SOURCE: "The American Dream of Langston Hughes," in Southwest Review, Vol. 48, No. 4, Autumn, 1963, pp. 380-86.
[In the following essay, Presley looks at the theme of the American dream in Hughes's poetry, drama, prose, and nonfiction.]
One summer in Chicago when he was a teen-ager Langston Hughes felt the American Dream explode in his face; a gang of white youths beat him up so badly that he went home with blacked eyes and a swollen jaw.
He had been punished for cutting through a white neighborhood in the South Side on his way home from work. That night as he tended his injuries young Hughes must have mused disturbed thoughts about fulfilment of his American dream of freedom, justice, and opportunity for all.
A few years after that traumatic Chicago afternoon Hughes inaugurated a prolific and versatile writing career. Over the four decades separating then and now, his reaction to the American Dream has been one of his most frequently recurring themes. For many years Hughes, often hailed as "the poet laureate of the Negro people," has been recognized by white critics as an author-poet of the protest genre. Others, more conservative and denunciatory, have assailed Hughes as radical and leftist, to mention the more polite language. In both instances the critics referred to Hughes's treatment of imperfections in the American Dream that we, as a nation, hold so dear.
The American Dream may have come dramatically true for many, Hughes says, but for the Negro (and other assorted poor people) the American Dream is merely that—a dream. If the critics and would-be censors had read further they would have noted that for Hughes the American Dream has even greater meaning: it is the raison d'être of this nation. Nevertheless, Hughes was still a regular target for right-wing barbs as recently as the 1960's, having been anathema to the right wing for decades.
Long before the Chicago summer during World War I Hughes had experienced the plight of the Negro in America. Although he was not born in the South where conditions probably were worse, the boy Langston had faced the practical prejudices of the Middle West and the North. In Topeka, Kansas, he was to have been dispatched across town to a Jim Crow school, but his determined mother complained so vigorously to the school board that Hughes was enrolled, the only Negro pupil, in the elementary school nearest his home. And there the American Dream of equal treatment for everyone shone through almost perfectly. But a shadow fell: while most of the teachers were kind to him, one kept referring to his color in the classroom. On occasions when the teacher had singled him out for his brownness, several of his classmates would climax the day by throwing stones or epithets at him. There was a great stain on the American Dream.
All was not stain, though. While one teacher exercised her prejudices and some classmates poked fun and more tangible objects at him, other classmates championed his cause. Consequently the youth Langston was never completely alienated, and despite his poverty and darkness in a sea of white he was to know that there were others who believed in equality and justice for him too. Later on, in integrated Cleveland, Ohio, he was named poet of his high school class. Ever since those moments out of a sensitive childhood the future poet has maintained his faith in the American Dream, while confirming his enmity to the stifling and transmogrification of it. In pursuing the Dream, Hughes has followed a course very similar to that of the American Negro in general: the Dream is fine—if realized.
Langston Hughes was born February 1, 1902, at Joplin, Missouri. The three races of America—Indian, Negro, and Caucasian—contributed to his bloodlines: slaves, warriors, planters. His cultural heritage was a proud and lively one. His earliest memories were of his grandmother, a copper-skinned woman of strong Indian ancestry, sitting on the same platform with President Theodore Roosevelt at a public commemoration of the Harper's Ferry raid. She was the last surviving widow of John Brown's historic raid. Her husband, a free Negro, had been one of the first to die in the raid. Young Langston at an early age learned to prize freedom highly.
As a child of separated parents Hughes grew up in many different places in the heartland of America—Kansas, Illinois, Ohio, Missouri, Colorado—and began his globetrotting life with a visit to his father in Mexico where the elder Hughes had fled to escape Jim Crow.
After an interlude at Columbia University in the early 1920's Hughes signed on a freight steamer and saw Africa and Europe. In 1925 he worked for Dr. Carter G. Woodson, editor of Journal of Negro History, and in 1926 his first book of poetry, The Weary Blues, appeared. As a student at Lincoln University that year he won the Witter Bynner undergraduate poetry prize; he graduated from Lincoln in 1929.
As the depression reached its depth in the early 1930's he had to scratch for new means of earning his living, but he found the perfect way by making poetry pay: he organized a public reading tour of the South. Subsequent travels in the 1930's took him around the world in connection with a movie-making project which never made it to the screen. A Negro company had gone to Russia to film Porgy and Bess under the auspices of the Soviet government. Hughes went as a writer. When the Soviets delayed and delayed so that the movie was never made Hughes converted the opportunity into one to see as much as he could of Russia. When the Spanish Civil War broke out a few years later Hughes covered it for the Baltimore Afro-American. By the time the realities of World War II reached America, Hughes was in his forties and an established Harlem figure busily producing volumes and volumes of poetry, newspaper columns, anthologies, books for juveniles, novels, short stories, and plays.
As might be expected Hughes has written most frequently, though not exclusively, of Negro characters. Consequently the importance of the color line in America is frequently reflected in his work. The effect of the color line on the American Dream is therefore an integral part of his protest. In one of his biographies for young people, Famous Negro Music Makers (1961), Hughes quotes musician Bert Williams as saying: "It is not a disgrace to be a Negro, but it is very inconvenient." In viewing the string of "inconveniences" vitally affecting the dignity of black Americans Hughes voices his reactions to shriveled freedom, dwarfed equality, and shrunken opportunity—blemishes on the essential ingredients of the American Dream. His poetry and prose echo protest and, usually, hope.
Two poems especially reflect his theme of protest and hope. "Let America Be America Again," published in Esquire and in the International Worker Order pamphlet A New Song (1938), pleads for fulfilment of the Dream that never was. It speaks of the freedom and equality which America boasts, but never had. It looks forward to a day when "Liberty is crowned with no false patriotic wreath" and America is "that great strong land of love." Hughes, though, is not limiting his plea to the downtrodden Negro; he includes, as well, the poor white, the Indian, the immigrant—farmer, worker, "the people" share the Dream that has not been. The Dream still beckons. In "Freedom's Plow" he points out that "America is a dream" and the product of the seed of freedom is not only for all Americans but for all the world. The American Dream of brotherhood, freedom, and democracy must come to all peoples and all races of the world, he insists.
Almost invariably Hughes reflects hope, for that is part of his American Dream. However, some of his poems, apparently written in angry protest, are content to catch the emotion of sorrow in the face of hopelessness and gross injustice. One of his most biting is a verse in Jim Crow's Last Stand (1943). Aimed at southern lynch law which had just taken the lives of two fourteen-year-old Negro boys in Mississippi, and dedicated to their memory, the poem cried that "The Bitter River" has
I. Introduction A. Langston Hughes’ poems "I, Too", "Harlem", and "Mother to Son" criticize discrimination against African Americans. All of these poems have a common theme that depicts African Americans struggle for equality. The characters portrayed in his poems have experienced many trials throughout their life’s simply because of the color of their skin. B. I will show you the connection that these three poems have with each other and the hopes to end discrimination towards African Americans. These characters through their hardships, learn to keep pushing and striving for a better tomorrow for them self’s as well as their children and fellow Americans. II. Body A. First body paragraph 1. Topic sentence - In Hughes poem “I, Too”, the narrator is angered because although his skin color may be darker than those around him, he is just as much of an American as the rest of them are. 2.