My Soul Has Grown Deep Like the Rivers
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.
Langston Hughes (1902-67), the multifaceted writer whose personal contradictions compel nearly as much attention as his consistent poetic voice, stood at the center of the Harlem Renaissance while spending much of that period studying in Pennsylvania at Lincoln University. Acclaimed as a poet since the eighth grade, Hughes saw his poems in Opportunity before finishing high school, and Alfred A. Knopf published The Weary Blues , his first book of poetry, on the eve of his departure from New York for Lincoln.
Hughes the poet was an heir to the open democracy of Walt Whitman, the concerns of the common man of Carl Sandburg, and the quest for linguistic authenticity of Paul Lawrence Dunbar. He felt in the blues the sadness of African American lives with their core of dark humor, working the language of rural and lower-class, urban people into the statement and sharp turns of his song-inspired verse in
The Weary Blues (1926).
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 wish that I had died.
As popular music moved to the complex harmonies of bebop and the horn of Dizzy Gillespie, Hughes furthered the revolution with his Montage of a Dream Deferred (1951).
What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
Like a raisin in the sun?
Over a lifetime, Hughes wrote poetry suffused with personal and racial hurt but “not without laughter”—as he would entitle his autobiographical novel.
Hughes had a social conscience that informed his interest in racial concerns. The case of the Scotts-boro Boys, nine youths tried in Alabama on trumped up charges and sentenced to death or life in prison in 1931, prompted Hughes's call for social revolution. He produced poetry deriding “certain Negro leaders” who failed to fight injustice, echoing his 1926 essay “The Negro Artist and the Racia Mountain” which decried the willingness of black artists to accept white standardization while denying their heritage.
Searching for alternative social models, Hughes traveled to the Soviet Union, where he spent a year observing the status people of color where Jim Crow did not exist, and where widespread education and medical care were available without racial distinction. His appreciation of some Soviet practices later brought him to the attention of Senator Joseph McCarthy.
In 1943, Hughes found a vehicle he named Jesse B. Semple, or “Simple,” with whom to dialogue in his columns for the Chicago Defender . Simple, the sage of Harlem and a kind of everyman, discusses the blues, Jim Crow, slavery, and other similar topics of particular interest to African Americans. Welcomed by a vast readership, Simple endured until 1963.
Hughes made one of his last international appearances at the 1966 First World Festival in Dakar, Senegal. There he argued that black writers should embrace the “synthesis of the essence of Negro folk art redistilled” or “soul,” “revealing to the Negro people and the world the beauty within themselves.” This quality he ascribed to “the ancient beat out of Africa” whether in poetry, painting, or music.
Music, which underlay Hughes's poetry, called forth other talents. A member of ASCAP, Hughes wrote more than 800 song lyrics, many of them published by W. C. Handy. He composed all the lyrics for Kurt Weill's Street Scene (1947), the Broadway musical hit based on Elmer Rice's play. He collaborated on songs with Duke Ellington and read The Weary Blues with a backup band featuring Charles Mingus. Both Nina Simone and Sammy Heyward set his poems to music. His Tambourines to Glory (1959) with Louis Gossett pioneered the Gospel musical form while Black Nativity (1961), starring Cicely Tyson and James Earl Jones, used spirituals to augment the Christmas story.
Hughes loved the theater and had a Broadway success in 1935 with Mulatto , starring Rose McClendon. In 1938, he produced Don't You Want to Be Free at the Harlem Suitcase Theater, which he helped to found. With Zora Neale Hurston, he wrote Mule Bone, which went unproduced until 1991 when the Lincoln Center Theater mounted it with music by Taj Mahal.
While still a young man, Hughes championed other writers like the Cuban poet Nicolás Guillén, whose work he translated. Loraine Hansberry and Gwendolyn Brooks thought of him as a mentor, and Ted Joans benefited from his encouragement.
The centennial exhibition at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library displays material from Langston Hughes's papers, a gift of the author to the library over many years. Included are photographs, letters, manuscripts, books, and other items which document Hughes as a poet, an observer of life, and an artist.
The Beinecke Library, at 121 Wall Street in New Haven, is open for exhibition viewing Monday through Friday, 8:30 until 5 and on Saturdays in February and April from 10 until 5.
Hear Hughes speak!
this website supplements the Beinecke exhibition