By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
Langston Hughes (1901-67) was a key figure in the Harlem Renaissance in New York in the 1920s. Over the course of a varied career he was a novelist, playwright, social activist, and journalist, but it is for his poetry that Hughes is now best-remembered. But what are the best Langston Hughes poems? Below, we introduce ten of his finest.
If these poems whet your appetite, we recommend The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes, a weighty volume which showcases the full range of his work.
1. ‘Let America Be America Again’.
Many great American writers of the twentieth century offered their take on the American Dream – the notion that anyone living in, or coming to live in, America, could attain prosperity and happiness and success – and Langston Hughes was no different. How often the reality falls short of the ‘dream’ or ideal, as he powerfully captures in this, one of his best-known poems.
He brings the added perspective of an African-American writer highlighting the injustices faced by many black Americans: Hughes writes of feeling like an outsider, and that ‘America never was America to me’. He also, however, makes the experiences he captures in the poem more all-encompassing, giving voice to both white Americans and native Americans in his vision of the United States.
2. ‘I Look at the World’.
If ‘Let America Be America Again’ sounds a pessimistic note, we should bear in mind the rousing cry of that poem’s title: Hughes is always hopeful that a better future for his country is just around the corner.
And in this poem, Hughes describes the world as he sees it as a black American poet: he is filled with hope that he can make the world he sees into the world he dreams of. The ‘world that’s in my mind’ can be realised, even if it doesn’t yet exist …
3. ‘I, Too’.
Hughes often writes about the lives of African Americans living in America, especially in New York, in the early twentieth century. He wrote ‘I, Too’ following his experiences trying to gain passage aboard a ship from Italy back to the United States in 1924; he was repeatedly passed over for a place on board numerous ships while white sailors were welcomed aboard. Racial inequality, then, is obviously a key theme in Hughes’ poem.
In an allusive nod to Walt Whitman’s poem ‘I Hear America Singing’, Hughes – describing himself as the ‘darker brother’ – highlights the plight of African Americans at the time, having to eat separately from everyone else in the kitchen when guests arrive, but determined to strive and succeed in the ‘Land of the Free’.
This poem is often categorised as a protest poem. But it is also a poem of celebration, and one of the things which a critic or student of Hughes’ poem needs to consider is how these two sides to the poem are kept in careful balance – a care and a balance belied by the conversation, free-verse style of the poem. Two markedly different modes – quiet defiance and hopeful celebration – remain in balance as the poem enacts a number of repetitions.
We have analysed this poem in more detail here.
4. ‘Theme for English B’.
This poem is about the experience of being a black boy – the only one in his class – at a New York School in the early twentieth century. Hughes writes that his experience of the world will be different from his white peers, and yet they – and their white teacher – are united by being American. This acknowledgment of what brings them together, but also what marks them out as different, underpins this poem.
5. ‘The Negro Speaks of Rivers’.
One of Hughes’ most popular and best-known poems, this very short poem is something of a brief history of black culture from ancient times to the present. Hughes was extraordinarily precocious, and wrote it when he was still a teenager.
One day, as Hughes was travelling on a train that crossed over the Mississippi River, the idea of a poem was born, and it was published a year later, in 1921. It’s another poem that bears the influence of Whitman, though Hughes does something very different with the expansive free verse style he learned from that nineteenth-century American verse pioneer.
This short poem is one of his best-known, and takes up the idea of the American Dream: the ideal, or belief, which states that anyone, regardless of their background, can make a success of their lives if they come to America. Is this really true of African Americans, or do they face too much prejudice and too many obstacles as they try to make their way in America?
The poem is arranged into four stanzas: the first and last of these are just one line long, with the second comprising seven lines and the third two lines. The speaker of the poem asks a series of questions. He asks first, what happens to a dream that is deferred – that is, a dream or ambition which is never realised? Does it try up like a raisin in the sun (a phrase memorably borrowed by Lorraine Hansberry for her famous play), shrivelling away and losing something of itself?
7. ‘Madam and the Phone Bill’.
A woman is charged for a long-distance phone call from her beloved, and when she phones up the phone company to complain, she’s told she agreed to accept the charges – something she denies.
Such a commonplace piece of red tape – an everyday problem – sounds like unpromising material for a poem, but in the hands of Langston Hughes, the leading African American poet of the Harlem Renaissance, this seemingly ‘unpoetic’ topic is rendered into a fiercely comic piece of verse.
8. ‘Mother to Son’.
In this poem, Hughes adopts the maternal voice, expressing the views of an African American mother as she addresses her son, telling him that life has been hard for her but that the important thing is to keep climbing and not to turn back.
‘Mother to Son’ uses the extended metaphor of a stairwell to depict the struggles and hardships of life, and in particular, the struggles faced by an African-American mother in early twentieth-century America. The image of the stairs enables Hughes to convey not only the difficulty of persevering when things get tough, but also the idea of social climbing, or ascending the social ladder in terms of class, wealth, and cultural acceptance.
We have analysed this poem in more detail here.
9. ‘Montage of a Dream Deferred’.
This is a longer, late work by Hughes, published as a book-length poem in 1951. Influenced by the rhythms and style of jazz music, the poem takes us on a 24-hour tour of Hughes’ own Harlem in New York, it is one of his most experimental works, using the syncopated rhythms and sudden shifts of direction found in the work of some jazz musicians to reflect the multiplicity of life in the modern city.
Once again, as the title suggests, the motif of the dream – a favourite Langston Hughes trope – is central to the poem, as Hughes plays off the real world with the ideal.
As this poem is a book-length work, it is not available freely online but is available in the The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes (Vintage Classics).
In this, the concluding poem on this list, Langston Hughes reminds his fellow African-Americans that they remain ‘slaves’, even after the abolition of slavery, because of ‘the white hand’ that steals and the ‘white face’ that lies. This white hand is everywhere in the world and keeps African people in thrall – even after the end of slavery – all over the globe.
If this post has whetted your appetite, we highly recommend The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes (Vintage Classics).