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Langston Hughes: The Soul of Harlem
Desmin Braxton

When I first heard about Langston Hughes I was 13. My social studies teacher was teaching us about African-American history, and she read some of Hughes’s poetry out loud. I liked his poems and I was interested in the fact that he lived in Harlem, which is where I’m from.

Hughes represented to me the greatness of an African-American poet. He wrote about daily life in American cities and people’s anger, love, and struggles. To black people, he was the “Harlem poet.” He made it possible for other African-American poets to be noticed, which means he paved the way for me. He has influenced me to overcome the street and become a writer.

Hughes was born in Joplin, Missouri in 1902. He attended Columbia University in New York and began living in Harlem. Hughes became one of the most famous writers of the Harlem Renaissance, an artistic movement of the 1920s and 30s in which black musicians, poets, actors, and writers were able to blossom. During the Harlem Renaissance, African American literature was noticed by the entire world and taken seriously by critics for the first time.

Hughes was inspired by the many kinds of art he saw on the streets of Harlem. African paintings with colorful images influenced his poetry. So did the rhythms of blues and jazz and the way black people spoke. He sent out his poems to The Crisis, which was a magazine for people of color that included writings about racism and discrimination around the country. The magazine gave many young black writers a chance to show their talents when publications run by whites would not accept their work.

Some of his poems are observations of everyday life. Some even seem like short stories. In 1926, when he was only 24, he published his first poem, “The Weary Blues,” about Harlem life. In “The Weary Blues,” Hughes described Lenox Avenue at nighttime, hearing people listen to jazz, people outside in the bright lights. I like this because Lenox Avenue is still an important place in Harlem. Even then, it was where everybody hung out and where most of the energy of the neighborhood was at.

Keeping the Dream Alive

There are days when I am reminded that the Harlem Renaissance continues. I feel this as I pass by 135th St. on Lenox Ave., where people still sell African books and our history is painted all over the buildings in murals. When I pass by places like this, I think of Hughes.

Hughes made me think outside the box about poetry. One thing I like about Hughes’s poetry is that he’s so descriptive that you can picture what he’s saying in your head; it’s like he’s making you daydream. For example, in the poem “A Dream Deferred” he writes, “What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun? Or fester like a sore—and then run?”

I like this metaphor. I think it means that your dreams will disappear and die out if you don’t pursue them. Hughes was speaking for people who suffered during times of open racism and segregation. In Harlem and many other black communities there was a lot of poverty, before, during, and after the Great Depression. African-Americans were discriminated against and often couldn’t get jobs. Stores were shut down and put out of business.

Before Hughes died in 1967, he changed a lot of things for black people, not only in Harlem but across America. Racism meant we often weren’t allowed to speak out and express ourselves, and writing poetry took courage. I’m sure some people didn’t think they had the heart or brains to describe something intelligently because they’d been put down for so long and made to feel stupid. Hughes showed them that they, too, had something important to say.

Who Will Lead Harlem Today?

image by YC-Art Dept

Hughes never ran for office and he wasn’t a minister, but as an artist, he was a cultural leader. He is still a leader because he made it possible for many people of color to get published and for other black artists to keep making art even when they face obstacles and criticism.

I went to the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem to find out more about Hughes. It’s a branch of the New York City Public Library devoted to studying the history and cultures of people of African descent. The Schomburg Center is only a few blocks from my home and I’d walked past it many times without realizing what was inside.

At the Schomburg Center, I met a guy named Steven Fullwood. He is an archivist and expert in African-American history who has studied Hughes. Steven was an intelligent man who dressed like a professor. He welcomed me and made me feel comfortable. He talked on a level that made sense to me, but at the same time he respected my intelligence.

Steven and I talked not only about Hughes, but about what it’s like growing up in Harlem today. I told him that I think a lot of young people in Harlem don’t seem to value life—they don’t give it a second thought. Too many kids today go get a gun and shoot somebody or beat someone and don’t have any emotion or guilt about it. They don’t think about the outcome before they act. It’s not that they’re dumb, but that’s all they know. They focus all their energy into the streets.

Steven agreed that it is not easy to be a young black man growing up in Harlem today. Too many people in Harlem have no dreams to start with because they have no hope. All you see surrounding you is negativity, and that makes you vulnerable to becoming the same thing, to be nothing in life.

We Need to Be Heard

One of my favorite Hughes poems is “Dreams.” I like this poem because it encourages me to keep my dreams alive, despite my many setbacks. It’s amazing when I read this poem how it gives me strength and belief in myself. This line really makes me keep my dream:

“Hold fast to dreams for if dreams die life is a broken-winged bird that cannot fly.”

When I read that, I believe anything is possible and if I give up, I give up for the rest of my life.

But the reality of Harlem today is that there are too many black people trying to fight, stab, and shoot each other. There are too many street gangs. Harlem shouldn’t be a battle zone for black people.

If he were here today, I believe Hughes would think we were destroying Harlem. We follow the wrong people. We need to follow someone who can be a hero or a leader for black people. Harlem needs a strong person with a strong voice to lead them.

For kids in Harlem and in general to become great they need to see greatness. Hughes could be that role model still because he reminds the young people of Harlem that they can have a voice. His voice could still inspire kids to develop their writing talent and use it to be heard in the struggle.

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