Langston Hughes, born in 1901 in Missouri, was the legendary African American poet, novelist, essayist, playwright and social activist. Known throughout his career as ‘Shakespeare of Harlem’, Hughes was as prolific as he was versatile, writing several books between 1925, at the height of the literary movement known as the Harlem Renaissance, until his death in 1967. Moreover, he’s also considered as one of the very first jazz poets, a poetry style that incorporates jazz rhythm into the flow of the verse. His legacy as a wordsmith solidified him as one of America’s great poets. A lot of famous poems by Langston Hughes celebrate Black life and culture, condemn racism, and promote equality.
Hughes’ artistry explored both the joys and adversity the Black community experienced in America in the early 20th century. He brought a wealth of worldly knowledge to his writing and wrote poetry that’s easily accessible to everyday people. By the time Hughes was twenty-five, he had lived in many cities across the United States, spent a year in Mexico and travelled Africa and Europe working as a seaman. In 1924, he moved to Washington D.C. and two years later, he published his first volume of poetry The Weary Blues (1926).
In addition to 16 volumes of poetry, Langston Hughes has written several plays, books for children, novels, short stories, nonfiction books, and essays. He was, in fact, the first Black American to earn his living solely from his writing and public lectures.
Here are some of the most famous poems by Langston Hughes that everyone should read:
1. Famous Poems by Langston Hughes About Freedom, Struggle & Change
Langston Hughes championed the Black experience in his writing, and was often called the ‘poet of the people’. His poetry may seem simple on the surface, but he is often able to pack a ton of social commentary into just a few lines. Through his powerful poetry, he made people stop, think and reassess what America is and for who. Here are some best poems by Langston Hughes that explore the themes of freedom, struggle and change that should be on your reading list:
1.1. Let America be America Again by Langston Hughes
Langston Hughes wrote this famous poem in 1935 while riding a train from NYC to Ohio during the Great Depression. The poem contemplates painful truths and sincere hopes at the same time. It reflects on the American promises that are denied to so many people. The speaker of the poem suggests that the American Dream is a false pretense of patriotism that he has not yet, and maybe never will, experience. He further suggests that America has failed to fulfill its promise of granting freedom and equality to all Americans.
On the whole, the poem describes the speaker’s disillusionment of the American Dream that, according to him, never existed for the lower-class Americans. It highlights the disconnection between the America we think we are and the America we actually are. And to fill that gap and let America be America again, all Americans need to do the work. How unsurprising and unfortunate is that the poet’s themes of oppression, economic inequality, class division, and labor struggles still hold true today.
1.2. Freedom by Langston Hughes
Langston Hughes’ wrote his most famous and powerful poem ‘Freedom’ in 1949. It was the time when Black Americans still continued to face intense racism, disenfranchisement, and segregation in every walk of life. In the poem, Hughes states that democracy will never come for him either through compromise or fear. Not today, tomorrow, or ever on this Earth. As an American citizen, he has as much right to work there and own land just as the other people. Moreover, he says that he needs freedom now; he wants to enjoy it during his lifetime, not after his death.
Thus, in the poem, Hughes is actually highlighting the social injustice prevailing in then America where democracy was only for white people and upper classes. He asks for freedom and wants to enjoy it as much as anybody else does.
1.3. I look at the world by Langston Hughes
One of the famous poems by Langston Hughes, ‘I Look at the World’ was written during the Harlem Renaissance, a period of African-American cultural expression. Composed between 1930 and 1933, the poem always sparks a fire to continue fighting oppression, break down the walls it builds and create one’s own world of opportunities. Initially, the tone of the poem is of sadness and dejection, then, towards the end, it transforms into a tone of hope.
This poem basically centers on racial segregation and hope to bring change. The speaker shows us how African-Americans were being treated in a racist America. He realizes that he and all other Black Americans together can make a difference in their lives to change things for good. Thus, the poem gives us a beautiful message that the power to bring change lies within. It is our hands that can make the world that’s in our minds.
1.4. Beaumont to Detroit: 1943 by Langston Hughes
Langston Hughes wrote one of his radical poems, ‘Beaumont to Detroit: 1943’, after violent racial clashes between African Americans and whites broke out across the United States that year.
Beaumont, Texas and Detroit, the manufacturing centers for munitions during WWII, saw great influxes of white and black migrants seeking work. As a shortage of housing and basic rations placed both groups in closer proximity than ever before, and competition for jobs increased, African Americans increasingly became the targets of hostility and violence.
In response to this hostility and violence, Langston Hughes wrote ‘Beaumont to Detroit: 1943’. In this poem, he compares the oppression of Jews by the Nazis to the oppression of African Americans at the hand of Southern whites. There is no doubt that the poem presents a powerful example of Langston Hughes’ ability to express immediate, intense and insightful artistic commentary on the events of his day.
1.5. I, Too by Langston Hughes
Also known as ‘I, Too, Sing America’, the poem first appeared in the 1926 volume of Langston Hughes’ The Weary Blues. Written in a free verse, the poem features rich simplicity and short sentences.
From the beginning of the poem, the speaker claims that he, too, sings America. Since he’s a darker brother, he is sent ‘to eat in the kitchen’. But he claims that the time will come when instead of eating in the background, he’ll join the company at the table. Then, no one will dare to send him to eat in the kitchen. Besides, he says that people will be ashamed of their mistreatment and praise his beauty.
Langston Hughes wrote this highly optimistic poem from the perspective of an African American. It truly reflects the common experience of racial segregation and discrimination that many African Americans faced during that time in almost every aspect of their lives.
1.6. Mother to Son by Langston Hughes
One of the most famous poems by Langston Hughes, ‘Mother to Son’ originally appeared in the December 1922 issue of The Crisis, a magazine dedicated to promoting civil rights in the United States.
In this poem, Hughes puts himself in the place of a mother speaking to her son about life’s experiences. The speaker says that life has never been a beautiful and easy climb for her. Instead, it’s full of tacks, splinters and boards torn up i.e. hardships and obstacles that prevent a person from climbing further. Also, there are places with no carpet and you find yourself on the cold, isolated, naked floor.
The speaker uses a metaphor of a crystal stair to represent life which is a constant surge of ups and downs and of twists and turns. It’s an uphill battle, a steady climb through thorns and wilderness. The mother has endured tough times and now she’s telling her son that he’ll have to endure all these hardships as well. But at the same time she advises her son how to overcome all these obstacles in life. She tells him to remain persistent and never end up walking through trials and tribulations.
2. Famous Langston Hughes’ Poems About Significance of Dreams
Langston Hughes is particularly known for his insightful portrayal of Black life in America. He writes about his people in a way that reflects their culture and lifestyle, including their suffering, their love for music, and their pursuit of the American Dream. He was a revolutionist and spoke for the dreams of his people: the dreams of freedom, equality, love and justice. His poetry reminds people to dream, and dare to believe in and follow their dreams. He has written numerous poems that represent his ideas on the importance of chasing dreams.
Here are some famous poems by Langston Hughes about the significance of dreams in one’s life:
2.1. I Dream A World by Langston Hughes
One of the most famous dream poems by Langston Hughes, ‘I Dream A World’ was written in 1941. It’s a poem that inspired Martin Luther King Jr. ‘s ‘I Have A Dream’ speech. In the poem, the speaker dreams of a world where all people are equal and treat each other with respect, regardless of their race, because everyone has the right to be happy and free.
The speaker further says that he dreams of a world where everybody will enjoy the freedom—the freedom of speech, work, and to roam anywhere etc. Where everyone will share the bounties of the earth regardless of any race. He desires a world where there will be no greed, hatred and scorn; and where people will live in peace and harmony.
2.2. Dream Variations by Langston Hughes
Langston Hughes published ‘Dream Variations’ in 1926 in his first poetry collection, The Weary Blues. This poem feels like a nostalgic lyric which poignantly expresses the speaker’s wish for a carefree life away from the racial discrimination and color persecution.
In the poem, the speaker wants to enjoy by flinging his arms wide in a sunny place, dancing and whirling until the end of the day. Then in the evening he wants to rest under the shadow of a tall tree until it is dark. This is his dream!
But the reality is different. He has to work despite the burning sun and keeps on working as if he were dancing and moving around. The day passes quickly and in the evening he feels tired. But his desire to take rest remains incomplete, as the tall slim tree is insufficient to provide him comfort. The night comes painfully reminding him of his blackness!
2.3. Harlem (A Dream Deferred) by Langston Hughes
Langston Hughes wrote ‘Harlem’ in 1951 as part of his poetry collection, Montage of a Dream Deferred. It’s a poem that inspired the title of Lorraine Hansberry’s famous play, A Raisin in the Sun. In the poem, the speaker tells us that having a dream deferred is painful. It makes us lifeless like a raisin in the sun. The pain will be worse when it is untreated, festering like a sore. He further tells us that if we keep postponing our dreams, they will either stink and rot eventually or stick like a crust on something sweet. And then it would be better to throw it away instead of keeping it.
Thus, it’s extremely important for people to pursue their dreams. If they don’t do so, their deferred dreams will weigh upon them. And in the end, they’ll make you lose hope, live in despair or chaos, or burn in frustration.
2.4. The Dream Keeper by Langston Hughes
One of Langston Hughes’ most famous dream poems, ‘The Dream Keeper’ was published in 1941. In the poem, the speaker contends the fragility of dreams and how easy it is for other people to crush them. He asks the readers to bring him all their dreams so that he’ll keep them safely. The world is so harsh and there are chances for their dreams to get hurt or broken.
The poem gives a beautiful message that people must keep their dreams alive at any cost. Because when they give up on their dreams, they can’t enjoy life or do the things they want to do.
2.5. Dreams by Langston Hughes
One of the most inspirational poems by Langston Hughes, ‘Dreams’ first appeared in 1922 in World Tomorrow. In the poem, the speaker urges the readers to hold fast to dreams and never let them die. There he makes two analogies. Firstly, he compares a person without dreams to a snow-covered field—cold, barren and isolated. Secondly, he compares such life to a broken-winged bird that can’t fly.
Thus, in the poem Hughes emphasizes the significance of dreams because, according to him, life without dreams is meaningless and purposeless.
2.6. I Continue to Dream by Langston Hughes
One of his best dream poems, Langston Hughes wrote ‘I Continue to Dream’ in 1941 while living in Harlem. The poem advocates the theme of hope and belief. The speaker describes his dreams with the help of various concrete images. He further says that whether people understand his dreams or not, he’ll continue to dream.
The speaker wants to convince the reader to dream regardless of the fact that whether people understand them or not. As dreams always touch the side of untouchability and improbability, you should never lose hope and continue to dream
3. Some Best Langston Hughes’ Poems About Racial Consciousness
Langston Hughes became famous both for his literary work and also as a leader in the Harlem Renaissance in pre-World War II New York City. While he remained closeted publicly at the time, his work centered Black people and championed racial consciousness and identity, also celebrating a diversity of oppressed communities. Here are some poems by Langston Hughes that focus on the significance of racial consciousness and cultural nationalism devoid of self-hate.
3.1. The Negro Speaks of Rivers by Langston Hughes
Langston Hughes wrote his first acclaimed poem ‘The Negro Speaks of Rivers’ when he was 18 years old and published it in The Crisis in 1921. The poem addresses the injustices imposed on the Black community by tying their ancestry to four of the world’s greatest and historically significant rivers across different continents. It’s a powerful, yet simple poem that gives insight to the heritage, culture, pride, and strength of Black people living in the US and around the world. While referencing society, the poem also carries with it an intensely peaceful and reflective tone.
Langston Hughes has long been acknowledged as the voice of the Harlem Renaissance. Furthermore, his poem “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” as also been referred to as the song of the Harlem Renaissance. The poem shows his keen insight to beautifully capture in words the strength and courage of Black people in America, and all over the world. It’s one of Hughes’s timeless poems, in fact, a poem that everyone deserves to know.
3.2. My People by Langston Hughes
Originally appeared in the August 1923 issue of The Crisis magazine under the title “Poem”, ‘My People’ is one of Langston Hughes’ most popular short poems. In this poem, the speaker praises the beauty of his race. He first compares the beautiful faces of his people to the beauty of night. Then he compares the beautiful eyes of his people to the stars whose sparkle reigns over the sky at night. Lastly, the speaker compares the beautiful soul of his people to the beautiful, bright sun.
‘My People’ by Langston Hughes is a very short poem written in three stanzas, each consisting of two lines. Despite its precision, the poem wonderfully captures the beauty of being a Black American.
3.3. The Negro Mother by Langston Hughes
One of Langston Hughes most famous poems about racial consciousness, ‘The Negro Mother’ was written in 1931. In the poem, we find a Negro mother addressing her past struggles, hardships and sacrifices to her children. She depicts the hardships of Black slaves through the ages and speaks of the will to endure that kept them going. Then she tells them about her strong dream of being free.
The voice of Negro mother urges the African American children to change the future so that they may live in dignity and freedom from white oppression. Also, she advises them to never give up no matter how hard things may get. In the end, she tells her children that she’ll always be there for them until they’re free from oppression.
‘The Negro Mother’ is one of Langston Hughes best poems carrying a powerful voice. In fact, the voice in the poem is that of the Black mother through the ages and gives a very poignant message not merely to Black Americans, but to people all over the world.
3.4. Theme For English B by Langston Hughes
Langston Hughes wrote ‘Theme for English B’ in 1951, just a few years before the birth of the civil rights movement in the United States. In the poem, a 22-year-old Black boy refers to himself as being different from other students in the white classroom. When the teacher assigns him a project, it makes him examine his identity and find out who he truly is. He attempts to find his identity, but doesn’t succeed because he has to struggle with the obstacles of racism. And in the process, he seems to be lost.
Throughout the poem, the speaker continues to reassure himself that he’s not different from others just because of the color of his skin. He desires to be equal, based on common traits and characteristics with his fellow. Conveying a powerful message, ‘Theme For English B’ is one of Hughes’ best poems that must be on your reading list.
3.5. Negro by Langston Hughes
Published in The Crisis in 1922, Langston Hughes wrote ‘Negro’ at the time when African Americans were treated badly because of their race. The poem reflects the history of Black Americans along with all the trials and tribulations they endured in the past and still continue to endure in the present.
The speaker describes himself and his race as having been a slave, worker, singer, victim who suffered discrimination in various ways at the hands of various people in several different places. Moreover, the speaker also uses various allusions and significant images throughout the poem to reinforce the oppression that Black Americans have been experiencing since ages.
Thus, the poem describes the history of Negro life in America from past to present. The structure of the poem is unusual and the diction is easy to understand. The speaker uses the pronoun ‘I’ to represent all the Black Americans.
4. Langston Hughes and Jazz Poetry
Langston Hughes is considered one of the earliest innovators of jazz poetry, a style in poetry that incorporates jazz rhythms into the flow of the verse. He listened to jazz music at nightclubs, collaborated with musicians from Monk to Mingus, often held readings accompanied by jazz combos, and even wrote a children’s book called The First World of Jazz.
Hughes often used to say that jazz is everywhere, encompassing the blues as well as rock and roll. He also stated that “Jazz is a great big sea. It washes up all kinds of fish and shells and spumes and waves with a steady old beat, or off-beat.” Thus, for him, jazz was a way of life. Here are some of the most famous jazz poems by Langston Hughes that should be on your reading list:
4.1. The Weary Blues
‘The Weary Blues’ by Langston Hughes is an utter treat to read. Written in 1925, the poem highlights the poet’s ability to beautifully incorporate poetry with music, and history with art, giving him the reputation as one of the leading Black artists of the 20th century. The poem is set in a piano bar on Lenox Avenue in the heart of Harlem.
Through music strongly linked to its origins and evoked in its verses, Hughes reflects on the conditions of African Americans. His mastery consists in giving shape and direction, through the end of poetry technique, to a seemingly spontaneous and evocative music, which becomes so much more expressive and worthy of references.
4.2. Harlem Night Club
One of his most famous jazz poems, Langston Hughes wrote ‘Harlem Night Club’ in 1920’s. The poem portrays the night club of Harlem as an integrated world of celebration—a place bursting with vitality of life and away from the darkness of the segregated real world.
The frantic nightlife and everything that revolves around the blues and jazz clubs can be seen in the poem where everyone is celebrating and enjoying themselves regardless of the color of their skin. But the last two lines of the poem remind us that this joy and celebration won’t last forever. So, enjoy yourself as much as you can before facing the harsh reality and darkness of tomorrow.
4.3. Dream Boogie
Langston Hughes’ famous jazz poem, ‘Dream Boogie’ was published in 1951. It dramatizes the double consciousness of Black Americans and signifies their oppression underlying the musical revelry of jazz. Langston Hughes wrote this poem utilizing the framework of bebop jazz, a type of small-band modern jazz music that originated in the early 1940s. The poem features quick short lines, fast tempos, sudden alteration in rhythm, and a passionate voice associated with the deep spirit of bebop.
In the poem, the speaker is trying to show how African Americans aren’t understood by the white people who need to listen to them. Because only then they’ll be able to understand them. Besides, he also protests against the challenges faced by African Americans. The poem ends with various be-bop sound-exclamations.
4.4. Fantasy in Purple
An undated poem, ‘Fantasy in Purple’ is one of the best jazz and blues poems by Langston Hughes. In fact, it’s a dedication to jazz and blues music that he loved so much. In the poem, Hughes pays tribute to Black music by enumerating some musical instruments and elements, and honors it by mentioning the notions of ‘beat’ and ‘song’. Moreover, while celebrating and honoring the black music, he also demonstrates the important and meaningful place of Black music in African Americans’ life in the United States.
Moreover, while defining the Black music of his people, Hughes also depicts the fusion that exists between blues and jazz. He shows how those two entities play together to be jazz and blues music. Thus, Langston Hughes’ ‘Fantasy in Purple’ is a poem honoring, celebrating and paying tribute to blues and jazz music of African Americans, with its musical instruments and musical elements (words and vocabularies) it incorporates in itself.
4.5. Trumpet Player
Published in 1947, ‘Trumpet Player’ by Langston Hughes is an exploration of Black identity identity through the character of a jazz trumpeter in a typical Harlem club of the time. Jazz and blues music thrived on a set of riffs and chords of an original tune and these were the building blocks for the jazz musicians. Among them, the best musicians were the ones who could endlessly improvise over a set of chords of the tune.
The trumpet player depicted in the poem is lost within his music and literally transcends the present reality to play the ‘music of the gods’. Thus, in this poem, Langston Hughes touches on the very being of a jazz and blues musician of the time.
The Black life that Hughes encountered in Harlem provided him with a rich vein of human emotion and experience within which he wove his jazz and blues poems portraying the eternal scenes of racism, social upheaval, class discrimination, love and betrayal, all set against a background of pulsing jazz and blues music.
5. Famous Poems by Langston Hughes About Love
Besides all the poems I’ve mentioned so far, Langston Hughes has also written wonderful love poems. His poems encompass every aspect of Black life in America, including the joys and hardships of love. He used his words to lift the Black community and express the trials of their struggles. Here are some of the famous love poems by Langston Hughes you must read:
5.1. Langston Hughes’ My Loves
5.2. Love Song For Lucinda
5.3. Juke Box Love Song
5.4. I Loved My Friend
5.5. Harlem Night Song
5.6. Langston Hughes’ Down And Out
5.7. Lenox Avenue: Midnight
Langston Hughes’ poems are timeless. They affirm his people’s capacity for joy in the face of hardship, injustice, and loss. As a most prominent figure during the Harlem Renaissance, Hughes made it a point to honestly portray the Black experience in all of his works which ranged from poetry and plays to novels and a popular column for the Chicago Defender.
Hughes’ poetry, activism and innovation transcends time. A staple of American literature and pioneer of the Harlem Renaissance, Hughes gave his readers and audiences a look into the lives of Black Americans that helped shape Black storytelling and culture. His words still continue to speak truth and hope.
- Langston Hughes Biography & Harlem Renaissance
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- Harlem Renaissance: History, Major Figures & Decline
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