Friday, December 31, 2021

Langston Hughes, Poet of the Harlem Renaissance

Langston Hughes, 1936

Click to see Vol. I, Issue 10 of the newsletter in which this article first appeared.

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The American "jazz poet" Langston Hughes (1902-1967) worked in a fascinating era. Born less than a half-century after the enslaved Black people of America gained their freedom, he lived in a time of expansive creativity and new opportunity, while racial oppression was still devastatingly common. Although he worked as a novelist, playwright, and columnist, it is for his poetry that he is best remembered.

Hughes was born in Joplin, Missouri. When he was a young child, his family moved frequently around the Midwest. After his parents' divorce, he was fostered out, first to his grandmother, and then to family friends. He wrote of this time: "I was unhappy for a long time, and very lonesome, living with my grandmother. Then it was that books began to happen to me, and I began to believe in nothing but books and the wonderful world in books--where if people suffered, they suffered in beautiful language, not in monosyllables, as we did in Kansas."

He was elected class poet in grammar school, and wrote for the high school newspaper in Cleveland, Ohio, where he was also editor of the school yearbook. At this time, he began his creative writing, as well.

Following his father's wishes, he began to study engineering at Columbia University in New York, but left because of racial prejudice on the part of professors and fellow-students. While a student he often frequented Harlem, a "Black" neighborhood of jazz clubs and night life. He traveled abroad, and returned to complete his degree around age 27 at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania. After graduation, he returned to Harlem, where he remained the rest of his life.

Hughes is most prominently associated with the Harlem Renaissance, a movement centered in Harlem from the late 'teens to the mid-thirties, though some of its proponents lived elsewhere (including Paris), and its influence lasted much longer.

Like the other writers in the movement, Hughes was unabashed about his race, and celebrated it in poems like "The Negro Speaks of Rivers" (which he wrote at age seventeen, in, as he says, about "ten or fifteen minutes" on "the back of an envelope"):

I've known rivers:
I've known rivers ancient as the world and older than the
     flow of human blood in human veins.

My soul has grown deep like the rivers.

I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young.
I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep.
I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it.
I heard the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln
     went down to New Orleans, and I've seen its muddy
     bosom turn all golden in the sunset.

I've known rivers:
Ancient, dusky rivers.

My soul has grown deep like the rivers.

"Harlem" expresses some of the frustration felt when barriers are encountered, seen or unseen. The poem evokes a verse in the Bible, Proverbs 13:12: "Hope deferred maketh the heart sick: but when the desire cometh, it is a tree of life."

What happens to a dream deferred?

   Does it dry up
   like a raisin in the sun?
   Or fester like a sore--
   And then run?
   Does it stink like rotten meat?
   Or crust and sugar over--
   like a syrupy sweet?

   Maybe it just sags
   like a heavy load.

   Or does it explode?

Lorraine Hansberry's play A Raisin in the Sun in turn takes its title from Hughes's poem.

"I, Too" embodies a similar sentiment.

I, too, sing America.

I am the darker brother.
They send me to eat in the kitchen
When company comes,
But I laugh,
And eat well,
And grow strong.

I'll be at the table
When company comes.
Nobody'll dare
Say to me
"Eat in the kitchen,"

They'll see how beautiful I am
And be ashamed-
I, too, am America.

Hughes died at age 66 from complications after abdominal surgery related to prostate cancer. His ashes are interred in a Black cultural center in Harlem.

Harlem's famous Cotton Club, 1930


Vocabulary: Match the words to their meaning. Correct answers are in the first comment below.

  1. abdominal
  2. bosom
  3. complications
  4. crust
  5. deferred
  6. devastatingly
  7. dusky
  8. embodies
  9. evokes
  10. expansive
  11. fester
  12. fostered (out)
  13. frequented
  14. interred
  15. monosyllables
  16. prominently
  17. proponents
  18. sags
  19. syrupy
  20. unabashed
  1. people who are in favor of, or who support, something
  2. buried
  3. gives form to; expresses
  4. like a sticky liquid
  5. of the "belly"
  6. noticeably; obviously
  7. hangs down
  8. get infected; become filled with pus; grow worse
  9. placed in a home outside of one's family
  10. encouraging new, wider activities
  11. often went to
  12. calls forth; brings to mind
  13. not ashamed or embarrassed
  14. form a hard surface over
  15. breast; surface
  16. single sounds like "uh" and "oh"
  17. dark; shadowy
  18. delayed; put off, sometimes indefinitely
  19. causing much grief or dismay
  20. difficulties; negative reactions

Questions to Answer: Answer the following questions in your own words. Suggested answers are in the first comment below.

  1. What was unusual about Harlem when Hughes lived and worked there? What was not so good about it?
  2. What early life experience did Hughes have that encouraged him to read?
  3. What were some of Hughes's early achievements as a writer?
  4. Why did Hughes drop out of Columbia University?
  5. What other experiences did Hughes have before moving to Harlem?

Questions to Think About: These questions do not have "right" or "wrong" answers. They only ask your opinion.
  1. Which of the three poems--"The Negro Speaks of Rivers," "Harlem," or "I, Too"--do you like best? Why? Which do you like the least?
  2. Find out where each of these rivers is located: the Euphrates, the Congo, the Nile, and the Mississippi. What is significant about each of these places, perhaps especially for a Black American?
  3. What do you think happens when the fulfillment of a hope is delayed, when a "dream [is] deferred"?
  4. What is Hughes saying about the treatment of Black Americans in his time, and what does he predict (or at least hope for) in their future? has his prediction come true (yet)?

1 comment:

    Vocabulary: 1. K; 2. C; 3. B; 4. L; 5. D; 6. F; 7. J; 8. I; 9. G; 10. E; 11. A; 12. H

    Questions to Answer (suggested answers; yours may be written slightly differently)

    1. In Hughes's time, Harlem encouraged creativity and offer more new opportunity than other places, but racial oppression was still common.
    2. Hughes discovered reading because he was lonesome when he was fostered out in Kansas.
    3. He was his grammar school's class poet, he wrote for his high school newspaper, and he edited his school's yearbook.
    4. Hughes left Columbia University because there was too much racial prejudice.
    5. Before moving to Harlem, he traveled abroad and graduated from Lincoln University in Pennsylvania.

    Questions to Think About do not have any single correct answer. However, any answers you give should be supported by what you read or by things you know ("I think... because...").