Langston Hughes wrote “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” when he was eighteen years of age and published it when he was nineteen—in 1921, in W. E. B. Du Bois’s magazine, The Crisis. And here we are eighty-one years later, celebrating the centennial of Hughes’s birth. And we are celebrating. The post office has issued a Langston Hughes stamp; conferences have been held in Joplin, Missouri, where he was born; Lawrence, Kansas, where he spent his childhood; Cleveland, where he went to high school; and in New Haven, at Yale, where his wonderful papers are to be found. And according to the folks at the Academy of American Poets, more people visit Langston Hughes’s page on the Web site there than that of any other of its more than four hundred poets.
Why is Hughes so popular? More important, why do so many people love Langston Hughes? We respect many writers, but I think we love only a few, and he is one of those some of us really love. In part, I think, because often we first encounter his poetry early in school and never outgrow him. In part, I also think, because of the way he speaks to our heartbreaking national problem of race. His poetry reflects not only the wrongs and the pain of racism, but also the humanity of those who suffer most at its hands. We respect Langston’s conscience, his imagination, his lyric gift, his passion, not only for black America but for America itself. We respect the dedication that kept him writing through years of poverty and political persecution. We respect the sheer variety of his work: the many books of poems, the dozen or more books for children, the dozen or more plays written and produced, two volumes of autobiography, a history of the NAACP, four books of translations from French and Spanish, several anthologies of African-American and African writing, various opera libretti, countless song lyrics, twenty years of weekly newspaper columns, and five volumes of “Simple” stories from those columns.
Langston Hughes loved books. During his lonely childhood, while he was living with his aged grandmother, books comforted him. “Then it was,” he confessed, “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.” He also grew up with a sense of obligation. In 1859 his grandmother’s first husband had died at Harper’s Ferry, as a member of John Brown’s band of rebels against slavery. Mary Langston made sure that her grandson grew up with a sense of responsibility to the cause of social justice, especially for his fellow blacks facing Jim Crow everywhere. That dedication would drive Langston Hughes for the rest of his days.
He’d lived in many places before he settled down in his beloved Harlem—places such as Lincoln, Illinois, where he wrote his first poem; Cleveland, Ohio, where he attended high school; Mexico, where his father lived; Columbia University, from which he withdrew after one unhappy year. By the age of twenty-two, he had been to Africa; by twenty-three, Europe. By thirty-two, he had spent a year in the Soviet Union and traveled, literally, around the globe. In high school, most of his classmates were the kids of Eastern European immigrants. From them, especially, he learned about radical socialism, and about the dream of interracial and international unity. In English class, he met writers whose work would deliver him from the conventional—particularly Walt Whitman, and Whitman’s modern disciple Carl Sandburg (“my guiding star,” Hughes called him). Their poems grounded in him a sense of the dynamic relationship between art and democracy in America. But race was central to his consciousness, and thus black writers were also crucial—above all, perhaps, Paul Laurence Dunbar, W. E. B. Du Bois, and Claude McKay. From the start, in poems such as “The South” (“The lazy, laughing South / With blood on its mouth”) or “The White Ones” (“I do not hate you, / For your faces are beautiful, too”), Hughes courageously spoke poetical truth to secular power. Many of his lyric poems have nothing to do with the matter of justice, but he never ceased to challenge Jim Crow or to champion the poor. Above all, he saw the beauty of human blackness long before almost any other artist had done so. In 1926, writing in The Nation, Hughes deplored the urge in many blacks “toward whiteness, the desire to pour racial individuality into the mold of American standardization, and to be as little Negro and as much American as possible.” His poetry embraced blacks: “I am a Negro: / Black as the night is black, / Black like the depths of my Africa.” In a world that worshipped whiteness, Hughes dared to say, “The night is beautiful, / So the faces of my people. / The stars are beautiful, / So the eyes of my people. / Beautiful, also, is the sun. / Beautiful, also, are the souls of my people.”
In Washington, DC, where he lived in 1925, he learned much from the poorest blacks there, who struggled to live, but who also sang and danced and laughed out loud. “I try to write poems,” Hughes said, “like the songs they sang on Seventh Street; gay songs, because you have to be gay or die; sad songs, because you couldn’t help being sad sometimes. But gay or sad, you kept on living and you kept on going.” For him, the metronome of black racial grace was its music. “Like the waves of the sea coming one after another, always one after another; like the earth moving around the sun: night, day night, day, and night day, forever, so is the undertow of black music—with its rhythm that never betrays you, its strength, like the beat of a human heart, its humor, and its rooted power.” Many of Hughes’s blues poems enraged critics in the black press, but he had unbreakable confidence in himself and in the masses of his people. It took a personal crisis combined with the onset of the Great Depression to make Hughes shift his focus. In the 1930s he turned to radical socialism, instead of blues and jazz. He penned some of the most radical verse ever written in America—pieces such as “Good Morning Revolution,” “Goodbye Christ,” “Put one more s in the U.S.A. / to make it Soviet,” “Letter to the Academy,” and “Revolution”: “Great mob that knows no fear— / come here.”
With the start of World War II, however, Langston returned to more familiar ground. He returned to jazz and blues. His political energy flowed mainly into the struggling civil rights movement, and his artistic energy into his amazing range of literary forms. By the 1950s he was taking on so many poorly paid writing jobs that he laughed at himself as “a literary sharecropper.” But diligently, lovingly, Hughes continued to till that black soil he had first broken in 1921. The black masses loved him, but the critics, black as well as white, often did not. His work was, and is, often seen as too simple, or stale and inconsequential. For example, the New York Times Book Review jeered at Hughes’s Selected Poems when it came out in 1959. “Every time I read Langston Hughes,” according to its reviewer, “I am amazed all over again by his genuine gifts—and depressed that he has done so little with them.” The reviewer was James Baldwin, who lived long enough to change his mind. Many people have had to change their minds about the art of Langston Hughes. The truth is that he possessed the power to see, more clearly than others, what was reality in the African-American world, and what was only prejudice and illusion. He also possessed the skills to convert this vision into its appropriate art. To my mind, Langston Hughes created a body of writing that, like jazz and the blues, speaks in a priceless way both of and to America. He belongs with a small but heroic circle of artists and leaders of color, including Diego Rivera, Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, and Martin Luther King Jr. In the twentieth century, in stubborn but principled and imaginative ways, these leaders resisted political and cultural colonialism. In so doing, they led all of us to a transformed sense of ourselves, and a transformed sense of the world we live in.