Langston Hughes is regarded as one of the “most eloquent of American poets to have sung the wounds of political injustice.”While some of his poetry can be classified as non-racial most of it can be categorized as literature of protest. Hughes background and personal beliefs were quite influential in his writing and it is reflected in his tremendous discontent for the “white man’s world.” Three of his works that that display this feeling and similar theme include “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” “Porter,” and “Refugee in America.”
Langston Hughes was born and educated in the South during what can be classified as “Jim Crow” years. Although through most of his career he did not really live in the South, he did not forget all of its injustices. In fact, the experiences he gained from that portion of his life became the basis for his form of protest literature. Needless to say, his early life played a major influence throughout his career.
“The Negro Speaks of Rivers”, one of Hughes most famous works, is basically a “history” of black society. In this poem, black society is, in a way, the speaker. The speaker has watched how slavery has taken its people out of a state of nature and placed them into “bondage.” The poem is obviously addressed to the members of black society who seem to find some discontentment in the lifestyle they live in a “white man’s world.”However, there is an optimistic undertone in that the speaker does show how much African Americans have endured. It is obvious that Hughes believes that “black power” will reemerge in one form or another.
Through the course of this poem the speaker is basically saying that he has seen black history from beginning to end and understands all the anguish the black man has endured since being removed from a state of nature. Hughes uses a great deal of connotation throughout this poem. The most obvious example is the word “muddy” which not only arouses a great deal of sensory image but also means “black.” He represents his race with the word “mud.” A major shift in this poem occurs when the speaker mentions the “raising of the pyramids” which was a slave practice of ancient Egypt. While this shows the point at which there was a major “downfall” in black culture there still seems to be an optimistic undertone for the future. In the end the theme seems to be this: If black society keeps pushing anything is possible and blacks could very conceivably return to a state of nature.
“Porter”, another of Hughes works is representative of just how discontent blacks are with the white society in which they live. The speaker in this poem could be any member of black society who recognizes that black society’s actions are what keeps them beneath the white man in terms of society ranking. Throughout this poem the speaker gives way to the wishes of the white man. This poem is directed to any black man who feels dominated by white society.
This poem basically states that all day long black men play servant to whites who “own” the world. It also goes on to say that blacks do nothing more than obey the white mans every order with an endless number of “yes sirs.” There are two major examples of how connotation is utilized throughout this poem. The word “climbing” and the word “owns” both have alternate meanings. “Climbing” means striving to better black life, while “owns” means runs in terms of the white man. Hughes displays a great deal of discontentment for the white man throughout this poem. A shift occurs when he begins to speak of how the “Rich old white man/owns the world.” This shows that blacks are still in a state of “bondage.” The overall theme though seems to be that if the black man keeps serving the white man then he will keep running the world. The black must stand up for himself in order to gain his true freedom.
“Refugee in America”, the final poem selected for analysis in this paper, is a prime example of how Hughes views his place in society. The speaker is a black man who is kept down by the white man’s liberty. While he feels free in his heart, he has never experienced the benefits of this so called “liberty.” The purpose of this poem that has obviously been written to influence black society, is to show black people that freedom in their hearts is not enough. They must organize in order to feel truly liberated.
“Refugee in America” basically states that Freedom is felt in the speaker’s heart but Liberty is far from it. The white man is what has made the speaker “cry.” Hughes once again uses a small amount of connotation throughout the course of the poem. The major example is the word “sings.” It seems to truly mean stresses or emphasizes. This poem is indeed written with a truly remorseful attitude. The major shift occurs in the second stanza when the speaker begins to speak of Liberty. Rather than feeling liberty in his heart it does nothing more than make him cry. When he states “If you had known what I knew/ you would know why it is obvious that he has had some traumatic experience in which the white man has treated him poorly. Very similar to the rest of the poems it is obvious that the theme of this poem involves black society taking action as a whole. It is not enough to “sing” freedom. Black society must gain their liberty as a whole.
“The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” “Porter,” and “Refugee in America” are all prime examples of the way in which Hughes chose to use literature as a form of protest. His experiences in Dixie Land were never forgotten and very obvious throughout his literary career. While very remorseful about his place in society as a black man, Hughes still manages to convey a theme of hope that is still expressed every time his works are read to this day. Langston Hughes would be proud to see just how much the work of he and his colleges has paid off throughout the years.