Race and Culture in Langston Hughes’ Poems Essay
The process of writing either poetry or fiction does not happen in a vacuum. Writers of fiction are, first and foremost, the products of their cultural and historical contexts. Therefore, they are bound to respond to issues that are pertinent to their historical contexts as evidenced by their thematic concerns as well as to create characters and settings that are influenced by their experiences. Secondly, writers make use of literary forms such as the poem, the novel, or the short story, which are culturally prescribed. As such, the process of writing, and the literary works that are produced through it, could never be deemed innocent of either culture or history.
In this essay, I will show that both culture and race have had a great impact on the works of Langston Hughes. To do that, I will rely on an analysis of his two poems, “Cross” and “Dream Variations”. The essay will be divided into two main parts; the first dealing with the racial influence on his works while the second will deal with the issue of cultural influence.
The most obvious way of assessing the extent to which Langston Hughes responded to the historical context of his race in his work is to assess his thematic concerns. In analyzing the thematic concern dealt with within these two poems, one will be assessing how much his being from a black racial background influenced his work.
The poem “Cross” is simple in both language and subject matter. In exploring its thematic concerns, however, one finds himself delving into a subject of such complexity as to defy any attempts to deem it simple. The persona of the poem is born of a black mother and a white father: “my old man’s a white old man/ And my old mother’s black” (Hughes). In racially sensitive America of the 1900s, however, this fact presents a great question regarding his identity.
The society s/he is born into is sharply divided into two, and opposite, races: white and black. The white side of the population would not and could not, accept the persona as one of their own since the slightest of pigmentation in one’s skin automatically meant that they were no longer white (Firewriter). The persona is also shunned by the black side of the society since prejudice against those who are seen not to fully fit the idea of the black person existed. Black people in the United States practice a form of implicit racial segregation against people of mixed race such as the persona, who is felt to have a skin tone that is too light to be called black (Marpaung 11). The lighter the skin color, therefore, the harsher the rejection.
Racial issues are also seen in the poem when the persona contrasts the death of his father against that of his mother: “My old man died in a fine big house. My ma died in a shack” (Hughes). Skin color, which was indicative of one’s race in racially segregated America determined one’s access to social amenities as well as to economic opportunity. That is why, the persona’s mother, being black, would have been offered no opportunity to better her condition thus eventually dying in a shack. The opposite was true for the persona’s white father, of great interest here is that the persona, being accepted by neither side of the racial divide, wonders exactly how he would die.
This dilemma that the poem’s persona is facing due to his indeterminate race could have been attributed to the fact that Hughes himself was of mixed-race parentage and he, therefore, was intimately aware of the implications of such a fact. He however eventually came to see himself more and more as black, as opposed to white, thereby transcending his persona’s identity dilemma (Poetry Foundation).
The second poem, “Dream Variations,” is a two stanza piece which, too, might seem simple and straightforward at first reading. While the two stanzas might initially seem similar at the orthographic as well as the semantic level, they are nonetheless very different. The speakers in both stanzas are after something. The first stanza, however, presents us with a black person who would like nothing better than to “to fling my arms wide /in some place of the sun” (Hughes 1141). While it would seem that the speaker of the second stanza would like the same thing, it soon becomes clear that he/she, in the second stanza, harbors dreams which are essentially different.
The speaker in the second stanza already has the freedom that is so hankered after by the one in the first stanza (Yahoo Voices). A most telling word regarding the differences between speaker one and speaker two is ‘then’ in the first stanza: “till the white day is done. /then rest at cool evening” (Hughes, 1141). When this is contrasted with the second stanza: “till the quick day is done/rest at pale evening” (Hughes, 1141).
Because of the use of that word, it becomes clear that while the second speaker seems capable of choosing when to rest, speaker two is not (Yahoo Voices). Speaker too had not been doing anything at all when he/she decided to rest at ‘pale evening’. The use of ‘then’ in the first stanza means that what follows, the rest would only come at the end of something else. Considering the condition of the black slaves in America, this could only mean the day’s hard work. It is in this stark difference regarding the ability of one speaker to make decisions in his/her life while the same is completely denied the other that Hughes is addressing in this poem. Again, just like in “Cross,” Hughes is responding to the racial issues of his time in this poem.
The historical period in which Hughes wrote was called the Harlem Renaissance (UsHistory.org). It was a period of intense artistic creation in the African American community which mainly took place in New York’s Harlem (UsHistory.org). Langston Hughes came to form one of the faces of the artistic movement not only due to his prolific and illustrious career but also because he was able to so vividly capture the racial and cultural issues that were most pertinent to the black community (UsHistory.org).
So strong was Hughes’s identification with the black community, despite his mixed-race parentage, that his finest essay was an attack at those artists who distanced themselves from the black community and sought to be looked just like ‘poets’ rather than ‘black poets’ (Encyclopedia Britannica). For Hughes, the failure of these writers to advance the plight of the black people at the height of the Harlem renaissance was a source of ‘shame’ to him and the black community. In refusing to be branded ‘black,’ they were expressing their shame in who they were (Encyclopedia Brittanica).
That Hughes was responding to the racial and cultural context in which he wrote could not have been more explicitly put than he did in ‘The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain’: “Most of my poems are racial in theme and treatment, derived from the life I know” (Encyclopedia Britannica).
From the above two poems and Hughes’ essay ‘The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain,’ it becomes irrefutable that his work, or that of any other writer for that matter, could ever be considered to not reflect the context, cultural or otherwise, that it was written in.
Encyclopedia Britannica. Langston Hughes: The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain. Web.
Firewriter. Critical Analysis of Langston Hughes Poems, Cross” and “Bad Morning. 2010. Web.
Langston Hughes. Cross. 2003. Web.
Marpaung, Rama. An Analysis of Racial Issues in Some Langston Hughes Poems. Doctoral Thesis, University of North Sumatra, 2010.
Poetry Foundation. Langston Hughes. 2011. Web.
UsHistory.org. The Harlem Renaissance. 2012. Web.
Yahoo Voices. Analytical Paper on Dream Variations by Langston Hughes. 2010. Web.
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