V. Langston Hughes and the Needs of Black Peoples
Langston Hughes has been accepted by people all over the world as one of the most eloquent spokesmen for the American Negro. He wrote several volumes of poetry, six novels, nine books for young people, two autobiographies, many short stories, plays, photo essays, translations, lyrics for musicals and operas, radio and television scripts, recordings and numerous articles on a variety of topics. He created a Negro literature which embodied the Harlem Renaissance Movement. Because of the general interest in all facets of Negro life in the 1920’s and 30’s, he was able to please large elements of the white and the black audience as well.
My objectives for this segment of my curriculum unit are to present an overview of Langston Hughes’s poetry, to read and appreciate the candid, honest and powerful creative masterpieces of this black genius, and to discuss their numerous universal themes and their subtle, underlying meanings, highlighting the tensions, the inequalities, and the hope for greater opportunity. Other objectives are to dramatically improve the reading and writing skills of our students, to improve their critical thinking and inferential skills, and to challenge them with oral speaking and communication opportunities. Hopefully, my students will be motivated to excel, to develop a greater appreciation for Langston Hughes and his literary achievements, and to enjoy themselves as well.
My strategies for teaching this unit will reflect a diversified literary approach. Students will be challenged with comprehensive silent and oral readings: summarizing; finding the main idea; context skills; analytical and inferential skills; and writing and communication skills. The poetry selections will lend themselves nicely to oral presentations and classroom efforts at interpretation. Throughout these writings, we will highlight the dialect of Langston’s characters -conveying their rich and candid humor - and we will analyze the mechanics of his writing and his writing style. Listening to Langston himself on his records will be quite an experience. I’m sure that the children of the city of New Haven will have
to open their ears and to listen to the sweet music of Langston Hughes.
Langston Hughes was born in Joplin, Missouri in 1902, spending most of his early years with his grandmother in Lawrence, Kansas due to the estranged relationship between his parents. In 1915, Langston moved to Lincoln, Illinois to live with his mother Carrie, and it was here at Lincoln’s Central School that Langston first began to write poetry. Later that year, he was elected eighth grade class poet. During the next four years, Langston would attend Central High School, reading Sandburg extensively and creating poetry similar in style and structure to that of Dunbar.
Following his graduation from Central High School, Langston would visit his father in Mexico to solicit funds to attend college. It was on this train excursion that Langston created one of his most famous poems, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers”. That summer Langston wrote many poems because he was constantly unhappy. He readily admitted that he usually created his best work when he was depressed or miserable.
Hughes attended Columbia University between 1921 and 1922; however, at the end of his first year he quit, broke off relations with his father, and went off on his own. He worked as a truck farmer on Staten Island, a delivery man for an expensive florist, and a messboy on a vessel anchored at Jones Point, New York. Isolated on this ship, Langston began to write in earnest. That winter he wrote a poem entitled “The Weary Blues” about a piano player he heard in Harlem, and, more incisively, about himself and his relationship with his fellow Afro-Americans. When spring came, he signed onto a boat sailing for Africa —the Africa of his dreams. Fluent in French and Spanish, Hughes lived for various periods in Mexico, France, Italy, Spain, and the Soviet Union. “Among the new Negro writers of the Harlem Renaissance , Hughes had no peer as an internationalist, a citizen of the world. And yet his cosmopolitanism, rare for any American in his time, never displaced his passionate engagement with and commitment to African-American vernacular culture.”
Langston Hughes’s life was filled with a wide variety of rich experiences. In 1925, Opportunity Magazine awarded Langston first prize for “The Weary Blues”, and it was at this banquet that he met Carl Van Vechten, who would introduce his poetry to Alfred Knopf. Shortly thereafter, all sorts of good things began to happen. In 1926, his first book,
The Weary Blues
, was published. At Christmas, in 1925, Langston received a scholarship to attend Lincoln University from a rich, female sponsor in New York — a woman who “liked his poetry”.
During the next four years, Langston would attend college, publish his first short stories, and enjoy the gay and sparkling life of the so-called Harlem Negro Renaissance, especially the Saturday night house rent parties and those affairs given by A’lelia Walker — “the greatest Harlem party giver ever.” In the summer of 1926, Langston wrote a poem entitled “Mulatto” that he worked harder on than on any he had ever written. In 1927,
Fine Clothes to the Jew
was published and although it was well received by the literary magazines, the Negro critics attacked the book as a disgrace to the race. Ten years later, however, many of the poems contained in this book were being read in Negro schools and colleges. Langston continued writing throughout his career until he was hospitalized in March, 1967. On May 22, 1967, Langston Hughes died, but his work and his spirit will live on forever.
As prolific as Hughes strove to be in a variety of genres, he saw himself primarily as a poet. The sources of his poetry were to be found largely among the unheard masses of black folks and their rhythms, dialect, and their lifestyles. The basic themes focusing on the American Dream and the possibilities of hope and advancement were constantly present in his poetry. “The tension between the unrealized dream and the realities of the black experience in America provided the dynamic. This tension between material and theme laid the groundwork for the irony which characterized Hughes’s work at its best.”
Of his many volumes of poetry, nine books should be considered as major collections. These selections include
The Weary Blues
Fine Clothes to the Jew
Shakespeare in Harlem
Fields of Wonder
Montage of a Dream Deferred
Ask Your Mama
The Panther and the Lash
Within the context of my curriculum unit, I have chosen six of Hughes’s poems to develop universal themes of Black history, Black pride, anger and protest, and Black dignity. In “The Negro Speaks of Rivers”, a poem dedicated to W.E.B. Dubois, the narrator traces civilization back to the source in East Africa. Then the speaker reaffirms the spirit distilled from human history, ranging from 3,000 B.C., through the mid-nineteenth century to the author himself at the brink of the Harlem Renaissance.”
Hughes also emphasizes the dignity and the sensitivity of the Negro as he recounts the Negro life in ancient African civilizations and in America.
A man-child is born, soft-spoken, almost casual,
yet noble and proud and Black as Africa.
The muddy river is his race, the primal source out of which he is born anew;
on that ‘muddy bosom’ of the race as black mother or grandmother, he rests securely forever.
This poem celebrates Black America. It exudes profound strength and heritage. The rivers represent immortality, an immortality that is deep, continuous and mysterious. The black man has become one with the rivers as he has bathed in them, built his homes near them, worked above them, and drunk from them. The transformation of the Mississippi River from mud to gold is mirrored by the transformation of slaves into free men by the Emancipation Proclamation. The black man has seen civilizations rise and fall throughout time, and his soul has deepened with time, securing his survival.
Langston extols the black woman as the hope of the race in “The Negro Mother”. She was the one whom they stole three hundred years ago from Africa’s land. She was the one who worked in the fields, the one they beat and mistreated, and whose children they sold as well. But she is nourishing “ a dream that nothing could smother, deep in my [her] breast — the Negro mother.” And it’s through her children that the Negro mother can finally realize her dream. This poem is a historical narrative that uses the metaphor of life as a journey, similar to the notion of climbing the stairs of life in “Mother to Son”.
It is these stairs of life, worked through the usage of black dialect, that embody the black race’s courage, endurance and sense of duty. For rich people the stairs are crystal, smooth and easy to climb, but for poor people the stairs are splintered, torn up and dark, not unlike ghetto or tenement walkups. To stop or to despair is to give up or to die. Therefore one must persevere, bear and nourish new generations - and keep climbing. These men and women, especially during slavery periods, kept on climbing in order to prepare the way for “ the coming Free”.
Perhaps the closest that Hughes ever came to sharing his inner emotions and anxieties was in his poem, “As I Grew Older” that was published in 1925 when Hughes was twenty-three. The poem begins with the poet recalling his dream that was once “bright like a sun” but now is only a memory. A wall which separates the poet from his dream suddenly appears and continues to loom larger and larger, blocking out the sunshine, creating a sense of blackness or darkness, and removing all hope of dream fulfillment. As the poet begins to realize that his blackness is the cause of his frustrations, he realizes that he needs to focus his energies as positive Black light. His dreams can be realized as he shatters this darkness, smashes this night, breaks this shadow
Into a thousand lights of sun,
Into a thousand whirling dreams
Poetry then becomes an outlet as well as a salvation. “Only occasionally, as in the poem As I Grow Older, does Hughes provide a window upon his inner anxieties, and even in this poem the real root of his anxieties is hidden, and the poem becomes an allegory of the black man’s alienation in white America.”10
It is fitting that I culminate my Langston Hughes portion of this curriculum unit with “I, Too, Sing America” because the title of this unit originated with the idea that a study of several Afro-American poets would come to represent the “We” in “We, Too, Sing America”. But, as I began to develop this project, I came to realize that the “We” represents all of us — the poets, our Yale professors, ourselves and - perhaps most importantly, our students.
Langston Hughes, being American, tells all of us in his poetry that freedom must belong to all of us before it can be freedom for anyone. In his poem, “I, Too, Sing America”, the “darker brother” is waiting for his opportunity to share the table of freedom with all Americans. He “laugh(s), eat(s) well, And grow(s) strong.” For, indeed, the black man’s roots are deep in America, even deeper than those of most white Americans. Therefore, Hughes celebrates America as well, but not an America that is but an America that
is to come
. Hughes’s democratic vistas are still on the distant horizon yet to arrive.
The black child in America has had a very difficult road to success growing up in poverty with racist social policies and attitudes, and massive disparities in terms of educational opportunities. He continues to cry out for fairness and Hughes has heard him, and it’s through the knowledgeable voice of Hughes that we can all hear and perhaps better understand just how difficult it has been to grow up black in America.