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« The Stars & Stripes | Main | The Lifestyle Police »


The Social Protest Poetry of Langston Hughes

By Angelo Lopez
June 10, 2013

Langston Hughes was one of the greatest poets to come out of early twentieth century. Hughes was one of the central figures of the Harlem Renaissance, a rich time in the New York borough of Harlem where African American writers, artists, photographers, philosophers and intellectuals contributed great intellectual and cultural achievements. During the 1920s and 1930s, Hughes joined other socially conscious poets and writers like Carl Sandburg, John Dos Passos, Carlos Bulosan and John Steinbeck in exploring the distance between America's high ideals and the American reality for African Americans, laborers, immigrants and other marginalized people.

Langston Hughes published his first poem The Negro Speaks of Rivers in The Crisis, the official magazine of the NAACP, when he was nineteen. Hughes's first book of poetry, The Weary Blues, was published by Alfred A. Knopf in 1926. After graduating from Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, his first novel, Not Without Laughter, won the Harmon gold medal for literature in 1930. He wrote about his travels to Cuba, Haiti, Russia, Soviet Central Asia, Japan, and Spain during its Civil War during the 1930s in his book I Wonder As I Wander.

Langston Hughes was influenced by Paul Lawrence Dunbar, Carl Sandburg, and Walt Whitman writing novels, short stories, plays, and poetry about the life and struggles of African Americans during the early and middle of the twentieth century. Hughes wrote his most radical poems during the 1930s, as the suffering that he witnessed during the Great Depression pushed Hughes to embrace a radical socialist vision. Arnold Rampersad wrote in the introduction to the book The Collected Works of Langston Hughes Volume 1 The Poems 1921-1940 about his social vision in his poetry:

Another, no doubt more recognizable stream in Hughes's poetry is that comprising poems that protest, directly or indirectly, against social injustice. "The Negro Speaks of Rivers" exemplifies the power of indirection: but early poems such as "The South" ("The lazy, laughing South/ With blood on its mouth") or "The White One" ("I do not hate you,/ For your faces are beautiful, too") look straight into the hard face of racism and speak truth to white power. From the start, too, Hughes used his pen to inveigh against poverty as it affects people across racial lines, as in "Grant Park" ("The haunting face of poverty,/ The hands of pain"); or to inveigh against colonialism and imperialism, as in "Johannesburg Mines" ("In the Johannesburg mines/ There are 240,000/ Native Africans working"). All his life, so it often seems, Hughes wrote mainly in order to protest. He took seriously the tradition of political resistance to tyranny or injustice into which he had been born... Hughes's sense of social injustice was not limited by race. After all, the abolitionist movement in which his grandparents had served certainly had asserted the human dignity of black slaves; and Hughes's high school, dominated by the children of immigrants from eastern Europe (many of Hughes's classmates openly celebrated the Russian Revolution of 1917), seemed to him to capture an ideal vision of interracial solidarity.

After 1940, Hughes moved away from the radical politics of the Great Depression towards more progressive politics.
Langston Hughes died of complications from prostate cancer in May 22, 1967, in New York. If you are interested in reading Langston Hughes work, here are some books you may want to look at.

Not Without Laughter

I Wonder As I Wander

The Collected Works of Langston Hughes Volume 1 The Poems 1921-1940

The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes

Good Morning Revolution: Uncollected Writings of Social Protest

The Panther and the Lash: Poems of Our Times

Here are some poems of Langston Hughes.

NIGHT FUNERAL IN HARLEM By Langston Hughes

Night funeral
In Harlem:

Where did they get
Them two fine cars?

Insurance man, he did not pay—
His insurance lapsed the other day—
Yet they got a satin box
for his head to lay.

Night funeral
In Harlem:

Who was it sent
That wreath of flowers?
Them flowers came
from that poor boy's friends—
They'll want flowers, too,
When they meet their ends.

Night funeral
in Harlem:

Who preached that
Black boy to his grave?

Old preacher man
Preached that boy away—
Charged Five Dollars
His girl friend had to pay.

Night funeral
In Harlem:

When it was all over
And the lid shut on his head
and the organ had done played
and the last prayers been said
and six pallbearers
Carried him out for dead
And off down Lenox Avenue
That long black hearse done sped,
The street light
At his corner
Shined just like a tear—
That boy that they was mournin'
Was so dear, so dear
To them folks that brought the flowers,
To that girl who paid the preacher man—
It was all their tears that made
That poor boy's Funeral grand.

Night funeral
In Harlem.

ALWAYS THE SAME By Langston Hughes

It is the same everywhere for me:
On the docks at Sierre Leonne,
In the cotton fields of Alabama,
In the diamond mines of Kimberley,
On the coffee hills of Haiti,
The banana lands of Central America,
The streets of Harlem,
And the cities of Morocco and Tripoli.

Black:
Exploited, beaten and robbed,
Shot and killed.
Blood running into

Dollars
Pounds
Francs
Pesetas
Lire

For the wealth of the exploiters-
Blood that never comes back to me again.
Better that my blood
Runs into the deep channels of Revolution,
Runs into the strong hands of Revolution,
Stains all flags red,
Drives me away from

Sierre Leone
Kimberley
Alabama
Haiti
Central America
Harlem
Morocco
Tripoli

And all the black lands everywhere.
The force that kills,
The power that robs,
And the greed that does not care.

Better that my blood makes one with the blood
Of all the struggling workers in the world-
Till every land is free of
Dollar robbers
Pound robbers
Franc robbers
Peseta robbers
Lire robbers
Life robbers-

Until the Red Armies of the International Proletariat
Their faces, black, white, olive, yellow, brown,
Unite to raise the blood-red flag that
Never will come down!

THE TOWN OF SCOTTSBORO By Langston Hughes

Scottsboro's just a little place:
No shame is writ across its face-
Its court, too weak to stand against a mob,
Its people's heart, too small to hold a sob.

AMERICA By Langston Hughes

Little dark baby,
Little Jew baby,
Little outcast,
America is seeking the stars,
America is seeking tomorrow.
You are America.
I am America
America- the dream,
America- the vision.
America- the star-seeking I.
Out of yesterday
The chains of slavery;
Out of yesterday,
The poverty and pain of the old, old, world,
The building and struggle of this new one,
We come
You and I,
You of the blue eyes
And the blond hair.
You and I
Offering hands
Being brothers,
Being one,
Being America.
You and I
And I?
Who am I?
You know me:
I am Crispus Attucks at the Boston Tea Party;
Jimmy Jones in the ranks of the last black troops marching for democracy.
I am Sojourner Truth preaching and praying for the goodness of this wide, wide land;
Today's black mother bearing tomorrow's America.
Who am I?
You know me,
Dream of my dreams,
I am America.
I am America seeking the stars.
America-
Hoping, praying
Fighting, dreaming.
Knowing
There are stains
On the beauty of my democracy,
I want to be clean.
I want to grovel
No longer in the mire.
I want to reach always
After stars.
Who am I?
I am the ghetto child,
I am the dark baby,
I am you,
And the blond tomorrow
And yet
I am my one sole self,
America seeking the stars.

GOOD MORNING REVOLUTION By Langston Hughes

Good morning Revolution:
You are the best friend
I ever had.
We gonna pal around together from now on.
Say, listen, Revolution:
You know the boss where I used to work,
The guy that gimme the air to cut expenses,
He wrote a long letter to the papers about you:
Said you was a trouble maker, a alien-enemy,
In other words a son-of-a-bitch.
He called up the police
And told’em to watch out for a guy
Named Revolution

You see,
The boss knows you are my friend.
He sees us hanging out together
He knows we’re hungry and ragged,
And ain’t got a damn thing in this world –
And are gonna to do something about it.

The boss got all his needs, certainly,
Eats swell,
Owns a lotta houses,
Goes vacationin’,
Breaks strikes,
Runs politics, bribes police
Pays off congress
And struts all over earth –

But me, I ain’t never had enough to eat.
Me, I ain’t never been warm in winter.
Me, I ain’t never known security –
All my life, been livin’ hand to mouth
Hand to mouth.

Listen, Revolution,
We’re buddies, see –
Together,
We can take everything:
Factories, arsenals, houses, ships,
Railroads, forests, fields, orchards,
Bus lines, telegraphs, radios,
(Jesus! Raise hell with radios!)
Steel mills, coal mines, oil wells, gas,
All the tools of production.
(Great day in the morning!)
Everything –
And turn’em over to the people who work.
Rule and run’em for us people who work.

Boy! Them radios!
Broadcasting that very first morning to USSR:
Another member of the International Soviet’s done come
Greetings to the Socialist Soviet Republics
Hey you rising workers everywhere greetings –
And we’ll sign it: Germany
Sign it: China
Sign it: Africa
Sign it: Italy
Sign it: America
Sign it with my one name: Worker
On that day when no one will be hungry, cold oppressed,
Anywhere in the world again.

That’s our job!

I been starvin’ too long
Ain’t you?

Let’s go, Revolution!


LET AMERICA BE AMERICA AGAIN
By Langston Hughes

Let America be America again.
Let it be the dream it used to be.
Let it be the pioneer on the plain
Seeking a home where he himself is free.

(America never was America to me.)

Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed--
Let it be that great strong land of love
Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme
That any man be crushed by one above.

(It never was America to me.)

O, let my land be a land where Liberty
Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,
But opportunity is real, and life is free,
Equality is in the air we breathe.

(There's never been equality for me,
Nor freedom in this "homeland of the free.")

Say, who are you that mumbles in the dark?
And who are you that draws your veil across the stars?

I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart,
I am the Negro bearing slavery's scars.
I am the red man driven from the land,
I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek--
And finding only the same old stupid plan
Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.

I am the young man, full of strength and hope,
Tangled in that ancient endless chain
Of profit, power, gain, of grab the land!
Of grab the gold! Of grab the ways of satisfying need!
Of work the men! Of take the pay!
Of owning everything for one's own greed!

I am the farmer, bondsman to the soil.
I am the worker sold to the machine.
I am the Negro, servant to you all.
I am the people, humble, hungry, mean--
Hungry yet today despite the dream.
Beaten yet today--O, Pioneers!
I am the man who never got ahead,
The poorest worker bartered through the years.

Yet I'm the one who dreamt our basic dream
In the Old World while still a serf of kings,
Who dreamt a dream so strong, so brave, so true,
That even yet its mighty daring sings
In every brick and stone, in every furrow turned
That's made America the land it has become.
O, I'm the man who sailed those early seas
In search of what I meant to be my home--
For I'm the one who left dark Ireland's shore,
And Poland's plain, and England's grassy lea,
And torn from Black Africa's strand I came
To build a "homeland of the free."

The free?

Who said the free? Not me?
Surely not me? The millions on relief today?
The millions shot down when we strike?
The millions who have nothing for our pay?
For all the dreams we've dreamed
And all the songs we've sung
And all the hopes we've held
And all the flags we've hung,
The millions who have nothing for our pay--
Except the dream that's almost dead today.

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.

Sure, call me any ugly name you choose--
The steel of freedom does not stain.
From those who live like leeches on the people's lives,
We must take back our land again,
America!

O, yes,
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath--
America will be!

Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death,
The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies,
We, the people, must redeem
The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.
The mountains and the endless plain--
All, all the stretch of these great green states--
And make America again!

Here is a youtube video of Langston Hughes reading the poem "The Weary Blues"

Langston Hughes reading his poem "I, Too" and verbalizing his thoughts about it.


Nikki Giovanni reads Langston Hughes's poem "Let American Be America Again"


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