Langston Hughes (1902-1967) was a true Renaissance man, being a poet, novelist, essayist, playwright, autobiographer, and writer of children’s books (Rampersad 368). He was born in Joplin, Missouri, and spent most of his childhood in Lawrence, Kansas, but also lived in Illinois, Ohio, and Mexico (Rampersad 368). Hughes’ earliest influence was his maternal grandmother, Mary Langston, who intrigued the young Hughes with stories of her first husband who died at Harper’s Ferry and her second husband, Hughes’ grandfather, who was also a “militant abolitionist” (Rampersad 368). His literary influences include Walt Whitman, Carl Sandburg, Paul Laurence Dunbar, and Claude McKay (Rampersad 368). From his familial and literary influences, Hughes derived a love for personal expression, free verse, black dialect, and racial pride.
Hughes’ first two volumes of poetry, The Weary Blues (1926) and Fine Clothes to the Jew (1927) exhibit Hughes’ experimentation with fusing “jazz and blues with traditional verse” (Rampersad 369). While these volumes were “received reasonably well by the white press,” the black community generally condemned the poems as presenting “racial defects before the public” (Taylor 93). But Hughes was not one to let his peers’ critical judgment hinder his artistic freedom. In his 1926 essay, “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain,” Hughes attempts to prove that one can exhibit racial pride and still maintain artistic integrity:
We younger Negro artists who create now intend to express our dark-skinned selves without fear or shame. If white people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, it doesn’t matter. We know that we are beautiful. And ugly too. The tom-tom cries and the tom-tom laughs. If colored people are pleased we are glad. If they are not their displeasure doesn’t matter either. We build our temples for tomorrow, as strong as we know how, and we stand on top of the mountain, free within ourselves. (Wintz 153)
Like Claude McKay before him, Hughes rejects the view that African Americans must accept the middle-class values of the dominant society to become unfettered by societal boundaries. Hughes looks at the streets of Harlem, not with the eye of middle class society, but with the eye of the poet. Thus, he does not focus on the poverty and crime-stricken atmosphere that is shameful to the black intelligentsia. Hughes sees beauty all around him: in the music, the speech patterns, the dances, the nightclubs, and the platonic friendships and sexual relationships that exist in Harlem. And he glories in it. Hughes sees nothing to be ashamed of in personal feelings of love, sex, and desire (like Walt Whitman). While Hughes’ later poetry took on aspects of political and racial protest, his earliest poems place him undeniably in the Romantic tradition.
Rampersad, Arnold. “Langston Hughes.” The Oxford Companion to African American Literature. Eds. William L. Andrews, Frances Smith Foster, and Trudier Harris. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997. 368-70.
Wintz, Cary D. Black Culture and the Harlem Renaissance. Houston: Rice University Press, 1988.