Langston Hughes: The people’s poet who revolutionised the African-American literary tradition

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Langston Hughes (Photo: Carl van Vechten)

Abstract

This paper revisits two landmark pieces of writing by Langston Hughes, titled “The Negro artist and the racial mountain” and “The weary blues”. In my view, both pieces warrant being categorised as his variorum or magnum opus because of the manner in which they fertilised America’s literary imagination or landscape – and there is palpable evidence to buttress this assertion.

Keywords

  1. Both pieces warrant being categorised as his variorium or magnum opus.
  2. The pivotal role of Hughes’s oeuvre to the wider African-American community.
  3. It would be disingenuous not to concede that they took the cue from his bold cultural reclamation project.
  4. To pander to the prescript of an elitist and Eurocentric literary tradition.
  5. Hughes as an innovator and a proud cultural icon.

Langston Hughes: The people’s poet who revolutionised the African-American literary tradition

You’ve taken my blues and gone –
You sing’em on Broadway
and you sing’em in Hollywood Bowl,
and you mixed ’em with symphonies
and you fixed ’em
So they don’t sound like me.
Yep, you done taken my blues and gone.

– Langston Hughes, “Note on commercial theatre”

In the introduction to his book The collected poems of Langston Hughes, one of the leading authorities in African-American literature, Arnold Rampersad, offers the following insights on the pivotal role of Hughes’s oeuvre to the wider African-American community:

Langston Hughes is one of the more controversial names in the history of American poetry. To many readers of African descent he is their poet laureate, the beloved author of poems steeped in the richness of African-American culture, poems that exude Hughes’s affection for black Americans across all divisions of religion, class and gender. To many readers who love verse and are also committed to the ideal of social and political justice, he is among the most eloquent American poets to have sung about the wounds caused by injustice ... Langston Hughes never sought to be all things to all people, but rather aimed to create a body of work that epitomized the beauty and variety of the African-American and the American experiences, as well as the diversity of emotions, thoughts and dreams that he saw common to all human beings ... He started out as a poet with a deep regard for the written word and a strong connection to the American past (1995:3).

Hughes was a jealous guardian of African-American culture and heritage, as the following lines from his poem “Note on commercial theatre” illustrate:

You’ve taken my blues and gone –
You sing’em on Broadway
and you sing’em in Hollywood Bowl,
and you mixed ’em with symphonies
and you fixed ’em
So they don’t sound like me.
Yep, you done taken my blues and gone
(1995:215–6).

Today, most universities in the United States run flagship African-American studies programmes, and it would be a travesty of justice, and even disingenuous, not to concede that they took the cue from his bold cultural reclamation and preservation project. In his landmark essay entitled “The Negro artist and the racial mountain”, which was published in 1926, Hughes laid out the parameters and contours that he felt should define African-American writing. It is a thought-provoking and candid essay that shows that he was wary of the dangers posed by cultural assimilation, uniformity and conformity – and their potential for the obliteration and demise of the black aesthetic. It implicitly cautions African-Americans not to be complicit in the devaluation of their identity and culture – and not to collude in their disinheritance. He takes a diagnostic approach in highlighting the challenges that pose a threat to the survival of African-American culture. Some of the challenges are self-inflicted and, at times, they have to do with class. He asserts:

But let us look at the immediate background of this young poet. His family is of what I suppose one would call the Negro middle class ... The children go to a mixed school. In the home they read white papers and magazines. And the mother often says, “Don’t be like niggers,” when the children are bad. A frequent phrase from the father is, “Look how well a white man does things.” And so the word “white” comes to be unconsciously a symbol of all virtues. It holds for the children beauty, morality, and money. The whisper of “I want to be white” runs through their minds. This young poet’s home is, I believe, a fairly typical home of the coloured middle class. One sees immediately how difficult it would be for an artist born in such a home to interest himself in interpreting the beauty of his own people. He is never taught to see that beauty.

He is taught rather not to see it, or if he does, to be ashamed of it when it is not according to Caucasian patterns (https://www.english.illinois.edu/maps/poets/g/l/hughes/mountain.htm; accessed 23/01/2017).

Hughes viewed it as unfortunate, and even tragic, that this black middle-class family would constantly use white people as the sole frame of reference when admonishing their children – as if there were a dearth of black role models. Both parents seem to have been suffering from an inferiority complex and seem hell-bent on “spiritually” running away from their race. By exalting white people, they were subconsciously maligning the black race, to which they and their children belonged. Children growing up in such an identity crisis-laden home were inclined to disengage and dissociate themselves from other black people. Hughes further illuminates the paradoxes that inform the life of the black middle class:

For racial culture, the home of a self-styled “high-class” Negro has nothing better to offer. Instead, there will, perhaps, be more aping of things white than in a less cultured or less wealthy home ... A very high mountain, indeed, for the would-be racial artist to climb in order to discover himself and his people.

He catalogues a myriad of challenges that militate against the development of Negro writing – some of them are racial in orientation, but some are self-inflicted, and the Negro middle class is the guilty party in his eyes – a snobbish middle class. Hughes was no ivory tower type of intellectual. He was a true cultural revolutionary who celebrated the beauty of ordinary people, whose experiences he sought to centre. He writes:

But then there are the low-down folks, the so-called common element, and they are the majority – may the Lord be praised! The people who have their hip of gin on Saturday nights and are not too important to themselves or the community, or too well fed, or too learned to watch the lazy world go round ... And perhaps these common people will give to the world its truly great Negro artist, the one who is not afraid to be himself.

This bold and remarkable essay does also assume the form of a manual or template for African-American writing. Here is palpable evidence to buttress this view:

We younger Negro artists who create now intend to express our individual dark-skinned selves without fear or shame. If white people are pleased, we are glad. If they are not, it doesn’t matter. We know we are beautiful and ugly too. The tom-tom cries and the tom-tom laughs. If coloured people are pleased, we are glad. If they are not, their displeasure doesn’t matter either. We build our temples for tomorrow, strong as we know how, and we stand on top of the mountain, free within ourselves.

Hughes doggedly refused to pander to the prescripts of an elitist and Eurocentric literary tradition. He consciously chose a literary trajectory that recognised and celebrated the art and lives of the marginalised, the “low-down folks”. His fusion, or integration, of the blues tradition in his poetry was innovative, revolutionary and a first in the African-American literary landscape. It was a revolutionary kind of innovativeness and intervention because, in a sense, he was consciously creating space for the subaltern to speak, since Negro art and culture were not regarded as being up to standard at that time by the advocates and purveyors of high culture in the United States. He steadfastly refused to be party to the denigration of his people’s art and culture. His poem “The weary blues” is, in my view, one of his finest works – a piece of work that catapulted him to the level of being one of the Negro race’s finest craftsmen. It is the quintessential “blues poem” – in which the voice of the observer-narrator permeates the poem:

Droning a drowsy syncopated tune,
Rocking back and forth to a mellow croon,
I heard a Negro play.
Down on Lenox Avenue to the night
By the pale dull pallor of an old gas light
          He did a lazy sway ...
          He did a lazy sway ...
To the tune o’ those Weary Blues.
With his ebony hands on each ivory key
He made that poor piano moan with melody.
                   O Blues!

In a chapter entitled “Langston Hughes: a poet supreme” published in the book The furious flowering of African-American poetry, Kalamu Ya Salaam offers the following valuable insights on the pivotal nature of Langston Hughes’s revolutionary oeuvre and sheer literary genius:

For the purpose of this essay, black poetry is poetry that (1) is grounded in the black experience; (2) utilises black music as a structural or emulative model; and (3) “consciously” transforms the prevailing standards of poetry through an iconoclastic and innovative use of language. No poet better carries the mantle of model and innovator than Langston Hughes, the prolific Duke Ellington of black poetry. Hughes’s output alone is staggering. During his lifetime, he published over eight hundred poems. Moreover, he single-handedly defined “blues poetry” and is arguably the first major “jazz” poet. Early in his career he realized the importance of “reading” his poetry to receptive audiences. When Alain Locke arranged reading by Hughes before the Playwrights Circle in 1927 in Washington, a blues pianist accompanied him, bringing Hughes the artist and blues music one step closer together, even though Hughes felt that the piano player was “too polished”. He suggested to his Knopf editor that they ought to get a “regular Lenox Avenue blues boy” to accompany him at his reading in New York. In the fifties Hughes was a major voice in the movement of reading with jazz accompaniment (1999:17).

Salaam’s essay is instructive as it sheds light on an understanding of the context within which Hughes was practising his craft. Equally important is its portrayal of Hughes as a poet for “the low-down folks”. Depicting Hughes as an innovator and revolutionary, Salaam asserts:

In a very important sense, modern American poetry was moving toward painting, that is, a composition of words placed on a page; and away from music, that is, an articulation of words that have both sense (meaning) and sound (emotion). Hughes clearly chose to emphasize black music, which increasingly meant dealing with improvisation ... just as jazz simultaneously stresses the collective and the individual, Hughes’s component poems are each individual statements, but they are also part of a larger unit. (y). Significantly, Hughes as an individual is de-emphasised in the work, even as various individual members of the community speak and are spoken about. In other words, Hughes becomes a medium, a sensitive and subtle medium nonetheless. In a seemingly simple form, Hughes serves as a sounding board for the articulation of people who are usually voiceless (1999:18).

The notion of Hughes being “de-emphasized in the work” and being a “sounding board for the articulation of people who are usually voiceless” is manifest in the poem “The weary blues”, which was by far one of his most definitive moments as an artist. Through the sort of innovativeness that he brought to the craft of writing, he also rescued his country’s letters from being monolithic, linear, predictable and predominantly Eurocentric in outlook. But, was he always acknowledged and appreciated for his vision and innovativeness, and the centring of the experiences of the “low-down folks” in his writing? The following excerpt from Salaam’s essay is illuminating:

As important and innovative as Montage is, most of us are not fully aware of this book-length accomplishment because we have bought into the establishment assessment that Hughes had a limited poetic technique. In a similar way, the establishment assesses Theolonius Monk as having a limited piano technique. But, just as few pianists are able to play like Monk, and no musicians have been able to match his compositional authority, similarly, emphasis on Eurocentric poetic devices notwithstanding, few poets have been able to write from inside the black experience like Hughes, and no one has achieved as impressive a body of compositions, that is, “textual poems”. Langston Hughes was absolutely clear about the focus of his work and the danger inherent in articulating the history and vision, the realities and aspirations of the sufferers (1999:21).

In this passage, Salaam seems to echo and validate the argument that Hughes advances in his seminal essay, “The Negro artist and the racial mountain”, in which he unpacks the nature and enormity of the myriad challenges that impede Negro writing and identity –and in which he advocates the preservation of their wholeness and authenticity.

In his authoritative text, “Langston Hughes and the blues”, Steven Tracy offers the following insights on Hughes’s stature in African-American letters:

Langston Hughes has been considered the most important of the Harlem Renaissance writers, and he had a special relationship with the blues tradition, considering it beautiful folk poetry worthy of comparison with the best folk literature in the world ... In a very real sense, the blues, a form of folk poetry, is the soul of Langston Hughes’s work, for it is the very essence of the souls of black folk who were so important to Hughes’s artistic expression (1988:1–2).

Hughes attempted to present a variety of the subjects dealt with in the blues, and in order to do that, it was necessary to speak in voices other than his own. He told Nat Hentoff that much of his poetry “is in the form of a kind of dramatic monologue”, indicating that there are speakers other than Hughes who are expressing themselves as they speak, not only through their language, but by their choice of the blues as the vehicle of expression, Tracy (1988:183). This comes out clearly in the poem “The weary blues”, which, in my view, is an encounter with the surreal, the sublime. We do well to quote Tracy’s dissection of the poem in his authoritative text:

The poem itself is a third-person description with some interpolated first-person, eight- and twelve-bar blues lyrics, giving it a sophisticated structure not unlike some vaudeville blues songs. Clearly in this poem the blues unite the speaker and the performer in some way. There is an immediate implied relationship between the two because of the ambiguous syntax. The “droning” and “rocking” can refer either to the “I” or to the “Negro”, immediately suggesting that the music invites, even requires, the participation of the speaker. Further, the words suggest that the speaker’s poem is a “drowsy syncopated tune” as well, connecting speaker and performer even further by having them working in the same tradition. The performer remains anonymous, unlike Bessie Smith’s jazzbo Broun, because he is not a famous, celebrated performer; he is one of the main practitioners living an unglamorous life that is far more common than the kinds of lives the most successful blues stars lived (1988:220–2).

And, Tracy continues to enlighten about this watershed encounter between singer and poet:

All the singer seems to have is his moaning blues, the revelation of “a black man’s soul”, and those blues are what help keep him alive.

Part of that ability to sustain is apparently the way the blues help him keep his identity. Even in singing the blues, he is singing about life, about the way that he and other blacks have to deal with white society. As his black hands touch the white keys, the accepted Western sound of the piano and the form of Western music are changed. The piano itself comes to life as an extension of the singer, and moans, transformed by the black tradition to a mirror of black sorrow that also reflects the transforming power and beauty of the black tradition (1988:222).

We do well to quote the relevant stanza that speaks to what Tracy refers to as the piano having been “transformed by the black tradition to a mirror of black sorrow”:

In a deep song voice with a melancholy tone
I heard that Negro sing, that old piano moan –
“Ain’t got nobody in all this world,
Ain’t got nobody but ma self.
I’s givin to quit ma frownin
And put ma troubles on the shelf”

Another source of the melancholy aura of the poem, argues Tracy, is the lack of actual connection between the performer and the speaker. He notes that they do not strike up a conversation, share a drink or anything else. The speaker observes, helpless to do anything about the performer and his weariness, save to write the poem and try to understand the performer’s experiences and how they relate to his own.

Ultimately, he finds the man and his songs wistfully compelling; and, he hears in his song the collective weary blues of blacks in America, and tries to reconcile the sadness with the sweetness of the form and expression.

In conclusion, both “The Negro artist and the racial mountain” and “The weary blues” define the parameters of Hughes’s mission as an innovator and a proud cultural icon and activist who helped create space for the subaltern to speak and be recognised in a hostile environment that sought to throttle and marginalise him.

Bibliography

Hughes, L. 1926. “The Negro artist and the racial mountain”. Source: https://english.illinois.edu/maps/poets/g/mountain/htm. Date accessed: 23/01/2017.

Hughes, L. 1995. “The weary blues”. In: The collected poems of Langston Hughes, ed Rampersad, A. New York: Vintage Press.

Tracy, S. 1988. Langston Hughes and the blues. Chicago: University of Illinois Press.

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