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The Portrayal Of African Americans In Langston Hughes’s Poetry

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Langston Hughes was an African American poet and activist beginning in the 1920s, during the Harlem Renaissance, a movement that encouraged people to embrace of black culture as American. Hughes was a prominent advocate for African American culture that was separate from but regarded equally to white culture. In his poems, he criticizes assimilation into white society by African Americans, instead pressuring them to remember their roots while fighting for racial equality. His poems contributed to the acknowledgement and incorporation of black literature, music, and art in American society, which he used to motivate the black community to fight for equality. In “I, Too”, “The Negro Mother”, and “Dream Variations”, Hughes portrays African Americans as part of an oppressed, determined, and deserving community to encourage the readers to push for racial equality.

Hughes uses the poem “I, Too” as a platform to encourage his African American readers to fight against racial inequality by portraying them as determined, capable individuals who deserved to have a chance to succeed. One way he does this is through the juxtaposition of “the kitchen” (Hughes 3) and “the table” (Hughes 9). The table is used as a symbol of a higher social status. Typically, a table is the place that hosts show the guests when they come and visit for dinner, rather than the kitchen. This is similar to how American society tries to depict itself as very high class and sophisticated and mainly places white Americans. The kitchen symbolizes the part of society that is hidden, ignored, and considered less valuable and of a lower social status. “Eat[ing] in the kitchen” (Hughes, line 13) implies that the particular person is less valuable. By juxtaposing the kitchen and table, Hughes asserts how black people are treated as second class citizens and are oppressed. By making his audience more aware of this, he brings out an activist-like mindset in them, encouraging them to fight for racial equality. Hughes describes the persona as “the darker brother” (Hughes, line 2). Based on the use of the word “darker” and the meaning behind others of Hughes’s poems, the reader can infer that the persona is comparing themselves to white Americans. The use of the word brother highlights a family-like relationship between the two racial groups, humanizing African Americans. The specific relation between the two as brothers implies that they are individuals, and have their own characteristics, yet they should still be equal. By portraying Caucasians and African Americans with this relationship, Hughes encourages African Americans to be proud of their heritage, and to view themselves as more deserving than they may believe, thus motivating them to fight racial inequality. Furthermore, Hughes creates a parallel with the phrase “[wh]hen company comes,” on lines 4 and 10 to highlight the change to a more determined tone. The use of parallelism indicates how the narrator, representing African Americans, desires change to the outcome of a similar situation in the future, depicting his or her resolution. This, in combination with the personal connection he establishes with the reader through a first person narration, encourages the reader to not let him down, motivating the formerly ambivalent to spread Hughes’s message.

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In “The Negro Mother”, Hughes utilizes several literary devices to portray African Americans as oppressed, yet persistent, pushing them to fight racial discrimination. Hughes alludes to the strict institute of slavery when he wrote, “I couldn’t read then. I couldn’t write” (Hughes, line 21). It refers to state anti-literacy laws, emphasizing the oppression they experienced, as they were not allowed to do something that has been considered a right for everyone for a long time. By reminding readers of the oppression that the ancestors of African Americans experienced, Hughes encourages his audience to press for social reform by invoking anger within them. The use of the word “nourished” (Hughes, line 29) reminds African Americans of how persistent their predecessors were by emphasizing the efforts they were making to improve their situation. In combination with the anger invoked through the allusion to slavery, their persistence urges black Americans to carry on their ancestors’ legacy, influencing them to join the opposition against racial inequality. Throughout the poem, Hughes juxtaposes “light” and “dark”, such as on lines 5 and 6 saying, “Look at my face – dark as the night – Yet shining like the sun with love’ true light.” These particular lines convey how skin color does not impact a person’s ability to feel and to love, persuading the reader to sympathize with the speaker by humanizing her. This creates a sense of community among the African American audience with the uplifting message, inducing them to work together to effectively fight racial inequality and promote their unique culture.

“Dream Variations” is a seventeen-line poem Hughes uses to express his goals for racial equality and to encourage his black audience to fight oppression through metaphors. In the phrase, “[b]eneath a tall tree” (Hughes 6), the tree is intended to represent peace and racial equality in American society. The use of this metaphor reflects how widespread and normalized black Americans hope for racial equality to become, like how the tree is tall. This imagination of an idealized society reflects the determination of African Americans, coaxing the reader to help them achieve their “dream” (Hughes, line 9). Hughes also includes “[t]o whirl and to dance” (Hughes, line 3) as a metaphor for expressing themselves freely in American society. The use of this metaphor reflects Hughes’s desire for African Americans to embrace their roots, thus coming together as a community to demand equality and supporting Hughes’s message.

Throughout the Harlem Renaissance, Hughes took advantage of his writing platform and his influence to become an effective activist and spread several messages to and about the black American community. In the poems “I, Too”, “The Negro Mother”, and “Dream Variations”, Hughes encourages his African American readers to support the fight against racial inequality by framing them as oppressed, yet highlighting their determination as a community, to encourage them to fight racial inequality.

Works Consulted

  1. Hughes, Langston “Dream Variations.” The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes, Random House, 1994.
  2. Hughes, Langston “I, Too.” The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes, Random House, 1994.
  3. Hughes, Langston “The Negro Mother.” The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes, Random House, 1994.

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