Langston Hughes lived between 1902 and 1967. He was born in a Negro family and brought up by his maternal grandmother after his parents separated. His grandmother must have brought him up to be proud of being an African American. He lived during a time when there was racial discrimination in America and the White Americans looked down on the Black Americans.
Hughes started writing literary articles at an early age. He wrote poems for his class in his grammar school where his classmates appointed him as the class poet (“Life of Langston Hughes,” para.2).
During his high school life, Hughes wrote a number of poems, plays, newspaper articles and even edited the school magazine and yearbook. This prepared him to become a great writer of poems, plays, novels and other literary articles during his adulthood. Hughes was one of the main artists who contributed positively and much to the Harlem Renaissance during the 1920s.
The black elites included the educated African Americans of the Harlem Renaissance and the middle class African Americans. The Harlem Renaissance writers like W.E.B Du Bois, Fauset and Alain used their literary skills to pass a message to the white Americans that the black Americans needed to be treated as ordinary human beings. The middle class Black Americans on the other hand struggled to emulate the whites and did everything to try to be like them.
They believed that a white man was superior to a black man. Langston Hughes, through his work admonished the African Americans to be proud of being black. His ideas seemed to the black elites as if he wanted them to tolerate racism and live a “low life”.
Among Hughes’ works in 1926 was his essay The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain. In this essay, Hughes presented the case of an African American artist who saw it good to be a white poet rather than a black one. He showed how the black Americans felt inferior to the white Americans and struggled to live like whites. Hughes advised the African Americans in this state, especially the middle class African Americans, to accept their culture and be proud of their skin color.
Hughes also praised his contemporaries in this essay, those who were true to their African culture and were proud to be black. Hughes used this essay to elevate the beauty of the African Americans and pass a message to the white American community that African Americans were important and could do as much as whites could in nation development.
Hughes’ first book publication entitled The Weary Blues was a collection of poems where “The weary Blues” was one of the poems. In his poems, Hughes made it clear that he was proud to be African American and was proud to be associated with them.
The poems he published in The Weary Blues included “The Weary Blues”, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers”, “My People”, among others. This work by Hughes was of great influence during the Harlem Renaissance. Hughes’ contemporaries like Hurston, Thurman, McKay, Cullen and others were of the same idea, but which the other black elites were not happy with.
They perceived that Hughes was advocating for to the “low life” in the African American community. This was a life where the African Americans lived in the “lower social-economic strata”, in which they were divided into different classes facing discrimination from the white people’s community.
Hughes’ aim through his work was to uphold the African American community and capture their struggles and achievements as part of the American history through his literature. Most of Hughes literary works focused on thoughtful perspectives of the working class of the African Americans.
He depicted their lives to be full of difficulties, happiness, as well as music (“Life and Career,” para.7). Hughes used his poems to condemn social evils like stereotypes, segregation of the African American community and promoted oneness in the African American community while at the same time lifting high the pride of the Negros.
Among the messages conspicuous in Hughes’ poems is racial consciousness. He used this as a tool of encouraging the African American writers and the community at large. Racial consciousness could give the African Americans courage to do their work as African Americans and make them avoid trying to copy the White’s culture and feeling inferior. W. E. B. Du Bois also dressed the issue of racial conciousness in his book The Souls of Black Folk.
This book showed the level of disintegration that had taken place between the middle class African Americans and the ordinary Americans. This higher-class African Americans felt that white was better than black and felt inferior to the white Americans.
The issue of “double consciousness” that had engulfed the middleclass African Americans is what many of the Harlem Renaissance writers, poets, actors and singers addressed. In order for the African Americans to escape from the treatment they received from the whites, it was important that they recognized and appreciated their nature and culture.
The earlier black elites who were considered as the “midwives of the Harlem Renaissance” like Du Bois, Fauset and Locke were against racism. They also did not want to identify with the “low-life” of the black Americans. These intellectuals avoided as much as possible the vernacular of African Americans, which was an integral part of their life and culture. These intellectuals also never accommodated the white people because of their prejudice.
They sometimes used strong language and bitter expressions to refer to the white people. These beliefs and actions of the earlier intellectuals of the Harlem Renaissance are what brought the conflict of goals and aspirations between them and Langston Hughes. Hughes’ work in his first book used a softer language, an issue that made the likes of Du Bois to accuse him of “accommodating to whites, assimilating Eurocentric values and culture for the sake of racial tolerance” (“Life and Career”, Para.10).
Hughes also considered embracing vernacular as an important aspect of any African American who claimed to be true to his or her culture. As much as Du Bois and his contemporaries encouraged the African Americans to embrace their culture, they themselves aspired to distance themselves from the African Americans’ vernacular.
They considered the use of vernacular as embracing the low life of the black Americans, of which they had left behind them. However, for Hughes, vernacular was as important as the culture of the black American poet and community at large.
The African elites were those who had become independent and acquired some property. These people where at first partially accepted by the white Americans. They were allowed to live near the cities of the white people and they very much emulated the whites in the desire to live like them. The elites taught their children that white was right and superior and forced them to live like the white people and they struggled to keep their children away from the culture of the black people (Amada, para. 2).
According to Hughes’ essay “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain”, any child born to the African elites who was found to act as a black person was risking thorough punishment from the parents (Hughes, para.2).
This was the basis of racial confusion in this class of the African Americans. Their major aim was to acquire the living standards of the whites and emulate them in every aspect of their lives, an issue that the literary artists of the Harlem renaissance like Hughes condemned. To these black elites, identifying with the black culture was like living a low standard life, a life of the past.
The Black elites championed the use of education as the means of racial uplift and progress. The elites wanted their children to gain classroom education and practical skills in arts, industry and other areas of education.
This view of the African Americans was a bit different from the view of other African Americans during the Harlem Renaissance who used art to push for social integration between the black people’s community and to condemn the treatment they received from the whites as well as push for reforms.
During these times, there existed “tensions between Du Bois’ faith in an edifying home life, insistence on liberal arts education, desire of white recognition, and resistance to the protectionist ideology espoused by the black elite” (Smith, xvi).
The desire of most of the black elites was to lead a better life like the whites. They therefore emulated the white people and even abandoned their culture in favor of the white people’s culture. They fought for recognition from the whites. Being the elites in the black people’s society, they craved for wealth accumulation, political and leadership positions as well as economic establishment. This was to enable them to compete favorably with the white people in various development issues of their nation.
In conclusion, the African American community was clearly split into groups based on their economic and social status in the society.
There were those poor black Americans who lived a “low life”, middle class black Americans who were struggling to achieve the white’s recognition, and the black elites who were after power, education as well as political and economic achievement. Among the African American elites were the Negro artists who used their literary work to unite the African American community.
They also used their art to pass important messages to the white people and the world at large that racism and stereotypes against the black people were social evils and unjustified. The Harlem renaissance writers like W.E.B. Du Bois and his contemporaries used their writings and songs to demonstrate their ability to the American community.
They also hated racism and condemned it through their work. These people, however, were slowly turning their back on some aspect of the African American culture like their dialect, which united the Negros. Langston Hughes represented the young poets and writers who through their work tried to unite the African American people.
The other African American elites interpreted the message presented in Hughes’ first book of collection of poems The Weary Blues as supporting racism and advocating for a low, poor standard of living for the black Americans. The differences arose due to differences in priorities of the different classes of Negros.
Amada, Ligi. “An Examination of the Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain: A Story by Langston Hughes.” Associated content. Yahoo, Inc., 24 Nov. 2010. Web. http://www.associatedcontent.com/article/1452600/an_examination_ofthe_negro_artist_and.html?cat=37
Hughes, Langston. “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain.” The Nation. BRC News, 23 June 1926. Web. 24 November 2010. http://www.hartford-hwp.com/archives/45a/360.html
“Life and Career.” New World Encyclopedia. Paragon House Publishers, 3 April 2008. Web. 24 Nov. 2010. http://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Langston_Hughes
“Life of Langston Hughes.” The Life of Langston Hughes. Awesome, Inc., 2 June 2007. Web. 24 Nov. 2010. http://lifeoflangstonhughes.blogspot.com/
Smith, Capshaw K. Children’s Literature of the Harlem Renaissance. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2006. Print.