“The first two or three days, on the way home from school, little white kids, kids my own age, six and seven years old, who would throw stones at me – some of them. There were other little white kids, six and seven years old, who picked up stones and threw them back at their fellow classmates, and defend me, and saw that I got home safely. So, I learned very early in life that our race problem is not really of black against white, and white against black. It’s a problem of people who are not very knowledgeable, or who have small minds, or small spirits.”
This quote by Langston Hughes expresses an idea that would surface in almost every one of his works. Like other prominent leaders of the civil rights movement, Langston Hughes too had a dream. Can you describe what that dream might be from the description given in this quote?
Langston Hughes was not born in Harlem. He is not even a native New Yorker. He was born in Joplin, Missouri, and spent most of his childhood in Lawrence, Kansas. He became drawn to New York and Harlem in the early 1920’s because of the cultural movement blossoming there. The movement would become known as the Harlem Renaissance. Even during its first stirrings, Langston Hughes was understood to be one of its most promising talents. And while black intellectual and cultural activities during the early part of the twentieth century were by no means limited to New York City, Harlem was simply a mythical place. “I’d rather be a lamppost in Harlem than Governor of Georgia,” went a popular folk saying. The activity on and off the streets was constant. Inside cabarets, buffet flats, speakeasies, and ballrooms, each dancer, singer, and musician was more ingenious than the one that came before. “Harlem… isn’t typical- but it is significant, it is prophetic,” prophesized one of the movement’s godfathers Alain Locke. The two-mile section of northern Manhattan was known as the “black Mecca,” and claimed 200,000 black residents by 1928, the year the Renaissance was in full bloom. Hughes virtually swooned the first time he set foot in Harlem in 1924. He wrote in The Big Sea: “I was in love with Harlem long before I got there.” If only in symbolic terms, Harlem was Hughes’s first home.
Hughes once wrote, “What happens to a dream deferred?” During his life, Hughes devoted his art to the realization of that dream deferred, the dream of racial equality(Scott, p.1). It was a dream that can be found in most of his works – his poems, plays, short stories, novels, autobiographies, children’s books, and black histories (Scott,p.1). Hughes stated in 1965, “Many Americans seem to have the idea that art has little to do with life, you know, and poetry has even less to do with life than other forms of art. Well I don’t think that’s true at all.” Perhaps the reason Hughes’ poetry is so moving is that it reflects so much of his own life. It relates his own personal experiences with racism (Scott, p.1). These were experiences he encountered everywhere he spent his time. But it was in Harlem that those experiences found a voice. It was in Harlem that life met art.
Hughes was the voice of everday people. To Hughes, racial pride and racial equality were not tangible things to be mulled over in the halls of Congress or in the pages of legislation. Rather, they were concepts to be felt in the collective consciousness of Americans. The people who captured his imagination and populated his work, he said in The Big Sea, were "the ordinary Negroes [who] hadn't heard of the Negro Renaissance." This belief or concept is explained in his work "The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain," published in an African-American literary magazine called The Nation in 1926. The video clip below offers insight into what Hughes was saying in this work.
Although this site is not an anthology of Hughes' works, some of his more famous works are worth analyzing. In "The Negro Speaks of Rivers", Hughes examines some of the roles that blacks have played throughout history. The poem asserts that in every one of these aspects the black people have been made to suffer. And while the poem is in the first person and has a very personal tone, he represents black America as a whole. The link below contains audio of Hughes reading and explaining this work. As you read the poem and listen to Hughes' words, see if you can recognize some of the historical references he makes.
While Hughes was not considered a "revolutionary" in the sense that he did not advocate violence as a means to achieve racial equality, in some of his works, especially his poem "Democracy," there is a sense of urgency about when this "dream" of racial equality will come to his people. Click the link below to listen to Hughes read and review this work. As you listen, read along and pick out examples of this "urgency."
In "Harlem," Hughes asks what will happen to this dream of racial equality if it continues to be deferred or delayed. As you read and listen to his words, think about a time in your life when you were looking forward to something. What did you feel when that goal was delayed?
Perhaps Hughes' greatest legacy can be found in the way he inspired other artists to write or sing, and paint or draw. He highlighted the power of art on everyday people as a catalyst for social change. Writers during the Renaissance and later looked up to Hughes as a voice for their own experience. Some even dedicated their works to Hughes. Click the thumbnail below to view information about the Hughes work that inspired this piece of art by Prentiss Taylor. As you view the work, think about what you have taken from getting to know what Hughes accomplished. How does art touch your life? Remember that Hughes spoke and wrote about everyday people and the issues they faced. Have you ever read, watched, or listened to something that reminded you of the way you live or of something that has happened to you?