the ways Langston Hughes employed the truth
It has been said that poetry concerning current events or political causes tends to lose its sublime characteristics. Coleridge, for instance, wrote, “No object of the Sense is sublime in itself; but only as far as I make it a symbol of some Idea.” One voice stands out firmly in the tradition of protest poetry as accomplishing this. Harlem Renaissance poet and playwright Langston Hughes wrote hundreds of poems of protest on subjects ranging from exploitation of tenants by their landlords, the African American experience within the American idiom, love and grief, and poems rooted in jazz music.
Something of Hughes’ poetry not only reverberates, but it dives into us as readers. Perhaps it is that aesthetic sense of the sublime as defined by Edmund Burke. Sublime characteristics inspire fear, awe, terror: the grandeur of an object fills the viewer with deep reverence. If we examine Hughes’ poem “Scottsboro” for instance:
“8 BLACK BOYS IN A Southern JAIL .
WORLD, TURN PALE !
8 black boys and one white lie.
Is it much to die?
Is it much to die when immortal feet
March with you down Time’s street,
When beyond steel bars sound the deathless drums
Like a mighty heart-beat as They come?”
These lines reflect a sense of beauty and sublime horror. We feel fear, unity, and hope. How does the poet accomplish this feat in eight opening lines? He appeals first to “Kantian fairness”. We are immediately told what is at stake. Yet these eight boys serve as the catalyst for larger, universal struggles that are signified by figures such as Lenin and Christ. Hughes is able to appeal to our most innate and natural human quality while expressing an urgency that cannot be dismissed.
This is essential to understanding Hughes’ poetry. It is not to be balked at as propaganda—no state machinery imposed this specific set of values. He is not speaking strictly as a Communist. He is appealing to the human wish for justice and his call shakes the reader and speaks on an elevated level. It is not base emotions he approaches. It is humanity’s most universal dream to see good prevail.
In this case, the Communist Party helped get these eight boys a fair trial.
Another major work by Langston Hughes is Montage of a Dream Deferred. The work uses jazz idioms to explore the thing it suggests. Read these lines:
“What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore—
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over—
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?”
There are two senses exposed in this poem. It is stylistically bebop which gives it a jumpy, unpredictable music. The purpose is to expose the doubt and rage inherent in the content. You are meant to be uncomfortable, to sense sugary decadence on one hand and rotting wasted meat on the other. The juxtaposition asks you to imagine the city of Harlem as such a state. Harlem, Hughes himself wrote, is like two cities in one. One side is fantastically wealthy and the other is suffering dire poverty. The use of metaphor as a response to the opening question jolts the reader into confused rage. The state Harlem is in is unacceptable.
Yet there is also disappointment. What has this decadence offered the world? “It just sags / like a heavy load.” Finally, a desire for annihilation—wishes that such conditions were not present. The final line tells us just how desperate Harlem is.
In Montage of a Dream Deferred, Hughes still employs a search into the human heart. He continues to use laden metaphor and distressing language to tell us what injustice is. In this poem, we are prying into the heart of social inequalities.
In Fine Clothes for the Jew he employs his most dangerous critique. He turns the mirror on black culture and puts the reader face to face with common problems within African American communities. He faced severe criticism for telling it like it is, especially from black folk themselves. Granted, a writer’s first duty is to himself. His second duty is to his community. He wrote poems and plays to tell the story of systemic black oppression and its effects on black people. He didn’t stop at playing the violins. He exposed the underbelly. He revealed that blacks can’t blame everyone else if they aren’t willing to make a move for themselves. He reminded them that every person has moral duties and failing to fulfill them has consequences. Malingering at a bar wastes time better employed in more fruitful tasks.
This is Hughes’ most salient feature to me. He risked a reputation he worked hard to attain to tell the full truth. He spared no stone. This is what sets him apart from other poetic voices. He took a risk and faced the consequences. He understood the moral peril of African Americans, and bent to instruct them.
We have discussed how the poetry of Langston Hughes becomes sublime by appealing to greater propensities within current events, and how most poems of this kind fail as literary works. We further discussed how Hughes diagnosed and described the realities faced by black people and how those issues affect other communities as well. Finally, we completed the discussion by noting that Hughes’ bravery in showing black people what they can do on their own to improve their lives is unsurpassable.
Hughes’ work will be read and re-discovered by generations because of its depth of perception, celebration of humanness, transformational qualities, and freedom of expression. The attention Hughes gave to current events especially relating to African American plight in America gave him a keen political sense. He employed this sense to speak the truth no matter how or who it hurt.