Identity in the Poetry of Langston Hughes

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Search for Identity in the Poetry of Langston Hughes

In exploring the problem of identity in Black literature we find no simple or definite explanation. Nevertheless, it is generally accepted that it is rooted in the reality of the discriminatory social system in America with its historic origins in the institution of slavery. One can discern that this slavery system imposes a double burden on the Negro through severe social and economic inequalities and through the heavy psychological consequences suffered by the Negro who is forced to play an inferior role, 1 the latter relates to the low self-estimate, feeling of helplessness and basic identity conflict. Thus, in some form or the other, every Negro American is confronted with the question of `where he is' in the prevailing white society. The problem of Negro identity has various dimensions like the colour, community and class.

The inescapable reality of the Negro existence in America is colour which is inherent in the concept of self, manifest in race-consciousness.2 This is significant because a Negro establishes his identity with other individuals, known or unknown, on the basis of a similarity of colour and features, thus making his racial group membership the nexus of his self identity.3 In 1915, the Association for the study of Negro life and history made special endeavours to convince the Negroes that they could never acquire respectability in society if they despised their history and looked upon themselves as inferior. It was felt that "the American Negro must remake its past in order to make his future."4

After the Negro began to search his identity in the glorious past-his heritage and his folk tradition, he began to feel proud of his black wholesome colour. Langston Hughes has been given the credit for nourishing the black sensibility and inspiring it to create Afro-American literature and transforming it into a literature of struggle.5 Commonly known as the `Poet Laureate of the Negro race', Langston Hughes is known as a folk poet pursuing the theme `I, too, sing America.' He made remarkable contribution to the American literature and came to be regarded as a leading voice of the Renaissance of the black arts in 1920's of the United States. His own life influenced his art. Being born in a Negro family and at a time of racial discrimination from his early childhood, he had to bear the ruthless behaviour of the whites. So, from the very beginning of his life he faced many problems viz., racial discrimination, lack of identity in the society and no actual or practical freedom of blacks etc. All this put a remarkable impact on his mind, on his soul and made him a poet of blacks.

A great votary of black art, Hughes inaugurated a distinct movement of "negritude" which may be regarded as the soul of Harlem. Rising from his consciousness of the colour of his skin and passing through various stages of identification with people and territory of Africa and finally grounding it in the American Past, negritude in the poetry of Hughes evolves into a definite and enduring concept expressive of definite vision.6 But he doesn't suffer from what W.E.B. DuBois terms as double consciousness - "two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body."7

Langston Hughes in his essay on "The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain" writes, "no great poet has ever been afraid of being himself." He is always the product of race, movement, and milieu. He strongly condemns the attitude of self hate and says, "I am a Negro and beautiful."8 He believes that, like other races of mankind, the black race is neither uniformly admirably nor uniformly despicable: "we know we are beautiful and ugly too."9

The miserable life of the Blacks in dirty slums, consisting of houses with yawning roofs and broken walls is depicted in later poems, truly expressive of their plight in 1920's. The poem "Theme...
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