“So if you want to know beauty’s / Rainbow-sweet thrill, / Stroll down luscious, / Delicious, fine Sugar Hill”
Hughes’s work is renowned for celebrating the richness, dignity, and diversity of pre-Civil Rights America, particularly Harlem. In this charming and sensuous poem, the poet celebrates the beautiful women of Harlem by comparing them to rich, decadent food. While he watches women walk by on Sugar Hill (a real part of Harlem), he is reminded of coffee, caramel, molasses, chocolate, and licorice. In this poem, Hughes redefines the popular standards of beauty at the time that favored pale skin, blonde hair, and blue eyes.
“Or does it explode?”
The potent last line of Hughes’s most renowned poem evokes a brief, starting image, which Hughes imbues with added gravitas by presenting it in italics. The rest of the poem is a rumination on what happens to stifled dreams, and its finale presents a potentially violent or cathartic coda. By using the word ‘explode,’ Hughes warns his readers that dreams cannot go away quietly - they can become powerful forces, and maybe even agents of destruction.
“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."
Blues was a popular form of musical expression for many African Americans, who poured out their hopes, fears, and sorrows through song. Blues music was popular because it was immensely relatable for many Americans, although the content of the songs was firmly rooted in the African American experience. The last lines of this poem express just how powerful music can be; it is clear that for the musician, playing music is an intense catharsis that allows him to fully engage with his troubles and thus, exhaust his anger and sadness. His sleep is deep, which seems indicative of the purgation of his troubles.
“I, too, am America.”
The speaker in this poem describes having to eat in the kitchen instead of joining the other guests at the table (a metaphor for segregation). However, instead of letting the forced separation upset him, the speaker is jubilant as he becomes stronger and healthier. He is assertive and self-actualized, claiming boldly that there will be a time in the future when he does indeed sit at the table, and no one will dare to criticize him for doing so. In fact, they will marvel at his beauty and will feel “ashamed” for their prior behavior. Hughes's message encourages African Americans to become empowered, because they, too, are Americans and deserve a seat at the proverbial table.
“I’ve known rivers / I’ve known rivers as ancient as the world and older than the flow of human blood in human veins.”
Hughes uses the metaphor of a river to connect African Americans to the shared history of all human beings. He describes his ancestors' presence on the banks of the Euphrates, the cradle of civilization, and reminds his readers that people with black skin ruled vast kingdoms in Africa, and built the great pyramids in Egypt. The key word in this quote is "human," as Hughes is emphasizing the equality between black and white Americans; they all come from the same place, and the same blood runs in their veins.
“There’s never been equality for me, / Nor freedom in this ‘homeland for the free.’”
Hughes calls attention to the fact that the American Dream does not come to fruition for many men and women who fall outside the dominant Anglo-Saxon and patriarchal societal structure. No matter the power of their dreams, resources, determination, or intelligence, the doors to freedom and equality will always remain locked. Martin Luther King, Jr. stated in his “I Have a Dream” speech, “It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check which has come back marked ‘insufficient funds.’ But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt.” In these lines, Hughes accuses America of having broken her promise by making it impossible for certain groups of Americans to access the freedom and equality the country's founders claimed to promote.
“Though you may hear me holler, / And you may see me cry- / I’ll be dogged, sweet baby, / If you gonna see me die”
At the beginning of this poem, the speaker is despondent and determined to kill himself. He throws himself into the river but finds it too cold, and he considers throwing himself off a building, but decides that it is too high. Hughes phrases the speaker's woes like a blues song, with a vivacious rhythm and the narrative movement from sorrow to resolution. By the end of the poem, the speaker concludes that “life is fine” and has emerges from his despair with a renewed sense of hope and tenacity. This resilience is common in Hughes’s poems – many of his characters do not wallow in their sadness. Rather, they are committed to overcoming their obstacles or, at the very least, coming to terms with them. This character stares death in the face - and from that, rediscovers his zest for life.
“A nigger night, / A nigger joy. I am your son, white man! / A little yellow / Bastard boy.”
This proclamation at the beginning of “Mulatto” comes from a white man's biracial son reacting to his father's atrocious reaction upon learning the boy's true parentage. During Hughes's time, biracial children were largely labeled "mulatto" (an archaic, derogatory term that comes from 'mule,' which is the offspring of a horse and a donkey). This narrator, however, reclaims the term. He juxtaposes dehumanizing labels like "nigger" and "bastard" with affectionate terms like "joy," "son," and "boy." He even flips the racial rhetoric, referring to himself as a "son" and his father as "white man." In this sense, these lines represent a young boy's self-actualization as he forces his father to look at him as a person.
“I guess being colored doesn’t make me NOT like / the same things other folks like who are other races.”
In this poem, a young African American college student is writing a paper for his English class. He describes the things he is interested in, which happen to be similar his white classmates' hobbies. Hughes shows his reader that even though these young students are divided along racial lines, their similarities are deeper than skin color. These lines are characteristic of Hughes's thematic style; he often asserted racial equality through specific examples. Instead of making an outright political statement, Hughes reveals segregated America through the eyes of a young man coming into his own and realizing that his skin color does not define his interests, despite what society tries to make him believe.
“’You did a good job,’ said Christ. ‘They have kept me nailed on a cross for nearly two thousand years.’”
While religion is not one of the most common themes in Hughes’s oeuvre, it is extremely important in this short story. Hughes makes a pointed comment on how white America worships the image of Christ on the cross, but often neglects to put his precepts and teachings into practice. Reverend Dorset (a white man) refuses succor to Sargeant (an unemployed black man in need of shelter), thus allowing institutionalized racism to overrule the religious principles set forth in the Bible. When Sargeant pulls down the church, he liberates Christ in the process. Through this allegory, Hughes crafts a criticism of the religious practices of many white Americans who keep Christ confined to the church, nailed to a cross - but do not allow him to wander into their daily lives. In this story, the church's physical existence serves as a separation between religion and society, and Hughes argues that the wall needs to come down.
Langston Hughes: Poems Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Langston Hughes: Poems is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.