First published in The Crisis in 1921, the verse that would become Hughes’s signature poem, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers”, appeared in his first book of poetry The Weary Blues in 1926
The Negro Speaks of Rivers
I’ve known rivers:
I’ve known rivers ancient as the world and older than the
flow of human blood in human veins.
My soul has grown deep like the rivers.
I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young.
I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep.
I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it.
I heard the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln
went down to New Orleans, and I’ve seen its muddy
bosom turn all golden in the sunset.
I’ve known rivers:
Ancient, dusky rivers.
My soul has grown deep like the rivers.
Hughes’ life and work were enormously influential during the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s alongside those of his contemporaries, Zora Neale Hurston, Wallace Thurman, Claude McKay, Countee Cullen, Richard Bruce Nugent, and Aaron Douglas, who, collectively, (with the exception of McKay), created the short-lived magazine Fire!!Devoted to Younger Negro Artists.
Hughes and his contemporaries were often in conflict with the goals and aspirations of the black middle class, and of those considered to be the midwives of the Harlem Renaissance, W. E. B. Du Bois, Jessie Redmon Fauset, and Alain LeRoy Locke, whom they accused of being overly fulsome in accommodating and assimilating Eurocentric values and culture for social equality. A primary expression of this conflict was the former’s depiction of the “low-life”, that is, the real lives of blacks in the lower social-economic strata and the superficial divisions and prejudices based on skin color within the black community.Hughes wrote what would be considered the manifesto for him and his contemporaries published in The Nation in 1926,
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. And ugly, too.
The tom-tom cries, and the tom-tom laughs. 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.
Hughes was unashamedly black at a time when blackness was démodé, and he didn’t go much beyond the themes of black is beautiful as he explored the black human condition in a variety of depths. His main concern was the uplift of his people who he judged himself the adequate appreciator of and whose strengths, resiliency, courage, and humor he wanted to record as part of the general American experience. Thus, his poetry and fiction centered generally on insightful views of the working class lives of blacks in America, lives he portrayed as full of struggle, joy, laughter, and music. Permeating his work is pride in the African American identity and its diverse culture. “My seeking has been to explain and illuminate the Negro condition in America and obliquely that of all human kind,” Hughes is quoted as saying. Therefore, in his work he confronted racial stereotypes, protested social conditions, and expanded African America’s image of itself; a “people’s poet” who sought to reeducate both audience and artist by lifting the theory of the black aesthetic into reality. An expression of this is the poem My People
The night is beautiful,
So the faces of my people.
The stars are beautiful,
So the eyes of my people
Beautiful, also, is the sun.
Beautiful, also, are the souls of my people.
Moreover, Hughes stressed the importance of a racial consciousness and cultural nationalism absent of self-hate that united people of African descent and Africa across the globe and encouraged pride in their own diverse black folk culture and black aesthetic. Langston Hughes was one of the few black writers of any consequence to champion racial consciousness as a source of inspiration for black artists. His African-American race consciousness and cultural nationalism would influence many foreign black writers,
In 1930, his first novel, Not Without Laughter, won the Harmon Gold Medal for literature. The protagonist of the story is a boy named Sandy whose family must deal with a variety of struggles imposed upon them due to their race and class in society in addition to relating to one another. Hughes first collection of short stories came in 1934 with The Ways of White Folks. These stories provided a series of vignettes revealing the humorous and tragic interactions between whites and blacks. Overall, these stories are marked by a general pessimism about race relations, as well as a sardonic realism.
The same year Hughes established his theatre troupe in Los Angeles, his ambition to write for the movies materialized when he co-wrote the screenplay for Way Down South. Further hopes by Hughes to write for the lucrative movie trade were thwarted because of racial discrimination within the industry. Through the black publication Chicago Defender, Hughes in 1943 gave creative birth to Jesse B. Semple, often referred to and spelled Simple, the everyday black man in Harlem who offered musings on topical issues of the day. He was offered to teach at a number of colleges, but seldom did.
1950s and 1960s
Chinua Achebe was one of the many African American and African writers whom Hughes heavily influenced. Much of his writing was inspired by the rhythms and language of the black church, and, the blues and jazz of that era, the music he believed to be the true expression of the black spirit; an example is “Harlem” (sometimes called “Dream Deferred”) from Montage of a Dream Deferred (1951), from which a line was taken for the title of the play A Raisin in the Sun.
What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?
During the mid-1950s and -1960s, Hughes’ popularity among the younger generation of black writers varied as his reputation increased worldwide. With the gradual advancement toward racial integration, many black writers considered his writings of black pride and its corresponding subject matter out of date. They considered him a racial chauvinist. He in turn found a number of writers like James Baldwin lacking in this same pride, over intellectualizing in their work, and occasionally vulgar.
Hughes wanted young black writers to be objective about their race, but not scorn or to flee it. He understood the main points of the Black Power movement of the 1960s, but believed that some of the younger black writers who supported it were too angry in their work. Hughes’ posthumously published Panther and the Lash in 1967 was intended to show solidarity and understanding with these writers but with more skill and absent of the most virile anger and terse racial chauvinism some showed toward whites. Hughes still continued to have admirers among the larger younger generation of black writers who he often helped by offering advice to and introducing to other influential persons in the literature and publishing communities. This latter group, who happened to include Alice Walker who Hughes discovered, looked upon Hughes as a hero and an example to be emulated in degrees and tones within their own work.
One of the most promising of the young Negro poets said to me once, “I want to be a poet–not a Negro poet,” meaning, I believe, “I want to write like a white poet”; meaning subconsciously, “I would like to be a white poet”; meaning behind that, “I would like to be white.” And I was sorry the young man said that, for no great poet has ever been afraid of being himself. And I doubted then that, with his desire to run away spiritually from his race, this boy would ever be a great poet. But this is the mountain standing in the way of any true Negro art in America–this urge within the race toward whiteness, the desire to pour racial individuality into the mould of American standardization, and to be as little Negro and as much American as possible.
The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain By Langston Hughes, The Nation, 23 June 1926 [In 1926, the Harlem Renaissance was in full flower; the poet Langston Hughes was one of its central figures. In this essay, Hughes urges black intellectuals and artists to break free of the artificial standards set for them by whites.]
‘The New Negro Movement’
“Harlem as a site of the black cultural sublime was invented by writers and artists determined to transform the stereotypical image of Negro Americans at the turn of the century away from their popular image as ex-slaves, as members of a race inherently inferior – biologically and environmentally unfitted for mechanized modernity and its cosmopolitan forms of fluid identity – into an image of a race of cultural bearers. To effect this transformation, a ‘New Negro’ was called for – quite urgently, many black intellectuals felt- and this New Negro would need a nation over which to preside. And that nation’s capital would be Harlem, that realm north of Central Park, centered between 130th Street and 145th.”
“In a 1925 essay entitled ‘The New Negro’, Howard University Professor of Philosophy Alain Locke described this transformation as not relying on older time-worn models but, rather, embracing a ‘new psychology’ and ‘new sprit’. Central to Locke’s prescription was the mandate that the ‘New Negro’ had to ‘smash’ all of the racial, social and psychological impediments that had long obstructed black achievement. Six years prior to Locke’s essay, the pioneering black film maker Oscar Micheaux called for similar changes. In his film Within our Gates, Micheaux represented a virtual cornucopia of ‘New Negro’ types: from the educated and entrepreneurial ‘race’ man and woman to the incorrigible Negro hustler, from the liberal white philanthropist to the hard core white racist. Micheaux created a complex, melodramatic narrative around these types in order to develop a morality tale of pride, prejudice, misanthropy and progressivism that would be revisited by Locke and others.”
“This New Negro movement, which took at least three forms before Alain Locke enshrined it in the Harlem Renaissance in 1925, took its artistic inspiration from citizens across the Atlantic in Europe. First, in the early 1890s, Dvorák declared the spirituals to be America’s first authentic contribution to world culture and urged classical composers to draw upon them to create sui generis symphonies. A decade later Pablo Picasso stumbled onto ‘dusky Manikins’ at an an ethnographic museum and forever transformed European art, as well as Europe’s official appreciation of the art from the African continent. Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon – the signature painting in the creation of Cubism – stands as a testament to the shaping influence of African sculpture and to the central role that African art played in the creation of modernism. The Cubist mask of modernism covers a black Bantu face. African art -ugly,primitive, debased in 1900; sublime, complex, valorized by 1910 – was transformed so dramatically in the cultural imagination of the West, in such an astonishingly short period, that potential for the political use of black art and literature in America could not escape the notice of African American intellectuals, especially Du Bois, himself himself educated in Europe and cosmopolitan to the core, and Alain Locke, Harvard-trained, a Rhodes scholar at Oxford in 1906 and thereafter a student of aesthetics in Germany in the heady years of the modernist explosion. If European modernism was truly a mulatto, the argument went, then Africans Americans would save themselves politically through the creation of the arts. The Harlem Renaissance, in so many ways, owes its birth to Euro-African modernism in the visual arts. This Renaissance, the second in black history, would fully liberated the Negro – at least its advance guard.”