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Down South There Is A River: Themes In Langston Hughes’ Poetry

Credit: Carl Van Vechten, 1936

Credit: Carl Van Vechten, 1936

“When an idea is brought out in a literary work […] it is often given the name theme.  This word refers to something laid down, a postulate, a central or unifying idea. Loosely, the theme of a work and its major idea or central idea may be considered as synonyms” (Jacobs and Roberts 363).

Idea and theme are synonyms and to find the theme of a story, we must look at statements made by the characters, figurative language used, characters representative of ideas, and direct and dramatic statements (Jacobs and Roberts 366-367).  In doing this we can examine the meanings the author of the work has left for us to discover.  So when we talk or write about the themes of the Harlem Renaissance, we turn to writers like Langston Hughes, for guidance.

The ideas, or themes, present in Hughes’ writing reveal a man interested in delving into the condition of the human spirit.  Hughes’ themes reflect a concern of the social inequality between blacks and whites in America, including the endurance of memory, and the beauty of black dignity and his poetry shares Harlem blues rooted in the African folklore tradition.  In examining his work, rather than solely identifying his themes, we must look at where they are present within his work, what message Hughes is trying to convey and, if possible, what they tell us about the author.

In his breakout poem, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers”, Hughes’ nameless narrator informs us, that his “soul has grown deep like the rivers” (4).  The poem is a chronological account of the life of his soul, bathing in the Euphrates, living near the Congo, observing the Nile, and watching the “muddy bosom [of the Mississippi] turn all golden in the sunset” (9-10).  No human soul can live for that long so the poem must be taken figuratively rather than literally.  The poem then, is a metaphor for the nameless protagonist who is tired of life, weary to his soul of the act of living.

R. Baxter Miller (51) describes in his book, The Art and Imagination of Langston Hughes, one theme present in this poem which is “the permanency of memory and human existence”.  This concept is further developed by Arnold Rampersad who discusses the origins of this poem and the significance of the Mississippi River within the narration:

The persona moves steadily from dimly starred memory […] toward a rendezvous with modern history […] The death wish, benign but suffusing, of its images of rivers older than human blood, of souls grown as deep as these rivers, gives way steadily to an altering, ennobling vision whose final effect gleams in the evocation of the Mississippi’s “muddy bosom” […] Personal anguish has been alchemized by the poet into a gracious meditation on his race, whose despised (“muddy”) culture and history, irradiated by the poet’s vision, changes within the poem from mud into gold.   This is a classic example of the essential process of creativity in Hughes. (Rampersad 97)

So here we see two emerging themes: the endurance of memory and the lack of social equality in America.  Memory is significant because here it is representative of the memory of a race and Hughes is identifying with his Black heritage.  The art of Langston Hughes often dealt with unhappy individuals pressing forward despite the present hard circumstances.  Rampersad further states that Hughes’ art “blends aspects of existential gloom with the life-affirming spirit of the black race […] illustrat[ing] the wide range of possibility in the mixture of will and passivity which characterizes [him]” (97).

Miller’s take on the theme of social inequality is that “the individual talent [of Hughes] speaks within cultural and racial tradition […] Where poetic images exist as part of human language, they contribute necessarily to emotive and moral discourse.  For the black American and social poet, they reconfirm intensely the tension between the pictured world (the American Dream) and the real one (racial lynching)” (51-52).

The theme of racial deaths is not new to Hughes’ poetry.  Hughes highlights the racial lynching of a young woman’s lover in “Song for a Dark Girl”.  “Way Down South in Dixie / … / They hung my black young lover / To a cross roads tree” (1-4).  There is no language in this poem that indicates that this event is extraordinary or unfortunately, retribution resulting from her loss.

There is a scarred memory instead of an awful event that took place in the nameless narrator’s past.  Here too can we see how Hughes uses memory as background for a character’s present miseries.  Memory can drive and hinder one from accomplishing their dreams; for the struggle of social equality, in Hughes’ poetry, memory is like a mental Jewish star, they wear it as a badge of their experiences and pain.

In “The Weary Blues”, Hughes observes a piano player at his art:

I heard a Negro play
Down on Lenox Avenue the other night
By the pale dull pallor of an old gas light
He did a lazy sway….
He did a lazy sway….
To the tune o’ those Weary Blues.
With his ebony hands on each ivory key
He made that poor piano moan with melody.
O Blues! (3-11)

Hughes is showing in these lines how a person’s experiences and emotions can emerge in music.  The best musicians bring these sorts of reactions out and affect other people too.  Hughes’ poetry, when read aloud, almost is appropriate for music.  The rhythms in some of his poems lend themselves to music; that’s because Hughes was known for utilizing blues in his poetry.

Stephen Tracy offers insights into the man behind the music.  “For Hughes, African American music was elemental, primal […] the beat of the heart, the pulse – Hughes used these metaphors repeatedly in reference to the folklore of his people” (Tracy 52).  Tracy discusses how the human spirit can be heard like a heartbeat and Hughes’ use of Blues was to attempt to capture it (54).

This poem however is more than a blues song by a pianist.  It holds death within it.  “And can’t be satisfied — / I ain’t happy no mo’ / And I wish that I had died” (Hughes The Weary Blues 28-30).  The pianist, like the nameless narrator of “The Negro Speaks of Rivers”, is longing for death.  While death can certainly be interpreted as a theme here, it doesn’t stand-alone as a message of Hughes’ nor explain anything about the author.  The Harlem of this poem was alive; this was the era “When the Negro Was in Vogue”.  The infamous Cotton Club was a haven for mixing between the races – black was exotic and the blues was the heartbeat of the renaissance.  But for all this opportunity, (see also “Green Memory”), this did not mean that social equality had been achieved.

In his essay, Arthur Davis explains:

The Harlem depicted […] has come through World War II, but has discovered that a global victory for democracy does not necessarily have too much pertinence at home.  Although the Harlem of the 1941-51 period […] has far more opportunity than the 1926 Harlem [like The Weary Blues (1926)] ever dreamed of, it is still not free, and the modern city having caught the vision of total freedom and total integration will not be satisfied with anything less than the idea. (Davis 140)

While this quotation deals with a poem from a slightly later period, it does talk about the differences that Harlem goes through in a short amount of time.  This theme of social equality not being won or present following World War I is, as we see from the quote, not resolved after World War II.  Steeped in “The Weary Blues”, Hughes was himself influenced by La Nina, a flamenco singer Hughes frequented during the time of the Spanish Civil War.  Miller states that La Nina was an artist who symbolized courage (31), an ideal that Langston Hughes admired.  It takes courage for the pianist to live, “play[ing] that sad raggy tune like a musical fool. / Sweet Blues! / Coming from a black man’s soul” (Hughes The Weary Blues 13-15).

But what does flamenco have to do with Blues, or with the themes of the Harlem Renaissance? Miller explains that the “wild, hard, harsh, lonely, and bittersweet voice” (31) of La Nina, was reminiscent of the soul of “Black southern blues because, despite the heartbreak implied, it signified the triumph of a people.  La Nina […] reminded him [Hughes] that great art subsumes and transcends great pain” (31).  This is twofold; the arguably great art of the pianist or of the “Trumpet Player” is perhaps made great by the pain they experience and the emotions which their music is an outlet. “The Trumpet Player” describes the beauty of dignity in the black male as a representation of his race.  The example of this can be found in the following stanzas:

The Negro
With the trumpet at his lips
Has dark moons of weariness
Beneath his eyes

Where smoldering memory
Of slave ships
Blazed to the crack of whips
Above his thighs.
The Negro
With the trumpet at his lips

Has a head of vibrant hair
Tamed down,
Patent-leathered now
Until it gleams
Like jet –
Were jet a crown. (1-16)

These lines are representative of a man whose harsh life has brought him to this place as a musician but the way Hughes paints it, we see in the player’s face the connectivity he has with his origins; these could in fact be from his lifetime, or from his ancestors, but this was recent enough that the memory ‘smolders’ rather than having burnt out.  There is a silent beauty in his appearance, which is Hughes’ way of referencing the trumpet player’s dignity; we see this quality in the description of the player’s hair in lines 14-16.

Hughes is often noted for his theme of ‘black is beautiful’ but what I believe this really means is that the dignity of man is beautiful.  For centuries, black slaves were viewed as less than human, as property, and how could a concept as human as dignities apply to them?  Even during the Harlem Renaissance, blacks were not treated with the same level of respect as whites; for the most part, they were ‘in vogue’.  The hot spots were to see famous black entertainers in an otherwise Jim Crow-environment.

The Harlem of Hughes’ works was a ghetto.  Harlem was more than a place; it was an idea, the theme being poverty and inequality, (which may yet exist today).  Hughes’ Harlem acts as an example of all the injustices against blacks in America.  Arthur Davis agrees:

One of Hughes’ ideas represented, as theme is the inequality between blacks and whites in America.  In his poetry, black Harlem is a form, representing black ghettos and the struggle of Blacks across America.  “[Hughes’] Harlem has no illusion about the all-inclusiveness of American democracy. […] One must bear in mind that with Langston Hughes Harlem is both place and symbol.  When he depicts the hopes, the aspirations, the frustrations, and the deep-seated discontent of the New York ghetto, he is expressing the feelings of Negroes in black ghettos throughout America. (Davis 142-143)

This is a great example of one of Hughes most well known themes.  “The Trumpet Player”, the dark girl in “Song for a Dark Girl”, the Negro on the rivers, all of these characters had no rosy glasses concealing the situation they found themselves.  There is the American Dream and there is how things really are and for most African-Americans and Africans, it’s been a struggle, which Hughes’ language confronts.

In my research, I found that Hughes was once stated as saying that he didn’t identify with his heritage but I believe that to be an inaccuracy.  His writing all but shies from the conditions of the time and of his portion within them.  Hughes fights for social equality by presenting representations of people with feelings and pasts as real as our own which is what makes them so identifiable.  In doing this, he provokes discussion of the issues and by awareness, holds us accountable to preserve equality in any generation.

The themes discussed here revolve around the endurance of memory – a rich thread of time holding us to the past.  It is memory that makes the days longer for Hughes’ characters, and memory that pushes them to the point between longing for death and holding out for the future.  Hughes’ characters live with dignity and express the abundance of their heart in these poems, and in some cases, through their musical talents.

In a world of Jim Crow laws where slavery is a recent memory, and where blacks (with few exceptions) are the struggling lower class, Langston Hughes’s joined the ranks of works, which fanned the Harlem Renaissance and made history.  Down south there is a river (of time) and somewhere on its banks rests the writings of Langston Hughes.

References Cited For This Article:

  1. Davis, Arthur. “The Harlem of Langston Hughes’ Poetry.” Critical Essays on Langston Hughes. Ed. Edward J. Mullen. Boston, MA: G. K. Hall, 1986. 135-143.
  2. Hughes, Langston. “The Negro Speaks of Rivers.”  Perkins and Perkins 1191.
  3. —. “Song for a Dark Girl.” Perkins and Perkins 1192.
  4. —. “Trumpet Player.” Perkins and Perkins 1192-1193.
  5. —. “The Weary Blues.” Perkins and Perkins 1191-1192.
  6. Jacobs, Henry, and Edgar Roberts. Introduction to Reading and Writing. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1998.
  7. Miller, R. Baxter. The Art and Imagination of Langston Hughes. Kentucky: University Press of Kentucky, 1989.
  8. Perkins, George and Barbara Perkins, eds. The American Tradition in Literature. Vol 2. 11th ed. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2007.
  9. Rampersad, Arnold. “The Origins of Poetry in Langston Hughes.” Bloom’s BioCritiques: Langston Hughes.  Ed. Philadelphia, PA: Chelsea House Publishers, 2002. 89-99.
  10. Tracy, Steven. “Langston Hughes: Poetry, Blues, and Gospel – Somewhere to Stand.” Langston Hughes: The Man, His Art, and His Continuing Influence. Ed. C. James Trotman. New York & London: Garland Publishing, 1995. 51-61.

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Lauren Miller is a Midwestern born writer with a passion for Jesus, the written word, and dogs. She has seventeen years of experience in the library field and reviews books for the Historical Novels Review (UK). Lauren is the Managing Web Editor and writer for The Scribe, a web publication of the St. Louis Writers Guild, where she also serves as their Director of Communications. She likes to spend her free time enjoying period films, discovering new reads, and being surrounded by other people’s pets. Lauren, her husband, and their wily Maine Coon (who isn’t quite a dog) live in Missouri. You can learn more about Lauren’s writing at LaurenJoanMiller.com.

3 Comments

  1. I have never heard of this man before until this article. Its kind of interesting to to hear about artists from another time like this. This is unique blog where I am actually finding out something I didn’t know historically. I also found out cats can live 19 years.:)

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