Analysis - Theme for English B

Today's posting is meant as a lead-in to the State of the Union address tonight. Langston Hughes is, not unlike President Obama, an eloquent speaker on the deep theme of what it means to be American as well as, incidentally, the son of an interracial marriage.

Born in 1902 and coming into his authorship in the 1920's, Hughes' black father meant that he was seen in no uncertain terms as "a Negro author", and this social position informed everything he wrote. Hughes is viewed nowadays as one of the predominant voices of the Harlem Renaissance, and arguably has the greatest worldwide reputation of any black writer.

Now, at the risk of revealing too much about myself, I am white man - a white dude. I hail from a world removed from the life and times of Langston Hughes. I was born in a suburb of Denver, Colorado to parents who - several generations back, came from Ireland and Poland. I like hockey. The list goes on. If ever there was a culturally/politically/socio-economically typical white dude, it is I.

And yet, the words of Mr. Hughes effect me very deeply. This goes to show that, one, Langston Hughes is a truly excellent poet - the hallmark of such being the transcendent quality of his language. But more precisely, I think we can say that Langston Hughes wasn't "a Negro author", not in the sense that he was writing as "a black to blacks about blackness". In fact, Hughes was lambasted and vilified in his day for being a black author who didn't fit into the expected role of a black author.

Eustace Gay, the Literary critic of the Philadelphia Tribune, wrote this about Hughes' early book of poems Fine Clothes to the Jew in 1927:

"It does not matter to me whether every poem in the book is true to life. Why should it be paraded before the American public by a Negro author as being typical or representative of the Negro?"

Mr. Hughes was roundly abused by many other black critics for similar reasons throughout the early part of his career. His poems and writings were seen as reinforcing negative stereotypes of African-Americans already held by "white" America. Come the 1960's, Hughes was abrogated by black critics for an entirely different, but not unrelated, reason.

"Regrettably, in different poems, he is fatally prone to sympathize with starkly antithetical politics of race," wrote Laurence Lieberman on the 1967 work Panther and the Lash, "A reader can appreciate his catholicity, his tolerance of all the rival—and mutually hostile—views of his outspoken compatriots, from Martin Luther King to Stokely Carmichael, but we are tempted to ask, what are Hughes' politics? And if he has none, why not? The age demands intellectual commitment from its spokesmen. A poetry whose chief claim on our attention is moral, rather than aesthetic, must take sides politically."

From beginning to end, critical naysayers took issue with Hughes. So much so, in fact, that Lindsay Patterson, a novelist who served as Hughes's assistant, believed that Hughes was "critically, the most abused poet in America. . . . Serious white critics ignored him, less serious ones compared his poetry to Cassius Clay doggerel, and most black critics only grudgingly admired him."

So why has Hughes endured as one of America's most popular poets? That is a question I can only answer in a personal light. Hughes has always been beloved for the ordinary way he speaks of the uniting beauty of humanity. Indeed, during the twenties when most American poets were turning inward, writing obscure and esoteric poetry to an ever decreasing audience of readers, Hughes was turning outward, using language and themes, attitudes and ideas familiar to anyone who had the ability simply to read.

Hughes may have been a black author, writing for his times to address the gross injustice in racially divided America, but he did so always by turning to underlying factors that unite all people. He called attention to America's madness of racial segregation and bigotry by remarking in simple terms on our gorgeous humanity, and the humble pride we can find in our shared American identity.

Given the recent happenings in America, and President Obama's recent call for all Americans to look past their ideological differences and unite in that same concept of shared humanity, this poem seems quite apt.

The narrator's voice in the poem is so personal and identifiable that it makes it easy for us all to see ourselves in him, no matter where our differences may lay. Whether we are Black or White or Republican or Democrat or Arabic or whatever - "[you are] a part of me, as I am a part of you. / That's American."

David Crennen

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