Langston Hughes, the famous poet of the Harlem Renaissance Era. Born in Joplin, Missouri, in 1902 and passing in 1967. Hughes was not only a poet, he also wrote short stories, novels, and even some plays. During his time alive he was a powerful African American activist for racial justice in majority black cities, for example, Harlem, Chicago, and Atlanta. Hughes loved Harlem “for Hughes, the city of Harlem represented the dream of racial equality”(Standish). The Harlem Renaissance was a “renewal of interpersonal respect, racial pride, and artistic expression within the African American community that set a foundation for future activism while establishing a tone of dignity and racial equality in a nation that had never entertained such a thought”(Standish). One of Hughes’ great passion was to “portray the joys and hardships of working-class black lives, avoiding both sentimental idealization and negative stereotypes”(Poetry Foundation). Within these three amazingly written poems “Open Letter to the South”, “Theme for English B”, and “Harlem”, Hughes calls to attention the reality the majority of the African Americans had to face living in the United States during the 1920s.
Starting with the beautifully written “Open Letter to the South” written in 1932, through these well-thought-out lines, Hughes manages to point out the changes he desires to bring between African Americans and Caucasians. Hughes also yearned for equality to overshine the animosity amongst the two races. Introducing the second stanza of the poem, Hughes writes, “I am the black worker”. This line highlights that although all of the jobs listed before him would typically have both races work them, he is still the inferior black male in comparison to the white male since his job did not have a title. As the poem continues, we reach the line “no more, the great migration to the North”. Hughes takes a punch with including the movement of many African Americans moving to the North to escape prejudices occurring in the South, this movement known as the Great Migration. Hughes included this line to point out how people of the South should not feel obligated to leave their homes to satisfy the richer white class. The rates for the Great Migration during the 1940s were exceedingly high “between 1940 and 1960 over 3,348,000 blacks left the South for Northern and Western cities” (Christensen). Ending the poem with the quote, “We’re Man to Man” called attention to the equality between men. At the end of the day regardless of race, we are the same. Equal in difficulties and in the attempt to rise above the stigma of constant racism. Personally, this outstanding poem brought feelings of empowerment, faith, brotherhood, and strength. I agree with Hughes’ belief, he wanted to bring change within this poem, and in doing so he showed the beauty of equality.
Onto the next poem, my personal favorite which was published in 1949, “Theme for English B”. During Langston Hughes’ adolescent years he attended the Ivy League school, Columbia University. When writing this piece, Hughes is twenty-five years older than the narrator of this story and the “college on the hill above Harlem” is Columbia. In the article, “The Blacks Who First Entered the World of White Higher Education” Slater says, “despite the generally held belief that blacks were intellectually incapable of pursuing higher learning, a small number of African Americans did manage to win admission to colleges and universities”(Slater). Entering the second stanza of the poem the narrator says, “I am the only colored student in my class”. That quote conveys the claim that one’s physical identity creates hardships and first-hand embarrassment. In correspondence to the narrator, I greatly understand the frustrations and pressure that is distributed as being the outcast based on your identity and race. I could not fathom the insecurity many African Americans felt, especially during the 1920s when this poem took place and how fresh African American independence was throughout the country. As the narrator concludes his page to his instructor, he unfolds the reality of being “American” and what that meant in the 1920s and it also correlates to what it means now in 2020 regarding the diverging African American and Caucasian race. In this quote, “You are white —yet a part of me, as I am part of you. That’s American.” Hughes reinforces that although African Americans and Caucasians are not the same color, with the support of history; they will always be “part” of each other. In another quote “although you’re older — and white —and somewhat more free” Hughes wanted to illustrate that at this time of the Harlem Renaissance, though, blacks received their equal rights, the whiter majority will always be more free and respected. In complete agreement with Hughes’ claim, all the centuries and decades of hatred between the two races can amount to the conclusion that they will always be intertwined with each other. The only thing that will meddle in the conflict between the two will be the overall knowledge and understanding from both sides “as I learn from you, I guess you learn from me”. Hughes did a remarkable job highlighting the reality many African Americans had to encounter to fit into the norms of being black in America, especially to the ones who longed for an education. Throughout the reading of this poem, I felt overall fortunate. Being a first generation American kid to immigrant parents makes you take into consideration how you could have been treated way worse if not for activists like Langston Hughes, Martin Luther King Jr., and Malcolm X.
The last poem I will be discussing is one of Langston Hughes’ most respectable poems “A Dream Deferred” also known as “Harlem” which was published in 1951. Starting off the poem, a dream deferred is a dream or goal that has been postponed for the future. Hughes wanted to elaborate on how many of the dreams African Americans had would have to be delayed due to their race and how social norms were represented during that time “historical barriers to equal opportunities and economic attainment through racial discrimination have limited access to the American Dream for African Americans”(Armstrong). The second and third line of the poem “Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun?” asks that did the delightfully imagined dream that was once juicy like a grape turn into a dried up and useless raisin? Having special plans for a future for them to dry up and put onto the back of your mind. The sixth line, “Does it stink like rotten meat?” depicts the rotten meat that is usually left in the back of one’s fridge that has been easily forgotten. Hughes wanted to portray this comparison to how once a dream is “rotten” there is no coming back from it. My personal favorite lines of the poem were the seventh and eighth lines. The simile of the crusted sugar to the syrupy sweet shows how wonderful a goal could be once it is “syrupy and sweet”, though, when it is “crusted sugar over” the dream has been defeated and there is no motive to strive for it. My emotions towards this poem are honestly indescribable. I feel heartbroken and crushed that my people’s goals had to be delayed for who knows how long and they were never able to have the chance to live the same life as their counterparts. However, looking back onto their lifestyles in 2020, I am overwhelmingly proud of how far we have gotten in one century.
To conclude, I will forever cherish these three poems for as long as I live. They brought a new perspective of life to me and honestly humbled me in the process. Learning that this outstanding man had to live through one of the hardest decades of African American history and was still able to advocate for their rights is unbelievably powerful. Hughes “had a dream” before the exemplary Martin Luther King Jr. did and it was to support change for African Americans in the South and guide the two races that are against each other and make them one united force. Now in 2020, men are seen as equal and as history continues to be created we can only see for the greater. “I have discovered in life that there are ways of getting almost anywhere you want to go, if you really want to go”.
- Armstrong, Joslyn, et al. “‘A Dream Deferred’: How Discrimination Impacts the American Dream Achievement for African Americans.” Journal of Black Studies, vol. 50, no. 3, 2019, pp. 227–250., doi:10.1177/0021934719833330.
- Christensen, Stephanie. “The Great Migration (1915-1960).” Welcome to Black past •, 22 Aug. 2019, www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/great-migration-1915-1960/.
- “Langston Hughes.” Poetry Foundation, Poetry Foundation, www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/langston-hughes.
- Slater, Robert Bruce. “The Blacks Who First Entered the World of White Higher Education.” The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, no. 4, 1994, p. 47., doi:10.2307/2963372.
- Standish, Noah. “Pain, Pride, & Renewal: How Langston Hughes Embodied the Harlem Renaissance.” LOGOS: A Journal of Undergraduate Research, vol. 11, Fall 2018, pp. 40–50. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=a9h&AN=133022504&site=ehost-live.