The Harlem Renaissance and Langston Hughes
The Harlem Renaissance was a great and powerful era in black history, “It was an African American cultural movement of the 1920s and early 1930s that was centered in the Harlem neighborhood of New York City” (“Harlem Renaissance”). Langston Hughes wrote “Blues and Jazz flourished throughout the streets of New York, and young black artists began to arise [. . .]” (63). An important part of this era had to be the inspirational writings of Langston Hughes. James Mercer Langston Hughes, born in Joplin, Missouri, February 1, 1902, was raised by his grandmother after his parents divorced (Sporre 551).
He graduated from high school in Cleveland, Ohio and went off to Mexico to live with his father for fifteen months (Jackson 1). While in Mexico, Hughes lived a very rural life and wrote many of his first poems which, although never published, began to distinguish him as a writer. Hughes attended Columbia University for one year, then returned to home for a short period in 1923 before he joined the crew of the SS Malone bound for Africa (“A Salute to Hughes”).
From there he visited many places including Paris, Venice and Genoa before once again returning to America to live in Harlem, New York, in November 1924 (Andrews 65-69). While working in Washington D.C. as a busboy, Hughes left three of his poems beside the plate of Vachel Lindsey, an American poet, who liked Hughes’ poetry and helped him publicize his writings (Jackson 3). Hughes’ first book of poetry, The Weary Blues, was published by Alfred A. Knopf in 1926 (“Langston Hughes”). He was a great writer who completed a two volume autobiography, and edited many anthologies and pictorial volumes. Hughes dazzled writing for forty years and never gave up protesting for the rights of African Americans. He gave many motivational speeches across the nation supporting the black movement. Hughes continued his career publishing many books of poetry and prose. Langston Hughes went on to inspire the world through his literature until his death in Harlem on May 22, 1967 (Sporre 551).
Living in Harlem, he soon discovered the culture and literary circle of the Harlem Renaissance. As best said in the Norton Anthology of African American Literature, “Hughes brought the spirit of the African American people to life, using blues and jazz as the basis of his poetic expressions [. . .]” (Andrews 1252). This is evident in some works such as The Negro Speaks of Rivers, and The Weary Blues. Most of his influences came from fellow black writers. Names such as, Dubois, Locke, Jesse Redmonfaset, Jean Toomer, Arna Bontemps, and Carl Van Vechten, inspired Hughes in his form and writing style (Andrews 929-930). His poems often portrayed the trials, tribulations, struggles and thoughts of a young Negro growing up in the twenties through sixties. His main goal was to express concern about the treatment of African Americans in this country, and to pursue civil and social justice. One of his most famous works is his continuing sage of Jesse B. Semple, also known as Simple. Hughes wrote columns about this fictional character, who dealt with very non-fictional problems. Jesse, who was really Hughes’ voice, expressed the views and ideas of young black Americans (Andrews 1252-1253). Creating Simple to be smart, strong witted and wise, allowed Hughes to publish and undermine the standard of our pretentious society, while ironically and humorously pointing out the hypocritical nature of American Racism (Andrews 1257-1263). Hughes went on writing four series of writings about Simple. Hughes used a variety of themes in both his poetry and his prose. Nathan Irvin Huggins wrote “His voice was very moving when he read his poems publicly. His voice was both rich and poetic and gave strong inspiration and love to the black community” (Andrews 1253). One work of his is particularly interesting. It shows the emotion and creativeness of the Harlem Renaissance in a few short lines. Hughes named this poem Cross.
If ever I cursed my black old mother
My old man died in a fine big house.
Being neither white nor black? (Andrews 1254).
This poem explores the emotions and troubles of a young man born into a world of confusion. Confused by his heritage but arrogant in his pride. He is growing up in the whirl of a white society, and cannot decide whether he is white or black. Hughes, using a black mother and white father, makes it easy for the reader to understand and almost foresee where this poem is going. It is evident that there is an inner sense of not belonging. He fells remorse for all the curses and bad wishes he said to his parents, now that they have died. This all part of a bigger problem. Now that his parents are both deceased, he has no one turn to. He can’t seem to figure out whether he is going to die in riches, or rags. This is the great dilemma Hughes presents to the reader, leaving them in query to this unanswerable question. He cannot seem to find any truth in himself whatsoever. Huggins had this to say of the poem, “This child is and forever will be lost in his own identity. Hughes uses this boys struggle symbolically, not to show the pressures of a crossed child, but rather to show how we as a society stereotype the races” (102-103). The white father dying in a fine house, whereas the mother dies in a shack, depicts the common view of the white race as being a more upscale and richer society, and the black culture oppressed in poverty and forever bound to the slums of the world. These questions and emotion are what made the Harlem Renaissance such an important movement for black America. For the first time in history, critics started taking a serious look at African American literature, and African American literature and arts attracted significant attention from the nation at large. This was what distinguished Hughes as a writer, a playwright and an activist. The Harlem Renaissance combined many great writers. Andrew P. Jackson wrote “Langston Hughes, in my opinion, may be considered the most powerful among the many [. . .] some said it was his voice, others said it was his love for the Negro, but it’s clear that it was his ability to enhance our love of humanity” (2).
“A Salute to Hughes.” Smithsonian Institution. ©1997 Smithsonian Institution. 20 Nov 2000. .
Andrews, William, et al. The Norton Anthology of African American Literature. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1997.
“Harlem Renaissance.” Microsoft® Encarta® Online Encyclopedia 2000. © 1997-2000 Microsoft Corporation. 19 Nov 2000. .
Huggins, Nathan Irvin. Harlem Renaissance. New York: Oxford UP, 1973.
Hughes, Langston. I Wonder As I Wander: An Autobiographical Journey. New York: Hill and Wang, 1956.
“Hughes, Langston.” Microsoft® Encarta® Online Encyclopedia 2000. © 1997-2000 Microsoft Corporation. 20 Nov 2000. .
Jackson, Andrew P. James Langston Hughes. 1993-1998 Red Hot Jazz Inc. 22 Nov 2000. .
Sporre, Dennis J. The Creative Impulse: An Introduction to the Arts. Upper Saddle River: Prentice-Hall, 2000.
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