The Prophetic Poetry of Langston Hughes

Langston Hughes (1902-1967) was an African-American poet, novelist, playwright, and columnist and one of the leading figures of the Harlem Renaissance, an important cultural movement in 1920’s Harlem.  While at Columbia University he was introduced to, and greatly inspired by, the poetry of Walt Whitman and Carl Sandburg. 

Wallace Best, professor of Religion and African American Studies at Princeton University, suggests that there was an additional stimulus when he argues that Hughes’ religious epiphany while attending a revival meeting in his youth had a significant impact on his literary career and that this is why some of his writings bore a religious emphasis.  And, some scholars have even offered the view that some of his work had a prophetic aspect.

Langston Hughes (Carl Van Vechten, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University).

In a recent interview/conversation published in Sojourners (https://sojo.net/media/what-does-it-mean-be-prophetic-today) between Kenyatta Gilbert (Associate Professor of Homiletics at the Howard University School of Divinity) and Walter Brueggemann (Professor Emeritus at Columbia Theological Seminary), Gilbert spoke about what it means to be a prophet: “A prophet is someone who sees that this is not all there is, but is willing to face the fact that we are in a predicament and it’s only as we co-participate with God, can we find ourselves moving in the direction of a beloved community. So, when I think about what it means to be prophetic, I’m thinking, well, you talk about being numb to this present reality, you talk about royal consciousness, alternative consciousness.” 

As my Loras colleague, John Waldmeir (Professor of Religious Studies), has astutely and carefully observed, “we have come to think of prophets too often simply as ‘predictors’ of the future when, in fact, they are highly sensitive observers whose insights sound an alarm and call for change.”

Later in that same conversation, when he was asked about prophetic hope, Gilbert said: “My inclination is to think optimistically—optimism—but that’s not quite it. I think hope is born out of suffering. It is this kind of… trying to understand and articulate what we believe God expects of God’s human creation. Hope lies beyond…it’s not pie in the sky. It’s rooted in this courage that says, this is not all there is and we cannot settle for the goods of this world. And so, we’re going to hope for a future that is beloved, where personhood is affirmed, where dignity is esteemed.” 

Accordingly, as we read the following brief selection of Langston Hughes’ poetry, perhaps we might be inclined to find congenial the idea that his work did indeed have a prophetic dimension.  And that, as a result, its relevance is both timeless and timely in its inspiration.

My People

The night is beautiful,

So the faces of my people.

The stars are beautiful,
So the eyes of my people.

Beautiful, also, is the sun.
Beautiful, also, are the souls of my people.

Kids Who Die (published in 1938)

This is for the kids who die,
Black and white,
For kids will die certainly.
The old and rich will live on awhile,
As Always,
Eating blood and gold,
Letting kids die.

Kids will die in the swamps of Mississippi
Organizing sharecroppers
Kids will die in the streets of Chicago
Organizing workers
Kids will die in the orange groves of California
Telling others to get together
Whites and Filipinos,
Negroes and Mexicans,
All kinds of kids will die
Who don’t believe in lies, and bribes, and contentment
And a lousy peace. 

Dreams

Hold fast to dreams
For if dreams die
Life is a broken-winged bird
That cannot fly.

Hold fast to dreams
For when dreams go
Life is a barren field
Frozen with snow.

Evil

Looks like what drives me crazy
Don’t have no effects on you—
But I’m gonna keep on at it
Till it drives you crazy, too.

American Heartbreak

I am the American heartbreak—
Rock on which Freedom
Stumps its toe—
The great mistake
That Jamestown
Made long ago.

Harlem (published 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 Negro Speaks of Rivers  (To W.E.B. DuBois) (published in 1920)

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.

Theme for English B (published in 1951)

The instructor said,

Go home and write
a page tonight.
And let that page come out of you—
Then, it will be true.

I wonder if it’s that simple?
I am twenty-two, colored, born in Winston-Salem.
I went to school there, then Durham, then here
to this college on the hill above Harlem.
I am the only colored student in my class.
The steps from the hill lead down into Harlem,
through a park, then I cross St. Nicholas,
Eighth Avenue, Seventh, and I come to the Y,
the Harlem Branch Y, where I take the elevator
up to my room, sit down, and write this page:

It’s not easy to know what is true for you or me
at twenty-two, my age. But I guess I’m what
I feel and see and hear, Harlem, I hear you:
hear you, hear me—we two—you, me, talk on this page.
(I hear New York, too.) Me—who?
Well, I like to eat, sleep, drink, and be in love.
I like to work, read, learn, and understand life.
I like a pipe for a Christmas present,
or records—Bessie, bop, or Bach.
I guess being colored doesn’t make me not like
the same things other folks like who are other races.
So will my page be colored that I write?

Being me, it will not be white.
But it will be
a part of you, instructor.
You are white—
yet a part of me, as I am a part of you.
That’s American.
Sometimes perhaps you don’t want to be a part of me.
Nor do I often want to be a part of you.
But we are, that’s true!
As I learn from you,
I guess you learn from me—
although you’re older—and white—
and somewhat more free.

This is my page for English B.

About Loras College
Founded in 1839, Loras College leverages its historic roots as Iowa’s first college, the second oldest Catholic college west of the Mississippi River and one of the nation’s 10 diocesan colleges to deliver challenging, life-changing experiences as part of its residential, Catholic setting. In 2020, Loras was ranked the 16th Best Regional College in the Midwest by U.S. News & World Report and one of America’s Top 200 Most Loved Colleges/Universities by Forbes Magazine for the fourth consecutive year. Loras students ranked No. 2 in the world as part of the global Peeptrade Investment Challenge while a second group ranked No. 4. For the 12th consecutive year, Loras Media Studies student-led television station (LCTV) was named the TV Station of the Year by the Iowa College Media Association (ICMA).