A Literary Giant
Langston Hughes was the most versatile, popular, and influential African American writer of the twentieth century. Hughes published scores of books in his lifetime: two novels, plays, collections of short stories and essays, an autobiography, seven children’s books, poetry translations, a number of African American poetry and fiction anthologies, and fourteen volumes of verse. From the 1920’s until his death in May, 1967, Hughes was widely recognized as the unofficial poet laureate of the African American urban experience, its most dedicated and passionately eloquent voice; his international reputation has only grown in the years since.
Hughes’s career as a poet began, rather abruptly, in the spring of 1916. At the age of thirteen, he was elected class poet of his Lincoln, Illinois, grammar school. Even though he had never written a poem, Hughes dutifully produced sixteen poems in praise of his teachers and class, which he read aloud at graduation, to hearty applause. Soon thereafter, Hughes moved to Cleveland, Ohio, with his mother and stepfather. There he attended the city’s Central High School and continued to write poetry, both in the free-verse style of Chicago working-class poet Carl Sandburg and in the dialect style of the African American poet Paul Laurence Dunbar. In the year after his graduation from high school in 1920, Hughes had his first real publications. A number of poems appeared in succeeding issues of The Brownie’s Book, a junior version of The Crisis, the official journal of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
Writing for The Crisis
Almost immediately, Hughes was graduated to the parent journal. The June, 1921, issue of The Crisis published “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” Hughes’s first great poem. Written a year earlier, on a train crossing the Mississippi, this short lyric (dedicated to NAACP founder W. E. B. Du Bois) proudly affirms the mystical unity of all persons of African descent, regardless of when or where they happen to live. A poem of praise, rendered in plainspoken free verse, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” shows the clear influence of Carl Sandburg. Another discernible influence is that of Walt Whitman, whom Hughes regarded as the greatest of American poets. Like Whitman’s famous long poem “Song of Myself,” Hughes’s poem features a first-person speaker, an “I” that refers not only to the poet but also to an entire people he identifies with and, in effect, becomes; when the speaker avers that his “soul has grown deep like the rivers,” he assumes the voice of the entire African race throughout history. Finally, in its moving lyricism, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” harks back to the centuries-old tradition of the African American spiritual.
That Hughes, at the age of nineteen, had already established a unique and powerful poetic voice became fully evident over the next year and a half as Jessie Redmon Fauset, literary editor of The Crisis, published another dozen Hughes poems. Among them were poems that were to be Hughes’s most anthologized, such as “The South,” “Beggar Boy,” “My People,” “Mother to Son,” and “Negro.” “Mother to Son” is a dramatic monologue that displays one of Hughes’s signal strengths as a poet: his ability to adopt a convincing persona. The speaker is the mother alluded to in the title, a (presumably) middle-aged black woman who recounts her arduous life of poverty and toil in metaphorical terms as the endless climbing of a staircase. The goal at the top of the stair is a freer, more dignified life, not just for herself and her son but for her entire people. World-weary but stoical and grimly determined, the mother exhorts her son never to forfeit the struggle by turning back.
“Negro” is a free-verse dramatic monologue in much the same vein as “The Negro Speaks of Rivers.” The “I” persona that Hughes adopts is, again, universal in scope: that of the black African throughout recorded history. In successive...
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