Racism and problems of race relations continue to generate injustice and racial animosity around the world. The problem is not confined to any one people or country, but the case of the United States is better known in the English speaking world.
The poetry of Langston Hughes comes from a period in which racism had reached a peak – what is known as the “Jim Crow” era. The United States civil war ended slavery, but it didn’t end racism. Gradually racism took a stronger hold in society and by the early 20th century it gave rise to toxic theories of racial supremacy and scientific racism. A fierce segregation was instituted between “races” – a segregation of the same kind as found in the South African apartheid era. It was a time when inter-racial marriage was a crime in many states of the United States.
African Americans were regarded as lesser human beings – excluded and marginalised in American society. Science was used as justification for oppression and prejudice.
Langston Hughes was an African American poet who spoke to this condition. He is well known as one of the leaders of the African American cultural movement known as the Harlem Renaissance. The use of poetry and other art forms was an assertion of equal humanity and an exploration of African American identity. Langston Hughes’ poetry addresses not only the African American experience but also the experience of others at the margins of U.S. society. In 1963, Langston Hughes was awarded an honorary doctorate by Howard University. Langston Hughes died in 1967. He is now celebrated as a great American poet.
Below is a video and some extracts that speak to realities that Langston Hughes’ work addressed .
Oh, God of Dust and Rainbows,
Help us to see
That without the dust the rainbow
Would not be.
O, let America be America again—
The land that never has been yet—
And yet must be—the land where every man is free.
The land that’s mine—the poor man’s, Indian’s, Negro’s, ME—
Who made America,
Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,
Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,
Must bring back our mighty dream again.
Sure, call me any ugly name you choose—
The steel of freedom does not stain.
From those who live like leeches on the people’s lives,
We must take back our land again,
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath—
America will be!