Langston Hughes uses numerous themes throughout his poetry. Some significant themes that can be seen in his works are music, dignity, racism, survival, dreams, collective memory, and American identity. My analysis concentrates on three main themes that are common in his poems. These themes are dreams, collective memory, and American identity. These three themes helped Hughes intensify the meaning of his poems, Aunt Sue’s Stories, I, Too, and Harlem. Hughes brought the struggles African Americans faced in America, and he protested how disproportionate it is.
He knew that someday everyone would be treated fairly and be united as Americans. The poems were made to show the true history and sorrows of African Americans.
The theme of collective memory relates to the memory of Africa, the slave trade, and day to day oppression that African Americans endured. Through his poems, Hughes was able to keep the past alive so it wasn’t forgotten. He wanted Blacks to remember their ancestors and what they went through.
He uses black linguistics and musical forms to convey this theme. The way he allows natural voices to shape his poetry to make his works his own. Collective Memory is shown best in his poem, Aunt Sue’s Stories.
Aunt Sue’s Stories is about memory and its passage through the family unit: Aunt Sue, an African-American woman who has experienced the cruelty and difficulties of slavery, tells stories of her life to one of her descendants and thus helps to keep the African-American collective memory of slavery alive.
“And the dark-faced child, listening.
Knows that Aunt Sue’s stories are real stories.
He knows that Aunt Sue never got her stories
Out of no book at all,
But that they came
Right out of her own life”
This stanza in the poem points out that Aunt Sue was a witness to slavery. Her mind and body remember these events, and now she is sharing her stories with the younger generation. In doing this, Aunt Sue is informing them of what occurred in the history of African Americans. Hughes wrote this poem to explain to his readers that Blacks will never neglect their history and that what occurred will not go away. This poem and central theme reemphasize how Hughes took pride in his color and his people’s history.
This leads to the second theme of Hughes’ poems about American Identity. In Hughes’ poem I, Too, revolves around the theme of American Identity. The theme of I, Too, is shown clearly through the poem’s setting– a white household with black slaves or servants. The poem starts by centering on America’s history of racial oppression but looks towards a brighter future when white Americans will recognize black Americans as their equals, and as stated in the poem
“They’ll see how beautiful I am
And be ashamed”
White Americans will be ashamed of their previous prejudice.
The poem “Harlem” by Langston Hughes, is an example of several poems he wrote regarding accomplishing one’s dreams. This was written originally for the African American community, this poem addresses the idea of what happens when you don’t go after your dreams and you put them off or “defer” them to later. Hughes uses symbols and imagery to explain what can happen if you don’t move forward and achieve your dreams. He implies that if you put off your dreams they will “dry up,” “fester like a sore,” begin to “stink like rotten meat,” or “crust over.” More importantly, they may become like a “heavy load,” or they will simply “explode.” These are all types of psychological consequences of not following your dreams. Unfulfilled dreams will eventually cause one to give up or let their dreams go.