Poetry of Langston Hughes (1902-1967)

Langston Hughes is one of the great figures in C20th American history. Poet, playwright, novelist who stood on the side of the people, his writings during the 1930s and beyond are brilliant, passionate, fighting words.

He often wrote about everyday life for black Americans in Harlem, and he used the African-American dialect he heard around him. A form known as ‘jazz poetry’ emerged from this.

He was very much on the left, and strongly internationalist, but in 1953 denied before McCarthy’s sub-committee on subversion that he was a communist. He refused to dob people in, and stuck to good left-wing values: opposition to racism, support for democracy, and opposition to black nationalism within the civil rights struggle in the US in the 1960s.

Of course, the McCarthyite anti-communists had reason to regard him as a ‘Red’. He had visited the Soviet Union in 1932, wrote favourably about its industrial achievements and absence of the kind of racism he experienced in his homeland.

During this period of his writing, he wrote a poem called ‘Good morning, Revolution’:

GOOD MORNING, REVOLUTION

Good-morning, Revolution:

You’re the very best friend

I ever had.

We gonna pal around together from now on.

Listen, Revolution,

We’re buddies, see—

Together,

We can take everything:

Factories, arsenals, houses, ships

Railroads, forests, fields, orchards,

Bus lines, telegraphs, radios

(Jesus! Raise hell with radios!)

Steel mills, coal mines, oil wells, gas,

All the tools of production,

(Great day in the morning!)

Everything—

And turn ‘em over to the people who work.

Rule and run ‘em for us people who work.

_ _ _ _ _

Anyone needed inspiration about how a mass movement for justice can develop and grow – and win! – should read his 1962 history of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People, ‘Fight for Freedom’.

One of his last poems was called ‘Backlash Blues’ and was made into a song by Nina Simone:

THE BACKLASH BLUES

Mister Backlash, Mister Backlash,
Just who do you think I am?
You raise my taxes, freeze my wages,
Send my son to Vietnam.

You give me second class houses,
Second class schools.
Do you think that colored folks
Are just second class fools?

When I try to find a job
To earn a little cash,
All you got to offer
Is a white backlash.

But the world is big,
Big and bright and round–
And it’s full of folks like me who are
Black, Yellow, Beige, and Brown.

Mister Backlash, Mister Backlash,
What do you think I got to lose?
I’m gonna leave you, Mister Backlash,
Singing your mean old backlash blues.

You’re the one
Will have the blues.
not me–
Wait and see!

_ _ _ _ _

After World War Two, he could see how the expectations for equal opportunity and an end to racial discrimination on the part of African-Americans could lead to violence if progress was not made quickly.

‘A dream deferred’ is one of my favourites, and I have attempted to recite it:

Hughes is a popular cultural figure in the US today. He is ‘claimed’ by many disparate groups – including the US Postal Service! – but many have reinvented him as a ‘social justice activist’ rather than celebrate him as a one-time socialist revolutionary.

What would he think of America today? He would be enthralled by the progress since the 1960s but would still be there, in the front lines of the struggle for equal opportunity. He would have no time for victimology – he hated the victimizers but in his writings asserted the need for blacks never to succumb to thinking of themselves as victims. He would have no time for the black nationalists, too, and would still see the importance of the need expressed in his ‘Letter to the South’:

White worker,
Here is my hand.

Today,
We’re Man to Man.

21 thoughts on “Poetry of Langston Hughes (1902-1967)

  1. ‘What would he think of America today?’

    Surprised at the technological revolution and that more African Americans are are marginally better off.

    A jazz poet of renown.

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  2. ‘The United States has prided itself on freedom of expression (or freedom of the press), but several signs show that the American administration and the corporate-owned US media have compromised this freedom.

    ‘One such indication is the growing public distrust in the US media. About 60 percent of the respondents to a Gallup poll on Americans’ trust in the media to report “the news fully, accurately and fairly” in September said they either did “not (have) very much” trust or no trust “at all” in the media.

    ‘Most of the mainstream US media outlets, which are now controlled by big corporations, have been criticized for not reporting news events such as the Occupy Wall Street movement across major US cities three years ago, largely because it was directed against Wall Street and corporate America.’

    China Daily

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    • agree with the comments about media ownership however the occupy movement was actually well covered in the USA, even beyond it’s use by date. Not sure why that was but it was impossible to ignore it however the response from media and government was definitely one of trying to passify rather than crush. It appears they may have been not coping economically and were very much in fear of a collapse and afraid of the consequences if it got out of hand. Not sure what their response will be to the next crisis. The China Daily wouldn’t understand this as they are just a propaganda unit of the Chinese government which takes the Tienanmen square approach to these matters

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      • Xi handled the recent HK protest a lot differently than his predecessors of the Tienanmen Square days.

        China Daily maybe the mouthpiece but its not propaganda, unlike Australia’s ABC which is patently acting outside its charter.

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  3. China Daily is purely propaganda and because that is its charter doesn’t make it any better.

    Xi’s predecessors never had any problems with Hong Kong as it is autonomous and run by it’s own government. The protests are wanting more democracy and more freedom from beijing. How Hong Kong is treated is different to how the mainland is treated and has been ever since Hong Kong reverted back to chinese rule. The example you should have used is Wukan which many held high hopes for however it was an exception and now is the same as everywhere else in china protests and riots are crushed by the armed thugs police or army or all of them working together.

    China is not a role model for any country. It is a fascist dictatorship!!!! Xi is in the process of purging anyone who might oppose him and has taken control of the army and increased the secret police to go into the country to weed out any trouble makers, thousands have been imprisoned or missing. Strange time to be trying to put a positive spin on china or Xi

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      • the uprising in Wukan is worth a look as it was before the purges and definitely seemed a change in direction however it seems to have been a localised and one off event and events since show this to be the case. However Wukan is a rallying and reference point for those communities trying to get some justice in China

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  4. And ultimately they should get justice now that Xi is in charge.

    ‘There’s also the very real chance that when Xi is celebrating Confucius, he is speaking from his heart, not his political head—that this is the real Xi, committed to both the classics and the Marxist establishment at the same time, and looking for a way to combine the two into a new political program for the nation.’

    R L Moses
    WSJ

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  5. this was not reported in china daily even though it went on for many months and was reported in most western media outlets. China daily as a propaganda machine does not report any incidents that might embarrass the government.

    The settlement was reached before Xi became leader and hence the thought that this might set a new political solution to the riots and protests of which there are inxcess of 90,000 a year. Wang Yang who engineered the peaceful settlement was considered a strong chance to join the politburo given his success. Xi took over and the advances in Wukan were quickly reversed and riots and protests wanting the justice that wukan sought were crushed. Xi set up a bigger and stronger secret police and instead of fighting corruption which was the cause of the Wukan uprising he used his anti corruption campaign to get rid of his enemies and crush dissent.

    There chances of justice were slim however they did succeeed but it was always seen as an exception not a new direction. Xi has made sure there won’t be any exceptions so there chance of justice is zero under Xi.

    I am sure Xi likes Confucius. Mao Had a campaign against Confucius. The chinese education system is based on Confucius and that is why it so bad. There is nothing inconsistent with a fascist liking confucius

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  6. the repression wasn’t subtle it was the people of Wukan who wouldn’t accept the repression and forced the concessions however it was either going to be a change in direction for dealing with these issues or just a matter of pacifying them until it went out of spotlight of the international media. The latter unfortunately was the case and China under Xi is exactly what analysts in the west feared a more repressive regime.

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    • That link failed to come up for me.

      What I said about subtle repression was meant in the aftermath of the initial uprising and you summed it up perfectly, it was ‘just a matter of pacifying them until it went out of spotlight of the international media.’

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  7. China has slipped in global corruption table since Xi took office
    http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/australasia/global-corruption-index-australia-drops-out-of-top-10-countries-and-uk-not-good-enough-9900971.html

    The anti corruption campaign is obviously a purge. It is not surprising then that corruption has increased as their is always a cost to promoting “your” corrupt officials and I expect corruption to keep increasing. As corruption is one of the main points of discontent in China this could be a catalyst for change. Leaders can use anti corruption to get rid of opponents when the economy is expanding and people can afford the cost however as the economy slows then an increase in corruption is not affordable.

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    • Yes, my perception of China has been altered.

      ‘A spokesman for Transparency International, Thomas Coombes, said that China’s standing was damaged by the perception among some experts and businesspeople that its anticorruption campaign was partial, opaque and politically motivated, casting doubt on its efficacy.

      “The campaign is just the tip of the iceberg, and is not even being done in a transparent manner,” Mr. Coombes said.

      Sinosphere

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  8. One can gauge the freedom in any society today by the amount of transparency. There is currently a fight globally over transparency by governments in order to increase revenue and avoid another financial crisis. Companies and rich people are desperate to fight this move

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  9. Transparency is incredibly important, on every level of society, its the only way to root out corrupt practice. Here we see China’s duplicity come unstuck, refuses to answer questions.

    8 Dec: South China Morning Post: Bloomberg in Lima: China rejects US-sought carbon pledge review at UN climate talks

    ‘Negotiators seek to remove draft provisions for targets to be subject to other countries’ scrutiny
    China has rejected the scrutiny of efforts to limit carbon emissions, a key tool that the US says is necessary as more than 190 countries work to come up with a new deal to fight climate change.

    ‘Chinese negotiators sought at a climate conference in Lima, Peru, to delete provisions in a draft text that would have paved the way for other countries and non-governmental organisations to submit questions about its carbon-reduction plans, according to environmental groups that are official observers to the talks…’

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  10. Pingback: Unit 2: Langston Hughes and race | Criticize Everything

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