Langston Hughes & the Harlem Renaissance: Crash Course Literature 215


Hi, I’m John Green, this is Crash Course Literature, and
today we’re going to discuss the poetry of Langston Hughes. So the Harlem Renaissance was an early 20th
Century movement in which writers and artists of color explored what it means to be an artist,
what it means to be black, and what it means to be an American, and also what it means
to be all three of those things at the same time. MFTP: Mr. Green, Mr. Green! Does the Harlem
Renaissance have anything to do with that renaissance with, like, Leonardo de Vinci,
and all of the other… Ninja Turtles? Kind of, but the Harlem Renaissance happened
a lot later than the European Renaissance, also on a different continent, and there was
much less plague and much more jazz. [Theme Music] OK, so one journalist described the Harlem
Renaissance this way: “What a crowd! All classes and colors met face to face, ultra aristocrats,
bourgeois, communists, Park Avenue galore, bookers, publishers, Broadway celebs, and
Harlemites giving each other the once over.” What’s the once over? Is that a dirty thing,
Stan? Apparently it is not a dirty thing. The Harlem Renaissance began just after the
First World War and lasted into the early years of the Great Depression because it turns
out it’s pretty hard to have a renaissance when no one has any money, as they found out
in Venice. And like the European Renaissance, it was a social and political movement, but
also an artistic one. I mean it inspired literature and poetry, music, drama, ethnography, publishing,
dance, fashion, probably even some novelty cocktails. As Langston Hughes wrote about
this time: “The negro was in vogue.” Oh, it must be time for the open letter. Oh, look,
it’s a floating dictionary. An open letter to language. Hey there language, how’s it going? Don’t say it’s
going good, language; say it’s going well. So Langston Hughes often used the term “negro”
to refer to African Americans, and when we quote him or his poetry we’re also going to
use that term. But we won’t use it when I’m talking about African Americans or the African
American experience because these days we understand that term to be offensive. I would
argue that this is a good thing about language; it has the opportunity to evolve and to become
more inclusive. In short, language, I love you and I am amazed
by you every day. Sorry if that sounds creepy; I feel I might start singing the song from The
Bodyguard, so I’m just going to stop right now. Best wishes,
John Green Right, so, the poems, essays, and novels of
the Harlem Renaissance often discuss the so-called double consciousness of the African American
experience, a term coined by W.E.B. Dubois in his book The Souls of Black Folk, and which
you might remember from our To Kill a Mockingbird episode. Some writers like Countee Cullen,
and Claude McKay used poetic forms historically associated with European white people, like
the Shakespearean sonnet, the Petrarchan sonnet, and the villanelle, which is like a very fancy
sonnet, but other writers, including Langston Hughes, chose forms based on African and African
American folk forms, you know, fables and spirituals, children’s rhymes, and blues songs. This is actually part of Modernism generally,
as artists sought to mix high and low culture in an attempt to reinvent art. Like, see also
Marcel Duchamp putting a toilet in an art gallery. I should clarify: there were already toilets
in art galleries; he was putting it there as art. Anyway, let’s go to the Thought Bubble for
some background on Langston Hughes. Hughes was born in 1902 in Missouri to mixed-race
parents, who divorced early. He grew up in Kansas and began to write poetry in high school:
mostly because white students chose him as class poet. In his autobiography, he wrote:
“Well, everyone knows — except us — that all Negros have rhythm, so they elected me
class poet. I felt I couldn’t let my white classmates down and I’ve been writing poetry
ever since.” Hughes’ father wanted him to become a mining
engineer so Hughes went to Columbia University, but he left after his freshman year, in part
because other students have snubbed him, and in part because actually he didn’t want to
become a mining engineer. So he signed on to work on a boat, going more
or less around the world, returning a couple of years later, this is true, with a red-haired
monkey named Jocko. He didn’t enjoy the trip very much but that might actually have been
a good thing because as he wrote in his autobiography: “My best poems were all written when I felt
the worst. When I was happy, I didn’t write anything.” Which stands in stark contrast to all
the happy poets, you know: Emily Dickinson, Sylvia Plath, Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Hughes aimed to write in accessible, familiar
language, and in that he was influenced by poets like Paul Laurence Dunbar, and also
people like Carl Sandburg and Walt Whitman, all of whom wrote in vernacular, everyday
language in the hopes that their work could appeal to a larger audience.
Thanks Thought Bubble. So, as Hughes wrote in a 1927 essay, classical
forms didn’t support the work he wanted to do: “Certainly the Shakespearean sonnet would
be no mold in which to express the life of Beale Street or Lenox Avenue nor could the
emotions of State Street be captured in rondeau. I am not interested in doing tricks with rhymes.
I am interested in reproducing the human soul, if I can.” And this is what makes Hughes such an important
poet. He brilliantly combines formal poetry with the oral tradition, and he refuses to
draw a bright line between fine art and folk art. OK, in order to have a better understanding
of Hughes’ approach to poetry, let’s look at an early manifesto he wrote called “The
Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain.” In this essay, he criticizes other black writers
for being too interested in white culture and white forms. He writes: “This is the mountain
standing in the way of any true Negro art in America– this urge within the race toward
whiteness, the desire to pour racial individuality into the mold of American standardization, and to
be as little Negro and as much American as possible.” Now, some black writers, like Countee Cullen,
accused Hughes of being TOO black. Like in a review of Hughes’ first book Cullen wrote,
“There is too much emphasis of strictly Negro themes.” But, then again, later on, James
Baldwin would condemn Hughes for not diving deep enough into African American experience;
like Baldwin wrote that Hughes poems “take refuge, finally, in a fake simplicity in order
to avoid the very difficult simplicity of the experience.” It’s hard out there for a Langston Hughes. Anyway, let’s make up our own mind. I think
the best way to get a sense of how Langston Hughes expresses himself is probably to,
like, actually read a couple of his poems. Let’s begin with “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 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.” Here’s a bit of news that will be discouraging
to most of you aspiring writers out there: Hughes wrote that poem just after graduating
from high school. He was riding a train to see his estranged father and he passed over
the Mississippi. He writes: “I began to think about what that river, the old Mississippi,
had meant to Negros in the past… Then I began to think about other rivers in the past–the
Congo, and the Niger, and the Nile in Africa–and the thought came to me: ‘I’ve known rivers,’
and I put it down on the back of an envelope I had in my pocket, and within the space of
ten or fifteen minutes, as the train gathered speed in the dusk, I had written this poem.” Are you even serious? “Ten or fifteen minutes”!
What? Really! So “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” is in the
lyric mode: it’s poetry trying to capture an internal emotional state. He uses the vision
of these rivers to transcend his immediate relationships and to connect himself instead
to all of his African forefathers, trading the immediate for the immortal. The repetition
of “I’ve known rivers” at the beginning and “my soul has grown deep like the rivers” at
the middle and end, gives the poem the feeling of, like, a sermon or spiritual, in keeping
with Hughes’ use of folk forms. And then, there’s the catalog of active verbs:
“I bathed”, “I built”, “I listened”, “I looked.” Those show people actively participating in
human life and having agency; that even amid oppression and dehumanization, these people
were still building and listening and looking. And then, in the latter part of the poem,
there are adjectives that in other poems might be used pejoratively, like “muddy” and “dusky”,
that are linked with other adjectives, “golden”, “ancient”, that encourage us to perceive them
in a far more positive light. So, darkness and brownness are seen as lustrous and valuable
and revered. And I know that some of you will say, oh,
you’re overreading the poem: Hughes didn’t mean any of this stuff. To which I say: it
doesn’t matter. These are still interesting and cool uses of language. Although, as it
happens, I’m not overreading it. Anyway, let’s look at one more poem, “Harlem”,
written in 1951: “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 and sugar over— like a syrupy sweet? Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load. Or does it explode?” The dream here is likely a version of the
American dream, a dream that at the time Hughes wrote the poem was still denied to most African
Americans. And in that sense, it’s kind of optimistic that Hughes uses the term deferred,
rather than, like, destroyed or forbidden. There’s also a great moment earlier in that
same book of poems in which Hughes writes, “Good morning Daddy, aint you heard, the boogie
woogie rumble, of a dream deferred”, which uses the conventions of blues music to associate the
deferral of the dream with, like, a boogie-woogie rumble. But the imagery in this poem is very negative:
it often takes things that are sweet and then makes them horrifying. You’ve got dried raisins,
running sores. I guess sores aren’t that sweet, but you do have crusty sweets. Even the verbs
are negative: “dry”, “fester”, “stink”, “crust”, “sag”. And that works against any real optimism.
This is made even more interesting and complicated by the fact that the poem sounds like a nursery
rhyme: it has neat, perfect, one-syllable rhymes like “sun” and “run”, “meat” and “sweet”.
But then you have the layout of the poem, which resists conventional stanzas, and that
troubles the simplicity here. Also, the rhythm of the poem is always changing. Like, this
isn’t straight iambic pentameter or anything like that, and that makes it hard to build
into a comfortable pace as the reader. And then there’s that last line, “Or does it explode”,
which from a meter perspective is totally fascinating because there’s a stress on every
single syllable: Or. Does. It. Ex-plode. I don’t want to get too Lit Crit-y on you but
it’s like the last line itself is trying to explode because there’s no break, no relief.
So the rhymes make it sound harmless, like it’s from a children’s book, but the imagery
and rhythm tell another, much more barbed story. And this is definitely one of Hughes’ more political poems: He’s warning that if circumstances don’t change, there might be dangerous consequences. This poem proceeded the bulk of the Civil Rights Movement, but it suggests that withholding true equality has
real risks and real costs to everyone in a social order. There’s so many other great Langston Hughes
poems that we don’t have time to discuss like: “Dream Boogie”, “I, Too”, “Dream Variations”,
“Theme for English B”. I want to share just one more with you, no lit crit or anything,
just the poem: “Folks I’m tell you, birthing is hard and dying is mean, so get yourself
a little lovin, in between.” See, sometimes literature is just in the business of proving
good advice. Thanks for watching. I’ll see you next week. Crash Course is filmed in the Chad and Stacey
Emigholz Studio, and it’s made with all the help of all of these nice people. It exists
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Thanks to all our Subbable subscribers for keeping Crash Course free, for everyone, forever.
Thanks again for watching, and as we say in my home town, Don’t Forget To Be Awesome.

26 Replies to “Langston Hughes & the Harlem Renaissance: Crash Course Literature 215

  1. Hello all. I recently released my first verse novel and was hoping to gain an audience. The book is titled That's All He Wrote In Black Bottom and it's about a negro poet in 1938. Who becomes inspired by the blues after moving from Alabama to Detroit. I took alot of inspiration from Hughes works and it features 48 poems mostly in the style of Jazz and Blues poetry. Please check it out for me. .co/d/crOYQlZ

  2. Hey! Do you have any of the resources/references that you used? Would love to delve into the topic in more detail. I have a deadline next week (28/01/19) and would love to integrate some of the ideas you discussed, but need solid references.

  3. "a raisin the sun"
    That's like the play and novel. The novel is all about a black family with an AMERICAN DREAM. Now thinking about Hughes and his black culture. . . THE DIRECT CORRELATION IS EXEMPLARY. WHY DIDN'T I KNOW THIS BEFORE UGH HAHA

  4. Sorry, making language overly sensitive does not make it "inclusive." Instead, it separates us into groups and makes people less able to communicate properly. This should stop.

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  6. I'm disappointed in these comments. John Green made a bioshock and family guy reference in the same video and nobody commented about it. i love him

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