Langston Hughes was an African American author, poet, and playwright. He was part of the Harlem Renaissance, a black artistic movement that began in 1920 in New York’s Harlem (The Collected Works of Langston Hughes). In his lifetime, Langston was the truest expression of the spirit and mind of an African American. This essay focuses on the biography of Langston and literary analysis of his poems, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” and I, Too.
James Mercer Langston Hughes was born to James Hughes and Caroline Mercer Langston on the first day of February in 1902 at Joplin, Missouri (Rampersad 2). His parents had mixed descent and thus he had Native American, African American and European American descent. Langston’s parents divorced when he was a young boy. He moved to Lawrence, Kansas to live with his grandmother, Mary Patterson since his mother moved from town to town in search of work. His grandmother instilled into him, the racial pride, the spirit, and identity of African American. His father escaped racism and went to live in Mexico. After the demise of his grandmother, Langston stayed with the Reeds, his family friends for almost two years. His tumultuous childhood, Mary Patterson were the played a powerful role in shaping his life as a poet (Rampersad 65).
Langston attended public schools in Illinois and Kansas. After graduating from the elementary school, Langston, he got a reward as the class poet and thus his interest in poetry began. During his high school years, he was introduced to Carl Sandburg, a poet who used free verse or unrhymed verses. He began to write poems that had the unique style of jazz (The Art and Language of Langston Hughes 21). He had a turbulent relationship with his father who forced him to do engineering while Langston wanted to be a poet and writer. After negotiations, Langston agreed to study engineering and his father paid fees at the Columbia University. After one academic year, Langston dropped out of college due to racial discrimination, interest in writing and Harlem Renaissance. In 1926, Hughes registered for a Bachelor of Arts Degree at the historically black Lincoln University. He graduated in 1929, moved to live in New York. On 22 May 1965, Langston succumbed to complications that arose from abdominal surgery after a prognosis of prostate cancer (Rampersad 3).
His career was launched by the poem, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” which was published in 1921 in the Crisis Magazine ((Rampersad 32). He wrote this poem while travelling on train from Mexico. This poem is based on his lack of understanding on his father’s hate for his own black people. “The Weary Blues,” was his first volume of poetry and it helped him to earn from writing. “The Weary Blues,” illustrated racial themes for instance racial pride, African Heritage, patriotism, democracy in America and the daily encounters of an African American. His works used irony and humor to transform the bitterness among African Americans into happiness, pride, and acceptance.
His turbulent childhood, the divorce of his parents perhaps played a key role in his living as a bachelor (Rampersad 61). Though many critics say that he was a closeted homosexual, it is yet to be proven.
The Negro Speaks of Rivers by Langston Hughes
Langston’s father, James was a man who hated blacks, his own people. This poem is an unconscious dialogue between Langston and his father. It is strange that James did not like his people and his son, a fact that made Langston to wonder as he wandered through American towns. After visiting him in a Mexico Ranch, at the age of 17, Langston travelled from Mexico, passed through Illinois, and looked at the muddy waters of the Mississippi. Langston dedicated this poem to W.E.B Dubois. Dubois played an important role in comprehending the history of African Americans. This poem exhibits the two significant ideologies of Dubois: the African American history and identity and the notion of double consciousness.
The main theme in this poem is his acknowledgement and acceptance for all races in the world. As an African America, he lived in the period that came after the end of the Reconstruction Era and racism strongly reemerged. In this poem, he uses cosmic voice that unites all races. The first stanza, “I have known rivers: /I’ve known rivers ancient as the world and older than the/flow of human blood in human veins.” This river is a symbol that unifies human life from the past through to the present. He reminds the whites that he has bathed in the Euphrates. River Euphrates flows through Mesopotamia, also known as the “Cradle of Civilization.” Mesopotamia was the foundation of the first human societies for instance Sumerians. In the Christian religion, the river flows out of the Garden of Eden which is thought to have had been Mesopotamia or a place along it. This means that the “Negro” in all aspects is part of God’s creation and everyone should accept and stop discriminating them. The Euphrates River is also the basis of Western Civilization and Langston reaffirms the fact that the Negro is part of whites. This line implies that even though the whites chastise him with racism, he is part of them. Mississippi river has been used as a symbol to illustrate the blood of all races.
The second theme is the African American experience. This theme is shown by the line “I heard the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln/went down to the New Orleans. This shows the racism, emancipation of saves and the jubilee that came with it. Langston uses Rivers Euphrates, Nile, Mississippi, Congo to show that he has the blood of all races. This also shows that he has accepted his African American identity as part of the initial human beings.
The line “I heard the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln/went down to New Orleans,/ and I’ve seen its muddy bosom turn all golden in the sunset.” This line shows the end to slavery after the emancipation of slaves. The muddy Mississippi symbolizes the ills of slavery. The transformation of the murky waters of Mississippi to golden reflects on the transformation of slavery into freedom. This shows that Lincoln’s Proclamation, the Civil War changed all slaves into free men and America should be bound by it (The Collected Works of Langston Hughes). The refrain “My soul has grown deep like rivers” shows the admonishment of racism and bondage by the writer. The stanza, “I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it,” show that he recognize slavery of the black man. The pyramids have been used to symbolize the fruits of slavery and the contribution of the blacks towards the civilization of America though history denies this. Egypt has always been considered as the cradle of modern day civilization and so the whites should accept that the blacks were civilized long before getting into slavery. This implies that However, this refrain has been used in the last sentence to indicate the writer’s experience of racism and slavery ills. He acknowledges the fact that his soul bears the pain of these ills and they are part of him and his people.
Life and its origin
Langston uses the river as a metaphor to indicate the source of life and the great history of the African Americans. The Rivers Euphrates, Nile, and the Mississippi trace the journey of the black man from his origin up to America. The line “I have known rivers ancient as the world and older than the/ flow of human blood in human veins.” In this line, the river has been metaphorically used to show its nourishment ability for many generations. “…the flow of human blood in human veins,” is an image that has been used to show life (The Collected Works of Langston Hughes). The rivers and veins indicate the survival and endurance of the black soul through history. This also acknowledges the fact that the water is essential to civilization just as blood is to people. This shows that black or white all are human and they rely on water for sustenance and blood for bodily functions and therefore there is no need for racial discrimination.
Cultural Awareness, heritage, and wisdom
Langston uses the name “Negro” to show his awareness about his race and as a representative of the black persons through the sphere of history. His awareness of self is what makes him to connect to his origin and thus allows his soul to grow deep in understanding every concept in his life. This poem shows that the writer is emphasizing the significance of being connected to history. He shows the whites that he is wise because his color has a rich cultural heritage and it should be recognized and respected by everyone.
The tone of this poem is that of acceptance of his Negro blood, his mixed descent but above all racism and slavery. He uses the first person; “I” to represent the millions of people who have lived from the past centuries to the present (The Collected Works of Langston Hughes). Depending on the leader, the poem evokes a series of emotions. Langston shows the emotion of prolonged existence over time and this is what shows the history of the Negro (The Art and Language of Langston Hughes 18). This poem shows “reflection emotions” that come to his mind when he thinks of the life of an African American from the point of origin-The Euphrates, his home-at the Congo basin and his slavery-the muddy Mississippi. This poem evokes the feelings of racial pride because it creates cultural awareness, the black as God’s creation and reaffirms his place in the universe.
“I, Too” by Langston Hughes
In the poem “I, Too” Langston Hughes utilizes a strong language, vivid metaphors, and a strong sound to express his feelings against racism and segregation against the American Americans. “I,” Too can best be described as an anti-racism poem that is written to portray the injustices of racism. The poem’s effectiveness in conveying its message against racism arises from its ability to utilize words to solicit genuine emotions. The poem is set on the American soil and uses the African American personal experiences of segregation. The African Americans are treated as though they are an embarrassment to the American community. However, through their bravery and strength, they see hope in the society and hope that one day they will be treated as equals with the whites.
The poem I Too is an outstanding example of a poem that assigns the word “I” another meaning rather than its literal meaning. The poem analyzes the issue of segregation that is faced by the African Americans, whites and the measures that will put the segregation to an end. The first line of the poem “I too, sing America” commences with the word I. this is a significant aspect that is portrayed throughout the poem. The use “I” implies that both the whites and African Americans are the citizens of America and they should be accorded equal treatment. However, the African Americans are segregated just because of their skin color, and despite the fact that they too sing America. This may be interpreted to imply that even the African Americans sing America’s national anthem like the whites. They both pay loyalty to America and thus discrimination based on color is not justified.
The following stanzas of the poem use the word “I” several times. The second stanza commences with the line “I am the darker brother” (Hughes). The black brother refers to the African America who is also an American citizen. The black brother can be interpreted to imply the black servant. The following lines of the second stanza state that the black brother is sent to eat in the kitchen when company comes. However, the black brother laugh, eats well, and grows strong. The sending of the black brother to the kitchen when company comes implies denotes the ruthlessness and disrespect of the master towards the slave. The “I” in this stanza implies that the African Americans are not intimidated or worried by the segregation. They find amusement when they are secluded to the kitchen and eat well. Thus, instead of hurting from the segregation they grow stronger as the segregation mounts, knowing that they are soon to be treated as equal citizens of America. The stanza implies that even though the African Americans are pained by the segregation they are subjected to, they are not willing to let it kill their high spirits.
The third stanza portrays the future. The stanza states the tomorrow the black brother will eat at table and nobody will dare sending him to eat in the kitchen (Hughes). This is an outright display of bravery. Though the body is conquered, his self-esteem reverberates with power. The African Americans have a strong mind, and his attitudes towards receiving orders from the whites become relatively rebellious. Hughes’s metaphorically utilizes the word “tomorrow” to refer to the future. The “I” is used to portray that the African community is fast rising and soon it will be accorded an equal treatment with the whites in America. This factor has acted to keep the spirit of the African American high in the poem.
The poem ends with the fourth stanza that states that the Black Americans are beautiful (Hughes). The word beautiful is used metaphorically to imply that the African Americans are naturally good. The poet states that once the African Americans are accepted as part of America and are accorded equal treatment, all the citizens of America will perceive them to be beautiful as part of the American citizens. The use of “I” in the poem has been used effectively to imply that even the African Americans are part of American citizens. Thus, they should be accorded equal treatment with their white counterparts. The African Americans are not discouraged by the segregation they face. The “I, Too” us used to portray the historical view of the African Americans and their endeavors to move forward and counter the segregation from the whites.
Langston Hughes authored the poem in 1932, a time when the African Americans were not accepted in the American society. The African Americans were segregated, murdered violently, and denied the use of the same facilities with the whites. The division between the whites and the African Americans was clear-cut, with the whites at the better side of the divide. Racial discrimination in America was prevalent, and was reinforced by the racist laws. Thus, it can be argued that Langston Hughes used the poem to speak of the prejudices against the African Americans. The poem shouts for equal treatment and justice towards the African Americans. The poem resonates with the message that the African Americans should have equal rights with the whites. The last line of the poem "I, too, am America,” is an ideal ending to a perfect poem. More so, the title of the poem is of significance since it indicates that America is comprised of the many races that make up the country; America is not only a country for the white citizens (The Art and Language of Langston Hughes 49).