Langston Hughes, Then and Now
Langston Hughes is a widely recognized poet, praised for his connection with the everyman. But Hughes also used in his poetry an ancient African storytelling technique that continues to captivate a greater audience as time progresses.
A strong emphasis on the concept of place was always a part of African storytelling culture. Later, illiteracy of the African-Americans during slavery and the period thereafter forced that oral tradition to remain in place. (This is not racism; it is history.)
Hughes used this African storytelling tradition to help make himself popular with his African-American readers of the time. They were able to identify with that part of their history through his poetry. This same aspect, however, often estranged his white readers in whose history that convention was not inherent.
Furthermore, “African-American culture” (that is, the culture of those who come from Africa with its traditions and live as Americans) is becoming simply “black American culture” (the culture of those whose skin color is black but who have always themselves and whose recent ancestors have always lived in America) with increased integration. This loss of ties to Africa and its past diminishes the cultural emphasis on location that had before linked any American of African descent.
On the other hand, his poetry stresses the importance of place and becomes more accessible to everyone as time goes on due to the globalization of ideas. This means that during the time he was writing, his loyalty to African tradition estranged some of his white readers while aligning him with the African-American culture at the time, however, as African-American culture becomes black culture and ideas are shared and globalized, Hughes’ work loses its innate African connection but gains a greater appreciation of the general reading public.
Simply put, Langston Hughes becomes more accessible to his readers because of the increased diffusion of ideas throughout the globe.
Many critics misinterpreted Langston Hughes’ writing during his time and were unable to understand his literary usage of location. Hughes was very well known for his use of colloquial speech and the rhythmical structures within his writing, but many people do not even think of his traditional usage of African “place” as a possible reason that he was not more popular with white readers during his time.
Hughes’ contemporary critics often argued that his diction and form were too informal. An entire poem of his entitled, “Little Lyric (Of Great Importance)” is simply two lines:
I wish the rent
Was heaven sent
Hughes was not using his poetry to show off how clever he was or how many references he knew; he was writing to connect with people that had no use for those things. At a time when his predecessors included T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound and their high academic references, it is no wonder that the white intellectuals of his time considered his poetry “not the way it ought to be” (Baldwin).
From this perspective and in comparison, Hughes may have seemed uneducated and hardly even writing poetry. Quoting and reviewing one of Hughes’ poems published in Selected Poems of Langston Hughes, James Baldwin wrote, “‘Hey, pop!/ Re-bop!/ Mop!’ conveys much more on Lenox Avenue than it does in this book.”
Critics Miss the Point
Those critics, though, did not even see another gap between readers with an African connection and readers without one, namely that the former automatically accepted Hughes’ African influenced theme of significant place because it was already a part of them.
African-Americans were arguably so interested in identifying a home for themselves in their literature simply because they were not particularly offered one in America at that time. But critics often failed to even identify this as a theme in his work. Insists one New York Times reviewer in 1949, “[T]he collection as a whole gives an impression of rather limited thematic scope – love, nature, racial problem” (Creekmore).
Creekmore calls for a wider variety of themes, but he is in fact blatantly missing one of the main ones. This is understandable, though, as Hubert Creekmore was probably unaware that African storytelling (and, in this case, poetry) traditionally stresses allegorical place much more than is customary in European literature.
That Creekmore, and many reviewers like him, remained unable to see how intensely meaningful the locations were that Hughes identified in his poetry only further proves why white readers of Hughes’ time were not as likely to feel a connection.
The Most Abused Poet?
Therefore Langston Hughes’ employment of the tradition of storytelling, an element that was so natural to him, made his work particularly (and perhaps exclusively) pertinent to people of that same tradition.
The people of his time most likely to read and love his poetry were African-American. His readers and admirers from overseas were largely Caribbean and French writers and artists of African descent. In fact, one of his greatest foreign admirers was Nigerian Chinua Achebe, who later became known as the father of the African novel. Achebe attributed much of his inspiration to the works of Langston Hughes.
Despite this popularity with an obvious demographic, it took analysts and critics a great deal of time to identify what exactly it was that was creating such an attraction. In 1969, after Hughes’ death, ten years after James Baldwin wrote that “Hey, pop!/ Re-bop!/ Mop!” meant nothing to him, and twenty years after Hubert Creekmore published a limited concept of which themes Hughes was employing and tiring out, a third New York Times writer, Lindsay Patterson, asked a perfect question for the times with her title: “Langston Hughes – The Most Abused Poet in America?” But even her relatively sympathetic review was not yet insightful enough to uncover the emphasized location part of Hughes’ storytelling.
African Tradition, American Framework
And yet now it is no wonder that people of African descent all over the world were attracted to his poetry; while there is clearly a specific American aspect to it, he voiced so much of the African tradition within his American framework.
In “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” he writes:
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.
In every line of this excerpt, there is at least one mention of a place. Each specific place, too, has many layered associations.
James de Jongh analyzes this poem beautifully, describing “downriver” as a symbol for the lower South where the slaves were sold and traded, detailing “the riverside” as a possible place of escape and resistance, and emphasizing that Hughes uses this inherited vocabulary while placing it in a twentieth century context.
Hughes repeats this tactic often. One example is in “Sun Song” where he writes:
Dark ones of Africa,
I bring you my songs
To sing on the Georgia roads.
He relates that they are all walking on “the beaten hardness of the earth” and all are essentially looking up at the same sun. By putting global Africa in a specific American context, any African-American at the time could identify with him.
In today’s literary and academic societies, that Hughes wrote America with an extra sense of worldliness makes his poetry all the more relevant and accessible. Social historians are now empowered by a global age to learn about ancient oral traditions of Africa, which allows literary analysts such as James de Jongh to connect that true love of locations in a story to the writings of Langston Hughes.
While there are relatively few Americans who still feel a strong connection specifically to Africa, that is now beside the point because everyone can understand that vestigial connection through the spread of ideas.
While Langston Hughes’ works may not have been relevant to everyone at the time he was writing, it is certainly more accessible as the world becomes more integrated. Wrote Patterson of his work, “Long after Baldwin and the rest of us are gone, I suspect Hughes’s poetry will be blatantly around, growing in stature until it is recognized for its genius.”
More light will be shed on his methods and on the struggles and joys of his race and times, and only increased understanding can come from that. Even better is that, as we understand more, Hughes will never alienate his readers because his writings avoided something in which other African-American writers have indulged; while Hughes may have pointed out the many injustices in the American system, he refrained from being hateful or resentful in his writings.
This leaves clarity of meaning, unclouded by needless negativity. In turn, as we learn more about how to understand him, Langston Hughes can only become an even more significant part of American literary history.
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Baldwin, James. “Sermons and Blues.” New York Times 29 March 1959: BR6.
Creekmore, Hubert. “Two Rewarding Volumes of Verse.” New York Times 30 January 1949: BR19.
de Jongh, James. “The Poet Speaks of Places.” A Historical Guide to Langston Hughes. Ed. Steven C. Tracy. New York: Oxford, 2004. 65-84.
Hughes, Langston. Selected Poems of Langston Hughes. New York: Vintage Classics, 1987.
Patterson, Lindsay. “Langston Hughes – The Most Abused Poet in America?” New York Times 29 June 1969: D30.