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"I, Too, Sing America": Langston Hughes and the Harlem Renaissance

Langston Hughes wrote poetry, prose, plays, novels, songs, essays and children's books
Langston Hughes wrote poetry, prose, plays, novels, songs, essays and children's books

After more than three centuries of violence and racial discrimination, African Americans in the Deep South had had enough. Around the turn of the 20th century, they started leaving their homes by the tens of thousands. Things were happening up North, they heard -- particularly in a neighborhood of New York City called Harlem. Blacks there had established their own community, and there were rumors of cabarets, all-night jazz jams, and dance clubs. In Harlem, ideas were created and exchanged, and writers, actors, artists and musicians came from every corner of the country. These folks were churning out some of the greatest works in African American history -- so many, in fact, that this time period became known as the Harlem Renaissance.

Langston Hughes Poetry

"I, too, sing America.
I am the darker brother.
They send me to eat in the kitchen..."

The unofficial poet laureate of the Harlem Renaissance was a man who could conjure the spirit of his people with just a few strokes of his pen. His name was Langston Hughes.

Langston started composing poems when he was in junior high. Yet, instead of exploring his own voice, he imitated the famous writers of that period -- all of whom were white. Back then, blacks didn't often write about their own experiences, or use the conventions of black English, which was considered unfit for literature. Instead, whites depicted black life and language -- and they did a pretty lousy job. African Americans were usually depicted either as romantic fools or as primitive creatures, and black English as comic and degraded.

The Langston Hughes Community Library and Cultural Center in Queens commemorates their namesake
The Langston Hughes Community Library and Cultural Center in Queens commemorates their namesake

It took a trip to Mexico to make Langston see this problem in his own writing. Indigenous Mexicans, he realized, took great pride in expressing their identity through their art. Why didn't he? He vowed then and there to record the American experience through the eyes of his people.

Stephanie and Andrew Jackson stand by their man, Langston Hughes
Stephanie and Andrew Jackson stand by their man, Langston Hughes

First, however, Langston had to deal with his domineering dad. James Nathaniel Hughes agreed to pay for his son's education, as long as he got to select the school and major. The good news was that he chose Columbia University, located right on the border of Harlem. The bad news was that he picked the College of Engineering. Langston just couldn't sit through class knowing that the "Negro Capital of America" was only a stone's throw away. He dropped out within a year, heading to Europe and Africa to satisfy his wanderlust. As his boat left the New York harbor, Langston threw his engineering books overboard and promised to stay true to his dreams.

One of Langston's former residences in Harlem
One of Langston's former residences in Harlem

Making it as a writer is no easy task, however, and Langston had to work twice as hard to get half as far as writers with lighter skin. He succeeded by dabbling in every part of the literary world -- poetry, short stories, novels, essays, newspaper columns, plays, song lyrics, and children's stories. His topics ran the gamut, but they always incorporated a part of African American experience. His favorite subject was Harlem, where he lived on and off for the rest of his life.

Once he had published enough to fill the trunk of a car, Langston started taking road trips across America, doing readings at universities, churches, nightclubs and cafes. He quickly established a national audience and earned the respect of many established writers and critics.

There was just one problem: Jim Crow. Because of the racist Jim Crow laws, Langston wasn't allowed to eat at some of the cafés where he read and spoke. Some universities invited him to speak, but not to spend the night. Langston used these bitter experiences as material for writing.

Langston Hughes Poetry

"Mr. President, kindly please,
May I have a word with you?
There's one thing, for a long time..."

Take a look at this excerpt from his poem "Message to a President":

Langston waited and waited, but no American president ever made that speech. So he decided to check out race relations in other nations. In 1933, a Soviet film company invited Langston and a handful of other black writers, actors, and artists to Moscow to make a movie about African Americans. The project turned out to be a flop, but Langston used the opportunity to travel across the Soviet Union. He was amazed to see that societies with neither running water nor paved roads were light-years ahead of the United States in terms of race relations. In the U.S., he couldn't drink from the same water fountain as whites, but in Uzbekistan, he was invited to sip from the very same cup.


It was during this period that Langston wrote his most controversial pieces, including "Goodbye Christ" and "Good Morning Revolution." Twenty years later, when the House Committee on Un-American Activities stumbled upon these two poems, they nearly cost Langston his freedom. He escaped a prison sentence by the skin of his teeth. Accusations of being a Communist haunted him for the rest of his life, and he ended several friendships because of it -- including his friendship with W.E.B. Dubois.

Political obstacles aside, Langston became a legend in his own time. He published dozens of books and hundreds of written works, and he founded community theater groups in Harlem, Los Angeles and Chicago. He won a prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship and was awarded honorary doctorates from Howard and Western Reserve Universities. And he never, ever forgot where he came from. In his later years, Langston became a father figure to many struggling black artists and writers in Harlem. After his death in 1967, he continue to inspire thousands more.

Langston used to live in Harlem's YMCA
Langston used to live in Harlem's YMCA

Psyched about soaking up the street life that Langston captured in his work, Stephen and I headed over to Harlem. The first thing our eyes fell upon when we stepped off the subway was a Starbuck's. A Gap ad depicting a young African American in a denim jacket covered the entire side of a building, and Old Navy was a stone's throw away. Where were the cabarets, theaters and soul food cafes Langston had written about? Had those days ended?

I asked PhD student James King for a Langston perspective. (King once spent four years sifting through boxes of Langston's writings that were discovered in the basement of his last residence in Harlem. If anyone has a grasp of the inner workings of Langston's mind, it's him.)

Langston's ashes are buried in the Schomburg Center in Harlem
Langston's ashes are buried in the Schomburg Center in Harlem

"We romanticize the Harlem Renaissance because it was so vibrant," King said. "Yet, all that nightlife and ferment was funded and facilitated by whites. Most blacks couldn't go to the clubs as patrons -- only as performers. They were dependent upon the dominant culture to help earn their living. When they left, it left."

"Just look at the state of this neighborhood now," he said, pointing at the street. "That Starbuck's is standing where Langston's community theater used to be. All the places that people used to come to in the Renaissance are gone." And corporate chain stores have taken their place.

Harlem has also seen an influx of European-Americans in recent years. They come in search of cheaper rent, but have raised it in the process. While the white influx has come with some positive changes in the community -- buildings are being repaired, and the crime rate is going down -- whites have pushed out poor blacks (and their businesses) in the process.

Stephanie and historian Chris Moore wave from the cosmogram that depicts Langston's life
Stephanie and historian Chris Moore wave from the cosmogram that depicts Langston's life

You don't need a PhD to know that Langston wouldn't have liked this one bit. From Harlem, Stephen and I took the 7-train to Queens to visit the Langston Hughes Community Library and Cultural Center. It opened just two years after his death. His portraits and poems cover its walls, and his many works fill an entire bookcase. Each year for the past 15 years, this library has been site of a Langston Hughes festival which draws crowds of hundreds.


Stephen and I went to Harlem with hopes of finding some succulent soul food...

"If Langston left a legacy, it's that the things he wrote about back in the day are just as appropriate today," said Andrew Jackson, the library's executive director. "We still face some of the same problems -- racism, bigotry. It may be subtler today, but it still exists. There are still black men who step out of their doorway and get pumped with 41 bullets. Black men are still getting dragged behind trucks down in Texas. And as long as we're not free, you're not free."

Jackson's wise words reminded me of the last stanza of my favorite Langston Hughes poem: "Let America Be America Again."

O, let America be America again --
The land that never has been yet --
And yet must be -- the land where every man is free.
The land that's mine -- the poor man's, Indian's, Negro's, Me --
Who made America,
Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,
Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,
Must bring back our mighty dream again.

Until that day comes, Langston's legacy will live on -- and beyond.


Please email me at: stephanie@ustrek.org


Links to Other Dispatches

Rebecca - Springfield's massacre: The 1908 Race Riots
Irene - Strung up, cut up, and set on fire
Stephen - "I'm African! No, I'm American! No, I'm African!" No, I'm American!
Nick - How the government ground down a community
Making A Difference - If you are dark of skin, you are guilty as sin
Stephen - Celebrating your heritage: the Black Renaissance
Irene - The largest racial killings in American history
Stephanie - Two nations, one country