illustrated portrait of American poet and author Langston Hughes

Langston Hughes

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Hughes, (James) Langston 1902–1967

Hughes was a black American poet, novelist, short story writer, playwright, children's book author, editor, and translator. Original, insightful, and musical in his verse, he became the "poet laureate of Harlem" during its literary renaissance of the twenties. A poet of the city, he wrote of racial injustice, social struggle, and interracial relations in poetry which has its roots in jazz and the blues. Hughes's style is simple and colloquial in its use of slang, dialect, and humor. Many of his poems have been set to music. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 5, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.; obituary, Vols. 25-28, rev. ed.)

Julian C. Carey

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If, as other critics suggest, [Simple, the protagonist of Hughes's The Best of Simple,] is the universal-black man in the street, the average and typical Afro-American, the cause of his (their) problems is not his lack of cultural awareness of his misdirected efforts to champion his négritude: "White folks is the cause of a lot of inconveniences in my life." White America has tried to give him a false sense of culture and to replace his black pride with a desire to be white. In both instances, Jesse B. Semple, the prototype for black Americans, has repulsed white America's efforts. (pp. 162-63)

If Langston Hughes's character has any shortcoming it is that while Simple is laughing to keep from crying, most of his readers are only laughing—laughing and failing to recognize the tragic ethos that Simple symbolizes. His efforts to acknowledge the cultural, social, and political assets of négritude are challenged by lovers, friends, states, and institutions. Nevertheless, he perseveres, he endures. He refuses to believe that Negroes are "misbred, misread, and mislead." He is not sophisticated enough to diagnose the racist psyche, but he does know that he is not the problem. Simple is not made for defeat. He is just simple, and in his simplicity and compassion and bufoonery he exposes his soul, truly hurt by a racist country; he illustrates, sometimes too humorously, the reason he is lonesome inside himself. He knows he is equal; what he wants is to be treated equal. He prays a prayer that we learn to do right, that we learn to get along together because he "ain't nothing but a man, a working man, and a colored man at that." (p. 163)

Julian C. Carey, "Jesse B. Semple Revisited and Revised," in Phylon, XXXII (copyright, 1971, by Atlanta University), Second Quarter (June), 1971, pp. 158-63.

Stanley Schatt

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Langston Hughes is generally acknowledged to be the major Afro-American poet of the twentieth century, yet the myth persists that despite his over nine hundred published poems he was more an entertainer than a serious poet…. Because so many of his early volumes are out-of-print and available only in rare book collections, the general public and many critics are unaware of the vast number of revisions Hughes has made over the years.

These changes vary from minor alterations in punctuation to additions of entire stanzas reflecting changes in Hughes's philosophical stance. (p. 115)

Selected Poems contains twenty-two revised poems from The Weary Blues and Fine Clothes to the Jew, Hughes's first two volumes of poetry. In most cases the revisions consist merely of eliminating commas preceding dashes at the end of lines. Another revision found often in poetry from these two volumes is the elimination of a Dunbar-like dialect that Hughes had enjoyed using in his late teens and early twenties. In his autobiographical The Big Sea Hughes revealed that the first real poems he wrote were "little Negro dialect poems like Paul Lawrence Dunbar's and poems without rhyme...

(This entire section contains 788 words.)

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like Sandburg's…." (pp. 115-16)

Many of Hughes's revisions reflect his realization that certain passages had become outdated and obscure. (p. 116)

Often Hughes's changes make his poems more specific. In "Sinner" … Hughes describes the sinner as "Po' an' bowed." In Selected Poems this is changed to "Po' and black," more nearly reflecting Hughes's experience with the black evangelical churches in Harlem. (p. 117)

One of Hughes's most controversial poems is "Christ in Alabama."… Hughes indicates in I Wonder As I Wander how he barely escaped with his skin because of [this] poem which described how Christ would be accepted if he were born in the South of a Negro mother. In The Atlanta World of December 18, 1931, Hughes declared, "Anything which makes people think of existing evil conditions is worth-while. Sometimes in order to attract attention somebody must embody these ideas in sensational forms. I meant my poem to be a protest against the domination of all stronger peoples over weaker ones."… At the time Hughes wrote the poem he was extremely angry about the Scottsboro Nine, but viewing it again from the perspective of thirty additional years he decided to shift the point of view and remove himself from the poem. It is still a social statement about the black man's plight in the South, but the revision makes it universal and less personal. (p. 118)

Some of Hughes's other revisions also reflect changes in his philosophy; during the 1960s his poetry came to reflect the new black consciousness. "Elderly Politicians" first appeared in 1958. It lambasted those who were "old … cautious … over-wise" and who were more concerned with clutching "at the egg / Their master's / Goose laid."

[In a poem in One Way Ticket, Hughes] reflects the black man's plight in the early fifties: powerless physically and politically, religion seemed to offer the only possible balm for amelioration from the pain inflicted by a Jim Crow society….

[In his revision of the poem in The Panther and the Lash] he indicates the enormous change in political climate that has taken place during the eighteen years between the two books. Instead of ending on a despairing question, the new ending suggests not only a certain cynicism about trusting in the Lord to solve all black people's problems, but it also suggests that the speaker is willing and able to take some action of his own if necessary. (p. 119)

As Hughes matured as a poet, he became more and more concerned with the limitations of language compared to the range of emotion that could be expressed through music. During the fifties and early sixties he experimented with jazz poems (Ask Your Mama) and with a book-length poem that formed a musical montage (Montage of a Dream Deferred). Hughes included Montage of a Dream Deferred in his Selected Poems and did not change a single line. In a way his experimentation during the fifties and early sixties is similar to his experimentation with blues melodies during the twenties. In both cases Hughes apparently moved away from the problem of the relationship between music and poetry as political conditions drew more and more of his attention. The political poems found in A New Song (1938) can be compared to the political poems in Hughes's posthumous The Panther and the Lash. Stalin and Lenin are replaced by Malcolm X and Stokely Carmichael. While much of Langston Hughes's political poetry is ephemeral, many of his poems are beautifully compressed works of art—the result in some cases of forty years of revision. (p. 120)

Stanley Schatt, "Langston Hughes: The Minstrel As Artificer," in Journal of Modern Literature (© Temple University 1974), September, 1974, pp. 115-20.

Cary D. Wintz

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The most outstanding feature in [The Weary Blues] was the use of Negro music as a model for a number of poems. The blues and jazz, the distinctive music of Negro life, provided the form for the title poem and several others. This stylistic experimentation was one of the major elements in Hughes's work. In this first volume the young poet also introduced the two major themes that would characterize his poetry throughout his long career. First, he expressed a deep commitment to the Negro masses…. His verses reflected a keen insight into the life of the Negro masses, including a vivid picture of the poverty and deprivation of their life. (p. 60)

The second theme that Hughes introduced in his first volume of poetry was Harlem. Although he depicted Negro life in the rural South, and occasionally in his native Midwest, Hughes was essentially an urban poet, and life in the Negro metropolis was a basic element in his work throughout his career. (pp. 60-1)

More clearly than most other Renaissance writers he saw that beneath Harlem's glitter was an oppressive, melancholy slum; the excitement of jazz contrasted sharply with the weary blues…. (p. 61)

As Hughes developed his portrayal of the black lower classes and their ghetto environment, he became more and more preoccupied with the question of the Negro's racial identity. Hughes had begun his search for the meaning of the racial experience in America shortly after he graduated from high school. In his first mature poem, "A Negro Speaks of Rivers," he found an analogy between the river that flowed through his native Midwest and the ancient rivers that watered the lands where his race was born…. (pp. 63-4)

Hughes continued this investigation in several directions. First, like many of his contemporaries, he looked to Africa, where he found few answers but a great many questions…. In his poetry Africa became a symbol of lost roots, of a distant past that could never be retrieved….

As one who had grown up in America's heartland [Hughes] seemed content with his conclusion that American blacks were Americans, not Africans, and consequently he focused his attention on the Negro's identity problems in this country. In particular, on several occasions he looked into the role of the mulatto in American society…. Very quickly, very directly, Hughes moved beyond anger and resentment to expose the isolation that was the real tragedy of the mulatto in a racist society. He followed [the early poem "Cross"] with an equally dramatic, but a more bitter examination in "Mulatto." Here he wove together two themes, an angry confrontation between an illegitimate youth and his white relatives, and a taunting description of the violent act of miscegenation…. (p. 64)

Given Hughes's interest in the problems of the lower classes and his attempt to uncover the difficulties of being black in the United States, it is not surprising that he occasionally turned his pen against racial and social injustice. Fortunately his protest poetry did not succumb to bitterness…. Instead, he approached the subject of racial oppression through satire, understatement, or wry, sardonic humor. The poem "Cross" was a clear example of his ability to expose an extremely controversial subject in a cool, matter-of-fact fashion. In "Mulatto" his language was angry and even inflammatory, but the impact of the poem remained controlled and powerful. This was also true of his most controversial protest poem, "Christ in Alabama," which he wrote at the height of the Scottsboro case…. Hughes described this piece as "an ironic poem inspired by the thought of how Christ, with no human father, would be accepted if he were born in the South of a Negro mother." Its power, like that of most of his poetry, came through using inflammatory images to produce a cool, controlled anger.

Perhaps the most interesting feature of Hughes's poetry was his innovative style. Throughout his literary career he experimented with adapting black musical forms to his work…. As a result, he emerged as one of the few truly innovative writers to come out of the Harlem Renaissance, and in the process he uncovered a poetic style that was adaptable to a variety of circumstances. The blues form, for example, with its repetitive reinforcement, was a very effective technique to impart a subtle sense of suffering and despondency:

               When I was home de                Sunshine seemed like gold.                When I was home de                Sunshine seemed like gold.                Since I came up North de                Whole damn world's turned cold.                . . . . . . . . . . .                Weary, weary,                Weary early in de morn.                Weary, weary,                Early, early in de morn.                I's so weary                I wish I'd never been born.

It is difficult to imagine a literary form that could capture the exhaustion and despair of the working class more effectively. (pp. 65-6)

Hughes used jazz rhythms and the tempo of black work music to achieve different effects. In "Brass Spittoons," for example, work rhythms set the pace of the poem and captured the feeling of menial, methodical labor. In jazz he found a particularly fertile area for experimentation…. Hughes took this music with its choppy, breathless, almost chaotic tempo and recreated the bustling rhythms of city life and the boisterous atmosphere of the ghetto at night….

He refined his technique in his post-Renaissance poetry and applied it most successfully in his Harlem epic, Montage of a Dream Deferred, where he used jazz models to capture the full essence of Harlem life. (p. 66)

The weaknesses of [Hughes's novel Not Without Laughter] are fairly obvious. Sandy [the protagonist] is never fully developed as a character, while the more interesting figures, Harriet and Aunt Hagar, remain on the periphery. The plot is also weak—in fact the novel essentially consists of a series of unrelated episodes in Sandy's life. Nevertheless the novel does have its strong points. The characters, while not fully developed, are believable. More importantly, Hughes's description of small town Negro life is unsurpassed. (pp. 67-8)

Not Without Laughter was the only serious attempt Langston Hughes made to examine the experience of blacks in the Midwest. After he completed the novel in 1930, his career changed dramatically. He continued to write prodigiously, but not about his own childhood, and he disassociated himself from the declining Harlem Renaissance. (p. 68)

Hughes's poetry also shifted to the left during the 1930's. Although he always had been concerned with the problems of blacks and of the poor, during the depression years he moved closer to Communism in his personal beliefs, and his poetry became angrier and more inclined toward propaganda. Unfortunately, as Hughes became more political, the quality of his work declined….

Fortunately, along with his other accomplishments Langston Hughes took the time at least once in his career to examine the Negro's life in small-town America. (p. 69)

Cary D. Wintz, "Langston Hughes: A Kansas Poet in the Harlem Renaissance," in Kansas Quarterly (© copyright 1975 by the Kansas Quarterly), June, 1975, pp. 58-71.

William Peden

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The short fiction of Langston Hughes …—from The Ways of White Folks (1934) to Laughing to Keep from Crying (1952) or Something in Common and Other Stories (1963), and particularly the Simple pieces, Simple Speaks His Mind (1950), Simple Takes a Wife (1952), Simple Stakes a Claim (1957)—is in my opinion the best and most likely to endure body of work about Blacks—and Whites—by an American Black prior to the beginnings of the new, varied, and vigorous Black literature of the sixties and seventies.

Hughes's narrative method tends to be relaxed and leisurely; he is at his best in his own combination of traditional short story, essay, and autobiographical reminiscence. He tends to be gentle rather than violent, more good natured than bitter, but his stories are deadly serious and highly provocative beneath their smooth surfaces…. [His] stories suggest as much or more about the nature of intolerance and atavistic reactions to Black-White relations as the more militant and often savage work of the James Baldwin-LeRoi Jones-Eldridge Cleaver-Ed Bullins era; at the same time, they constitute a plea for tolerance and understanding with which the average White is most easily able to identify. (p. 233)

William Peden, in Studies in Short Fiction (copyright 1975 by Newberry College), Summer, 1975.

Lloyd W. Brown

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In his poem, "Children's Rhymes," Langston Hughes offers a brief but rewarding glimpse of Black children at play on city streets, complete with jingles that have been improvised out of the Black experience to replace more innocent ditties:

                  What's written down                   for white folks                   ain't for us a-tall:                   "Liberty and Justice—                   Huh—For all."

The contrast which Hughes offers here is familiar enough: it is the well known contradiction between the American promise of "liberty and justice," on the one hand, and on the other hand, the political and socio-economic disadvantages of the Black American. But, looked at more closely, Hughes' poem is interlaced with additional ironies…. [The] ironic ambiguity of Hughes' poem implies that if Blacks have been excluded outright from the American Dream, White Americans have also denied themselves the substance of those libertarian ideals that have been enshrined in the sacred rhetoric, and history, of the American Revolution. Liberty and justice, he seems to suggest, have been "written down" for, but not actualized by, White Americans….

To return to the provocative nuances of that phrase, "written down for white folks," Hughes is also invoking a time reference—a reference to that period, the American Revolution, in which certain notions of liberty, justice and equality were cited, justified, and of course, written down, in various guises, in the Declaration of Independence and later in the Constitution of the United States. So that in effect the doubts which Hughes' irony casts on the substance of liberty and justice in American history also extend to the American Revolution itself: the essential limitations, or insubstantiality, of revolutionary rhetoric about freedom raise questions about the substance of the Revolution. In other words, how revolutionary was the American Revolution? The identity of the speakers in Langston Hughes' poem is crucial here. The image of children at play and the traditionally innocent connotations of children's rhymes seem deliberately to invoke an image of innocence upon which Americans have always insisted in their cultural history—an innocence defined by allegations that the American War of Independence was not simply a rebellion but a revolution…. But, to repeat, Hughes associates these revolutionary notions with only an image of childhood innocence. It is manifest that the children of his poem are not innocent in a behavioral sense (they are noisy, rambunctious window-breakers), and as their knowing sneers about nonexistent liberty and justice imply, they are not innocent in the sense of ignorance or inexperience.

Altogether, their own lack of innocence and their archetypal roles as deprived outsiders have the effect of stripping away their society's complacent mask of innocence: the American Revolution is not an indisputable historical fact, but part of America's myth of innocence. (p. 16)

Langston Hughes [explores] the nature of … revolutionary inclinations in order to determine whether they are fundamental revolutions against the majority dream and culture as a whole, or whether they are actually rebellious attempts to break down barriers to their realization of the majority dream.

On the whole Langston Hughes' poetry inclines towards the latter direction. Hence, to take a work like "Children's Rhymes," he ironically invokes the myth of the American Revolution, with its attendant dream of equality and socioeconomic fulfillment, and then pits these against the Black American condition of deprivation and rebellious impatience. For there is nothing inherently revolutionary in the poem's emphasis or assumptions. The acid reminders of a tradition of revolutionary rhetoric are really taunts directed at the majority culture rather than some species of exhortation aimed at Black Americans. Here, too, the child-identity of the poem's protagonists is revealing. Their truant sidewalk games and their destruction of neighborhood property are presented as rebellious acts of frustration (i.e. protest) rather than as the result of some calculated revolutionary posture. The child-identity minimizes the possibilities of such a posture, at the same time that it emphasizes the Black American as child-heir to the American dream-legacy of freedom, equality, and individual fulfillment…. [The] expose of the failure of the American Dream in Black America is, simultaneously, an implicit challenge to America to make its tradition of revolution or socio-political reality rather than a semantic imposture. Altogether, Hughes' poem explores the essentially rebellious disposition of the disinherited Black American while at the same time implying the very real possibilities for revolution in the situation of Black Americans: their situation as the dispossessed heirs to a mythic revolution encourages an intensely partial interest in the threat of a genuine American Revolution. (p. 17)

Hughes does not explore this legacy of revolution in any exhortatory sense. That is, he obviously identifies with the Black rebel-heirs to the American Dream—indeed their rebellion is the very essence of his own poetic protest—but he does this without necessarily espousing any concept of a radically transforming revolution. And here we are brought face to face with a basic ambiguity in some of Hughes' "dream" poems: on the one hand, his satiric expose of the deferred dream in Black America is invariably couched in terms which taunt White America about the essentially non-revolutionist nature of its Revolution; but, on the other hand, his identification with the Black American's rebellion does not go beyond protest to any revolutionary ideology of his own….

The poetic insights of Hughes' "Freedom's Plow" insist on a frank, if unflattering, admission of the gulf between the artist/intellectual and the masses, a gulf which Hughes as poet deliberately crosses in order to share a popular faith in the American Dream. On the other hand, the current trend in Black revolutionary literature [exemplified in the work of LeRoi Jones] assumes a rather easy identification of the artist with some mass revolutionary taste, a taste, one should add, that is often postulated but never really demonstrated as fact. Hughes' admission may very well irk the revolutionary enthusiasts among us; but in the absence of any obvious enthusiasm for radical revolution (as distinct from rebellious impatience) among those masses, one is left with the suspicion that Hughes is perhaps more realistic about the actual relationships between the Black American masses and the American Dream and that, conversely, Jones' prophetic vision of Black people as Black poets, Black poem as Black world is another dream legacy—that is, another revolution as dream. (p. 18)

Lloyd W. Brown, "The American Dream and the Legacy of Revolution in the Poetry of Langston Hughes," in Studies in Black Literature (copyright 1976 by Raman K. Singh), Spring, 1976, pp. 16-18.

Baxter Miller

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[The] image of home unifies Not Without Laughter. Hughes works within a long tradition, ranging from Homer to Baraka (Jones) in verse…. [The literature of this tradition attempts] to define home and man's relationship to it. This effort indicates a movement from innocence to experience. It implies alienation, happiness or despair. (p. 362)

Not Without Laughter emphasized home and the three levels on which this image has meaning: the mythical, the historical, and the social….

From an initial situation of home, the reader moves first to a disintegration of the Williams family and then to a process of the family's re-creation. (p. 363)

The structure of Not Without Laughter reveals a continual process of venture and return. The first chapter strikes a biblical tone. To this, the implied author will return at the end, but then Sandy will understand more about life. Simple narrative merges with mythic symbol. (p. 364)

In Not Without Laughter, home does more than reveal biblical myth: indeed, it implies racial history. To the ideal reader, wandering connotes four hundred years of enslavement. (p. 365)

The functions of home unify Not Without Laughter. The implied author can shift easily from a mythic level to a historical plain—to a social setting of character, or to any combination of the three. He can portray first the Williams family, then its disintegration, and finally its re-creation. (p. 369)

Baxter Miller, "'Done Made Us Leave Our Home': Langston Hughes's 'Not Without Laughter'—Unifying Image and Three Dimensions," in Phylon, XXXVII (copyright, 1976, by Atlanta University), Fourth Quarter (December), 1976, pp. 362-69.


Hughes, (James) Langston (Vol. 1)


Hughes, (James) Langston (Vol. 15)