Analysis of Langston Hughes’ Poetry

Analysis of four Langston Hughes’s poems:
“Mother to Son,” “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” “I, Too,” and “Harlem.” “Mother to Son” by Langston Hughes
Well, son, I’ll tell you: Life for me ain’t been no
crystal stair. It’s had tacks in it, and splinters, and
boards torn up, and places with no carpet on the floor —
Bare. But all the time I’se been a-climbin’ on,
and reachin’ landin’s, and turnin’ corners. And sometimes goin’ in the dark Where there ain’t been no light.
So boy, don’t you turn back. Don’t you set down on
the steps “cause you finds it’s kinder hard. Don’t you fall now — For I’se still goin’ honey, I’se still climbin’, and life for me ain’t
been no crystal stair. Analysis of “Mother to Son” This is a simple poem spoken by a narrator giving her son advice on how to live life. Her dialect, the details she gives of her
life, and the typical content of Langston Hughes’s writing tell the reader it is most likely an
African-American mother addressing her son. The poem gives an extended metaphor
comparing living life to climbing a staircase, and she tells him, “Life for me ain’t been
no crystal stair,” meaning life has been hard. She says her
staircase, or life, has had “splinters” and “tacks in it” “And boards torn up” “And places with no carpet on the
floor — bare.” These details describe a difficult
life ,which may also at times be lonely or poverty-stricken as in “Bare.” However, her advice is to not give up
because even when times get tough (as in “there ain’t been no light”) and he
might want to give up, she tells him, “Don’t you sit down on the steps/ ‘Cause
you’ll find it’s kinder hard.” She tells him despite the hardships of
her life, “I’se still climbin'”; thus, the poem is realistic in its
portrayal of the difficulties in life, especially for an African-American
during 1922, when the poem was written, and yet it’s hopeful in its assertion
that he should not give up, suggesting that at the end of the
staircase, there might be a reward, perhaps achievements, an improved life or heaven in the afterlife. “The Negro Speaks Rivers” by Langston Hughes
I’ve known rivers: I’ve known rivers ancient as the world older than the flow of human blood in
human veins. My soul has grown deep like the 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 went down to New Orleans, and I’ve seen its muddy bosom turn all golden in the sunset. I’ve known rivers: Ancient, dusky rivers. My soul has grown deep like the rivers. Background information
on “The Negro Speaks of Rivers.” “The Negro Speak of Rivers”
was composed in 1920 on a train ride Langston Hughes took on
the way to visit his father in Mexico when he was 18 years old and was published a year later in
the literary magazine Crisis. Hughes was crossing the Mississippi River
near Saint Louis when he saw the Sun glimmering off the great river. He began to think about what the
Mississippi River meant to the African-American people who were often
taken south on the river during the days of slavery
and then sold. He also thought about how he had read
that Abraham Lincoln had taken a raft down the Mississippi
River to New Orleans and was horrified by the sight of human beings being
bought and sold as slaves and how this experience influenced
Lincoln to later sign the Emancipation
Proclamation, which ended legal slavery. Hughes also had thoughts about how the
river seemed to connect him with his people throughout the ages
and so he wrote the poem on the back of his
father’s letter. The poem was dedicated to W.E.B. Dubois, a fellow African-American writer and
civil rights leader, whom Hughes feels a connection to. Analysis of “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” In this poem Hughes compares rivers to
the flow of blood through the veins of humans and then uses several allusions
to historical African-American events to connect him
with his ancestors. He shows the connection to his people
across time and geographic space by using the pronoun “I” to refer to the
experiences that his people have had as if he himself has shared them as well. He says, “I bathed in the Euphrates,” “I built my hut near the Congo,” “I looked upon the Nile and raised the
pyramids above it,” and “I heard the singing of the
Mississippi when Abe Lincoln went down to New Orleans.” He uses allusions to different rivers that his African-American ancestors
lived along to show their connection through blood,
which she compares to the rivers. He also shows the endurance of his people since the beginning of recorded history through the allusions he gives in the poem.
the poem shows black unity and pride in their African ancestry and suggests
hope for the future when he says the “muddy bosom” of the Mississippi” turns
all “golden in the sunset.” “I, Too” by Langston Hughes 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. Tomorrow I’ll be at the table when company comes.
Nobody’ll dare say to me, “Eat in the kitchen,” Then. Besides, They’ll see how beautiful I am And be
ashamed — I, too, am America. Analysis of “I, Too” This is a simple but powerful poem in
which Langston Hughes uses a defiant tone
to denounce racism and yet also suggests an optimistic
hope for an improvement in race relations in the future. As in “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” Hughes uses the universal pronoun “I” to refer to not just himself but all
African-American people. He defiantly states that African
Americans are also part of America when he begins the poem with “I, too, sing
America” and ends with “I, too, am America.” He calls himself the darker brother and
illustrates the current level of acceptable racism during the time
of legal segregation when the poem was written when he says, “They [meaning white people] send me to eat in the kitchen/ When
company comes”; however, he refuses to let this bring him
down, as he says, “But I laugh/ And eat well, And grow strong.” He shows that he will be
patient because in the near future, which he calls “Tomorrow,” segregation will
end, and he says at that time, “I will sit at the
table/ When company comes” and, furthermore, he adds, “Nobody’ll dare/
Say to me, ‘Eat in the kitchen’/ Then.” He shows his pride in his heritage and in all African-Americans when he
says, “Besides, they’ll still see how beautiful I am/ And be ashamed, –” Hughes is very accurately forecasting the end of segregation and announcing the injustice of treating
black Americans like second-class citizens in this poem. “Harlem” by Langston Hughes What happens to a dream deferred? Does
it dry up like a raisin in the sun? Or fester like a sore and run? Does it stink like rotten meat? Or
crust and sugar over — like a syrupy sweet? Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load. Or does it explode? Analysis of “Harlem” This poem, written in 1951, shows Hughes’s growing impatience with the slow pace of the Civil Rights Movement. The Civil Rights Act did not pass until
1964, decades after the Civil Rights Movement
began in this country. Unlike his earlier poems, the tone of this
poem becomes more caustic and angry, paralleling the growing frustration
among African-Americans who waited almost a hundred years after the Emancipation Proclamation to
achieve true legal equality. In the poem “Harlem,” which was originally titled “A Dream
Deferred,” he asked the question, what happens to a dream deferred? The
choice of changing the title to “Harlem” makes it clear that Hughes is asking
this question in reference to African-Americans in particular, as Harlem is a
predominantly black neighborhood in New York City, which by the time of the poem had become
a ghetto beset with poverty as a result of racial discrimination. The word “deferred” means “postponed” or
“delayed.” One interpretation of Hughes’s question is that he means what happens when the dream of desegregation and racial
equality are postponed or delayed? His answers use metaphor and simile to describe the possibilities of what
may happen in the black community if their dreams continue to be deferred.
He says the dreams may just “dry up,” meaning people may no longer dream;
“fester like a sore,” meaning they may become
resentful; “stink like rotten meat,” meaning they will be angry and embittered; “crusted and sugared over–/ like a syrupy
sweet,” meaning they will smile and pretend
they’re OK when they are not; or just “sag like a heavy load,” meaning they will end up depressed. He ends the
poem with what could be interpreted as a threat by asking, “Or does it explode?” The use of
italics emphasizes this possibility, and society
could take this is a warning that the continued denial of the quality to
the African-American public could result in pushing people to
violence or destructive actions.

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