Until the first part of the 20th Century, the world of poetry was
dominated by caucasian artists. White poetry written about the
experiences of white people was the only kind of verse most folks had
|Photo by Constance Kanaga. Photo courtesy of Schulte Roth & Zabel on behalf of the Estate of Wallace Putnam.|
With the advent of the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s, this
relatively genteel world of American poetry was shaken to its
foundations. Strong black voices, writing with African-American
rhythms and cadences, broke out all over the country. Of this
remarkable creative outpouring, one voice rose among all of the rest.
This was the voice of poet Langston Hughes.
Langston Hughes was born in Joplin, Missouri, in 1902 to a family of
abolitionists. His grandfather was Charles Henry Langston, the brother
of John Mercer Langston, who was the the first black
American to be elected to public office in 1855. After high
school, Hughes went on to Columbia University to study engineering,
but soon dropped out to pursue his first love — poetry. He never
The poetry Hughes crafted over the course of his lifetime was filled with rhythm and beat. His
stanzas weave wildly smooth tunes about life as a black American. Indeed, Hughes always
acknowledged that his primary poetic influences were the blues bars of Harlem and D.C.. He once
remarked "blues had the pulse beat of the people who keep on going." Listen to the rhythm of
this short piece.
But Suddenly a guitar playing lad
whose languid lean brings back the sunny south
strikes up a tune all gay and bright and glad
to keep the gall from biting in his mouth
Then drowsy as the rain
soft sad black feet
dance in this juice joint
on this city street
Hughes did not confine himself to revealing just the cadences of black music to his readers.
Rather, he wanted his audience to taste the whole of the African-American experience. In an essay
published in the Nation in 1926, Hughes wrote: "We younger Negro artists now intend 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."
People of all colors were pleased. Hughes went on to receive both Guggenheim and Rosenwald
fellowships and was nicknamed the "Poet Laureate of Harlem." Several years after his death from cancer in 1967, Hughes' residence in Harlem was given landmark status by the New York City
Preservation Commission; in 1969, the Langston Hughes Community Library and Cultural
Langston Hughes has earned a place amongst the greatest poets America has ever produced. But
more than that, Hughes has given a voice to the African-American experience. Like the sharp peal
of a jazz trumpet, Hughes' poetry announced to the world that the streets of black America
contained a culture rich and vibrant and fiercely poetic. This announcement was to become his
life's mission, something he foretold in this little piece written long before his name became a
beloved household word.
But someday, somebody'll
stand up and talk about me
and write about me
black and beautiful
and sing about me
and put on plays about me!
I reckon it'll be
Yes, it'll be me.