Langston Hughes



Democracy will not come
Today, this year
Nor ever
Through compromise and fear.
Notice that he is appealing to the American dream - democracy, freedom, courage - rather than to Communism.

Who was it that decided that advancement would come through compromise? Booker T. Washington. Although we take our place for right now, for the time being how long will that time be? Forever, as long as you are willing to be there. If Rosa Parks hadn't refused to go to the back of the bus, there still might black people riding in the back of the bus. Someone had to stand up sometime , this wasn't going to change by itself. You have to stand up and say this is my right and I want it. How did we get a country to start with? Did the British say I feel sorry for you over there in America why don't you become free? They had to fight. Anytime you get freedom, it is through conflict.

I have as much right
As the other fellow has
To stand
On my to feet
And own the land.
I have as much right as you. By the way the federal gov't settled a lawsuit brought by black farmers, because there has been favoritism in giving loans out, if you're white you come in the bank you get your money if you are black you don't. Therefore you have a hard time to plant your crops and if you don't plant your crops it makes it really hard to get a harvest, so the idea of land ownership, many of our black farmers have been squeezed off the land, they say I have a right to own the land as anybody.
I tire so of hearing people say,
Let things take thier course.
Tomorrow is another day.
That had been the chant, let's wait until another day. Then you will have freedom. Taht was the white approach, things aren't right but if you will just wait eventually
I do not need my freedom when I'm dead.
I can not live on tomorrow's bread.
Yeah, this promise sounds great but is it going to feed me? What good is freedom doing me if I'm dead?
Is a strong seed
In a great need.
Sounds like Martin Luther King, doesn't he?
I live here, too.
I want freedom
Just as you.
The whole idea of segregation was that black people were different and they didn't need the same privileges and he is saying wait I'm human, I'm an American I want my freedom just the same way you want yours.

"A Dream Deferred"

Notice how he once again evokes the American dream.  But, as we noted above, the dream did not apply to black people.  What happens when you are systematically prevented from fulfilling your dreams?
What happens to a dream deferred?
Blacks were told to wait on their rights until others were ready to accept the change.  Notice how  his message and the language of his poetry anticipate Martin Luther King by a quarter century.  I imagine that King was influenced by Hughes.
 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?
What happens to things when they are left out?  He goes through 4 items here:
  1. The grape turns to a raisin (becomes sweet)
  2. Wounds get infected
  3. Meat stinks
  4. Syrup turns into a solid sugar.
Note that the first & last items can be seen as positive, the 2nd & 3rd are certainly negative.  Maybe the dream grows stronger; maybe it rots.
 Maybe it just sags
 like a heavy load.
 Or does it explode?
Hughes anticipates and in a sense predicts the riots that would sweep the country in the 1960s as anger erupted.

"I, Too"

I, too, sing America.
Langston sounds like Whitman, who wrote "I sing the body electric,"
Hughes is like Whitman: "I sing America also."  Hughes writes poetry that is in the style of Whitman, and he also follows Whitman in proclaiming the diversity of America.
I am the darker brother.
They send me to eat in the kitchen
When company comes,
What is he talking about? Not eating with everybody else, separate eating places. He's talking about segregation.
But I laugh,
And eat well,
And grow strong.
So there is something for him here even though he is not yet able to go where he wants to go.
I'll sit at the table
When company comes.
Nobody'll dare
Say to me,
Eat in the kitchen
They'll se how beautiful I am
And be ashamed---
I, too, am America.
Here he is saying, "Black is Beautiful."  He was saying this 30-40 years before the phrase became a popular slogan in the 1960s.

"Mother to Son"

Well, son, I'll tell you:
Life for me ain't been no crystal stair.
When Scarlet O'Hare comes down from the second floor. What kind of stair case does she come down on? It's wide and the stairs are shallow. There was an interesting movie a couple years ago, Remains of the Day, where Anthony Hopkins is a butler. The mansion has grand stair cases. Who uses them? The people that own the place. If you are one of the servants you generally stay off these stair cases.  You have little entrances - you can come in from these hidden stairs and clean up and then go back. What is that stair case like the one the servants climb around on? Steep and narrow, and lots of turns. She is saying she didn't get the Scarlet O'Hare staircase why?
  1. I'm poor
  2. I'm black.
I have nevertheless had a stair case.
It's had tacks in it,
And splinters
And boards torn up
And places with no carpet on the floor---
Do you try keep the back stairs up like the way you keep the grand staircase up? NO!  The back stairs are narrow, steep, and turn often.
But all the time
I'se been a climbin' on
And reachin' landin's,
And turnin' corners,
And sometimes goin' in the dark
Where there ain't been no light.
So there isn't always light, not always carpet, but I have always been climbing. That is the
So boy, don't you turn back.
Don't you set down on the steps.
'Cause you find it's kinder hard.
Don't you fall now--
For i'se still goin', honey,
I'se still climbin',
And life for me ain't been no crystal stair..
What is she telling her son to do? You have to keep going also, this is the American dream that the next generation will do better than you, I have climbed the stair case to this point, life's not been easy and not been all good but we've gotten to this part and I want you to keep going up. I want you move up. So that if you look back a few generations my grandparents scratched out of the Mississippi fields out of south Mississippi , I would like to think this is an improvement over that, although sometimes I wonder, no it is not that bad, teachers don't have to work near as hard as farmers. She is saying she wants his life to be better than hers. Keep going, keep moving, she is the right type of American parent, whereas Pap and Abner want their kids to do as bad as them or worse. She wants her son to have a better life than her.

"The Negro Speaks of Rivers"

I've known rivers:
I've known rivers ancient as the world and older than the
flow of human blood in human viens.
My soul has grown deep like the rivers
I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young
I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep
Where is the Euphrates? Iraq
The Congo? Africa.
The Nile? Africa. The birthplace of civilization.
I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it
I heard the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln
went to New Orleans,
What's this about Abraham Lincoln? We talked about this when we were discussing Huck Finn. What impact did it have on Lincoln? Why did he go to New Orleans? When he was a young man,  Abraham Lincoln was hired to help take a raft full of goods from Illinois to New Orleans where the goods could be sold and shipped out.  After they sold the stuff, they sold the raft and used part of the money to buy a ticket on a steamboat. While he was on this trip, he saw first-hand the institution of slavery.  He found it very repulsive. He didn't like what he saw, and he resolved then to work against slavery. That is why his trip was important.
and I've seen its muddy
bossom turn all golden in the sunset
I've known rivers:
Ancient, dusky rivers.
My soul has grown deep like the rivers.
My soul is like the rivers, deep and ancient, and dusky. What is the meaning of dusky? What is dusk? Evening part of the day when the sun goes down. What does the term dusky mean? darkness. My soul is dark like the rivers. Dark is good. Look at the river that is a good thing; look at your soul and it's dark like the rivers, it's dusky.

Until now, because of the privileged place of the white people, the tendency has been to define goodness in terms of whiteness.   If white people really admired some black person, they would say the person was white on the inside.  Huck paid Jim this "high compliment" when he said Jim was white on the inside. Such a statement is demeaning - why not be black on the inside?

Well we have this whole theology worked out in Western civilization where
the lighter you are, the better you are, and
the darker you are the worse you are,

The "sable figure" (sable=black) in "Young Goodman Brown" is the devil. So black is associated with evil & white with good.  Thus the way to say you are a good black person traditionally was to say, "well, you may look black but you're really white."

Hughes doesn't say that; he is right here in 1921, it will 45 more years before the "Black is Beautiful" movement in the 1960s. So he is starting something that will come along in the next generation that black is good. He describes the black soul so that you see the goodness of the darkness, the goodness of river, which gives civilization, which gives life, which gives freedom. All of these things come from the rivers, the dark, dusky rivers.

"Theme for English B"

The instructor said,

       Go home and write
       a page tonight.
       And let that page come out of you--
       Then, it will be true.

Like many of you, Hughes is told by his English professor to go write a theme.

Have you ever had a professor who was completely out of touch?
I mean besides me.

   I wonder if it's that simple?
   I am twenty-two, colored, born in Winston-Salem.
   I went to school there, then Durham, then here
   to this college on the hill above Harlem.
   I am the only colored student in my class.
How can he write such a theme?  He is from a different world.
   The steps from the hill lead down into Harlem,
   through a park, then I cross St. Nicholas,
   Eighth Avenue, Seventh, and I come to the Y,
   the Harlem Branch Y, where I take the elevator
   up to my room, sit down, and write this page:

   It's not easy to know what is true for you or me
   at twenty-two, my age. But I guess I'm what
   I feel and see and hear, Harlem, I hear you:
   hear you, hear me--we two--you, me, talk on this page.
   (I hear New York, too.) Me--who?

   Well, I like to eat, sleep, drink, and be in love.
   I like to work, read, learn, and understand life.
   I like a pipe for a Christmas present,
   or records--Bessie, bop, or Bach.
   I guess being colored doesn't make me not like
   the same things other folks like who are other races.
   So will my page be colored that I write?

Will he be able to put himself into this theme?  He situates himself - where he is from, where he is as he writes, how different he is from the rest of the class.
   Being me, it will not be white.
   But it will be
   a part of you, instructor.
   You are white--
   yet a part of me, as I am a part of you.
   That's American.
   Sometimes perhaps you don't want to be a part of me.
   Nor do I often want to be a part of you.
   But we are, that's true!
   As I learn from you,
   I guess you learn from me--
   although you're older--and white--
   and somewhat more free.

   This is my page for English B.

Having established their difference, he turns to the connections between them.  This is a theme that Whitman uses often.  The difference is that Whitman is much more optimistic about being able to jump the gap of difference.  Hughes & his instructor ARE part of each other, but they don't dreally want to be.  And the differences (age, color, status) DO matter.