Langston Hughes is widely considered one of the best poets who ever walked the earth. Many of his themes focused on the issues that were confronting the nation: race, equality and suffrage. The following sample paper on Hughes highlights some of his work that fell in line with this perspective. If you are working on this topic, consider using essay editing services from Ultius and see how our writers can help you.
Early Hughes: The General Perspective
Historically, human beings have been characterized in different groups according to physical characteristics. In the United States in the early 1920’s, dark skinned individuals were a specific target of segregation and racism in general. The racism associated with African-Americans was a general experience that persisted even after the abolishment of slavery. One effective means of alleviating racial stereotyping was relating African-Americans to whites within the same context of being American citizens. Langston Hughes, in his short poem The Negro Speaks of Rivers, utilized this concept to generalize not just being American, but the overall human experience throughout history. Hughes’ poem effectively related shared cultural and historical events to promote an integrated lineage among not just blacks and whites, but all races.
Hughes’ Black Perspective
In Birth, Rebirth, and the “New Negro” of the 1920’s, Gregory Singleton argued that Harlem Renaissance literature was effective because it drew on historical events related to blacks and whites. The shared heritage of American History was the key point in promoting unity despite the perceived differences among blacks and whites. “While it is undeniably true that literature of the Harlem Renaissance is integrally related to the black experience, it also is bound inseparably to a more general experience common to all Americans in the late nineteenth and early twentieth-centuries,” remarked Singleton (Singleton, 29). Essentially, Singleton argued that factors like decline in societal cohesion, the aftermath of the civil war and cultural leadership that emerged for both blacks and whites were shared experiences that black literature was based on (Singleton, 30). The essential premise is that sharing common experiences promotes a sense of unity in a certain sense. To exemplify, just as German and French soldiers fought in the trenches during WWII, they still shared the common experience of war. In using common experiences, black literature began to have meaning to both blacks and whites. Hughes capitalized on this concept.
The Negro Speaks of Rivers utilized historical elements from not only recent American history at the time, but global history from the birth of civilization to the abolishment of slavery. Hughes elegantly traced back experiences limited to not only blacks and whites, but to all human beings. In doing so, he related the black experience to a much broader context than race or ethnicity, but being human in general. For instance, Hughes recalled that “I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young” and “I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep” (Hughes, 1707). Here, the relation of blacks is to early civilizations like Mesopotamia and Syria along with Africa. In noting that “I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it,” he related the black experience to the Egyptian civilization and the milestone of building of the pyramids (Hughes, 1707). Finally, Hughes concluded by integrating an anecdote of Abraham Lincoln traveling down the Mississippi river on his way to New Orleans, a highly centralized black community in the south. Therefore, Hughes effectively integrated important historical events to present a shared experience by all people, not just blacks. This work did not rely on the exclusivity of African-American experiences like segregation, slavery and life in Africa.
Themes of Life and Continuity
Moreover, Hughes inclusion of the concept of human blood and veins suggests the theme of life and connectivity. For instance, ancient cultures built their civilizations around rivers and bodies of water because they were ideal habitats for fostering continuous life within large groups of humans. In relation, the blood in human bodies makes life possible to sustain by keeping the organism alive as blood is constantly pumped throughout the body. “I’ve known rivers ancient as the world and older than the flow of human blood in human veins” remarked Hughes (Hughes, 1707). Under the theme of life, this quote suggests that rivers and human blood flowing are both a timeless and essential human experience throughout history. Hughes utilized the concept of a shared cultural experience once again here by making the vein/river analogy. Since these elements were not limited to blacks, whites, or any ethnicity, Hughes utilized the broader context of the human condition, not just the black experience.
The effectiveness of Hughes poem stems from the fact that he utilized cultural elements on a broad scope to relate to whites. Indeed, recent scholarship suggests that an effective tool in literature is the cultural element. For instance, Anthony Dawahare argued that “If anything was going to convince a “white” America of the humanity and equality of blacks, it would have to be ‘culture…’” (Dawahare, 27). This cultural element was effective because it was not exclusive; instead, it related to the human condition of shared experiences and events. This element allowed Hughes to successfully draw from African-American culture and promote black heritage without fear or shame (Dawahare, 25). In using cultural elements like historical events that included people of all races and skin tones, Hughes epitomized the perspective of a shared world that everyone contributed to. Notably, however, the African-American experience is neither overshadowed nor diluted in the context of Hughes’ work. Instead, the African-American perspective is woven equally into the fabric of history of time along with every other race. This suggests that there is mutual respect for life and other cultures within the context of his poem.
The African-American Identity According to Hughes
Hughes poem was also effective because it overshadowed the context of just America, but took a global perspective. R. Baxter Miller noted that on a broad scope of time, “the imagined image of the racial or ethnic state, community, and self becomes fictive, it is mobile” (Miller, 71). In taking his poem to a cross cultural context, Miller also noted that “[Hughes’] mission is to transform his internalized nation-his identity- into creative and experimental ways of seeing” (Miller, 75). In writing a poem that applied to a shared global history, Hughes applied a creative way of integrating black identity. The milestones of building the pyramids and the inclusion of Lincoln going to New Orleans thus effectively integrated black identity because both of these examples stem from black history (blacks helped build the pyramids and New Orleans was the epitome of southern black culture). Furthermore, as Miller noted that ethnic states were mobile and not static, Hughes’ poem did not claim New Orleans to be an African-American settlement; instead, he wholly and respectfully integrated Lincoln, a white man. Therefore, Hughes creatively utilized the theme of a shared, global, and mobile identity to integrate the African-American presence throughout history.
Conclusion and Discussion
In delivering an effective Harlem Renaissance poem, Hughes utilized the cultural elements of shared historical experiences and the human condition shared by both blacks and whites. Singleton argued that literature of that time period was effective primarily because it reflected historical events in American history that was common to blacks and whites. Furthermore, Hughes’ poem expanded on this concept by relating black culture to not only blacks and whites, but to all humans in general. His references to prominent historical events throughout history and the relation to the human condition of life and blood reflected a shared lineage that was indeed shared by all races. Finally, Hughes effectiveness stemmed from the fact that he integrated cultural elements on a broader scope than the context of America during the 1920’s.
Dawahare, Anthony. “Langston Hughes’s Radical Poetry and the “End of Race”.” MELUS 23.3 (1998): 21-41. JSTOR. Web. 20 Mar. 2011.
Hughes, Langston. “The Negro Speaks of Rivers.” The Bedford Anthology of World Literature. Ed. Paul Davis, Gary Harrison, David M. Johnson, John F. Crawford. Boston, MA: Bedford/ St. Martin’s, 2009. 1706-1707. Print.
Miller, R. Baxter. “Reinvention and Globalization in Hughes’s Stories.” MELUS 30.1 (2005): 69-83. JSTOR. Web. 20 Mar. 2011.
Singleton, H. Gregory. “Birth, Rebirth, and the ‘New Negro’ of the 1920’s.” Phylon 43.1 (1982): 29-45. JSTOR. Web. 20 Mar. 2011.
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