Famous American Negroes (1954), Famous Negro Music Makers (1955), The First Book of Negroes (1952), and Famous Negro Heroes of America (1958), focus on race. His ancestry was a combination of black, white, and American Indian.
Among numerous anthologies edited by Hughes are collections of black American poets and short-story writers. For example, Alice Walker’s first short story was published in Hughes’s The Best Short Stories by Negro Writers (1967). Still, Hughes’s point about labels is well taken; writers create their art from what they know, and Hughes believed his writing would illuminate truths about all humanity.
Despite Hughes’s diversity, he is primarily known for his poetry and short stories rather than for his plays, novels, anthologies, or translations. One of his most popular books, The Negro Mother, and Other Dramatic Recitations (1931), was written specifically to reach “the hearts of the people.” In a letter written October 13, 1931, to William Pickens, Hughes says:I have felt that much of our [black artists’] poetry has been aimed at the heads of the high-brows, rather than at the hearts of the people. And we all know that most Negro books published by white publishers are advertised and sold largely to white readers, and little or no effort is made to reach the great masses of the colored people. I have written “THE NEGRO MOTHER” with the hope that my own people will like it, and will buy it.
Hughes succeeded. The public bought and liked The Negro Mother. As Bontemps acknowledged in a preface to Donald C. Dickinson’s A Bio-Bibliography of Langston Hughes (1972), Hughes, because he earned his living by writing, had to be diverse and had to write books that would sell. Naturally, the quality of the work varies. Criticism of Hughes’s work, however, is not especially helpful in determining which writing is his strongest. As Hughes himself realized, most of the early critics were middle-class white men whose views were restricted by their own expectations. Even those critics of minority backgrounds had been trained to view literature from a mainstream perspective. Predictably, Hughes’s works attacking white views were poorly received by critics, as were works aimed at the “hearts of the people.” Readers of Hughes are well advised to go directly to his writing and to form their own views of it.
Hughes’s poetry and short stories are set among real people, mostly black Americans, mostly poor people. Typical of such characters is Jesse B. Simple, a black laborer, who is the central figure of a weekly column that Hughes wrote for the New York Post . Simple has an estranged wife, a party-loving woman friend, a curious landlady, a third-floor apartment, and tired feet that he claims tell the story of his life. He cares about people and justice and integrity. Even in his bitter moments, he is saved from becoming maudlin by a sort of innocent humor. For example,...
(This entire section contains 3528 words.)
in “Simple Prays a Prayer,” he becomes embittered by the insensitivity of American white society and concludes, “I hope He [God] smites white folks down!” Yet he adds, “I hope he lets Mrs. Roosevelt alone.”
Hughes says in his introduction to The Best of Simple (1961), that people tell him they have known his characters. Hughes agrees. Some of the stories are retellings of his experiences during his world travel, but all have a universal quality of shared human experience in Harlem. Consistently, Hughes’s writing, like Jesse B. Simple, is honest and unpretentious.
First published: 1934 (collected in The Ways of White Folks, 1934)
Type of work: Short story
Roy Williams, a young musician returning home from performing in Europe to his small southern hometown, is lynched by white racists.
“Home,” first published in Esquire magazine in 1934, juxtaposes the sensitivity of a young, black classical violinist and jazz musician returning home ill from Europe against the unconcealed racism of his small southern hometown. Hughes subtly puts the story in a historical context by telling the reader that the musician, Roy Williams, landed in New York “on the day that Hoover drove the veterans out of Washington.”
Williams arrives home, formally dressed, and becomes aware that he is home when he hears the racial slurs of the white men at the train station. He is warmly received by his mother, Sister Williams, who organizes a fund-raising concert at the black church which she attends. Predictably, the fifty-cent seats at the front of the church are occupied by whites, and the twenty-five-cent seats in back are occupied by blacks. Art does not, as Hughes points out often in his writing, integrate people socially.
After the concert, Williams meets a woman in the audience who has caught his eye, a white woman wearing a cheap coat and a red hat, someone who seems to understand the classical music he played. She is Miss Reese, an aging music teacher at the local white high school. Miss Reese invites Williams to perform at the white high school, after which their respect for each other deepens.
Williams becomes increasingly ill and has difficulty sleeping, so he goes on late-night walks, on which he is sometimes formally dressed. On one such evening, he meets Miss Reese stepping out of a drug store. He bows to her in greeting and extends his hand just as a group of “white young ruffians with red-necks” comes out of the movie theater. When they see him reaching toward a white woman, they attack him. (Among the group of attackers, Williams thinks he recognizes his white childhood playmate, Charlie Mumford.) After beating Williams, the mob drags him to the woods, where they strip him and leave his body hanging there all night, “like a violin for the wind to play.” One of Williams’s last thoughts is that he knows that now he will never get home to his mother.
Though the image of respect between the two musicians offers a lingering redemptive image, Hughes makes it clear that art can neither transform the mob nor protect the artist from racism. The story, anthologized in The Ways of White Folks (1934), deals honestly with the futility of a black artist trying to survive in such an environment.
The theme of the inequitable distribution of wealth also pervades “Home.” Williams recalls the prostitutes in Austria and Germany, young women trying to get enough money to feed themselves and their parents. He feels heartsick at the wealth he sees squandered in the nightclubs where he performs. He thinks of home as a place where poverty is not so bad. Yet, when Williams lands in New York, he finds most of his old friends—musicians and actors—unemployed, hungry, and begging for handouts. Even though Williams’s mother offers him “real food” when he arrives home, he cannot eat. The poverty Williams finds at home is linked to racism, and his mother’s food cannot cure that illness.
“Home,” divided into six sections, contains many allusions to jazz and classical music. The dialogue is rhythmic and poetic, and section 3 reads more like poetry than prose. Section 4 begins with a concert program. The final section is cacophonous, as the mob destroys Williams. Still, Hughes says that the roaring voices and scuffing feet of the lynch mob are “split by the moonlight into a thousand notes like a Beethoven sonata.” The final allusion to Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” speaks to something enduring, perhaps the same vision in the final lines of Hughes’s “The Negro Mother” (1931):
Oh, my dark children, may my dreams and my prayersImpel you forever up the great stairs—For I will be with you till no white brotherDares keep down the children of the Negro mother.
“The Blues I’m Playing”
First published: 1934 (collected in The Ways of White Folks, 1934)
Type of work: Short story
A jazz and classical pianist is forced by her white patron to choose between love and art.
“The Blues I’m Playing,” first published in Esquire magazine (1934), is anthologized in Hughes’s collection of fourteen short stories, The Ways of White Folks. This story, like the others in the collection, depicts the racial attitudes that surface when whites and blacks interact. The central character, Oceola Jones, is a young black music teacher, herself a gifted jazz and classical musician with insufficient time and money to pursue her art. Mrs. Dora Ellsworth, an aging, wealthy, childless widow, is kind and generous, but she cannot discern great art.
Nevertheless, she wants to help young artists pursue their art. Ormond Hunter, a music critic, introduces Oceola Jones to Mrs. Ellsworth and assures the latter that Oceola is talented. He is correct.
Fascinated by Oceola’s talent and blackness, Mrs. Ellsworth pours money and energy into Oceola’s musical training. Oceola is the only black person Mrs. Ellsworth has known. While Mrs. Ellsworth loves to hear Oceola play classical music, Mrs. Ellsworth increasingly dislikes the jazz and blues, which in her view represent Oceola’s unsublimated soul.
Mrs. Ellsworth, learning through Ormond Hunter that the man staying with Oceola does not pay rent, suggests that Oceola move out of the small apartment, but Oceola refuses because she has promised the man, Pete, that he can stay with her until fall, when he will enroll in medical school. Mrs. Ellsworth is pleased when Pete goes to medical school and leaves Oceola to her music. Oceola’s musical career progresses to Mrs. Ellsworth’s satisfaction until Pete graduates. Then, to Mrs. Ellsworth’s chagrin, Oceola and Pete make plans to marry. Oceola argues that music and sexuality and children are not incompatible. Mrs. Ellsworth believes they are.
In the final scene of the story, the conflict culminates in Mrs. Ellsworth’s music room, a luxurious room adorned with lilies in priceless Persian vases. Oceola has come to play for Mrs. Ellsworth one final time before Mrs. Ellsworth leaves for Europe. Both understand that their relationship has come to an end. Oceola begins by playing classical music. Gradually, Mrs. Ellsworth begins talking aloud to herself and admonishing Oceola’s choice to marry. In response, Oceola shifts to jazz and finally to heavy blues music that makes the lilies in the Persian vases tremble. She tries to make Mrs. Ellsworth see how art connects to life, but Mrs. Ellsworth, ultimately, prefers to stand and look at the stars.
The plot of “The Blues I’m Playing” echoes Hughes’s falling out with his white patron, Charlotte Mason, in 1930. Mason, like Mrs. Ellsworth, supported several artists. Hughes was sorry about the break, but he realized that their views of the roles of black artists were too incompatible to resolve. He believed that Mason’s views were too restrictive. Oceola, like Hughes, is genuinely sorry when the end comes.
Mrs. Ellsworth is firmly entrenched in white society. Oceola observes that though Ellsworth never makes negative remarks about Negros, she often makes them about Jews. Oceola and Mrs. Ellsworth also hold different views of art. Oceola, unlike Mrs. Ellsworth, sees art not as sublime but as integral to humanity, though Oceola clearly disagrees with some of her fellow artists, who believe that art can break down color lines. Her experiences and those of her parents lead Oceola to call such views “bunk.” Ellsworth’s views differ both from Oceola’s and from those of the other artists.
Though Mrs. Ellsworth is not a totally unsympathetic character, she clearly represents the dualism of Western culture, the binary opposition between soul and body, heart and mind. In Oceola’s final attempt to make Mrs. Ellsworth connect, she plays the blues and tells Mrs. Ellsworth that the music is both sad and gay, white and black, man and woman. The final blues song is clearly a triumph of Oceola’s view of the synthesis of art and life.
“The Negro Speaks of Rivers”
First published: 1921 (collected in The Poems, 1921-1940, 2001)
Type of work: Poem
“The Negro Speaks of Rivers” is a succinct and powerful poem that ties black history to the rivers of the world.
“The Negro Speaks of Rivers” is perhaps Hughes’s most anthologized poem. Written in the first-person voice, the poem begins, “I’ve known rivers.” The “I” is a collective voice of black people from ancient times (3000 b.c.e.) to the present. The narrator’s voice speaks of bathing in the Euphrates, building a hut near the Congo, raising pyramids by the Nile, and watching the sun set on the Mississippi. The refrain, “My soul has grown deep like the rivers,” links the movement and endurance and power of the great rivers to black history.
The repeated “I,” beginning seven of the ten lines, focuses the reader on the narrator, the black person who speaks of rivers, and on the effects of the tie between his history and the rivers.
In Hughes’s autobiography The Big Sea, he says that he wrote the poem on the back of an envelope on a train just outside St. Louis on his way to Mexico to visit his father during the summer of 1920. Hughes says that he was feeling very bad, because he was thinking of his father’s strange dislike of his own people.
Hughes, who liked his people very much, says his thoughts then turned to history, the Mississippi, and finally the other rivers of the world. Within ten or fifteen minutes, he had written the poem. Hughes concludes that he no doubt changed “a few words the next day, or maybe crossed out a line or two.”
“The Negro Speaks of Rivers” was positively reviewed by both black and white critics, and it appeared in translation in a paper printed in Germany. The poem has been acclaimed for Hughes’s passionate acceptance of his race, his combination of lyric and epic, his embracing of heritage, and his reclaiming of black origins.
“The Weary Blues”
First published: 1923 (collected in The Poems, 1921-1940, 2001)
Type of work: Poem
“The Weary Blues” blends jazz and poetry to expose the soul of the blues singer.
“The Weary Blues” is about a piano player Hughes knew in Harlem. According to critic Edward J. Mullen, Hughes called “The Weary Blues” his “lucky poem” because it placed first in a literary contest sponsored by the National Urban League in 1925. Unlike “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” however, “The Weary Blues” received greatly mixed reviews from both black and white critics. It was called everything from a masterpiece to doggerel.
The work blends jazz, blues, and poetry into powerful lyric poetry. The narrator’s voice begins the poem:
Droning a drowsy syncopated tune,Rocking back and forth to a mellow croon,I heard a Negro play.
In these lines, the musical quality of the poem is already evident. Several of the poem’s repeated lines, such as “He did a lazy sway” and “I got the Weary Blues,” then capture the motion and rhythm of the music. Other refrains, such as “O Blues!” and “Sweet Blues,” create the crooning of the blues. Hughes also uses onomatopoeia in the thumps of the man’s foot on the floor.
Hughes concludes the image by extinguishing the performance, the stars, and the moon but showing that the blues remain an integral part of the man:
The stars went out and so did the moon.The singer stopped playing and went to bedWhile the Weary Blues echoed through his head.He slept like a rock or a man that’s dead.
This final image, so different from that in “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” probably accounts for the mixed reviews of the poem.
Critics who like “The Weary Blues” compare Hughes’s poem to the poetry of Carl Sandburg. DuBose Heyward, for example, says their poetry shares a “freer, subtler syncopation” than that of Vachel Lindsay. Other critics see elements of ballads and spirituals in “The Weary Blues.” Oddly enough, several early critics praise “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” for the same qualities they condemn in “The Weary Blues.” In response, later critics have suggested that these critical comments were biased by the themes of the poems. While “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” is upbeat and affirming of black heritage, “The Weary Blues” affirms a specific heritage, one distinctly not middle class, not classical.
First published: 1926 (collected in Fine Clothes to the Jew, 1927)
Type of work: Poem
“Mulatto” explores the views of a child of a white father and a black mother.
“Mulatto,” written by Langston Hughes in the summer of 1926, appeared both in The Saturday Review of Literature and in Fine Clothes to the Jew (1927), a collection of Hughes’s work. Hughes said that the poem is about “white fathers and Negro mothers in the South.”
The opening voice in “Mulatto” is that of the son, who says, “I am your son, white man!” The child stands in judgment of the father’s use of the mother’s body. The white father renounces the mixed-blood son (lines 5 and 6): “You are my son/ Like hell!” The next twenty lines of “Mulatto” re-create the image of the white man exploiting the Negro woman. The white man asks twice within the sketch, “What’s the body of your mother?” He has answered the question rhetorically, that the boy’s mother’s body is a toy.
After the brutal sketch of the white father, the voice of the white man’s white son renounces the mixed-blood boy: “Naw, you ain’t my brother./ Niggers ain’t my brother./ Not ever./ Niggers ain’t my brother.” Racism has pitted father against son and brother against brother. Another voice, probably the father’s (though it could be the white son’s), tells the mulatto, “Git on back there in the night,/ You ain’t white.” The final words are spoken by the mulatto boy to the white man. He repeats his opening words. “I am your son, white man!”
The poem is lyrical and contrasts the warmth of the southern landscape and nights with the searing heat of anger and racism. Though the jazz syncopation in “Mulatto” is not so evident as it is in Hughes’s later poems, the musical quality of the poem marks it as distinctly Hughes’s.
Hughes’s first autobiography, The Big Sea, in two especially memorable passages, touches on the idea of a child of mixed racial background. In the first, Hughes is surprised that in Africa he is considered white. In the second, Hughes tells the story of a mixed-blood boy who greets the ship as it harbors in Africa. The child wants to know if the sailors have anything in English for him to read, and he longs to go to England. The boy’s father, Hughes learns, is a white man, then living in England. The boy’s mother is a black woman whom his father has left behind. The child, accepted by neither blacks nor whites, hungers for the other half of his family and heritage. “Mulatto,” written after Hughes’s journey to Africa, seems a sort of synthesis in his treatment of the family destroyed by the deformed values of racism.
“Mulatto” is praised by critics for its craftsmanship and the powerful delivery of the theme. Several critics consider it the masterpiece of Fine Clothes to the Jew.
“The Negro Mother”
First published: 1931 (collected in The Negro Mother, 1931)
Type of work: Poem
Black mothers call to their children to take control of their future, to live with freedom and dignity.
“The Negro Mother” is the title poem in the collection of poetry that Hughes wrote to reach the masses of black people. The twenty-page book and the poem were such an instant success that Hughes told his friend Carl Van Vechten that in Birmingham, Alabama, the book “sold like reefers on 131st Street.”
The voice in the poem is that of the black mothers through the ages. In the opening line, the narrator addresses her children. In the narrative that follows, “the Negro mother” depicts the capture and hardship of black slaves and speaks of the will to endure that kept them going. The voice of the Negro mother urges the children to transform the future so that they may live in dignity and freedom from white oppression.
The poem, often referred to as a heritage poem, is highly lyrical, employing both a regular rhyme scheme (couplets) and meter. It was Hughes’s intention, he said, that the poems be pleasant to recite and easy to remember. “The Negro Mother” and the success of the volume show how keenly in tune Hughes was with his audience.