illustrated portrait of American poet and author Langston Hughes

Langston Hughes

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Student Question

Analyze the poem "Freedom Train" by Langston Hughes.

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In the poem, Langston Hughes creates a contrast between a thematic project staged on a train, which traveled the United States beginning in 1947 and had no African American personnel, and ordinary trains that run through the United States, on which racial segregation is an unwelcome reality. He also raises the image of a metaphorical train which would remove segregation and improve conditions for African Americans.

The poem’s speaker asks about the train about which they have been hearing. They pose numerous questions and speculate about what this Freedom Train might be like. In each stanza, additional questions are raised and then connected to those in previous stanzas. This speaker uses vernacular language and is African American, as they mention that in the South, they must ride in the “Jim Crow car.” They mention related things characteristic of segregation, which they hope are not on the Freedom Train: separate back door entrance, and signs restricting access to “colored” or “whites.”

As the poem progresses, both specific aspects and non-literal associations are mentioned. Would black people drive the train as engineers or be restricted to the job of porter? The “ballot boxes,” or voting, would not actually occur on a train but are associated with racial discrimination. The speaker mentions specific places, Mississippi and Birmingham, Alabama, which were associated with anti-black violence.

The speaker then brings in different people who would be affected, including their children and their grandmother, whose son “died at Anzio.” This was a famous battle in World War Two, by which the speaker means that even black soldiers’ sacrifices for the country in wartime have not let to racial equality. They continue by describing the route of the train through the South and implying the hypocrisy of politicians who block blacks from voting and the “Welcoming Committee” that would exclude blacks.

Finally, the speaker expresses their enthusiasm for the train, if it did have all the positive qualities the speaker has expressed a desire for; in that case, the speaker would “shout” and “holler” and “thank God-A-Mighty” before boarding that train.

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