“We younger Negro artists who create now intend to express our individual dark-skinned selves without fear or shame.”, said Langston Hughes in his essay “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain” that published in the 1926 issue of The Nation. And all his writings truly capture the essence of this statement. Deeply permeated with pride in the African American identity, his writings enriched the African American literature and still bear a significant influence today.
A revolutionary African American writer, Langston Hughes dedicated himself for an insightful portrayal of Black life in America. Besides being a major poet and the central figure of Harlem Renaissance, Hughes was also known as a famous playwright, novelist, columnist, and essayist of his time. His writings faithfully recorded the nuances of Black life with all its joys and frustrations more than any other Black poet.
Langston Hughes’ Poems
In his poetry, Langston Hughes uses language, themes, and ideas familiar to anyone who has the ability to read. His poetry revolts against the dark state of American life. Moreover, it also explores domestic and musical themes—particularly jazz—in African American life. Hughes’ major intention behind his poetry was to encourage Blacks to fight for their equality with Whites. His poems strongly celebrate the dream of an America where love, peace, freedom and equality will reign among all races.
The Founder of Jazz Poetry
Langston Hughes was the founder of jazz and blues poetry. He considered jazz and the blues, an African American music with strong rhythms, as the only means of expressing the lives of the African-Americans. Therefore, he was the first black poet to use jazz and blues in his poems to depict the dark sides, miseries, and pains of Black people. His favorite pastime during Harlem Renaissance was to sit till late nights in the clubs, listen to the blues, and write his poems. With its unique ability to touch the souls and stimulate deep emotions, his jazz poetry rejoices the black inheritance that impacted much on his conscience and stocked positive feelings and thoughts in him. In “The Negro and the Racial Mountain”, Langston Hughes stated that:
“But jazz to me is one of the inherent expressions of Negro life in America; the eternal tom-tom beating in the Negro soul ; the tom-tom of revolt against weariness in a white world, a world of subway trains, and work, work; the tom-tom of joy and laughter, and pain swallowed in a smile.”
Some of the most famous and memorable poems of Langston Hughes are briefly discussed below:
1. The Negro Speaks of Rivers
Langston Hughes wrote his signature poem ‘The Negro Speaks of Rives’ after his graduation from high school. At that time, he was merely 17 years old and going to Mexico on a train to see his father. When his train was crossing over the Mississippi River, Hughes got inspiration to use rivers as symbols to reflect the African experience in history. He published the poem in 1921 in the magazine The Crisis. After its publication, the poem brought him immense popularity.
‘The Negro Speaks of Rives’ is free verse and written from the perspective of an old soul who tries to establish a link between the past and the present. It utilizes anaphora, a literary technique featuring the repetition of words or phrases at the beginning of each line. For example, “I built,” “I looked,” and “I heard.”
The speaker of the poem links himself to his ancestors, firmly placing them in important historical, religious, and cultural sites all over the world. He says that he has known rivers as “ancient as the world” and claims that his soul is as deep as rivers. He shares his experience of bathing in the Euphrates at the beginning of civilization.Then, he tells about building his hut along the Congo and listening to the river as he fell asleep. In the past, he used to look at the Nile and watch the rising pyramids. The speaker had also heard the muddy Mississippi river sing when Abraham Lincoln traveled to New Orleans. Towards the end, he repeats that he has known “ancient, dusky rivers,” and now his soul has grown deep like the rivers.
Thus, in ‘The Negro Speaks of Rives’, Hughes speaks from the depth of his heart and provides glimpses of his heritage, memories attached with ancient rivers in Africa.
2. ‘Harlem’ by Langston Hughes
Actually designed as part of a book-length poem ‘Montage of a Dream Deferred’, Harlem is one of Langston Hughes’ most famous poems. It is a very short poem written in 1951. Hughes wrote Harlem at the time of the Harlem Renaissance. The poem addresses the limitations of the American Dream for African Americans.
In the poem, the speaker asks some rhetorical questions regarding a dream when it is continuously put off or delayed. Here, dream signifies vision or hope or aspirations of a black community. The speaker wonders whether a delayed dream will dry up like a raisin in the sun, or putrefy like a painful, infected wound and then ooze. Then, he asks the readers: Will that deferred dream smell disgusting, like meat that’s gone bad? Furthermore, the speaker proposes another possibility, that is, a dream deferred will “crust and sugar over”. A crusty or syrupy sweet will not be as disgusting as rotten meat and sores, but the image of sticky candy here signifies waste, neglect, and decay.
Another possibility of a dream deferred suggested by the speaker is that it may weigh the dreamers down as they have to continue to bear it. The final line of the poem, ‘Or does it explode?”, suggests that a dream deferred or delayed for a long time may explode or shatter away with a recognizable potency.
3. ‘Dreams’ by Langston Hughes
One of the early poems written by Langston Hughes, Dreams is a short one comprising two stanzas that emphasize the importance of dreaming. Hughes published this poem in1923 in the magazine The World Tomorrow. The poem advises the people not to give up their hopes and aspirations.
In Dreams, the speaker urges the reader to hold onto his dreams and never let them die. He compares the life without dreams to a broken-winged bird that can’t get off the ground. In the second stanza of the poem, the speaker again urges the reader to hold onto his dreams tightly. This time, he compares the life without dreams to the emptiness of a barren land covered with snow.
Thus, according to Langston Hughes, life is meaningless in the absence of dreams. It is the dreams that give us energy to achieve our goals in life. Their presence becomes the source of one’s pleasure, strength, and sustenance while their absence makes one’s life utterly bleak.
4. The Weary Blues
Langston Hughes published The Weary Blues in 1926 within the collection of poems named ‘Blues’. The poem is not written in stanzas or blank verse. Nor are there paragraphs. Instead, there is indentation. The poem’s opening two lines are written in parallel, followed by an indented line, which is again followed by two parallel lines. This strange pattern repeats throughout The Weary Blues and renders it a musical quality. The construction of the poem mirrors jazz poetry. The actual words don’t follow the rhythm pattern and sway back and forth like jazz music.
In The Weary Blues, the speaker recalls a ‘Negro’ playing the piano and singing ‘The Weary Blues’ on Lenox Avenue in Harlem. He describes the singer as sitting on a stool under the dull glow of ‘an old gas light’. The Negro singer is playing the piano like a “musical fool”. He is also swaying to and fro to the music. The speaker is deeply moved by the music and utters appreciative interjections: “O Blues!” “Sweet Blues!”. The Negro singer then starts singing a sad song in a deep voice. He croons over his loneliness and thumps his foot on the floor to the beat of the music. His song is full of pain. He sings the song until the break of day. Then he goes home to bed and sleeps deeply with the song still in his head.
For Langston Hughes, the blues is more than just music. It has a tendency to convey the miseries and injustice that black people endured while living in a racist society. The structure of the poem shows the black race. It is as mysterious and chaotic as the lives of the Black people.
5. ‘Mother to Son’ by Langston Hughes
Mother to Son is one of the most famous and relatable poems of Langston Hughes. It was first published in the magazine The Crisis in 1922. Later on, it was included in his collection The Weary Blues (1926). Mother to Son uses the metaphor of a staircase to depict the hardships and dangers of one’s life.
In the poem, a mother is warning her son about the stairs he is forced to climb throughout his life. She tells him to be careful of broken boards, splinters, and tacks on the stairs. These things are there in order to prevent him from succeeding. She further advises her son not to turn around or sit down if he gets tired, miserable, and hopeless while ascending the staircase. Additionally, the mother says that despite all the obstacles, she is still climbing up the stairs, and he can too.
Thus, the poem shows that sometimes life becomes too heavy, but we should never give up hope. Mother to Son can also be seen from a Negro’s perspective. In this case, it describes the difficulties that black people endured in a racist society.
6. Let America Be America Again
Langston Hughes wrote Let America Be America Again in 1935 while on a train journey from New York City to Ohio. He wrote this poem when he was facing a difficult period of his life as a struggling writer during the Great Depression. Despite being pessimistic, the poem does have an optimistic ending.
Let America Be America Again focuses on the American Dream which encapsulates freedom, equality, opportunity, integrity and happiness. It is just as relevant to today’s world as it was in Hughes’ times. Initially, the poem follows a traditional rhyme scheme. But as it progresses the rhyme scheme gives way to free verse.
In the poem, the speaker recalls a previous version of America that embodied freedom, integrity, and opportunity. At the same time, he admits that, while living as a Black man here, he has never experienced this ‘America’. The speaker then suggests the reasons for this ideal America’s transformation. He says that America has failed to fulfill its promise of the American Dream for all people. He asks his country to once again represent the golden principles of freedom, respect, integrity, and opportunity for all. The speaker also takes the reader through some dark times of history to explain why the American Dream needs to live again.
Towards the end of the poem, the speaker is hopeful that one day the people of America will rise up against injustice and make America into what it once was. Thus, Let America Be America Again is a passionate plea for America to re-establish the ‘American Dream’.
7. I, Too, Sing America
I, Too, Sing America is one of Langston Hughes’ intensely personal poems expressing his feelings as an African American. Hughes initially titled the poem “Epilogue” when it appeared in the 1929 volume of The Weary Blues. It is a short poem written in free verse and simple language.
In I, Too, Sing America, the speaker proclaims that he, too, is an American. He then tells the reader that because of his identity as an African American, the dominant members of society are constantly pushing him aside and sending him away. Although he is ostracized because of his race, he still sings as an American.
The speaker also claims that there will be a day in future when these dominant members of society see beauty in him and feel guilty of their acts. Then no one will ever dare to push him aside and send him away despite his black identity.
Langston Hughes wrote I, Too, Sing America in order to speak out against the racism and oppression surrounding African Americans. The poem, despite being short in length, delivers a powerful message about how the black people felt, and still feel, in America.
8. Dream Variations
Vividly expressing the poet’s dream of a carefree life devoid of racial discrimination, Dream Variations is one of Langston Hughes most famous poems. He published this poem in his collection The Weary Blues in 1926. The poem is short, rhythmic and enjoyable.
In Dream Variations, the speaker dreams of spreading his arms wide in the sunlight and dancing until the ‘white day’ is over. Then he would relax under a tall tree on a cool evening until the night, as dark as him, arrives. He then dreams of spreading his arms wide in front of the sun and dancing until the ‘quick day’ is over. He would then ‘rest at pale evening’ under a ‘tall, slim tree’ till the night as black as him.
Dream Variations offers an insightful portrayal of black life in America. The white and dark mentioned in the poems represent the racist culture of America. The day represents White community while the night approaching at the end of each stanza represents Black community which gives the speaker a sense of freedom.
9. Life is Fine
Langston Hughes wrote and published his famous poem Life is Fine in 1949. Written in free verse and divided into nine stanzas, the poem is quite playful and jovial.
In Life is Fine, the speaker expresses his optimism after his suicide attempts that actually render him feel more alive than ever. When the poem begins, he is full of internal conflicts and thinking to end his life. He attempts to kill himself twice. But every time his attempt fails due to some reasons which reflect that he still wants to live his life. Finally, the speaker gives up the idea of committing a suicide by saying, ‘Life is fine! Fine as wine! Life is fine!.’
The poem Life is Fine is also ironic as the speaker reverses his situation from the hardships and disdain of life to that of gratitude and enjoyment. Towards the end, the speaker becomes a very different person from the one who was trying to commit suicide in the beginning of the poem.
10. Po’ Boy Blues
One of the famous musical poems of Langston Hughes, Po’ Boy Blues was written in the 1920s. The poem is about the troubles a young boy faces in life. Hughes wrote this poem in free verse. The tone of the poem is somewhat weary and exhausted.
In Po’ Boy Blues, the speaker recalls and misses his home life. At home, his days were full of sunshine as bright as gold. But this sunshine disappeared leaving behind coldness when they moved north. The speaker says that he used to be a good boy who never harmed anyone. But despite his goodness, life for him was weary, hard and long. Then he tells how he fell in love with a girl whom he thought to be kind. But that girl made him lose both his money as well as mind. This experience further added to his troubles of life and made him feel exhausted. The poem ends with a speaker regretting his life and saying ‘I wish I’d never been born’. Thus, he wants to be free from the life he is leading on earth.
Po’ Boy Blues is also a true portrayal of the feelings of a young Negro boy. Hughes has written this poem from the perspective of a young black boy and described his experiences. He has also used the blues to develop a way of authenticating the typical experiences that a young black boy had to face at that time.
11. Brotherly Love
Hughes wrote Brotherly Love during the bus boycott in 1956. The poem is about Hughes’ friend, Martin Luther King Jr., and the Montgomery bus boycott. The poem focuses on the discrimination of blacks by white race in Montgomery.
In Brotherly Love, the speaker tells the reader what his people say in Montgomery about the whites. They want to love them and live with them in peace. But despite the efforts of his people to reconcile with the whites, they continue to be hateful with them. The speaker then asks the reader if their reconciliation with whites would bring any good to them. He then explains how the whites have been treating him ‘for so long a time’. They’ve been calling him with different names and always pushing him down.
The speaker also says that his existence is full of miseries and the whites, instead of giving him a helping hand, wish him to die. He further says that despite all their hate, he is still living and this has made the white people even more furious. In the end, the speaker admits that he still wants to love the whites since Martin Luther King and the Bible tell him to do so.
The Montgomery Bus Boycott was a civil rights protest by the African Americans in 1956. Martin Luther King Jr., a leading force in the American civil rights movement, was also one of the leaders of the boycott. In order to protest segregated seating, the Black people refused to ride city buses in Montgomery. Through the use of visual imagery and allusion in Brotherly Love, Langston Hughes has shown his frustration over the issue and explained that he will try to love the white people despite their hate.
12. ‘Helen Keller’ by Langston Hughes
A poetic homage to a highly compelling figure ‘Helen Keller’, Langston Hughes’ poem Helen Keller is short and beautifully written. Helen Keller was an American author and activist who was blind and deaf. In fact, she was the first deaf and blind person to earn a Bachelor of Arts degree from Radcliffe College in the United States.
In the poem, the speaker refers to an inner light, the light of hope, that Helen Keller found in a world of darkness and hopelessness. He says that Helen Keller was one of those fortunate disabled who had better vision than others. Being a blind person, she found the light that many of the people can’t perceive despite being able to see clearly. Though she couldn’t see the beauty of the world, she found it within herself. In fact she was a whole crowd within herself. She learnt from her own experiences and gave the world the lesson of inner strength.
The poem Helen Keller is actually a tribute from a great poet, Langston Hughes, to a great scholar, Helen Keller. It is written in free verse. This poem has universality. It gives us a message that in darkness there is always a ray of light representing strength or hope. This message can benefit the whole of mankind.
13. My People
A short and charming poem, Langston Hughes wrote My People in 1922. The poem consists of three stanzas, each containing two lines. Despite being short, the poem gives a variety of meaning to the reader.
In My People, the speaker compares the darkness of the night to the color of his people. He says that both the night and his people are beautiful. The speaker then compares the eyes of his people to the stars shining at night. He claims that stars are as beautiful as the eyes of his people. In the last stanza, the speaker compares the souls of his people to the sun. He proclaims that the souls of his people are beautiful like the sun.
Thus, Langston Hughes has clearly illustrated in My People that the Negro people don’t lack beauty, strength and power.
14.The Dream Keeper
Sounding like a lullaby, The Dream Keeper is one of Langston Hughes famous ‘Dream’ poems written in 1932. The poem is short and written in free verse.
In The Dream Keeper, the speaker contends that dreams are fragile and need intense care. He asks the reader to bring him ‘all of your dreams’. He will keep them away from the harsh reality of the world so that they won’t be crushed by the ‘too-rough fingers of the world.’
Hence, Langston Hughes’ The Dream Keeper shows how easy it is for the dreams to be crushed by other people. In the poem, Hughes calls his readers the ‘dreamers’, and by doing so, wants to convey the message that those who dream are always hopeful of a better life.
15. I Continue to Dream
Advocating the theme of hope, I Continue to Dream is one of Langston Hughes most famous poems. The poem consists of eight-lines written in free verse. It asserts the importance of dreams and gives us the message of hope, desire, goal, trust, need, and aspiration.
In I Continue to Dream, the speaker describes his dreams using concrete images like ‘ bronze vase’ and ‘beautiful statue’. He tells the reader that he will take his dreams and convert them into ‘a bronze vase’, ‘a beautiful statue’, and ‘a song with a broken heart’. He then asks the readers whether they understand his dreams or not. The speaker suggests that some people will say that they understand his dreams while others will say they don’t. But it doesn’t bother him because he will still continue to dream.
The poem I Continue to Dream has a distinct and expressive tone. Like other poems of Langston Hughes, this one also ends in an optimistic way.
Langston Hughes’ Poems In A Nutshell
Langston Hughes’ poems portray the lives of the working-class blacks in America. His poems reveal his wit and intelligence in exploring the Black human condition in a variety of depths. Moreover, Hughes’ poems not only highlights the lower status of Blacks but also throw light on their coming possibility of a good future. His poems can also be seen from a general perspective as they give a message of hope, desire, fraternity, integrity, and love to the whole of humanity.