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African American Lives in the Twentieth Century
The lives of African Americans in the 1920s were still not completely equal to those of whites. Langston Hughes, an African American poet in the twentieth century, used his poetry to express his feelings and ideas of the inequality towards his race. He grew up in the primarily African American neighborhood of Harlem in New York City. During the 1920s, people of his neighborhood began a movement called the Harlem Renaissance to promote equality of the African American race. Hughes personally experienced being treated unfairly throughout all of his life. Many of his works are about finding inner strength as an African American despite the way people were treated in his time. Through writing, he was able to break through the typical boundaries and make a writing career for himself although he was an African American. Many African Americans were only able to make livings out of working in physical labor, so being a writer was a major accomplishment for Hughes. Even white people became interested in his writing despite the normal thoughts that black opinions were not important. Langston Hughes displays the experiences of African American lives in the twentieth century through his poems “I, Too,” “The Weary Blues,” and “The Negro Speaks of Rivers.”
In his poem “I, Too,” Langston Hughes focuses not only on the inequality toward African Americans but also the pride that African Americans feel for their people. He begins the first stanza with a response to Walt Whitman’s poem “I Hear America Singing,” which declares all of the joyous sound one might hear in America. Hughes wrote “I, Too” to bring awareness that African American people want to be a part of America, too (“I, Too” 99). Hughes felt that African Americans in his time were not given the same opportunities as whites to succeed. In his time, “those with dark skin are cast aside and kept from achieving the dream. Hughes reminds his readers that those people are equal to all others; they are brothers to the white majority” (“I, Too” 99). His second stanza refers to the speaker being sent to the kitchen and separated from whites at meals, schools, public transportation, and restaurants (“I, Too” 100). Despite being treated differently as other African Americans were in the twentieth century, Hughes stays happy. For example, the speaker says, “They send me to eat in the kitchen when company comes,// But I laugh,// And eat well,// and grow strong” (Hughes 929). He ends the stanza on a positive note showing that he believes segregation will be defeated by saying, “Tomorrow,// I’ll be at the table// When company comes” (Hughes 929). Instead of ending with a comma like the second stanza, he ends with a period because there are no exceptions. Hughes believes that “someday they will not live in segregation, isolated from the rest of human-kind. Someday, whenever that elusive ‘tomorrow’ occurs, black brothers will not be separated from their white brothers. They will all be at the same table, enjoying the abundance that all Americans experience. This is the promise of the American dream, which will someday be enjoyed by all people, black and white” (“I, Too” 100). Through his poem “I, Too,” Hughes displays confidence that things will change for his race.
“The Weary Blues” by Langston Hughes explains a night of Lennox Avenue, a main street for jazz music during the twenties. Lennox Avenue has many jazz clubs during the Harlem Renaissance where people of all colors go to express themselves. Hughes emphasizes the racial diversity on this street by writing, “I heard a negro play// Down on Lennox Avenue the other night” (Hughes). This poem resembles the calls in African American churches. It shows that the blues are a cry of despair. The blues come from the oppression that the African Americans have been living with for centuries (“The Weary Blues” 277). “The narrator contrasts the bluesman’s black skin with the white keys of the piano. The piano, of course, has black keys too, so this suggests a more fundamental identification between musician and music. The melancholy feeling that will soon pour forth in the bluesman’s song is already to be heard in his piano playing” (“The Weary Blues” 277). By saying, “With his ebony hands on each ivory key, he made that poor piano moan with melody,” Hughes gives the reader a sense of the sadness the piano player is feeling. The speaker is “determined not to let his loneliness get him down, but to get the better of his difficult circumstances. It seems as though he wants to turn from self-pity to self-reliance. Hughes’s characters are often representatives of the black race, and in this sense, the bluesman is facing up to the difficulties imposed on blacks in a segregated America” (“The Weary Blues” 278). The end of this poem is unclear about whether the man’s spirit has died and he is giving up, or he is resting to revitalize himself. “The poem transcends the limitations of race, as all people have used poetry as a means of getting through bad times” (Clark 4210). “The Weary Blues” shows that no matter what race, everyone copes with problems.
Hughes’s poem “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” describes the rivers that helped shape the lives of Africans over time. This poem personifies the African American race as a whole. African Americans have been dependent on these rivers for all of time. The “I” in the poem is the voice of their race (“The Negro Speaks of Rivers” 198). This poem has many complex levels. For example:
“The different sections of the poem emphasize this: the speaker actually functions of two levels. One is the human level. The first words of lives five through eight create a picture of the speaker’s ancestors: bathing, building, looking, hearing. However, the poem also discusses a spiritual level where the soul of the speaker has been and continues to be enriched by the spirit of the river, even before the creation of humanity” (“The Negro Speaks of Rivers” 199).
This rivers have enriched their lives on all levels. Being in Africa and seeing the rivers of his ancestors in real life made Hughes a better writer in that, “when Hughes wrote this poem in 1921, ideas and images of primitive, tribal cultures were very chic in American art and literature. After Hughes visited Africa in 1923, he no longer viewed Africa as a mythical, exotic land where black identity was rooted, but instead as a land ravaged by Western imperialism, a symbol of lost roots” (“The Negro Speaks of Rivers” 198). The speaker connects himself to the rivers and nature. The “dusky rivers” can refer to the dark skin of the people who grew up in them (“The Negro Speaks of Rivers” 199). He explains how long his ancestors have depended on the rivers by saying, “I’ve known rivers ancient as the world and older than the flow of human blood in human veins” (Hughes 926). Hughes also shows a positive change in his race and their hope for the future when he writes, “I heard the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln went down to New Orleans, and I’ve seen its muddy bosom turn all golden in the sunset” (Hughes 926). “The sun’s transformation of muddy water to gold provides an image of change. The change may represent the improved status of African Americans after the Civil War, hope for future changes, or the power of the poet to transform reality through imaginative language” (“The Negro Speaks of Rivers” 199). Through his poem “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” Hughes shows the hope that he has for his race through the change of the rivers.
Langston Hughes’s poems “I, Too,” “The Weary Blues,” and “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” accurately display the experiences of African American lives in the twentieth century. Not only does he demonstrate the feeling of inequality, but he also explains the feeling of hope for African Americans that one day they would rise above racism. In “I, Too,” he mentions wanting to be a part of America by being given the same opportunities to succeed as whites. In “The Weary Blues,” Hughes uses poetry and music as a way to deal with racism. The sad music that the bluesman plays is a reflection of the way racism made him feel. In “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” he personifies the rivers as African Americans because the rivers are where his ancestors are rooted. The mud in the rivers represents the dark skin of the people who have bathed in them. Just like the rivers are always changing, the hope of African Americans has changed much over time. Langston Hughes breaks the barrier between whites and blacks in the twentieth century by keeping hope in a bright future through his poems.
Clark, Norris B. “The Weary Blues.” Masterplots II: Poetry Series. Ed. Philip K. Jason. Vol. 8.
Pasadena: Salem Press, 2002. 4208-4211. Print.
Hughes, Langston. “I, Too.” Prentice Hall Literature: Penguin Edition. The American
Experience. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2007. 928-929. Print.
Hughes, Langston. “The Negro Speaks of Rivers.” Prentice Hall Literature: Penguin Edition.
The American Experience. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2007. 926-927. Print.
Hughes, Langston. “The Weary Blues.” Poetryfoundation.org. Poetry Foundation, 2017. Web. 14
“I, Too.” Poetry for Students. Ed. Sara Constantakis. Vol. 30. Detroit: Gale, 2009. 97-117. Gale
Virtual Reference Library. Web. 8 Oct. 2015.
“The Negro Speaks of Rivers.” Poetry for Students. Ed. Sara Constantakis. Vol. 10. Detroit:
Gale, 2000. 198-200. Print.
“The Weary Blues.” Poetry for Students. Ed. Sara Constantakis. Vol. 38. Detroit: Gale, 2011.