If there is one poet that could be considered the voice of the Harlem Renaissance, it would be Langston Hughes. In many ways, Hughes was a poet for the people–the voice that spoke for the Black/African American experience. In his simplicity to communicate with his outside world, Hughes became one of the most important literary figures of the 20th century. Take a look at Langston Hughes, the next poet featured in Bookstr’s Most Influential Poets of all Time
The Man Who Would Become Harlem’s Poet
Langston Hughes was born on February 1, 1901 in Joplin, Missouri to Carolina Mercer Langston and James Hughes. For the majority of his life, Hughes’ father was absent, leaving him in the care of his mother who ended up traveling to seek employment. Hughes would be raised by his maternal grandmother in Lawrence, Kansas. On both sides of his family, Langston was descended from abolitionists, political and social activists, and scholars–through these family stories and being immersed in Black American oral tradition by his grandmother, Hughes grew up taking pride in being Black and admired the strength and resilience of his people.
Hughes always had a talent for language and beautiful words–he admired how stories and poetry could be woven so vividly and passionately through a simple arrangement of well chosen words. He went on to study at Columbia University but despised the school for its racial prejudice and discrimination against Black students. Hughes would then leave Columbia University to travel to West Africa and Europe, and then return to earn a B.A. at Lincoln University, a historically Black university, in Chester County Pennsylvania.
Uniting a Dream Through Language
The poetry of Langston Hughes is most famously associated with the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s, a movement in which African American intellectual and cultural achievements in the arts and scholarship were widely celebrated. His first poetry collection, The Weary Blues, was widely acclaimed and notably recognized for its pioneering of jazz poetry.
“The Weary Blues” (1926) from The Weary Blues
Droning a drowsy syncopated tune,
Rocking back and forth to a mellow croon,
I heard a Negro play.
Down on Lenox Avenue the other night
By the pale dull pallor of an old gas light
He did a lazy sway. . . .
He did a lazy sway. . . .
To the tune o’ those Weary Blues.
With his ebony hands on each ivory key
He made that poor piano moan with melody.
Swaying to and fro on his rickety stool
He played that sad raggy tune like a musical fool.
Coming from a black man’s soul.
In a deep song voice with a melancholy tone
I heard that Negro sing, that old piano moan—
“Ain’t got nobody in all this world,
Ain’t got nobody but ma self.
I’s gwine to quit ma frownin’
And put ma troubles on the shelf.”
Thump, thump, thump, went his foot on the floor.
He played a few chords then he sang some more—
“I got the Weary Blues
And I can’t be satisfied.
Got the Weary Blues
And can’t be satisfied—
I ain’t happy no mo’
And I wish that I had died.”
And far into the night he crooned that tune.
The stars went out and so did the moon.
The singer stopped playing and went to bed
While the Weary Blues echoed through his head.
He slept like a rock or a man that’s dead.
Written in free verse, the above poem is a celebration of blues in traditional music and poetic music–an admiration for the delicate, rhythmic flows and sounds of poetry. More than that, Hughes’ poem here, and in his poetry in general, speaks to the experience of the Black man and by extension, the Black experience. He uses the lyricism of poetry and incorporates a keen sense of rhythm into his poetry to tell and create history of and for his people. Hughes’ use of alliteration, onomatopoeia, beat, and the metaphor of “weary blues” evidently translate to the people a familiar image of the blues cleverly wrapped in a rhythmic musicality.
Langston Hughes was a poet that took pride in his identity and incorporated the culture and history of his people into his works. He was a poet for the people, and his works took flight to inspire generations of writers and artists.
If you enjoyed this article, take a look at another of our featured poets, Li Bai, here.