Langston Hughes: Son of America, Father of a Renaissance
By Tara Mae
Writer Langston Hughes, a son of the United States, inherited the broken promise of opportunity for “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” and was a father of a cultural revolution, the Harlem Renaissance. His poem “I Too” is a direct response to Walt Whitman’s poem “I Hear America Singing.” It is an assertion that he has a right to the freedoms afforded to other citizens. “Let American Be America Again,” addresses the fact that the “great experiment” was not designed to succeed for everyone. And, some of his poetry contains allusion to another persecuted identity: that of a gay man. Hughes’ work is rooted in the other side of the American dream.
James Mercer Langston Hughes, born February 1, 1902, in Joplin, Missouri, was raised in a series of Midwestern towns. His parents divorced when he was a child, and his father, in a quest to escape endemic racism, left the country, journeying through Cuba and Mexico. Hughes’ mother left him in the care of his maternal grandmother, Mary Patterson Langston, as she traveled to find employment.
Langston raised Hughes to appreciate and understand his Black heritage and how it fit into the larger American narrative. He later recalled, “Through my grandmother's stories life always moved, moved heroically toward an end. Nobody ever cried in my grandmother's stories. They worked, schemed, or fought. But no crying." She instilled in him a desire to support his community, and he took her message to heart. Hughes wrote about everyday life for Black Americans and how systematic and systemic racism affected all aspects of that existence.
After spending years living in Lawrence, Kansas, he moved to Lincoln, Illinois to live with his mother and stepfather; they eventually settled in Cleveland, Ohio. Hughes had a strained relationship with his father, who he seldom saw. But during a rare, extended visit with him in Mexico, his father agreed to pay for his education if he studied engineering. While attending Columbia University in New York, Hughes, who began composing poetry and prose as a child and wrote for his high school newspaper, continued to write. Although he dropped out after his first year due to the discrimination he encountered from both students and faculty, he managed to attract the notice of New York publishers, in particular that of the NAACP’s official magazine, The Crisis.
Hughes left New York and found employment as a seaman and assistant to Carter G. Woodson, founder of the Association for the Study of African American Life and History. He quit the latter and became a busboy so he would have more time to focus on his writing. When he was 24 years old, he enrolled in Lincoln University, a historically Black college in Pennsylvania. Thurgood Marshall was a classmate. That same year, Hughes’ first book of poetry The Weary Blues was published.
In 1929, Hughes returned to New York and helped create one of the most influential cultural movements in United States history. The Harlem Renaissance, 1910s - mid 1930s, was a Black social and cultural revitalization, depicted through music, stage performance, art, and literature. Hughes was a prominent figure and leading voice of the Harlem Renaissance, composing short stories, plays, novels, and poetry.
Appreciative of and involved in the jazz scene, Hughes recognized music as its own language. He utilized rhythms of folk and jazz to inform the cadence of his poetry about racial pride and purposely used common vernacular to draw in a wider audience. Hughes strategically chose to share the stories of Blacks who lived in the lower social-enomic strata, and connected his personal life with the actuality of being Black in America. He examined how this reality intersected and diverged from the more commonly explored American story.
A frequent contributor to The Crisis, both his first and last published poems were featured in the journal. More of his work appeared in it than in any other publication. Hughes explored the psychological and practical ramifications of racism, an external force that was absorbed into the muscle memory of society. He identified prejudices based on skin color even within the Black community, and the impacts of such thinking.
He viewed Carl Sandberg, Paul Lawrence Dunbar, and Walt Whitman as his greatest literary influences. In “I Too,” Hughes recognizes that he and other Black Americans do not inhabit the country that Whitman describes in “I Hear America Singing.” His relationship to Whitman’s words is directly related to his understanding of racial inequalities. Whitman invokes Americans merrily engaged in meaningful labor. “Each singing what belongs to him or her and to no one else.” Every job is important for achieving personal fulfillment and the betterment of society. The work is the reward.
The white subjects in Whitman’s poem have different opportunities and are treated differently by society than the first person narrator of Hughes’ poem. Hughes advocated for racial consciousness and addressed the ways, big and small, seen and unseen, that racism hampered Blacks from having the same access to the American dream. It is evident in his poem; he acknowledges the disparity of experiences.
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.
I’ll be at the table
When company comes.
Say to me,
“Eat in the kitchen,”
They’ll see how beautiful I am
And be ashamed—
I, too, am America.
Despite or in spite of the segregation and discrimination he encounters, Hughes affirms that he is enjoying his life while recognizing the power of his existence. He anticipates being in a position to assert access to the rights that have been denied to him and other Blacks, a time when the nation will have to acknowledge that he is also an American and part of what makes it beautiful.
There is another connection to Whitman; Hughes is generally thought to have been gay. Some scholars dispute this theory, but there is evidence in his writing that gives it credence. His story “Blessed Assurance,” details a father’s anger at his son’s queerness and lack of gender heteronormativity. In specific instances, he uses the same ‘homosexual code” that Whitman used in much of his poetry. Speculation lingers because Hughes never directly elaborated on the topic of his sexuality. To remain closeted would have arguably been a self-protective measure. It was both professionally and personally dangerous to be gay, especially a gay Black man.
The America that Hughes references in “Let America Be America Again” only exists for some. Hughes recognizes that disenfranchisement in the United States is not exclusive to the Black experience, and identifies with other groups facing similar challenges. He notes that large portions of the country were built upon Black labor and suffering, yet Blacks were still forbidden or prohibited from fully participating in and benefitting from the nation’s founding tenets. Hughes determines that though discrimination has limited his access to opportunity, he will be successful. “America was never America to me,/And yet I swear this oath-/America will be!” Hughes is not giving up on his American dream.
Hughes connects this theme to the greater public, who must reclaim a commitment to the nation’s ideals.
We, the people, must redeem
The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.
The mountains and the endless plain—
All, all the stretch of these great green states—
And make America again!
For the principles outlined in the Constitution to be proven true, Hughes believes that a collective effort must be made. Work must be done to make it “the land of the free.”
When the Harlem Renaissance ended in the mid-1930s, Hughes had proven himself a prolific artist. Among his achievements, in 1930 his debut novel Not Without Laughter won the Harmon Gold Medal for literature, and he received a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1935. From 1942-1962, as the Civil Rights movement gained mainstream attention, Hughes wrote a detailed weekly column in the leading Black newspaper, The Chicago Defender. He remained very engaged with the art scene throughout his life, and continued to explore other creative enterprises, producing plays and co-founding theater groups.
On March 24, 1953, Hughes proved that he, like the United States, contained complex multitudes: he testified before the House on Un-American Activities. Politically active for many years and a proponent for many social justice causes, such as the attempt to save the Scottsboro Boys, his unexpected appearance at the proceedings cost him friendships with W.E.B Du Bois and Paul Robeson. From this point forward, Hughes’ poetry became less obviously political and more lyrical.
Until the end of his life, Hughes continued to write and publish. Acting as advisor and mentor to up-and-coming writers, such as Alice Walker, Hughes introduced them to the literary and publishing worlds. On May 22, 1967, Hughes died from complications following abdominal surgery related to prostate cancer. At the time of his death, the Civil Rights movement, which his writing helped structure and define, was fully engaged in seeking the establishment of a more free and equal country.