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
Hughes¹s 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 1920¹s 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 Hughes¹s 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 Hughes¹s 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 Hughes¹s 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 didn¹t 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
man¹s 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. /
You¹re 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 20¹s, 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.

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Roosevelt is thought of as one of the country¹s greatest leaders, a
wonderful humanitarian. But in this poem Hughes reminds us that he did not
always come through with his promises. The poem is written in rhyme and has a
flowing, nursery-rhyme feel. There is a chorus of three lines that repeats after
every stanza. In each verse, Hughes states a problem such as lack of food, lack
of medical attention, lack of money, etc.... And after each problem he says
³I¹m waitin¹ on Roosevelt, son, / Roosevelt, Roosevelt, /
Waitin¹ on Roosevelt, son.² The many impoverished black families in
New York believed in the promises of Roosevelt and trusted that things would get
better. But in Hughes¹s poem, the family loses their house, cannot find a
job, and is left abandoned and hungry. It represents yet another case of whites
letting blacks down. This poem shows the growing bitterness in Hughes¹s
life. Surely the piece is based on the many black families in Harlem that lost
their houses, jobs and self-respect. Through his writing, he vented his anger.

³Third Degree² is a cry against the corrupt justice system in the
1940¹s. The poem is a speech made by a black defendant, who is arguing to
a white jury. The term third degree has a double meaning, referring to both the
third degree murder sentence, and also third degree burns. The shame and anger
that the defendant feels can be compared to the blistering pain of a third
degree burn. He won¹t admit to a crime he did not commit. The comparison
of shame to a painful burn is most apparent in the last stanza, ³When you
throw / Cold water on me, / I¹ll sign the / Paper...² Only if the
white jury can end the burning shame he feels, will he admit to the crime he did
not commit. Corrupt trials such as this were common in the South during this
time. Hughes makes sure that the atrocities don¹t go unnoticed. For
Hughes, it would appear that his life ended on a dejected note. Before his death
in May of 1967, he wrote his final poem ³Flotsam². The title
suggests that Hughes considers himself forgotten wreckage, and all his writing
is wasted and forgotten. Its tone reeks of depression and self-pity, ³On
the shoals of Nowhere, / Wasted my song / Yet taken by the sea wind / And
blown along.² Unfortunately, Hughes died feeling as though his writing did
not help his race, and that his legacy was to be forgotten. For his entire life
he had been writing about racism, slavery, and inequality. And yet in this final
poem, even after the civil rights movement had peaked, Hughes is left feeling
worthless. The bitterness he faced during his lifetime built up to a dull apathy
that appears in this piece. Despite the fact that Hughes is ³...among the
most eloquent American poets to have sung about the wounds caused by injustice²
(Rampersad 3), he thought his poems made no impact on society. On the contrary,
Hughes¹s poems had a tremendous influence on African-American society.

Although scholars and critics throughout his career dismissed his poetry as too
³simple and unlearned,² his primary audience, the black masses, and
even Hughes himself viewed his work as ³folk poetry² which was
beneath criticism. (Rampersad 4-5) His poems, when studied as a collection over
the span of his life, clearly show how the tone and emphasis in the writing
reflect the mood of Hughes himself as he grew old. The universal theme of racism
and race relations defined all the important work of Langston Hughes.

Emanuel, James. Langston Hughes. Twayne Publishers, Boston, 1967. Arnold
Rampersad. The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes. Vintage Classics, New York,

English Essays