Protest Poetry: Langston Hughes’ Call for African American Rights, Equality, and Respect

Carl Van Vechten, © Van Vechten Trust. Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University

Langston Hughes is certainly most known as a popular, prolific figure of the Harlem Renaissance, or New Negro Movement,” a period where African Americans found their artistic identity, in turn creating their own artistic community. Hughes stands out for his prideful and reflective poems like, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” but also for his rebellious poetry such as, “I, Too” and “A Dream Deferred.” Because the movement appealed to both a Black and White audience, some authors, like W. E. B. DuBois, were critical of some of the poetry produced because of its salaciousness, feeling that he didn’t want the African American community to be presented in this light.

In his article, “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain” Hughes inadvertently responded by saying, “The Negro artist works against an undertow of sharp criticism and misunderstanding from his own group and unintentional bribes from the whites. ‘Oh, be respectable, write about nice people, show how good we are,’ say the Negroes,” (Hughes 1926) challenging these criticisms from his own community and asserting that the majority and the core of the movement furnished, “a wealth of colorful, distinctive material for any artist because they still hold their own individuality in the face of American standardizations,” (Hughes 1926). Therefore, Hughes’ existence and presence in and outside of the movement was protest in itself; he existed in this worldly space to pronounce his blackness and protest against those (both Black and White) who opposed its truth, whether ugly or beautiful, and this is apparent in his poems “Harlem,” “Freedom,” and “Go Slow” which all assert the immediate need for change, for African American rights, for equality, and most importantly respect.

Not only does Hughes use protest within his poetry, but the structure and form of much of his poetry is protest as well. His words and his message cannot be confined to a fixed form. Just as he resisted the restrictions that some tried to put on Black expression, Hughes also resists the rules of rhyme, meter, and stanzas; “Harlem” is one example of this. In the poem, “Harlem,” Hughes uses the contextual history of the African American community to examine current-day issues and compares the Northern city to hell — “Here on the edge of hell / Stands Harlem…” (Hughes 4). This introduction leaves nothing to the readers imagination. The author’s position in the world, specifically in Harlem, New York, feels like “hell” or agony. While there, feeling this agony, the author remembers how it was before, “remembering the old lies, / The old kicks in the back, / The old ‘Be patient’” (Hughes 4) that he has heard before.

This introduction to the poem is almost like a conversation. There are no figures-of-speech or complex metaphors to deter the audience. Hughes also uses language like “we” in the poem as to speak for the Black community, and not just from the author’s point-of-view. Hughes lets the audience know that the community is reminded every time they do something as simple as go to the corner store and are told that the prices have gone up, that they have never had that job, they could never get that job, and that’s why they don’t currently have that job, “Because we’re colored,” (Hughes 4). To me, this line is the centerpiece of the poem; it is the reasoning for the remembering, the “old kicks in the back,” and why African Americans have to stand on the edge of hell, in Harlem, and wonder what they are going to do in the face of these memories.

The theme of resisting, or protesting, the call to “be patient,” as it’s mentioned in “Harlem,” and to wait it out, or to take it slow, is prevalent among much of his poems, including “Freedom” and “Go Slow.” Comparatively, these poems are similar because they both criticize a call from some in society to “slow” down and “let things take their course” in regard to fighting for equality and against the oppressive system in America. In the piece, “Freedom,” the structure is again, open and non-conforming. It is broken into four stanzas so that the reader may pay attention to each particular point, each particular message contained within that stanza. The tone is not demanding or overbearing, but assertive. The poem protests his rights and freedom that have been vehemently denied to him as a Black man. Hughes points out that he is tired of people telling him to wait to take action, or to wait for his freedom, that it will come eventually. Likewise, in the piece “Go Slow” Hughes criticizes “they” for saying to take it easy, “While the bite / Of the dog is fast,” (Hughes 90).

Freedom is the theme in both poems, but in “Go Slow” Hughes focuses more on asking why? Why should he go slow when “they” tell him where he can and cannot dine, where he can and cannot reside, and where he can and cannot work. Why should he wait for the respect he and the entire Black community are owed? He also wonders if he is supposed to be more like God and forgive the actions of his oppressors and “meekly live,” (Hughes 91) In “Freedom” Hughes doesn’t do any asking, only asserting that he needs his freedom now, and that he has every right to that freedom; he has every right to live, work, and eat where he pleases.

One other difference is also apparent in the language used in each poem. In lines two and three of the poem “Go Slow,” Hughes employs metaphor: “Go slow, they say — / While the bite / Of the dog is fast.” (Hughes 90) While this could mean that “they,” or society, are saying it will be easier to fight their oppressor off and earn the respect they are fighting for when they (the oppressor) are not being so aggressive, given the time-frame of the poem, it’s clear that this is also a play-on-words for the dog attacks that happened in Birmingham, Alabama during the Civil Rights Movement, in which police officers had their dogs attack Black men and women on the streets protesting.

In conclusion, while each of Hughes’ poems may have different meanings, and they may be consumed by different audiences, and have different formats or structures, the theme appears to be quite linear and loud: rights, equality, and respect. During his time, the fact that Langston Hughes and others expressed themselves artistically and questioned the societal, oppressive issues of America, was protest in itself. African Americans were, and still are to the repressive system in America, considered less than their counterparts and unable to fit into what the imaginary American model is. Hughes, through his writings, forces you to look at what freedom means in this country; what does it mean to the reader? Is it the same as the author? The fact that these poems still resonate today supports the validity of his message, of his protest.

Works Cited
Hughes, Langston. The Panther & the Lash. Vintage Classics, 1992.
“Langston Hughes: ‘The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain’ (1926).” Modern American
Poetry, https://www.modernamericanpoetry.org/content/langston-hughes-negro-artist-
and-racial-mountain-1926.

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