We can do a lot, but we can’t do it all…so get yourself a little loving in between.

While doing some basic research on Langston Hughes I came across this statement from a Yale website: “The poetry of Langston Hughes is considered as a representation of the African-American experience.”  I’d like to comment on this statement, particularly in light of our discussion in class about the inherent racism of the canon and qualification as ethnic writers in general.  First of all, I really enjoyed reading Montage of a Dream Deferred in its entirety.  Whenever a poet designs a serial poem such as this, it gives us a whole other dimension of meaning and enjoyment, by taking note of the order of the poems and the progression of them.  Montage is incredible in its depiction of different voices and experiences, the use of musical sounds and rhythms, and the interesting inclusion of war poems.  However, I find it incredibly presumptuous for someone to claim that this poetry is the representative of all African American experience.  Sure, as evident in the social nature of some of the poems, Hughes is fighting for an African American voice and equality, which he does by highlighting vignettes in the lives of ordinary people.  The first poem in the series, “Dream Boogie”, draws attention to what may be a common experience for minorities:

“…You’ll hear their feet
Beating out and beating out a –

You think
It’s a happy beat?

Listen to it closely:
Ain’t you heard
something underneath
like a—

What did I say?

I’m happy!
Take it away!…”

Here Hughes is implying that African Americans are unable to express their true discontent with their lot in society, they must cover it up with happiness (it is called the blues).  There are plenty of poems in this sequence that focus on the African American experience, but there are plenty that focus on human experience in general.  For example, “What? So Soon!” is a humorous expression of exasperation and surprise that a woman is pregnant again, so soon.  And one of my favorite poems in this series, “Advice”, tells us in a perfect, succinct, and rhythmic flow of the truth of all human life:

“…birthing is hard
and dying is mean–
so get yourself
a little loving
in between.”

There is nothing in this poem to refer to any specific race, and I do not think there should be, this is the advice and truth for all humanity.  I think it is important that not all of Hughes’ poems be race specific, for that reinforces the very difference that he is striving to eliminate.  To illustrate equality, I think Hughes aptly mixes racially ambiguous poems in with his more socially charged.  To this end, Hughes also gives us some vignettes of other repressed groups, to convey the inequalities and misunderstandings among people as a whole.  Like in “Café: 3 a.m.”, Hughes sets a scene where “fairies” (homosexuals, I’m assuming) are called “degenerates”, but Hughes’ speaker interrupts:

“But God, Nature,
or somebody
made them that way.”

If Hughes can acknowledge this universality among people with different sexualities, why can’t all races acknowledge their universality as humans?  In searching for moments in Hughes that look outside the African American experience, of which I have barely skimmed the surface here, I am not looking to claim Hughes’ purpose for him.  In “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain”, and throughout his work, Hughes makes it clear that he wants black people to celebrate their blackness and to fight to be themselves and gain equality by doing it.  However, there seems to be somewhat of a dichotomy in this goal: to be seen as equal, you should not have to be like the majority, but rather all should be equal on the basis of their individuality and their humanity.  Yet, the division into groups and the claiming of a distinct “African American” voice versus a “white American” voice seems to reinforce the differences between groups, which as unfortunately has been the case throughout human history, often leads to hierarchy.  And there is no way that a single person can represent the experience of an entire group; while they may be able to capture general sentiments among a group of people, experience still always varies due to all kinds of outside factors.  Hughes is great, but he is not the representative of all black experience, just like Whitman is great, and contains multitudes, but he does not represent the voice of all white Americans either.

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2 Responses to We can do a lot, but we can’t do it all…so get yourself a little loving in between.

  1. Olivia James says:

    I agree with you, I don’t think Hughes actually wants or tries to speak for his entire race. I think he wants to account his experience as honestly and accurately as possible, while hopefully relating to others – and isn’t connecting to others based on shared experiences and emotions everyone’s ultimate goal?

  2. Trent Derrick says:

    I agree as well… It was the goal of his literature to tell the story of Langston Hughes in the hopes that the reader could garner a better understand who he was as a person. To assume that his writing accounts for the entire Black experience is far too broad.

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