Hughes and the Harlem Renaissance
The Great Depression and the End of an Era
Life After World War II
Impact in Society
Through poetry, Langston Hughes questioned the racial boundaries of American society, and he would become an important figure in the fight for equal rights. Emphasis on racial equality was often used in his literature, and many of his poems that focused on equality came from his own personal experiences and reflected his ideology in overcoming the race issue, which changed throughout his life. For him, becoming an equal in not only his works but in society as well was essential in terms of understanding identity and obtaining respect.
HUGHES AND THE HARLEM RENAISSANCE
HUGHES AND THE HARLEM RENAISSANCE
Much of the inspiration behind Hughes’s poems in the 1920s and 1930s came from a movement known as the Harlem Renaissance. Politics were changing during the early 20th century, and with the change came a push for racial equality. The Harlem Renaissance celebrated African American culture and brought African American music, art, theater, politics, and literature to critics and publishers who had previously treated the works as insignificant. Many during this time period argued that the works of African Americans could be just as good, if not better, than that of white Americans. Racial pride and equality would become “the ideological underpinnings” of the movement and Hughes’s poems (The Harlem Project).
The poems Langston Hughes wrote during the 1920s reflected a growing racial pride and ethnic consciousness present in American society, especially in Harlem. In "The Negro Speaks of Rivers" , Hughes used the river to build pride in the African American community. Through describing the rivers, which included the Euphrates, Congo, Nile, and even the Mississippi that are often associated with African heritage, Hughes attempted to inspire others through a form of African American nationalism. He himself “had a strong sense of race pride, [which had been born] out of a new racial consciousness and self-conception,” and he used poetry to “clearly [formulate] his position on the black aesthetic” (Dawahare 25). The poem also examined the history of people of African descent, from Mesopotamia to Egypt to America, and suggested that in each place, they had suffered (The Harlem Project). As Hughes mentioned in the audio clip, he wrote this poem based on his life experiences, with which many of his other poems were also based on. During the Harlem Renaissance, “Hughes was determined to weave his literary works purely from human experience as he saw it and what he perceived in real life” (Ekanath 13). By using history and experiences during the Harlem Renaissance, he became more credible and was able to promote a form of racial nationalism.
During the height of the movement, Hughes often portrayed white society as oppressive, hindering the capabilities of African American society, specifically those with an artistic background. In his essay, “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain,” Hughes “[argued] that the impasse to developing a black aesthetic [was] the hegemony of American white culture (figured as the 'racial mountain') over representations of ‘race’” (Dawahare 25). He also emphasized that many middle class African American artists were denying their heritage and identity and attempting to “emulate” a white society. He wanted African Americans to “[speak] to their own experiences as black people” rather than striving to become white (White 111). His emphasis on overcoming assimilation into white culture can be seen in many of his poems, including “I, Too.”
In this video, Hughes not only narrated his poem, but also described his inspiration behind it.
He used the table metaphor to emphasize that African Americans were equal to all people, and by having “I, too, am America” at the end of the poem, he asserted that blacks were American citizens just as any other white American was. His ultimate belief was that “it [would be] possible for an aesthetic movement to transform social reality” and that African Americans would eventually have as much social status, if not more, than white Americans (Dawahare 27). Towards the end of the 1920s and into the 1930s, however, Hughes’s view of the world would soon change as the United States would enter a period of rapid economic decline and political tension.
THE GREAT DEPRESSION AND THE END OF AN ERA
With the stock market crash in 1929 and an unstable economy, African Americans were hit hard. According to Dawahare, “during the Great Depression, the Harlem Renaissance's dream of equality achieved through cultural production 'crashed,' along with many other hopes of economic and political progress in America” (27). More people redirected their attention from racial issues to poverty, and Langston Hughes had to redirect his approach to win back support for equality. From his nationalist stance during the Harlem Renaissance, Hughes turned his attention to the Communist Party and internationalism. He considered the organization valuable because of its, “explicitly anti-racist and democratic program that could organize the stirring masses” (Dawahare 27). More importantly during this period, though, was Hughes’s change of perspective from a nationalist to post-nationalist stance in terms of equality.
While the Harlem Renaissance was at its peak in the 1920s, Hughes had openly promoted a form of African American nationalism using his poetry as a medium, but in the 1930s, Hughes switched to an internationalist perspective due, in part, to the Great Depression and the rise of the Communist Party. He even began to change the wording of his poems. Dawahare claimed that Hughes “was moving away from his nationalist perspective as a Harlem Renaissance writer and toward a view of class rather than race alone…in fact, in his radical poetry, he consistently [replaced] the ‘black like me’ self-identification of his Harlem Renaissance period with a class-conscious sentiment that might be paraphrased ‘worker, like me’ (30). When he wrote the poem, “Air Raid Over Harlem,” he did not emphasize African American nationalism as he would have in the decade previously. The end of the poem reads: "What workers are free? / THE BLACK AND WHITE WORKERS / You and me! / ..." (Rampersad 185). Here, Hughes emphasized the unification of black and white workers, which was a change from his previous poetry inspired by the Harlem Renaissance. He illustrated the reality faced by many in the depression and discredited the “the myth of exclusively white domination by depicting the existence of a poor white working class exploited in common with blacks” (Dawahare 31). However, some elements that were in his 1920s poem can still be found in his later poems. For example, “Air Raid Over Harlem” often used historical references to motivate African Americans into taking action against racism. He compared the beatings of slaves in the South to the beatings occurring in Harlem by white cops, which implies Hughes’s “racial mountain.” To Hughes, “freeing the specter of the repressed nightmares of racial oppression was the surest path to Black liberation and socialist revolution” (Cha-Jua 47).
Hughes also condemned imperialism during the 1930s, believing that its nationalist roots created racism to a degree. He associated pride in one’s nation with the dominion of one race over another. In “Always the Same,” Hughes openly attacked nationalism and imperialism, and he used descriptions of violence to persuade his audience. Throughout the poem, Hughes used the atrocities committed against blacks in the name of capitalism to get his message across to his audience: “exploited, beaten, and robbed, / Shot and killed / Blood running into / Dollars / Pounds / Francs…” (Rampersad 165). Within the poem itself “operates a notion of class 'blood' that serves to disperse Hughes across national [and] racial boundaries," and the words demonstrated Hughes's beliefs that "…Communism…[would unify] the world’s workers,” no matter the race (Dawahare 32). Hughes was, in a way, attempting to unify people, particularly the working class, under the Communist Party, with which he believed would bring about the end of racism. He would soon find out, however, that communism would become a subject of fear and hostility in a society dominated by capitalism.
LIFE AFTER WORLD WAR II
With the Cold War came the fear of communism and a growing tension between the United States and the Soviet Union. Life for Langston Hughes would be made difficult by the war, and he often found himself criticized in public. Through the 1940s to the 1960s, America’s political climate towards suspected communists became increasingly hostile, eventually culminating with the McCarthy Red baiting. He was “unwilling to accept that his participation in the communist movement of the 20s and 30s had made all subsequent attempts to enter the U.S. mainstream doubly hard…” (Scott 31). However, his determination allowed him to continue his social and political fight for equality through poetry.
Hughes’s stance on equality had not changed much since the 1930s. He still believed in unifying people, but due, in part, to the changing attitudes of the public, Hughes had become less outspoken about his leftist views. According to Smethurst, “Hughes was a typical Cold War African-American radical artist, rather than former Leftist, in his occasional evasiveness and denials” (1227). This did not stop him from emphasizing equality though through his radical poems. His perspective was “that when it [came] to rhythmical design, no race…has a monopoly on beauty, strength, and intelligence, and that there [was] room for everybody's rhythm at the rendezvous of victory” (Scott 45). Many of his poems written during this time period still reflected socialist ideals, such as “Labor Storm,” “I Dream a World,” and “Good Morning, Stalingrad” among others, and they all have one thing in common: equality for all despite race or class.
Harlem was still an important source of inspiration during this time period, and it was during the Cold War that Hughes wrote two of his most famous poems, "Harlem" & "Democracy." For both poems in the audio, Hughes explained that he had used them to question the race issue. The dream deferred in “Harlem” refers to the postponing of an idea, and if left too long, the idea could become withered like a raisin. The last line of the poem reads, "Or does it explode?" (Rampersad 426). According to Williams, Hughes used the "imagery of an explosion to symbolise the destructive diversion of African American energies denied full access to the upward mobility promised by the American Dream" (134). Hughes himself did not advocate the use of violence to achieve racial equality, but he did use nuclear war as a symbol of racial injustice (Williams 131). In “Democracy,” he uses a “sense of urgency,” and in both poems, he emphasized that dreams should not be delayed; otherwise, they risk being forgotten altogether (The Harlem Project).
IMPACT IN SOCIETY
The poems of Langston Hughes are considered important pieces of African American literature. Not only have they reflected the concern over division, specifically in race and class, but they have emphasized that a dream can be achieved if people are willing to fight for it. Although many throughout the 1940s and 1950s saw communism as a threat, Hughes viewed it as an opportunity to bring communities together and frequently wrote about it in his poems. His poem, "Harlem," with the famous words, "What happens to a dream deferred/ Does it dry up/ Like a raisin in the sun?," became the inspiration for a play called "A Raisin in the Sun," which explored the "cruelties of racism" (Anderson). Hughes's poetry has also been featured in public areas, sparking a range of emotions, from crying to laughter (Sexton). Hughes’s Renaissance and radical poetry emphasize the equality issue and have inspired many people of all ethnicities and classes to take pride in their cultural heritage and identity.