H is for Hughes (Langston, not Ted)

Langston Hughes was one of the most prolific and well-recognized writers of the Harlem Renaissance, an overall term for the black artistic and literary movements which emerged in northern cities (particularly New York) in the 1920s and 30s, following massive African American migration from the agrarian south to the industrial north. Born in Missouri and raised mostly in Kansas and Illinois, Hughes arrived in New York City in his mid-twenties, already well-educated and well-traveled. In addition to poetry, Hughes wrote novels, short stories, plays and non-fiction. He was instrumental in the short-lived literary journal, Fire!!, whose other contributers included Zora Neale Hurston and Countee Cullen.

The rhythms, diction and subject matter of Hughes’ poetry often evokes the musicality of jazz and blues. Roughly contemporaneous with Dada, vorticism, imagism and the high modernist poetic avant-garde intent on making poetry difficult (Eliot, Pound), Hughes’ style–and his emphasis on scenes and characters from everyday African American life–seems remarkably simple in comparison. I don’t mean simple in any reductive way though — Hughes’ poems are remarkably elegant in their construction, and the way they stay in your head, lines beating rhythmically into your memory after a single reading, speak to their author’s awesome linguistic musicality and craftsmanship.

I look at the world

I look at the world
From awakening eyes in a black face—
And this is what I see:
This fenced-off narrow space
Assigned to me.

I look then at the silly walls
Through dark eyes in a dark face—
And this is what I know:
That all these walls oppression builds
Will have to go!

I look at my own body
With eyes no longer blind—
And I see that my own hands can make
The world that’s in my mind.
Then let us hurry, comrades,
The road to find.
~ Langston Hughes
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