The Great Black Farce: the un-American Writer
A poem is a piece of literature that serves to inspire an audience by displaying masterful and deliberate manipulation of a given language. This manipulation is inspiring because of the writer’s judicious use of creativity to convey conventional ideas from a different perspective to a given audience. When a writer writes using elevated language, the reader must approach the material in a way that challenges the reader’s conventional mode of thinking. To actively engage the subject matter, the writer forces the reader to attempt to think abstractly. Through this abstract thinking, the reader grows as an individual and discovers something new about life. The expression of ideas and idioms is paramount to identifying a successful and relevant writer in any arena that appreciates social change. Moreover, many individuals have the ability to write, but they fail to garner the necessary tools to broadcast an interpretation of a challenging idea effectively. Individuals possessing this ability to masterfully manipulate language can express ideas to a broad and diverse audience – and shun the crutch of social stigmas. Furthermore, an effective writer’s work will stand against the test of time, and it will not appear dated nor out of touch as the audiences mature.
Langston Hughes is considered one such literary figure; he is what many call both a pioneer in writing style and an author of simplicity who celebrates the “African-American” heritage. However, as chivalrous and admirable as these claims are, Hughes and his collection of literature are not the body of inspiration that many people regard it to be. He is, in truth, the exact opposite. His literature reads with a divisive smugness that alarmingly perpetuates the very ideals that his constituents claim his work refutes. The poetry of Langston Hughes is a shrewd form of hypocrisy and is not worthy of the accolades it currently enjoys.
Michael Meyer, editor of The Bedford Introduction to Literature, tells about Langston Hughes and his poetic nature when he writes, “. . . [Hughes draws] on an oral tradition of working-class folk poetry that embraced black vernacular language at a time when some middle-class blacks of the 1920s felt that the use of the vernacular was an embarrassing handicap and an impediment to social progress” (1163). Here, Meyer, however unintentionally, exposes a fundamental flaw to Hughes’ poetry; it fails to connect with the audience of which Hughes claims his pen represents. In this statement, Meyer inadvertently presents Hughes’ poetry as an attempt to justify the ignorant tongue of the working-class “African-American.” Consequently, by glorifying that ignorance of language, Hughes, in his writing, unfavorably dignifies the “African-American’s” less than admirable use of language. Meyer also goes on to write, “Hughes’ poetry echoes the voices of ordinary African Americans and the rhythms of their music” (1163). By saying that all working-class African-Americans speak in the same peculiar manner, Hughes associates a negative stigma to the already overbearing prevalent stereotypes of the 1920s. Since Hughes uses an ignorant pen to paint his picture of the “working-class African-American,” he and his stanzas actually express the hypocrisy of his written poetry; thus, because he assumes that all ordinary working-class “African-Americans” communicate in the ineffectual manner that Hughes so dictates in his prose, his literature acts as a hindrance to ameliorating that social stigma. For example, when Hughes writes about an “African-American” playing the piano in “The Weary Blues,” he says in the voice of the pianist:
I got the Weary Blues
And can’t be satisfied.
Got the Weary Blues
And can’t be satisfied –
I ain’t happy no mo’
And I wish that I had died. (Hughes 1171)
An obvious notion becomes known when the premise of “being down” arises in this working-class “African-American” interpretative piece. The working-class “African-American” discovers that it is more acceptable to entrench himself in the garb of pity and worthlessness and then welcome the onset of death, instead of working to become the agent of change that would bring about a brighter future. Here, the pianist presumes that the only way to assume happiness or satisfaction is through a litany of complaints that assert, he maintains, the “lesser-than-thou” mentality. Instead of uplifting the talents of the sorrowful man, Hughes focuses on the predicament that “African-Americans” find during this time of segregation; he offers “the blues” as the pantheon of death. In opposition to becoming the catalyst for change, Hughes leaves the reader with the notion that the pianist is, and will remain, hopelessly in need of charity.
Another charge against Hughes’ obvious poetic hypocrisy appears in the book The Life of Langston Hughes, by Arnold Rampersad, a qualified biographer on the subject and life of Hughes. Here, Rampersad reveals Hughes’ intent of specifically “going boldly after white audiences, who could pay handsomely for his services” (qtd. in Rampersad 82). In that previous statement, Hughes inadvertently asserts that his poetic nature is not to inspire but, rather, to attract fame and fortune from the very “white-people” he intentionally demonizes within his poetry. In the poem “Dinner Guest: Me,” Hughes displays his intent to foster a living exploiting the racial undertones of segregation in America when he writes:
I know I am
The Negro Problem
Being wined and dined,
Answering the usual questions
That come to a white mind
Which seeks demurely?
To probe in a polite way
The why and means
Of darkness U.S.A. . . . (Hughes 1184)
At first glance, these lines may seem “down-right genuine,” but there is a serious question presenting itself that an inquisitive individual must ask: why is Langston Hughes dining with rich “white” people instead of working to further the cause of rectifying the social inequalities of his Harlem home? One also must ask why Langston Hughes writes to an audience that is predominantly illiterate in a way that glorifies ignorant speech? Why does he not just write in a way that challenges his readers to expand their minds and develop a more adequate form of communication? The answer to these and many other questions is ultimately simplistic in nature; Hughes only offers this poetry as fodder for amassing himself a more than adequate amount wealth.
To the cynic, it is hard to qualify Hughes’ poetic interpretations of “African-Americans” as the loving kind; Hughes maintains that his poetic focus pursues the divulgence of blacks “drinking, gambling, engaging in prostitution, and living in poverty” (Longabucco 67). Furthermore, the poetic interpretations of Hughes exist as a degradation of “his people” in prose; instead of justifying them with relevant writing that teaches all Americans how to deal with degrading situations, he implores “African-Americans” to seek solace from injustices in his venue for lamenting. In his piece “Red Silk Stockings,” Hughes pens:
Put on yo’ red silk stockings,
Go out an’ let de white boys
Look at yo’ legs.
Ain’t nothin’ to do for you, nohow . . . (1175)
The seriousness of Hughes’ hypocritical writing is evident with the juxtaposition of the “black” prostitute against the success of capturing the attention of a “white” male. Hughes postulates that prostitution is acceptable for this “black-woman” if she manages to find a curious “white-man”; after all, there is not a thing left for her to do to better herself in this “white-man’s” world. Again, Hughes mocks the “heritage” he claims to embrace in another literary piece, “The Weary Blues,” where he continues to write about that somber “black” man playing the piano:
Ain’t got nobody in all this world,
Ain’t got nobody but ma self.
I’s gwine to quit ma frownin’
And put ma troubles on the shelf.
. . . I can’t be satisfied.
Got the Weary Blues . . .
And can’t be happy no mo’
. . . He [the pianist] slept like . . . a man that’s dead. (1171)
Again, Langston Hughes alludes to death’s existing as the better exercisable option for the “Negro” in any precarious position in life. Countee Cullen, a poetic contemporary to Hughes, expresses concern over Hughes’ book of poetry The Weary Blues when he writes, “Taken as a group the selections in this book seem one-sided to me. They tend to hurl this poet into the gaping pit that lies before all Negro writers, in the confines of which they become racial artists instead of artists pure and simple” (qtd. in Longabucco 66). Hughes’ attitude is of that possessing a “deep-seated resentment in him. It [racial bias] is in his [Hughes’] blood, so deep-seated that he seems himself unconscious of it” (67). Not understanding that all Americans have dreams and all Americans have problems, Hughes and his pen move in concert and thus provides a great disservice to American literature; he only offers, to his readers, an array of polarizing pieces of prose that negatively stimulates the palette, and thus, minimalizes the opportunities for true social justice.
Yes, some of the accomplishments of Langston Hughes are admirable, and some of his literature is noteworthy. Pieces such as Ask Your Momma and most of his children’s works are such literary pieces. Nevertheless, the man did not operate as the agent of change that his persona portrays. Instead of suffering with the “African-American” community that he celebrated with his literature, he stands on the shoulders of those suffering in an attempt to reach his self-serving goals. He points out the flaws of his audience and then mocks them with poems that he calls “direct, comprehensible, and the epitome of simplicity” (qtd. in Meyer 1163). Instead of trying to get the “white-people” to understand the “African-American” heritage, Langston Hughes segregates the culture more; instead of getting “African-Americans” to understand “white-heritage,” he villainizes and casts the differing societies against one another. In the essay “Bop,” Hughes uses his famous character Jesse B. Semple or Simple, who is Hughes’ representative of any and all individuals of the “African-American” community, to express how divisive his language is; he writes in the voice of Simple speaking to an inquisitive visitor. The visitor poses a question to Simple and asks, ‘“What’s the difference between Re [Bop – a form of jazz-scat music] and Be [Bop – another form of jazz-scat music]?”’ and Simple replies, ‘“A lot,”’ and then says that ‘“Re-Bop [is] an imitation like most of the white boys play. Be-Bop is the real thing like the colored boys play.”’ Then the inquisitor contends, ‘“You bring race into everything, even music.”’ Then Simple, without skipping a beat, replies, ‘“It [race] is in everything . . . [and] them white folks don’t know what they are singing about, even yet”’ (Hughes 190-191). Then Simple goes on to explain that “whites” have never truly “suffered much . . .” and can consequently neither play nor appreciate that expressive form of music (191). Hughes, obviously, feels that race is the indispensable element in deciding whether an individual is capable of experiencing or expressing ideas of overt injustices of an offending culture effectively to an audience or not. Simple also goes on to present the idea that “whites” can not understand “black” culture because they have not suffered; he punctuates his point when he says, “”white folks just do not get their heads beat just for being white . . .[and] just for being colored . . . A dark man shall see dark days” (191). Moreover, the reservation that is long-standing and solely set aside for the “Black-folks” is the arduous and inexorable fruitless road of suffering.
Hughes further disassociates himself from other poets by qualifying himself as an “African-American” poet, not as an American poet. He writes, fool-heartedly, about the “African-Americans” suffering from poverty, and then he one day reveals in writing to a friend that “. . . the Negroes are paying and I am getting mine after each performance” (qtd. in Rampersand 89). This statement supports the notion that Hughes did not segregate his monetary exploitations against the paying “working-class African-Americans,” a group he admittingly claims to keep as a naïve employer; even more significantly, it also shows his lack of respect for the individuals of which and for whom he writes. When the poetry of Hughes attempts to present the inspiration of freedom poetically, the overwhelming preponderance of evidence instead dictates to his audience that he lacks the capacity to do so effectively; he, then, consequently, exasperates the problems of the people he contends to help with his frustrating pen.
In a review of his now critically acclaimed sophomore volume, Fine Clothes to the Jew, the Pittsburg Courier headlined the collection as “Langston Hughes’ Book of Poems Trash” (qtd.
in Longabucco 66). Furthermore, James Baldwin, a novelist and peer of Hughes once said of Hughes’ book Selected Poems, “Every time I read Langston Hughes I am amazed all over again by his genuine gifts and depressed that he has done so little with them.” Then he says, “His book contains a great deal which a more disciplined poet would have thrown into the waste-basket” (qtd. in Longabucco 66). The previous qualifying statements of Hughes’ peers, who were also significant and notably respected critics of the poetic genre and its cohorts, signifies that Hughes did not champion his community’s cause with his most excellent effort. Consequently, his poetic declaration of the receipt of freedom, unequivocally, abases the opportunities of his target audience that is predominately illiterate; the mockery of that poetry is axiomatic when one remembers that an illiterate individual is absolute in their inability to read.
Ultimately, in challenging his readers to learn from the opposing forces acting against “his community,” Hughes fails. T.S. Eliot once said, “The historical sense compels a man to write not merely with his own generation in his bones, but with a feeling that the whole of the literature . . . has a simultaneous existence and composes a simultaneous order. [And] in a peculiar sense he [the author] will be aware also that he [Hughes] must inevitably be judged by the standards of the past” (Eliot 91-92). Thus, in order for Hughes to depict the heritage of his people accurately, he must write it in context to what is factual and insightful. Hughes fails to acknowledge the history of “America” and instead chooses to focus on the ills of the “African-American” community. As a poet, Langston Hughes does not write with more than just “his own generation in his bones.” He also fails to write with any purpose aside from the pursuit of his own financial success. Going against what Eliot calls an “error in poetry,” Hughes, unwittingly, fails to respond to the charter of Eliot that states: when poetry is not setting out to seek new human emotions to express, and when that pursuit – of new emotional idioms – runs its course, one discovers the perverse (96).
Simply put, Hughes’ poetic diction tries to, prolifically, express new feelings; however, it is not effectively capable of completing this monumental and admirable task with the use of trite, offensive, divisive, ignorant and unabatedly abrasive language.
As a poetic figure, Hughes is not compelling. In his attempt to write meaningful, inspirational, and insightful poetry, he fails. Aristotle, the classical philosopher, once said: truthfulness makes an individual virtuous. Henceforth, that virtuosity within individuals empowers them to express “courage, self-control, generosity and truthfulness” (Rachels 173). Truthfully, Hughes succeeds, immeasurably, in failing to comply with the very notion of maintaining his persona’s approach in the shrinking of the chasm between the clashing societies; he perpetuates the ideals of an ethical egoist and a hypocrite with his poetry. Hughes once said, “In the great sense of the word [poetry], anytime, anyplace, good art transcends land, race, or nationality and color drops away” (qtd. in Smith 38). Unfortunately, the distinguishing trademark of Hughes’ poetic prowess exists solely as an ethnic polarization of art, where color is the only domineering and identifying element. George E. Kent, in his critical essay “Hughes and the Afro-American Folk Cultural Tradition,” writes about Langston Hughes and his abilities; he offers, “[Hughes’] awareness on many occasions seems more complex then the art which he can command to render it,” and then “points to the lack of any single masterpiece in Hughes’ oeuvre as evidence of this claim (Longabucco 68). Langston Hughes lacks the criteria and the body of work to enjoy the accolades he currently enjoys. Furthermore, in keeping with the fashion of satisfying the needs of the ego, he pursues his own personal goals and habitually abandons the creed of his persona.
Therefore, unfortunately, the apathetic nature of Hughes and his poetry leaves little to no room for the exploration of conventional ideals and lacks the ability to connect with the audience in a way that forces the reader to learn something new by thinking abstractly. Every decision a man makes equals the sum of the whole of his life; when Hughes says, “I am ashamed for the black poet who says, ‘I want to be a poet, [and] not [just] a Negro poet . . .”’ (Hughes 48) he, consequently, becomes the perpetrator of the very elements of which he claims to present, in prose, as the remedy, Racism. In other words, when Hughes’ persona presents his poetry as a bridging element to aid in healing social injustices, he focuses solely on one social group – “African-Americans.” Consequently, Hughes inadvertently segregates the clashing societies further by marginalizing the opposing cultures’ significance to American culture and all Americans. By focusing on the segregating elements of society in his poetry, Hughes fundamentally becomes a “Black Power” propellant and a racist and a de-unifying voice of “Black” America. Consequently, the poetry of Langston Hughes is not worthy of the accolades it currently enjoys; as such, it must not remain an indelible fixture in the annals of academia as a foundational representative of American Literature.
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