This essay commences with a mystery: “One of the most promising of the young Negro poets said to me once, `I want to be a poet--not a Negro poet.’” The mystery has, of course, since been solved; in fact, those in the know have always been aware of the identity of the poet which Langston Hughes barely veils. That poet is renowned in his own right and was quite vocal in his own time in spouting such statements which some African-American writers besides Hughes took to be either a conscious desire to be white or an unconscious desire to not be black. Or vice versa. Or maybe the desire was entirely conscious. Or unconscious. Whatever it was that Countee Cullen meant with the statement that Hughes repeats as he kicks off this influential essay, what is ever more important is how his fellow black writers of the 1920s perceived.
As mentioned, Hughes does not mention the name of the poet he quotes. Ever. By the time beginning of the second paragraph of the essay, however, he is extending a rather precise biographical background of the mystery writer. Very quickly, the reader learns that the unnamed poet stems from a middle class family that is comfortable if not rich, attends a Baptist church and is headed by a father who works a club for whites only and mother that sometimes supervises parties for rich white folk. Notably for the time, the children attend a school without racial segregation of the students.
As the descriptions continue, the point becomes impossible to avoid. This poet desiring not to be a Negro poet does so because his entire upbringing has been one that seeks what Hughes knows to be impossible: to become a copy of the white society it is so close to rather than the black society it has successful move away from. A society, for instance, like that which could be found in certain identified neighborhoods in Washington or Chicago. Hughes provides a quick description of what life is like for those who live in these neighborhoods and the point is equally impossible to avoid. These are people who have no desire to emulate white society. Hughes moves swiftly to make the real distinction here: they don’t actively seek to avoid emulating white society either. The blacks living in these neighborhoods really have no desire one way or the other.
Hughes focuses on one of the great failings of the American system of education and culture: standardization. He recognizes that the attempt by outside forces to shape a determination of what should be expected and what should be exhibited as education, culture and, ultimately, art. Taking the example of a prominent black woman from Philadelphia who would prefer to hear a famous Spanish star singing Andalusian folks songs than Clara Smith, a black singer, perform Negro folk songs. He then compares this to the those black churches with a choir that prefers dull hymns written by white men to uplifting gospel songs and spirituals that get other black churches rocking with the spirit of the lord.
From this, Hughes transitions to the undeniable fact that he himself is living in a great moment for the Negro artists in which their works have sudden become in vogue. This contrasts sharply with the recent past when novels by fine black writers like Charles Chestnutt have been allowed to go out of print and disappear from shelves. While being in vogue has brought newfound and much-deserved attention to black artists, whoever, Hughes insists it has become a double-edge sword in which he must deal with criticism from other blacks and unintentional bribery from whites to conform to their desires for standardization with the lure of great payment if they do so. The cost that must be paid for this conformity, of course, is the very rejection of that unique characteristic of identity which at that moment in time has pushed them into vogue.
Hughes asserts that he writes about racial issues. He writes about racial issues because for the black, everything in America is a racial issue. To do otherwise is to reject that sense of identity and to reject that sense of identity is to say that you don’t want to be a Negro poet 0r a Negro novelist or a Negro musician or Negro dramatist. To be black in America in 1926 and to say you only want to be a poet or a novelist or a musician or a dramatist is not the same thing as a white artist saying those things. To be black and say such a thing is to say that you are ready to give in to the standardization and to accept the bribery that comes only on the terms of not writing about issues that are too much about your heritage and legacy and identity.