During the 1920's and 1930's a cultural explosion occurred in the African-American community of Harlem. Novels, plays, music and poetry all emerged out of the Harlem Renaissance documenting the plight of Black Americans and redefining Black identity. One of the most famous names to come out of this movement is Langston Hughes.
James Mercer Langston Hughes was born in 1902, an African American descended from relationships between slave owners and slaves. He grew up in an educated, politically inclined family that instilled in him a strong sense of racial pride and activism. In his twenties he began to write poetry that expressed the attitudes and difficulties of Blacks in America. He wrote to uplift his fellow people and to preserve their experiences.
Selected Poems of Langston Hughes is a collection of poems that Hughes himself felt were important for preservation and includes unpublished material. First published in 1959, this collection addresses racism, identity, religion, poverty, love, and freedom. Hughes' poems are strong and powerful, touching and haunting, written in a style that evokes the Black culture of the time.
If you want to understand the Harlem Renaissance and what life was like for Blacks in America in the period between the two world wars, there is no other place to go than to the poetry of Langston Hughes. I'm not a big reader of poetry, but this collection goes beyond beautiful words, it paints an incredible picture and brings history right off the page.
One of my favourite poems is Mother to Son (1922):
Well, son, I'll tell you:
Life for me ain't been no crystal stair.
It's had tacks in it,
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 join' 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.
Hughes' is an accomplished, prize-winning writer whose voice came to represent the Harlem Renaissance and Black America. Though he wrote on a variety of subjects, I personally feel he was at his strongest when writing about the racial climate of America, an example of this being the poem Merry-Go-Round (1942):
Colored child at carnival
Where is the Jim Crow section
On this merry-go-round,
Mister, cause I want to ride?
Down South where I come from
White and coloured
Can't sit side by side.
Down South on the train
There's a Jim Crow car.
On the bus we're put in the back -
But there ain't no back
To a merry-go-round!
Where's the horse
For a kid that's black?