Listen close. Can you hear the jazzy blues? The saxophone squealing, the drums pounding, and the raspy raw emotion of the singer's voice?
Fair enough. But we promise you will hear it the moment you start to read "Beale Street Love" by Langston Hughes. Beale Street, in Memphis, Tennessee, after all, is the birthplace of the blues. And it's still a music lover's hub to this day. It was at the heart of black culture in 1926, when this poem was published, and the street itself is at the heart of this poem.
Hughes wrote "Beale Street Love" long before the Civil Rights Movement gained steam, and his poems often tackled many of the wrongs the Civil Rights Movement sought to right. One of those wrongs was what Hughes saw as a "desire to run spiritually away from his race" (source) among black Americans, and particularly black artists. Hughes thought black people wanted to be more like white people, and that that prevented them from being themselves.
One way he tried to right this particular wrong was by celebrating "the low-down folks, the so-called common element." In other words, the folks you might find on Beale Street: "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." (Source.)
With all those blues bars and jazz music halls, and romantic evenings on the town, Beale Street is just the place for Hughes to find some of these "low-down" folks. Unfortunately, with all that celebration came alcohol and violence. So while the poem is about love, on Beale Street, that love might not be what we expect.
Hughes believed that black artists should not be ashamed of themselves and their cultural identities. He believed in sharing all of it, even if the image he presented wasn't always a pretty one. (In fact, the poetry collection in which "Beale Street Love" was published, Fine Clothes to the Jew, was poorly received because many people disliked its unsentimental approach to the black experience.) The picture of love he paints in "Beale Street Love" is anything but pretty. But for Hughes, it was all part of being black, and Hughes was never one to sweep a thing like that under the rug.
Big Issue Alert: In "Beale Street Love," Langston Hughes tackles race and gender simultaneously, and in seven little lines, no less. Impressive, no?
It's called "Beale Street Love," and Shmoop has a hard time imagining someone who doesn't give a hoot about love. But the love in this poem is a violent one, and it's not just any violence we're talking about here. It's violence against women – one of the major issues we face in our society.
"Beale Street Love" doesn't take a stand or a side, though. This is not a poem that defends the abused or excuses the abuser. Rather it shows us that violence, calls it a metaphor for love, leaves us to our own conclusions. It's a haunting poem that makes you face the issue head-on, whether you like it or not.
A street isn't a street until it gets its own website.
Hughes on Poets.org
Got a hankering for some Hughes?
The bluesy thoroughfare, then and now.
Langston Hughes: Voices and Visions
If you find yourself still hungry for more on Hughes, check out the first part of this documentary, and then click through to the other parts.
"The N**** Speaks of Rivers"
We couldn't find a reading of "Beale Street Love" (if you find one, by all means, let us know), but here you can listen to Hughes read one of his most famous poems. He even tells the story of the poem's creation at the beginning of the clip.
"When the Weary Blues Met Jazz"
He was a lover of jazz, so it's no surprise that Hughes collaborated with jazz musicians Charles Mingus and Leonard Feather. Listen to the fruits of their labor here.
The poet, typing away.
Can you hear the music yet?
Collected Poems of Langston Hughes
In the mood to binge on Hughes? Every last poem he wrote is in this book.
Got the blues? Everyman's Library is here to help.
"Way Down South"
Add screenwriter to the list of Hughes' many talents. He cowrote this 1939 flick about slavery in the American south.
Langston Hughes' papers are kept at the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library at Yale University. Fancy, right? You can take a peek at some of the photos and documents they have collected, including early drafts of poems with Hughes' own handwriting.