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History in Langston Hughes's "Negro"
The topic of Langston Hughes's "Negro" deals with an extremely general description of the history of African Americans or blacks from the pre-1922 era until 1922. Hughes lets the reader know about historic experiences of blacks to show us the impact that blacks have had in past eras. He touches on past, historical events, like the days of "Caesar" and the "Belgians...in the Congo" (5 and 15). The murderous oppression that Hughes speaks about uncovered when he says, "They lynch me still in Mississippi" (16). Hughes has made his poem more understandable by the use of such elements as setting and situation, speaker, tone and diction, images, and symbols.
The title, "Negro", explains two items in one word: who is the subject and what the poem is about. Hughes identifies himself by saying, "I am a Negro" (1 and 17). Then Hughes describes the works of the Negro by using the terms "slave," "worker," "singer," and "victims" (4, 7, 10, and 14). The first example is a situation that has taken place in Africa; the second in the United States. Finally, Hughes uses repetition of the first and last stanza to conclude his poem. To thoroughly understand the point that Hughes is making, one must take an enhanced inspection at certain elements that Hughes uses throughout the poem.
In "Negro", Hughes gives the reader a compact visual exposÃ© of the historical life of blacks. He does not tell the reader in detail about what has happened to blacks; therefore, Hughes allows these actual accounts to marinate in the mind of the reader. Instead of saying that he[Hughes] is a black man living in America, he simply says that "I am a Negro" (1 and 17). He does not create a mysterious aura about blacks, but leaves that up to the reader. Thinking, on the reader's behalf, plays a major part in understanding "Negro." The different meanings that this poem has is entirely left for the reader to discern.
The setting of "Negro" is 1922, the year in which it was written. A time when blacks were often treated badly because of their race. A limited account of the history of blacks, Hughes could recite this poem to a group with any racial makeup at any given location. Someone could ask Hughes, "Who are you?" The answer to that question can be this poem. Hughes is possibly the speaker of the poem, but clearly this speaker symbolizes all blacks in America. The continuous usage of "I've" before he names a description demonstrates the bond that he feels with his ancestors (4, 7, 10, and 14). Hughes makes use of the pronoun in "my Africa" to reveal the possessive emotional ties he has with Africa (3). When Hughes says, "I've been a victim...They lynch me still in Mississippi," we see his real feelings (16). Since, in 1922, the reading audience consisted of a predominantly white makeup, he waits until the end of the poem to reveal his real agenda because he wants people to understand that oppression of the past is still prevalent today.
Hughes wants everyone that reads this poem to understand its meaning; therefore, the diction that Hughes uses is very basic and easy to understand. To represent all blacks in America, Hughes chooses to use the pronoun "I." The beginning of the original and final stanza is "I am a Negro"; Hughes is emphasizing to the reader the collective voice that he is using (1 and 17). He uses well recognized landmarks, that are familiar to us, to describe points of his interest such as building the "pyramids," "[making] mortar for the Woolworth Building," and "[making] ragtime" (5, 6, 13). With the structure of the sentence arrangements, Hughes tells us either what has happened to blacks or what blacks have done; so all can understand his need to identify himself and describe in writing the real record of blacks. He, however, avoids dialect or lofty prose to reach his audience. Hughes's diction thus reflects his tone. He wants his poetry to be "direct, comprehensible and the epitome of simplicity" (Meyer 884).
Moreover, Hughes uses a plethora of images in "Negro" to reinforce the oppression that blacks were experiences. "Black as the night is black,", gives the reader the idea that "blacks" are as dark as night (2). "Black like the depths of my Africa.", creates a mysterious, fictionalized character of blacks (3). Hughes allows the reader to recognize the accomplishments of blacks by saying blacks built the Great Pyramids of Africa and the "Woolworth Building" here in America (8 and 9). "They lynch me still in Mississippi.", portrays how the blacks were still victims in 1922. The enslavement period is referred to when Hughes says that he "brushed the boots of Washington" (6). Hughes refers to the making of "ragtime" which tells us of the musical impact that blacks have had in America (13).
Hughes uses numerous symbols in "Negro" to mirror the significance of his images. The building of the "pyramids" represents the knowledge of architecture and mathematics that blacks have in Africa and America (8). The use of "Negro" has a symbolic meaning attached to it (1 and 17). That is the acceptance of society's labeling of blacks. "Black" and "night" have a mysterious meaning that is often referred by the white, reading audience in the 1920s (2, 3, 18, and 19). Although these are very general, we get a actual sense of black presence throughout history.
Clearly, this theme is not new to a 20th century reader because we now know of this history that Hughes is explaining. However, we experience the uncommonly true fear faced in the 1920s. Hughes shows us that there is more than one way to explain matters. He seduced us into thinking "Negro" was about being labeled, yet surprising us in the end uncovering the ongoing lynching of blacks in the South (16). Hughes made it a point not to unveil what he really wanted us to see until he gave us a brief lesson in history.
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Langston Hughes 1902-1967
(Full name: James Mercer Langston Hughes) African American poet, short-story writer, dramatist, essayist, novelist, and autobiographer.
The following entry presents criticism of Hughes's life and career from 1981 through 2000.
A seminal figure of the Harlem Renaissance, a period during the 1920s of unprecedented artistic and intellectual achievement among black Americans, Hughes devoted his career to portraying the urban experience of working-class blacks. Fellow Harlem Renaissance writer Carl Van Vechten called Hughes “the Poet Laureate of Harlem.” He published prolifically in a variety of genres but is perhaps most widely remembered for his innovative and influential jazz-inspired poetry. Hughes integrated the rhythm and mood of blues and bebop music into his work and used colloquial language to reflect black American culture. Gentle humor and wry irony often belie the seriousness and magnitude of Hughes's themes, including black Americans' ongoing pursuit—and consistent denial—of racial equality and the American dream of freedom.
Hughes was born February 1, 1902, in Joplin, Missouri. During his infancy, his parents separated, and he moved to Lawrence, Kansas, where he was raised primarily by his grandmother. His mother worked as an actress in Kansas City; his father practiced law in Mexico. Following the death of his grandmother, he settled in Cleveland, Ohio, where he attended high school. His young adult years included a stint of living with his father in Mexico and a year of study at Columbia University, followed by an assortment of jobs and traveling. His first book of poems, The Weary Blues, was published in 1926 to warm critical reception, and his second, Fine Clothes to the Jew, followed the next year. He graduated from Lincoln University in Pennsylvania with a B.A. in 1929, and in 1931 he won the Harmon Gold Medal for Literature with his first novel, Not without Laughter (1930). With this literary success, Hughes decided to pursue a career in writing. Throughout the 1930s Hughes became increasingly involved with the political Left in the United States. In 1953, he was investigated by the Senate subcommittee chaired by Joseph McCarthy for allegedly participating in the selling of books to libraries abroad. He remained active as a writer and lecturer into the 1960s, and died in New York City of congestive heart failure on May 22, 1967.
Despite his prolific output in other genres, Hughes was known primarily as a poet. He sought to capture in his poetry the voices, experiences, emotions, and spirit of African Americans of his time. Determined to reflect the everyday lives of the working-class culture, he dealt with such controversial topics as prostitution, racism, lynchings, and teenage pregnancy. Hughes also used the vernacular in his verse, drawing heavily upon the themes, rhythms, and cadences of jazz, blues, and gospel music. One of his most frequently anthologized poems, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” appeared in his first collection, The Weary Blues. His second collection, Fine Clothes to the Jew, recognized the everyday struggles of urban black Americans in Harlem who, in pursuit of the American Dream, left behind the overt oppression of the Deep South only to find their dreams denied or set aside indefinitely. This struggle is characterized in his 1951 book-length poem, Montage of a Dream Deferred. In 1959, the poet oversaw the compilation of Selected Poems of Langston Hughes. Two years later Hughes saw the final collection of his own poetry in print, Ask Your Mama: 12 Moods for Jazz.The Panther and the Lash: Poems of Our Time (1967) was in press at the time of his death and, in 1973, Good Morning Revolution: Uncollected Social Protest Writings by Langston Hughes posthumously brought to public attention the depth and range of Hughes's politically controversial verse, essays, and other works from earlier in the century. Yet the definitive volume of Hughes's poetic output is considered by many critics to be The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes (1994).
Hughes's literary reputation was built not just on his work as a poet, but on his skill as a prose writer, as well. One of his most beloved fictional characters, Jesse B. Semple (shortened to Simple), was a stereotypical poor man living in Harlem, a storyteller eager to share his tales of trouble with a writer-character named Boyd, in exchange for a drink. Through the popular tales of Jesse B. Semple, Hughes offered astute commentary on the problems of being a poor black man in a racist society. The stories first appeared in his columns in the Chicago Defender and the New York Post; many were later published in book form, in collections including Simple Speaks His Mind (1950), Simple Takes a Wife (1953), Simple Stakes a Claim (1957), and Simple's Uncle Sam (1965).
Hughes published a variety of books about African American culture for young readers, including The First Book of Negroes (1952), Famous American Negroes (1954), and Fight for Freedom: The Story of the NAACP (1962). He also published two volumes of autobiography: The Big Sea in 1940, and I Wonder as I Wander, which appeared in 1956.
Throughout his career Hughes encountered mixed reactions to his work. Many black intellectuals denounced him for portraying unsophisticated aspects of lower-class life, claiming that his focus furthered the unfavorable image of African Americans. His second poetry collection, Fine Clothes to the Jew, was well received by mainstream literary critics but roundly criticized by his African American peers and critics—in part for its title, but largely for its frank portrayal of urban life in a poor, black Harlem neighborhood. While some critics accused Hughes of bolstering negative racial stereotypes through his choice of subject matter, others faulted him for employing vernacular speech and black dialect in the portrayal of the Harlem streets. In response to both sets of critics, Hughes once wrote, “I felt the masses of our people had as much in their lives to put into books as did those more fortunate ones who had been born with some means and the ability to work up to a master's degree at a Northern college. … I knew only the people I had grown up with, and they weren't people whose shoes were always shined, who had been to Harvard, or who had heard of Bach. But they seemed to me good people, too.”
During the 1960s some of Hughes's younger literary peers were of the opinion that he did not fully embrace the Civil Rights movement. The increasingly strident, militant rhetoric of the mid-1960s stood in sharp contrast to Hughes's bluesy, gospel song-inspired cadences and gentle tenacity; in a review of The Panther and the Lash critic Laurence Lieberman wrote, “we are tempted to ask, what are Hughes' politics? And if he has none, why not? The age demands intellectual commitment from its spokesmen.” Yet contemporary critic David Littlejohn writes of Hughes, “His voice is as sure, his manner as original, his position as secure as, say Edwin Arlington Robinson's or Robinson Jeffers' … by retaining his own keen honesty and directness, his poetic sense and ironic intelligence, he maintained through four decades a readable newness distinctly his own.”