Langston Hughes was one of the most famous writers of the Harlem Renaissance. Stylistically influenced by jazz music, his writing sought to capture the everyday experiences of black Americans.
Langston Hughes was one of the most famous writers of the Harlem Renaissance. His works, though shared with the literary world at large, were unapologetically shaped by the African American experience. Unlike the leading black intellectuals of his time, Hughes did not attempt to reshape his language or themes to suit a white audience. His work reflects heavy influence of the ordinary black experience as well as the prominent jazz culture of his era.
Born James Mercer Langston Hughes in 1902, Hughes began writing in high school. He went on to graduate from Lincoln University in Pennsylvania and held a series of diverse jobs throughout his life, including busboy, assistant cook, launderer, sailor, and, of course, writer. Hughes sought to represent the common man, moving beyond his personal identity to give voice to the experiences of millions. His language and themes were simple and accessible. In his 1940 autobiography The Big Sea, he defines his subjects as "workers, roustabouts, and singers, and job hunters on Lenox Avenue in New York, or Seventh Street in Washington or South State in Chicago—people up today and down tomorrow, working this week and fired the next, beaten and baffled, but determined not to be wholly beaten, buying furniture on the installment plan, filling the house with roomers to help pay the rent, hoping to get a new suit for Easter—and pawning that suit before the Fourth of July."
Throughout his writing career, Hughes wrote novels, plays, short stories, poetry, and a regular newspaper column. Popular among these were his “Simple” stories - short stories featuring the recurring character Jesse B. Semple, nicknamed “Simple”. Simple’s relatable tales highlighted the everyday troubles that much of Hughes’s black readership experienced themselves.
Today, Hughes remains best known to many for his striking poetry. Influenced by poets like Paul Laurence Dunbar, Carl Sandburg, and Walt Whitman, Hughes often uses anaphora, or repetition, in his poems. Whitman’s influence is particularly evident in poems such as “I, too” and “Let America Be America Again”, in which Hughes revisits some of Whitman’s famous egalitarian images and challenges their reality for African Americans. Hughes’s work is made distinct from its influences, however, by its jazz-like rhythm. Poems like “The Weary Blues” and “Po’ Boy Blues” explicitly mimic the repetition and cadence of blues songs. By featuring this form of music so prominently, Hughes helped to legitimize jazz as an art form. As jazz used song to tell the varied emotions of life, so Hughes used the written word to capture the complex yet commonplace sentiments of love, pain, dreams, injustice, rage, and more. His prolific work, popularity, and poetic gift made him one of the most influential voices of the Harlem Renaissance and 20th century America.
”I, too, sing America. I am the darker brother. They send me to eat in the kitchen when company comes, but I laugh, and eat well, and grow strong… I, too, am America.”
”Hold fast to dreams for if dreams die, Life is a broken-winged bird that cannot fly.”
”I do not need my freedom when I’m dead. I cannot live on tomorrow’s bread. Freedom is a strong seed planted in great need. I live here, too.”