Compare August Wilson & Langston Hughes

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The works of Langston Hughes and August Wilson were revolutionary for their time, addressing issues such as poverty, discrimination, and racism towards African Americans. Hughes’ Harlem is a portrayal of socioeconomic issues faced by African Americans in the middle of the 20th century. He suggests that social change is inevitable and that people cannot be defeated. Hughes also addresses the problem of equal opportunities and highlights the challenges African Americans faced. Wilson’s plays document forms of discrimination as they changed during the 20th century. Both Hughes and Wilson believed that the strength of African Americans came from their commitment to their culture, identity, and history. They also shared a hope for a future where people from different social groups coexist peacefully and enjoy the same rights and opportunities.

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First of all, it is of paramount importance to mention that both Wilson’s and Hughes’ works were revolutionary at their time. They address such important issues as poverty, discrimination, racist and dehumanizing attitude toward African-Americans.

Hughes’ most known piece, “Harlem”, is perhaps the most accurate portrayal of the socioeconomic issues faced by African-Americans in the middle of the 20th century. When he wrote “Harlem”, almost twenty years passed since the times when Harlem Renaissance had come to its decline. As for the prosperous and conservative 50’s, it was an era of the so-called “white flight” when white citizens moved to the large cities, leaving African Americans in deteriorating and empty towns.  In “Harlem”, Hughes poses an inevitable question:

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“What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up

Like a raisin in the sun?..

Or does it explode?”

This poem stresses the strength of the African-American community and suggests that social change is inevitable. Hughes thinks that it will come like an “explosion” and implicitly states that people having their dreams, their culture and their identity can never be defeated. While America was created as the land of the free, its foundational principle of “liberty, equality, fraternity” came to the realization only in the second half of the 20th century. Hughes addresses this with his poetry by writing the following lines:

“Let it [America] be the pioneer on the plain

Seeking a home where he himself is free.”

Another important question raised by Hughes in “Let America be America again” is the problem of equal opportunities. He writes:

“But opportunity is real, and life is free,

Equality is in the air we breathe.”

Therefore, Hughes highlights numerous challenges African-Americans were facing yet was optimistic about the imminent change.

Wilson’s approach to describing issues facing African American community may seem more lighthearted yet it is not less effective in exposing the ills of the system that failed to guarantee equal rights of all citizens. For instance, in “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone” tells a story of an African American arbitrarily convicted for an unidentified crime for several years in prison. The value of Wilson’s work is that his plays document forms of discrimination as they were changing during the course of the 20th century. From the obvious and appalling injustice of the 1910s when “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone” is set, Wilson moves on to describing more subtle forms of oppression widespread during other historical epochs. In “The Piano Lesson” set in 1930s, the dream of a boy to buy the land on which his ancestors worked as slaves is explored. In “Fences” set during 1950s the discrimination is not the obvious, yet African Americans are still found being denied what they deserve by the white society.

Both Hughes’ and Wilson’s work believe that the strength of African Americans comes from their commitment to their own culture, identity and history. They also shared a hope for a future when people from different social groups will coexist peacefully in America and enjoy same right, same protection under the law and same opportunities for the pursuit of happiness.


Hughes, L. The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes. New York: Vintage, 1995.

Wilson, A. Fences. New York: Plume, 1986.

Wilson, A. The Piano Lesson. New York: Plume, 1990.

Wilson, A. Joe Turner’s Come and Gone. New York: Theatre Communications Group, 2008.


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