Langston Hughes: Poet Laureate of the Negro Race

AJC Sepia Black History Month


The voice of Langston Hughes was the voice of black America.

He knew rivers “ancient as the world and older than the flow of human blood in human veins.”

He wondered if deferred dreams “dry up like a raisin in the sun?”

When he doubted the country that had given him 400 years of slavery and Jim Crow, he cried, “Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed.”

Whether they called him the “Shakespeare of Harlem” or the “Poet Laureate of the Negro Race,” the Missouri-born Hughes played a significant role in defining black culture, beauty and art as a pioneering figure in the Harlem Renaissance.

Scholar Henry Louis Gates wrote that the genius of Hughes’ “deceptively simple” writing “lay in expressing black consciousness, interpreting to the people the beauty within themselves, and in raising the racial folk form to literary art. He used the incredibly creative poetry of black language, blues and jazz to construct an Afro-American aesthetic that rarely has been surpassed.”

Between the height of the Harlem Renaissance in 1926 and the dawn of the Black Arts Movement in 1967, Hughes — who was also a social activist — wrote 16 books of poetry and more than a dozen works of nonfiction and children’s books. Recent scholars believe that the use of the dream trope in many of Hughes’ poems inspired Martin Luther King Jr.

In September, when the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture — the grand collection of everything horrible and beautiful about black America — opened in Washington, D.C., visitors were greeted inside with large graven letters on the wall reading: “I, too, am America,” the last line of his 1926 poem “I, too.”

He was right.

Celebrate Black History Month

Throughout February, we’ll spotlight a different African-American pioneer in the daily Living section Monday through Thursday and Saturday, and in the Metro section on Fridays and Sundays. Go to myAJC.com/black-history-month for more subscriber exclusives on people, places and organizations that have changed the world, and to see videos on the African-American pioneer featured here each day.



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