Growing to like poetry is angering. Something you never expected yourself to “get” is finally starting to make sense, and I’m asking myself, like in Theme for English B by Langston Hughes, “I wonder if it’s that simple?” (l. 6). We’ve covered poetry with a variety of themes, but no repertoire of poems have really stuck with me the same way I know Hughes’ poems will. He raises questions and sparks ideas that continue to be revolutionary. And as a newly found poem enjoyer, I got excited to come to class and dig into the poems we were assigned to read. These poems answer questions, and in their place raise new ones. What do we need to change? Why do we need to change it?
We need to change our past, so we can create a better future. Hughes presents the past of Black people, the mistreatment and injustice they face, and he notably does this in his poem N-gro, “I’ve been a slave: / Caesar told me to keep his door-steps clean. I brushed the boots of Washington” (ll. 4-6) and “I’ve been a victim: / The Belgians cut off my hands in the Congo. / They lynch me still in Mississippi” (ll. 14-16). He’s presenting their history of being slaves and using the word “still” he tells us the continuation of this abuse. This presents to the reader what they need to change. But why do we need to change our future? Huges answers this in another poem Deferred, he presents all these scenarios of black people who want different things relating to education, “This year, maybe, do you think I can graduate? I’m already two years late” (l. 1), money, “Someday, / I’m gonna buy two new suits at once!” (ll. 27-28) and love, “All I want is a wife who will / work with me and not against me” (ll. 32-33). These dreams of black Americans everywhere are consistently deferred and put aside because of the racism engrained within the American system and white Americans.
Now we ask, how can we change this future? Another poem from Hughes provides some ideas for white Americans. For example, Theme for English B describes education for black Americans and the alienation between black and white. “[I go to school] here, / to this college on the hill above Harlem. / I am the only coloured student in my class” (ll. 8-10). We see the physical separation of educational facilities and understand in turn how difficult it must be as a black person to attend college not only because of the unequal opportunities but also the amount of money needed to enroll. So Hughes here is inadvertently promoting the right to easily accessible education. Once more in this poem, Hughes combats the common separation and segregation between white and black people, “Well I like to eat, sleep, drink, and be in love. / I like to work, read, learn, and understand life. / I like a pipe for a Christmas present, / or records—Bessie, bop, or Bach. / I guess being colored doesn’t make me not like / the same things other folks who are other races” (ll. 21-27). Here, he presents a concept similar to his poem Deferred, by showing that black people can have the same wants, needs and feelings as any white folk could. He pushes back against the dehumanization of his race.
These are just some of the ideas presented by Hughes, and though he might’ve provided some answers to these difficult questions through his poetry, these questions of ‘How can we change? How do we progress towards equality?” are still very prevalent today. With the Black Lives Matter movement which is becoming increasingly popular and significant, especially in America, I believe knowing this history of retaliation against racism is very important to know. I would not be surprised if we see more poems by Langston Hughes begin to be used more commonly in protests. It’s good to know your history so we can move on to a better future.