Langston Hughes' 10 Most Popular Poems

Langston Hughes stated in a 1926 article for The Nation, “An artist must be free to choose what he does, certainly, but he must also never be afraid to do what he might choose.” And he built his phrases with that same spirit throughout his career.

James Mercer Langston Hughes was born on February 1, 1902, in Joplin, Missouri, and spent his early years growing up with his maternal grandmother following his parents’ divorce. When she died, he moved to Cleveland to live with his mother, where he began to create poems. He entered at Columbia University in New York City in 1921 after spending a year in Mexico with his father and became a key voice of the Harlem Renaissance movement.

Despite dropping out of college and spending time in Africa, Spain, Paris, Washington, D.C., and Pennsylvania, much of his work was centered on Harlem, where he finally moved in 1947 to a three-story brownstone on East 127th Street, which is now a historic monument.

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While Hughes is most known for his poetry, which is typically distinguished by lyrical patterns, he also published novels such as Not Without Laughter in 1929, short tales such as The Ways of White Folks in 1934, his autobiography The Big Sea in the 1940s, and songs for the Broadway musical Street Scene. He even served as a war correspondent for many American newspapers and as a columnist for the Chicago Defender during the Spanish Civil War in 1937.

Hughes died of prostate cancer complications on May 22, 1967, but his legacy lives on via his poetry and his topic of writing about dreams, from which Martin Luther King Jr. is supposed to have taken his ideas.

Here are some of his most famous poems:

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“The Negro Speaks of Rivers” (1921) is a play

“The Negro Speaks of Rivers” was Hughes’ first poem, written on a train to Mexico City to see his father when he was 17 years old, and it earned critical praise after it was published in the June 1921 edition of the NAACP journal The Crisis. The first few lines reveal a soul older than his years: “I’ve known rivers / I’ve known rivers ancient as the world and older than the flow of human blood in human veins / My soul has grown deep like the rivers.” The style pays homage to Walt Whitman and Carl Sandburg, as well as the voice of African American spirituals.

“Mother to Son” is a 1922 film

“Mother to Son” was initially published in the December 1922 issue of the journal The Crisis, with recitations from notables ranging from King to Viola Davis. The 20-line poem follows a mother’s remarks to her child on their arduous life path, using stairs as an example with “tacks” and “splinters” in it. “So boy, don’t you turn back / Don’t you set down on the steps / ‘Cause you finds it’s kinder hard / Don’t you fall now / For I’se still goin’, honey / I’se still climbin’ / And life for me ain’t been no crystal stair,” she says at the end.

“Dreams” (1922) is a film

“Dreams,” one of numerous Hughes poems on dreams, was first published in World Tomorrow in 1922. The eight-line poem, “Hold fast to dreams / For if dreams die / Life is a broken-winged bird / That cannot fly. / Hold fast to dreams / For when dreams go / Life is a barren field / Frozen with snow.”

“The Weary Blues” is a 1925 song

“The Weary Blues” follows an African American musician on Lenox Avenue in Harlem. While it begins with him seeming carefree, it finishes with: “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.” After winning a competition in Opportunity magazine, Hughes dubbed it his “lucky poem.” When he was 24, his first poetry book was released by Knopf under the same title the following year.

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“Po’ Boy Blues” is a 1926 song

The poem, one of four by Hughes that was published in the November 1926 issue of Poetry Magazine as well as his collection The Weary Blues, has a music-like stanza and rhymes. “Weary, weary / Weary early in de morn. / Weary, weary / Early, early in de morn. / I’s so wear / I wish I’d never been born,” the final line begins.

“Let America Be America Again” (released in 1936)

“Let America Be America Again,” first published in the July 1936 edition of Esquire magazine, emphasizes how class is so important in realizing the promises of the American ideal. “Let America be America again / Let it be the dream it used to be / Let it be the pioneer on the plain / Seeking a home where he himself is free / (America never was America to me.)”

“Life Is Fine” (1949)

Perseverance triumphs over all odds, including suicide attempts, in “Life is Fine.” The first portion, divided into three pieces, discusses jumping into a chilly river: “If that water hadn’t a-been so cold / I might’ve sunk and died.” The second is about climbing to the top of a 16-story building: “If it hadn’t a-been so high/ I might’ve jumped and died.” However, in the third section, it states, “But for livin’ I was born” before concluding, “Life is fine! / Fine as wine! / Life is fine!”

“I, Too, Sing America” (written in 1945)

Hughes, often known simply as “I, Too,” confronts segregation front on: “I am the darker brother / They send me to eat in the kitchen / When company comes.” He continues to “laugh,” “eat well,” and “grow strong” while being concealed in the rear. But he sees a more egalitarian future: “Tomorrow / I’ll be at the table / When company comes. / Nobody’ll dare / Say to me, / “Eat in the kitchen,” it says, and it closes with “I, too, am America.”

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“Harlem” is a 1951 film

“Harlem,” which begins with the phrase “What happens to a dream deferred?” was really designed as part of a book-length poem, Montage of Dream Deferred. The verses explore the duality of the American dream vs the reality of living in a marginalized neighborhood. The whole volume, which has more than 90 poems linked together in a rhythmic beat, offers a complete image of life in Harlem during the Jim Crow era, which is most questioned in the poem’s closing line “Harlem” with “Or does it explode?”

“Brotherly Love” (film, 1956)

Despite the fact that Hughes was a bigger name than King at the time, the poet wrote ‘Brotherly Love’ about King and the bus boycott, which begins, ‘In line with what my folks say in Montgomery / In line with what they’re teaching about love / When I reach out my hand, will you take it — / Or cut it off and leave a nub above?’ “I’m still swimming!” it continues. You’re upset now because I won’t travel at the rear of your bus.”

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