Born in Joplin, Missouri, in 1902, Langston Hughes said, “My earliest memories of written words were those of W.E.B. Du Bois and the Bible.” In 1919, in an essay called “The Damnation of Women,” W.E.B Dubois wrote that “women have been frankly trodden under the feet of men,” but of women themselves he stated that “None have been more sweetly feminine, more unswervingly loyal, more desperately earnest, and more instinctively pure in body and in soul than the daughters of my black mothers.
” As caregivers, partners, muses, and leaders, Langston Hughes would continue this recognition through poems and short stories that were dynamic in their interpretations of black womanhood. He depicted them as multidimensional individuals, real in a time where where women in general were seen from an aesthetic distance as ideals. By creating women who were complex, Hughes demonstrated universal human qualities in an African American context that would transform both race and womanhood.
Hughes grew up in Kansas with his maternal grandmother, Mary, after his parents separated and pursued work.
Jim Crow laws and poverty shaped him into a radical writer. He graduated high school in 1919, right before the decade after women won the right to vote and the decade of the embodiment of the liberated woman in the image of the flapper. He attended Columbia University for a year and then traveled throughout Europe and Africa before returning to the states. Before he graduated from Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, he was already producing and publishing works.
Moving to the burrow of Harlem, New York, changed the course of his life as well as other African Americans moving to this area at the time. Hughes became intricately apart of what is referred to as the Harlem Renaissance, a cultural explosion which brought to the forefront of American consciousness an outpouring of literary expression on black themes by young black writers.
In the poem, “Mother and Son,” Hughes uses an extended metaphor to symbolize the personal and spiritual importance of struggle, endurance, and faith as a black woman in America. Structurally, the poem provides the folk diction and rhythm that made the mother real. The lines have varying syllabic length which simulates the inflections of black speech. By also using her as the main voice, Hughes gives her a platform to speak for herself, about her own experience. Using the metaphor of a stairway, the mother tells her son that the journey of life more closely resembles a long, trying walk up the dark, decrepit stairways of a tenement than a glide down a “crystal stair.” The “crystal stair” is a metaphor for the American dream and its promise that all Americans shall have equal opportunities. Through the metaphor of ascent, however, Hughes suggests how the mother has kept hope and faith for a life out of poverty to one of redemption. Hughes connected a natural human endeavor of progression and success with the advice from this wise mother, with the last lines reading,
For I’se still goin’, honey,
I’se still climbin’,
And life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.
The work, “The Negro Mother,” also uses the metaphor of of a staircase to captivate the theme of black woman humanity, endurance, and celebration. As in the earlier poem, the rhythm results in a simulation of black rhetoric. The reader becomes aware of the longevity of black suffering in America- three hundred years. During this period, unmentioned experiences forged the “dream like steel” in the mother’s soul. The fervor of this dream gave birth to a determination. Consequently, the dream also inspired her to survive a valley “filled with tears” and a road “hot with sun.” Although she has been beaten and mistreated, and warns her offspring that racial restrictions still exist, her spirit has endured. The mother overcame the selling of her children, her inability to read and write, the everyday labors of working in fields, all while having “no safety, no love, no respect…” Nevertheless, the will of the mother tries to inspire and motivate the children of future generations,
Oh, my dark children, may my dreams and my prayers
Impel you forever up the great stairs –
For I will be with you till no white brother
Dares keep down the children of the Negro Mother.
In the poem, “A Song to a Negro Wash-Woman,” Hughes also resinates humanistic sentiments. Though it is not in the specific voice of a woman, it recognizes and celebrates the many that worked for white families. The work describes the type of chores and long hours that African American working women endured to get by and provide for their families,
I know how you send your children to school, and high
school, and even college.
I know how you work and help your man when times are hard.
I know how you build your house up from the wash-tub
and call it home.
The poem also reveals the secret of black art: the ability to transform suffering into good:
And I’ve seen you singing, wash-woman. Out in the back-
yard garden under the apple trees, singing, hanging
white clothes on long lines in the sun-shine.
In conclusion, Langston Hughes seems to be determined to not only show himself, but women as individuals. His portraits do not show them as passive victims, but as people who are trying to make the best choice from the few options available. Focusing on the poor and displaces, using grittier language, often in black dialect, he still manages to embody African American women as a positive and active concept of womanhood, despite maybe her low speech and probable life of poverty. By using ugly images and sometimes ugly language, Hughes shows the rest of society the type of extent prejudice that black american women faced.
Hughes used the recognition and renaissance of female back consciousness to echo his wishes of the world. He believed that “the elevation of black women were inseparable from racial progress,” and by showing them as more complex, more real, and less as symbols of sexuality, Hughes promoted an idea in which women were celebrated as taking control of their futures despite having racial and gender limitations. If he did not show black womanhood as beautiful, he did show them as having a degree of power. Hughes expressed, in a time that was deeply racist and segregated, that African American women were not only exceptional, but were human. They deserved respect.