The authors featured in our exhibit American Voices represent the evolution and flourishing of American writing. Writers of the 1600s and 1700s borrowed forms and themes from Europe, applying them to New World settings and issues. Then, over the course of the 1800s, a new, democratic style emerged, rooted in the way Americans talked and thought. Previously underrepresented voices began to be heard, culminating with an explosion of perspectives in the modern era. Taken together, this rich literary heritage reflects America in all of its complexity: its energy, hope, conflict, disillusionment, and creativity.
Estimated reading time: 3 minutes
Born in Missouri, Langston Hughes lived in New York during the 1920s, where he was a key figure of the Harlem Renaissance. Yet he was also a citizen of the world. His wide-ranging travels showed him “that most people are generally good,” a fundamental belief that guided his vast body of work. Best known as a poet, Hughes also wrote novels, short stories, newspaper columns, plays, memoirs, and children’s books.
Hughes felt that all people deserved access to art. He wrote in an honest and accessible style and celebrate African-American culture—its hardships, joy, and music. Several poems, like “The Weary Blues” (1926), borrow directly from the blues, while the book-length Montage of a Dream Deferred (1951) was inspired by bebop.
“O, let my land be a land where Liberty
Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,
But opportunity is real, and life is free,
Equality is in the air we breathe.
(There’s never been equality for me,—Langston Hughes, “Let America Be America Again” (1935)
Nor freedom in this “homeland of the free.”)”
“The gossamer grace of Langston Hughes’s lyric verse served at times to balance and frame the weighty truths about racial injustice to which the poet bore witness. Hughes also turned his lyric gifts to a celebration of Black culture both as a wellspring of racial pride and as a vibrant strand of America’s unfinished story. ‘My seeking,’ Hughes wrote, ‘has been to explain and illuminate the Negro condition in America and obliquely that of all human kind.'” —Leonard S. Marcus, Children’s Book Historian, Writer, Critic
For more insights into the life and legacy of Langston Hughes, listen to the first episode of our podcast Dead Writer Drama about Hughes and his friendship and eventual falling out with Zora Neale Hurston. Our co-hosts Jennifer Keishin Armstrong and Zakiya Dalila Harris discuss this feud with guest Yuval Taylor, author of Zora and Langston: A Story of Friendship and Betrayal. Listen to the episode at this link here or wherever you listen to podcasts.