Langston Hughes, A Reminder to be True to Your Art

I had the privilege recently of helping celebrate the works of Langston Hughes at an annual National Poetry Month event organized by one of Santa Barbara’s exceptional poets and teachers, Sojourner Kincaid Rolle.

Rolle had asked me to talk about what lessons Hughes’ lifelong work might hold for writers. Two things struck me as I read through the literature on Hughes’ life and read his poems. One, Hughes believed fervently in being true to oneself as an artist and a writer. Secondly, he collaborated widely with many other artists – musicians, playwrights, essayists and nonfiction book writers.

Born in 1902, Hughes showed early promise as a poet. He was dubbed the poet laureate of his eighth-grade class, and his first collection of poetry was published when he was just 24. He also wrote short stories, novels, nonfiction books, plays, lyrics, children’s books, translations and essays, and ultimately became one of the most famous American writers of his time.

Hughes admonished poets and others repeatedly to be true to themselves and who they were, not only as artists but as people. He was particularly critical of other African-American poets who aimed to, as he put it, “become like white poets.” In his most famous essay, “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain,” published in The Nation in 1926, Hughes wrote:

“One of the most promising of the young Negro poets said to me once, ‘I want to be a poet – not a Negro poet,’ meaning, I believe, ‘I want to write like a white poet’; meaning subconsciously, ‘I would like to be a white poet’; meaning behind that, ‘I would like to be white.’ And I was sorry the young man said that, for no great poet has ever been afraid of being himself.”

Hughes is probably best appreciated for the way he illuminated the African-American experience in the first half of the 20th century. His poems celebrate the culture of ordinary black Americans through their language, their music – blues and jazz – and their shared experiences of discrimination and abuse at the hands of a dominant race. And he became widely recognized as a leader of the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s.

Black intellectuals of the time, though, were harshly critical of his use of common African-American dialect and vernacular in his poetry. One of his assistants, novelist Lindsay Patterson, said, “Serious white critics ignored him, less serious ones compared his poetry to Cassius Clay doggerel, and most black critics only grudgingly admired him.”

Still, he became the first black American to support himself as a writer and lecturer precisely because he was beloved by average black people, who bought his books en masse. The criticism pained him, but he “chose to identify with plain black people – not because it required less effort and sophistication, but precisely because he saw more truth and profound significance in doing so,” Hoyt W. Fuller once wrote.

Hughes explained it best in The Nation essay: “So I am ashamed for the black poet who says, ‘I want to be a poet, not a Negro poet,’ as though his own racial world were not as interesting as any other world. I am ashamed, too, for the colored artist who runs from the painting of Negro faces to the painting of sunsets after the manner of the academicians because he fears the strange un-whiteness of his own features. An artist must be free to choose what he does, certainly, but he must also never be afraid to do what he might choose.”

Finally, a word about collaboration. Writers tend to be solitary creatures. We hole up in our houses, in front of our computers or hunched over our notebooks, pouring out our souls in verse or prose. Hughes sought out other artists and brought new vibrancy to whatever artistic endeavor was under way. He wrote plays with novelist and playwright Zora Neale Hurston. He collaborated on collections of poetry set to music with musicians like Charlie Mingus. He wrote about jazz with British journalist Leonard Feather. He wrote nonfiction books with Roy De Carava and Milton Meltzer, and penned children’s books with Arna Bontemps. He collaborated on essays and songs, plays and translations.

Hughes’ collaborative efforts were not only pioneering but overall represent the kinds of sparkly things that result from artists working together. All the while staying true to themselves.


Here are a couple of my favorite poems by Hughes. The first, Madam and the Phone Bill, exemplifies the black voice and experience for which Hughes became famous.

Madam and the Phone Bill

You say I O.K.ed
O.K.ed it when?
My goodness, Central
That was then!

I'm mad and disgusted
With that Negro now.
I don't pay no REVERSED
CHARGES nohow.

You say, I will pay it--
Else you'll take out my phone?
You better let
My phone alone.

I didn't ask him
To telephone me.
Roscoe knows darn well
Ain't free.

If I ever catch him,
Lawd, have pity!
Calling me up
From Kansas City.

Just to say he loves me!
I knowed that was so.
Why didn't he tell me some'n
I don't know?

For instance, what can
Them other girls do
That Alberta K. Johnson
Can't do--and more, too?

What's that, Central?
You say you don't care
Nothing about my
Private affair?

Well, even less about your
PHONE BILL, does I care!

Un-humm-m! . . . Yes!
You say I gave my O.K.?
Well, that O.K. you may keep--

But I sure ain't gonna pay!


Hughes also was keenly aware that with his own increasing fame, he was in a kind of otherworld where he was embraced by whites who fawned over his success even as he sought to illuminate the experiences of common black folk. This poem says much about his own awareness of this tension:

Dinner Guest: Me
I know I am
The Negro Problem
Being wined and dined,
Answering the usual questions
That come to white mind
Which seeks demurely
To Probe in polite way
The why and wherewithal
Of darkness U.S.A.--
Wondering how things got this way
In current democratic night,
Murmuring gently

Over fraises du bois,
"I'm so ashamed of being white."
The lobster is delicious,
The wine divine,
And center of attention
At the damask table, mine.
To be a Problem on
Park Avenue at eight
Is not so bad.
Solutions to the Problem,
Of course, wait.