Langston Hughes: Harlem Renaissance
In 1926, Hughes's professional life took off. Knopf published his first book, a poetry collection entitled The Weary Blues. Along with a few other writers, including Zora Neale Hurston and Wallace Thurman, Hughes launched a literary magazine entitled Fire!! A Quarterly Devoted to the Younger Negro. Among the many literary journals circulating Harlem at the time, Fire!! was an important (albeit short-lived) outlet for emerging black writers' work. He also published a groundbreaking essay called "The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain." The essay outlined his philosophy on art and what he saw as the quintessential problem facing black artists:
"One of the most promising of the young Negro poets said to me once, "I want to be a poet—not a Negro poet," meaning, I believe, "I want to write like a white poet"; meaning subconsciously, "I would like to be a white poet"; meaning behind that, "I would like to be white." And I was sorry the young man said that, for no great poet has ever been afraid of being himself."10
The following year saw the publication of his second poetry collection, Fine Clothes to the Jew. By this time, some black critics were upset by Hughes's work. They felt that, by writing poems about the common man, Hughes was highlighting negative aspects of black life—the urban slums, the nightclubs, the streets. Hughes essentially responded that he couldn't care less. He had already given his critics their answer. As he wrote in "The Negro Artist:
"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. […] 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.11”
Hughes loved the street and all its characters, and celebrated them in his work. "The low-down folks, the so-called common element, and they are the majority—may the Lord be praised!" he wrote. "The people who have their hip of gin on Saturday nights and are not too important to themselves or the community, or too well fed, or too learned to watch the lazy world go round. […] Their joy runs, bang! into ecstasy. Their religion soars to a shout."12
Before it was a catchphrase, Hughes knew that black was beautiful. In "Harlem Sweeties" he celebrated the tones of black skin: "Molasses taffy/ Coffee and cream/ Licorice, clove, cinnamon/ To a honey-brown dream."13 After centuries of poets who described darkness as insidious and foreboding, Hughes recast it as beautiful in "Dream Variations": "Then rest at cool evening/ Beneath a tall tree/ While night comes on gently,/ Dark like me/ That is my dream!"14 His goal was to shed the internalized racism and loathing that he felt too many African-Americans possessed. "To my mind, it is the duty of the younger Negro artist, if he accepts any duties at all from outsiders, to change through the force of his art that old whispering 'I want to be white,' hidden in the aspirations of his people, to 'Why should I want to be white? I am a Negro—and beautiful,'" he wrote.15
In 1929, Hughes received his bachelor's degree from historically-black Lincoln University. The following year, his semi-autobiographical novel Not Without Laughter was published. It followed a young black man named Sandy Rodgers through his itinerant childhood in the Midwest. The book was a critical success, and Hughes received the Harmon Gold Medal for Literature.