As the early 1900’s capital of black culture, Harlem was a fitting place for a social and intellectual revolution to occur in the black community. Countless artists and writers contributed to the insightful portrayals of black life in America in what is now known as the Harlem Renaissance. In an attempt to portray the realities of black life, Langston Hughes used his poetry to address both black and white audiences. As a leader in the Harlem Renaissance, Hughes’ life and work were incredibly influential, criticizing racial prejudice and using art as a conductor of new ideas and racial pride represented through the idea of the New Negro. He was an approachable artist who used language, themes, ideas, and attitudes familiar to anyone who had the ability to read. Through a realistic portrayal of black life, discussion of the commoditization of black culture, and depiction of black history, the works of Langston Hughes illustrate his messages to white audiences: don’t draw conclusions about black life without taking into consideration the black individual’s definition of his own reality.
Hughes’ insightful portrayals of black life in America aimed to depict even the harsh realities of what it meant to be black citizen living in an era of racial inequality. In “Mother to Son”, the narrator, a mother giving advice to her son, states “Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair / It’s had tacks in it, / And splinters, / And boards torn up, / And places with no carpet on the floor – / Bare” (Hughes 871). The comparison between the mother’s life and a treacherous staircase addresses the struggle that generations of African Americans faced and continued to face well after slavery was abolished. The metaphor of the staircase is significant; not only is it already an uphill climb, but it is also one made more difficult by the deteriorating condition of the staircase. The poem, however, goes beyond simply presenting the challenges and difficulties present in the life of a black individual. It is a message of hope and encouragement, as the mother continues with “Don’t you set down on the steps / ‘Cause you finds it’s kinder hard” (Hughes 871). This poem posits itself as a demonstration of what it means to be black – continuing on despite the significant amount of failures and challenges.
This message is significant to white audiences because it functions as a portrayal of black struggle that may be hard to understand for outsiders. This idea is further developed in the poem “Visitors to the Black Belt”, where Hughes addresses outsiders directly. He states, “You can talk about / Across the railroad tracks – / To me it’s here / On this side of the tracks” (Hughes 875). This is a criticism of outsiders, presumably white people, who act as if they know what Harlem is like; when, in reality, they have no real understanding of what life in this city is like. Even the title, using the word “visitors”, demonstrates the idea that white individuals are simply guests who possess a superficial view of black life – they listen to music in black clubs, watch black entertainers, drink in the Harlem bars, but then return to their homes not fully understanding the culture they’ve experienced. The last two phrases express concern about the fact that white people do not seek to truly understand black life: “Who’re you, outsider? / Ask me who am I” (Hughes 876). With these words, Hughes challenges the white community to aim to better understand black culture and how it affects America culture rather than continuing to draw their own conclusions about black life based on minimal interactions.
Beyond a lack of understanding of black life, Hughes also criticizes the appropriation and commoditization of black culture. He was keenly aware of his white audiences’ voyeuristic, exploitive tendencies and addressed those concerns in his works. While “Visitors to the Black Belt” is an introduction to such concerns, “Note on Commercial Theatre” specifically highlights the commoditization of black culture and Hughes’ discontent with such behavior. Hughes writes “You’ve taken my blues and gone – / You sing ’em on BroadwayAnd you fixed ’em / So they don’t sound like me” (Hughes 876). In his view, not only did white people appropriate black music and literature, but they altered them to better fit standards for the white community. The act of altering black culture was deeply offensive to black artists who simply wanted their work to be understood in its proper context. Hughes believed that blues music had a thick culture and a heavy meaning within the music, but all of this was erased when the white community altered it for their own entertainment. The immense challenges faced by black artists was undermined by white appropriation and communization of black output.
“Note on Commercial Theatre” reveals Hughes’ belief that the acknowledgment of black culture may be a long time coming. He writes how someday, someone will stand up and talk about him, sing about him, and put on plays about him. He ends the poem by saying “I reckon it’ll be / Me myself! / Yes, it’ll be me” (Hughes 876). Where he talks about acknowledgement of his art, he is actually referring to all black artists and how they are viewed by white audiences. He purports that if there continues to be a lack of understanding and appreciation for black culture, then the status quo will never change; and black individuals will be the only ones appreciating their own art for what it truly means to express. Hughes attempts to evoke a thoughtful consideration from his white audience, one that enables them to view black art for how the artists meant for it to be viewed and appreciated. This poem is an effective example of Hughes’ demand that black artists be acknowledged for their culture and their role in providing art and other literary works to American culture as a whole.
By expressing pride in black culture and what it had overcome, Hughes attempted to give white audiences a better understanding of the history of African Americans. He wanted to emphasize the effects that enslavement had on black perception of concepts such as liberty in freedom. The past of African Americans was significant to the themes and concepts presented in works during this era. This is best expressed in his poem “Words Like Freedom”, in which he differentiates how words are defined by black people in their historical context. He writes about the words freedom and liberty “That almost make me cry. / If you had known what I know / You would know why” (Hughes 877). The last few lines make it clear that Hughes wanted his white audience to take an active approach to understanding the history of African Americans, which would help with a broader understanding of their artistic works. The history of black life was important to Hughes because it represented the essence of black culture as earlier discussed – overcoming challenges.
In “The Negro Speaks of Rivers”, he outlines the long history of African Americans with descriptive imagery, ending with the phrase “My soul has grown deep like the rivers” (Hughes 871). This poem connects the heritage of the African American community to four great rivers in Africa, the Middle East, and America, representing the multi-faceted aspects of black history. It charts the journey of African Americans by discussing the enslavement endured by Hughes’ people, and their subsequent freedom, heralding their wisdom and strength. This history is significant to black individuals, and Hughes wanted it to be understood by white individuals reading his works. Understanding the long and complex history of African Americans would, in turn, result in a better understanding of the thematic expressions in the work of black artists.
In all of his works, Hughes has the ultimate goal of advancing racial justice in an era of segregation, discrimination, and inequality. He was a courageous artist who used his art to connect with audiences, both black and white. His poems featured the adaption of black speech into poetry form, which demonstrated his intent to produce works relatable to black individuals; but he also took inspiration from white poets, proving his attempt to educate and connect with white individuals. He wanted to establish black culture as a significant aspect of American culture overall. His criticisms of white understanding of his artistic work stemmed not from a place of hate but rather from an attempt to integrate and enfranchise black people as fully-established American citizens. Hughes was a revolutionary poet who used his poems to advocate for the black community and encourage the white community to garner a better understanding of black life.
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