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Langston Hughes

Langston Hughes was one of the best and most influential American poets. The descendent of enslaved African Americans and their white enslavers on his father's side, Hughes spoke both frankly and passionately about the problems of racism in the United States. And he spoke eloquently in a highly original voice that continues to influence American poetry and music to this day.

James Mercer Langston Hughes was born February 1, 1902, in Joplin, Missouri. His parents divorced and he was raised by his grandmother until age thirteen, which was around the time that he started writing poetry. While he is best known today for his innovative "jazz poetry" and as a leading figure of the Harlem Renaissance, Hughes actually spent most of his childhood in Lawrence, Kansas. In his 1940 autobiography The Big Sea he wrote: "I was unhappy for a long time, and very lonesome, living with my grandmother. Then it was that books began to happen to me, and I began to believe in nothing but books and the wonderful world in books — where if people suffered, they suffered in beautiful language, not in monosyllables, as we did in Kansas."

After graduating from high school, Hughes spent a year in Mexico with his father, writing one of his first important poems, "The Negro Speaks of Rivers," while riding the train to meet him. With his father's financial assistance, Hughes then enrolled at Columbia University to study engineering―his father's stipulation―but left after a year because he was upset by the racial discrimination he encountered. During that year he worked as an assistant cook, launderer and busboy. After leaving Columbia, Hughes traveled to Africa and Europe, working as a seaman and cook, before settling in Washington, D.C. in 1924. Hughes was "discovered" by the poet Vachel Lindsey around this time, when Hughes slipped him a poem while bussing his table! With Lindsey's help, Hughes' first book of poetry, The Weary Blues, was published in 1926. Having procured a scholarship, he graduated with a BA from Lincoln University in Pennsylvania three years later, then moved to New York City. In 1930 his first novel, Not Without Laughter, won the Harmon gold medal for literature.

Hughes claimed Paul Laurence Dunbar, Carl Sandburg and Walt Whitman as his primary influences. He is "particularly known for his insightful, colorful portrayals of black life in America from the twenties through the sixties" and "for his engagement with the world of jazz." (His work greatly influenced the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s.) Unlike the other best-known black poets of his day—Claude McKay, Jean Toomer, and Countee Cullen—Hughes "refused to differentiate between his personal experience and the common experience of black America. He wanted to tell the stories of his people in ways that reflected their actual culture, including both their suffering and their love of music, laughter, and language itself." Hughes "differed from most of his predecessors among black poets ... in that he addressed his poetry to the people, specifically to black people. During the twenties when most American poets were turning inward, writing obscure and esoteric poetry to an ever-decreasing audience of readers, Hughes was turning outward, using language and themes, attitudes and ideas familiar to anyone who had the ability simply to read ... Until the time of his death, he spread his message humorously—though always seriously—to audiences throughout the country, having read his poetry to more people (possibly) than any other American poet."

In addition to his justly famous and highly influential poetry, Hughes wrote eleven plays and numerous works of prose, including Simple Speaks His Mind, Simple Stakes a ClaimSimple Takes a Wife, and Simple's Uncle Sam. He also edited the anthologies The Poetry of the Negro and The Book of Negro Folklore, wrote an acclaimed autobiography, The Big Sea, and co-wrote the play Mule Bone with Zora Neale Hurston.

Langston Hughes died of complications from prostate cancer on May 22, 1967, in New York City. In his memory, his residence at 20 East 127th Street in Harlem has been granted landmark status by the New York City Preservation Commission and East 127th Street has been renamed "Langston Hughes Place."



Minstrel Man


Because my mouth
Is wide with laughter
And my throat
Is deep with song,
You did not think
I suffer after
I've held my pain
So long.

Because my mouth
Is wide with laughter
You do not hear
My inner cry:
Because my feet
Are gay with dancing,
You do not know
I die.



Freedom

Freedom will not come
Today, this year
Not ever
Through compromise and fear.

I have as much right
As the other fellow has
To stand
On my own two feet
And own the land.

I tire so of hearing people say,
Let things take their course.
Tomorrow is another day.
I do not need my freedom when I’m dead.
I cannot live on tomorrow’s bread.

Freedom
Is a strong seed
Planted
In a great need.

I live here, too.
I want freedom
Just as you.



Dreams

Hold fast to dreams
For if dreams die
Life is a broken-winged bird
That cannot fly.

Hold fast to dreams
For when dreams go
Life is a barren field
Frozen with snow.



Harlem

What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore—
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over—
like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?



Dream Variations

To fling my arms wide
In some place of the sun,
To whirl and to dance
Till the white day is done.
Then rest at cool evening
Beneath a tall tree
While night comes on gently,
Dark like me—
That is my dream!

To fling my arms wide
In the face of the sun,
Dance! Whirl! Whirl!
Till the quick day is done.
Rest at pale evening . . .
A tall, slim tree . . .
Night coming tenderly
Black like me.



As I Grew Older

It was a long time ago.
I have almost forgotten my dream.
But it was there then,
In front of me,
Bright like a sun—
My dream.
And then the wall rose,
Rose slowly,
Slowly,
Between me and my dream.
Rose until it touched the sky—
The wall.
Shadow.
I am black.
I lie down in the shadow.
No longer the light of my dream before me,
Above me.
Only the thick wall.
Only the shadow.
My hands!
My dark hands!
Break through the wall!
Find my dream!
Help me to shatter this darkness,
To smash this night,
To break this shadow
Into a thousand lights of sun,
Into a thousand whirling dreams
Of sun!



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.

Tomorrow,
I'll be at the table
When company comes.
Nobody'll dare
Say to me,
"Eat in the kitchen,"
Then.

Besides,
They'll see how beautiful I am
And be ashamed—

I, too, am America.

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