The Role of Urban Life in the Poetry of Langston Hughes

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2003

19 Pages, Grade: 1,0



1. Introduction

2. A New Beginning?
2.1 Hope
2.2 Laughing to Keep from Crying

3. The Problems of Black Urban Life
3.1 Socio-economic Problems
3.2 Uprootedness

4. Modern City Experience

5. Conclusion


1. Introduction

Langston Hughes was an urban person. Originally, he came from the rather rural Midwest of the United States, but he adopted the city as his real home very early in life and remained true to it ever since. As his biographer Meltzer writes, “[i]f a collaboration required him to stay indefinitely in the country, he would usually find some excuse to go back to the city within a couple of weeks.”[1] In doing so, he acted very much in accordance with the zeitgeist of his period, which was hugely influenced by the sweeping processes of urbanisation started off earlier by the Industrial Revolution and the rise of capitalism. Living in a big city represented a completely new experience in American, and indeed human, history. None of the traditional patterns of life could be applied to it without change. Notably, it has been impossible up to now to find a valid and comprehensive definition of the phenomenon of the modern city[2], which says a lot about the complexity of the issue. In the end, it is up to every individual to find a personal approach to urban life and to develop an interpretation of their own. In the following essay, it is Hughes’ interpretation that shall be analysed, for his affinity to the city clearly found expression in his poetry. Although he visited countless cities both at home and abroad, the overwhelming majority of his urban poems deals with life in the Manhattan district of Harlem, which assumed a key role for African Americans at the beginning of the twentieth century and can also be regarded as the centre of Hughes’ own life. Viewing Harlem as a microcosm of black urban life and using it as a blueprint in his poetic work, he managed to draw a diverse and multi-layered image of existence in the city. Since, naturally, racial aspects are of particular significance in this context, the following analysis will try to examine the various roles played by urban life for African Americans. Thus, the essay will focus first on the hopes and expectations they associated with the city as a new environment. It will then examine whether and in what way those hopes were actually reflected in the general attitude towards urban life and in its various forms of expression, and whether there might have been less positive feelings as well. If so, it will then be necessary to deal with the problems and difficulties encountered by blacks in the city as they are presented in Hughes’ poetry. Here, both spiritual and material (that is, economic) concerns must be considered. Finally, since Hughes did not solely concentrate on the racial aspects of urbanity, the wider and more general human implications of modern urban existence laid out in his poems will be looked at to complete the analysis.

2. A New Beginning?

2.1 Hope

When Hughes first came into contact with Harlem’s urban culture in the 1920s, he experienced an atmosphere full of vitality, excitement, and joyous exuberance, seemingly ringing in a new period of black life in America which would be characterised by self-confidence and self-determination. It was the time of the Harlem Renaissance, the time when Harlem gained its reputation as the cultural, artistic, and intellectual centre of what came to be known as America’s “New Negro”, and thus served as an idealised symbol of the realisation of all collective racial hopes: liberty, equality, individuality, and opportunity. Originally an upper-middle-class, white community housing some of America’s wealthiest families[3], Harlem with its clean, broad avenues, modern, spacious houses, and good transportation services had attracted African Americans fleeing the racial bigotry and oppression of the South as well as African and West Indian immigrants basically since the beginning of the twentieth century.[4] The influx of black immigrants then gained momentum with the Great Migration during the First World War, and Harlem swiftly developed into a predominantly black community housing two thirds of Manhattan’s Negro population by 1920.[5] Thus, it had assumed the role of largest Negro urban centre of the United States and, along with that, of the country’s largest Negro melting pot. In the view of the founder of the New Negro Movement, Alain Locke, it was precisely this latter quality of the new urban surroundings – their bringing together blacks from the most diverse geographical and social backgrounds – which would lead to a unified racial self-awareness never established before. The city, he saw as the “laboratory of a great race-welding”[6], forcing all its inhabitants to react to the common experience of a new and complex environment. The overall atmosphere in the Harlem of the 1920s was therefore a highly optimistic one. All the troubles of the past seemed to have finally come to an end, and there was a real sense of newly won opportunity in the air.

This is precisely the spirit echoed by Hughes’ short poem “Youth”[7], in which he describes the 1920s situation as the “dawn” of his race. All the problems of the past are now a “night-gone thing,/ A sun-down name.” They have been overcome, and the direction to take is clearly one towards the future – a future that lies “[b]right before us/ Like a flame.” This image captures quite well the dynamic energy inherent in the black community of the time, just as the last line (“We march!”) leaves no doubt about its determination to work actively towards the common goals. At the same time, the contrast between light and darkness assumes a racial meaning. The future of African Americans is seen as lying in the bright light, which could indicate equality with the white race and an active participation in their world. The “dark” past, a time when blacks were reduced to their colour and treated accordingly, is declared over. In this context, the image of night and darkness denotes racism as well as ignorance, whereas replacing night by day is also a symbol of emancipation, of being no longer willing to hide in that dark place that has been assigned to the whole race due to its colour.

“Youth” is thus programmatic in tone for the spirit of the Harlem Renaissance. To get a more concrete insight into what were the actual elements contributing to this spirit, one may take a closer look at “The Heart of Harlem” (311-12), a poem admittedly written well after the optimistic heyday of Harlem – namely in 1945 as a rather sentimental morale boost for African American fighter pilots[8] – but nonetheless summing up “what’s inside” the “Harlem dream”. The poem can be divided into three parts, the first and third of which conjure up the visionary and idealistic values, virtues, and emotions attached to the community, while the second part is dedicated to its concrete achievements, that is, prominent Harlem figures and institutions. By choosing this structure, Hughes emphasises that the values and beliefs laid out in parts one and three are an essential basis for the actual achievements presented in part two. Those can only be realised if the framework is right. So, what are the characteristics of this framework? According to Hughes, they are the memory of past oppression combined with a willingness to make a new start into freedom from scratch, a strong and unwavering belief in a bright future soon to come, optimism in spite of eventual setbacks, a readiness to work hard for one’s aims and aspirations, racial pride and self-confidence, and a sense of community and solidarity with all fellow-Harlemites. Harlem’s strength lies in this spirit as well as in its individual inhabitants, the simple folk whose advocate Hughes has remained all his life. That is why he lists them – in form of “[a] stevedore, a porter” and “our drivers on bus lines” – among Harlem’s most influential people in the second part of the poem. Apart from them, the list includes all the persons and places that made Harlem famous and contributed to its wide-ranging appeal and fascination during the Harlem Renaissance, namely evangelists, celebrities, political activists, and, naturally, a number of musicians as well as famous dance halls and theatres. All of these people and places were as much the outcome of the collective spirit characterised in the first and last part of the poem as they were the cause of its being kept alive. Both elements reinforce each other, which creates the impression of Harlem as a self-contained, self-enclosed world inhabited by a heterogeneous community united in a common cause.

However, in order to fully grasp the exuberant vitality of the Harlem of the 1920s, the analysis of the retrospect view of a rather detached observer in “The Heart of Harlem” must be complemented by a more internal perspective. In this context, perhaps nothing proved so defining for Harlem’s atmosphere as its nightlife, the jazz clubs and cabarets, whose fascination inspired Hughes enormously. Accordingly, one of his most famous poems is “Jazzonia” (34), a jazz poem. The form as such already gives a clue to its meaning, for jazz was a dynamic, spontaneous, process-oriented form of art, made to express sensuous, joyful vitality. It had established itself as “the favorite idiom of the black urban masses”[9] and was hailed as an “appropriate urban metapher for the movements and vibrations and cycles of which human life is composed.”[10] In short, jazz was symbolic for the life force as such, and by choosing the title “Jazzonia”, Hughes implies that Harlem, by being the city of jazz, was also the city of life. Thus, the mood of the poem is one of excitement, exuberance, and exaltation, indicated already by the frequent “Oh’s” and exclamation marks. The scene presented is simple: Six cabaret musicians play their jazz while a girl wearing a golden dress is dancing. As a whole, however, the poem encompasses two levels: the mundane and realistic location of the Harlem cabaret on the one hand, and a symbolic, almost apotheosised level reaching far into the depths of the soul and of the ages on the other hand. Jazz serves as the means to transform the one level into the other, which gives “Jazzonia” a climactic structure. In this process of transformation, the dancing girl assumes the qualities of ancient female archetypes, namely Eve and Cleopatra. Both are associated with a possibly dangerous temptation of a sexual nature, a connotation that runs through the whole of the poem and is brought to the surface by the jazz music. Not surprisingly so, one may add, considering the double meaning of the word “jazz”, denoting both noise and sex. “Jazzonia” is thus not only a place vibrant with life and joy; it is also what Davis calls an “exciting never-never land”[11], transcending the urban reality, melting past and present into one, and evoking ancient emotions of a mystic, almost sacred[12] quality. The metamorphosis of the “silver tree” into a “shining tree” mirrors the overall transformation, which Jemie calls a “ritual reaffirmation of life”[13]. In the end, the “Harlem cabaret” dissolves into the ecstasy of the “whirling cabaret” where everything is in flux and anything seems possible.

As jazz is an integral part of black identity, and as it is a predominantly urban art form, the message of “Jazzonia” directly concerns the role of the urban life of African Americans. As Jemie writes: “Jazz carries with it the vision of an alternative mode of life.”[14] As laid out before, the city as a new living environment served very much as a symbol of hope for a new beginning for America’s blacks, who nonetheless wanted to preserve their cultural origins. Jazz, as presented in “Jazzonia”, enabled them to merge their present, urban way of life and their ancient roots into an organic whole. Thus, they were able to preserve their identity as a race even in a white urban machine culture. The city, therefore, remained a projection surface for their hopes and dreams, since they had proven to themselves and others that they were able to leave the mark of their own identity on the new urban surroundings, which then provided the alternative mode of life they were looking for: real, self-determined emancipation, not just assimilation.

2.2 Laughing to Keep from Crying

However, hopes and dreams associated with urban life were only one side of the coin. True, the urban environment fostered a new-felt sense of freedom and opportunity. True also that it led to an almost hedonistic lifestyle, determined by music, joy, and dynamic vitality – a lifestyle for which the dance halls and cabarets functioned as representative symbols. But beneath this shining surface, a considerable amount of uncertainty and insecurity induced by life in the urban surroundings can often be detected that makes all the joy and laughter appear false and mask-like. As Davis writes, in spite of its outer appearance Harlem is essentially also a sad place, not only a gay one.[15] This specific ambivalence serves as a theme in many of Hughes’ poems. One quite explicit example of this kind is the poem “Cabaret” (35). Here, the speaker seems taken by surprise over the report of a female cabaret visitor who claims to have “heard the jazz-band sob” towards the end of the night. His doubtful question: “Does a jazz-band ever sob?”, the repetition of the commonly held (superficial?) belief that “a jazz-band’s gay”, as well as the image of the whirling dancers all seem to confirm the actual gaiety of the place. However, by means of the choice of words in the further description of the cabaret, the joyous mask is temporarily lifted. Thus, the dancers are characterised as “vulgar”, the night is “wan”, and the following dawn appears “little” and “grey” (which contrasts sharply with the still bright and fiery dawn in “Youth”). All of this leaves no doubt about the answer to the speaker’s question whether a jazz-band really sobs. Yes, it does. And the fact that it does opens up a wide gulf between its and the whole cabaret’s surface appearance and the true reality lying beneath – a reality consisting of sadness, weariness, and despair. It is this reality that awaits the dancers in the grey dawn of each new day after a night full of glittering illusions.


[1] Meltzer (1968), 252.

[2] Cf. Gmelch/ Zenner (1996), 4f.

[3] Pinkney/ Woock (1965), 25.

[4] Cf. Osofsky (1971), 90f.

[5] Ibid., 123.

[6] Locke (1990), 1462.

[7] Rampersad/ Roessel (1994), 39. In the following, the page numbers of the poems quoted will be inserted in brackets within the regular text.

[8] Ostrom (2002), 156.

[9] Wagner (1973), 402.

[10] Jemie (1976), 21f.

[11] Davis (1971), 21.

[12] Cf. Jemie (1976), 34.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid., 22.

[15] Davis (1971), 21.

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The Role of Urban Life in the Poetry of Langston Hughes
University of Trier
The Poetry and Poetics of Langston Hughes
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Role, Urban, Life, Poetry, Langston, Hughes, Poetry, Poetics, Langston, Hughes
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Antje Wulff (Author), 2003, The Role of Urban Life in the Poetry of Langston Hughes, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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