Langston Hughes and the Harlem Renaissance
Perhaps one of the most exciting moments in US history, the Harlem Renaissance was an explosion of art, literature, and performance in New York’s Harlem burgh. One of its foremost participants, Langston Hughes, produced some of the greatest poetry of his generation – words which challenged dominant racial stereotypes whilst celebrating Black identities in a time when they were often suppressed. In this podcast, Dr. Darren R. Reid examines the role of Hughes and his first published work, “The Negro Dreams of Rivers”.
The Artist in American History
Season 4: Race and Resistance
“Langston Hughes and the Harlem Renaissance”
Hello and welcome to this new season of The Artist in American History, the series that looks at American history through the lens of pop culture artists, illustrators, writers, and filmmakers. I’m Dr. Darren R. Reid and I want to introduce you to this new season that I’m calling “Race and Resistance”, an exploration of how Black Americans have used art and artistry throughout history to stand-up to (and challenge) racial inequality.
I think it can be really easy, when we think about resistance, to get caught up in big events – rebellions, protests, riots – the big speeches by the big names in the civil rights movement – but in a very real way, the most important types of resistance against embedded power structures (such as racial hierarchies), is the type that occurs on an everyday basis; the type we might not even recognise as resistance at first. The deliberate slowing down of work on a plantation, playing up to certain stereotypes in a very clever way to protect themselves, and carving out a unique cultural and social spaces that could not be touched by one’s masters – that is the type of resistance which came to matter most on a day-to-day basis.
Right the way back to the slave era, the most important acts of resistance carried out by the Black community, I would argue, were those which so often slipped under the radar; those which allowed masters and other beneficiaries of the time’s racial structure, to believe that they were in control, even as the Black community was working around the strictures and limitations being imposed upon it. Resistance isn’t always evident – and sometimes it isn’t particularly effective, but in a multitude of ways it was always there, the sometimes hidden empowerment of the most repressed members of society.
For today’s episode let’s fast forward to the early twentieth century, the era of Jim Crow in which violence, real and implied, alongside laws and custom, were being used to supress the Black community across much of the country. It is in that context Langston Hughes, emerged as part of a cultural movement that was happening across many American cities but was particularly concentrated in the New York burgh of Harlem. Despite being free from the worst types of racism which existed in the Southern States, Hughes and his peers nonetheless recognised that to be Black in the first half of the twentieth century meant facing a milieu of distinct challenges, whether one lived north or south of the Mason-Dixon Line.
Responding to the realities of their lived experiences, Hughes and his peers produced a remarkable body of artistic works which interrogated the idea of Blackness within the larger American culture. Known as the Harlem Renaissance, this movement produced music, plays, literature, and, of course, poetry throughout the 1920s. It was an intellectual movement which challenged people to think about the cultures to which they belonged, particularly the roles played by race, gender, sexuality, and the other types of identity which defined their sense of individual and collective self. Even to this day, much of the work created during this period continues to resonate with ideas and truths which are still able to challenge and enlighten.
In this episode I want to offer a window into this fascinating period by looking at one of Langston Hughes’ earliest poems, “The Negro Dreams of Rivers”. Short and brilliant, it is a beautiful piece that serves as a wonderfully provocative introduction to the renaissance, highlighting the movement’s focus upon identity politics and its celebration of uniquely African American perspectives, which are at least equal to the dominant, which is to say white, literary trends of the time. So let’s get started with some context.
Born on February 1st, 1902, Hughes was a part of the post-Reconstruction generation which struggled under the Jim Crow laws which dominated the lives of many Black Americans in the first half of the twentieth century. Born in Joplin, Missouri, Hughes, like many of his peers, was descended of both Black slaves and white slave owners, a family history that hints at the ways in which Black slave women were misused or abused by their masters. Despite having white ancestry, Hughes, like many if not most people with such complex ancestry, was identified chiefly by his non-white heritage. He may have had white ancestors, but to the increasingly binary white American sense of race in the early 20th century, he was simply Black.
Following the separation of his parents when he was a child, Hughes spent much of his childhood being raised by his maternal grandmother as his own mother travelled looking for work. Writing much later, Hughes described his unhappiness during this time – at least until he discovered literature and the joy that it gave to him. As he put it in 1940, “I began to believe in nothing but books and the wonderful world of books”. By reading widely, Hughes exposed himself to new forms of language quite unlike that with which he was familiar in Kansas – the seed of Hughes’s own literary career seems to have almost certainly been planted in his childhood.
Later, Hughes would move to Illinois then on to Ohio before briefly moving to Mexico in 1919 to be with his father, with whom he had a notably poor relationship. Unlike his son, Hughes’s father had little time for, or interest in, his fellow African Americans, an attitude which seems to have had a large impact on the pro-Black Langston. By 1921, Hughes was attending Columbia University where he studied engineering, though it was writing which was his true passion. Even by the time he was a teenager, Hughes was an accomplished poet and his exposure to the vibrant burgh of Harlem only served to further stoke his interest in not only the writing of poetry, but the experiences of the Black community.
Over the next few years Hughes spent time in Europe, most notably Paris, where he continued to refine his artistry, before returning to the United States where he was discovered as a new and vibrant Black poet whose work spoke not only to the heart but to the racial structure of that country. Harlem became his home and, for the rest of his life, Hughes would craft an exceptional body of work which spoke, among other things, to the realities of that complex intersection of race and national identity.
Hughes’s publishing career began in 1921 with the publication of “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” in The Crisis, the official publication of the Civil Rights organisation, the NAACP. Other notable achievements in his writing include 1923’s “My People”, 1930’s Not Without Laughter, and 1945’s “I, Too, Sing America”.
Hughes’s life cut across the Jim Crow era, from the turn of the century through to the emergence of the Civil Rights Movement as a mainstream force. On May 22nd, 1967, two and three years after the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights act respectively were passed into law, Hughes passed away , the victim of complications related to prostate cancer. He was 65 years old.
Over the course of his life, Hughes produced an amazing body of work but perhaps the best place to start with Hughes really is at the beginning. Although it was first published in 1921, Hughes’s poem “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” was written in 1919, back when Langston was just 17 years old. Powerful and evocative, the poem, though I’m sure this wasn’t intentional, served as a thesis or a frame for much of Hughes’s later career: a celebration of Black America’s African heritage and a reflection upon the specific ideas and concepts which help to inform their identity.
It is a poem which speaks directly to the idea of race and, specifically, identity and pride. To really appreciate this poem, you need to understand that one did not necessarily take pride in their race or ethnicity throughout much of Hughes’s lifetime. Identities were not necessarily constructed around the celebration of one’s racial heritage. Indeed, Hughes’s own father had little time for his fellow Black Americans – a perspective which adds an extra intra-familial dimension to the themes explored in this poem.
For many, being Black was a problem – one’s African roots were often hidden or ignored, a symptom of the way in which white Anglo-Saxon Protestantism had effectively become the default at this time; the perceived ‘normal’ in society. So rather than explore or celebrate those parts of one’s identity which took them away from the white protestant norm, many Black Americans instead ignored them. Going further, it was not uncommon for Black Americans to play down anything which seemed to recognise or celebrate their minority status. White was the celebrated and accepted face of normalcy, so identifiably white patterns of dress, behaviour, and thought became aspirational – this is the cultural environment against which Hughes was reacting.
Skin whitening products were common for women, as were hairstyles and treatments which conformed to white standards. This meant the straightening of hair and the adoption of fashions which proclaimed one’s place within, rather than resistance to, the societal norms of the time. As of 1921, hair styles such as the afro, an implied celebration of one’s ethnicity, were a long way off.
As of the 1920s, having African roots was, for many Black Americans, nothing to be proud of – but for some, like Hughes, particularly in places like Harlem, the intersection of one’s identity as an American and their race was something to be explored, reflected upon and, ultimately, celebrated. “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” was an early, and wonderful, attempt at just such a reflection.
Here’s how it goes:
I’ve known rivers:
I’ve known rivers ancient as the world and older than the
flow of human blood in human veins.
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.
I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it.
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.
I’ve known rivers:
Ancient, dusky rivers.
My soul has grown deep like the rivers.
OK, so let’s take a moment to go through this in a bit more detail. The poem starts by talking about rivers in a way that makes you think about their very nature – “rivers ancient as the world and older than the flow of human blood in human veins”. These rivers, and those which are connected to them are, in other words, ancient and honoured by time. They are steeped in tradition and history, older even than the entire human species; and they are exclusive – the narrator of the piece knows these rivers but, perhaps, others might not. In other words, the narrator has a relationship with something that you, the listener, or other implied peoples, might not even be aware of.
At the same time, the narrator is speaking of his own relationship to these rivers, of that exclusivity. The narrator recognises the universality of the broader human experience – “older than human blood in human veins” – not “older than white mens’ blood or Black mens’ blood”, but “human blood”. And he doubles down on the language, repeating the word human to drive home this recognition of the universal, something which transcends race and, therefore, racism. So what the narrator is saying is that there is a universal human experience, an equality between all; and there are exclusive racial experiences; not ones which are necessarily better or worse than any others, just distinct. The narrator’s experiences are thus rooted in the ancient; the pre-American experience. Africa is implied – and it is celebrated. Three lines into this poem and Hughes is already standing up to some of the core assumptions which defined how people thought about race at this time.
And just think for a moment about these symbolic rivers – their hidden depths, the secrets that they keep. As symbols they speak of change, a direction through time and space and, of course, depth – depth which the narrator immediately then links to the capacity of his own soul; “My soul has grown deep like the rivers”. The narrator is telling us that they are not some shallow, easily understood or quantified entity. They are thus rejecting outright the core ideas that helped to justify the racial inequality of the time; the idea that African Americans were simple or easily understood is rejected wholesale by the narrator’s use of symbolic rivers – these are not shallow burns or streams, but great, deep torrents containing secrets unknown to those unfamiliar with them.
And then the narrator goes on! “I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young”, revealing himself not to be an individual but the spokesperson for an entire race, one that had a history of its own dating back millennia before the past was ever written down, interpreted, or understood. “I built my hut near the Congo”, he says, and “I looked down on the Nile”. The great rivers of Africa reveal the nature of that race, with the Nile in particular serving to embed the narrator and his people into the very root of civilisation itself. Again, think about this imagery and that idea in the context of the time, when African Americans were so commonly depicted as simple, brutish, and savage by a dominant racist popular culture. Destroying such toxic ideas is no easy task – indeed, they continue to dog modern American society to varying degrees, but here is an attempt to do just that; how easy it is to forget that Cleopatra, who was played by the very white Elizabeth Taylor in the famous 1963 film, was fundamentally an African queen.
Hughes was thus creating a counter narrative which problematised some of the core beliefs that were held by white Americans about their Black peers; and he went on: “I heard the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln went down to New Orleans”, drawing a straight line from the Nile to the Mississippi, that great river down which oh so many slaves were forced to travel on their way from one slave market to another – and thus the ghost of Lincoln becomes enmeshed not merely in a great American story, but in a much greater narrative which, when viewed from a Black perspective, spanned oceans and centuries, linking the Congo to the Mississippi in one great, sweeping historic arc.
And think for a moment about how all of this taken together speaks out against the very ideas that allowed the American racial hierarchy to continue to exist. Think about how Hughes, in just a handful of expertly crafted lines, offers an alternative way to interpret the past and (what was then) the present, whilst simultaneously implying the need to reassess the world from a Black perspective.
That might not sound like much today – and it’s certainly a much subtler version of resistance than, for example, the large scale protests and civil disobedience of the Civil Rights Movement, but in a time of significant racial oppression, particularly in the Southern States, this was a direct attack upon the very intellectual heart of Jim Crow. Hughes was using his words, intellect and, ultimately his artistry to stand up to the racial hierarchy of the era – he was, to paraphrase a much later Civil Rights activist, Bayard Rustin, “speaking truth to power”. And in a context where the supressed were so often de-powered, speaking truths which problematise, and thus challenge and subvert, the assumed authority of those at the top of a hierarchy, is perhaps one of the most important and vibrant forms of resistance there is.
Langston Hughes was only one part of the Harlem Renaissance, but this poem is a good example which highlights the ways in which Black intellectuals were thinking and deconstructing the hypocrisy and inherent flaws of a system built upon the fiction of white supremacy and minority inferiority. By writing with intelligence, skill, and a disregard for the conventions of mainstream white poetry, Hughes was able to demonstrate the fatal flaws that sat at the heart of Jim Crow’s bitter and twisted logic. He was part of a movement which celebrated Blackness, empowering the depowered not through protest but new ways of thinking and understanding their sense of self and their sense community.
Thanks for listening this episode of The Artist in American History. For more lectures and articles please be sure and visit my website at www.darrenreidhistory.co.uk – and you can follow me on Twitter @ThatHistorian.
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