Celebrating  Langston Hughes

Celebrating  Langston Hughes


ChickenBones: A Journal

for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes



The sounds of Black speech were brought into more complex literary forms. 

The Negro intellectual was now in the forefront championing the cause

of his oppressed race.  Foremost among them is Langston Hughes



Books by Langston Hughes


Weary Blues (1926) / The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes  /  The Ways of White Folks (Stories) / The Big Sea: An Autobiography


A New Song (1938) / Best of Simple    /  I Wonder as I Wander: An Autobiographical Journey  / New Negro Poets U.S.A.


Not Without Laughter  /Five Plays by Langston Hughes / Selected Poems of Langston Hughes


Ask Your Mama: Twelve Moods for Jazz / Fine Clothes to the Jew / The Collected Works of Langston Hughes (Poems 1921-1940)

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Langston Hughes

Life and Works Celebrating Black Dignity

By  Arthur Edgar E. Smith

Lecture delivered at Martin Luther King Library on February 26th as Part of Black History Month Celebrations  At American Embassy

Good Evening,

Mr. Chairman, ladies and gentleman I must first of all say how pleased I am to be here this evening at this renamed Martin Luther King Library.  I dare say this has been very familiar grounds for me from the 60s when the then U.S.I.S. Library was at the Junction of Rawdon  and Siaka Stevens streets.  It used to be a normal transit point in my journey from the Prince of Wales School at Kingtom to my home at Kissy Road in the East of Freetown.  For it afforded me rest in the tedious walk back home and then it was a pleasant introduction to the highly readable and markedly illustrated and boldly printed American texts and magazines from literature, culture on to science. 

But most rewardingly I would often go back home with copies of Topic magazines and a programme guide to V.O.A. whose popular programmes by the inimitable voices of Yvonne Barclay, Rita Rochelle and our own Ted Roberts were indispensable part of almost every Freetown household then.  I remember watching lively documentaries on science and other educational areas at the auditorium now accommodating Immigration offices. 

Later at 6th form I could remember expanding my knowledge of a widening area of American culture, jazz, blues, even of watching them live.  But the most rewarding of those finds were the anthologies of black writings of Langston Hughes which introduced me to a vast world of black protest writings from Africa, the West Indies, and America.  This widening of my knowledge went on to a broader interest.

This brings also an opportunity for my students to see American literature in more extensive and far-reaching perspective related to their lives and existence and its enriching potentials.  It is indeed instructive to see how literature inspired those Pilgrim Fathers to transform a vast wilderness to the cultural, economic and political nerve centre of the world.  Its literature which started from a mere imitation of European literature has flourished into a distinct and vibrant entity which has produced highly eclectic genres and has fed a rich film industry and other cultural events.

The topic for my talk this evening is ‘Langston Hughes: Life and Works Celebrating Black Dignity.’

Why the choice of Langston Hughes?

Firstly it is Black History Month when we commemorate the struggle of black consciousness leaders such as Martin Luther King to restore the rights of the black citizenry thus fulfilling the ethos of the American dream. Langston Hughes stands as a literary and cultural translation of the political resistance and campaign of King.  Hughes has an overriding sense of a social and cultural purpose which is tied to his sense of the past, the present and the future of black America.  Thus, a closer acquaintance with Hughes’ life and works could be most instructive for us here who have so much to learn from that very past to inspire us to move forward and to inform and guide our steps as we move away from the mistakes of the past and present, to create a great future for ourselves and for generations yet to come.

Secondly, Hughes seems to have spanned the genres: poetry, drama, novel and criticism leaving an indelible stamp on each.  At 21 years of age he had published in all four (4) areas.  For he always considered himself an artist in words who would venture into every single area of literary creativity, because there were readers for whom a story meant more than a poem or a song lyric meant more than a story and Hughes wanted to reach that individual and his kind. But first and foremost, he considered himself a poet.

He wanted to be a poet who could address himself to the concerns of his people in poems that could be read with no formal training or extensive literary background.  In spite of this Hughes wrote and staged dozens of short stories, about a dozen books for children, a history of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured Peoples (NAACP), two volumes of autobiography, opera libretti, song lyrics and the list goes on.  Hughes was driven by a sheer confidence in his versatility and in the power of his craft.

Finally the choice of Hughes is most significant for us here because he is closest to our heart.  His commitment to Africa was real and was concretized in both words and deeds.  The fact of his Negro-ness (though light-complexioned) has aroused in him a desire to challenge those from the other side of the colour line that reject it:

My old man’s a white old man

And my old mother’s black

My old ma died in a fine big house

My ma died in a shack

I wonder where I’m gonna die

Being neither white nor black?

His search for his roots was given impetus when in 1923 Hughes met and heard Marcus Garvey exhort Negroes to go back to Africa to escape the wrath of the white man.  Hughes then became one of the poets who thought they felt the beating of the jungle tom-toms in the Negroes’ pulse.  Their verse took on a nostalgic mood, and some even imagined that they were infusing the rhythms of African dancing and music into their verse like we could sense in the reading of this poem: ‘Danse Africaine’:

The low beating of the tom toms,

The slow beating of the tom toms,

Low …slow

Slow …low –

Stirs your blood.


A night-veiled girl

Whirls softly into a

Circle of light.

Whirls softly …slowly,

Like a wisp of smoke around the fire-

And the tom-toms beat,

And the tom-toms beat,

And the low beating of the tom-toms

Stirs your blood.

The 1920s were largely recognized as a decade of extraordinary creativity in the arts for black Americans.  Much of that creativity was focused on the activities of African Americans living in New York City, particularly in the district of Harlem.  This was an especially brilliant moment in the history of blacks in America.  There was an unprecedented variety and scope in the outpourings of publications by African Americans.  This was a moment of a renaissance, as such moments of unusually fertile cultural activity are often called.  In poetry, fiction, drama and the essay as well as in music, dance, painting, and sculpture African Americans worked with a sense of achievement never before experienced by so many black artists in the long troubled history of the peoples of African descent in North America. 

Expressed in various ways, the creativity of black Americans undoubtedly came from a common source.  This source was the irresistible impulse of blacks to create boldly expressive art of a high quality as a primary response to their social conditions, as an affirmation of their dignity and humanity in the face of poverty and racism.  At that same time African and Caribbean students in Paris and progressive young intellectuals and artists in the West Indies were reading the works of black Americans as well as their own thinkers and creators and were taking the first tentative steps toward in one instance, the Negritude movement and in another the flowering of literature in the British West Indies, perhaps best exemplified later in the century by the poetry and plays of Derek Walcott.  Negritude was a movement mainly among French speaking black writers that emphasized a distinctly African aesthetic.  It included as its adherents Senegalese poet and President Leopold Sedar Senghor, Congolese poet Tchicaya U’Tamsi, Leon Damas, and Aime Cesaire.

Harlem was nevertheless crucial to the movement in the United States.  The history of book publication as well as play productions signals the breaking of new grounds.  When Harper and Brothers brought out Countee Cullen’s first book of verse Color in 1925 in New York City it was the first book of poetry by an African American to be published by a major American publisher.  At the turn of the century Dodd, Mead had offered Paul Laurence Dunbar’s books.  In 1922 Harcourt Brace had published the Jamaican born poet Claude McKay’s Harlem Shadows.  Jean Toomer’s Cane was apparently the first book of fiction by an African American of African descent to appear from a New York publisher since Doubleday in 1905.  This was indeed the beginnings of a new day for the black American writer.

The sounds of Black speech were brought into more complex literary forms.  The Negro intellectual was now in the forefront championing the cause of his oppressed race.  Foremost among them is Langston Hughes (1902 – 67) who voices his ethnic passion in countless works.  More than anyone else he articulates his concept of American Negritude, helping new writers carrying their cause both at home and abroad and editing such pioneering Pan-Africanist anthologies, such as Poems from Black Africa.

Born in Joplin, Missouri, Hughes grew up in Lawrence, Kansas, and Lincoln, Illinois, before going to high school in Cleveland, Ohio.  In all these places, he was part of a small community of blacks to whom he was nevertheless profoundly attached from early in his life.  Though descending from a distinguished family his infancy was disrupted by the separation of his parents not long after his birth.  His father then emigrated to Mexico where he hoped to gain the success that had eluded him in America.  The colour of his skin, he hoped, would be less of a consideration in determining his future in Mexico.  There, he broke new ground.  He gained success in business and lived the rest of his life there as a prosperous attorney and landowner.  In contrast, Hughes’ mother lived the transitory life common for black mothers often leaving her son in the care of her mother while searching for a job.  Hughes lived successively with family friends, then various relatives in Kansas and later joined his mother even though she was now with his new stepfather in Cleveland, Ohio.

At Central High School Hughes excelled academically and in sports.  He wrote poetry and short fiction for the school’s literary magazine and edited the school year book.  He returned to Mexico where he taught English briefly and wrote poems and prose pieces for publication in the Crisis the magazine of the NAACP. He became disillusioned with his father’s materialistic values and contemptuous belief that blacks, Mexicans, and Indians were lazy and ignorant.

Aided by his father, he arrived in New York in 1921 ostensibly to attend Columbia University but really it was to see Harlem.  One of his greatest poems, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” has just been published in Crisis.  His talent was immediately spotted though he only lasted one year at Columbia where he did well but never felt comfortable.  On campus, he was subjected to bigotry.  He was assigned the worst dormitory room because of his colour.  Classes in English literature were all he could endure.  Instead of attending classes which he found boring he would frequent shows, lectures, and readings sponsored by the American Socialist Society.  It was then that he was first introduced to the laughter and pain, hunger and heartache of blues music.  It was the night life and culture that lured him out of college.  Those sweet sad blues songs captured for him the intense pain and yearning that he saw around him, and that he incorporated into such poems as “The Weary Blues.” 

To keep himself going as a poet and support his mother, Hughes served in turn as a delivery boy for a florist; a vegetable farmer and a mess boy on a ship up the Hudson River. As part of a merchant steamer crew he sailed to Africa.  He then travelled the same way to Europe, where he jumped ship in Paris only to spend several months working in a night-club kitchen and then wandering off to Italy.

By 1924 his poetry which he had all along been working on showed the powerful influence of the blues and jazz.  His poem “The Weary Blues,” which best exemplifies this influence helped launch his career when it won first prize in the poetry section of the 1925 literary contest of Opportunity magazine and also won another literary prize in Crisis.   

The Weary Blues

Droning a drowsy syncopated tune,

Rocking back and forth to a mellow croon,

I heard a Negro play.

Down on Lenox Avenue the other 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 Blues1

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 gwine to quit ma frowning’

And put ma troubles on the shelf.”

Thump, thump, thump, went his foot on the floor.

He played a few chords then he sang some more—

“I got the Weary Blues

And I can’t be satisfied.

I ain’t happy no mo’

And I wish that I had died.”

And far into the night he crooned that tune.

The stars went out and so did the moon.

The singer stopped playing and went to bed

While the Weary Blues echoed through his head.

He slept like a rock or a man that’s dead.

This landmark poem, the first of any poet to make use of that basic blues form is part of a volume of that same title.  Its entire collection reflects the frenzied atmosphere of Harlem nightlife.  Most of its selections just as is the case with “The Weary Blues” approximate the phrasing and meter of blues music, a genre popularized in the early 1920s by rural and urban blacks.  In it and such other pieces as “Jazzonia” Hughes evoked the frenzied hedonistic and glittering atmosphere of Harlem’s famous night-clubs.


Oh, silver tree!

Oh, shining rivers of the soul!

In a Harlem cabaret

Six long-headed jazzers play.

A dancing girl whose eyes are bold

Lifts high a dress of silken gold.

O, singing tree!

O, shining rivers of the soul!


Were Eve’s eyes

In the first garden

Just a bit too bold?

Was Cleopatra gorgeous

In a gown of gold?


Oh, shining tree!

Oh, silver rivers of the soul!


In a whirling cabaret

Six long-headed jazzers play.

This collection still had room for poetry of social commentary such as “Mother to Son” which shows how hardened the blacks have to be to face the hurdles that are reserved in abundance for them.

Mother to Son

“Well, son, I’ll tell you:

Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.

It’s had tacks in it;

And splinters,

And boards torn up,


And places with no carpet on the floor-


But all the time

I’se[1] been a’climbin’ on,

And turnin’ corners,


And sometimes goin’ in the dark

Where there ain’t been no light.


So, boy, don’t you turn back.”

Don’t you set down on the steps

‘Cause you find it’s kinder hard.

Don’t you fall now-

For I “see still goin’, honey,

I’ se still climbin’

And life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.”

Also included here were his much anthologized “The Negro Speaks of Rivers”.

Hughes’ earliest influences as a mature poet came interestingly from white poets.  We have Walt Whitman the man who through his artistic violations of old conventions of poetry opened the boundaries of poetry to new forms like free verse.  There is also the highly populist white German Émigré Carl Sandburg.  But Claude McKay, a black from Jamaica, stood for him as the embodiment of the cosmopolitan and yet racially confident and committed black poet Hughes hoped to be.  He was also indebted to older black literary figures such as W.E.B. Du Bois and James Weldon Johnson who admired his work and aided him.  W.E.B. Du Bois’ collection of Pan-Africanist essays Souls of Black Folks has markedly influenced many black writers like Hughes, Richard Wright, and James Baldwin.

Such colour-affirmative images and sentiments as that in “people”:

                        The night is beautiful,

                        So the faces of my people

And in ‘Dream Variations:

                        Night coming tenderly,

                        Black like me.

endeared his work to a wide range of African Americans, for whom he delighted in writing,.  The whole poem ‘Dream Variations”s frolicking moment is inviting enough to savour:

Dream Variations

To fling my arms wide

In some place of the sun,

To whirl and to dance

Till the white day is done.

Then rest at cool evening

Beneath a tall tree

While night comes on gently,

Dark like me—

That is my dream!


To fling my arms wide

In the face of the sun,

Dance! Whirl! Whirl!

Till the quick day is done.

Rest at pale evening . . .

A tall, slim tree . . .

Night coming tenderly

Black like me.

Hughes had always shown his determination to experiment as a poet and not slavishly follow the tyranny of tight stanzaic forms and exact rhyme.  He seemed, like Watt Whitman and Carl Sandburg, to prefer to write verse which captured the realities of American speech rather than “poetic diction”, and with his ear especially attuned to the varieties of black American speech.

“Weary Blues” combines these various elements the common speech of ordinary people, jazz and blues music and the traditional forms of poetry adapted to the African American and American subjects.  In his adaptation of traditional poetic forms first to jazz then to blues sometimes using dialect but in a way radically different from earlier writers, Hughes was well served by his early  experimentation with a loose form of rhyme that frequently gave way to an inventively rhythmic free verse:

                        Ma an ma baby

                        Got two mo’ ways,

                        Two mo’ ways to do de buck!

Even more radical experimentation with the blues form led to his next collection, Fine Clothes to the Jew.  Perhaps his finest single book of verse, including several ballads, Fine Clothes was also his least favourably welcomed.

Several reviewers in black newspapers and magazines were distressed by Hughes’ fearless and, ‘tasteless’ evocation of elements of lower-class black culture, including its sometimes raw eroticism, never before treated in serious poetry.

Hughes expressing his determination to write about such people and to experiment with blues and jazz wrote in his essay “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain.”

                 ‘We younger artists . . . 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.’

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This is the first part. If interested in the whole work write to the author at  


[1]  I’se; (dialect) I have.

posted 9 July 2007

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Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America

By Melissa V. Harris-Perry

According to the author, this society has historically exerted considerable pressure on black females to fit into one of a handful of stereotypes, primarily, the Mammy, the Matriarch or the Jezebel.  The selfless Mammy’s behavior is marked by a slavish devotion to white folks’ domestic concerns, often at the expense of those of her own family’s needs. By contrast, the relatively-hedonistic Jezebel is a sexually-insatiable temptress. And the Matriarch is generally thought of as an emasculating figure who denigrates black men, ala the characters Sapphire and Aunt Esther on the television shows Amos and Andy and Sanford and Son, respectively.     

Professor Perry points out how the propagation of these harmful myths have served the mainstream culture well. For instance, the Mammy suggests that it is almost second nature for black females to feel a maternal instinct towards Caucasian babies.

As for the source of the Jezebel, black women had no control over their own bodies during slavery given that they were being auctioned off and bred to maximize profits. Nonetheless, it was in the interest of plantation owners to propagate the lie that sisters were sluts inclined to mate indiscriminately.

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Sex at the Margins

Migration, Labour Markets and the Rescue Industry

By Laura María Agustín

This book explodes several myths: that selling sex is completely different from any other kind of work, that migrants who sell sex are passive victims and that the multitude of people out to save them are without self-interest. Laura Agustín makes a passionate case against these stereotypes, arguing that the label ‘trafficked’ does not accurately describe migrants’ lives and that the ‘rescue industry’ serves to disempower them. Based on extensive research amongst both migrants who sell sex and social helpers, Sex at the Margins provides a radically different analysis. Frequently, says Agustin, migrants make rational choices to travel and work in the sex industry, and although they are treated like a marginalised group they form part of the dynamic global economy. Both powerful and controversial, this book is essential reading for all those who want to understand the increasingly important relationship between sex markets, migration and the desire for social justice. “Sex at the Margins rips apart distinctions between migrants, service work and sexual labour and reveals the utter complexity of the contemporary sex industry. This book is set to be a trailblazer in the study of sexuality.”—Lisa Adkins, University of London

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The White Masters of the World

From The World and Africa, 1965

By W. E. B. Du Bois

W. E. B. Du Bois’ Arraignment and Indictment of White Civilization (Fletcher)

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Ancient African Nations

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The Death of Emmett Till by Bob Dylan  The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll  Only a Pawn in Their Game

Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson Thanks America for Slavery /

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The Journal of Negro History issues at Project Gutenberg

The Haitian Declaration of Independence 1804  / January 1, 1804 — The Founding of Haiti 

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updated 1 May 2009 




Home  Transitional Writings on Africa   Langston Hughes Bio

Related files:  Female Characters in Camara Laye   John Pepper Clark’s Raft Running Adrift    Wole Soyinka Kongi’s Harvest  Black Consciousness Poet–Claude McKay  The Life and Times of Black Poet Claude McKay 

 Celebrating  Langston Hughes   Langston Hughes Life and Works   Literary Arts in Sierra Leone   Passing of Cyprian Ekwensi

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