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Life and Works

 

"In terms of current Afro-American popular music and the sources from which it has progressed - jazz, ragtime, swing, blues, boogie-woogie, and be-bop - this poem on contemporary Harlem, like be-bop, is marked by conflicting changes, sudden nuances, sharp and impudent interjections, broken rhythms, and passages sometimes in the manner of the jam session, sometimes the popular song, punctuated by the riffs, runs, breaks, and disc-tortions of the music of a community in transition". With these precise words Langston Hughes introduces his Collected Poems beginning with Montage of a Dream Deferred (1951) and Ask Your Mama (1961) followed by The Panther and the Lash (1967) and the Uncollected sequence running from 1951, up to 1960 and from 1961, up to 1967.

The master poet of the Harlem Renaissance and one of America's most translated writers, James Mercer Langston Hughes, captured the oral and improvisatory traditions of mainstream black culture, such as blues and jazz. Born in Joplin, Missouri, in 1902, Langston Hughes was a member of an abolitionist family. He was the great-great-grandson of Charles Henry Langston, brother of John Mercer Langston, who was the first Black American to be elected to public office, in 1855. In 1903, after his father immigrates to Mexico, Langston's mother takes him to Lawrence, Kansas, the home of Mary Langston, her twice-widowed mother. Mary Langston's first husband, Lewis Sheridan Leary, died fighting alongside John Brown at Harpers Ferry. Her second, Hughes's grandfather, was Charles Langston, a former abolitionist, Republican politician, and businessman. In 1907, after a failed between the poet's parents' attempt at a reconciliation in Mexico, Langston and his mother return to Lawrence.

Hughes then was raised by his grandmother until he was thirteen, when he moved to Lincoln, Illinois, to live with his mother and her husband, before the family eventually settled in Cleveland, Ohio. It was in Lincoln, Illinois, that Hughes began writing poetry. Following graduation, he spent a year in Mexico and a year at Columbia University. During these years, he held odd jobs as an assistant cook, launderer, and a busboy, and travelled to Africa and Europe working as a seaman. In November 1924, he moved to Washington, D.C. Hughes's first book of poetry, The Weary Blues, was published by Alfred A. Knopf in 1926. He finished his college education at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania three years later

 

Hughes' life and work were enormously influential during the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920's alongside those of his contemporaries, Zora Neale Hurston, Wallace Thurman, Claude McKay, Countee Cullen, and Richard Bruce Nugent. Hughes and his contemporaries were often in conflict with the goals and aspirations of the black middle class and the three considered the midwives of the Harlem Renaissance, W.E.B. Dubois, Jessie Redmon Fauset, and Alain Locke, who they accused of being overly fulsome in accommodating and assimilating Eurocentric values and culture for social equality. Of primary conflict were the depictions of the 'low life', that is, the lives of blacks in the lower social-economic strata and the superficial divisions and prejudices based on skin colour within the black community. The poet's first published poem was also one of his most famous, "The Negro Speaks of Rivers", which appeared in Crisis (June 1921):



      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.


Here are to be noticed how the persistent sensorial observations ('I bathed', 'I built', 'I looked', 'I heard') survey Asian, African, and North American scenes over millennia as though a single long-lived observer relished the beauties of each. The poem turns on an image in lines two and three that merges flowing waters with the human circulatory system and external topography becomes body and inner topography. The muddy depths are the tribal or original source of rebirth as revealed now by a powerful intimate lyrical I. Without naming the hardships of the black race, Hughes epitomizes the speaker's peaceful, life-affirming experiences as a parallel of the sun's daily cycle. Foregrounding Eros against the backdrop of Thanatos, the lyrical I implies that both conform the main energies within existence through images that suggest the importance of historical events and the cyclical rise of civilizations. The speaker's depth of soul is the strength that stabilizes black people, who survive weather shifts in world power as easily as water flows to the sea.


In 1923, Hughes travelled abroad on a freighter to the Senegal, Nigeria, the Cameroons, Belgium Congo, Angola, and Guinea in Africa, and later to Italy and France, Russia and Spain. One of his favourite pastimes whether abroad or in Washington, D.C. or Harlem, New York was sitting in the clubs listening to blues, jazz and writing poetry. He returned to Harlem, in 1924, the period known as the Harlem Renaissance. During this period, his work was frequently published and his writing flourished. In 1925 he moved to Washington, D.C., still spending more time in blues and jazz clubs. He said, "I tried to write poems like the songs they sang on Seventh Street...(these songs) had the pulse beat of the people who keep on going." This is the pulse beat that we discover and enjoy in Hughes' work. His stanzas weave wildly smooth tunes about life as a black American. Indeed, Hughes always acknowledged that his primary poetic influences were the blues bars of Harlem:



      But Suddenly a guitar playing lad

      whose languid lean brings back the sunny south

      strikes up a tune all gay and bright and glad

      to keep the gall from biting in his mouth

      Then drowsy as the rain

      soft sad black feet

      dance in this juice joint

      on this city street


At this same time, Hughes accepted a job with Dr. Carter G. Woodson, editor of the Journal of Negro Life and History and founder of Black History Week in 1926. He returned to his beloved Harlem later that year.

In 1926, the poet wrote one of his most compressed, lyrically self-expressive poems, "Dream Variation". An intensely physical image of spontaneous, joyful whirling and dancing in sunlight gives place to a symbolic night, which brings rest, cool, and a sub-birthright and the source of his creativity. A three-syllable beat buoys the lyrical I into a second verse. In rhapsodic mode, the dancer again turns around in sunlight and into the shady darkness, which tenderly enfolds the body at rest into an affirming blackness. The final line "Black like me", was an awakening to people hungry for a reason to take pride in self. The phrase served as the title of Richard Wright's autobiography. In 1927, Hughes perpetuated his music-based verse in "Song for a Dark Girl", a twelve-line ditty that develops a keen-edged irony through repetitions of "Way Down South in Dixie", the closing line of the Confederacy's unofficial national anthem. Stoutly rhythmic, the three-beat lines alternate feminine and masculine rhymes of Dixie/me to land firm-footed on the monosyllabic "tree", a fusion of the lover's lynching site with a symbol - "wood" - which stands for the device on which Christ was executed. The intense wordplay links "cross roads" with the Christian cross; alliteration unifies "gnarled and naked" for a stark picture of Southern injustice in an area also famed as the Bible Belt, centre of fundamentalist religion.





Hughes did not confine himself to revealing just the cadences of black music to his readers. Rather, he wanted his audience to taste the whole of the African-American experience. His interest and devotion to black music led him to novel fusions of jazz and blues with traditional verse in his first two books, The Weary Blues (1926) and Fine Clothes to the Jew (1927). His emphasis on lower-class black life, especially in the latter, led to harsh attacks on him in the black press. With these books, however, he established himself as a major force of the Harlem Renaissance: "Droning a drowsy syncopated tune, / Rocking back and forth to a mellow croon, / I heard a Negro play. / Down on Lenox Avenue the other night / By the pale dull pallor of an old gas light / He did a lazy sway.../ He did a lazy sway.../ To the tune o'those Weary Blues. / With his ebony hands on each ivory key. / He made that poor piano moan with melody. / O Blues!" ("The Weary Blues"). This poem reveals deep metapoetic levels of significance working cohesively with musical patterns, as an elegant hymn to a Lenox Avenue jazz pianist. The player sounds out old woes and thumps the floor with his foot as heavenly lights wink out. By early morning, the pianist, dreaming his bluesy theme song, lies moribund, as lifeless as a rock or corpse. The controlled artistry of the poem summons blues syncopation and repetitions, linking lines with a loose rhyme scheme comprised of simple monosyllables ("tune/croon", "play/sway", "night/light"). At specific points of affect, the poet moves to a foregrounding of long vowels such as "oo" and "ooh". The subdued sound, like a blues lament, overwhelms the imagination with a self-induced inertia that condemns the singer for his soul-paralyzing melancholy, the result of a lifelong indulgence in self-pity. This kind of poetry reveals Hughes's capacity to incorporate not only mainstreams of vanguard literature, but also to collaborate in transfiguring margins into mainstreams.



In 1926, Hughes published in The Nation the groundbreaking Afro-American manifesto 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.


This fine essay spoke of Black writers and poets, "who would surrender racial pride in the name of a false integration," where a talented Black writer would prefer to be considered a poet, not a Black poet, which to Hughes meant he subconsciously wanted to write like a white poet. Hughes argued, "no great poet has ever been afraid of being himself." He wrote in this essay, "We younger Negro artists now intend to express our individual dark-skinned selves without fear or shame. If white people are pleased we are glad. If they aren't, it doesn't matter. We know we are beautiful. And ugly too... If coloured people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, their displeasure doesn't matter either. We build our temples for tomorrow, as strong as we know how and we stand on the top of the mountain, free within ourselves." Like the sharp peal of a jazz trumpet, Hughes' poetry announced to the world that the streets of black America contained a culture rich and energetic and intensely poetic. This announcement, somehow, was to become his life's mission, something he foretold in this little piece written long before his name became a beloved household word. In 1927 he began one of the most important relationships of his life, with his patron Mrs. Charlotte Mason, or "Godmother," who generously supported him for two years. She supervised the writing of his first novel, Not Without Laughter (1930) (that won the Harmon Gold Medal for literature) about a sensitive, black midwestern boy and his struggling family. However, their relationship collapsed about the time the novel appeared, and Hughes sank into a period of intense personal unhappiness and disillusionment.

 

Hughes first collection of short stories came in 1934 with The Ways of White Folks. He received a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1935. Through the black publication Chicago Defender, he 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. In 1947 he taught a semester at the predominantly black Atlanta University. He wrote novels, short stories, plays, poetry, operas, essays, texts for children, and, with the encouragement of his best friend and writer, Arna Bontemps, and patron and friend, Carl Van Vechten, two autobiographies, The Big Sea, and I Wonder as I Wander, as well as translating several works of literature into English. As said, much of his writing was inspired by the musical culture of that period, especially blues and jazz, the music he believed to be the true expression of the black spirit. "Harlem" may be a good example to illustrate these words (Montage of a Dream Deferred, 1951), from which a line was taken for the title of the play Raising 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 a year (1932-1933) spent in the Soviet Union, he wrote his most radical verse. A year in Carmel, California, led to a collection of short stories, The Ways of White Folks (1934). This volume is marked by pessimism about race relations, as well as a sardonic realism. His famous poem "I, Too" was published in 1932 and reveals Hughes's awareness of American mainstreams. This poundian pact plunges the lyrical I into a broad concept of America, closely following Whitman:



      I, too, sing America.

      I am the darker brother.

      They send me to eat in the kitchen

      When company comes,

      But I laugh,

      And eat well,

      And grow strong.

      Tomorrow,

      I'll sit at the table

      When company comes.

      Nobody'll dare

      Say to me,

      'Eat in the kitchen,'

      Then.

      Besides,

      They'll see how beautiful I am

      And be ashamed -

      I, too, am America.



After his play Mulatto, on the twinned themes of miscegenation and parental rejection, opened on Broadway in 1935, Hughes wrote other plays, including comedies such as Little Ham (1936) and a historical drama, Emperor of Haiti (1936). Most of these plays were only moderate successes. In 1937 he spent several months in Europe, including a long stay in besieged Madrid. In 1938 he returned home to found the Harlem Suitcase Theater, which staged his agitprop drama Don't You Want to Be Free? The play, employing several of his poems, vigorously blended black nationalism, the blues, and socialist exhortation. The same year, a socialist organization published a pamphlet of his radical verse, "A New Song."

His first biographical volume, The Big Sea (1940), written in an episodic, lightly comic and familiar tone, had set up a milestone in autobiographical writing. It was followed by I Wonder as I Wander (an autobiographical journey):

      Melodramatic maybe, it seems to me now. But then it was like throwing a million bricks out of my heart when I threw the books into the water. I leaned over the rail of the S.S. Malone and threw the books as far as I could out into the sea - all the books I had had at Columbia, and all the books I had lately bought to read.


      The books went down into the moving water in the dark off Sandy Hook. Then I straightened up, turned my face to the wind, and took a deep breath. I was a seaman going to sea for the first time - a seaman on a big merchant ship. And I felt that nothing would ever happen to me again that I didn't want to happen. I felt grown, a man, inside and out. Twenty-one.


      I was twenty-one.
1

    [...]



In his book of verse Shakespeare in Harlem (1942) he once again sang the blues. On the other hand, this collection, as well as another, his Jim Crow's Last Stand (1943), strongly attacked racial segregation. Perhaps his finest literary achievement during the war came in the course of writing a weekly column in the Chicago Defender that began in 1942 and lasted twenty years. As mentioned, the highlight of the column was an offbeat Harlem character called Jesse B. Semple, or Simple, and his exchanges with a staid narrator in a neighbourhood bar, where Simple commented on a variety of matters but mainly about race and racism. Simple became Hughes's most celebrated and beloved fictional creation, and the subject of five collections edited by Hughes, starting in 1950 with Simple Speaks His Mind, a character that may have influenced or served as a model for John Berryman's design of the fragmented selves that circumambulate around the Dream Songs.

After the war, two books of verse, Fields of Wonder (1947) and One-Way Ticket (1949), added little to his fame. However, in Montage of a Dream Deferred (1951) he broke new ground with verse accented by the discordant nature of the new bebop jazz that reflected a growing desperation in the black urban communities of the North. At the same time, Hughes's career was vexed by constant harassment by right-wing forces about his ties to the Left. In vain he protested that he had never been a Communist and had severed all such links. In 1953 he was called to testify before Senator Joseph McCarthy's committee on subversive activities (HUAC) in connection with his 1930's radicalism. Hughes denied that he had ever been a party member but conceded that some of his radical verse had been ill-advised. The FBI listed him as a security risk until 1959, and during these years, when he could not travel outside the United States, Hughes worked to rehabilitate his reputation as a good American by producing more-patriotic poetry.

In the 1950s and 1960s Hughes published a variety of anthologies for children and adults, including First Book of Negroes (1952), The First Book of Jazz (1955), and The Book of Negro Folklore (1958). In 1960, the NAACP awarded Hughes the Spingarn Medal for distinguished achievements by an African American, and was inducted into the National Institute of Arts and Letters in 1961. From 1969 to the end of his life he was again on the international circuit.

Like most Harlem Renaissance writers, Hughes faced many difficulties in writing a self-proclaimed 'Negro' poetry. As Leroi Jones already stated in Blues People, black writers had to redefine the past in order to create an audience in white people still highly prejudiced by what was considered as the cause. These are Leroi Jones powerful words introducing his famous text: "Blues People has always meant a great deal to me. It was a dramatic self-confirmation, as a personal intellectual and artistic 'presence', but also as the expression of a set of ideas and measures that I have carried with me for many years. Most, even until today"2. Finally, these are some interesting concluding words at the Norton Anthology:

      African American writers questioned, too, whether their work should emphasize their similarities to or differences from whites. Hughes's response to these problems was to turn his focus from the rural black population toward the city folk. The shift to the contemporary urban context freed Hughes form the concerns over primitivism; he could be a realist and modernist. He could use stanza form deriving from blues music and adopt the vocabulary of everyday black speech to poetry without affirming stereotypes. And he could insist that whatever the differences between black and white Americans, all Americans were equally entitled to liberty, justice, and opportunity
3
    .



His last book was the volume of verse, posthumously published, The Panther and the Lash (1967), mainly about civil rights. Langston Hughes died of complications from prostate cancer in May 22, 1967, in New York. In his memory, his residence at 20 East 127th Street in Harlem, New York City, has been given landmark status by the New York City Preservation Commission, and East 127th Street has been renamed "Langston Hughes Place."

Hughes went on to receive both Guggenheim and Rosenwald fellowships and was nicknamed the "Poet Laureate of Harlem." Several years after his death, Hughes' residence in Harlem was given landmark status by the New York City Preservation Commission; in 1969, the Langston Hughes Community Library and Cultural Center opened.

 

1. Leroi Jones. Blues People: Looking Both Ways. New York: Perennial, 2002 (1963), p.1.

2. The Norton Anthology of American Literature. (Vol II). Ed. Nina Baym, general editor. New York. Norton, 1998. p. 1731

 

Autor: Gabriel Torres Chalk (UNED)