Hughes helped define the spirit of the Harlem Renaissance and wrote its finest first person account.
He was born in Joplin, Missouri, but moved around. Hughes came from a distinguished family, but his parents separated not long after his birth and he grew up lonely and near poverty in Lawrence, Kansas.
In Sept. 1921, aided by his father, he arrived in New York ostensibly to attend Columbia, but he really just wanted to see Harlem. The previous June, he had published one of his greatest poems, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” in the Crisis, where his talent was immediately spotted by its brilliant literary editor, Jessie Fauset. Hughes lasted only one year at Columbia. He traveled, worked, and wrote poetry. By 1924, his poetry showed the powerful influence of the blues and jazz. In fact, his poem “The Weary Blues” helped launch his career when it won first prize in the poetry section of the 1925 literary contest organized by Opportunity magazine. Aided enthusiastically by Carl Van Vechten, who remained a friend all of Hughes’s life, he won a book contract from Knopf and published The Weary Blues, his first collection of verse, in 1926.
The style of Hughes endeared his work to a wide range of African Americans. His near-worship of black music as the major form of art within the race, was his adaptation of traditional poetic forms first to jazz, then to the blues, sometimes used dialect and radically different from that of earlier writers. His landmark poem “The Weary Blues” was the first by any poet to make use of the basic blues form.
Even more radical experimentation with the blues form led to his next collection, Fine Clothes to the Jew (1927). He was fearless in his evocation of elements of lower-class black culture, including its sometimes raw eroticism, never efore treated in serious poetry. Many critics did not appreciate Hughes’s eroticism.
He stuck to his guns in defense of the freedom of the black writer. “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain” quickly became a manifesto for many of the younger writers who also wished to assert their right to explore and explicit allegedly degraded aspects of black life.
He graduated from Lincoln University in Pennsylvania in 1929. Charlotte Osgood Mason became his controlling, eccentric patron who later abandoned him.
Hughes’s politics took a sharp left and he published verse and essays in New Masses, a journal controlled by the Communist Party. He even visited the Soviet Union.
There was never a year when Hughes did not produce art in keeping with his sense of himself as a thoroughly professional writer. In 1934, he published his first collection of short stores, The Ways of White Folks. He was involved in theater and wrote a drama of miscegenation and the South called Mulatto (1935), which became the longest running play by an African American on Broadway until Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun in the ‘60’s.
In 1940 he produced his autobiographical portrait of the renaissance, The Big Sea. 1942: poetry collection Shakespeare in Harlem. For another project he created one of his most beloved characters, Jesse B. Semple, or Simple, a Harlem everyman. In 1947, as lyricist for the Broadway musical Street Scene, Hughes earned enough money to purchase a house in his beloved Harlem, where he lived for the rest of his life.
1951: book of verse, Montage of a Dream Deferred. He kept up his schedule of prodigious output with versatility and skill. He loved being called the “Poet Laureate of the Negro Race.”
Mother to Son [my interpretation]
Son, my life has not been easy. My life has been like a set of stairs with nails and splinters and torn up wood, but I keep climbing. Sometimes there was no light in this long tunnel. Now you can’t give up when the road gets hard. Don’t fall. Keep climbing like me.
The Weary Blues [my interpretation]
Black folks were playing a slow tune the other night in the low light. I heard the Weary Blues. That black man could make the piano moan. The blues were pouring out from this black man’s soul. He sang of being alone, yet still deciding to be happy. The second verse turns and says he can’t be satisfied, so much so that he wished he’d die. He sang far into the night. Once the stars and moon faded, he could sleep like a man who had poured out his troubles.
Harlem [my interpretation using his key words]
When you have to wait on a dream to come true, what happens to it in the interim? Does it dry up? Fester? Stink? Crust? Sag? “Or does it explode?”
Example of a reading response paper:
Dr. V. Mitchell
31 Aug. 2011
I have a couple of bones to pick with Langston Hughes. While reading his piece entitled “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain” I either tend to disagree with some of his statements or find ways to argue with others. Hughes bases his piece on something he heard Countee Cullen say about his own work: “I want to be a poet – not a Negro poet.” There is a possibility that Hughes understands the statement to have a different meaning and only twists it to explore his thoughts along another line. The essay is based on Hughes interpreting Cullen’s meaning as “I don’t want to be a black poet, I’d rather be considered on scale with the white poets.” Granted, I was not in the room, but I believe Cullen’s statement could very well be misinterpreted or could otherwise have a different focus than Hughes examines. I take Cullen’s statement to mean: “I wish people would just view and appreciate my art without having to know my color.” How frustrating would it be to be an artist and have people ask, “So, is he/she white or black?” You want the audience to focus on your production, not your race. Basically, you are displacing the importance of the self and placing art on center stage; to consistently discuss the art in terms of the artist’s race takes away from the creation itself. To believe that Cullen wished for an audience to judge his work only on its merit is very different from Hughes’s view that Cullen was striving to perform as a white artist.
Hughes says that “[w]ithout going outside his race… there is sufficient matter to furnish a black artist with a lifetime of creative work” (41). Yes, agreed, but have you ever tried to tell an artist how to create? Have you ever tried to describe to an artist the boundary lines of his expression? “Yes, I want you to be an artistic self explosion… but do it like this.” It does not work. I ask why paint these boundaries? What if his visions for expression are universal? Of nature? Mechanical? Numerical? What if he does want to express in ways that are stereotypically “white”? Why not? It is the work of the individual artist to make himself a volcano of unique construction and to be true only to his inner vision; I do not believe this type of invention is bound by color. Should all black artists paint black people? Should all black singers sing “black” music? Should all black photographers capture only black life images? No; too limiting! No matter how much observers like Hughes would like to rally the troops in support of black artists doing black art, this vision is much too narrow and would kill much artistic expression if these rules were enforced.
Hughes is making quite a few other points but the one other I would like to debate is the idea of upward mobility. It is a fact that by way of the American media and Eurocentric Zeitgeist that we are all programmed, brainwashed, to think a certain way and believe certain things. As Hughes explains that “…the word white comes to be unconsciously a symbol of all virtue” (40). I make the connection to American white girls growing up on T.V. and fashion magazines believing that to be tall, skinny and blonde are the ultimate goals. Woe to the girl who is short, chunky and brunette, for she is ridiculed and looked down upon by her more popular and good-looking peers. Hughes says that the American love for all that is white compels some African Americans to become “Nordicized Negro intelligentsia” (42), which is a pretty cool term, but within the realm of economics, is upward mobility a drive exclusively white? When Hughes states that the more cultured African American family spends more time “aping… things white” (41) he follows the observation with the line, “The father is perhaps a doctor, lawyer, landowner, or politician” (41). I disagree with Hughes implying that upward mobility comes with some disdain. The phrases he uses gives one the impression that African Americans should not seek to better themselves, drive toward more education and jump upward into a wealthier income bracket. I do not care what color you are or in what country you are raised, everyone wants their life to improve and become more comfortable over time. Just because another race is doing it does not mean you do not have a right to do it too. If I have a problem, even a lifelong problem with say, Philippinos, and I notice that they are excellent in calculus, I am not going to shun or stunt my drive to learn calculus because I do not admire the Philippino; it makes no sense. You hear the same argument taking place in the realm of underground rock bands. Many of their fans want the band to stay unknown so that they can keep the music all to themselves. If the band gains some sort of notoriety the fans will say they “sold out.” Guess what? The guys in the band want to eat decent food, live in a house and have enough money to raise a family, just like everyone else. I do not view it as selling out; I view it as striving for a decent living with decent living conditions which is an innate human desire not bound by color.