Langston Hughes: The People's Poet

By Angelica Aboulhosn | February 1, 2018
Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Courtesy of Nell Winston, The Louis Draper Archive

Sitting at his typewriter, a pencil in hand, Langston Hughes looks out just beyond the frame as though poised to capture and crystallize a verse still forming. The portrait, photographed by Louis H. Draper, gives only a glimpse of the writer who “simply liked people,” as Arnold Rampersad wrote in the introduction to Selected Letters of Langston Hughes. “If he was lonely in essential ways, his main response to his pain was to create a body of art that others could admire and applaud.”

Born in Joplin, Missouri, in 1902, it was the writer’s many years in Harlem that would come to characterize his work. It was there that Hughes focused squarely on the lives of working class black Americans, delicately dismantling clichés and, in doing so, arriving at a genuine portrayal of the people he knew best.

But Hughes’s body of work, steeped as it was in stories of everyday life, was not without its critics. Hughes’s writing, especially his use of the fictional character Jesse B. Semple, shortened to Simple, portrayed what critics saw as an unattractive view of black American life. Commenting on the writer’s poetry collection Fine Clothes to the Jew, Estace Gay asserted that “our aim ought to be [to] present to the general public, already misinformed both by well meaning and malicious writers, our higher aims and aspirations, and our better selves.” What such criticisms miss, however, is that Hughes’s verse, though spare and humble, was never disparaging and, in telling stories of those he encountered, Hughes brought to light not only the drudgery but also the determination alive in Harlem.

Writing in Black World, one reviewer captured the popularity of Simple—a character who “lived in a world they knew, suffered their pangs, experienced their joys, reasoned in their way, talked their talk, dreamed their dreams, laughed their laughs, voiced their fears—and all the while underneath, he affirmed the wisdom which anchored at the base of their lives.” In fact, Hughes’s beloved poem “I, Too” underlines not only the empathy the writer showed for the working class, but the quiet resistance these figures had come to represent. “Tomorrow, / I’ll be at the table / When company comes…They’ll see how beautiful I am / And be ashamed…” Hughes’s unnamed first person is far from a passive observer of racism and its ruptures. Here is an individual sure of him or herself and confident in a justice still unrealized.

Langston Hughes

Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, The Estate of Louis H. Draper

Indeed, it’s the subtleties and singularities of Hughes’s characters that set apart the writer’s work—a sentiment Angela Flournoy echoes in her review of Hughes’s debut novel Not Without Laughter. “Hughes accesses the universal—how all of us love and dream and laugh and cry—by staying faithful to the particulars of his characters and their way of life.” In the novel, where themes of migration have particular resonance, it is the inviting, intimate character studies Hughes offered which anchor an otherwise mercurial world. So, too, are the characters in his work resoundingly robust. By Hughes’s own account, Simple “tells me his tales, mostly in high humor, but sometimes with a pain in his soul as sharp as the occasional hurt of that bunion on his right foot. Sometimes, as the old blues says, Simple might be ‘laughing to keep from crying.’”

Here, then, are characters endowed with a depth akin to the river Hughes references in the much-beloved poem “The Negro Speaks of Rivers.” In the poem’s opening stanza the still unknown narrator recounts “I’ve known rivers ancient as the world and older than the flow of human blood in veins. / My soul has grown deep like the rivers.” One imagines from these lines that Simple, and other working class Americans like him, knew comparable depths and, in finding their strength, realized the broader continuities between past and present trials.

Winold Reiss, "Langston Hughes," National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; gift of W. Tjark Reiss, in memory of his father, Winold Reiss

What is curious about Hughes’s body of work, then, is that despite the tenor of hardship and hopelessness that colored his poetry and prose, he maintained a strikingly confident assurance that a brighter future awaits. Typifying that impulse is Hughes’s poem “Let America Be America Again.” In one of the final stanzas, Hughes wrote, “O, let America be America again— / The land that never has been yet— / And yet must be—the land where every man is free.”

Hughes knew intimately the struggle of the working class, indeed, he devoted much of the poem to it, and yet, assured readers that the future is a just one. This counterfactual history seems, at times, to be at odds with the stories of bigotry that emerge in Hughes’s work in ways big and small. This hope, though, appears to derive less from mere idealism and more from the purview of a writer who, more than anything else, loved people and hoped—believed, even—that their work would not be in vain.

Indeed, it was Hughes’s realistic idealism that made him the celebrated writer he is today. As raw as racism once was and as scarring as it still is, bringing to light the stories of the oppressed seems an enduring antidote—a phenomenon Hughes knew well. The writer was resolute in listening to the stories of the working class, telling those stories in a language they understood, and, in so doing, reflecting back on Harlem the beauty and boundlessness he saw every day.