Langston Hughes’s Success in Defending His Race
(A Term Paper)
Submitted to the Council of the College of Languages at Salahaddin University- Erbil
By: Evan Esmail Hamad
(MA. In English Literature, English Department)
Asst. Prof. Dr. Sherzad Shafi Barzani
MY EFFORT HAS BEEN to understand and explore how ideas of race have affected currents of thought in America. I have been more interested in what people thought about race than in what they did about it. On the other hand, since ideas of race have nearly always gone hand in hand with definite programs of action, I have also attempted to describe what was happening in race relations at the time the theorists were propagating their doctrines. This book is, then, both a history of race theory and a history of bigotry
There might be having a question in our mind about the beginning of the idea of race and slavery in America. But the answer will be clear if someone read something about history of Europe with the United State that influenced by science, government and culture. It is important to know that how the term race and slavery appeared and developed throughout the history.
By the 1600s, when England was superior power colonized most of other countries, composed the labor system in the colonies which named as white bond-servant, in order to give a harsh treatment of servants in the colonies. The Negro did not have right to work because they did not need them. As the term of service for white bond-servants was decreasing, the demand for labor was increasing. In these cases, the number of Negroes imported increased. So, the status of Negroes was finally recognized as different from that of other servants. In 1670s Virginia law declared that “all servants not being Christians” who were brought into the colony by sea were to be slaves for life. (Gossett, 1997)
The first writer who linked the race between biological and social hierarchy was Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) Jefferson who was a Virginia slave owner, was the first one who mentioned the idea of superiority of the whites and inferiority of the blacks. In his book Notes on the State of Virginia (1776) “…blacks, whether originally a distinct race, or made distinct by time and circumstances, are inferior to the whites in the endowments both of body and mind.” (Jefferson, 2006)
At the beginning of the nineteenth-century, with the progression of science and technology another theory appeared that against the idea of racism was the theory of Darwinism. Charles Darwin (1809-1882) in Origin of Species (1859) believed in monogeny which he claimed that the various forms of life on earth were one species there is not difference between humanity in general. (Abbott, 2004)
There are some writers who introduces African condition of life as slaves, and their works have being universally important and their aim was to defend the slaves who treated as a sub-human and even they influenced the political power and public opinion; such as John Newton’s (1725–1807) Amazing Grace (1772) he wrote the words from his personal experience he witnessed working on an English slave ship. Also, Harriet Beecher Stowe in 1852 wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin which was the famous novel that reveals a realistic picture of the slavery.
Another immigration of African American’s people was started at the beginning of the 20th century; they immigrated to the industrial cities in the north especially Chicago, Detroit, St. Louis, and Tulsa for working in the factories. They want to escape because of war and violence condition that happened in the South. They faced many difficulties especially during 1915 to 1920s. But the question is that is these difficulties made Langston Hughes as a racial writer to have a successful voice? Or is there something else made him to shine in Negro’s sky?
2- Racism in the United States of America
Racism can be defined after understanding of the term race. Biologically, race is a physical difference among human beings in skin color, the place where they live, and their behavior. But socially, it can be used to describe peoples who have the same national identities. So, racism is the systematic comparison between members of racial groups who have relatively little social power with members of the agent racial group who have relatively more social power.
The United States was that Promised Land which most of African’s wish to live in. But the dominant White culture as usual controlled African American minority population. They believed in this sentence; “If you’re White, you’re all right; if you’re Brown, stick around; if you’re Black, get back” . In America for centuries, Black people were slaves owned by White people. Degradation, violence, mistreatment and malnutrition, were features of Black people’s lives under slavery. (Trotter, 2004)
In the moment of the Great Depression black workers who lived in the industrial cities experienced increasing difficulties. Black urban unemployment was more than twice the rate of whites. In southern cities, white workers rallied around such slogans as, “No Jobs for Niggers Until Every White Man Has a Job” and “Niggers, back to the cotton fields—city jobs are for white folks.” In the cotton fields they treated as a slave and tortured by their masters as Solomon Northup in his novel 12 years a Slave talked about the condition of black people in the cotton fields.
3- Harlem Renaissance
The term ”Harlem Renaissance” refers to the Cultural movement of African-American that appeared between the World War I and the Great Depression which black writers and artists immigrated to the United States especially to the New York, Harlem was a section of New York that became the center of black people in America which they increased their cultural activities. Harlem Renaissance has sometimes been known as ‘New Negro Renaissance’ a term that includes all African Americans, regardless of their location, who participated in this Cultural Revolution. (Galens, 2002)
The Southern of America mostly had known as agricultural state in opposite to the North which had known as Industrial state. Between 1890 and 1920 the Great War collapsed the Southern agricultural economy, so the Africans immigrated to the north to work in the factories. But the problem was that the Northern citizens did not welcome them and even the owners of the factories were treated with them badly.
African American’s writers, musicians, actors, and artists, were glorify their traditions and make them famous and being accepted throughout the world. Such as, Clauded Mckey (1890-1948) who was the oldest of Harlem Renaissance was published his collection poems entitled Harlem Shadow (1922) mostly addresses the injustice toward the black people. Also, Jean Tommer (1894-1967) published his famous and unusual novel under the named Cane in 1923; the novel binds story, sketches, poems, one-act play and prose to show the idea that the blacks like the whites are more free to celebrate their heritage.
Another influential figure of the Harlem Renaissance was Zora Neale Hurston (1891-1960) that fought against poverty that usually associated with black people. She published the novel Their Eyes were Watching Gad (1937) that tells the story of a black woman struggling to assert her identity. James Langston Hughes (1902-1967) was another prominent figure who has an important role in defending his race. (Abbott, 1996)
Literature of the Harlem Renaissance embodied a wide variety of themes that one can see the lack of cohesion in the writer’s works. The race can be the first theme which they have dealt with, most of the poetries, novels and stories are about color and race discrimination. The second one is African heritage that viewed in the various ways, even some of them considered their heritage as a source of their inspiration, like Langston Hughes’ The Negro Speaks of Rivers (1921). The last theme is conflicting image of blacks, as writers issue in the Harlem Renaissance was portraying African-American life; they want to give a positive image of black people. ( Galens, 2002)
4- Langston Hughes as a racial poet
Langston Hughes was a black American poet, novelist, essayist, playwright, and short-story writer. He was known as a leading figure of the Harlem Renaissance. From educated family, his father was a lawyer and his mother was a teacher. Hughes became both famous and beloved during his life because of his humanistic view towards racism. He wanted to present black life in the best possible light to help improve the plight of African Americans. (Ousby, 2012)
Hughes’ poems mostly talks about the problem of racism. For example, in Fantasy in Purple the African drum of tragedy and death becomes a metaphor for humanism and survival. As I Grew Older blends reflection and nostalgia as the speaker, framed by light and shadow, seeks to rediscover his dream. In Mexican Market Woman, Hughes’s narrator uses simile to create a dark mood of weariness and pain. And through the persona in Troubled Woman, the narrator portrays humanity similarly bowed but unbroken. With blues irony, the voice modifies implicitly the pessimistic side of the spirituals nobody knows de trouble I seen into the more optimistic side I know trouble don’t last always. Also, Mother to Son, a dramatic monologue, shows how dialect can be used with dignity. (Tracy, 2004)
Thus, by using allusion, fantasy, travesty, and irony, in his poems Hughes depicts his ideas and dreams. He draws upon the rich themes of his entire career, such as humanism, free speech, nationalism, racism, integration, and poverty.
4-1 Langston Hughes’ success in defending his race
A- Racial (Heritage) pride: As a black writer Hughes was always proud about his race this shows from his poems because he believed in equality between all beings on earth. Also, he is proud of his ancestors who had been the source of his inspiration. For example in his poem The Negro Speaks of Rivers (1921) shows that his soul (black people’s soul) had “grown deep like the rivers”:
“I’ve known rivers: I’ve known rivers ancient as the world and older than the flow of human blood in human veins”
Through visual imagery the speaker wants to convey the meaning of ‘river’ as a symbol of life and civilizations. As if the speaker wants to tell other black people that we are just like rivers and we are the symbol of life and hope, to make them believe in their specialty. In July 1926, while he was eighteen, Hughes visited his father in Mexico. He was crossing the Mississippi River to St. Louis; and wrote this poem in which he addressed three famous and ancient rivers.
While he is crossing the Mississippi River, as he thinks about what this river crossing had meant to the thousands of enslaved Africans as they traveled to their new home in America to be sold and bred like a herd of cattle. His progression of thought about these travels then led him to think about the rivers of the past – his past – his African past. In the first volume of his autobiography, The Big Sea (1940), Hughes explains this stream of consciousness regarding his union with his ancient historical past: “Then I thought about other rivers in our past – the Congo, and the Niger and the Nile in Africa – and the thought came to me: ‘I’ve Known Rivers’…” (Howard, 2009)
The history of the river is a human history, and we can give the river a human voice to tell its story. “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” is an approval to the black man and it is a powerful declaration of the significance of the black people in the past. The poem implies that the black man’s heritage is derived from his long coexistence with nature and God. The river, the symbol of eternity, deep, ever flowing and mysterious, has transferred to the black man its immortality: “my soul has grown deep like the river”.
From the beginning he uses the image of the primitive tribe member who sleeps in his humble hut by the river Congo, perfectly contented in his unpretentious existence. At the next stage of his progress, the Negro is shown as the proud and capable constructor of one of the world’s wonders. Now he is not sleeping by the river. He is aware of what happening around him. He is placed above it, overlooking it to find a site for his masterpiece. “I looked upon the Nile/and raised the pyramids above it”. (Mork, 2005)
Then before the last stage of the poem, he goes back to the history when Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves in the Mississippi, about how the slaves were singing “I heard the singing of the Mississippi. The last line is the repetition of the phrase “My soul has grown deep like the river” turns it into a warning ‘remember my worth. I am as good as you are. Perhaps better’ so do not discriminate me after you heard and know where come I from.
B- Optimistic view toward the future of his race: His optimism toward their future made him to have a patriotic view about his country and he was really loves his country. In his poem I too, Sing America which is a part of his collected poems under the name The Weary Blues which published in (1926) the speaker is African American man without mentioning race or free man or slave he wants to give universality to his poem.
At the beginning of the poem the speaker reveals his sense of patriotic toward America by saying that “I too, Sing America”, although I am a darker brother that you (Americans) do not let me to eat with you from the same table, and I will not think about this in pessimistic way ” I laugh, And eat well, And grow strong” because I am sure that:
I’ll be at the table
When company comes.
Say to me,
“Eat in the kitchen,”
This part of the poem shows highly optimistic side of the speaker, because he uses tomorrow not in the future because tomorrow is nearer to him to join the others and eat with them. Also, he extends his optimistic view to the saying that instead of your hate about my being African American, you love me and know my beauty then feel ashamed about what you were thinking about my nationality.
C- Believing in Justice: “Justice” was first published in Amsterdam News in April 1923. At that time Langston Hughes worked as a mess boy aboard the Oronoke. Like most of his racial poems, “Justice” conveys a serious message. To picture justice as a goddess is nothing new, and she has often been accused of blindness. What makes this poem so visual, and thereby powerful, is the third line, imagining her eyes as “festering sores” behind her “bandage”. The vivid picture of a piece of cloth, soiled by the rotten liquid from 16 the sores, across the face of the noblest symbol of democracy, hits the reader hard. It indicates not only malfunctioning in society, it claims that the society is in decay. The poem is universal. There is only one word to classify it as a racial protest, the word “black” in the second line. Except for that single word the poem could have been written about any field of injustice, or any group of oppressed people, or any particular incident. However, it is, as we in our days recognize, the undisputable truth about the conditions of the black people in the U.S.A. at that time. There was no justice for African Americans in 1923, in any field of existence, in the nation whose creed it was that “all men are created equal”. They were discriminated in every possible way. They were, for instance, abused as persons even as they were celebrated as artists. They were the last to get a job and the first to loose it, and their chances of getting an education were strictly limited. This could hardly be called democracy, and “Justice” is one of Hughes’s first attacks on the lack of democratic practice in the U.S.A
The African American community continues to be marginalized due to a variety of sociocultural differences from the dominant White culture in multiple forms of racial discrimination. The writers and artists of the Harlem Renaissance aimed to depict their ideas about race and ask for their rights under the superior dominant of the Americans.
The aim of Langston Hughes was to impact on American history. He introduced some of the most experimental forms of African American views of the twentieth century. Despite the despondency of history, neither the pessimism of the cold war of t nor the mainstream backlash to the civil rights movement disillusioned him completely.
He discerned a disturbing cycle of inhumanity within history, but not without laughter. A man for all seasons, he was especially a voice of the mid-twentieth century. His was a measured declaration on behalf of a most optimistic future. Thus, his words outlived his own century. He read the vicissitudes of history, often revealing the implications of it to fellows who lived with him within it. His historical imagination was for all time.
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