Literary works do not come from vacuum. Even when writers do not deliberately describe the societies they were living in or their personal lives, much can be learned from their work about the era in which they lived. A historical critical perspective of literature gives us, the readers, the opportunity to better comprehend the environment that underpinned a certain literary work, or to follow the authors’ course of life. Moreover, by relating the different elements of the work to their historical context, it is very likely to get a completely different understanding or the author’s intentions.
This paper examines the work of American poet Langston Hughes (1902-1967) from a historical point of view. More precisely, the analysis puts Hughes’s poetry in its historical context, in order to understand the position of Hughes as an individual as well as the societal framework in which Africans Americans lived in his times. In order to provide a comprehensive view, the paper will present Hughes’s views through his poetry and essays, as well as critically analyzing the era, the social construct and the poet’s personal life.
“A Negro Speaks”
In today’s atmosphere of political correctness, the issue of race is dealt with great caution. Fortunately or not, almost every discussion on “Black culture,” for instance, is tagged as racism or isolationism, leading to unwillingness to face the issue. Hughes, who published his first poem at 19 in a black children’s magazine called The Brownies’ Book (Rummel, 2005), belongs to a different era. As one of the leading voices of the Harlem Renaissance movement, Hughes was a keen advocate of the notion that black artists must not disregard their race and culture when they position themselves and their work. In a 1926 essay, Hughes wrote:
“One of the most promising of the young Negro poets said to me once, ‘I want to be a poet – not a Negro poet,’ meaning, I believe, ‘I want to write like a white poet’; meaning subconsciously, ‘I would like to be a white poet’; meaning behind that, ‘I would like to be white.’” (p. 692)
In his writing and political activism (including close relations with the Communist Party, as discussed below), Hughes’ primary attention is given to the rise of African Americans in many cultural spheres. This trend, which was a byproduct of the intense cultural activity in urban centers of African Americans (primarily Harlem), can be best seen through the rise of jazz and blues and their immense influence on the popular culture. It was just the same processes – urbanization, self-awareness and the emergence of a black intelligentsia – that have brought about the Civil Rights Movement and Martin Luther King, although in a gradual process. Hughes encouraged this flow, creating literary works that did not only represented the negro, but spoke directly to the negro. A great example is the 1945 poem “I, Too, Sing America”:
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.
International and Ideological Perspectives
The series of major historical events that took place during the first half of the 20th century stood in the heart of many of Hughes’s writings. These include, among others, the Great Depression, the rise of communism, the Spanish civil war and the Second World War. As described below, his opinions were often highly controversial and the affected the course of his career and writing.
In addition to his interest in Afro-American issues, Hughes was known for his sympathy for socialism and communism. This approach was influenced not only by the US Communist Party’s clear criticism on racism, but also from Hughes travels and acquaintance with communist regimes. With time, especially since Hughes came back from a journey in Russia, we can identify a gradual process of radicalization in his poetry as well as in the way it was accepted by the public (Rummel, 2005). One of the examples for his militant can be seen in Hughes 1935 poem “One More ‘S’ in the U.S.A.,” which was read in the Party’s convention that year:
Put one more S in the U.S.A.
To make it Soviet.
One more S in the U.S.A.
Oh, we’ll live to see it yet.
When the land belongs to the farmers
And the factories to the working men
The U.S.A. when we take control
Will be the U.S.S.A. then . . . (Rummel, 2005, p. 78)
Clearly, however, this kind of direct support in communism could not have left without a public backlash, especially after America’s recovery from the Great Depression. And as the American public developed an almost consensual opposition to communism, Hughes stopped publishing his radical poetry throughout the 1940s. Nevertheless, Hughes was called before the McCarthy committee in 1953, which regarded his pro-communist writing as an “un-American activity.” Interestingly, Hughes was not completely “blacklisted” (as many of his colleagues did), although the accusation caused some professional readings and appearances to be cancelled (ibid.).
Analyzing Four Selected Poems from a Historical Perspective
A great deal of Hughes’ works directly relate to the historical issues discussed above. This section presents and briefly analyzes four of these poems. It should be noted, however, that all the four deal with Negro issues, whereas Hughes’ political poetry dealt with a wide array of other issues, as discussed in the previous section.
As argued above, the 1945 “I, Too, America,” which discusses the role and the unique contribution of the Negro to American society, did not only spoke in the name of the Negro, but to the Negro. Hughes does not deny the fact that the Negro is deprived from his rights. However, he calls his brothers to “laugh/ And eat well/ And grow strong,” (Hughes, 1945) knowing that this is the way to gain equal rights.
The same open dialogue with the African Americans can be also observed in one of Hughes’ early poems, the 1921 “Aunt Sue’s Stories.” In this pseudo-childish poem, Hughes pays a tribute to the past of the black slaves in America. After describing Aunt Sue’s colorful tales about the slaves’ work and life, Hughes notes:
And the dark-faced child, listening,
Knows that Aunt Sue’s stories are real stories.
He know that Aunt Sue never got her stories
Out of any book at all,
But that they came
Right out of her own life. (Hughes, 1921)
The 1935 “Ballad of the Landlord” is a less enthusiastic view of the Negro problem. Here, the everyday life distress and weakness of the average Harlem tenant are demonstrated, perhaps offering an alternative explanation for reports on Negro violence. Zinn (2002) demonstrates the cool response among the white community to this poem, reporting the firing of a young Boston teacher who “dared” to teach the poem to his pupils. Interestingly, the teacher was maybe influenced from Hughes’ 1951 “Theme for English B,” which gives an account is a direct account of a young black student to his white teacher. The poem, which is written in the first-person, is yet another effort to break the walls between whites and blacks, explaining that race is not so decisive for the person’s personality (Rummel, 2005).
Hughes, L. (1921). Aunt Sue’s Stories. Retrieved September 2, 2009 from <http://wanderingcaravan-bronzebuckaroo.blogspot.com/2008/02/aunt-sues-stories.html>
Hughes, L. (1945). I, Too, Sing America. Retrieved August 25, 2009 from <http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/15615>
Hughes. L. (1926, June 23). The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain. The Nation, 122, pp. 692-694. Retrieved August 25, 2009 from <http://220.127.116.11/scholar?q=cache:QXOwIzl5N2YJ:scholar.google.com/+Langston+Hughes&hl=en>
Rummel, J. (2005). Langston Hughes, Poet. New York: Chelsea House.
Zinn, H. (2002). Postwar America, 1945-1971. Cambridge, MA: South End Press.
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