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The Honorable Langston Hughes


By Zak Raskin

Poetry is often used to convey messages and ideas through a unique style and rhythm. Langston Hughes, the author of “Harlem”, “Open Letter to the South”, and “Black Workers”, has written poetry that so beautifully weaves crucial themes into the tapestries of the words in his works. Hughes was considered a literary savant in a period in the 1920’s, known as the Harlem Renaissance. This time was characterized as a social, cultural and artistic boom that took place in Harlem and was given nicknames such as the “New Negro Movement” and the “Black Cultural Mecca”. Langston Hughes was one of the most important writers of the Harlem Renaissance as he was able to capture and celebrate black life and culture during this time. A central theme found in his works (Harlem, Open Letter to the South, and Black Workers) is the need to fight racial discrimination. Although the Harlem Renaissance was in full flux, there was still racism and discrimination amongst white people and African Americans in America and his works act almost as a call to action in hopes to end racial divide and instead celebrate life as equals.

The first example of Hughes’ central theme of the need to fight racial discrimination is in arguably his most famous poem, “Harlem”. For instance, Langston Hughes writes at the beginning of his poem the question, “What happens to a dream deferred?”(1), to suggest not a specific dream, but in fact to illustrate how African Americans are not able to have hopes and dreams and reach for a better life because of the oppression they face on a regular basis. In asking this question, Hughes hopes to invoke a action from his audience. As he so simply, yet perfectly summarizes the feelings of many African Americans of this time period, he hopes that it can manifest a movement in which people try to end racial discrimination so that no one has to “defer” their dreams because of the color of their skin. Carl Van Vechten, of Yale University, agrees with this very notion. In a critique of “Harlem”, Vechten writes:

It was Hughes's belief in humanity and his hope for a world in which people could sanely and with understanding live together that activated people to stand up for racial equality”(Vechten 3).
Here , Vechten explains how Hughes’ poem ignited people to stand up against racial discrimination . Later in his essay, Vechten also references how Hughes’ “Harlem”, was a call to action for men and women to fight for racial equality so that they could all do what they wanted to do regardless of race. Another instance in “Harlem” where a need to fight racial discrimination occurs is when Hughes writes, “… like a raisin in the sun?”(3). The play, “A Raisin in the Sun” by Lorraine Hansberry is titled that because of inspiration from Langston Hughes’ poem. The play is about fighting racial discrimination and stemmed from Hughes’ central message of the need to end it found in this poem.

Another example of Hughes’ central theme of the need to fight racial discrimination can be found in his poem, “Open Letter to the South”. This poem like “Harlem” is about the inequalities between black people and white people found in the world. Most notably, Hughes writes:

Let us become instead, you and I,
One single hand
That can united rise
To smash the old dead dogmas of the past-
To kill the lies of color
That keep the rich enthroned
And drive us to the time-clock and the plow
(21-27).
Here, Hughes challenges us to break the age-old pattern of inequality and discrimination as a byproduct of racism and instead fight for all to be treated as equals. In this stanza, Hughes writes, “To smash the old dead dogmas of the past”(24), to dictate to people that they can break the pattern of racial discrimination that has plagued America in history. The color of ones skin should not have the power to “keep the rich enthroned” (26), and force ones of color to “the time-clock and the plow” or in other words slavery. At the time when this poem was written, white people and black people were considered separate but equal. Hughes argues in this poem that that together, “united rise”(23) or in other words that if white people and black people treated each other equally, together society will rise above racial discrimination and truly characterize the American identity of being the land of the free and the home of the brave. This poem does a masterful job of conveying the need to fight racial discrimination.

Lastly, another example of Hughes’ central theme of the need to fight racial discrimination can be found in his poem, “Black Workers”. “Black Workers”, is a piece about how in the time period of the early to middle 1900 century, African Americans did all the heavy lifting but the white people received all the rewards. However, this wont be the case forever. Hughes wants the reader to comprehend what he is talking about, so he uses simple language to get his message across. Once Hughes gives the reader a very brief history of whats has been going on with a comparison of black people to worker bees, he dictates that it doesn’t have to be forever. Hughes wants the audience to read this work and be able to understand and have hope. John Jackson, of the Saint Rosemary Institution, has similar beliefs about Hughes’ work. He writes, “Hughes made it a point not to unveil what he really wanted us to see until he gave us a brief lesson in history.”(Jackon 4). Here Jackson basically states that Hughes wanted to first educate his audience before giving them a call to action. Jackson also delares that Hughes uses a plethora of symbols to implant a hidden message in many of his works(Jackson 4). He does this many times to illustrate the need to fight racial discrimination. His symbol of a worker bee in the poem, “Black Workers” allows the reader to comprehend the perspective from which people of color feel they are coming from. Hughes wants to highlight that very fact and explain that it does not have to be like this forever.

In Conclusion, Langston Hughes, the author of Harlem, Open Letter to the South, and Black Workers, has written poetry that so beautifully weaves crucial themes into the tapestries of the words in his works. Hughes was considered a literary savant in a period in the 1920’s, known as the Harlem Renaissance. This time was characterized as a social, cultural and artistic boom that took place in Harlem and was given nicknames such as the “New Negro Movement” and the “Black Cultural Mecca”. Langston Hughes was one of the most important writers of the Harlem Renaissance as he was able to capture and celebrate black life and culture during this time. A central theme found in his works (Harlem, Open Letter to the South, and Black Workers) is the need to fight racial discrimination. Although the Harlem Renaissance was in full flux, there was still racism and discrimination amongst white people and African Americans in America and his works act as a STRONG call to action to end the racial divide and instead celebrate the equality or our shared humanity.

Works Cited

Jackson, John. “Langston Hughes.” Poetry Foundation, Poetry Foundation, 7 Apr. 2011, www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/langston-hughes

Magellan, Halle. “Carl Van Vechten and the Harlem Renaissance.” Morris Dickstein, 16 May 2012, www.morrisdickstein.com/articles/carl-van- vechten-and-the-harlem-renaissance/. “Poem Analysis.” Edited by Lincoln Bellamy, Shaneliz, 26 Nov. 2012, shaneliz.wordpress.com/2012/11/27/poem-analysis/.

Thomas, Amber Flora. “Poets.org.” Poets.org, Academy of American Poets, 8 Nov. 2017, www.poets.org/.

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