Thinking about Langston Hughes

Langston_Hughes_by_Carl_Van_Vechten_1936

Photo by Carl Van Vechten

Langston Hughes is one of those poets whose work appealed to me as a young person–I think I was in ninth grade when I first read his work–and has only continued to grow in my estimation since then. I think part of what appeals to me about Hughes’s poetry is its sound. Even when he wrote unrhymed free-verse, Hughes never lost his sense of the oral nature of poetry. His poems are at their best when recited, whether under your breath or out loud. You really can’t get the feeling any other way. Hughes also knew that poetry could express almost anything. His works give voice to exaltation and dejection, elation and rage, remembrance and ratiocination, and everything in between. His work is always passionate in the sense that it is full of the feelings of being human. His is not a bloodless intellect or words without soul. His poems give us a taste of what it means to be human in many different circumstances. Sometimes the speaker is an “aesthete,” sometimes an aged and uneducated mother; sometimes we are called to rise to what we should be, sometimes we are reminded of how far we have sunk.

In all these ways, Hughes is an eminently readable poet. Not in the sense of “easy to read,” but in the sense of “a pleasure to read.” He is a poet that even people who don’t think they like poetry will probably enjoy. He is also a good example for poets today who want to reach an audience other than fellow poets and critics.

So here for your consideration are three of Langston Hughes’s poems. He wrote many, many poems–and his novel, Not without Laughter is a excellent read as well. I chose these three completely arbitrarily because I felt like talking about them, but they are among his best-loved verses.

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?

This is one of those examples of literature I badly misread as a young person. I liked the poem a good bit, but I read it in a purely individual, psychological way, which made the last line hard to parse. What would it mean for a dream to explode? Thirty years later, it’s only too clear to me how a people’s dreams can quite literally explode when they’ve been frustrated over and over for so long that all hope of fulfillment seems wasted.

Mother to Son

Well, son, I’ll tell you:
Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.
It’s had tacks in it,
And splinters,
And boards torn up,
And places with no carpet on the floor—
Bare.
But all the time
I’se been a-climbin’ on,
And reachin’ landin’s,
And turnin’ corners,
And sometimes goin’ in the dark
Where there ain’t been no light.
So boy, don’t you turn back.
Don’t you set down on the steps
’Cause you finds it’s kinder hard.
Don’t you fall now—
For I’se still goin’, honey,
I’se still climbin’,
And life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.

This has been one of my favorite poems ever since I read it. Even as a young person I understood that the poem lived in a context of racial injustice. I hope and believe that my understanding of that injustice has matured along with me, but as a youth I think I was even more struck by how the poem spoke to me personally about the difficulties of life. As I enter middle-age, I find that it speaks to me even more clearly. What a perfect extended metaphor! Who hasn’t felt that life was an endless slog up a stairway that never seemed to get where you wanted to go? Who hasn’t been stuck by haphazard splinters and random nails as you tried to keep climbing–none of them grievous injuries, but repeated over and over until at last they are almost unbearable? Who hasn’t felt so lost in the dark that you weren’t even certain whether you were climbing up or down? And who hasn’t found life so hard at times that you wanted to “set down on the steps” and give up? This poem captures magnificently both the struggle of being black in a world where racism remains all too prevalent and the struggle of being human in a world that never makes that easy. The ambiguity of the poem–the mother never says which of the two she’s speaking about–allows both readings to sit side by side, making it clear that the first and the second are species of the same genus, and even those of us who haven’t suffered from the first should be able to understand it in light of the second.

The final poem I want to share, my current favorite Hughes poem, speaks for its own importance and relevance so well that I will confine myself to quoting my favorite lines: “O, let America be America again–/The land that never has been yet–/And yet must be–the land where every man is free.”

Let America be America Again

Let America be America again.
Let it be the dream it used to be.
Let it be the pioneer on the plain
Seeking a home where he himself is free.

(America never was America to me.)

Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed–
Let it be that great strong land of love
Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme
That any man be crushed by one above.

(It never was America to me.)

O, let my land be a land where Liberty
Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,
But opportunity is real, and life is free,
Equality is in the air we breathe.

(There’s never been equality for me,
Nor freedom in this “homeland of the free.”)

Say, who are you that mumbles in the dark?
And who are you that draws your veil across the stars?

I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart,
I am the Negro bearing slavery’s scars.
I am the red man driven from the land,
I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek–
And finding only the same old stupid plan
Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.

I am the young man, full of strength and hope,
Tangled in that ancient endless chain
Of profit, power, gain, of grab the land!
Of grab the gold! Of grab the ways of satisfying need!
Of work the men! Of take the pay!
Of owning everything for one’s own greed!

I am the farmer, bondsman to the soil.
I am the worker sold to the machine.
I am the Negro, servant to you all.
I am the people, humble, hungry, mean–
Hungry yet today despite the dream.
Beaten yet today–O, Pioneers!
I am the man who never got ahead,
The poorest worker bartered through the years.

Yet I’m the one who dreamt our basic dream
In the Old World while still a serf of kings,
Who dreamt a dream so strong, so brave, so true,
That even yet its mighty daring sings
In every brick and stone, in every furrow turned
That’s made America the land it has become.
O, I’m the man who sailed those early seas
In search of what I meant to be my home–
For I’m the one who left dark Ireland’s shore,
And Poland’s plain, and England’s grassy lea,
And torn from Black Africa’s strand I came
To build a “homeland of the free.”

The free?

Who said the free? Not me?
Surely not me? The millions on relief today?
The millions shot down when we strike?
The millions who have nothing for our pay?
For all the dreams we’ve dreamed
And all the songs we’ve sung
And all the hopes we’ve held
And all the flags we’ve hung,
The millions who have nothing for our pay–
Except the dream that’s almost dead today.

O, let America be America again–
The land that never has been yet–
And yet must be–the land where every man is free.
The land that’s mine–the poor man’s, Indian’s, Negro’s, ME–
Who made America,
Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,
Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,
Must bring back our mighty dream again.

Sure, call me any ugly name you choose–
The steel of freedom does not stain.
From those who live like leeches on the people’s lives,
We must take back our land again,
America!

O, yes,
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath–
America will be!

Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death,
The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies,
We, the people, must redeem
The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.
The mountains and the endless plain–
All, all the stretch of these great green states–
And make America again!

[Image credit: the featured image at the top of the page is “Aspiration” by Aaron Douglas, 1936]

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