19 Langston Hughes

Langston Hughes (1902-1967)

Selected Poems


Modernism / Harlem Renaissance

A leading figure of the Harlem Renaissance in the United States, Langston Hughes developed an international reputation for his poetry. Hughes spent his childhood in the Midwest; he was born in Joplin, Missouri, but he also lived in Lincoln, Illinois and Cleveland, Ohio. As a young man, he began a college education at Columbia University, but withdrew to travel as a merchant seaman. He eventually completed his education at Lincoln University.

Hughes is particularly known for his perceptive portrayals of black life in America from the twenties through the sixties. He wrote prolifically and in a variety of genres–poems, plays, short stories, and novels. A significant feature of his work is the influence of jazz on his poetry, particularly in Montage of a Dream Deferred (Holt, 1951). Hughes also mentored other young poets and writers like Ralph Ellison. In 1926, he articulated the purpose of young black writers and poets in “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain”: “The younger Negro artists who create now intend to express our individual dark-skinned selves without fear or shame. If white people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, it doesn’t matter. We know we are beautiful . . . If colored people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, their displeasure doesn’t matter either. We build our temples for tomorrow, strong as we know how, and we stand on top of the mountain free within ourselves.”

Donald B. Gibson noted in the introduction to Modern Black Poets: A Collection of Critical Essays (Prentice Hall, 1973) that Hughes “differed from most of his predecessors among black poets … in that he addressed his poetry to the people, specifically to black people.” Hughes considered himself to be, indeed, a “people’s poet” who elevated the black aesthetic while confronting racism and stereotypes in his work.

Consider while reading:

  1. In the poem “The Weary Blues,” what connection does Hughes suggest about the relationship between blues music and the experience of African Americans?
  2. In the poem “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” which four rivers are named? In what way is each of these rivers significant?
  3. What connections can you draw between the experiences of the speaker in “Theme for English B” and the young Olaudah Equiano?

Written by Anita Turlington


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