Poetry has been for many years a symbol of self-expression for many African American people, with the powers to enlighten and uplift the body mind and soul. Poetry has become such a powerful way to explain life and express emotions for many African American living in a land that appears to be filled with hatred and oppression. Poetry first became a recognizable part of African American life during the 1920's after World War I when blacks were migrating from the south to the north seeking prosperity. During this time Harlem New York, became the greatest city filled with a society producing a generation of African American artists who possessed enormous talent. This time period came to be known as the Harlem Renaissance. During this time period many blacks were enlightened by education, nourished through black music such as rhythm and blues and the black church.
Also during the time of the Harlem Renaissance Langston Hughes emerged and became one of the most prolific poets of all time. Hughes wrote not only poetry, he wrote several short stories, several books including children books, operas and plays. He was among one of the first to have his work nationally published and to have his plays seen on Broadway. Hughes was born in 1902, in Joplin Mississippi, into an abolitionist family. He was the grandson of Charles Henry Langston, brother to John Mercer Langston, who was the first African American to be elected to public office in 1805.
Hughes began to write poetry by the time he was in the eight grade. He had such a profound love for poetry that this worried his father. Much to Hughes dismay his father did not think that he could make a career out of poetry, so after high school he sent Hughes to Columbia University to study engineering. He dropped out a short time later with an above average in his studies, continuing to write his poetry.
In 1923 Hughes began traveling throughout Africa and Europe working many odd jobs. Through out his travels he wrote about his personal struggles as well as the struggles of the entire African American society. For most of his adult life he became sort of a representative through his work in explaining the plight of African American society. One of Hughes first published poems was one that he had written at the age of eighteen entitled, "The Negro Speaks of Rivers."Negro Speaks of Rivers" has earned Hughes a place amongst one of the greatest poets in United States. In "The Negro Speaks of Rivers" one is able to see Hughes depiction of the origins of the Negro in Africa; you are also able to see both his spiritual and physical human existence. This poem traces the movement of black life from the Euphrates and the Nile rivers in Africa to the Mississippi, in which Hughes exposes the treatment of the Negro, who is taken from his homeland into a land that be been less than kind.
More importantly, through "Negro Speaks of Rivers", Hughes depicts the existence of racial conditions of blacks and their struggle for modern self-identity. Also the poem portrays black life in the United States with such expression of realism that one can actually fell the pain and pride in this poem as he speaks of the human black sole. " Hughes captures the African American historical journey into America in what is perhaps his signature poem, "The Negro Speaks of Rivers", (Joanne V. Gabbing). In 1926 what was considered one of Hughes finest essays appeared in the magazine Nation entitled "The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain." Here Hughes speaks about black writers and poets who would "surrender racial pride in the name of false integration." Here he writes of about a talented black poet who wants to be considered a poet writing as a white poet, rather than a black poet. Hughes says that no poet should ever be afraid of being himself.
In this essay he wrote "We younger Negro artist now intent to express our individual dark-skinned selves without fear or shame. If white people are pleased we are glad. If, they aren't it doesn't matter. We know we are beautiful. And ugly too.
If colored people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, their displeasure doesn't matter either. We build our temples for tomorrow, as strong as we know how and we stand on the top of the mountain, free within ourselves (Andrew P. Jackson).
Unlike the character in his essay "The Negro Artists and the Racial Mountain", Hughes throughout all of his adult life, viewed himself primarily as a black poet. He did not shy away from writing about the treatment that not only he experienced as an African American he wrote about the race as a whole. "The identification of Hughes as a folk poet obscures the fact that he is a brilliant poet of ideas, and radical ideas at that. The concepts of negritude and sole, the politics of Black Power, the psychology of black rage, are so familiar to the children of the sixties that is comes almost a shock to realize that Hughes was presenting articulate and concrete images of them in his poetry in the twenties and thirties. (Adrian Okenbberg). Hughes lectured and wrote up until his death in 1967 of African American life.
He was a strong advocate for black society. His literary skills are so brilliant that whatever piece one may read or whichever play one may see, it is surely going to bring out some type of emotion, whether it is anger, sadness or happiness. This may be because his work although written many years ago still holds true today. Many African Americans still feel a since of hopelessness as was seen in his poem "The Weary Blue" where a musician felt such overwhelming sadness he wished that he were dead. But many on the other hand have a since a great pride as depicted in his poem "Black Hair" which has the message to love yourself because you are beautiful. In all of Hughes' work, he has a message, whether it is to express the treatment of black society or whether it is to express to black society to love you and your fellow brother we need to stand strong.
Although blacks are still fighting many of the same battles that Hughes wrote about in generation. It appears to be an on going cycle with very little improvement. One such struggle is the struggle for self-identity in a society that appears to still hold up barriers. Hughes not only talks about the treatment of African Americans from white society in his work, he also writes about how African Americans need to understand that they as an individual and people need not blame everything on white society. He explains through his work that African Americans need to stand up and be accountable for their own actions and to recognize that although faced with obstacles some things can be overcome through realization of self.
Hughes poetic contributions to society have been enormous. He is has been a great inspiration for many. There are new and emerging talents that are arising everyday. Young black poets are now being featured on cable television programs and in many poetry clubs all around America, continuing the same style of Langston Hughes and many others.