By Jessica Hake.
If you haven’t heard of this literary genius then let me introduce you to Langston Hughes. Hughes is credited with being one of the most prolific and iconic writers in the Harlem Renaissance through his poetry and the rest of his collected works. Although widely known for his poetic work, Hughes’ portfolio includes short novels, short fiction, drama, gospel-song plays, libretti, radio, television scripts and more.
The Harlem Renaissance (c.1918-37) is the most influential movement, with regards to the creative arts, in African-American history. Unlike other artistic movements, the Harlem Renaissance is unusual due to its close relationship with civil rights. One could argue that the renaissance helped to usher in the civil rights movement of the late 1940s and early 1950s. The Harlem Renaissance sought to reconceptualize the stereotypes of what being black was in a society where the white population dominated, through the medium of art with the hope to remove the Victorian values and bourgeois constraints that reinforced racist beliefs in American society. Harlem became the center of the renaissance as African-Americans moved from rural to more urban areas, making Harlem the catalyst for artistic experimentation.
The Crisis, published by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), was a publication crucial to the movement. The magazine was the first organization to give Langston Hughes his ‘big break’ in the literary world. The Crisis gave voice to Hughes’ signature poem ‘The Negro Speaks of the Rivers’.
In 1926 Hughes announced his manifesto in ‘The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain’ where he believed that black artists shouldn’t conform to the ‘white’ version of art in the hope it would help to combat the ‘urge within the race towards whiteness’. Hughes’ emphasis on authenticity in his manifesto can be seen in other examples of his work, noticeably his collection of short stories about Jesse B. Semple, an average black man in Harlem who spoke about the everyday struggles in his life.
Hughes is quoted as having said, “most people are generally good, in every race and in every country where I have been.” His sheer love and childlike wonder for all people is a contributing factor as to what makes his writing so distinctive. It contributes to the beautiful simplicity in which he conveyed the feelings, emotions, wants, and actions of the everyday black person in Harlem.
Hughes was writing in a time where black written pieces were a sub-genre of literary works and disrespected as such. Despite leaving Columbia University to travel to Africa and Europe as a seaman, Hughes continued to write prolifically. His talent was eventually noticed by The Critic and later by a variety of book publishers. Hughes became known throughout the Harlem creative community, and his refusal to change his approach towards his works is why he is now one of the most prominent figures of American 20th-century writers.