The period of the Harlem Renaissance was a time of great change and exploration for African Americans . It was during this point in the early twentieth century that African Americans were exploring their cultural and social roots. With the rapid expansion of a cohesive black community in the area, it was only a matter of time before the finest minds in Black America converged to share their ideas and unleash their creative essences upon a country that had for so long silenced them. In the midst of this bohemian convergence, many notable figures arose who would give a new voice to African Americans.
With such great notables as Countee Cullen, Jean Toomer, Zora Neale, and James Johnson, mainstream American now had a unique window into the plight of African Americans all over the country. One individual though stands out as one of the most prominent figures of the Harlem Renaissance. Langston Hughes defined himself by his ability to pursue the true essence of black folk at a time when black identity, culture, or art was considered an oxymoronic concept. Hughes sought to explore the true identity of Black America even amidst criticism that his work was anti-assimilationist in its literary expression. Wallace Thurman, one of Hughes closest friends had this to say about the poets subject matter:
He went for inspiration and rhythms to those people who had been the least
absorbed by the quagmire of American Kultur, and from them he undertook
to select and preserve such autonomous racial values as were being rapidly
eradicated in order to speed the Negros assimilation.
( Bloom 161)
To many black critics, including Thurman, the subjects of Langston Hughes poetry exposed an aspect of the black culture that, according to Countee Cullen threw wide, every door of the racial entourage, to the wholesale gaze of the world at large (Bloom 152). Hughes was a lover of his people and sought to explain and illuminate the Negro condition in America. He created works of literature that were distinctively Negro in their elements:
Without repudiating the Americanness of the Afro American, he defined how a work of art by a black American can be Negro, the artists Americanness notwithstanding..The black artist stands a good chance of capturing the Negro soul if he looks for his material not among the self-styled hi-class Negroes, but among the low down folks, the so called common element.
Black critics openly criticized Langston Hughess poetry on the merit that there could be no distinctive art or literary work that would be called specifically Negro. During the period, there was a progressive movement toward the assimilation of African Americans into the mainstream culture. Many critics expressed their opinion that to believe in the creation of any art with a distinctively black voice was a foolish idea. African Americans of the period did not have a distinct cultural identity and were judged solely upon the expectations of the mainstream white culture. With the occurrence of the Harlem Renaissance, black Americans were attempting to open a door into the previously unknown world of the black experience. While many artists in the past had attempted to create subject matter specifically dealing with the Negro, it failed to lack the quality of the Negro soul:
Created purposely for the delectation of the white folk whose self-aggrandizement they also sought to sustain, these earlier works comprised mainly those Negro elements which experience had proved to be pleasurable to the white ego. They were, essentially, attempts to recreate the white mans concept of the black man.
Consequently, Langston Hughess form of poetry was almost nonexistent at the point in which he wrote. While many past poets had borrowed from the minstrel tradition as inspiration, Langston Hughes was greatly influenced and inspired by the reality of the Negro folks amongst which he lived. With a passion for jazz and the blues, Langston Hughes sought to capture the vividness of black culture in his writing. He used the reality of the everyday in his work by capturing the dialects of the common Negro folk. His writing was also a display of black pride and an affirmation of the black self during a period of discrimination and prejudice against blacks in many parts of the country. The time for them to be seen and not heard had finally come to an end.
Langston Hughes used his poetry as a means to establish an identity for African Americans. He purposely used elements that were at his disposal by incorporating the plight of the common black man into his literature. While still in high school, Hughes penned The Negro Speaks of Rivers which began his reputation for expressing the Negro soul with such vivid and profound imagery.
The poem is a praise to the history of the African American. Hughes gives recognition to the roots from whence his ancestors came by speaking of the rivers along which great African civilizations dwelled, as well as the new history of African Americans along the Mississippi. The rivers represent a timelessness that speaks through the soul of the black man. Hughes speaks of the rivers as being Ancient, and dusky, thus giving praise to their timelessness. He likens the flow of the river to the flow of human blood in human veins, personifying its essence. With The Negro Speaks of Rivers, Hughes unites all Black Americans by tying them back to a history as ancient as the beginning. It seems almost fitting that one of his first poems would set the stage for further discovery of the Negro identity.
In I, Too, Hughes brings a voice to the frustration encountered by African Americans as they are denied their basic rights as citizens of the country. The poem expresses the second class status of Black Americans and gives a voice of defiance to a people who are tired of being treated as second class citizens. The line begins with, I, too sing America, an affirmation and reminder that African Americans are citizens of the United States and sing for the freedom which it stands for. The poem shows the plight of a black man being sent away at the onset of company. He is hidden from the rest of the world because of the color of his skin. Hughes incorporates a message of passive resistance in the poem:
Ill sit at the table
When company come
Say to me,
Eat in the kitchen,
Theyll see how beautiful I am
And be ashamed-
Hughes gives away a great about his goal as a write in this line. The spirit of the Harlem Renaissance lay in the ideal that the world would finally see the beauty of the Black Experience as they presented their souls to be scrutinized by those who did them wrong in the past. The poem shows a black man affirming his identity in an atmosphere where it is denied completely.
The inspiration of jazz and the blues upon Langston Hughes manifested itself in The Weary Blues. Hughes wrote the poem to be played to music and it was performed with an accompaniment of jazz in the background. The flow of the poem is in tune to a blues beat. It incorporates the slow mellow mood of the blues and its easy free flow of thought. The poem captures the essence of sadness and melancholy that is attributed to the blues. Hughes writes about observing a piano player as he plays the sweet blues in the night:
He played that sad raggy tune like a musical fool
Coming from a black mans soul.
The Weary Blues captures an important element of the black identity, that of its music and the soul which is put into its expression. The poem captures that soul of the black man as he wails a mellow tune to the beat of a blues rhythm.
Langston Hughes established himself as the poet laureate of Harlem. He served as the voice of the downtrodden, as well the elite in black culture. The criticism that he once received is now praise as his influence is manifested in the affirmation of the black identity.