Langston Hughes (1902 – 1967) is the epitome of a literary triple threat – the man was a poet, novelist and a playwright. Besides being an absolute babe, he helped to create “jazz poetry”, lead the Harlem Renaissance in New York City and was a political activist, culminating in being interrogated by McCarthy.
A complex family history – experienced by many African Americans at the time – shaped Hughes’ thoughts on race, equality and society. His paternal grandmothers were enslaved African women and his paternal grandfathers were their white slave owners. These familial dynamics influenced much of his later work.
Hughes believed racial stereotypes contributed to his becoming a poet.
“I was a victim of a stereotype. There were only two of us Negro kids in the whole class and our English teacher was always stressing the importance of rhythm in poetry. Well, everyone knows, except us, that all Negroes have rhythm, so they elected me as class poet.”
Hughes always tried to write about the lives of real working-class black people which was controversial to the rising black middle-class. His poetry depicted the struggles, the joys, the music and the pain. Hughes called this the “Negro condition”. He wanted to unite people of African descent from all over the world and expand society’s consciousness to the plight of the average black person.
“In all my life, I have never been free. I have never been able to do anything with freedom, except in the field of my writing.”
Hughes poems still resonate. It’s obvious if you know anything about the political and social climate in the United States. Take this excerpt from his 1936 poem “Let America Be America Again”:
O, let America be America again—
The land that never has been yet—
And yet must be—the land where every man is free.
The land that’s mine—the poor man’s, Indian’s, Negro’s, ME—
Who made America,
Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,
Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,
Must bring back our mighty dream again.
Read more of Hughes’ poems here.