Expression of racial pride is a concept that has surfaced through history quite often. Due to the nature of colonialism, slavery and it effects, the idea of racial pride under pressure, with people creating their own racial identity within a different cultural setting, is often one of alienation and loneliness. During the critical eras such as the Harlem Renaissance and the Civil Rights Movement, we find the work and effort of many of the great African-American writers like Langston Hughes, whose work often covered the topics of racial pride and the outcry against racism and injustice. We will look at three of his poems which reflect a different aspect of the historical African-American situation.
‘Theme for English B’
This is a poem that explores the time when Langston Hughes was in college, and had to write about anything that came from the heart. In true style, searching in his soul, the poet finds an expression that reflects circumstances and perceptions that focus on the self, and existence as an African-American. Hughes runs through such normal activities such as going home and listing what he likes and what he wants. He raises an interesting crux then:
I guess being colored doesn’t make me not like
the same thing other folks like who are other races.
So will my page be colored that I write?
Being me, it will not be white.
But it will be
a part of you, instructor.
You are white – (25-31)
This is an interesting statement in that it draws the distinction between being white and being colored, a persistent issue that crops up often in racially oriented writing. It reflects on the instructor of the class being white and ‘instructing’ a colored man. Although there is no real evidence to support a cause for resistance or defiance to this, the fact remains implied that Hughes makes this distinction, but without promoting resentment, states that he likes what “other folks like who are other races” (26). The lines that follow reserves the right to have pride in being colored, without submitting to wanting to be what like other races. Hughes cements this notion in lines 32-38, stating a communal, patriotic element of cooperation:
yet a part of me, as I am a part of you.
Sometimes perhaps you don’t want to be part of me.
Nor do I often want to be part of you.
But we are, that’s true!
As I learn from you,
I guess you learn from me –
This poem comes from a period of Hughes’ life that explored the idea of Africans displaced from the African continent. He effectively simulates a sense of longing by drawing from the idea of an unexplained feeling, of songs that come from far away. He advances the idea that Africa leaves its imprint even long after the people have been moved from there, cementing the echo thereof with three lines (1-3, 21-23):
So far away
Another interesting thing that he recalls here is the last line, 24, that expresses his connection or kinship with Africa, even after all the time separated: “Dark face.” Hughes promotes the idea here that, although the African-Americans find themselves becoming culturally part of American society – in some form or another, the call of Africa had imprinted itself on all the African-Americans who could trace their history to the dark continent, leaving an permanent effect.
With this poem we find Hughes focusing on the essence of democracy, of the system that is supposed to uphold the freedom and individual rights of every human being, irrespective of skin color. This poem draws strongly on the period of American history demarcated by the Civil Rights Movement, and Hughes is quite firm in his sympathetic beliefs here, stating rights equal to that of any other human being. This is expressed most clearly in lines 5-9:
I have as much right
As the other fellow has
On my two feet
And own the land.
The essence of land can be compared to the idea of African-Americans having been displaced, taken from their past and their homes. Equal rights would entail that African-Americans would also be able to own land in America and thus become part of American society – be part of the collective whole, just as every other American is, regardless of skin color or race. The urge to compel their rights, and the struggle that would invariably be necessary, is encapsulated in lines 15-18:
Is a strong seed
In a great need.
Hughes furthers and finalizes the argument of equality, the demand to be heard and accepted, as well as the need for individual freedom not based on race through lines 19-21:
I live here, too
I want freedom
Just as you.
The contributions made by Langston Hughes, not only in poetry but also in other forms of writing, have become a written testament to the troubling times that African-Americans underwent before they finally secured the equal rights they sought so hard to achieve. Hughes reflects every facet of growing up and living as an African-American in a marginalized, mostly white environment. The poems discussed show Hughes’ pride in his race, and his refusal to submit and be subverted. Where there is a fairly everyday feel to ‘Theme for English B’, we find a core focus that explains unity, rather than forcing division by showing that white and black Americans are so very different. In ‘Afro-American Fragment,’ Hughes explored the unconscious aspects that shape the longing of African-Americans, the yearning back to Africa, and in ‘Democracy’ we return again, with a little more force and directness, to the issue of equality and integration. It should be argued though, as Hughes was wont to point out, that this integration would not be accomplished through subversion, but on terms that make space for the African-American, or any other race to thrive and flourish in a unified, collective whole, without prejudice or injustice.