Limitations of the American Dream for African Americans in Langston Hughes’s Novels

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Relatively known for his short yet vivid portrayals of black life in America, Langston Hughes expresses these emotions through his novels, short stories, plays and of course, poetry. From the early twenties through the sixties, Hughes was additionally known for his commitment with the world of jazz, which in turn helped to influence his writing. His life and work has been labeled essential as it helped to mold the artistic contributions of the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s. Unlike other courageous African American poets, Hughes refused to differentiate between his personal experience and the commonly known experience of the life of being an African American (Hine, 1). This is because he wanted to enrich his stories of African American people in ways that reflect their actual culture, while including both their suffering and their love of music, laughter and language itself (Hine, 1). In order to account for this objective, Hughes’s poems acquired an abundance of themes. These themes included: dignity, music, aspiration, racism, wisdom, and self-actualization.

During Langston Hughes’s time, it has become clear that his African American readers felt that his work directly explored their lives in regards to their hopes, their fears, their past, and their dreams (Ramsey, 1). Very similarly, these four things are all required to be found within ones’ dignity. The African American characters projected in Hughes’s poems refer to all the struggles/complexities of life being pursued in a segregated America (Ramsey, 1). An example of this is found in the poem, “I, Too.” The African American speaker begins to declare that he too can sing America and may sit with whomever he wants. This suggests that he is claiming his right to feel patriotic towards America regardless of the color of his skin and the way others view him as. He is consistently referred to as the “darker brother” of the poem as it alludes to the common practice of racial segregation of that time. Accordingly, this poem explores how African American dignity is to acquire the feeling of being worthy of honor or respect while also being able to see it within themselves.

To elaborate on how Hughes’s poems contribute to the theme of music, it is notable once identifying a consistent rhythm or beat. Within the poem, “The Weary Blues,” the rhythm that is found is that the lines are read like the versus in a blues song, as it relates to the sense of sorrow and hopelessness. For example, the poem expresses an African American figure swaying back and forth on his stool while playing a mournful tune like a “musical fool.” The speaker calls out, “O Blues!” as the figure continues to play the piano. He soon begins to sing a song about having nobody in the world, nobody but himself. Another example would be how Hughes frequently alludes to the music that originated during the era of slavery, in doing so he has connected himself to the painful history of African Americans (Ramsey, 1).

Quite similar to The American Dream, Langston Hughes often writes about aspirations as dreams. He explores hidden dreams, lost dreams, dreams regained and dreams redeemed (Ramsey, 1). He implies that The American Dream is simply unreachable through the way he projects his characters in his poems. One of Hughes’s most famous poems, “Harlem,” identifies the limitations of the American Dream for African Americans (Hendricks, 1). It proposes an important question, “What happens when dreams are ignored or postponed?” Primarily targeted for African Americans, this gives one the opportunity to contemplate their dreams. The last stanza of the poem is italicized, simply stating, “or does it explode?” this emphasizes suspicion as people assume this is the actual answer to the lingering question.

Next, one of the most universally talked about problem around the world is racism. Being an African American himself, Hughes experiences this first hand. In one of his most well-known short stories, “On the Road,” he depicts racism as being tied up with religious hypocrisy (Ramsey, 1). This suggests that Hughes views things more realistically than others, especially about the discriminatory environment he had been a part of. In continuation, he hopes that one day, the racial inequality that America endures will soon start to even out.

Through an example found within the poem, “Let America be America Again,” Hughes describes immediately that America is not the dream it used to be, simply because it is not the America it claims to be. To support this, Hughes emphasizes how the values on which the country is founded: freedom, liberty and justice for all, do not really exist (Hendricks, 1). He begins to address immigrants, Native Americans, the poor and the black as he starts to question who “the free” truly are. Hughes then represents every man, woman, worker, and race whose “sweat and blood, faith and pain,” has helped aid to build America and must continue to do so (Hendricks, 1). This poem emphasizes the darker areas in life and while many African Americans experience a lot more hatred for the color of their skin, it also outlines the unique struggles of those who make up America, both black and white.

In contrast, how the word “wisdom” is not specifically written in Hughes’s poems, he solemnly refers to its meaning in many places. He emphasizes wisdom being passed down through generations, such as in the poem, “Mother to Son.” As the mother in this poem refers her life to a staircase, she mentions how she has had to go through many obstacles as she metaphorically climbed up the stairs, from birth to death. The mother says to her son that life is not going to be a clear staircase, that there is going to be several splinters and torn boards, as well as places with no carpet. However, she makes sure to tell her son that she still continues to climb regardless of the obstacles she faces. As a result, she instructs him never to go back down the stairs and to never look back. Therefore, the topic of wisdom is introduced by the mother passing down her knowledge of life to her son and assuring him he can make it through whatever obstacles life throws at him.

The last theme characterized throughout Hughes poems is, self-actualization. Self-actualization is defined as the realization of one’s talents and potentialities. The speakers found within Hughes poems start in situations where they feel little to no hope or courage. One has argued with a lover, another faces discrimination and a lonesome man struggles with his identity (Ramsey, 1). However, in these poems, Hughes commonly creates a narrative that helps the protagonist/speaker achieve a state of self-actualization. An example of this would be how his poems focus on the struggles African Americans face, and the protagonist being able to overcome these struggles.

In conclusion, it seems as if each poem talked to one another. They provided a very similar message about the American Dream and that is that the African American response to racial oppression includes discriminatory practices that effectively denied blacks access to this intended dream (Hendricks, 1). While reading Langston Hugh’s work, one can assure that he speaks from the heart and because of that, his writing seems to manifest a greater meaning. He writes about his personal conflicts, therefore leading to him expressing how he is currently oppressed but still strives to be considered an “equal man.” As Hughes’s continues to speak on behave of himself and other oppressed African Americans, a realization people become aware of is that the poems he writes express future changes much greater than they typically would appear to be. Thus, one can interpret the ideas that Hughes’s poems originate from are found within his inner and thoughtful responses to the constant struggles of racism in America.

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Limitations Of The American Dream For African Americans In Langston Hughes's Novels. (2022, Apr 13). Retrieved September 30, 2023 , from

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