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Photo by Consuelo Kanaga

Photo by Consuelo Kanaga

When I first read the poetry of Langston Hughes, I felt the rhythm of life as he knew it. It wails with the blues and celebrates wonders with the joy of jazz. Like many poets, he wrote of life’s experience from his personal viewpoint and like many poets, was criticized for his vivid truths.

Langston Hughes was born in 1902 in Joplin, Missouri. His early years were very unsettled with parents divorcing when he was very young, his residence with his grandmother who was poor and unable to give him maternal attention, then moving to live with his mother and stepfather at age 13. For most of his childhood, his father was out of reach in Mexico. The emotional scarring from feeling abandoned by his parents haunted his life.

Acclaim for Hughes’ poetry began in high school where his first pieces were published in the Central High Monthly, a sophisticated school magazine for which he became a regular contributer. During his junior year of high school, following contact with his father, Hughes spent the summer in Mexico, a decision that convinced Hughes that he and his father could not live together no matter how much he wished it were different. That summer of conflict affected the tone of Hughes’ writing, adding more mature notes to his already intriguing lyrical style. He did return to his father after high school in an attempt to gain funds to attend Columbia University. During his train trip to Mexico, Hughes wrote his famous poem, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers.” Although initially reluctant, his father did agree to pay for one year at Columbia University.

During his year at Columbia, Hughes discovered Harlem, abandoned his formal education and immersed himself in the Harlem art scene. His poetry captured both the hardships and ecstatic abandon of Negro life during that era of segregation and discrimination. He captured the spirit of Harlem in a literary first person account in The Big Sea which was the first volume of his autobiography. Hughes was published regularly in the Crisis and Opportunity magazines and won the 1925 Opportunity magazine literary contest for poetry with his entry “The Weary Blues,” which was also the title of his first published volume of poetry.

Throughout his work, Hughes infused the rhythm of African American music traditions, specifically blues and jazz. These rhythms and influences not only opened an avenue for him to experiment with free verse but also established his unique poetic voice.

“Langston Hughes, although only twenty-four years old, is already conspicuous in the group of Negro intellectuals who are dignifying Harlem with a genuine art life. . . . It is, however, as an individual poet, not as a member of a new and interesting literary group, or as a spokesman for a race that Langston Hughes must stand or fall. . . . Always intensely subjective, passionate, keenly sensitive to beauty and possessed of an unfaltering musical sense, Langston Hughes has given us a ‘first book’ that marks the opening of a career well worth watching.” – Du Bose Heyward, New York Herald Tribune, 1926

Despite the respect of the literary world, Hughes faced heavy criticism from black intellectuals for his accuracy in portraying the life of blacks in that era. They felt his descriptions were unattractive and potentially demeaning. When “Fine Clothes to the Jew” was published, Hughes was accused of parading racial defects before the public. In response, he stated “The Negro critics and many of the intellectuals were very sensitive about their race in books. (And still are.) In anything that white people are likely to read, they want to put their best foot forward, their politely polished and cultural foot–and only that foot.”

Hughes was successful to the point of making a living as a writer, not only through poetry but through stories, screenplays and his very popular column in the Chicago Defender in which his fictional character, Jesse B. Semple, known as Simple to most, gave Hughes an outlet for discussing serious racial issues. The Simple columns have been collected into several volumes and are still popular today. Known as the “Poet Laureate of the Negro Race” in his later years, he maintained his belief in humanity and hope for a world where people could live together with understanding.

Hughes died in 1967 from complications due to prostate cancer. Rather than traditional funeral speeches and eulogies, his life was celebrated through the music that he loved with jazz pianist Randy Weston and a final escort of jazz and the blues.

I look at the world

I look at the world
From awakening eyes in a black face—
And this is what I see:
This fenced-off narrow space
Assigned to me.

I look then at the silly walls
Through dark eyes in a dark face—
And this is what I know:
That all these walls oppression builds
Will have to go!

I look at my own body
With eyes no longer blind—
And I see that my own hands can make
The world that’s in my mind.
Then let us hurry, comrades,
The road to find.
Po’ Boy Blues

When I was home de
Sunshine seemed like gold.
When I was home de
Sunshine seemed like gold.
Since I come up North de
Whole damn world’s turned cold.

I was a good boy,
Never done no wrong.
Yes, I was a good boy,
Never done no wrong,
But this world is weary
An’ de road is hard an’ long.

I fell in love with
A gal I thought was kind.
Fell in love with
A gal I thought was kind.
She made me lose ma money
An’ almost lose ma mind.

Weary, weary,
Weary early in de morn.
Weary, weary,
Early, early in de morn.
I’s so weary
I wish I’d never been born.

I’m Beth Winter and I thank you for joining me in this exploration of Langston Hughes and his incredibly influential poetry. Choosing poetry from his works to include with this essay was difficult and I highly recommend exploring his work further.

Poetry: A Magazine of Verse
Poetry Foundation
Poem Hunter