While Langston Hughes wrote a myriad of plays, short stories, and essays, he is primarily known for his poetry, especially the verses he wrote during the Harlem Renaissance. Scholars and critics regularly refer to him the “African American Poet Laureate of Democracy,” creating a parallel between Hughes and Walt Whitman. Whitman, like Hughes, wrote about the everyday lives of American men and women using simple language to invoke grand themes in a relatable way. In 1926, the New York Herald Tribune described Langston Hughes's poems as “always intensely subjective, passionate, keenly sensitive to beauty and possessed of an unfaltering musical sense.” Hughes frequently used his poetry to convey messages of racial justice and democracy. His distinct poetic voice celebrated the folkways, history, and daily lives of African Americans during the early 20th Century.
Hughes was an erudite and ambitious young man who started writing poetry at a very young age. He wrote his first jazz poem, “When Sue Wears Red,” when he was a teenager and was elected the class poet of his high school. After graduating, Hughes traveled to Mexico to visit his father. He crossed over the Mississippi River along the way, which inspired him to write one of his most famous poems, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers." “The Weary Blues,” published in 1926, earned Hughes the first place prize in Opportunity magazine's poetry competition. Later that year, Hughes included "The Weary Blues" in a volume of the same name which was published in late 1926. With The Weary Blues, Langston Hughes became widely recognized as a defining voice of the Harlem Renaissance. His poems were influenced by the rhythm of jazz and blues and celebrated the life and vitality he observed all around him in Harlem.
Hughes's poems explore the daily lives of working-class African Americans. He wanted to portray the dignity, soulfulness, and resilience of his people. His second volume of poetry, Fine Clothes to the Jew, was published in 1927 and cemented his reputation as a "poet of the people." Some critics found it difficult to embrace Hughes’s proletarian subjects and themes; the critic Hoyt F. Fuller wrote that Hughes “chose to identify with plain black people—not because it required less effort and sophistication, but precisely because he saw more truth and profound significance in doing so. Perhaps in this he was inversely influenced by his father—who, frustrated by being the object of scorn in his native land, rejected his own people.”
In the 1930s, Hughes’s poems started to reflect his growing interest in Marxism and the changes he saw in his community during the Great Depression. Hughes eventually moved more solidly into writing plays and short stories, but he continued to publish volumes of poetry throughout the 1940s and 1950s. In 1951, he wrote Montage of a Dream Deferred, a book-length suite of poems. Even though Hughes addresses familiar subjects like Harlem in his signature jazz-influenced writing style, these later poems are darker, more layered, and more brutal in their depiction of racial subjugation and insistent in calling for social change. The title of the book comes from another one of Hughes’s famous poems – “Harlem” – in which the poet wonders what happens to a dream that has been deferred and offers several alarming images to illustrate the possibilities.
In the 1950s, the Civil Rights Movement transformed America's racial consciousness. Hughes's work remained popular among readers, but some of the more radical African American intellectuals found his writing to be outdated. Others wondered why Hughes was not more outspoken about racial politics during the charged conflicts that took place throughout the 1960s. However, Hughes's reputation as a groundbreaking and original American voice has remained intact throughout the subsequent years. Donald P. Gibson notes in the introduction to Modern Black Poets: A Collection of Critical Essays that Hughes “differed from most of his predecessors among black poets, and (until recently) from those who followed him as well, in that he addressed his poetry to the people, specifically to black people. During the twenties when most American poets were turning inward, writing obscure and esoteric poetry to an ever decreasing audience of readers, Hughes was turning outward, using language and themes, attitudes and ideas familiar to anyone who had the ability simply to read.”