Langston Hughes and Claude McKay

Reading Hughes and McKay, I was strongly reminded of DuBois’ concept of the black double-consciousness, and the pressure/desire to have both a black and an ‘American’ identity.  For example, in “America” (p. 2147), McKay seems to be adhering to more traditional, ‘white’ ideas of poetry (specifically the Shakesperian sonnet), but the poem itself is strongly tied to black identity issues.  The poet suggests that he’s very much tied to America, as when he says that “Her vigor flows like tides into my blood,” but he doesn’t shy away from acknowledging America as an enemy; America “sinks into my throat with her tiger’s tooth,” and the poet is “a rebel” confronting “a king in state.”  Judging from McKay’s poetry, and this poem in particular, he largely confronts the “double-consciousness” issue by aligning himself primarily with blacks, and by viewing ‘America’ as too predominantly white to ever welcome him in.

In Langston Hughes’ work, though, most poems seem to revolve around finding a place for the black identity within the American identity; where McKay often seems to suggest that the two are unreconcilable, Hughes seems to be taking after Whitman and framing himself as a new voice for America.  For instance, we can look at “I, Too” on p. 2266, where Hughes imagines a near future where he, a black poet, will be part of the American ‘family’; “Tomorrow, / I’ll be at the table / When company comes. / … Besides, / They’ll see how beautiful I am / And be ashamed– / I, too, am America.”  Or, looking at “Note on Commercial Theatre” on p. 2269, Hughes begins by lamenting the white theft and corruption of black culture, but then says, “But someday somebody’ll / Stand up and talk about me, / And write about me– / Black and beautiful– / And sing about me, / And put on plays about me! / I reckon it’ll be / Me myself! / Yes, it’ll be me.”  Or again in “Theme for English B”, where on p. 2271 Hughes reflects that “You are white– / yet a part of me, as I am a part of you. / That’s American.”  Hughes is no less concerned than McKay about preserving black identity, but Hughes seems to be just as concerned about recognizing how much blacks are already a part of ‘America’. 

With this in mind, could we say that Hughes’ poems more optimistic than McKay’s?  If so, what difference in the two poets’ worldviews accounts for the optimism?  If not, in what way is Hughes still pessimistic about the future?

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6 Responses to Langston Hughes and Claude McKay

  1. dmsda says:

    I do not think Hughes is more optimistic but rather more emotionally invested in the Black/American experience. He is more deeply entrenched in American society and culture since he was born in America. Likewise, because McKay has more international experience, he can afford to be more critical and perhaps less biased to the realities of segregation in America. McKay’s writings are separatist in nature but I wonder if his leanings are emphasized by his non American birth. Hughes’ poems do seem to be more inspirational than McKay’s.
    I agree that Hughes feels the black experience is intertwined with the general American experience. A good example of this is in “I, Too” when Hughes states “They’ll see how beautiful I am/ And be ashamed-.” Hughes is expressing his worth and equality as a human being but at the same time he is finding his worth through the white world. He needs the “they” of the poem to acknowledge him, to “be ashamed.”

    • emcd23 says:

      I’m not sure I would agree that Hughes *needs* the white world to acknowledge him, but it’s a very interesting point. In “Notes on Commercial Theatre,” for instance, Hughes seems to decide that if the American culture is going to incorporate works authentic to the black experience, it’ll have to be “Me myself” who creates those works, which indicates a sort of independence from white acknowledgement. However, in poems like “Mulatto” or “Visitors to the Black Belt,” it is perhaps easier to make the case that Hughes is concerned with acknowledgement. In “Mulatto,” the repeated “I am your son, white man!” especially suggests the ways in which mixed race individuals, but also black culture as a whole, has been too influenced by the white culture of America to be able to cut the connection. There is a suggestion that the “little yellow bastard boys” are indeed looking for recognition. In “Visitors to the Black Belt,” the poem as a whole is very focused on the reality of Harlem life, but the way the poem ends (“Who’re you, outsider? / Ask me who am I”) again suggests that Hughes is demanding that a white audience listen to him.

      So now I’m wondering, was Hughes primarily writing to whites? After all, he almost always seems to be addressing a white reader when he says “you” (as in “Note on Commerical Theatre” or “Democracy”). McKay, on the other hand, seems to be addressing blacks when he speaks to the reader (as in “If We Must Die”). Does this help to account for any difference in the two poets’ tones?

    • sph12 says:

      I agree that Hughes is not necessarily optimistic about the future but does seem to care more about intermingling with white society than McKay. One of the stanzas that really stood out to me was from “Democracy” and said:

      I tire so of hearing people say,
      Let things take their course.
      Tomorrow is another day.
      I do not need my freedom when I’m dead.
      I cannot live on tomorrow’s bread.

      This really shows Hughes frustration with how things still are and the fact that there still is no American identity that includes blacks. The whole poem speaks to the lack of freedom that the blacks still experience and how they cannot keep waiting to find their place in society. They have become “free”, but they still cannot experience the “American” freedom promised to American citizens. This poem also seems to hold most of Hughes’ doubt as to whether they will ever really be free as shown in his lines:

      Democracy will not come
      Today, this year
      Nor ever
      Through compromise and fear.

      I noticed conflict here compared to his other poems of being so optimistic, and I almost find it hard to fit this poem in with the others that we read due to his lack of belief in democracy.

  2. enthomas says:

    I agree that Mckay’s poetry is a bit more pessimistic than Hughes’, but I feel it contains the similar notion that black Americans both create and exist within ‘American.’ Mckay’s certainly aligns himself with Black America in his poem ‘America’ by acknowledging himself as a “rebel” who “fronts a king in state (2147),” yet the poem reaches its conclusion by looking forward. Mckay writes of America’s “might and granite wonders” which are “Beneath the touch of Time’s unerring hand,/ Like priceless treasures sinking in the sand (2147).” The treasure and might of America he refers to are the potential contributions to American culture/society by Black America, which unfortunately lies dormant due to the oppression which faces them. While this is slightly similar to Hughes’ ‘I, Too,’ which confidently states “Tomorrow,/ I’ll be at the table/ When company comes (2266),” it differs due to McKay’s urgency and frustration. Mckay seems less content with waiting for others to realize their wrongs, and more concerned with the potential and might of America which is sinking into the sand. However, there is hope nonetheless, for like Hughes’ ‘I, Too,’ McKay refers to these denied contributions as America’s might, and thus by oppressing black Americans, America is oppressing itself and its own “treasures,” which are sinking deeper into the sand as time runs out.

    • emcd23 says:

      I agree with most of your analysis of McKay’s “America,” but I guess I have trouble seeing the ending as ‘looking forward’ or expressing much hope. Yes, he refers to the “might” of a potential mixed-culture America, but he gazes “Darkly…into the days ahead.” I also don’t really think he’s referring to a black-influenced American culture as merely ‘dormant’; after all, those “priceless treasures” are not merely buried, but are actively “sinking.” I see more emphasis put on the ‘time’s running out’ aspect than on any sort of ‘we’re so close’ attitude.

  3. vlevasseur11 says:

    The initial blog post mentioned that Langston Hughes seems to be taking after Walt Whitman and framing himself as a new voice for America and uses “I, Too” as a reference. However, I don’t completely agree that this is comparable to what Whitman was going for, considering what Hughes says in “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain.” In this essay Hughes critizes the poet who aspires to be “as little Negro and as much America as possible.” Furthermore, in his essay he says “We know we are beautiful. And ugly too…we build our temples for tomorrow, strong as we know how, and we stand on top of the mountain, free within ourselves. This line is similar to the line in “I, Too,” which says: “But I laugh / And eat well / And grow strong / Tomorrow / I’ll be at the table”
    It doesn’t seem like Hughes wants to assimilate completely into America like Whitman does (“If you want me again look for me under your boot soles…Missing me one place search another”), but wants the Negro artist to represent a piece, or population, of America that stands independent and has something unique to share with the rest of the nation.

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