Langston Hughes has written a myriad of essays, plays, and short stories, but he is most famous for his poems. Many scholars and critics refer to him as a “poet laureate of American African experience”. His poems picture the daily life and struggles of the common Black people. Hughes is especially famous for the verses he composed during the Harlem Renaissance of the 20th century. He is one of the major leaders of the movement and his poems truly capture the spirit of the age. Langston Hughes’s poems use countless themes to depict the everyday life of African Americans.
Hughes uses poetry to convey the messages of equality, racial justice, and democracy. He celebrates the history, folkways, and real lives of his people. His poems are highly subjective, impassioned, and refreshingly powerful. They portray the dignity, resilience, struggle, and soulfulness of his people. They also depict their joys, laughter, and fondness for jazz and blues. Langston Hughes’ poetry did not merely impact the African American community of his time, but it also became an inspiration for all coming generations.
The major themes in Langston Hughes’s poems come out of his personal life, his experiences with his people, his travels, and his involvement in radical and protest movements. Some of the important themes noticed in the works of Langston Hughes are the Black pride, American Dream, racism, dreams of freedom and change, music etc. Let’s discuss in detail all these major themes of Langston Hughes’s poems.
1. Black Pride
Langston Hughes’s poems elicit the themes of Black pride. He has a strong sense of racial pride and is one of the most powerful spokesmen of his race. He always encourages his people to be proud of who they are. His poems such as “I Too”, “Negro”, ‘My People”, “Color”, and “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” highlight, beside other themes, the theme of Black pride as well. Hughes’s poetry gives expression to the glorious dreams of the Blacks and their nostalgic memories of their land. He uses the language, themes, and forms of expressions that are clear and familiar to his people.
Through his poems, Langston Hughes always urges his people to love themselves no matter how other people treat them or think of them. He writes poetry to uplift his race. He describes the heroic role of Blacks and their unending struggle against hate and oppression. His poetry instills in his people a growing sense of pride for Black race by claiming that Negroes have been instrumental in civilization all through history. Hughes famous poem “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” traces the ties of African Americans to the rich cultures and histories of Blacks. In the poem, he uses the river to build pride in the African American community.
Langston Hughes’s poems truly record the strengths, struggles, resiliency, and nuances of his people. He praises Blacks and defies the white stereotype of beauty. All his poems beautifully portray and celebrate the pride of being Black and encourage the people to embrace their culture and heritage with regard. In “Color”, Hughes tells his people:
Like a banner
For the proud—
Not like a shroud.
2. Deportation and Cultural Heritage
Langston Hughes’s poems also treat the theme of deportation and heritage. His poems uncover the history of deportation of the black slaves through the deep, wide rivers and oceans. Among them, the most famous are “The Negro Speaks of Rivers”, “Negro”, and “The Negro Mother”.
The poem, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” connects the African American race to ancient rivers. It connects the soul and heritage of the Black community to four great rivers in the Middle East, Africa, and America. In this way, the poem traces the journey of Blacks and links this community to the birth of civilization. Hughes stresses the historical existence of the African race and their movement through time.
Hughes poem “Negro” also lets the reader know about the past experiences of Blacks. It shows the impact that Blacks have had in past eras. The references to various historical events such as the days of “Caesar” and the “Belgians…in the Congo” further reinforce blacks’ presence throughout history. Hughes goes back to the ancient times to show that Negro has been slave from a long time. He also lets the reader know about the remarkable things built by them in the past. By doing so he claims that Negroes had been instrumental in civilization all through the history,
Hughes’s poems introduce the African American heritage to the world and make people recognize their rich culture and historical significance. “The Negro Mother” is a heritage poem. In this poem a Negro mother addresses her past struggles to her children. By depicting a Black woman’s journey of struggles throughout her life, Hughes explains the hardships and sufferings of Blacks. This poem is, in fact, an attempt by Hughes to reach out to African Americans.
There is no doubt that Langston Hughes is truly a representative of the African Americans and their heritage. His poems reflect all the events and circumstances experienced by African Americans since ages and, particularly, in 19th century America.
3. Social Injustice and Fight for Equality
Social injustice is one the major themes that permeate Langston Hughes poetry. His poems explain unfair social conditions and inequalities that African Americans had to face at that time. These poems include “I Dream a World”, “Open Letter to the South”, “Justice”, “Let America Be America Again”, “I Too”, “Mother to Son” etc. All these poems depict injustice suffered by Blacks and their hope for social equality.
Hughes uses poetry as a medium to encourage his people to fight for equality and social justice. He urges them to resist the white tyranny and mend their ways. He also encourages them to dream of an America where there will reign love, peace, freedom and equality among all races. Hughes’s poems contain the possibility that both white and black people can live together in peace and harmony. These poems have come from his own personal experiences and reflect his ideology in overcoming the race issue. Through his works, Hughes condemns racism and social injustice and promotes equality. He celebrates African American culture, spirit, and unification.
4. The American Dream
The theme of the American Dream and Blacks’ struggle to accomplish it is, in fact, one of the most recurrent themes in Hughes’s poetry. His poems “Harlem”, “As I Grew Older”, “I Too”, “Let America Be America Again” and others highlight the significance of the American Dream for African Americans. They also focus on the different issues faced by African Americans while struggling to fulfill this dream. Hughes depicts that due to racism and inequality, the American Dream has become hard to achieve for his people.
The concept of the “American Dream” is an integral part of the American identity. It is the set of ideals which gives equal opportunities to every American, without considering his race or color. Throughout history, America has been considered as the land of freedom, equality and achieving individual’s dreams. After the abolition of slavery, while white Americans were fulfilling their vision of the American Dream, African Americans still not considered as part of this dream. They were left waiting for their opportunity to join in the country’s success. The American Dream was regarded merely as a myth for them.
As a poet of the people, Langston Hughes attempts to change America to the best. His poetry explains the struggles of African American people to achieve the American Dream. Hughes endeavors to revive the promised glories of life and liberty as well as the pursuit of happiness guaranteed by the American Dream. He depicts the dream of the blacks to be part of the American nation. In his poems, he speaks passionately for the America that he believes in, an America that ensures equality and freedom for all.
5. Racial Discrimination
Langston Hughes is also an African American critic of racism and segregationist policies.
His poems vividly manifest the theme of racial discrimination faced by the African Americans before and during Harlem Renaissance.
For many centuries, Blacks faced hardships of segregation and racism within American society. The Jim Crow laws marginalized Blacks by denying them the right to vote, hold jobs, get an education or other opportunities. Blacks were not allowed to attend whites’ schools, go to their parks, or sit next to them in the theatre or other public places. Also, they were denied access to participate in social activities and even dream of a good future for themselves. In fact, they faced discrimination in almost every aspect of life.
Most of Hughes’ poems clearly demonstrate the oppression and discrimination suffered by African Americans. These poems include “I Too”, “The Negro Mother”, “Negro”, “Justice”, “Black Workers”, “Theme for English B” and others. All these poems reflect the common practice of racial segregation during Hughes’ time in a realistic way.
Hughes emphasizes the theme of racial discrimination in his poem “Negro” by using diction such as slave, worker, victim, lynch, the Belgians cut off my hands. In “The Negro Mother”, he reflects racial discrimination through such words: mistreated, labored, crossed the red sea, years heavy with sorrow, long dark way, whip etc. The poem “I Too” shows how Blacks were sent to eat alone in the kitchen when ‘company’ came.
In Hughes times, although there were no Jim Crow rules in the North, still blacks had to live separately. Hughes’s poems truly capture the hard experience and oppression felt by the African Americans. Hughes also gives hope to his people telling them that one day they will be a racially equal society. He encourages them to follow their dreams despite the racism and inequality they are facing.
6. Struggle and Suffering of Blacks
Another prominent theme found in Langston Hughes’s poems is struggle and suffering. Hughes, in his poems, truly captures the Black’s unending struggle over American identity. He also demonstrates the sufferings that his people undergo as a result of hate and oppression against them.
There are so many poems of Langston Hughes that carry the themes of African Americans’ struggle and suffering. These are “Black Workers”, “Mother to Son”, “Negro”, “History”, “Ballad of the Landlord”, “The Negro Mother”, “Madam and the Rent Man” etc. All these poems attempt to reveal the real and harsh conditions of African Americans that are unknown to the world and America itself. They represent the hard work, struggle, and sufferings that African Americans have gone through at that time.
Hughes’s poems tell the reader how Blacks have been enslaved, forced to work, lynched, traded, and maltreated in the past. They demonstrate that the values of peace, equality and freedom no longer exist for Blacks in America. The Blacks only have to face poverty, pain, and injustice since ages. They don’t get the appreciation they deserve for their hard work and struggle. Also, they are mistreated and neglected by house owners and the government. Their houses are ignored and not taken care of just because they are blacks. Hughes’ poems explore the lives of all those Blacks who struggle against poverty, hate, and oppression. He makes people aware of this dark side of America, a land built on great morals and values in the past.
7. Dreams of African Americans in Hughes’s Poems
Langston Hughes also deals with the theme of dreams in his poems. In fact, his poetry is full of dreams. These dreams signify hopes and expectations of African Americans for freedom, change, and equality. Hughes discusses the theme of the dream in poems such as “Dream Deferred”, “Dreams”, Dream Variations”, “I Continue to Dream”, “As I Grew Older”, “The Dream Keeper” etc. All these poems express the importance of chasing dreams.
Dreams are so important for Hughes that his two books of poetry even incorporated the word “ dream” in their titles. These are “Montage of a Dream Deferred” and “ The Dream Keeper”. By using dreams in his poems, Hughes gives his readers the message of hope, desire, goal, trust, need, and aspiration. He urges his people to stick to their dreams even when they do not come true and never lose hope.
In “Dream Deferred”, Hughes describes the dreams of his people which are delayed and explains the outcomes of such dreams. While in “Dreams”, he urges the readers to “hold fast to dreams” and don’t let them die. This is because without dreams life is “a broken-winged bird that cannot fly’. His poem “Dream Variations” expresses the poet’s dream of freedom and peaceful life. The poem “I Continue to Dream” also advocates the theme of hope and expectations. In “The Dream Keeper”, Hughes contends that dreams are fragile and need intense care.
Langston Hughes’s poems encourage his people to dream for the betterment of their present life and future. They tell them that there will be a time when blacks and whites will live together in peace and harmony. Hughes urges his people to never let their dreams die despite the harsh realities and always strive for their fulfilment. His poems demonstrate that dreams generate hope in times of bleakness. That’s why they’re significant.
8. The Importance of Music, Particularly Jazz and Blues
Music, particularly jazz and blues, had a deep influence on Langston Hughes. He considered jazz and the blues as the only artistic form of expression for the African-Americans. He incorporated jazz and blues rhythms into his poetry to celebrate the African heritage and culture and founded a style of poetry called “jazz poetry.” Due to this innovative style of poetry, he became a famous “jazz poet” during the Harlem Renaissance.
Langston Hughes’s various poems employ musical themes. The most famous ones in this regard are “The Weary Blues”, “Harlem Night Club”, “Jazzonia”, “Blues Fantasy”, “Song for a Dark Girl”, “Blues on a Box”, “Trumpet Player”, “I Too” etc. The overall flow of Hughes poems resemble the rhythms or beats of music. The repetition of lines and the inclusion of blues lyrics in the poems successfully evoke the tone and tempo of Black music.
Hughes employs the jazz and blues techniques in his poetry to portray ordinary Black life. According to him, the meaning of Black life in America is to be found in Black music. By applying the structures, rhythms, themes and words of the blues in his poems, Hughes attempts to revive Black culture. Against a background of pulsing jazz and blues music, his poems portray social upheaval, racial discrimination, inequality, injustice, and poverty suffered by Blacks. His poetry is extremely musical with a distinct rhythm and tone.
Langston Hughes’ poems also deal with the themes of optimism. Hughes believes that someday things will be better for Blacks in America. He tells his people that their struggle, patience, and endurance will not go in vain. Hughes’s poetry inspires a world of change, where every man is free and equal. He firmly believes that the world is capable of change, the people are capable of being better, and equality is possible regardless of race.
Hughes reveals the theme of optimism in his poems: “I, Too”, “Youth”, “I Dream A World”, “Black Workers”, “Let America Be America Again”, “History”, “Motto”, “Freedom’s Plow”, “Life is Fine” etc. While depicting the struggle, sorrow, and sacrifice of his people in these poems, Hughes also expresses optimism and hope for a good future. He believes in change and foresees America as a racially equal society.
Hughes’s poems deal with black people and their concerns. He adopts all the technical resources of Black culture in his poems. His poems aptly display Black idiom and dialect, Black folk humor, the themes of the blues, and the form and spirit of jazz.
Langston Hughes’s poems elicit themes that expose African American heritage and culture to the world. He voices against oppression and injustice that the blacks suffered in America. He also protests against the Jim Crow Laws of the South and portrays their effects on American society and, particularly, Blacks. Hughes rejects racism, celebrates racial pride, and depicts the expectations and the dreams of the African American people in his poems. All his efforts have gained him a reputation as a political and cultural spokesman of the Blacks.
If you enjoyed reading about Langston Hughes’s Poems Themes, check out Langston Hughes Top 15 Most Famous Poems.