Langston Hughes was a popular poet from the Harlem Renaissance

Langston Hughes was a popular poet from the Harlem Renaissance. His Jazz Age poems, including
'Harlem' and 'I, Too, Sing America,' discussed the racism facing African Americans in the 1920s and '30s.
Langston Hughes
The most famous poet from Harlem
was Langston Hughes. He wrote
during the 1920s and '30s, when there
was an explosion of African American
writers and poets writing and
publishing, called the Harlem
Renaissance. Hughes, like other poets
of the time, was concerned with
portraying the lives of members of the
black community. He wanted to
Hughes was a major literary figure of the Harlem Renaissance
highlight their concerns and the
challenges they faced in America at
that time, including racism. And Hughes also wanted to highlight the unique ways that the African
American experience was different from the experience of white Americans. At the time, jazz music was
very popular, especially within the African American community. Like his contemporaries, Hughes loved
jazz music. His poetry was influenced by some elements of jazz, including its rhythms and the way that
jazz music freed itself from traditional musical forms.
Let's look at two of Langston Hughes' most famous poems and examine what makes them special.
Perhaps the most famous poem by Langston Hughes is 'Harlem'. It is also sometimes called 'Dream
Deferred.' Let's read the poem and then analyze it.
What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a soreAnd then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar overlike a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?
Dreams are usually thought of as abstract things - ideas and concepts that don't have any real-world
importance. In fact, if you ask most people how important dreams are to basic survival, they'll answer,
'Not at all.' Everyone knows that you need food and clothing and shelter to survive, but dreams? Are
they really that important?
In 'Harlem,' Hughes is saying that dreams are a
necessary part of survival. He starts by asking a
question: 'What happens to a dream deferred?'
That is, when you put off (or defer) a dream,
what happens to it? Most people might say that a
'dream deferred' will just fade away, but Hughes
disagrees. He compares dreams to food, a basic
element of survival. He talks about what happens
when dreams are put off: They are like raisins,
dried and shrunken and not nearly as juicy as the
Music of the Jazz Age influenced Hughes
ripe grapes they came from. They are like rancid
meat. They crust over like syrup left out. And he
also compares them to physical ailments: an infected sore and someone sagging under a heavy load.
So basically, Hughes is saying that dreams are an important part of human survival, and when they are
ignored or put off, they rot and infect everything around them.
And then, the last line: 'or does it explode?' This idea swoops in at the end of the poem and jars the
reader with its vivid violence. We can imagine the fallout of a dream deferred like the result of a bomb
that's exploded, destroying everything around it. Though the poem's message is true of all people,
regardless of race, it's hard not to read this poem in the context of the Harlem Renaissance. At the time
when Hughes was writing, slavery had been over for 60 years, but blacks were still treated with horrible
inequality in their day-to-day lives. The dream of equality had been deferred, and the deeper message
of the poem is that leaving that dream deferred will have consequences not just for the dreamers but
for those denying the dream. In this context, Hughes is saying that the explosion of the deferred dream
of equality could hit the entire country, not just the African American community.
'I, Too, Sing America'
Another poem by Langston Hughes that explores the idea of the fragile relationship between the black
community and the rest of America is called 'I, Too, Sing America.'
'I, Too, Sing America'
I, too, sing America.
I am the darker brother.
They send me to eat in the kitchen
When company comes,
But I laugh,
And eat well,
And grow strong.
Tomorrow, I'll be at the table
When company comes.
Nobody'll dare
Say to me,
'Eat in the kitchen,'
They'll see how beautiful I am
And be ashamedI, too, am America.
In 'Harlem,' Langston Hughes talked about the effect the deferred dream of equality had on both African
Americans and America at large. In 'I, Too, Sing America,' he addresses the many faces of America. He
points out that though America was portrayed in art and literature as a mostly white country, there
were many faces of America. Even though he is black, he asserts his right to be called American too.
Again, Hughes discusses the dream of equality. Today, he says, he is sent to the kitchen when company
comes. That is, America denies him his place as a fully accepted member of society. But Hughes looks
forward to the day when he'll be able to eat at the table with white America and will be accepted and
even celebrated for being part of America.
Some people believe that the poem that
inspired this one was 'I Hear America
Singing,' by Walt Whitman, written just
before the beginning of the Civil War that
freed African American slaves. In that poem,
Whitman discusses the many different
people that make up America: mechanics,
carpenters, seamstresses, boatmen. He
describes all of them as singing, making up a
song together that is America. In this poem,
The poetry of Walt Whitman may have inspired Hughes
Hughes responds by saying that he is singing
America too; that is, he is a part of that
chorus from Whitman's poem, even if his skin is a different color. He reinforces this idea with the last
line when he changes the verb 'sing' to the verb 'am,' so that the last line reads 'I, too, am America.'
Lesson Summary
Langston Hughes was a famous poet of the Harlem Renaissance. He wrote about the fight for racial
equality in his poems 'Harlem' and 'I, Too, Sing America.' In 'Harlem,' he discusses the dream of equality
and implies that if it's not given, people of all races will end up paying the price. In 'I, Too, Sing America,'
he points out that, despite being treated badly, he is part of America, just like the white people who
received better treatment than him.