Music, particularly blues and jazz, permeates Langston Hughes's oeuvre. Many of his poems have an identifiable rhythm or beat. The lines read like the verses in a blues song and echo themes that are common in blues music, like sorrow, lost love, anger, and hopelessness. Hughes frequently alludes to music that originated during the era of slavery, using a 'call and response' pattern for auditory effect and to create a link between the past and the present. By invoking the musical traditions of slaves, Hughes connects himself to the painful history of African Americans. Hughes's poetry, like jazz and blues, has a distinct and expressive tone, often depicting tales of sorrow, alienation, and loneliness.
The American Dream
Many of Langston Hughes’s poems invoke the theme of the American Dream. In 1931, James Truslow Adams defined the American Dream: "life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement." Hughes, however, addresses this concept from the perspective of the country's disenfranchised, including African Americans, Native Americans, downtrodden immigrants, and poor farmers. He portrays the glories of liberty and equality as out of reach for these populations, depicting individuals who are trapped under the fist of prejudice, oppression, and poverty. Their dreams die or are forgotten in a life defined by a desperation to survive. However, Hughes does often end his poems on a somewhat hopeful note, revealing his belief that African Americans (and others) will one day be free to pursue their dreams.
During Langston Hughes's time, his African American readers felt that the poet's work directly explored their lives, their hopes, their fears, their past, and their dreams - as opposed to the obtuse modernism of poets like T.S. Eliot or Ezra Pound. The African American characters in Hughes’s oeuvre embody all the complexities of life in a segregated America. He writes from the point of view of struggling jazz musicians, frustrated dreamers, disenfranchised students, biracial children, and so on, finding dignity in their daily struggles. Like W.E.B. DuBois, Hughes's work calls attention to his characters' strength, endurance, and the purity of their souls. He praises their physical beauty as well, defying the "white" standards of beauty that dominated popular culture during the early 20th Century.
Hughes often writes about aspirations as dreams. He explores hidden dreams, lost dreams, dreams regained, and dreams redeemed. African Americans, from the time of slavery to the oppression of the Jim Crow era, were treated like second-class citizens in the eyes of the American law. Hughes believed that this inferior social status forced most African Americans to hide their dreams behind a protective psychological barrier. For many of Hughes's characters, the American Dream is completely unattainable. Hughes expresses the power of dreams in different ways throughout his work. In one poem, Hughes comments that despite the difficulty of realizing these dreams, it is important for the disenfranchised to keep them alive in order to sustain the will to live. In another poem, Hughes writes that if these dreams remain dormant for long enough, then they might explode.
While Langston Hughes's tone is softer than that of Malcolm X or the Black Panthers (not surprising, since Hughes lived in a different era), he has his own way of denouncing racism and depicting the oppression that African Americans experienced at the hands of the patriarchal system. He alludes to lost and forgotten aspirations, insinuating that African Americans are not allowed access to the American Dream because of their race. In “Mother to Son,” the mother describes the various vicissitudes she has faced, exacerbated or directly caused by the color of her skin. In “On the Road,” one of Hughes’s best known short stories, he depicts racism as being tied up with religious hypocrisy. Hughes is realistic about the discriminatory environment that he lives in, but he also expresses hope that one day, the racial inequality in America will start to even out.
While the word “wisdom” does not specifically occur this particular collection of Langston Hughes's poems, he clearly alludes to its attainment in many places. Hughes shows wisdom being passed down through generations, such as the mother who tells her son to never give up, even when the road is hard. Wisdom is a result of experience, and can inform one's decision to persevere in the face of adversity. Courage can lead to wisdom - there is priceless knowledge to be gained from confronting one's demons. Finding a mode of expression for sorrow - like music or poetry - is a form of wisdom in that a person can learn how to separate him or herself from bad experiences.
Many of the speakers in Langston Hughes's poems start in situations of despondency and hopelessness. One has argued with a lover, another faces discrimination, a biracial man struggles with his identity, and so on. However, in these poems, Hughes commonly creates a narrative that culminates in the protagonist/speaker reaching a state of self- actualization. Despite his or her difficult surroundings, these individuals are able to find inherent inner strength, allowing them to persevere against the odds.
Langston Hughes: Poems Questions and Answers
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