Langston Hughes (1902-1967)

    Contributing Editor: Charles H. Nichols

    Classroom Issues and Strategies

    The primary problems encountered in teaching Langston Hughes grow out of his air of improvisation and familiarity. Vital to an understanding of Hughes's poetry and prose is the idiom, the quality of black colloquial speech and the rhythms of jazz and the blues.

    The best strategies for teaching the writer involve the reading aloud of the poetry and prose, the use of recordings and films, the use of the history of the "New Negro" and the Harlem Renaissance.

    Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues

    The major themes in Langston Hughes's work grow out of his personal life, his travels, his involvement in radical and protest movements, his interest in Africa and South America as well as the Caribbean.

    Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions

    In regard to questions of form, style, or artistic convention, the following considerations are relevant to Langston Hughes:

    1. His debt to Walt Whitman, Carl Sandburg, and Paul Laurence Dunbar.

    2. His enthusiasm for the language and songs of the rural folk and lower-class urban, "street" Negro. As Bontemps once wrote, "No one loved Negroes as Langston Hughes did."

    3. His capacity for improvisation and original rhythms. His use of jazz, blues, be-bop, gospel, Harlem slang.

    The poetry: Point out the occasion that inspired the poem "The Negro Speaks of Rivers" (cf. The Big Sea, pp. 54-56). "The Weary Blues," "Drum," and "Freedom Train" use the idioms of black speech with poetic effect.

    Prose: Among Hughes's finest achievements are the Simple stories. Here we have the speech and idiom presented with irony, malapropisms, and humor.

    Original Audience

    Hughes's audience consisted of his literary friends (Countee Cullen, Carl Van Vechten, Wallace Thurman, etc.) as well as the general public.

    Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections

    Comparisons or contrasts might be made with Carl Sandburg, Walt Whitman, Claude McKay. The bases of such comparisons might be the language and metaphor, the degree of militancy, etc.


    Berry, Faith. "Saunders Redding as Literary Critic of Langston Hughes." The Langston Hughes Review V, no. 2 (Fall 1986).

    Emanuel, James A. and Theodore L. Gross. Dark Symphony: Negro Literature in America. New York: The Free Press, 1968. 191-221, 447-80.

    Henderson, Stephen. Understanding the New Black Poetry: Black Speech and Black Music as Poetic References. New York: Wm. Morrow & Co., 1973.

    Hughes, L. "Ten Ways to Use Poetry in Teaching." College Language Association Bulletin, 1951.

    --. The First Book of Rhythms (1954).

    Miller, R. Baxter, ed. Black American Poets Between Worlds, 1940-1960. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1986.

    --. The Art and Imagination of Langston Hughes. Knoxville: University of Kentucky Press, 1988.

    O'Daniel, Therman B. Langston Hughes, Black Genius: A Critical Evaluation. For the College Language Association. New York: Wm. Morrow & Co., 1971, 65 ff. p 171. p. 180.