by: Shirley Satterfield
Langston Hughes:The Harlem Voice Prophetic Pain and Hope
Born in 1902, Langston Hughes was a great American Negro poet who who flourished as a writer and an author during the Harlem Renaissance Roaring i920′. He was a versatile writer who wrote in many different genres including poetry, plays and novels, but we will only give focus in this article on his poetry.
America, during the 1920’s was essentially a prejudice, segregated, repressive regime which relegated people of color to a no-man’s-land of second class citizenship. The reality was that for at least half the population of America, complete freedoms were being denied and this sparked a political controversy, and a kind of cultural revolution of sorts, in New York City’s vast neighborhood of Black Harlem which was expressed in an explosion of the African American literary and musical arts. During this time Hughes came along who was a brilliant, sensitive man with a great soul and an uncanny vision of what will happen in the future,
It was a dark time in America when Hughes came along to shine a little light on us and the whole world about the humanity of all people regardless of hue or color. He wrote:
The Negro Speaks of Rivers
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 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
when down to New Orleans, and I’ve seen its muddy
bosom turn all golden in the sunset.
I’ve known river;
Ancient, dusky rivers.
My soul has grown deep like rivers.
This is a work in which Hughes reminds us that the Black Man shares the same blood and the same rivers with all men and that and that He has been here with the whole collective “us” on this planet since the dawn of time itself and are sharing the same Divinely inspired spirit as is in us all regardless of color. Then Hughes waxes prophetic about the future here where he expresses both his pain and his hope in these few verses.
I, too, sing America.
I am the darker brother.
They send me to eat in the kitchen
When company comes,
But I laugh,
And eat well,
And grow strong.
I’ll be at the table
When company comes.
Nobody will dare
Say to me,
Eat in the kitchen,
Besides, They’ll see how beautiful I am
And be ashamed–
I, too, am America.
Here he expresses a sort of serene acceptance of the injustice of the present without losing hope for the future, all the while pointing out to America specifically what is wrong here but without disowning or losing hope for the moral advancement of his his beloved America. In short, Langston Hughes, the man whose dreams were so deferred because of the color of his skin, and whose dreams of more freedom and equality for the future had become burdensome to him, became a prophetic voice of the future and set the stage for the Civil Rights Movement, when Martin Luther King took up the gauntlet of this dream that had just exploded into a worldwide movement of brotherly love. Hughes had remarkable foresight in this poem when he wrote:
What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore–
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust over like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?
I think this man’s dream just exploded throughout the generations of earth’s people and still explodes in many American hearts today. Lets all take up the gauntlet.