Jason Reynolds: one of Langston Hughes’ word-children

By Mary Bartling | Categories: Celebrations
Jason Reynolds and Langston Hughes

L
angston Hughes is best known a defining figure of the Harlem Renaissance. And, he remains a significant literary figure today. Jason Reynolds’ picture book There Was a Party for Langston is evidence of Hughes’ enduring legacy.

It’s inspired by a photograph of Maya Angelou and Amiri Baraka dancing up a storm at a “fancy-foot, get-down, all-out bash” honoring the grand opening of the Langston Hughes Auditorium in Harlem, Manhattan, New York City. And, not surprisingly – with the help of illustrators Jerome and Jarrett Pumphrey – it’s positively pulchritudinous.

Though Hughes is shown as a child, There Was a Party for Langston is more than a Langston Hughes biography for young readers. It’s a celebration of his influence on generations of African American authors like Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, and Nikki Giovanni. And it does so with the jazzy, be-bopping rhythms Hughes’ poetry is known for.

Consistent with the photo that inspired it, Maya Angelou and Amiri Baraka are the most prominently featured Black word makers who are shimmying and filled with dazzle. One spread shows Maya as a constellation, dancing in a deep blue sky.

There are also delightful verbal and visual allusions to both Angelou’s and Baraka’s works. And ABCs that become drums, “bumping, jumping, thumping like a heart the size of the whole wide world.”

There’s also a library of great African American authors who come joyfully alive on the spines of their books – smiling and laughing from the shelves where they rest. There Was a Party for Langston isn’t only a delightful tribute to master word maker Langston Hughes. It’s also an enchanting celebration of the “word-children” he inspired throughout his career.

This exquisite book also reminds us that, sadly, Hughes’ works have been banned. It speaks to the divisive nature of book banning, and how “some folks think by burning books they burn freedom.” But it also points out that “freedom stands up and laughs in their faces,” a call to action we should all answer.

There Was a Party for Langston is an invitation to a most marvelous party indeed, one that is not to be missed.

Langston Hughes

Who is Langston Hughes?

James Mercer Langston Hughes was an influential American poet, novelist, and playwright, as well as a columnist and social activist. He was one of the earliest innovators of the form of literary art known as jazz poetry. Hughes was also the first Black American to earn a living exclusively from his writing and public lectures.

He’s best known, however, as a defining figure of the 1920s’ Harlem Renaissance.[1]

Langston Hughes and the Harlem Renaissance

What is the Harlem Renaissance,
and what impact did Hughes have on the movement?

The Manhattan neighborhood of Harlem was the first major northern destination during what is known as the Great Black Migration – when waves of Southern Blacks began to move north, starting around 1910. Augmented by the Great Black Migration, Harlem produced a cultural, artistic, and political blossoming of Black excellence. This movement included Black luminaries such as W.E.B. DuBois, Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes of course, and Josephine Baker.[2]

From the 1920s to the mid-1930s, the Harlem Renaissance was a golden age for African American writers, artists and musicians. It gave artists pride in, and control over, how the Black experience was represented in American culture.  In doing so, it set the stage for the civil rights movement of the 1960s and 70s.[3]

In 1926, Langston Hughes published what came to be considered a manifesto of the Harlem Renaissance, an essay titled The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain.[4] In this essay, Hughes describes Black artists rejecting their racial identity as “the mountain standing in the way of any true Negro art in America.”[5] He declared that rather than ignoring their identity:

We younger Negro artists who create now intend to express our individual dark-skinned selves without fear or shame. If white people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, it doesn’t matter. We know we are beautiful. And ugly too. The tom-tom cries and the tom-tom laughs. If colored people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, their displeasure doesn’t matter either. We build our temples for tomorrow, strong as we know how, and we stand on top of the mountain, free within ourselves.[6]

 Hughes is admonishing Black artists in America to stop copying whites, because they’ll never create anything new that way. He’s saying they should be proud of who they are, proud to be Black. And, that they should draw from Black culture. This clarion call about the importance of pursuing art from a Black perspective is not only the philosophy undergirding much of Hughes’ work, it’s the vision at the heart of the Harlem Renaissance.[7]

Langston Hughes and the Harlem Renaissance

Pride in African American identity
and its diverse culture permeates Hughes’ work.

Langston Hughes was one of the few prominent Black writers who championed racial consciousness as a source of inspiration for Black artists. He protested social conditions, confronted racial stereotypes, and broadened African America’s image of itself. He was a “people’s poet,” seeking to reeducate both audience and artist by making the theory of the Black aesthetic a reality.[8]

The racial consciousness and cultural nationalism Hughes stressed was one devoid of self-hate. His poem My People provides is but one example:

The night is beautiful,
So the faces of my people.

The stars are beautiful,
So the eyes of my people

Beautiful, also, is the sun.
Beautiful, also, are the souls of my people.
[9]

Hughes’ fiction and poetry depicted the lives of working-class Blacks in America, portrayed as full of struggle, music as well as laughter and abounding joy. Pride in the African American identity and its diverse culture permeates his work.

In his own words, he describes his poetry as “racial in theme and treatment, derived from the life I know.”[10] Hughes characterizes his poetry as being about:

…workers, roustabouts, and singers, and job hunters on Lenox Avenue in New York, or Seventh Street in Washington or South State in Chicago—people up today and down tomorrow, working this week and fired the next, beaten and baffled, but determined not to be wholly beaten, buying furniture on the installment plan, filling the house with roomers to help pay the rent, hoping to get a new suit for Easter—and pawning that suit before the Fourth of July. 

He further states that in many of them, he tries “to grasp and hold some of the meanings and rhythms of jazz.”[11]

Langston Hughes and Jazz Poetry

What is Jazz Poetry?

Rooted in Black communities, jazz poetry like the music it’s named for, alludes to the lived Black experience in America. Technically speaking, jazz poetry can take a couple of forms. It can be strictly about jazz. Or… it can take its structure from jazz-like rhythms, as well as demonstrate the feel of improvisation.[12]

As noted above, Hughes was a vocal proponent of racial consciousness. He considered jazz and the blues to be uniquely African American art forms, in that they both spurned the desire for acceptance and assimilation by white culture. Both forms rejoiced in Black heritage and creativity.

The formal devices, rhyme, anaphora and rhetoric, as well as his integration of the blues, emerge from a cultural tradition that, up until Hughes, had never had a voice in poetry. And, the blues, rather than wishing away hardship, elevated the tribulations of the workaday African American into art. In that sense, Hughes’ use of these forms was itself political. Not just the subject matter of his poems.[13]

For Hughes, jazz was a way of life. He enjoyed listening to it at nightclubs. He collaborated with musicians from Monk to Mingus. And, he frequently held readings accompanied by jazz combos. He also wrote a children’s book called The First Book of Jazz.

No matter what the subject, Hughes’ writing has jazz in its voice. He often incorporated syncopated rhythms, and jive language or looser phrasing to mimic the improvisatory nature of jazz. The verse of other poems reads like the lyrics of a blues song. The result? It was as close as you could get to spelling out jazz.[14]

The Weary Blues, first published in 1925, is but one example:

Droning a drowsy syncopated tune,
Rocking back and forth to a mellow croon,
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!
Swaying to and fro on his rickety stool
He played that sad raggy tune like a musical fool.
Sweet Blues!
Coming from a black man’s soul.
O Blues!
In a deep song voice with a melancholy tone
I heard that Negro sing, that old piano moan—
 “Ain’t got nobody in all this world,
 Ain’t got nobody but ma self.
I’s gwine to quit ma frownin’
And put ma troubles on the shelf.”

Thump, thump, thump, went his foot on the floor.
He played a few chords then he sang some more—
“I got the Weary Blues
And I can’t be satisfied.
Got the Weary Blues
And can’t be satisfied—
I ain’t happy no mo’
And I wish that I had died.”
And far into the night he crooned that tune.
The stars went out and so did the moon.
The singer stopped playing and went to bed
While the Weary Blues echoed through his head.
He slept like a rock or a man that’s dead.[15]

Structured like a blues song, this poem is divided into two stanzas, each organized around a set of quoted lyrics. While the quoted lyrics represent the “verses” of a blues song, the other lines function as the instrumental portions.

And syncopation, the rhythm at the heart of jazz music, appears throughout The Weary Blues. The varying lengths of the quoted lyrics play against the underlying four-beat rhythm of the unquoted lines. The counterpoint between these two rhythms creates a sense of syncopation.[16]

Finally, The Weary Blues is describing a Black piano player performing a slow, sad blues song, a performance that takes place in a club in Harlem. The poem is a meditation on how the piano player’s song channels the hardship and injustice of the Black experience in America, and transforms it into something cathartic and beautiful. Thus, it reflects on the immense beauty of black art… and the prodigious pain that is at its core.[17]

Langston Hughes

Langston’s Legacy

 Hughes frequently offered advice to young Black writers, and introduced them to other influential people in the literature and publishing communities.  This group includes Alice Walker, who he is credited with discovering and getting their first story in print. One of their earliest stories caught Hughes’ attention and he included it in 1967 anthology The Best Short Stories by Negro Writers.[18]

Loren Mitchell, another of these young Black writers, observed that, “Langston set a tone, a standard of brotherhood and friendship and cooperation, for all of us to follow.”[19]

Hughes’ artistic influence can be seen in jazz poets like Sonia Sanchez, Yusef Komunyakaa, and Jack Kerouac.

The influence of his message is reflected in others’ work as well. The title of Lorraine Hansberry’s play Raisin in the Sun is derived from Hughes’ 1951 poem Dream Deferred (originally titled Harlem):

What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore—
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over—
like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?
[20]

Echoes of Hughes’ Dream Deferred can also be heard in Martin Luther King Jr’s iconic I Have a Dream speech.[21]

What’s fantastic about Hughes’ work and movements like the Harlem Renaissance is the vast net of influence he clearly cast, both during and after his career. Every reader has been influenced by Hughes’ work in some way. His impact endures, as readers and writers are introduced to his work, school children listen to and read I Have a Dream, and even musicians consider his words.

Langston Hughes stands at the pinnacle of literary relevance among Black people. He occupies this position in the memory of his people because he recognized that “we possess within ourselves a great reservoir of physical and spiritual strength.”[22] And he used his talent to reflect this message back to the people.[23]

The significance of Hughes’ enduring legacy can be seen literally carved into the wall of the National Museum of African American History and Culture on the National Mall, in the form of a quote from his 1926 poem I, Too:

I, too, sing America.
I am the darker brother.[24]

There’s also the auditorium in Harlem’s Schomberg Center for Research in Black Culture named for Langston Hughes. A photograph taken at its grand opening – one of Maya Angelou and Amiri Baraka dancing up a storm – inspired Jason Reynolds to write a book about this event.

Reynolds’ book There Was a Party for Langston is also a significant part of Langston Hughes’ legacy. This dazzling collaboration will have children rushing to their libraries to learn more about Hughes, as well as the other “word makers” named in its pages.

Books like Reynolds’ and the Pumphrey Brothers’ are more important than ever. Because, the more we know about each other, the better we understand each other. Understanding each other helps us realize that we have more in common than many of us have been led to believe, that we’re all just human beings trying to make our way in a complicated world. And this realization makes the world a less scary place – one where we’re more inclined to work together rather than Other and vilify those who don’t look like us, or have life experiences different than our own.

#banned authors         #Jason Reynolds          #Langston Hughes         

#The Harlem Renaissance

Endnotes:

[1] Francis, Ted (2002). Realism in the Novels of the Harlem Renaissance. (https://books.google.com/books?id=82XIw4ykVAAC&pg=PA2 8)

“Langston Hughes.” Poetry Foundation. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/langston-hughes#:~:text=Although%20Hughes%20had%20trouble%20with,received%20from%20average%20black%20people.

[2] Datcher, Michael. “Harlem at Four.”  New York: Random House Studio, 2023.

[3] “Harlem Renaissance.” February 14, 2024. History.com https://www.history.com/topics/roaring-twenties/harlem-renaissance

[4] “Langston Hughes.” National Museum of African American History & Culture. Smithsonian. https://nmaahc.si.edu/langston-hughes

[5] Hughes, Langston. “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain.” Poetry Foundation. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/articles/69395/the-negro-artist-and-the-racial-mountain

[6] Hughes, Langston. “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain.” Poetry Foundation. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/articles/69395/the-negro-artist-and-the-racial-mountain

[7] Kettler, Sara.“Langston Hughes’ Impact on the Harlem Renaissance.” August 25, 2020. Biography.com https://www.biography.com/authors-writers/langston-hughes-harlem-renaissance

[8] Arnold Rampersad, The Life of Langston Hughes: Volume II: 1914–1967, I Dream a World (https://books.google.com/books?id=qclO9rdN1XIC&pg=PA11), Oxford University Press 1988, vol. 2, p. 297.

West, Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance, 2003, p. 162

[9] Arnold Rampersad, The Life of Langston Hughes: Volume II: 1914–1967, I Dream a World (https://books.google.com/books?id=qclO9rdN1XIC&pg=PA11), Oxford University Press 1988, vol. 2, p. 297

My People” in The Crisis (October 1923) pg 162.

[10] Hughes, Langston. “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain.” Poetry Foundation.
https://www.poetryfoundation.org/articles/69395/the-negro-artist-and-the-racial-mountain

[11] Hughes, Langston. “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain.” Poetry Foundation.
https://www.poetryfoundation.org/articles/69395/the-negro-artist-and-the-racial-mountain

[12] Jackson, Ashawnta. “What is Jazz Poetry?” Jstor Daily. May 77, 2021.

Wallenstein, Barry (1993). “JazzPoetry/Jazz-Poetry/’JazzPoetry’???”. African American Review. 27 (4): 665–671.doi:10.2307/3041904 . JSTOR 3041904 . (https://doi.org/10.2307%2F3041904) (https://www.jstor.org/stable/3041904)

[13] “A Reading Guide to Langston Hughes.” poets.org https://poets.org/text/reading-guide-langston-hughes

Gross, Rebecca. “Jazz Poetry & Langston Hughes.” National Endowment for the Arts. https://www.arts.gov/stories/blog/2014/jazz-poetry-langston-hughes

[14] Gross, Rebecca. “Jazz Poetry & Langston Hughes.” National Endowment for the Arts. https://www.arts.gov/stories/blog/2014/jazz-poetry-langston-hughes

[15] Hughes, Langston. “The Weary Blues.” From The Weary Blues New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1926. This poem is in the public domain.

[16] “Langston Hughes and The Weary Blues.” Girl in Blue Music.

“The Weary Blues.” PoemAnalysis.com  https://poemanalysis.com/langston-hughes/the-weary-blues/

[17] “The Weary Blues.” PoemAnalysis.com  https://poemanalysis.com/langston-hughes/the-weary-blues/

[18] “Alice Walker.” New Georgia Encyclopedia. https://www.georgiaencyclopedia.org/articles/arts-culture/alice-walker-b-1944/

Arnold Rampersad, The Life of Langston Hughes: Volume II: 1914–1967, I Dream a World (https://books.google.com/books?id=qclO9rdN1XIC&pg=PA11), Oxford University Press 1988, vol. 2, p. 413

[19] Arnold Rampersad, The Life of Langston Hughes: Volume II: 1914–1967, I Dream a World (https://books.google.com/books?id=qclO9rdN1XIC&pg=PA11), Oxford University Press 1988, vol. 2, p. 409.

[20] Hughes, Langston. Harlem. Poetry Foundation. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/46548/harlem

[21] Eschner, Kat. “How Langston Hughes’ Dreams Inspired MLK’s.” Smithsonian Magazine, February 1, 2017.

[22] “Langston Hughes.” Poetry Foundation. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/langston-hughes#:~:text=Although%20Hughes%20had%20trouble%20with,received%20from%20average%20black%20people.

[23] Lewis, Jessi. “Langston Hughes is Still Powerful on His 115th Birthday.” Feb 2, 2017. Book Riot. https://bookriot.com/langston-hughes-is-still-powerful-on-his-115th-birthday/#:~:text=Yusef%20Komunyaaka%2C%20Sonia%20Sanchez%2C%20Jack,his%20poetry%20with%20jazz%20accompaniment.

“Langston Hughes.” Poetry Foundation. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/langston-hughes#:~:text=Although%20Hughes%20had%20trouble%20with,received%20from%20average%20black%20people.

[24] Ward, David C. “What Langston Hughes’ Powerful Poem ‘I, Too’ Tells Us About America’s Past and Present.” Smithsonian Magazine. September 22, 2016. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smithsonian-institution/what-langston-hughes-powerful-poem-i-too-americas-past-present-180960552/#:~:text=In%20large%20graven%20letters%20on,I%20am%20the%20darker%20brother.

Images:

Jason Reynolds and the Pumphrey brothers at the ALA conference.

Who is Langston Hughes: Langston Hughes, photograph by Jack Delano, 1942. Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Langston-Hughes#/media/1/274926/11795

What is the Harlem Renaissance: The Cotton Club, Harlem, New York City, early 1930s. Science History Images/Alamy.
https://www.britannica.com/event/Harlem-Renaissance-American-literature-and-art

Pride in African American identity: “Harlem Renaissance ushered in new era of black pride.” USA Today. February 3, 2015.
https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/2015/02/03/black-history-harlem-renaissance/22825245/

What is Jazz Poetry:  Dust jacket of The Weary Blues by Langston Hughes. Illustration by Miguel Covarrubias. Published by Knopf, New York, 1926.

Langston’s Legacy: Head of Langston Hughes. Teodoro Ramos Blanco. Sculpture. 1930s. The Schomburg Legacy Exhibition.

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