These 11 Minutes Start Off As A Celebration Of Words And End Up As A Mad Critique Of America

Lori White Curator:

Society tends to base its definition of what’s culturally important on very arbitrary requirements. But by combining blues with poetry and sermons with sonnets, Langston Hughes was able to express a free, rebellious, culturally important American soul. No requirements required.

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John Green: Hi, I'm John Green. This is Crash Course Literature, and today we're going to discuss the poetry of Langston Hughes. So, the Harlem Renaissance was an early 20th century movement in which writers and artists of color explored what it means to be an artist, what it means to be black and what it means to be an American and also what it means to be all three of those things at the same time.

Mr. Green, Mr. Green, does the Harlem Renaissance have anything to do with that Renaissance with like Leonardo Da Vinci and all of the other ninja turtles?

Kind of, but the Harlem Renaissance happened a lot later than the European Renaissance, also on a different continent, and there was much less plague and much more jazz.

OK, so one journalist described the Harlem Renaissance this way. What a crowd. All classes and colors met face to face, ultra aristocrats, bourgeois, communists, park avenue galore, bookers, publishers, Broadway celebs, and Harlemites giving each other the once over. What's the once over? Is that a dirty thing Stan? Apparently it is not a dirty thing.

The Harlem Renaissance began just after the first World War, and lasted into the early years of the great repression, because it turns out it's pretty hard to have a renaissance when no one has any money, as they found out in Venice. And like the European Renaissance, it was a social and political movement, but also an artistic one. I mean it inspired literature, and poetry, music, drama, ethnography, publishing, dance, fashion, probably even some novelty cocktails.

As Langston Hughes wrote about this time, the negro was in vogue.

Oh, it must be time for the open letter. Oh, look it's an floating dictionary. An open letter to language. Hey there language, how's it going. Don't say it's going good language, say it's going well.

So Langston Hughes often used the term negro to refer to African Americans. And when we quote him, or his poetry, we're also going to use that term. But we won't use it when I'm talking about African Americans, or the African American experience, because these days we understand that term to be offensive.

I would argue that this is a good thing about language. It has the opportunity to evolve and to become more inclusive. In short, language, I love you and I am amazed by you every day. Sorry if that sounds creepy. I feel like I might start singing the song from the Bodyguard, so I'm just going to stop right now. Best wishes, John Green.

Right. So the poems, essays and novels at the Harlem Renaissance often discuss the so called double consciousness of the African American experience, a term coined by W.E.B. Dubois in his book, The Souls Of Black Folks, and which you might remember from our To Kill A Mockingbird episode.

Some writers, like Countee Cullen and Claude Mckay use poetic forms historically associated with European white people, like the Shakespearean sonnet, the Petrarchan sonnet, the villanelle, which is like a very fancy sonnet but other writers, including Langston Hughes, chose forms based on African and African American folk forms, you know, fables and spirituals, children's rhymes and blues songs.

This is actually part of modernism generally, as artists sought to mix high and low culture in an attempt to re-invent art. Like see also Marcel Duchamp putting a toilet in an art gallery. I should clarify, there were already toilets in art galleries, he was putting it there as art. Anyway, let's go to the thought bubble for some background on Langston Hughes.

Hughes was born in 1902 in Missouri to mixed race parents who divorced early. He grew up in Kansas, and began to write poetry in high school, mostly because white students chose him as class poet.
In his autobiography he wrote, well everyone knows, except us, that all negros have rhythm, so they elected me class poet. I felt I couldn't let my white classmates down and I've been writing poetry ever since.

Hughes's father wanted him to become a mining engineer, so Hughes went to Columbia University, but he left after his freshman year, in part because other students had snubbed him, and in part because he actually didn't want to be a mining engineer. So he signed on to work on a boat going more or less around the world, returning a couple of years later, this is true, with a red haired monkey named Jocko.

He didn't enjoy the trip very much, but that might have actually been a good thing, because as he wrote in his autobiography, my best poems were all written when I felt the worst. When I was happy, I didn't write anything, which stands in stark contrast to all the happy poets, you know Emily Dickinson, Sylvia Plath, Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

Hughes aimed to write in accessible, familiar language, and in that he was influenced by poets like Paul Laurence Dunbar, and also people like Carl Sandburg and Walt Whitman, all of whom wrote in vernacular, every day language in the hopes that their work could appeal to a larger audience.

Thanks Laurence Dunbar. So, as Hughes wrote in an 1927 essay, classical forms didn't support the work he wanted to do. Certainly the Shakespearean sonnet would be no mold in which to express the life of Beale Street or Lenox Avenue, nor could the emotions of State Street be captured in rondeau.

I am not interested in doing tricks with rhymes, I am interested in reproducing the human soul, if I can and this is what makes Hughes such an important poet. He brilliantly combines formal poetry with the oral tradition, and he refuses to draw a bright line between fine art and folk art.

OK, in order to have a better understanding of Hughes's approach to poetry, let's look at an early manifesto he wrote called The Negro Artist And The Racial Mountain. In this essay he criticizes other black writers for being too interested in white culture and white forms.

He writes this is the mountain standing in the way of any true negro art in America, this urge within the race toward whiteness, the desire to pour racial individuality into the mold of American standardization, and to be as little negro and as much American as possible.

Now, some black writers like Countee Cullen accused Hughes of being too black, like in a review of Hughes's first book, Cullen wrote there's too much emphasis on strictly negro themes but then again, later on, James Baldwin would condemn Hughes for not diving deep enough into African American experience. Like Baldwin wrote that Hughes's poems take refuge finally in a fake simplicity in order to avoid the very difficult simplicity of the experience.

Sorry out there for you Langston Hughes. Anyway, let's make up our own mind. I think the best way to get a sense of how Langston Hughes expresses himself is probably to like actually read a couple of his poems.

Let's begin with The Negro Speaks Of Rivers. "I've known rivers, I've known rivers ancient as the world and older than the flow of human blood in human veins, my soul has grown deep like the rivers. I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young. I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep. I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it. I heard the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln went down to New Orleans, and I've seen its muddy bosom turn all golden in the sunset. I've known rivers, ancient, dusky rivers. My soul has grown deep like the rivers."

Here's a bit of news that would be discouraging to most of you aspiring writers out there. Hughes wrote that poem just after graduating from high school. He was riding a train to see his estranged father and he passed over the Mississippi. He writes, "I began to think about what that river, the old Mississippi had meant to Negros in the past and then I began to think about other rivers in our past. The Congo, and the Niger, and the Nile in Africa, and the thought came to me, I've known rivers. And I put it down on the back of an envelope that I had in my pocket, and within the space of 10 or 15 minutes as the train gathered speed in the dusk, I had written this poem."

Are you even serious, 10 or 15 minutes. Tha ... wha ... really?

So The Negro speaks of rivers is in the lyric mode, it's poetry trying to capture an internal emotional state. He uses of vision of these rivers to transcend his immediate relationships and connect himself instead to all of his African forefathers, trading the immediate for the immortal.

The repetition of I've known rivers at the beginning and my soul has grown deep like the rivers at the middle and end, gives the poem the feeling of like a sermon, or spiritual, in keeping with Hughes's use of folk forms.

And then there's the catalog of active verbs, "I bathed, I built, I listened, I looked." Those verbs show people actively participating in human life and having agency, that even amid oppression and dehumanization these people were still building and listening and looking.

And then in the latter part of the poem there are adjectives that in other poems, might be used pejoratively like muddy and dusky, that are linked with other adjectives golden, ancient, that encourage us to perceive them in a far more positive light. So, darkness and brownness are seen as lustrous and valuable and revered.

And I know that some of you will say, oh you're over reading the poem, Hughes didn't mean any of this stuff, to which I say, it doesn't matter, these are still interesting and cool uses of language. Although as it happens, I'm not over reading it. Anyway, let's look at one more poem, Harlem, written in 1951.

What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun or fester like a sore and then run? Does it stink like rotten meat or crust and sugar over like a syrupy sweet? Maybe it just sags like a heavy load or does it explode?

The dream here is likely a version of the American dream, a dream that at the time Hughes wrote the poem was still denied to most African Americans and in that sense it's kind of optimistic that Hughes uses the term deferred rather than like destroyed or forbidden.

There's also a great moment earlier in that same book of poems in which Hughes writes good morning daddy, aint you heard, the boogie, woogie rumble of a dream deferred, which uses the conventions of blues music to associate the deferral of the dream with like a boogie woogie rumble? But the imagery in this poem is very negative, it often takes things that are sweet and then makes them horrifying.

You've got dried raisins, running sores, I guess sores aren't that sweet, but you do have crusty sweets. Even the verbs are negative dry, fester, stink, crust, sag, and that works against any real optimism.

This is all made even more interesting and complicated by the fact that the poem sounds like a nursery rhyme. It has neat, perfect, one syllable rhymes like sun and run, meat and sweet but then you have the layout of the poem, which resists conventional stanzas and that troubles the simplicity here. Also the rhythm of the poem is always changing, like this isn't straight iambic pentameter or anything like that, and that makes it hard to build into a comfortable pace as the reader.

And then there's that last line or does it explode, which from a meter perspective is totally fascinating, because there is a stress on every single syllable or does it explode. I don't want to get too witcritty on you, but it's like the last line itself is trying to explode, because there's no break, no relief. So, the rhymes make it sound harmless, like it's from a children's book, but the imagery and rhythm tell another, much more barbed story.

And this is definitely one of Hughes's more political poems. He's warning that if circumstances don't change, there might be dangerous consequences. This one preceded the book on The Civil Rights Movement, but it suggests that withholding true equality has real risks and real costs to everyone in a social order.

There are so many other great quotes in Hughes's poems that we don't have time to discuss like Dream boogie, I too, Dream variations, Theme for English B. I want to share just one more with you, no witcrit or anything, just the poem.

"Folks, I'm telling you, birthing is hard and dying is mean, so get yourself a little loving in between." See, sometimes literature is just in the business of providing good advice. Thanks for watching, I'll see you next week.

Crash course is filmed in the Chad and Stacey [inaudible 00:11:02] studio, and it's made with the help of all these nice people. It exists because of your support through, a voluntary subscription service that allows you to support crash course directly. You can find all kinds of great perks on subbable. Thanks to all of our subbable subscribers for keeping crash course free for everyone forever. Thanks again for watching, and as we say in my hometown, don't forget to be awesome.

There may be small errors in this transcript.

I found this awesome lesson in poetry and American-ness and Langston Hughes on John Green’s Tumblr. He was so articulate and thoughtful in this video that I may have spent a few more hours watching more stuff he does? It’s fine. I’ll be fine.

This lesson is part of a larger series of literature explorations called Crash Course. So much goodness in them there hills.

Jun 19, 2014

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