The poet, playwright and novelist Langston Hughes died 50 years ago this week. At his death, Hughes’ stature as a canonical figure in American culture was assured. He was the first African-American to make his living as a poet and also the first to be accepted by the then all-white literary establishment as a voice who could compete with both the writers of his time—and with posterity.
Hughes’ status, his place as a bridge between cultures was signaled last year with the choice of his poem “I , Too” for the epigram of the newly opened National Museum of African American History and Culture: “I, too, am America,” fully deserving of a place at the table. A place that would not be bestowed or handed down, but rightfully acknowledged of a people who made the American dream their own, through their resistance and endurance, but most importantly by their work, including the work of the poet.
The poem is an argument for the creative power of culture in articulating the rights of citizenship. While it ends in affirmation, it begins with a voice: “I, too, sing America.” The direct reference is, of course, to Walt Whitman and his poetics of a capacious American democracy.
Hughes, like Whitman, is now accepted into the American canon not without debate or controversy. Hughes, like Whitman, was a poet of the vernacular.
Writing in the early 20th century, Hughes avoided an intellectualized modernism or a distanced formalism for verse that was steeped in the lives of ordinary men and women. Even more than Whitman, whose evocation of the Common Man was always a little distanced—Walt didn’t actually write like the Bowery B’hoys talked. Hughes directly articulated the emotional lives of post-Emancipation African Americans.
The blues were crucial here, not only in giving Hughes a subject but a voice. Hughes moved easily between both perspectives. His first book was called The Weary Blues and in the title poem he observes the scene: “I heard a Negro play,/ Down on Lenox Avenue the other night/ By the pale dull pallor of an old gas light.”
Hughes’ compellingly wrote the blues in his poems. With Bob Dylan’s award of the Nobel Prize for literature this past year, critics have debated on the merits of whether song lyrics can be considered as poetry.
In fact, Hughes was first to show that lyrics can become poetry.
Take for instance, “Love Again Blues,” which Hughes builds on the repetition of a line, with slight variants to indicate performance, that there is an audience that the singer is trying to convince:
My life ain’t nothin’
But a lot o’ Gawd-knows-what.
I say my life ain’t nothing
But a lot o’ Gawd-knows-what.
And the poet/singer goes through the story of finding a woman, then finding out about her (“You turned out to be a devil/That mighty nigh drove me wild!) to the conclusion that love “takes you and it breaks you—/But you got to love again.”
In his own community, the black middle class did not accept him. Hughes’ subjects and diction were considered “low” and one African American critic, equating acceptance with respectability, judged Hughes’ writing to be a “sewer.”
Despite the Harlem Renaissance and the acceptance of people like Hughes and other artists, this was still the America of segregation, Jim Crow and knowing your place.
Anything that fed white stereotypes of the African-American had to be scrutinized and assessed. Hughes would burlesque this uneasiness in his poem “Atlantic City” writing about how in a club as “seven cats go frantic” onlookers murmur “Such Negroes/ Disgrace the race!”
Yet on the flip side, in the literary world, there was also unease that Hughes was too much of the world, not formalist or technically advanced enough to be anything more than an interesting minor voice, a black populist similar to Carl Sandberg or Vachel Lindsay.
Hughes admired Sandberg and Lindsay greatly. Lindsay helped get him published as a young poet. But for the gatekeepers of literary acceptance, there was always a worry that he was just a bit too much of a “Negro poet.”
Hughes had had an incredibly varied life before he became the literary lion of Harlem. He was raised in the Midwest, spent time with his estranged father in Mexico, and studied at Columbia and Lincoln University. He held many jobs, most famously as a busboy—an employment that gives the title to the well-known Washington, D.C. literary café, Busboys and Poets. The mixture of low and high in that name suits Hughes perfectly because he was always able, despite his critics, to write in different registers. Hence his ability to turn the blues and jazz into poetry, helping to create the fusion of high and popular culture that we now take for granted.
His commitment to showing the lives of “his” people, from the whorehouse madam to the blues man to the Pullman porter, was the armature of his creative life. Hughes could be oracular and profound when he wanted to be. In his great “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” he traces African Americans back from the Mississppi to rivers “ancient as the world and older than the flow of human/blood in human veins.”
He locates the African-American in those rivers, in that flow: “My soul has grown deep like the rivers.” It is impossible not to see that flow of water also as the flow of words, the words that express the lives of a people even as it describes their passages. Hughes is literally “The Negro” of his title but he is the vessel of history, both as it was and as it will be written.
As Americans debate, in this political season, yet again what it means to be an American, the history of our culture provides two instructive lessons. First, history, like a river, never stops: you can’t go back, only forward. And second, as Whitman, Hughes and countless others have demonstrated, the workings of the mind and pen cannot be restricted or hemmed in, the river of words will always burst the bank and set a new river course, changing the scenery, creating new vistas. On the 50th anniversary of his death, we hear the voice of Langston Hughes, a great American, still resonating with power to the people.