West Chester University
~~ Notes on Langston Hughes ~~
* * * Page references in the following notes are to The Compact Bedford Introduction to Literature 5/e. Ed. Michael Meyer. Boston/New York: Bedford/St. Martin's, 2000. * * *
Hughes' personal history had deep roots in the African American struggle for freedom and equality. His maternal grandfather took part in John Brown's raid on Harpers Ferry in 1859, a failed attempt to mobilize a slave rebellion just before the civil war. Although his grandfather was killed in that raid, he was never forgotten. Langston had his grandfather's shawl for a bedcover as a young boy, and you can imagine the stories his grandmother told him when he asked questions about its many bullet holes and bloodstains. And you can imagine, probably, the mixture of pride and anguish he must have felt.
And you can imagine, too, how such a boy might grow to be a writer who never shied away from celebrating racial pride in spite of the contempt the larger society expressed toward his race. As your textbook tells us: "Throughout his long career as a professional writer, Hughes remained true to the African American heritage he celebrated in his writings, which were frankly "racial in theme and treatment, derived from the life I know." Hughes published an essay called "The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain" in 1926, encouraging other African-American artists to integrate their racial legacy and not flee from it. Here's the excerpt from that essay reprinted in your textbook:
This fierce racial pride came somewhat at a cost to Hughes. His own father never understood why he needed to write about, much less celebrate, the black experience, and Hughes never learned to accept his father's internalized contempt for blacks (p. 815).
style is to write using a simple, natural diction easily understood, easily
accessible to ordinary people without special training or literary background.
He didn't want the enjoyment of poetry to be only an "elite" experience,
but something within reach of the ordinary person on the street. And so the
voice in his poems is the voice of ordinary people, its rhythms the rhythm of
the music that was popular in the neighborhoods where he lived--in spite of
the fact that those rhythms and those voices were felt by some to be "embarrassing
handicap[s] and an impediment to social progress" (p. 816). When you read
(or better yet hear) Langston Hughes, you can hear the blues, hear the jazz.
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