Langston Hughes | Critical Essay by James Presley

This literature criticism consists of approximately 12 pages of analysis & critique of Langston Hughes.
This section contains 3,362 words
(approx. 12 pages at 300 words per page)
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Critical Essay by James Presley

SOURCE: "The American Dream of Langston Hughes," in Southwest Review, Vol. 48, No. 4, Autumn, 1963, pp. 380-86.

In the following essay, Presley looks at the theme of the American dream in Hughes's poetry, drama, prose, and nonfiction.

One summer in Chicago when he was a teen-ager Langston Hughes felt the American Dream explode in his face; a gang of white youths beat him up so badly that he went home with blacked eyes and a swollen jaw.

He had been punished for cutting through a white neighborhood in the South Side on his way home from work. That night as he tended his injuries young Hughes must have mused disturbed thoughts about fulfilment of his American dream of freedom, justice, and opportunity for all.

A few years after that traumatic Chicago afternoon Hughes inaugurated a prolific and versatile writing career. Over the four decades separating then and now, his reaction to the American Dream has been one of his most frequently recurring themes. For many years Hughes, often hailed as "the poet laureate of the Negro people," has been recognized by white critics as an author-poet of the protest genre. Others, more conservative and denunciatory, have assailed Hughes as radical and leftist, to mention the more polite language. In both instances the critics referred to Hughes's treatment of imperfections in the American Dream that we, as a nation, hold so dear.

The American Dream may have come dramatically true for many, Hughes says, but for the Negro (and other assorted poor people) the American Dream is merely that—a dream. If the critics and would-be censors had read further they would have noted that for Hughes the American Dream has even greater meaning: it is the raison d'être of this nation. Nevertheless, Hughes was still a regular target for right-wing barbs as recently as the 1960's, having been anathema to the right wing for decades.

Long before the Chicago summer during World War I Hughes had experienced the plight of the Negro in America. Although he was not born in the South where conditions probably were worse, the boy Langston had faced the practical prejudices of the Middle West and the North. In Topeka, Kansas, he was to have been dispatched across town to a Jim Crow school, but his determined mother complained so vigorously to the school board that Hughes was enrolled, the only Negro pupil, in the elementary school nearest his home. And there the American Dream of equal treatment for everyone shone through almost perfectly. But a shadow fell: while most of the teachers were kind to him, one kept referring to his color in the classroom. On occasions when the teacher had singled him out for his brownness, several of his classmates would climax the day by throwing stones or epithets at him. There was a great stain on the American Dream.

All was not stain, though. While one teacher exercised her prejudices and some classmates poked fun and more tangible objects at him, other classmates championed his cause. Consequently the youth Langston was never completely alienated, and despite his poverty and darkness in a sea of white he was to know that there were others who believed in equality and justice for him too. Later on, in integrated Cleveland, Ohio, he was named poet of his high school class. Ever since those moments out of a sensitive childhood the future poet has maintained his faith in the American Dream, while confirming his enmity to the stifling and transmogrification of it. In pursuing the Dream, Hughes has followed a course very similar to that of the American Negro in general: the Dream is fine—if realized.

Langston Hughes was born February 1, 1902, at Joplin, Missouri. The three races of America—Indian, Negro, and Caucasian—contributed to his bloodlines: slaves, warriors, planters. His cultural heritage was a proud and lively one. His earliest memories were of his grandmother, a copper-skinned woman of strong Indian ancestry, sitting on the same platform with President Theodore Roosevelt at a public commemoration of the Harper's Ferry raid. She was the last surviving widow of John Brown's historic raid. Her husband, a free Negro, had been one of the first to die in the raid. Young Langston at an early age learned to prize freedom highly.

As a child of separated parents Hughes grew up in many different places in the heartland of America—Kansas, Illinois, Ohio, Missouri, Colorado—and began his globetrotting life with a visit to his father in Mexico where the elder Hughes had fled to escape Jim Crow.

After an interlude at Columbia University in the early 1920's Hughes signed on a freight steamer and saw Africa and Europe. In 1925 he worked for Dr. Carter G. Woodson, editor of Journal of Negro History, and in 1926 his first book of poetry, The Weary Blues, appeared. As a student at Lincoln University that year he won the Witter Bynner undergraduate poetry prize; he graduated from Lincoln in 1929.

As the depression reached its depth in the early 1930's he had to scratch for new means of earning his living, but he found the perfect way by making poetry pay: he organized a public reading tour of the South. Subsequent travels in the 1930's took him around the world in connection with a movie-making project which never made it to the screen. A Negro company had gone to Russia to film Porgy and Bess under the auspices of the Soviet government. Hughes went as a writer. When the Soviets delayed and delayed so that the movie was never made Hughes converted the opportunity into one to see as much as he could of Russia. When the Spanish Civil War broke out a few years later Hughes covered it for the Baltimore Afro-American. By the time the realities of World War II reached America, Hughes was in his forties and an established Harlem figure busily producing volumes and volumes of poetry, newspaper columns, anthologies, books for juveniles, novels, short stories, and plays.

As might be expected Hughes has written most frequently, though not exclusively, of Negro characters. Consequently the importance of the color line in America is frequently reflected in his work. The effect of the color line on the American Dream is therefore an integral part of his protest. In one of his biographies for young people, Famous Negro Music Makers (1961), Hughes quotes musician Bert Williams as saying: "It is not a disgrace to be a Negro, but it is very inconvenient." In viewing the string of "inconveniences" vitally affecting the dignity of black Americans Hughes voices his reactions to shriveled freedom, dwarfed equality, and shrunken opportunity—blemishes on the essential ingredients of the American Dream. His poetry and prose echo protest and, usually, hope.

Two poems especially reflect his theme of protest and hope. "Let America Be America Again," published in Esquire and in the International Worker Order pamphlet A New Song (1938), pleads for fulfilment of the Dream that never was. It speaks of the freedom and equality which America boasts, but never had. It looks forward to a day when "Liberty is crowned with no false patriotic wreath" and America is "that great strong land of love." Hughes, though, is not limiting his plea to the downtrodden Negro; he includes, as well, the poor white, the Indian, the immigrant—farmer, worker, "the people" share the Dream that has not been. The Dream still beckons. In "Freedom's Plow" he points out that "America is a dream" and the product of the seed of freedom is not only for all Americans but for all the world. The American Dream of brotherhood, freedom, and democracy must come to all peoples and all races of the world, he insists.

Almost invariably Hughes reflects hope, for that is part of his American Dream. However, some of his poems, apparently written in angry protest, are content to catch the emotion of sorrow in the face of hopelessness and gross injustice. One of his most biting is a verse in Jim Crow's Last Stand (1943). Aimed at southern lynch law which had just taken the lives of two fourteen-year-old Negro boys in Mississippi, and dedicated to their memory, the poem cried that "The Bitter River" has

     … strangled my dream:
     The book studied—but useless,
     Tools handled—but unused,
     Knowledge acquired but thrown away,
     Ambition battered and bruised.

In one of his children's poems, "As I Grow Older," the poet looks at the Dream again. He had almost forgotten his dream; then it reappeared to him. But a wall rose—a high, sky-high wall. A shadow: he was black. The wall and the shadow blotted out the dream, chasing the brightness away. But the poet's dark hands sustain him.

     My dark bands!
     Break through the wall!
     Find my dream!
     Help me to shatter this darkness,
     To smash this night,
     To break this shadow
     Into a thousand lights of sun,
     Into a thousand whirling dreams
     Of sun!

On a similar theme, one of the concluding poems in his child's book, The Dream Keeper (1932), treats of the Dream. In "I, Too," the "darker brother" of America eats in the kitchen when company calls. But tomorrow, he says, he'll eat at the table; nobody will dare tell him to eat in the kitchen then.

     Besides,
     They'll see how beautiful I am
     And be ashamed
     I, too, am America.

In Montage of a Dream Deferred (1951) Hughes might have been thinking of the wall which blackness had erected in the child's poem. Montage's background is Harlem. There is a wall about Harlem, and the American Dream, as a reality, exists outside Harlem. Harlem (and, one can just as well add, the world of the American Negro) is a walled-in reality where dreams are deferred. The faded Dream pierces black New Yorkers to their hearts. Things which "don't bug … white kids" bother Harlemites profoundly. White boys cling to the stimulating dream that any American may grow up to be President of the United States. The Negro boy knows better. He also knows that the liberty and justice of the Pledge to the Flag are inherent rights only of white folks. Even in Harlem, the capital of the North which Hughes once described in a novel as "mighty magnet of the colored race," the American Dream is frayed and ragged.

Probably the greatest portion of Hughes's poetry does not refer specifically to the American Dream, despite the habit of many critics' labeling him a protest writer primarily. But in Ask Your Mama: 12 Moods for Jazz (1961) he returns to the Dream, in jazz tempo with barbs appropriate for a dream too long deferred. With an impish introduction of the melody "Dixie" in the background, the poet combines dreams and nightmares to produce a mural of black power in the South; he dreams the Negroes have voted the Dixiecrats out of office. As a result Martin Luther King becomes governor of Georgia and high posts go to other Negro patriots. The remainder of the passage reflects the opposite of the southern power structure for the past hundred years or so. Negroes relax on the verandas of their mansions while their white sharecroppers sweat on the plantations. The reverse pattern of historical reality is carried out even to the extent of Negro children having white mammies, of which there are Mammy Faubus, Mammy Eastland, and Mammy Patterson. (And, if he had written later, Mammy Wallace, one thinks.) The patronizing air of the plantation white bourbon is reproduced as the poet notes that the "dear darling old white mammies" are sometimes even buried with the family!

But the grandiose dream sequence, itself reflecting how onesided the American Dream has been in the South, is short-lived. The poet returns to the pessimistic here and now. The Negro can't keep from losing, even when he's winning, he moans in blues tempo. Ask Your Mama relates to the vast spectrum of the American Dream, as it affects Negroes. There are the hardships of blockbusting, or integrating a white residential area, the bitterness of Negro artists, the stereotyped attitudes of whites toward Negroes, the hope of a better material world for ambitious Negroes, and the eternal suspicions cast upon any Negro who does anything worthwhile or, often, anything that is ordinary for white folks to do.

As effectively as Hughes's poetry presents the unfulfilled fraction of the American dreamers, the Simple stories of his prose elaborate the most telling criticism of racial discrimination. Social criticism and humor travel hand in hand as his character, Jesse B. Semple, depicts the America of discrimination in an intimate, personal manner. Although Simple, as his friends call him, lives in Harlem, the loquacious Negro comments pithily on prejudice he has experienced in the South and in the Army. Jim Crow is his personal devil.

One of the several features of American life that especially disturbs Simple is that Jim Crow gives little or no respite to the Negro. Even a foreigner just off the boat from Europe can Jim Crow the Negro who has been following the Dream for generations. "He starts on top of my head," moans Simple. Jim Crow is the despoiler of the American Dream, and Simple reserves his most stinging venom for the southern way.

In a piece, "Jim Crow's Funeral" from the book Simple Stakes a Claim (1957), one of three books filled with Simple stories, the Harlemite preaches Jim Crow to his reward. He summarizes his emotions:

It gives me great pleasure, Jim Crow, to close your funeral with these words—as the top is shut on your casket and the hearse pulls up outside the door—and Talmadge, Eastland, and Byrnes wipe their weeping eyes—and every coach on the Southern Railroad is draped in mourning—as the Confederate flag is at half-mast—and the D.A.R. has fainted—Jim Crow, you go to hell!

Jesse B. Semple is a bitter man much of the time. He has been segregated, underpaid, underhoused. When a Negro experiences injustice anywhere, North or South, Simple feels it too. In one selection Simple refers to Jim Crow and lynching of Negroes in the South. "But these are Christian white folks that does such things to me," he says. "At least, they call themselves Christians…. They got more churches down South than they got up North. They read more Bibles and sing more hymns." Another time Simple pleads for a game preserve for Negroes, where the government would protect them from lynching and beatings. "Colored folks rate as much protection as a buffalo, or a deer," Simple says somberly.

Eventually Simple discusses all aspects of the social system which frustrates completion of the American Dream. The white folks who say they love the Negro people do not really know how the Negro lives in America, he says. They haven't slept in colored hotels or eaten in colored restaurants, they haven't sent their children to a segregated Negro school, and they haven't used a Jim Crow toilet in a bus station. "White folks has got a theoretical knowledge of prejudice. I want them to have a real one," Simple says. "I know I am equal. What I want is to be treated equal." Therein he touches the heart of the failure of the American Dream to date: the transition from theory to practice has not been made. White folks, insists Simple, would not put up with Jim Crow if they had experienced the unique system themselves. They need to know what it means to Negroes.

Despite the many crosses the Negro has to bear, though, he is durable, Simple believes. In "Radioactive Red Caps" Simple discusses the atomic bomb and his expectation of living through a nuclear war. "If Negroes can survive white folks in Mississippi," he said, "we can survive anything."

Hughes's other prose—his novels and short stories, his juvenile histories and biographies, his two autobiographical books—is less laden with reflections on the American Dream deferred, though his personal accounts, The Big Sea (1940) and I Wonder as I Wander (1956) draw in some detail his encounters with Jim Crow and even with threats of violence as a result of his being on the darker side of the color line in the South. Of his plays, his earliest, "Mulatto" (1931), deals intimately with the Negro end of miscegenation on a southern plantation. The play concerns the consequences which follow relentlessly and brutally when a planter's mulatto son asserts himself as the Colonel's heir. The results are tragic; the Dream is squashed. Hughes's history of the NAACP, Fight for Freedom (1962), of course, is directly concerned with that organization's attempts to realize the American Dream for all Negroes.

Among his novels, Not Without Laughter (1930) indicates the effect of the American Dream on the boy Sandy, growing up in a small Midwestern town. The boy Sandy, as perhaps the boy Langston might have done years before, contemplates the color situation in America. "Being colored is like being born in the basement of life, with the door to the light locked and barred—and the white folks live upstairs," Sandy thinks. It was a white folks' world, Sandy was inclined to believe; it was one in which an unhappy run-in with a Southern white cost him his job in a hotel. An ambitious lad, Sandy wanted to be a railroad engineer when he grew up, but his aunt told him there were no colored engineers.

The characters in Not Without Laughter display divergent views toward white people. Tempy, Sandy's aunt, tries to emulate whites. His other aunt, Harriett, hates them. His grandmother retreats to religion, waiting for the other world to relieve her of the burden of this world's shattered Dream. Sandy's mother, Annjee, is long-suffering but hopeful. His father, Jimboy, echoes the anguish of being Negro in a white dominated world. One of Sandy's light friends, Buster, intends to realize the Dream by passing for white when he grows up and leaves town. Yet Sandy does not single out any one view of his relatives and seize it as his own. His view of the American Dream comes empirically, as he sees (as did Langston Hughes) that there is both good and bad emanating from the white society. Sandy's eyes are wide open, and busily recording.

The boy Sandy doubtless views the Dream as Hughes had. Sandy saw the evils behind the Dream's façade, but he also knew of the good there. In spite of his sorrows and hardships Sandy had hope, pride, and ambition. He had the will to fight on, to achieve his dream. Hope is implicit in most of Hughes's work. In one of his short stories from Laughing to Keep from Crying (1952), "One Friday Morning," in which a Negro girl has been deprived of an art prize because of race prejudice, her sympathetic Irish teacher urges the girl to keep faith. Speaking of the obstacles which the Irish had to overcome after they came to America and were discriminated against, the teacher says: "… we didn't give up, because we believed in the American dream, and in our power to make that dream come true." The theme is a recurring one with Hughes: the Negro's bed has been lined with injustices, but eventually the American Dream will triumph.

Throughout Hughes's life—and his literary expression—the American Dream has appeared as a ragged, uneven, splotched, and often unattainable goal which often became a nightmare, but there is always hope of the fulfilled dream even in the darkest moments. During World War II Hughes, commenting on the American Negroes' role in the war, recognized this. "… we know," he said in a 1943 speech reprinted in The Langston Hughes Reader (1958),

that America is a land of transition. And we know it is within our power to help in its further change toward a finer and better democracy than any citizen has known before. The American Negro believes in democracy. We want to make it real, complete, workable, not only for ourselves—the fifteen million dark ones—but for all Americans all over the land.

The American Dream is bruised and often made a travesty for Negroes and other underdogs, Hughes keeps saying, but the American Dream does exist. And the Dream must be fulfilled. In one of his verses he put it more plainly. He might have been speaking to his harshest political critics or to the white youths who beat him up on that long-ago summer day in Chicago.

      Listen, America
      I live here, too.
      I want freedom
      Just as you.

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This section contains 3,362 words
(approx. 12 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Essay by James Presley