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The Poetry of Langston Hughes

Langston Hughes was a highly regarded writer of the Harlem Renaissance. While he wrote novels, plays, short stories, essays, autobiographies, histories, and the words to more than one opera, he was best known as a poet. He published his first poem in a national magazine at the age of 19 and continued writing until his death 46 years later. One of the innovations he pioneered was infusing his poetry with the rhythms of jazz and the blues.

The African American Odyssey exhibit features five drafts of a Hughes poem, “Ballad of Booker T.” Examine the five drafts:

  • What do you notice about the revision process? Find at least one example of a change Hughes made that he reversed in a later draft. Why do you think he went back to the original wording or line breaks?
  • What aspects of the poem remained the same through all five drafts? Do you think these consistencies provide clues to Hughes’s vision for the work?
  • The African American Odyssey says that “Although Hughes was quite critical of Booker T. Washington’s accommodationist philosophy, this poem also evinces his understanding of the circumstances under which Washington labored.” Do you find any evidence in the poem of Hughes’ critical view of Washington? What evidence do you see of empathy for the circumstances in which Washington worked? Do you think you could write an empathetic poem about someone you disagree with? Why or why not?

Find and read one or more of Hughes’s better-known works, such as “Theme for English B,” “Dream Deferred,” “Let America Be America Again,” “Dream Variations,” or “Mother to Son.” Compare these poems to “Ballad of Booker T.” Which do you think best celebrates African American creativity and identity? Explain your answer.