(James) Langston Hughes

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Author: David Roessel
Date: 1998
Publisher: Charles Scribner's Sons
Document Type: Biography; Critical essay
Length: 14,395 words

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About this Person
Born: February 01, 1902 in Joplin, Missouri, United States
Died: May 22, 1967 in New York, New York, United States
Nationality: American
Occupation: Poet
Other Names: Hughes, James Langston; Hughes, James Mercer Langston

IN 1924, WHEN at the age of twenty-two Langston Hughes found himself broke in the Italian city of Genoa, he composed one of the most famous poetic statements in twentieth-century American literature, "I, Too":

    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 be 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.

The poem stands as both a social and poetic credo, a public and private declaration. And just as from the public perspective, speaking for all African Americans, Hughes's "I" is still waiting to sit equally at the American table, so Langston Hughes is still waiting to be fully acknowledged as one of America's great poets.

Many critics, both white and black, would not disagree with Harold Bloom's comment, in an introduction to a volume of essays on Hughes. Bloom all but apologizes to the reader for editing such an enterprise, saying that "social and political considerations... will provide something of an audience for Hughes's poetry." Such social and political considerations · a kind of reverse discrimination · we can assume, were what caused Bloom to include Hughes in the series Modern Critical Views. Hughes is at Bloom's literary table because an African American poet is needed, despite deep reservations about whether he belongs. Hughes may have had a larger popular audience since the 1930s, that "something of an audience" as Bloom dismissively terms it, than Bloom's own favorite modern American author, Wallace Stevens , but the scholars and critics who pass judgment on writers have, like Bloom, usually not seen how beautiful Hughes is, nor have they been ashamed of their assessments.

Why is there such resistance to Hughes? One reason is that Hughes is viewed as a folk poet who found his material in the lives of the people around him and simply transferred that world to the page. Hughes, in this view, functions as something of a journalist; his poetry serves as a good barometer of African American social and political opinions, but rarely transmutes these views into "art." Hughes's forthright expression of the frustration of African Americans in a segregated world violated the New Critical maxim that a poem should not mean but be. Many of Hughes's most famous poems "mean," like "Merry-Go-Round" (collected in Shakespeare in Harlem, 1942), which opens:

    Where is the Jim Crow section
    On this merry-go-round,
    Mister, cause I want to ride?

or the well-known "Harlem" section of Montage of a Dream Deferred (1951):

    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?

In an essay fittingly called "My Adventures as a Social Poet" (collected in Good Morning Revolution, 1973), Hughes spoke of how some people thought that poets should meditate about things beyond the mundane and worldly. "Try as I might to float off into the clouds," Hughes said, "poverty and Jim Crow would grab me by the heels, and right back on earth I would land." At the end of the essay, Hughes explained why he could not look at "roses" or "moonlight" as vehicles for reveries beyond the actual, present world: "For sometimes in the moonlight my brothers see a fiery cross and a circle of Klansmen's hoods. Sometimes in the moonlight a dark body swings from a lynching tree · but for his funeral there are no roses." After World War II, the critical consensus in universities looked upon social poetry with disdain; it was considered too direct, too didactic, too simple. Hughes responded on more than one occasion that it was also too true.

In fact, as Donna Harper has noted in Not So Simple: The "Simple" Stories by Langston Hughes, "the words Simple and Simplicity recur in analyses of Langston Hughes's work. A disturbing consequence of this trend has been an exclusion of Hughes's works as texts of modern criticism, a dismissal of Hughes as being too simple to merit literary analysis." Such neglect was most obvious in the area of textual scholarship. Before 1990, the only notable works on primary sources were Faith Berry's pioneering collection of uncollected writings, Good Morning Revolution: Uncollected Writings of Social Protest (1973) and the edition of the letters of Hughes and Arna Bontemps selected by Charles Nichols (1980). With the appearance in the 1990s of an expanded edition of Berry's volume, new editions of the Simple stories and the short fiction collected by Harper, the collection of Chicago Defender columns by Christopher De Santis, the publication of Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston 's Mule Bone (1991) by Henry Louis Gates, and The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes (1994), the situation improved. But the need remains for a critical edition of Hughes's major works.

Hughes was probably already aware of his "simple" reputation when he gave one of his most enduring creations, the Harlem everyman Jesse B. Semple, the nickname "Simple" in 1943. Hughes certainly learned from the examples of Walt Whitman and Carl Sandburg , but the white author who probably had the most influence on Hughes was Mark Twain . All three used what Harper has called the "illusion of simplicity" to make profound statements, and all three laced much of their writings with ironic humor. But only with studies like those of R. Baxter Miller and Steven Tracy on the poems, Hans Ostrom on the short fiction, and Harper on the Simple stories have scholars begun to seriously investigate how, to use the words of Baxter Miller, Hughes's subtle use of language and "complex use of metaphor belied his seemingly transparent treatment of folk life."

Like Twain, Hughes himself contributed to, or even created, his reputation as a careless and simple writer. When discussing how he composed his poems, Hughes says in his autobiography The Big Sea (1940) that

    there are seldom many changes in my poems. Generally,
the first two or three lines come to me from something I'm thinking
about, or looking at, or doing, and the rest of the poem (if there is
to be a poem) flows from those first few lines, usually right away. If
there is a chance to put the poem down then, I write it down. If not,
I try to remember it until I get to a pencil and paper: for poems are
like rainbows: they escape you quickly.

Hughes's self-presentation as a finder rather than a maker of poems went against the prevalent critical attitude favoring poetic craftsmen. Scholars have routinely taken this passage at face value. But evidence clearly shows that this was not how Hughes always worked. "When Sue Wears Red" (from The Weary Blues), one of his best-known poems, reads:

    When Susanna Jones wears red
    Her face is like an ancient cameo
    Turned brown by the ages.
Come with a blast of trumpets, Jesus!
    When Susanna Jones wears red
    A queen from some time-dead Egyptian night
    Walks once again.
    Blow trumpets, Jesus!
    And the beauty of Susanna Jones in red
    Burns in my heart a love-fire sharp like pain.
    Sweet silver trumpets,
    Jesus!

The version of this poem published in Crisis magazine in 1923 had only the three stanzas without the "trumpet" refrains. The refrains were not added until the poem was reprinted in Hughes's first volume of poetry, The Weary Blues. In his first autobiography, however, Hughes obscures the real textual history of the work by suggesting that he wrote the poem, complete with the "trumpets," while he was a high school student in Cleveland. Clearly, then, the account that Hughes offers of his method of composition in The Big Sea is less than accurate. Hughes may have thought that many critics, especially white critics, were not ready to accept a black craftsman, and so he cultivated a "folk poet" persona. It also allowed Hughes, in the tradition of the trickster figure in African American culture best known through the stories about Br'er Rabbit, which Henry Louis Gates has described in The Signifying Monkey, to employ a pose of simplicity to make fun of "literal" readers.

For example, in The Big Sea, Hughes tells a story of how he was elected class poet in grammar school, which required him to read an original piece at commencement.

    There were two Negro children in the class, myself and
a girl. In America most white people think, of course, that all
Negroes can sing and dance, and have a sense of rhythm. So my
classmates, knowing that a poem had to have rhythm, elected me
unanimously · thinking, no doubt, that I had some, being a Negro....
That was the way I began to write poetry. It had never occurred to me
to be a poet before, or indeed a writer of any kind.

This is vintage Hughes, since, as in much of Twain, the passage deconstructs itself at various levels. White people did, of course, think that African Americans could sing and dance, but that certainly did not mean that they thought that blacks could, or should, read a poem at graduation. And Hughes certainly did not decide to become a writer because a group of white children thought that he would be good at it. He is clearly subverting the idea that a black author needs such valorization from the white world with his tale of unanimous "election" by white sixth-graders. But some critics, amazingly, have taken this story seriously. Some still do.

One of the most puzzling elements in current discussions of Hughes is the failure to read Hughes's deflection of attention away from himself as an individual creator as a sign that he wanted to hide or obscure something about himself. Arnold Rampersad says of the first of Hughes's autobiographies, "In a genre defined by confession, Hughes appears to give nothing away of a personal nature." Certainly in one important area, his sexuality, Hughes, who never married or had children, gave almost nothing away.

Was Hughes gay? Some evidence suggests that he might have been. Would that change how we should read Hughes? Inevitably, it must. But we have not had a good examination of certain aspects of Hughes, such as his tendency to speak with a strong female voice in his blues poems, in the light of recent gay, or queer, criticism. Would such an investigation undermine Hughes's position as a "social poet" concerned about the African American condition in America? Absolutely not. But it would add a layer of meaning to our understanding of the poet.

Some of Hughes's writing strikes one as unsophisticated, childish, even simple by adult standard · and for a very good reason: Hughes often directed his work toward young people. Dianne Johnson, in her study of African American children's literature, states that "during the thirties and forties, Langston Hughes and Arna Bontemps are the most notable contributors" to this field. As Johnson puts it, Hughes and his friend Bontemps were attempting to fill a great need. Critics often ignore Hughes's lifelong commitment to the project of creating black children's literature; no other major American poet of the century was as engaged in such an enterprise. But, of course, white poets grew up reading stories about children with their racial identity. Hughes had not, and tried to ensure that coming generations of African American children would have books about kids like themselves. Every Christmas, cities around the country stage annual productions of The Nutcracker, A Christmas Carol, and, in recent years, Black Nativity, with lyrics by Langston Hughes. In that work, as he did so often, he once again inserted an African American voice where it had not been before.

Still, as Rampersad observed in the preface to The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes, the "truth indeed is that Hughes published many poems that are doggerel. To reach his primary audience · the black masses · he was prepared to write ‘down’ to them." In fact, Hughes often reached such audiences through public appearances; for periods of his life he lived primarily on earnings received from recitations to African American audiences. In this arena, Hughes was after a different reaction from the kind that came from critics in academic posts. In the second of his autobiographies, I Wonder As I Wander: An Autobiographical Journey (1956), he wrote of how he had "worked out a public routine of reading my poetry that almost never failed to provoke, after each poem, some sort of audible audience response · laughter, applause, a grunt, a sigh, or an ‘Amen!’" Hughes has sometimes been compared to the poet William Wordsworth in drawing upon common language and the lives of ordinary people. But the similarity ends there. Hughes's goal was not just to make poetry from the people, but also to give, to use the title of a chapter of his second autobiography, "poetry to the people." Many modern American writers have sounded those words, only to draw back from the consequences of what communicating to a mass, semieducated audience meant to one's work. Hughes never drew back from an attempt to engage his people. Speaking of African Americans in the south in 1931, Mary McLeod Bethune, the renowned black educator, told Hughes simply, "They need poetry." Throughout his life, Hughes tried to bring poetry to his people.

EARLY LIFE

    And the dark-faced child, listening,
    Knows that Aunt Sue's stories are real stories,
    He knows that Aunt Sue never got her stories
    Out of any book at all,
    But they come
    Right out of her own life.

("Aunt Sue's Stories," from The Weary Blues)

Hughes was born James Langston Hughes in Joplin, Missouri, on February
1, 1902. His parents were not well matched, and Hughes's father, an
engineer, soon left to seek employment opportunities first in Cuba and
then, after 1903, in Mexico. For much of his childhood, Hughes lived
with his maternal grandmother in Lawrence, Kansas, while his mother
worked in various places throughout the Midwest. In The Big
Sofa
Hughes reported that he "had been very lonesome growing up by
myself, the only child, with no father or mother around." He found
solace in books and listening to his grandmother's stories. "Through
my grandmother's stories life always moved, moved heroically toward an
end. Nobody ever cried in my grandmother's stories. They worked, or
schemed, or fought, But no crying." It is not surprising that Mary
Langston's stories moved heroically toward an end. The family was poor
after the death of her husband, Charles Langston, in 1892, but it had
a proud tradition. Hughes's grandmother had attended Oberlin College,
where she met both her first husband, Lewis Leary, who died with John
Brown at Harpers Ferry in 1859, and her second husband, Charles Howard
Langston. Langston was a mulatto, the son of a rich white Virginia
farmer and a freed slave, and Hughes would draw on that family history
in a number of works, notably his play Mulatto (in Five
Plays
, 1963). Charles Langston was a leader in the abolitionist
movement and later active in Republican politics in Lawrence. From
Mary Langston and her two husbands, Hughes inherited a strong mission
of service to the race, embodied in one of his prize possessions, the
shawl that had covered Lewis Leary's body at Harpers Ferry.

Hughes learned different lessons from his parents, neither of whom
encouraged his poetic aspirations. His mother, Carrie Langston, often
made financial demands of her son. In his novel Not without
Laughter
(1930), Hughes drew on his own experience when he has the
protagonist's mother say that since her teenage son is "big enough to
hold a job," he "ought to be wanting to help me.... Instead of that,
he's determined to go back to school." Hughes's relationship with his
father was even more difficult. Hughes had only spent a few months
with James Hughes before he was seventeen, when he was invited to
spend the summer with his father in Mexico. Yet his father had
occupied a special place in the boy's imagination. As Hughes put it in
The Big Sea, "My father, permanently in Mexico during those
turbulent years, represented for me the one stable factor in my life."
Yet, when reunited, father and son soon clashed on a major issue. "My
father hated Negroes. I think he hated himself, too, for being a
Negro." Many of Hughes's best early poems explored the nature of, and
the beauty in, the African element of African American identity. To a
degree, these poems are Hughes's answer to his father's attitude to
his own race, such as "My People" (in Weary Blues):

    The night is beautiful,
    So are the faces of my people.
    The stars are beautiful,
    So are the eyes of my people.
    Beautiful, also, is the sun.
    Beautiful, also, are the souls of my people.

And "Dream Variations" (in Weary Blues), which ends:

    To fling my arms wide
    In the face of the sun,
    Dance! Whirl! Whirl!
    Till the quick day is done.
    Rest at pale evening...
    A tall, slim tree...
    Night coming tenderly
    Black like me.

It was during the painful year that he spent with his father in Mexico after his high school graduation, when he was nineteen, that Hughes published his first mature poems in Crisis, the magazine of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). The importance of Crisis to Hughes cannot be overestimated. It was not simply that it became a major outlet for his work throughout his life. It was also that the young Hughes, like the protagonist, Sandy, in his novel Not Without Laughter, read the journal and knew that an African American poet had a significant African American medium to reach an African American audience. The generation of the Harlem Renaissance, Hughes's generation, might well be described as the children of Crisis. Because they read it as teenagers, they could conceive of a new kind of literary career.

                                                            HARLEM RENAISSANCE YEARS
    The rhythm of life,
    Is a jazz rhythm,
    Honey.
    The Gods are laughing at us.

("Lenox Avenue: Midnight," from The Weary Blues)

Hughes first saw Harlem in 1921, when he went to New York to enroll
at Columbia University. He left after his freshman year and, before
entering Lincoln University in January 1926, he worked, among other
things, as a messman on a ship sailing to Africa, in the kitchen of a
Paris nightclub, and at a number of menial jobs in Washington, D.C.
But Harlem remained central in his life during this time. It held the
African American journals, Crisis, Opportunity, and the
Messenger · in which most of his poems appeared · his literary
friends, and the allure of being the largest grouping of African
Americans anywhere. Other members of the Harlem Renaissance, like
Sterling
Brown and Zora Neale Hurston, wrote about African American
life in the rural South. Hughes drew heavily on the urban experience
resulting from the African American northern migration, of which
Harlem was the largest and most vibrant example.

In 1922, with the composition of the poem "The Weary Blues"
(collected in The Weary Blues), Hughes began to experiment with
how to incorporate African American musical motifs from the blues,
jazz, and spirituals into his verse. In the last stanza of "The Weary
Blues," Hughes has the piano player sing an actual blues song he had
heard as a child in Kansas City, imitating and yet at the same time
modifying the technique of "literary quotations" made famous by such
poets as
Ezra
Pound and
T.
S. Eliot:

    Thump, thump, thump went his foot on the floor.
    He played a few chords then he sang some more ·
        "I got the Weary Blues
        And I can't be satisfied
        Got the Weary Blues
        And can't be satisfied
        I ain't happy no mo'
        And I wish that I had died."
    And far into the night he crooned that tune.
    The stars went out and so did the moon.
    The singer stopped playing and went to bed
    While the Weary Blues echoed through his head.
    He slept like a rock or a man that's dead.

By the end of 1925, Hughes had published more than seventy poems, had written for the March 1925 special African American issue of Survey Graphic and the anthology The New Negro, and had won first prize in a poetry contest sponsored by Opportunity magazine. The young poet had arrived, a fact further signaled by the appearance the next year of his first volume of verse, The Weary Blues, which was published by Knopf at the urging of the author and critic Carl Van Vechten . Hughes achieved a strong poetic voice early, and the book contains a number of poems that have had a secure place in Hughes's canon ever since, like "The Negro Speaks of Rivers," "I, Too," "Aunt Sue's Stories," and "The Weary Blues." In addition to poems that celebrated the beauty of African Americans and their heritage, Hughes included poems about their struggle for a better existence in a racially divided contemporary America, as in "Mother to Son":

    Well, son, I'll tell you:
    Life for me ain't been no crystal stair.
    It's had tacks in it,
    And splinters,
    And boards torn up,
    And places with no carpet on the floor ·
    Bare.
    But all the time
    I'se been a-climbin' on,
    And reachin' landin's,
    And turnin' corners,
    And sometimes goin' in the dark
    Where there ain't been no light.
    So boy, don't you turn back.
    Don't you set down on the steps
    'Cause you finds it's kinder hard.
    Don't you fall now ·
    For I'se still goin', honey,
    I'se still climbin',
    And life for me ain't been no crystal stair.

From the beginning of his career, Hughes saw the position of African Americans as analogous to the fate of people of color around the world, and he has had a significant international reputation from the 1920s until the present. The pessimistic "Lament for Dark Peoples" appeared in The Weary Blues:

    I was a red man one time,
    But the white men came.
    I was a black man, too,
    But the white men came.
    They drove me out of the forest.
    They took me away from the jungles.
    I lost my trees.
    I lost my silver moons.
    Now they've caged me
    In the circus of civilization.
    Now I herd with the many ·
    Caged in the circus of civilization.

There were also poems about Harlem, celebrating the vibrant nightlife Hughes experienced when, as he put it (in a chapter heading in The Big Sky), "the Negro was in vogue." In poems like "Negro Dancers":

    Me an' my baby's
    Got two mo' ways
    Two mo' ways to de Charleston!
    and "Jazzonia"
    In a Harlem cabaret
    Six long-headed jazzers play.
    A dancing girl whose eyes are bold
    Lifts high a dress of silken gold.
    Oh, singing tree!
    Oh, shining rivers of the soul!

Hughes suggests that in song and dance African Americans can not only escape present woes but can also enter an ecstatic world closed to whites. Mixed in with these poems about black identity and race were others about personal despair and suicide, such as "Suicide's Note" ("The calm,/ Cool face of the river/ Asked me for a kiss."), and short lyrics about ships and seamen (as in "Port Town," "Sea Calm," and "Death of an Old Seaman"). The Weary Blues was an impressive first volume, but it lacked consistent quality and a unifying aesthetic perspective. It announced Hughes's arrival as a poet, without clearly indicating where he was headed next.

In 1926, with the financial help of Amy Spingarn, the wife of NAACP leader Joel Spingarn, Hughes enrolled at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, from which he graduated in 1929. At about the same time, Hughes began to develop a coherent aesthetics through discussions with other young African American writers, especially Hurston, Wallace Thurman, Bruce Nugent, and Rudolph Fisher. Hughes announced their literary declaration of independence from both white and what he called "the Nordicized Negro intelligentsia" in his famous essay, "The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain."

    We younger Negro artists who create now intend to
express our 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 does not matter either. We build our temples for
tomorrow, strong as we know how, and we stand on the top of the
mountain, free within ourselves.

Early in the essay he states that

    jazz to me is the one inherent expression of Negro life in
America; the eternal tom-tom beating in the Negro soul · the tom-tom of
revolt against weariness in a white world.... Yet the Philadelphia
clubwoman is ashamed to say that her race created it and she does not
like me to write about it.

In his second book of poems, Fine Clothes to the Jew (1927), Hughes consistently attempted to follow his own advice and "to grasp and hold some of the meanings and rhythms of jazz." Rampersad noted that "as a measure of his deeper penetration of the culture and his increased confidence as a poet, three kinds of poems are barely present in Fine Clothes to the Jew · those that directly praise black people and culture, those that directly protest their condition, and those that reflect his own personal sense of desolation." The "I," or narrative voice, in the poems of The Weary Blues often seemed to be Hughes. The "I" in the poems of Fine Clothes to the Jew is nearly always a character, often a woman, taken from the blues tradition, as in "Hard Daddy," which opens:

    I went to ma daddy,
    Says Daddy I have got the blues.
    Went to ma daddy,
    Says Daddy I have got the blues.
    Ma daddy says, Honey,
    Can't you bring no better news?

Hughes had employed some black dialect in The Weary Blues, but dialect predominates in Fine Clothes to the Jew. In the place of jazz dancers who seem, at moments, to escape the world of poverty and prejudice, Hughes presents a harder reality, as in "Elevator Boy," which begins:

    I got a job now
    Runnin' an elevator
    In the Dennison Hotel in Jersey.
    Job ain't good though.
    No money around.
    Jobs are just chances
    Like everything else.
    Maybe a little luck now,
    Maybe not.

And a sharper irony appears in "Red Silk Stockings," which opens:

    Put on yo' red silk stockings,
    Black gal,
    Go out an' let de white boys
    Look at yo' legs.

These poems can be read as a more powerful indictment of the treatment of African Americans in a white world than the more conventional, direct laments on that subject in his first volume. But this was not how they were interpreted upon their publication. Many African American newspapers attacked the book for presenting the race in a bad light, and Hughes later became embarrassed by the seemingly anti-Semitic title. On the heels of the disastrous reception of Fire!!, an avant-garde magazine brought out in 1927 by Hughes and his young literary friends to be a small journal like the kinds that white writers had, the attack on his second volume caused Hughes to rethink his aesthetics and his literary declaration of independence. His next volume from Knopf, The Dream Keeper and Other Poems (1932), was directed at young people and was full of conventional poems of the kind that were absent from Fine Clothes to the Jew.

Another reason that Hughes did not build on the aesthetic of Fine Clothes to the Jew was that he had begun to care whether white people, or rather one white person, was pleased. In 1927, a wealthy white patron, Mrs. Charlotte Osgood Mason, provided Hughes, and Hurston, with a regular salary. Mrs. Mason had definite ideas about what her artists should write. She wanted "the primitive," as Hughes says in The Big Sea. She also wanted a novel. According to Rampersad, Hughes was not initially keen to undertake such an endeavor, but the prospect of $150 a week brought him around. Yet Not without Laughter, his semiautobiographical account of a boyhood in a working-class black family in the Midwest, is a welcome addition to African American fiction. Maryemma Graham has said that the novel is "unique in that it carries over some of the popular characterization" of blacks found in other fiction of the Harlem Renaissance "into what is clearly a realistic depiction of black life." The book also lends more insight into Hughes's character than perhaps any other work that he wrote, including his autobiographies.

The way in which Hughes invents for his fictional persona, Sandy, a guitar-playing father and an aunt who promises to support him through high school and provide book money, is an intriguing construction of the boyhood that Hughes wished he had had. The novel shows the strains of Hughes's attempting to balance Mrs. Mason's desire for "the primitive" with Hughes's own views. Near the end of the book, Sandy imagines his race as "a band of dancers.... Black dancers · captured in a white world.... Dancers of the spirit, too. Each black dreamer a captured dancer of the spirit." But Sandy, unlike Mrs. Mason, rejects the notion that blacks are "dancers" by virtue of their genetics. "The other way round seemed better: dancers because of their poverty, singing because they suffered, laughing all the time because of the need to forget.... It was more like that, Sandy thought." So did Hughes, who found himself too restricted by Mrs. Mason's desire for African primitiveness. As Hughes later wrote in The Big Sea, "I was not Africa. I was Chicago and Kansas City and Broadway and Harlem." But, as Faith Berry points out, Hughes was just as restricted by the social and political implications of Mrs. Mason's love of the primitive. If African Americans were dancers, singers, and laughers because of their situation, then Hughes wanted to get on with the business of changing their lot.

                                                            A TURN TO THE LEFT
    Good morning, Revolution:
    You're the very best friend
    I ever had.
    We gonna pal around together from now on.

("Good Morning, Revolution," from Good Morning, Revolution)

Hughes's celebrated turn to the political left in the 1930s was not
a very hard turn. As Berry points out, Hughes had published poems in
the Workers Monthly as early as 1925. Hughes, like many African
Americans, was attracted by the fact that the Communists were the only
white party that called for the complete end of segregation, and he
appreciated their efforts in the defense of the Scottsboro defendants,
nine young African Americans who had been convicted on suspect
evidence of raping two white women in Alabama in 1931. Well into the
1940s, Hughes reminded readers of the Chicago Defender that
Moscow was a city where there was no color bar · a fact to which he
could personally attest from his stay in the Soviet Union in
1933-1934. Hughes was never a member of the Communist Party, but the
radicalism expressed in such poems as "Black Workers" was not a
passing fancy.

    The bees work.
    Their work is taken from them.
    We are like the bees ·
    But it won't last
    Forever.

As Richard Barksdale observes in Langston Hughes: The Poet and His Critics, Hughes's move "from folk poet to ‘indignant proletarian reformer’" was widely held to be "unfortunate" for his artistic career.

One poem, "Goodbye Christ" (in Good Morning, Revolution), written in the early 1930s, came back to haunt Hughes. It begins:

    Listen, Christ,
    You did alright in your day, I reckon ·
    But that day's gone now

Later in the decade, religious and conservative groups picketed readings by Hughes, which caused cancellations of engagements. Hughes was forced to publicly repudiate the sentiments in the poem, a discouraging action that brought further criticism from the left. From 1940 until his death in 1967, Hughes was cautious in his public dealings with the Communists, but continued to contribute radical poems to the New Masses and People's World as late as 1946.

Hughes found the mainstream literary marketplace a bad medium for radical verse. Knopf, which had already brought out three books of verse by Hughes, turned down a collection of political poems, which came out as A New Song (1938) from the International Workers Order. Between The Dream Keeper in 1932 and Shakespeare in Harlem in 1941, this was the only volume of poetry Hughes published. Few of these songs ever reappeared in later poetic books, not even the powerful "Let America Be America Again," which opens:

    Let America be America again.
    Let it be the dream it used to be.
    Let it be the pioneer on the plain
    Seeking a home where he himself is free.
    (America never was America to me.)

When Hughes chose the texts for The Langston Hughes Reader (1958) and Selected Poems (1959), both published by mainstream New York houses, he attempted to erase most of the poetry of the 1930s from the record.

Hughes's turn to the left was also a turn to the world outside the predominantly African American community within which he had made his literary career in the 1920s. In 1930, he traveled to Cuba, where he was met by a delegation including the poet Nicolás Guillén , and then to Haiti, where he met with the Haitian writer Jacques Roumain. Hughes later translated works of Guillén, Roumain, and other Caribbean authors into English. In 1932-1933, he traveled to the Soviet Union in order to work on a film about race relations in the American South, Black and White. The movie project was soon abandoned, but Hughes finally returned to San Francisco in 1934 via Siberia, China, Japan, and Hawaii. Upon his return, he lived at the home of Noël Sullivan in Carmel, where his neighbors included the poet Robinson Jeffers and the muckraker Lincoln Steffens. In 1937, he went to Madrid to report on the Spanish Civil War. In no other decade did Hughes so often offer the hope that blacks and whites working together could overcome the problems of racism and poverty, and in no other decade did he meet so many whites who were equally sincere in that goal. Many of them, like Hughes himself, later paid for that hope by being hauled before the House Un-American Activities Committee and Senator Joseph McCarthy.

Hughes certainly never turned away from the African American journals that had carried his work in the 1920s. He published nearly as many poems in Opportunity from 1931 to 1940 as in the New Masses, for example, and many of these poems had more in common with the contents of The Weary Blues than with "Good Morning, Revolution" or "Goodbye, Christ." "Genius Child" (with its grim ending: "Nobody loves a genius child./ Kill him · and let his soul run wild!") reprises the personal despair sounded in a number of poems of the 1920s, many of which were collected in the small, privately printed Dear Lovely Death (1931). And the often reprinted "Florida Road Workers" borrowed the ironic voice heard in Fine Clothes to the Jew:

    Hey, Buddy!
    Look at me!
    I'm makin' a road
    For the cars to fly by on,
    Makin' a road
    Through the palmetto thicket
    For light and civilization
    To travel on.
    I'm makin' a road
    For the rich to sweep over
    In their big cars
    And leave me standin' here.
    Sure,
    A road helps everybody.
    Rich folks ride ·
    And I get to see 'em ride.
    I ain't never seen nobody
    Ride so fine before.
    Hey, Buddy, look!
    I'm makin' a road!

Many of Hughes's poems, like "Mother to Son" and the contents of The Negro Mother and Other Dramatic Recitations (1931), are dramatic monologues, so it is not surprising that Hughes harbored thoughts about becoming a playwright. He made several attempts in the late 1920s, notably the tragedy Mulatto, which in 1935 became the first play by an African American to appear on Broadway, and the comedy Mule Bone, written in cooperation with Hurston. The two authors had a falling out just before the play was to open in Cleveland. The text has been published by Henry Louis Gates, and the drama had its first performance in 1991 in New York. Hughes returned to drama after the break with Mrs. Mason, and during the 1930s he wrote more than nine plays, some of them racial in theme, like Little Ham, When the Jack Hollers, and Soul Gone Home, and some which reflected his radical politics, like Scottsboro Limited (1932), Don't You Want to Be Free?, and Angelo Herndon Jones. Hughes also collaborated on an opera, Troubled Island (1949), with the composer William Grant Still. On the whole, however, Hughes was not able to bring the sustained dramatic tension found in many of his monologues to the stage.

Two of his most significant publications in these years were the classic children's book, Popo and Fifina (1932), written with Arna Bontemps, and a collection of short stories, The Ways of White Folks (1934). In a typically "simple," yet subtle chapter title in his second autobiography, I Wonder As I Wander, "D. H. Lawrence between Us," Hughes relates how his desire to read Lawrence angered a lover. But the title also places Lawrence between Hughes and the reader, for Hughes says that the inspiration for the first stories of The Ways of White Folks came from reading the stories in Lawrence's The Lovely Lady. "If D. H. Lawrence can write such psychologically powerful accounts of folks in England, that send shivers up and down my spine, maybe I could write stories like his about folks in America." Hughes was particularly drawn to Lawrence's tales of "possessive people." In many of the stories in The Ways of White Folks, Hughes investigates how, fifty years after the end of slavery, whites still look upon African Americans as "possessions." As Maryemma Graham says, in this volume Hughes depicts "the cultural legacy of racism and its inherent features, interracial hypocrisy, sexual exploitation, and psychological repression" with a dry, ironic voice.

In "The Blues I'm Playing," a white patron, like Hughes's own Mrs. Mason, tries to dissuade her young black protégé from both marriage and the blues. Hughes contrasts Oceola's deep emotional life with the sterile, loveless, unappealing white world of her patron. In "Poor Black Fellow," a white couple cannot understand why the son of their maid, who they raised as their "own" after her death, refuses to accept their view of his place in the world. The word "own" recurs throughout the book; in "A Good Job Gone," a woman of the evening complains of her white client: "Just because they pay you, they always think they own you. No white man's gonna own me." Much of the tension in the stories comes from the confrontation between blacks who have put "slavery days" behind them and whites who have not. The book ends with the story "Father and Son," in which a white father views his mulatto offspring as "Cora's children" and insists, "I don't have trouble with my colored folks. They do what I say or what Talbot says, and that's all there is to it." The one son who asserts his birthright kills his father in a confrontation and then shoots himself to avoid a lynch mob.

In 1940, Hughes published his first autobiography, The Big Sea. New attention to the nature of African American autobiography as a genre helps us understand why Hughes seems reluctant to "confess." Hughes stands throughout the book both as an individual and a representative of his race. The poverty and racial exclusion that he encountered was experienced by nearly all African Americans, a fact that Hughes wants to keep before us. Further, Hughes's personal successes are not simply a sign of his innate talent, but also evidence that many African Americans have the ability to be poets and artists if given the opportunity. Like the characters in The Ways of White Folks, Hughes depicts himself involved in struggles against others who view him as a "possession" and who see his race as inferior. The first major challenge comes from his self-hating father, who offers the young Hughes wealth if he gives up his idea to be a poet among blacks. And the next challenge comes from his white patron, Mrs. Mason, who promises financial security if Hughes abdicates his artistic freedom. As Hughes shows in the stories of The Ways of White Folks, slavery might have been abolished, but the attitudes remained. The Big Sea is a tale of Hughes's escape to freedom, so that at the end he can begin anew as a full-time writer. Rampersad says that "the powerful ability of the text to convince its readers derives most from its astonishingly simple, water-clear prose, which certifies the integrity of Hughes's narrative." Yet, as we have seen, the simple style does not actually certify the integrity of the narrative, for Hughes did not, for example, write the version of "When Sue Wears Red" when he was in high school as the text suggests.

                                                            THE RETURN TO HARLEM
    So we stand here
    On the edge of hell
    In Harlem
    And look out on the world
    And wonder
    What we're gonna do
    In the face of what
    We remember.

("Harlem," from The Panther and the Lash: Poems of Our Times,
1967)

The publication of Shakespeare in Harlem, says Barksdale,
announced to the literary world that Hughes had returned poetically to
Harlem. And not just poetically, for in 1941 Hughes moved to Harlem
and made it his home for the rest of his life. Barksdale says of
Shakespeare in Harlem that after "the somewhat frenetic
international traveling of the 1930s and after the years of outspoken
commitment to radical political and social causes, his literary
homecoming was rather quiet. In fact the poems in this volume reflect
a return to the folk poet" of The Weary Blues and Fine
Clothes to the Jew
. Hughes's picture of the life of African
Americans in this volume lacks the exuberance of many of his poems
which were written during the Harlem Renaissance, a difference that
might stem partly from the fact that things were, in fact, grimmer
after years of the Depression and also from the fact that a man at
forty has less natural optimism, and less interest in doing the
Charleston, than a man of twenty-four. With Shakespeare in
Harlem
, Hughes again writes extensively in the blues form he had
utilized extensively in Fine Clothes to the Jew, but almost
abandoned in the 1930s. "Evenin' Air Blues" ends:

    But if you was to ask me:
    How de blues they come to be,
    Says if you was to ask me
    How de blues they come to be ·
    You wouldn't need to ask me:
    Just look at me and see!

Hughes also included a number of "ballads," poems with a similar tone and theme to his blues poems but that had four-line instead of six-line stanzas, like "Ballad of the Girl Whose Name Is Mud."

    A girl with all that raising,
    Its hard to understand
    How she could get in trouble
    With a no-good man.

The most powerful pieces in the volume are those that deal with race and segregation, like "Merry-Go-Round" and "Ku Klux" (which opens: "They took me out/ To some lonesome place./ They said, ‘Do you believe/ In the great white race?’").

Hughes became a major voice for equal treatment for African Americans in the armed forces after the beginning of World War II, and a group of poems on this theme, entitled Jim Crow's Last Stand, was published by the Negro Publication Society of America in 1943. One poem, "Red Cross," dealt with the segregation of blood donations:

    The Angel of Mercy's
    Got her wings in the mud,
    And all because of
    Negro blood.

That year also saw the appearance of two of Hughes's most enduring creations. In his "Here to Yonder" column in the Chicago Defender, which he began writing in November 1942, Hughes introduced the character of Simple, or Jesse B. Semple, a Harlem everyman who converses about life with a more educated companion in the confines of Paddy's Bar. In the first columns, the subject was naturally about the war and segregation in the army. But Hughes then branched out to examine Simple's relations with his wife, from whom he is separated; his "good" girlfriend, Joyce; his "bad" girlfriend, Zarita; and his landlady. Hughes, with his uncanny ear, captured the speech of Harlem, and readers wrote in saying that they knew someone like Simple. But the truth is that no one in a bar had conversations like those that Simple had with his companion. For at the heart of the Simple stories is the question, as put by Simple himself, "What do you mean by all that language?"

        "If you hadn't quit your wife, you wouldn't need a
divorce," I said. "If I had a wife I would stay with her," said
Simple.

        "You have never been married, pal, so you do not know how hard
it is sometimes to stay with a wife."

        "Elucidate," I said, "while we go into the bar for a beer."

        "A wife you have to take with a grain of salt," Simple
explained, "but sometimes the salt runs out."

        "What do you mean by that parable?"

        "Don't take seriously everything a wife says."

This is not the sort of conversation one might hear in a bar, in Harlem or elsewhere, largely because Simple's first comment, which ends the part of the dialogue one might hear in a bar, needs no further analysis. At this point one might expect commiseration, teasing, expressions of relief from the unmarried, but not "elucidation." Instead of elucidation, Simple "explains," and in turn is asked what he "means by that parable," which leads to a discussion of how to interpret what a wife "says." Simple's comments are filled with wordplay, as when he says: "In this life, I been underfed, underpaid, undernourished and everything but undertaken... and that ain't all, I been abused, confused, misused an' accused." Simple often puns on the larger vocabulary of his companion, as when Simple's girlfriend Joyce tells him, "Don't insinuate." "Before you sin, you better wait," Simple responds. And in many of the stories, as Donald Dickinson in his American Writers essay in 1979 noted, "Simple has the final word in a brief flash of wit." It is surprising that in the 1970s and 1980s, when deconstructionist and structuralist criticism were in vogue, scholars did not examine the Simple stories at the metatextual level to assess what all this language about language means.

It is said that after Samuel Beckett wrote Krapp's Last Tape, a male monologue, he then felt the need to compose Happy Days, a female counterpart. Something similar seems to have happened with Hughes, for soon after the appearance of Simple, Hughes created Madam Alberta K. Johnson, "Madam to you." Her similarity to Simple can be seen from "Madam's Calling Cards":

    I had some cards printed
    The other day.
    They cost me more
    Than I wanted to pay.
    I told the man
    I wasn't no mint,
    But I hankered to see
    My name in print.
    MADAM JOHNSON,
    ALBERTA K.
    He said, Your name looks good
    Madam'd that way.
    Shall I use Old English
    Or a Roman letter?
    I said, Use American.
    American's better.
    There's nothing foreign
    To my pedigree:
    Alberta K. Johnson ·
    American that's me.

The irregular stanzas are much more effective than the four-line ballads in Shakespeare in Harlem because Madam has a stronger personality than the other speakers, and the irregularity of the line lengths can be attributed to the fact that she is semiliterate. And, like Simple, Madam often gets the upper hand by a semantic twist in the last line. If Madam proved less durable than Simple, it was largely because the dialogue form of the stories was more malleable than the monologues of the Madam poems. Still, the volume One-Way Ticket (1949) opens with twelve poems in which "Madam" offers her view of the world.

Hughes published one other volume of verse in the 1940s, Fields of Wonder (1947). It contains new poems along with pieces that date from the early 1920s but were left out of his earlier books. And thematically Hughes thought of it as his lyrical volume, with "lyrical" also encompassing nonracial or nature poems. Two sections of the book, "Stars over Harlem" and "Words Like Freedom," carry racial and political overtones, but the bulk of the volume contains works like "Distance Nowhere":

    I used to wonder
    About living and dying ·
    I think the difference lies
    Between tears and crying.
    I used to wonder
    About here and there ·
    I think the distance
    Is nowhere.

Hughes had chastised Countee Cullen in "The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain" for desiring to "be a poet · not a Negro poet," which Hughes had interpreted as a desire to write like a white poet and, in essence, a desire to be white. Hughes may not have wanted to be white in 1947, but he wanted to have a volume of poetry, which, like volumes the white poets published, was not centered primarily on race. Fields of Wonder has received less attention from critics than Hughes's other work, in part for its very lack of attention to race. R. Baxter Miller has tried to recuperate the lyric voice of Fields of Wonder by showing how the poems, like "Desert," exhibit "a real concern with community." Still, Hughes ironically had predicted in his essay "My Adventures as a Social Poet" what the result would be, when he said: "Try as I might to float off into the clouds, poverty and Jim Crow would grab me by the heels." Hughes was rarely able to accomplish such a flight.

One-Way Ticket includes the racial and political poems written since Shakespeare in Harlem along with a few earlier pieces that had not been reprinted. The book starts out with twelve poems featuring Madam Alberta K. Johnson, and includes the strong "Note on Commercial Theatre":

    You've taken my blues and gone ·
    You sing 'em on Broadway
    And you sing 'em in Hollywood Bowl,
    And you mixed 'em up with symphonies
    And you fixed 'em so they don't sound like me.
    Yep, you've done taken my blues and gone.
    You also took my spirituals and gone.
    You put me in MacBeth and Carmen Jones
    And all kinds of Swing Mikados
    And in everything but what's about me ·
    But someday somebody'll
    Stand up and talk about me,
    And write about me ·
    Black and beautiful ·
    And sing about me,
    And put on plays about me!
    I reckon it'll be
    Me myself!
    Yes, it'll be me.

and "Visitors to the Black Belt":

    You can talk about
    Across the railroad tracks ·
    To me it's here
    On this side of the tracks.
    You can talk about
    Up in Harlem ·
    To me it's here
    In Harlem.
    You can say
    Jazz on the South Side ·
    To me it's hell
    On the South Side:
        Kitchenettes
        with no heat
        And garbage
        In the halls.
    Who're you outsider?
    Ask me who I am?

The blues poems seem old; indeed, one of them, "Too Blue," with its echo of Hughes's early famous poem, seems to suggest that he has reached his limit in the genre. It opens:

    I got those sad old weary blues
    And I don't know where to turn.
    I don't know where to go.
    Nobody cares about you
    When you sink so low.

In many respects, the poems of One-Way Ticket suggest that Hughes did not know where to turn. He could still turn out moving poems about race in America, but he had not seemed to grow between Shakespeare in Harlem and One-Way Ticket and certainly did not seem to be looking for ambitious new fields to till. In retrospect, however, some of the short poems of One-Way Ticket, like "Raid," "Deceased," and "Blues on a Box" suggested what Hughes would try next. But they hardly prepared readers for the "long" poem Montage of a Dream Deferred (1951).

                                                            THE VOICE OF A DREAM DEFERRED
    Lulu said to Leonard,
    I want a diamond ring.
    Leonard said to Lulu,
    You won't get a goddamn thing!
        A certain
        amount of nothing
        in a dream deferred.

("Same in Blues," in Montage of a Dream Deferred)

Montage of a Dream Deferred certainly owes a debt to
Gwendolyn
Brooks's A Street in Bronzeville, another poetic
sequence that attempts to offer a picture of life in the African
American section of a major city. The opening section of A Street
in Bronzeville
, "Kitchenette," asks:

    But could a dream send up through onion fumes
    Its white and violet, fight with fried potatoes
    And yesterdays' garbage ripening in the hall
    Flutter, or sing an aria down these rooms
Even if we were willing to let it in,
    Had time to warm it, keep it very clean
    Anticipate a message, let it begin?

Hughes's long poem, like Brooks's, would also examine the state of "the dream" among urban African Americans. But in virtuosity of form and linguistic invention, Montage of a Dream Deferred surpasses both A Street in Bronzeville as well as Melvin Tolson 's Harlem Gallery (1965) as the "epic" of African American poetry. The contrast between Brooks's opening, which fits an African American viewpoint into a modernist form, and Hughes's first section could not be more striking.

        "Dream Boogie"
    Good morning, daddy!
    Ain't you heard
    The boogie-woogie rumble
    Of a dream deferred?
    Listen closely:
    You'll hear their feet
    Beating out and beating out a ·
        You think
        It's a happy beat?
    Listen to it closely:
    Ain't you heard
    Something underneath
    Like a ·
        What did I say?
    Sure,
    I'm happy!
    Take it away!
        Hey, pop!
        Re-bop!
        Mop!
        Y-e-a-h

In short segments, Hughes illustrates how the economics of poverty perverts dreams. In "Sister," the mother tells her son:

    Did it ever occur to you, son,
    the reason Marie runs around with trash
    is she wants some cash?

Amidst such poems, Hughes places "Juke Box Love Song," which reads like a Hughes poem about the vibrant Harlem of the 1920s, and, if the text is read as the love song on the juke box, can be seen as an oldie that plays among relationships centered on money.

    Take Harlem's heartbeat,
    Make a drumbeat,
    Put it on a record, let it whirl,
    And while we listen to it play,
    Dance with you till day ·
    Dance with you, my sweet brown Harlem girl.

In a preface Hughes said that "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 a jam session." Critics have tended to view the poem as if it were a jam session, to discuss whether the fusion of jazz and poetry works, and to compare it to the songs or recordings of famous blues artists. That is missing the point, for jazz is simply one element in the creation of the poem. For example, the title of the poem, Montage of a Dream Deferred clearly points to another art form marked by conflicting changes, sudden nuances, and sharp and impudent interjections, and suggests that the whole is meant to be a collage in the style of Romare Bearden as much as a jam session.

Montage of a Dream Deferred is the African American epic because its disparate parts do in fact present a forceful picture of Harlem that combines the language and forms of the place within the artistic framework used in the modern American epic poem of place, like William Carlos Williams ' Paterson, Charles Olson 's The Maximus Poems, and Melvin Tolson's Harlem Gallery. If Hughes's long poem has not always been granted that status, it is because criticism has yet to deal with the poem as a whole, rather than in pieces, and because many critics have not recognized, let alone fully treated, Hughes's achievement of building a poetic sequence on the forms and language of a pop culture which was beyond the knowledge of the intellectual establishment. Now that ethnic culture has become mainstream, and hip-hop has extended beyond its African American origins, we should finally be able to catch up to Hughes.

Hughes continued to publish poems in the 1950s, but his focus was elsewhere and it was his least productive decade poetically. Hughes himself had said that he was a "social poet," and in the early part of the decade, before his appearance in Washington before the House Un-American Activities Committee, he was keeping anything controversial at arm's length. He was able to survive the ordeal only slightly singed. He repudiated some of his radical verse as the youthful zeal of a young man, but he was not required to speak about friends and associates. It is worth noting that, both before and after acting "simple" before the committee, Hughes was engaged in transforming his Simple columns into books.

The first volume of Simple stories, Simple Speaks His Mind, appeared in 1950, followed by Simple Takes a Wife (1953), Simple Stakes a Claim (1958), and Simple's Uncle Sam (1965); there was also a play, Simply Heavenly (collected in Five Plays), which premiered in 1957. Harper, in her book Not So Simple, has investigated how Hughes altered the newspaper columns for book publication in order to form a coherent whole and to reach a multiracial audience. Audience was crucial to Hughes; he often altered a poem which he had published in an African American journal before he presented it to a white audience. Harper's study is the first to analyze this process in depth.

Hughes continued to oppose segregation at home as well as speaking out against colonialism abroad. He contributed "Memo to Non-White Peoples" to the South African journal Africa South (collected in Good Morning, Revolution).

    They will let you have dope
    Because they are quite willing
    To drug you or kill you.
    They will let you have babies
    Because they are quite willing
    To pauperize you ·
    Or use your kids as labor boys
    For army, air force, or uranium mine.
    They will let you have alcohol
    To make you sodden and drunk
    And foolish.
    They will gleefully let you
    Kill your damn self any way you choose
    With liquor, drugs, or whatever.
    It's the same from Cairo to Chicago,
    Cape Town to the Caribbean,
    Do you travel the Stork Club circuit
    To dear Old Shepherd's Hotel?
    (Somebody burnt Shepherd's up.)
    I'm sorry but it is
    The same from Cairo to Chicago,
    Cape Town to the Carib Hilton,
    Exactly the same.

Hughes's next volume of verse, however, was another long poem, Ask Your Mama: 12 Moods for Jazz (1961). In this work, Hughes attempts to fuse words and music, providing musical notations and instructions for accompaniment. The basic theme was again the deferred dream of civil rights in America and the world at large. The first section opens:

    IN THE
    IN THE QUARTER
    IN THE QUARTER OF THE NEGROES
    WHERE THE DOORS ARE DOORS OF PAPER
    DUST OF DINGY ATOMS
    BLOWS A SCRATCHY SOUND.
    AMORPHOUS JACK-O'-LANTERNS CAPER
    AND THE WIND WON'T WAIT FOR MIDNIGHT
    FOR FUN TO BLOW DOORS DOWN.

Hughes recognized that his new work was difficult and so provided "Liner Notes for the Poetically Unhep," which give brief prose summaries of the issues engaged with in the sections of the poem. For the opening lines of the poem, Hughes wrote, "In Negro sections of the South where doors have no resistance to violence, danger always whispers harshly. Klansmen cavort, and havoc may come at any time." This hardly seems to be necessary information. At other times, the notes are only two or three sentences, which note the overall theme but fail to elucidate thorny passages. It is possible that Hughes was poking fun at the use made of notes by T. S. Eliot in The Waste Land and Melvin Tolson in Harlem Gallery, which many white critics hailed as the first truly African American modernist poem. At times the text seems to descend into a list of names.

Hughes's anger in this work was couched in the form of an insult, for both the title and some of the contents alluded to "the Dozens," a game of verbal abuse among African Americans in which derogatory comments are made about an opponent's female relatives. In Ask Your Mama, Hughes takes the Dozens outside the intra-ethnic environment in which it is usually played and puts it into the context of inter-ethnic situations, as, for example, in the section "Cultural Exchange":

    AND THEY ASKED ME RIGHT AT CHRISTMAS
    IF MY BLACKNESS, WOULD IT RUB OFF?
    I SAID, ASK YOUR MAMA.
    THEY ASKED ME AT THE PTA
    IS IT TRUE THAT NEGROES · · · ?
    I SAID, ASK YOUR MAMA

Or when Hughes speaks in "Horn of Plenty" of the experience of "the only Negroes on the block":

    THEY RUNG MY BELL TO ASK ME
    COULD I RECOMMEND A MAID.
    I SAID, YES, YOUR MAMA.

Although Hughes says in an introductory note that the "Hesitation Blues" provide "the leitmotif for this poem" neither in that note nor elsewhere in his remarks does he call attention to the importance of the Dozens for Ask Your Mama. So the poem has several metatextual significations depending on audience. Certainly white readers would know that, in the passages quoted, the "Ask Your Mama" answers to questions were supposed to be insults. But most would have to process those answers without the context of the tradition of the Dozens, in which the insults are a shared verbal game. In Ask Your Mama, the structure of the African American game appears to provide a cover for Hughes to offer insults that are not meant in fun. As with Simple, we are forced to come to grips with the problem of what is meant by all that language.

                                                            "STILL HERE"
    I've been scarred and battered
    My hopes the wind done scattered.
    Snow has friz me, sun has baked me.
        Looks like between 'em
        They done tried to make me
    Stop laughin', stop lovin', stop livin',
        But I don't care!
        I'm still here!

("Still Here")

Hughes's last collection, The Panther and the Lash, which
came out shortly after his death in 1967, is dedicated to Rosa Parks,
whose refusal to give up her seat on the bus sparked the Montgomery
bus boycott in 1955. This dedication signals the collection's concern
with social issues, with the civil rights movement at home, and with
the struggle to end colonialism abroad. The volume has been criticized
for offering contradictory political perspectives, sometimes
expressing an anger approaching militancy in "Black Panther" and at
other times offering a less assertive desire for integration. Part of
the reason was that The Panther and the Lash was a mixture of
old and new poems. "Daybreak in Alabama," the last poem in the book,
with its vision of unity ("And I'm gonna put white hands/ And black
hands and brown and yellow hands/ And red clay earth hands in it") was
written in 1940. Hughes's tone in his later poems on race and civil
rights was more impatient and angry.

"Sweet Words on Race" captures Hughes's growing impatience with
lack of progress toward the goal of real equality:

    Sweet words that take
    Their own sweet time to flower
    And then so quickly wilt
    Within the inner ear,
    Belie the budding promise
    Of their pristine hour
    To wither in the
    Sultry air of fear.

Hughes never lost his belief that the struggle was worth it. In another poem with a title that draws attention to language, "Question and Answer," he wrote:

    Durban, Birmingham,
    Cape Town, Atlanta,
    Johannesburg, Watts,
    The earth around
    Struggling, fighting,
    Dying · for what?
    A world to gain.
    Groping, hoping,
    Waiting · for what?
    A world to gain.
    Dreams kicked asunder,
    Why not go under?
    There's a world to gain.
    But suppose I don't want it,
    Why take it?
    To remake it.

Most of Hughes's enormous output was written to assist the remaking of the world. For Hughes, the poet was not just a dreamer, but also a dream keeper, a position that by its very definition had a social and political dimension. Donald Dickinson noted in his American Writers essay the irony in the fact that Hughes's reputation is stronger abroad than at home. One reason that Hughes looms large in the third world is that poets in those regions function as the dream keepers for their people living under the rule of colonial governments or military juntas. Hughes matters in places, that is, where poets and poetry still matter in the larger world. Hughes's writing is, according to Dickinson, "an illuminating and realistic portrait of the American black." But it is more than that. To a degree not yet completely recognized, it was an insightful investigation into the racial, social, and political meanings of the American language and an attempt to remake it. And he had amazing success. As Henry Taylor stated in his review of The Collected Poems in the New York Times Book Review,

    It is the rare poet whose words enter the culture with
the apparent durability of, say, "a dream deferred." Lorraine
Hansberry's play "A Raisin in the Sun," Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot's book
"I've Known Rivers" · the titles are phrases taken from the pen of
Langston Hughes, and so is "black like me." To lodge such fragments so
broadly and so deeply requires not only a gift for poetry but also an
unusual affinity with the language of popular speech and song.

Hughes not only had the gift and the affinity to lodge such fragments so broadly and deeply, he also had the intention.

Selected Bibliography

Works of Langston Hughes

POETRY

The Weary Blues. New York: Knopf, 1926.

Fine Clothes to the Jew. New York: Knopf, 1927.

Dear Lovely Death. Amenia, N.Y.: Troutbeck Press, 1931.

The Negro Mother and Other Dramatic Recitations. New York: Golden Stair, 1931.

The Dream Keeper and Other Poems. New York: Knopf, 1932.

A New Song. New York: International Workers Order, 1938.

Shakespeare in Harlem. New York: Knopf, 1942.

Jim Crow's Last Stand. Atlanta: Negro Publication Society, 1943.

Fields of Wonder. New York: Knopf, 1947.

One-Way Ticket. New York: Knopf, 1949.

Montage of a Dream Deferred. New York: Holt, 1951.

Selected Poems. New York: Knopf, 1959.

Ask Your Mama: 12 Moods for Jazz. New York: Knopf, 1961.

The Panther and the Lash: Poems of Our Times. New York: Knopf, 1967.

Don't You Turn Back. New York: Knopf, 1969.

The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes. Edited by Arnold Rampersad and David Roessel. New York: Knopf, 1994.

NOVELS AND SHORT STORIES

Not without Laughter. New York: Knopf, 1930.

The Ways of White Folks. New York: Knopf, 1934.

Simple Speaks His Mind. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1950.

Laughing to Keep from Crying. New York: Holt, 1952.

Simple Takes a Wife. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1953.

Simple Stakes a Claim. New York: Rinehart, 1958.

Tambourines to Glory. New York: Day, 1958.

Something in Common and Other Stories. New York: Hill and Wang, 1963.

Simple's Uncle Sam. New York: Hill and Wang, 1965.

The Return of Simple. Edited by Donna Sullivan Harper. New York: Hill and Wang, 1994.

Short Stories. Edited by Akiba Sullivan Harper. New York: Hill and Wang, 1996.

PLAYS AND OPERAS

Scottsboro Limited. New York: Golden Stair, 1932.

Troubled Island. With William Grant Still. New York: Leeds Music, 1949. (Opera in three acts. First production: New York City Opera, 1949.)

Five Plays. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1963. (Includes Mulatto, Little Ham, Soul Gone Home, and Simply Heaven.)

Mule Bone. With Zora Neale Hurston. Edited by Henry Louis Gates. New York: Vintage, 1991.

ESSAYS

The Sweet Flypaper of Life. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1955. (With photographs by Roy DeCarava.)

Black Misery. New York: Eriksson, 1969.

Langston Hughes and the "Chicago Defender": Essays on Race, Politics, and Culture. Edited by Christopher De Santis. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1995.

NONFICTION

Famous American Negroes. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1954.

Famous Negro Music Makers. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1955.

A Pictorial History of the Negro in America. With Milton Meltzer. New York: Crown, 1956.

Famous Negro Heroes of America. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1958.

Fight for Freedom: The Story of the NAACP. New York: Norton, 1962.

Black Magic: A Pictorial History of the Negro in American Entertainment. With Milton Meltzer. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1967.

CHILDREN'S BOOKS

Popo and Fifina. With Arna Bontemps. New York: Macmillan, 1932. Reprinted, New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.

The First Book of Negroes. New York: Watts, 1952.

The First Book of Rhythms. New York: Watts, 1954.

The First Book of Jazz. New York: Watts, 1955.

The First Book of the West Indies. New York: Watts, 1956.

The First Book of Africa. New York: Watts, 1960.

CORRESPONDENCE AND PAPERS

Arna Bontemps · Langston Hughes: Letters 1925-1967. Selected and edited by Charles Nichols. New York: Dodd Mead, 1980.

Hughes's papers are held by the James Weldon Johnson Collection, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University.

COLLECTED WORKS

The Langston Hughes Reader. New York: Braziller, 1958.

Good Morning Revolution: Uncollected Writings of Social Protest. Edited by Faith Berry. 2d ed. New York: Citadel Press, 1992. (Includes "Good Morning, Revolution," "Goodbye, Christ," "My Adventures as a Social Poet," and "Memo to Non-white Peoples.")

AUTOBIOGRAPHIES

The Big Sea. New York: Knopf, 1940.

I Wonder as I Wander. New York: Rinehart, 1956.

TRANSLATIONS

Roumain, Jacques. Masters of the Dew. New York: Reynal and Hitchcock, 1947. (Translated with Mercer Cook.)

Guillén, Nicolás. Cuba Libre. Los Angeles: Anderson and Ritchie, 1948. (Translated with Benjamin Carruthers.)

García Lorca, Federico. Gypsy Ballads. Beloit, Wis.: Beloit College, 1951.

Mistral, Gabriela. Selected Poems. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1957.

WORKS EDITED BY LANGSTON HUGHES

The Poetry of the Negro 1746-1949. With Arna Bontemps. New York: Doubleday, 1949. Revised edition, 1970.

The Book of Negro Folklore. With Arna Bontemps. New, York: Dodd, Mead, 1958.

An African Treasury: Articles, Essays, Stories, Poems. New York: Crown, 1960.

Poems from Black Africa. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1963.

New Negro Poets U.S.A. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1964.

The Book of Negro Humor. New York: Dodd, Mead 1966.

The Best Short Stories by Negro Writers: An Anthology from 1899 to the Present. Boston: Little, Brown, 1967.

BIBLIOGRAPHIES

Dickinson, Donald. A Bio-Bibliography of Langston Hughes, 1902-1967. 2d ed. Hamden, Conn.: Archon, 1972.

Mikolyzk, Thomas. Langston Hughes: A Bio-Bibliography. New York: Greenwood, 1990.

Miller, R. Baxter. Langston Hughes and Gwendolyn Brooks: A Reference Guide. New York: Garland, 1978.

O'Daniel, Therman. "A Selected Classified Bibliography." CLA Journal 11, no. 4:439-466 (June 1968).

CRITICAL AND BIOGRAPHICAL STUDIES

Barksdale, Richard. Langston Hughes: The Poet and His Critics. Chicago: American Library Association, 1977

Berry, Faith. Langston Hughes: Before and Beyond Harlem. 2d ed. New York: Citadel Press, 1992.

Bloom, Harold, ed. Langston Hughes: Modern Critical Views. New York: Chelsea House, 1989.

Emmanuel, James A. Langston Hughes. Boston: Twayne, 1967.

Gates, Henry Louis, and Anthony Appiah, eds. Langston Hughes: Critical Perspectives Past and Present. New York: Amistead, 1993.

Gibson, Donald. Five Black Writers: Essays on Wright, Ellison, Baldwin, Hughes, and Le Roi Jones. New York: New York University Press, 1970.

Harper, Akiba Sullivan. Not So Simple: The "Simple" Stories of Langston Hughes. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1995.

Jemie, Onwuchekwa. Langston Hughes: An Introduction to His Poetry. New York: Columbia University Press, 1976.

Johnson, Dianne. Telling Tales: The Pedagogy and Promise of African American Literature for Youth. New York: Greenwood, 1990.

Miller, R. M. Baxter. The Art and Imagination of Langston Hughes. Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1989.

Mullen, Edward J., ed. Critical Essays on Langston Hughes. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1986.

· · · . Langston Hughes in the Hispanic World. Hamden, Conn: Archon Books, 1977.

O'Daniel, Therman. Langston Hughes, Black Genius: A Critical Evaluation. New York: Morrow, 1971.

Ostrom, Hans. Langston Hughes: A Study of the Short Fiction. New York: Twayne, 1993.

Rampersad, Arnold. The Life of Langston Hughes. 2 vols. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986 and 1988.

Rollins, Charlemae. Black Troubador: Langston Hughes. Chicago: Rand McNally, 1970. (For young readers.)

Tracy, Stephen. Langston Hughes and the Blues. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1988.

Trotman, James C., ed. Langston Hughes: The Man, His Art, and His Continuing Influence. New York: Garland, 1995.

Wagner, Jean. Black Poets of the United States from Paul Lawrence Dunbar to Langston Hughes. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1973.

Individual articles are too numerous to provide, but special mention must be made of The Langston Hughes Review, a journal dedicated to the study of the poet.

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|H1479001548