Langston Hughes was a renowned icon in the world of African American literature. He wrote numerous poems, plays, novels and newspaper articles during his career’s lifespan. His social activism was focused on creating a voice for the African American people.
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Having lived momentarily in Harlem, he was quite familiar with the racial friction that existed at the time. He hence plays a major role in the Harlem renaissance movement of the 1920s and 1930s. The Harlem renaissance was a period in which various African American writers exploited literature to push for civil and political equality.
There is a jazzy/ blues tone in a number of his poems as they circulate around themes of racial oppression within the early American society. The main contributing factor to these chosen themes was his personal experiences. We shall thus explore how these experiences are expressed in some of his poems.
The poem speaks about the writer’s identity as a Negro. The tone of the poem is one of anger and, at the same time, pride. He voices the grievances of the enslaved black community throughout history by making references to their afflictions under several masters.
The poem has been written in the first person’s point of view and there is repetitive use of the words ‘I’ve been’ (“Negro”).
This serves to emphasize the manner in which the black race has been subjected to various experiences in each verse. It portrays the black man’s positions as a victim of these experiences. The writer also uses similes such as ‘black as the night is black’ and ‘black like the depths of Africa’ to create illustrations of different views of the African race (“Negro”).
The poem Cross voices the writer’s personal experiences of living in a cross racial family. He conveys the ideal of racial reconciliation amongst white and black people by showing his remorse and apologies for wishing the worst to his parents. His parents came from different races. He contemplates their contrasting fates wherein one died in a place of fortune and prosperity while the other died in an environment of poverty (“Cross”).
He then ponders his own fate by linking it to his mixed race. The message that is driven here is that racial background ultimately affects one’s fate due to the social setups that favored one over the other. The poem uses rhymes and meters in its structure thus setting up a rhythmic flow in its narration.
The Weary Blues
This poem is written in a very sad tone. It describes the poet’s encounter with a blues musician who, tired of his life, was contemplating suicide. The theme of death is prominent in this piece as it is featured in several lines. The song Weary blues contains the line ‘And I wish I had died’ which captures the theme of death (“The Weary Blues”).
The final line ‘He slept like a rock or a man that’s dead’ clearly presents another instance of this theme. The message that the reader is left with is that the singer discussed in the poem had died deep down because of the loneliness he has been forced to live with.
Lenox Avenue: Midnight
The setting of this poem is a high traffic street on a rainy day. This can be seen from the references of rumbling street cars and rain in the second stanza. It seems to be a poem that speaks in second person to a lady. This may be explained by the use of the term ‘Honey’ in referring to the person addressed (Bass & Rampersad 32). Once again, this poem, like others mentioned before, bears a melancholic mood.
Song for a Dark Girl
Song for a dark girl is a poem about the writer’s lover who was hung on a tree. The tone of the poem is one of anger filled with sadness.
The writer seems to have a grudge against Jesus for letting his lover get slain despite his prayers for her protection. The theme of racial hatred is also brought out by the reference that the writer makes to ‘white Lord Jesus’ (“Song for a Dark Girl”). There is a metaphor used to describe love as a naked shadow.
Red Silk Stockings
This poem is written in old African American dialect. The use of alternative spellings for words such as ‘gal’ and incorrect grammar such as ‘you’s’, which means ‘you is’, are a demonstration of this (Bass & Rampersad 105). The poem was written to ridicule African American female prostitutes who served white clients. Hence, there is an overall use of sarcasm in the poem.
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This can be observed when the writer says that the girls are too pretty to find any other form of work. Langston further mocks the black women by pointing out that they need to wear red stockings to show themselves to the white boys. This implies that the girls have an inferior view of themselves
Theme for English B
The poem Theme for English B has a very rich yet unstructured rhyme structure which can be seen to flow throughout the poem. The poem is written in the first person point of view. It seeks to introduce the reader to the identity of the writer as a young black student in a class full of white students.
The writer hence responds to his English teacher’s assignment instruction to reveal his personality through his work. He points out that if he did, it might not be judged on the same background as other students. This idea is brought out by the symbolic reference of his work not being in the same color as that of the page he will write it on, i.e. white paper (“Theme for English B”).
Dinner Guest: Me
In Dinner Guest: Me, Langston explains how the powerful white personalities in the U.S civil society had been discussing the African American plight for equality during a dinner gathering. His reaction to the discussion at the dinner table where he has been invited is rather indifferent.
What he is more afraid of is the outcome of the discussion and what it will mean to the African American community. The African American community, in this case, is symbolically referred to as ‘darkness U.S.A’ to show that they are looked down upon by the white race (“Dinner Guest: Me”).
Langston’s jazz poems fall into two thematic categories. There are those that bear a racially conscious theme and there are those that are simply introspective and personal. Some have both a personal and a socially conscious message.
For instance, ‘Cross’ reveals Langston’s personal experiences in dealing with racial inequality and, at the same time, it communicates the message of racial tolerance by proposing forgiveness. Poems that have racial injustice as a central theme can be classified as either political or social.
The poem Dinner Guest: Me, for instance, is a politically influenced piece as opposed to Red Silk stocking which is dwells on the moral decay of the black community.
Bass and Arnold Rampersad. The Collected Works of Langston Hughes, The Poems: 1921-1940 (LH1). Columbia, Missouri: University of Missouri Press. 2001. Web.
Cross 2003. Web.>
Dinner Guest: Me 2003. Web.
Negro 2007. Web.
Song for a Dark Girl n.d. Web.
The Weary Blues 2003. Web.
Theme for English B 2003. Web.