One of the most important men in the Harlem Renaissance was Langston Hughes. His identity was formed in the neighborhood of New York City although it was said that he had much travel in his life that he can be considered as the man with no roots at all. But Langston had his heart dedicated to voicing out the experiences and the sorrow of the African American people. During his time, he created poems, plays, and books about the black making real their status in the society. He was one of the great men who were against racism and inequality. He found direction in his life not just through writing but also to listening to jazz and blues. He was the kind of man who would sit in a bar and listen to music and in that way he created a new direction not just in his poetry but in art itself. His importance and value was seen in the way he made other blacks to reach out their longings to the society, their wanting not just to be free from racism but also to be seen and valued like the whites. Hughes spoke of value as a man for the Blacks.
The Harlem Renaissance characterized by new ideas was emphasized by Hughes through his music and poetry. One of his famous poem was “The Negro speaks of River” helped him make a good start in the world of poetry and cultural exposition.
The Negro Speaks of Rivers (to W. E. B. B. DuBois)
I’ve known rivers:
of human blood in human veins.
My soul has grown deep like the rivers.
I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young.
I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep.
I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it.
I heard the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln went
down to New Orleans, and I’ve seen its muddy bosom turn
all golden in the sunset.
In this poem, he gave significance to the “Blacks” being the builders of civilization, something that should be considered in history. For a long time, prior to the African American Cultural Movement, the black people have experienced injustice in different forms, whether at work, in school and in the community as a whole. Their existence was seen to be less than the white where some African American people would say that they never really existed at all. The poem speaks of the places known to every black, and it can be noticed that these places all have historical significance.
The persona and his comrades not only look for significance and visibility but also for home. The poem creates an image of longing for home where there is comfort and justice. The words “lulled me to sleep” are quite powerful for the readers to see what is being longed for by the persona, that’s none other than tranquility within. This can be related to the home that the blacks have searched for a long time in the community of whites who dominated and received the best of what the world could offer. The poem also raises the blacks’ voice of considering them the builders of growth and civilization because they have always been there, in the past, in the present and in the future. Hughes tried to create an immortal stand of the blacks against invisibility, an element that made racism flourish.
Another poem by Langston Hughes entitled “Dream Deffered” exposes sorrow and heavy burden in life. “What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun? Or fester like a sore and then run?” The poem is made of questions that seem to be unending. The tone is with hopelessness. The language used was simple, simple enough to be understood that it’s all about dreams of the blacks that were held long enough by time. Possibilities and ways of the process of disappearance can be seen in the poem like for example drying up from the heat of the sun which was mentioned a while ago.
The line “Does it stink in a rotten meat? Or crust and sugar over – like a syrupty sweet?” is another question that may be related to the kind of death that blacks experience. The image of a rotten meat suggests something mournful and intolerable while the latter is an image of a sweet death. It makes one wonder just how tolerable is it to just throw one’s body into the river because the one who died is not really that significant and his existence is not really valued, a very common scenario of the black people who are enslaved and sold to the market of the whites. But more than the question of privilege for a peaceful death is their “right” to have it. If they are removed of the privilege to have even a good burial or death, should the question on chances for a good fate be questioned still?
The tone for “Quiet Girl” can also be likened to “Dream Deffered” as it speaks also of grief over a status or position but the difference is that there is a glimpse of hope that can be seen in it. “I would liken you to a night without stars were it not for your eyes. I would liken you to a sleep without dreams were it not for your songs.” The night without stars can be seen as another hopeless case of some sort in the scene, however, it is given a sprinkle of a good chance through the eyes that was silently assumed to sparkle instead of the stars. The songs were made powerful in attaining a tranquil sleep even if there was no dream. The wonderful thing that can be derived from the poem is the sound of continuity of life despite some faulty circumstances in the lives of the black. There is the balance that is being claimed from the poem, the balance that could give meaning to the blacks’ existence.
But if there is one particular poem that can characterize the present African Americans, with the way they react and live in the present society, that would be the poem “Me and the Mule.”
My old mule,
He’s gota grin on his face.
He’s been a mule so long
He’s forgotten about his race.
I’m like that old mule —
Black — and don’t give a damn!
You got to take me
Like I am.
A mule that is known for its good working ability for an animal not only works for nothing, but also works for a master. But that can be one point of the poem. It can be seen also in a positive sense in the way that there is a courage directly shown from the mule and from the persona to not care, yes, not care at all from all the discrimination that he has experienced and from what the world tells about him. The mule just like the persona shall continue to live no matter how hard it is to exist and no matter how heavy the load seems. The present though doesn’t change the blacks’ past. Still, even after the Harlem Renaissance, it can’t be denied that they were still despised of their rights to experience a just treatment. But right now they are already visible, yet they will still be like the mule that won’t give a “damn” to the society’s offensive thoughts. Perhaps, just like the mule, giving no “damn” will make them live longer, and stronger.
Hughes was able to see and react on the basis of his position and his art, his love for music, poetry and plays made him more than a figure of the Harlem renaissance. He made himself and his race visible to the world and worth it of the great and positive changes with the way blacks are treated. More than a poet, Langston Hughes was the big difference of the Harlem Renaissance.
“A Renaissance Man.” April 23, 2007 <http://www.americaslibrary.gov/cgi-bin/page.cgi/aa/writers/hughes/renaiss_1>
“Langston Hughes.” April 23, 2007 <http://www.americaslibrary.gov/cgi-bin/page.cgi/aa/hughes>
“Langston Hughes Biography.” April 24, 2007 <http://www.redhotjazz.com/hughes.html>
“Langston Hughes.” April 24, 2007 <http://www.kirjasto.sci.fi/lhughes.htm>