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Langston Hughes is considered by many readers to be the most significant black poet of the twentieth century. He is described as ³...the beloved author of poems steeped in the richness of African American culture, poems that exude Hughesıs affection for black Americans across all divisions of region, class, and gender.² (Rampersad 3) His writing was both depressing and uplifting at times. His poetry, spanning five decades from 1926 to 1967, reflected the changing black experience in America, from the Harlem Renaissance to the turbulent sixties.
At the beginning of his career, he was surrounded by the Harlem Renaissance. New York City in the 1920ıs was a place of immense growth and richness in African-American culture and art. For Hughes, this was the perfect opportunity to establish his poems. His early work reflects the happy times of the era. However, as time progressed he became increasingly bitter and upset over race relations. Except for a few examples, all his poems from this later period spoke about social injustice in America. The somber tone of his writing often reflected his mood. Race relations was the shadow of his career, following him from his first poem to his last. The tone and subject matter of Hughesıs poetry can be linked to certain points in history, and his life.
The youth of Hughes is brought out by his poem ³Harlem Night Club², a piece which describes living in the moment. Often children do not consider the consequences of their actions; they act on instinct and desire. Hughes might have been 27 when he wrote this poem, but the feisty, upbeat tempo of a school boy is present in his style.
³Harlem Night Club² is unique in that it describes the integration of blacks and whites in an optimistic tone. The vigor and spirit of his youth is reflected in the energy of the writing, ³Jazz-band, jazz-band, / Play, plAY, PLAY! / Tomorrow....who knows? / Dance today!² The repetition of the words, and the increasing emphasis on the word ³play² bring out the excitement to the reader.
More evidence of Hughesıs youth comes from the very focus of the poem: the interracial couples. The entire poem can be summed up as ³...a single-glance tableau of interracial flirtation against a background of heady jazz.² (Emanuel 120) This festive relationship between the two sexes can rarely be seen in any of Hughesıs later poems. At this point in his life, Hughes was enjoying the culture and excitement of the Harlem renaissance. It was an amazing period in New York for African Americans, the first real large scale expression of their culture. Jazz was a flourishing art form that Hughes often liked to write about. It is easy to see why most of his poems of this period (1921-1930) would be festive and cheerful.
Unfortunately, the party didnıt last into the next decade and the country fell into a deep depression. The period between 1931 and 1940 was a dark period for Hughes, and for African-Americans in general. On top of the financial difficulties the depression brought, widespread racism re-surfaced in the North. The celebration in Harlem was replaced by angry whites who were anxious to put blame on someone for their troubles. ³White Man² is a direct attack on the white manıs violations against the African-Americans. Like the earlier poem ³Harlem Night Club,² it is a fast-paced, dynamic piece. However, its tone reflects pure anger and frustration. ³White Man! White Man! / Let Louis Armstrong play it / And you copyright it / And make the money. / Youıre the smart guy, White Man! / You got everything!² Its intensity makes the reader frantic just from reading it. The line about Louis Armstrong refers to the great jazz trumpet player, the first black man to be recognized as a successful jazz artist by a white audience. Only now, ten years later, we see that it is the whites who profit from his talent. Hughes is desperate not to forget the accomplishments of the 20ıs, and not to let those accomplishments get taken away by greedy white businessmen.
Another attack on the white world comes in his piece ³Ballad of Roosevelt². Roosevelt is thought of as one of the countryıs greatest leaders, a wonderful humanitarian. But in this poem Hughes
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Harlem Renaissance, Guggenheim Fellows, Jazz poetry, African-American literature, Langston Hughes, Omega Psi Phi, Arnold Rampersad, Note on Commercial Theatre, Looking for Langston
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