ChickenBones: A Journal
for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes
Paul Lawrence Dunbar, Carl Sandburg, and Walt Whitman were
Hughes primary literary influences. He is known for his insightful, colorful
portrayals of black life in America from the twenties through the sixties.
Books by Langston Hughes
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American Negro Poet
Langston Hughes — born February 1, 1902, in Joplin, Missouri — is usually considered the dean of American Negro poets. His parents divorced when he was a child, and his father moved to Mexico. he was raised by his grandmother until he was thirteen, when he moved to Lincoln, Illinois, to live with his mother and her husband, eventually settling in Cleveland, Ohio. It was in Lincoln that Hughes began writing poetry.
Following graduation from high school, Hughes spent a year in Mexico and a year at Columbia university. During these years, he held odd jobs as an assistant cook, launderer, and a busboy, and traveled to Africa and Europe working as a seaman. in November 1924, he moved to Washington, D.C. Hughes first book of Poetry, The Weary Blues, was published by Alfred A Knopf in 1926. he finished his college education at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania three years later. in 1930 his first novel, Not Without laughter, won the Harmon gold medal for literature.
Paul Lawrence Dunbar, Carl Sandburg, and Walt Whitman were Hughes primary literary influences. He is known for his insightful, colorful portrayals of black life in America from the twenties through the sixties. He wrote novels, short stories and plays, as well as poetry, and is also known for his engagement with the world of jazz and the influence it had on his writing, as in montage of a dream deferred.
His life and work were influential in the shaping of what came to be known as the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s. Unlike Claude McKay, Jean Toomer, and Countee Cullen, Hughes identified fiercely his personal experience with that of the common experiences of the American Negro. He wanted to tell their stories that reflected their dignity, humor, suffering, and language.
Langston died of complications from prostate cancer May 22, 1967, in New York. In his memory, his residence at 20 East 127th Street in Harlem, New York City, has been given landmark status by the New York City Preservation Commission, and east 127th Street was renamed “Langston Hughes Place.”
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I, Too, Sing America
I, too, sing America
I am the darker brother.
They send me to eat in the kitchen
When company comes,
But I laugh,
And eat well,
And grow strong.
I’ll be at the table
When company comes.
Say to me,
“Eat in the kitchen,”
They’ll see how beautiful I am
And be ashamed–
I, too am America.
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Madam and her Madam
I worked for a woman,
She wasn’t mean–
But she had a twelve-room
House to clean.
Had to get breakfast,
Dinner, and supper, too–
Then take care of her children
When I got through.
Wash, iron, and scrub,
Walk the dog around–
It was too much,
Nearly broke me down.
I said, Madam,
Can it be
You trying to make a
Pack-horse out of me?
She opened her mouth.
She cried, Oh, no!
You know, Alberta,
I love you so!
I said, Madam,
That may be true–
But I’ll be dogged
If I love you!
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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 Werary Blues.
With his ebony hands on each ivory key
he made that poor piano moan with melody.
Swaying to and from on his rickety stool
He played that sad raggy tune like a musical fool.
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 but me self.
I’s gwine to quit ma fronwin’
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.
Got the Weary Blues
And can’t be satisfied–
I ain’t happy no mo’
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.
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The Negro Speaks of Rivers
Ive known rivers.
Ive known rivers as ancient as the world and older than the
flow of human blood in human veins.
My soul has grown deep like the rivers.
I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young.
I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep.
I looked upon the Nile and raised the Pyramids above it.
I heard the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln went down to
New Orleans, and Ive seen it muddy bosom turn all golden
in the sunset.
Ive known rivers;
Ancient, dusky rivers.
My soul has grown deep like the rivers.
Hughes’ first poem to be published outside of his high-school paper, appeared in Du Bois Crisis in June, 1921:
Scholarly Books on Langston Hughes
Faith Berry. Before & Beyond Harlem: Biography of Langston Hughes. 1995.
Onwuchekwa Jemie Langston Hughes: An Introduction to the Poetry (1985)
Edward J. Mullen. Langston Hughes in the Hispanic World and Haiti (1971)
Steven C. Tracy. Langston Hughes and the Blues. 2001
R. Baxter Miller. The Art And Imagination of Langston Hughes. 2006.
Jonathan Scott Socialist Joy in the Writing of Langston Hughes. 2006
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Hughes, perhaps more than any other author, knows and loves the Negro masses.1 That is why Hughes, perhaps more than any other writer, appeals to the masses of Negro high school students. Both verse and stories are easy to understand, but written with skill. Unlike many other Negro authors, Hughes neither wrote about the dull, cultured, intellectual elite, who are unpopular with students, nor did he glory in gory lynchings and sex perversions, which are unpopular with school boards. His writings are about poor, ordinary people but with a strong sense of humor. When asked what Negro writers they like, students invariably list Hughes.
Langston Hughes is difficult to classify as a writer. He was among the leaders of the Negro Renaissance, but he continued to write later than most others of this period. He wrote poetry, short stories, novels, essays and edited many collections of Negro writings.
Hughes had written a number of short story collections, among them Laughing to Keep from Crying (New York: Henry Holt and Co., 1952, o. p.), Something in Common and Other Stories (New York: Hill & Wang, Inc., 1963), and The Ways of White Folks (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1934). Most of the stories are humorous, but one always knows that much of the laughing is to keep from crying. Topics vary from white tourists in Harlem to brothels in Cuba to standard problems of getting a job and family spats. Although many of the stories deal with prostitutes and drinking and other forms of low life, these are not treated in an objectionable manner.
Among the best of Hughes stories for high school students is Thank you, Maam, a story of a young boy who tried to snatch a purse from a strong, motherly woman who took him home and fed him. On the Road is a powerful, symbolic story of a Negro who tried to tear off the door of a church that would not help him when he was freezing and starving. The Big Meeting tells of two Negro boys who come to a revival to laugh but were offended when whites made fund of their mothers. Both the whites and the boys were finally deeply affected by the sermon.
The Simple stories are another large body of Hughes writing. The Simple stories are collected in Simple Speaks His Mind (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1950, o. p.), Simple Takes a Wife (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1953, o. p.), Simple Stakes a Claim (New York: Rinehart and Co, Inc., 1953, o. p.), The Best of Simple (New York: Hill & Wang, Inc.,1961) and Simples Uncle Sam (New York: Hill & Wang, Inc., 1965). All these collections give vignettes of Simple, an average, Alabama-born Harlem man who commented on current situations over the barstool to this college-educated pal. Discussions range from the space to Mississippi to Cousin Minnie but always bring up the race problem in some way. The humor and interest in the Simple stories come from the variety of well-developed characters including the wife Joyce, who wanted to move to the suburbs and enjoy culture; ugly Cousin Minnie, whom Simple had never heard of before she appeared asking for money; and Simple himself, one of the most original philosophers of the decade. His discussions on race are presented with delightful humor that does not quite mask their depth of bitterness and injury.
Although my students seemed to enjoy the Simple selections that we heard in class, they seemed a little uneasy at a few of Simples most violent comments. They also seemed a little uneasy at the thought of white people reading them and making fun of Negroes. While most students, white and colored, would probably enjoy and gain much from the Simple stories, they might be embarrassed by hearing or discussing them in the classroom, especially a mixed class.
Not without Laugher (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1930), Langston Hughes first novel, was written while he was still in college and still strongly influenced by the Negro Renaissance. Though somewhat defective as a work of art, Not without Laughter has possibility for use with high school students. Not exactly autobiographical but based on Hughes experiences as a child, the book tells of the problems of a poor boy who grew up in Kansas. Poverty was the villain that separated his parents, sent his aunt into prostitution, made his grandmother die from overwork, and forced his successful aunt to cut all ties with her poor family. Sandy was sent around from one member of the family to another, but,. With a strong will and encouragement from all, managed to keep out of trouble.
There is not much excitement, and the plot is rather formless. The main interest in the book is the characters, who are very realistic, alive, and humorous: Jimboy, the fun-loving, roving father; Angee, the dreamless, stay-at-home wife; adventurous Harriett who finally made good on the stage; and Hagar, the long-suffering grandmother. Not without Laughter deals very realistically with all the problems faced by a child growing up in poverty and finding the strength necessary to overcome it.
Hughes second novel is Tambourines to Glory (New York: John Day Co., 1958, o. p.). It is about Essie Belle Johnson, a deeply religious but not very intelligent woman, who paired up with Laura, a very clever but quite unreligious opportunist, to form a church. Starting as sidewalk preachers, they eventually worked up to the biggest church in Harlem. Essies main interest was to get her lovely young daughter Marietta to come to New York, and Lauras main interest was her handsome hustler Buddy. When Buddy proved unfaithful, Laura plotted to get rid of both Buddy and Essie by killing Buddy and blaming in on Essie. But the scheme backfired. Essie won and became the leader of the church.
The plot is contrived and not meant to be taken seriously. The murder scene and the following events sound like a sequence from a Danny Kaye movie. The characters, though close to the stereotype, are quite well dedicated and quite human. The scheming, unprincipled Laura is especially lively. The style is fairly humorous. Although not extremely interesting the book is pleasant enough reading. Some students might find it offensive because of the way is makes fun of both the Negro and religion. Used improperly it could help to contribute to an unfavorable stereotype of the Negro.
The Big Sea (New York: Hill & Wang, Inc., 1963) is Hughes autobiography, and his provides a fascinating subject for an autobiography. Shunted around from relative to relative, he seemed to learn something from each one. Pride from his grandmother, religion from Auntie Reed, and courage from his mother were his heritage. At seventeen, he went to Mexico to visit his father, whom he began to dislike, for his father was interested only in making money and was contemptuous of the poor, common people that Langston loved.
After a year at Columbia University, Hughes began work as a sailor, and the next section of the book relates his exciting adventures in Africa and Europe where he was often stranded without money or food. By the time he returned to America, the traits that so enliven his writing were well established: a love of adventure, a carefree spirit, a deep love of the common people, and a sense of humor that can laugh at the most serious problems. The Big Sea is an exciting book and is likely to be interesting to adolescents. Dealing with problems of becoming an adult and finding one place in the world, it is a valuable book for teenagers. Also, its antimiddle-class should values should give them something to think about.
Five Plays by Langston Hughes, edited by Webster Smalley (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1963), has several selections that might be useful with high school students. Simply Heavenly, a play made from the Simple stories, might be the most entertaining. The play is comedy centering on Simples attempts to marry Joyce and escape the clutches of his former wife Isabel and his former girl friend, Zarita. Comedy develops around Simples bar companions and Zaritas schemes to steal him from Joyce.
Little Ham is a funny play about numbers racketeers and fights over girl friends. But since it definitely shows the lower side of Negro life, some might object to it. Tambourines to Glory is a play based on the novel by the same name. A more serious play is Mulatto, a bloody play about the mulatto son of a planter who refused to be a slave and eventually killed his father. It is a vicious reading for high school students. Soul Gone Home is an ironic play about a mother who faked sorrow for her dead son, who came back to life to berate her hypocrisy. Only four pages long and requiring only two characters, this play could easily be presented in the classroom.
The Selected Poems of Langston Hughes (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1959) is a treasure-find for English teachers. His poems are about the things teenagers are concerned about, such as romance, dances, dreams, and jobs. And they are written the way teenagers talk, with modern jazz rhythms and everyday words, sometimes even slang. Furthermore, they are easy to understandat least the surface meaning is simple. From the teachers standpoint, they are perfect for illustrating the basic principles of poetrycompression and the connection between metrics and meaning.
Hughes has a number of very short sketches which, haiku-like, compress a mood into a three- or four-line picture. Among the poems of this type are One, Garden, Troubled Woman, Sea Calm, Luck, Ennui, My People, and Suicides Note.
Another group of poems develops a mood through rhythmic patterns and evocative words. Poems of this type are Trumpet Player, Drum, The Weary Blues, and many sections from Montage of a Dream Deferred (New York: Henry Holt and Co., 1951, o.p.), especially Dream Boogie.
One of Hughes major themes is the lost dream or the ruined life. Each of the following poems catches the tragedy of the Negro experience in America. As I Grow Older is a long poem that shows how a dream flees from color. Dream Variations shows the poets longing to express and enjoy his racial heritage. Litany is a haunting poem that accuses even heaven of having no love. Vagabonds, Delinquent, and Troubled Woman show people who have finally been destroyed. Mother to Son gives advice to one who must face a world of trouble. To Be Somebody again pictures the almost hopeless dream.
Hughes also has several poems about the American dream: Freedoms Plow, I, Too, Sing America, and Let America Be America Again.
The Negro Speaks of Rivers, is one of his most beautiful and most moving poems telling the history of the Negro race in the rivers it has lived near.
Montage of a Dream Deferred is an experimental book showing sketches of Harlem life in bop rhythm. The poem can be used as one long selection, or the shorter poems can be used separately. The main theme of all the poems is the tragedy of lost dreams. Among the selections that might be most effective are Freedom Train, Boogie: 1 A.M., Deferred, and Harlem.
The Dream Keeper (New York: Alfred. A. Knopf, Inc., 1940, o.p., reissued 1963) is another short collection, an attractive book illustrated by Helen Sewell. Again, all poems are good for high school students, but the most effective might be The Dream Keeper and Dreams.
1Robert Bone, The Negro Novel in America, p. 75.
Barbara Dodds Negro Literature for High School Students © Copyright 1968 National Council of Teacher of English Champaign, Illinois 61820
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By Matthew Wasniewski
Black Americans in Congress, 18702007 beautifully prepared volumeis a comprehensive history of the more than 120 African Americans who have served in the United States Congress. Written for a general audience, this book contains a profile of each African-American Member, including notables such as Hiram Revels, Joseph Rainey, Oscar De Priest, Adam Clayton Powell, Shirley Chisholm, Gus Hawkins, and Barbara Jordan. Individual profiles are introduced by contextual essays that explain major events in congressional and U.S. history. Part I provides four chronologically organized chapters under the heading “Former Black Members of Congress.” Each chapter provides a lengthy biographical sketch of the members who served during the period addressed, along with a narrative historical account of the era and tables of information about the Congress during that time. Part II provides similar information about current African-American members. There are 10 appendixes providing tabular information of a variety of sorts about the service of Black members, including such things as a summary list, service on committees and in party leadership posts, familial connections, and so forth.
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By Charles C. Mann
Im a big fan of Charles Manns previous book 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, in which he provides a sweeping and provocative examination of North and South America prior to the arrival of Christopher Columbus. Its exhaustively researched but so wonderfully written that its anything but exhausting to read. With his follow-up, 1493, Mann has taken it to a new, truly global level. Building on the groundbreaking work of Alfred Crosby (author of The Columbian Exchange and, Im proud to say, a fellow Nantucketer), Mann has written nothing less than the story of our world: how a planet of what were once several autonomous continents is quickly becoming a single, globalized entity.
Mann not only talked to countless scientists and researchers; he visited the places he writes about, and as a consequence, the book has a marvelously wide-ranging yet personal feel as we follow Mann from one far-flung corner of the world to the next. And always, the prose is masterful. In telling the improbable story of how Spanish and Chinese cultures collided in the Philippines in the sixteenth century, he takes us to the island of Mindoro whose southern coast consists of a number of small bays, one next to another like tooth marks in an apple.
We learn how the spread of malaria, the potato, tobacco, guano, rubber plants, and sugar cane have disrupted and convulsed the planet and will continue to do so until we are finally living on one integrated or at least close-to-integrated Earth. Whether or not the human instigators of all this remarkable change will survive the process they helped to initiate more than five hundred years ago remains, Mann suggests in this monumental and revelatory book, an open question.
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By Pauline Maier
A notable historian of the early republic, Maier devoted a decade to studying the immense documentation of the ratification of the Constitution. Scholars might approach her books footnotes first, but history fans who delve into her narrative will meet delegates to the state conventions whom most history books, absorbed with the Founders, have relegated to obscurity. Yet, prominent in their local counties and towns, they influenced a conventions decision to accept or reject the Constitution. Their biographies and democratic credentials emerge in Maiers accounts of their elections to a convention, the political attitudes they carried to the conclave, and their declamations from the floor. The latter expressed opponents objections to provisions of the Constitution, some of which seem anachronistic (election regulation raised hackles) and some of which are thoroughly contemporary (the power to tax individuals directly).
Ripostes from proponents, the Federalists, animate the great detail Maier provides, as does her recounting how one state conventions verdict affected anothers. Displaying the grudging grassroots blessing the Constitution originally received, Maier eruditely yet accessibly revives a neglected but critical passage in American history.Booklist
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Wilderson, a professor, writer and filmmaker from the Midwest, presents a gripping account of his role in the downfall of South African apartheid as one of only two black Americans in the African National Congress (ANC). After marrying a South African law student, Wilderson reluctantly returns with her to South Africa in the early 1990s, where he teaches Johannesburg and Soweto students, and soon joins the military wing of the ANC. Wilderson’s stinging portrait of Nelson Mandela as a petulant elder eager to accommodate his white countrymen will jolt readers who’ve accepted the reverential treatment usually accorded him. After the assassination of Mandela’s rival, South African Communist Party leader Chris Hani, Mandela’s regime deems Wilderson’s public questions a threat to national security; soon, having lost his stomach for the cause, he returns to America.
Wilderson has a distinct, powerful voice and a strong story that shuffles between the indignities of Johannesburg life and his early years in Minneapolis, the precocious child of academics who barely tolerate his emerging political consciousness. Wilderson’s observations about love within and across the color line and cultural divides are as provocative as his politics; despite some distracting digressions, this is a riveting memoir of apartheid’s last days.Publishers Weekly
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From The World and Africa, 1965
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updated 21 February 2009