Langston Hughes was an American poet and writer of mixed ethnicity. He was born in 1902 in Missouri in a low-income household. His hardships as an African American during the early half of the 20th century would later have a significant impact on his work (Fonteneau et al. 192). He is considered a prominent figure in Americas literal history particularly for his participation in the Harlem Renaissance. During this period, people of African American descent began what is considered a revolution in the art realm as they began to produce paintings, music, poems, and other artistic works. Langston Hughes contributed to this revolution through numerous poems that he wrote whose subject ranged from race, ethnicity, social commentary, patriotism, and nature (Hughes et al. 8). This essay will expound on some of the themes explicitly brought out in some of Hughes most famous poems such as I too, The Negro Speaks of River, and I Dream a World. The essay will also discuss the influence of Hughes background by analyzing some of the important phrases of his poems such as My soul has grown deep like the rivers and I, too, am America, and their significance in his life. Furthermore, the essay will highlight important aspects of his work that were criticized and discuss the contribution of selected critics.
In his poem I, Too, Langston highlights the plight of African Americans concerning segregation. During the better half of 20th century, African Americans had been segregated from their white counterparts in all realms of the society. The persona in Hughes poem says, I am the darker brother. They send me to eat in the kitchen which is an allusion to similar segregation and discrimination that black people experienced because of their color during that time. The persona further says, Theyll see how beautiful I am and be ashamed which alludes to Hughes mentality of rising above the numerous impediments to success brought about by racism which he and other black people endured (Williams and Rampersad 447).
Similar to the personas sentiments in the poem, Langston had experienced segregation and racism during his early life. He had seen his father abandon him and his mother and move to Mexico to get away from the racism that was rampant in America at the time. While doing odd jobs, he often encountered the blunt side of racism often being denied privileges that whites enjoyed. His poem, I, Too is a vivid depiction of what he had to endure. Moreover, the poem also depicts the Harlem Renaissance period when black music and art was vogue. He alludes that even after being sent to the kitchen, later on, the antagonists in the poem cannot dare send him away when company comes due to his visual aesthetic value. This sentiment alludes to his background in which after enduring many tribulations, the same people who once discriminated him line up to buy his poems and music (Fonteneau et al. 192).
In his other work, I dream a world, Langston addresses the need for peace, love, and harmony between all humankind regardless of race. He states that Whatever race you be, Will share the bounties of the earth indicating his deep-rooted desire to end segregation, oppression, and racism. He wishes that people would disregard their racial inclinations and instead work together to reap and enjoy the beautiful things that the earth has to offer. In so doing, he believes that peace, love, joy, and freedom will prevail. Moreover, the world will be void of greed, and vice. His sentiments in this poem reflect on his life and inner desires. Though inclined to fight for the plight of African Americans, Hughes had interacted with all kind of people during his life. Most notably, he had been influenced greatly by the works of Carl Sandburg and Walt Whitman both of whom had very different racial heritages compared to his. Furthermore, during his travels as a ship steward, Hughes had interacted with people of various heritages in Europe and Africa. His experiences had helped him appreciate the diversity and power of humankind especially if they worked in unison. Consequently, his poem, " I dream a world" is a projection of his expectations from the different experiences during his early adulthood. He envisions a world better than what he had experienced as he concludes the poem by stating that "Of such I dream, my world!" (Hughes 31-36).
Furthermore, as a key figure in the Harlem Renaissance, the poem highlights Langston Hughes vision of the goals of ending oppression. Additionally, the poem brings out the authors true perception about racial discrimination and oppression. Unlike other artists of African American descent who felt bitter and sought some compensation, Hughes only tried to harmonize the perspective of the people into realizing how much racial tolerance can serve to bring about positive things.
In relative similarity two the two previous works, The Negro Speaks of Rivers centers on a negritude theme. The poem identifies deeply with Africa and African-Americans. He uses the depiction and imagery of a river to trace the history of African Americans from their homeland to America. He starts by saying that I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young indicating the Birth Place of Negroes. He further states that I built my hut near the Congo which alludes to a transition from infancy to adolescence. This transition translates to movement or migration of the people from their birth place. To depict maturity, Hughes writes of the Nile and building of the pyramids. He later mentions the Mississippi River to allude to the historical transition from the homeland to America. In so doing, Hughes traces the history of African-Americans from their homeland to America.
However, unlike the other two pieces of literature, The Negro Speaks of Rivers is a neutral piece. The poem uses the river as an analogy to depict the historical journey of African Americans and also to highlight Hughes life journey. Just like rivers, Hughes alludes to the fact that he has traveled all over the world. Consequently, he has interacted with many cultures making him have profound wisdom or become deep as he puts it in the last stanza, My soul has grown deep like the rivers. (Komunyakaa 1140-1143).
Although acclaimed, Hughes has been widely criticized for his work. James Baldwin particularly launches a scathing attack in his article terming Hughes work as overly simple and lacking any intelligent matter (Baldwin 8-11). Additionally, Baldwin states, I am amazed all over again by his genuine gifts--and depressed that he has done so little with them insinuating that although Hughes is talented, it does not reflect in his poems and music. He claims that Hughes fails to detach himself from the experience while still being able to convey the experience with precision. Similar to Baldwins assertions, other critics have highlighted the simpleton nature of Hughes poems particularly concerning his perception of the white world. Moreover, they claim that Hughes does not truly convey clearly and overwhelmingly the subject matter that he bases his work hence failing as a poet and literally scholar. Additionally, Hughes has been criticized by the African American people for what is termed as dwelling on the negative aspects of being black. After the release of his second collection of work Fine Clothes to the Jew (1927), black American critics overwhelmingly concurred that Hughes was parading negative stereotypes of blacks to white readers (Patterson).
In summary, Langston Hughes Poems: I too, The Negro Speaks of River and I Dream a World are subtle projections of his life and are greatly influenced by his background. Although rather vaguely, they center on his life experiences. The poems I Too and I Dream a World reflect on Hughes experiences with oppression, and racism and his desire to eradicate them. The Negro Speaks of River centers on the historical journey of blacks and particularly on his life journey. In discussing these great literal works, I believe that although they tackle very diverse subjects such as racism, oppression, and discrimination, it is Hughes experiences with these matters that have helped shape the tones in the poems hence distinguishing them from other such artistic works.
Baldwin, James. "Sermons And Blues." The New York Times March 29, 1959 (1959): 8-11. Print.
Fonteneau, Yvonne et al. "The Collected Poems Of Langston Hughes". World Literature Today 70.1 (1996): 192. Web.
Hughes, Langston, Arnold Rampersad, and David E Roessel. The Collected Poems Of Langston Hughes. Print.
Hughes, Langston. "The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain. 1926." The Collected Works of Langston Hughes 9 (1773): 31-36.
Komunyakaa, Yusef. "Langston Hughes+ Poetry= The Blues." Callaloo 25.4 (2002): 1140-1143.
Patterson, Lindsay. "Langston Hughes -- The Most Abused Poet In America?". The New York Times June 29, 1969 (1969): n. pag. Print.
Williams, Kenny J. and Arnold Rampersad. "The Life Of Langston Hughes. Volume I: 1902-1941. I, Too, Sing America.". American Literature 59.3 (1987): 447. Web.
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