Negro by Langston Hughes is neither technically complex not metaphorically rich. Yet it strikes a powerful chord in the hearts of the reader, mainly on the back of its emotional appeal. The poem is an illustration of how simple words and easy historical references can be synthesized into powerful art. This essay will argue how the medium of poetry is employed by the poet in conveying one of the blights of human history, namely, black slavery.
A prominent theme in the poem is the comparison between the status of blacks then and now. Written from the point of view of an enslaved American black, the poem is full of comparisons with slave experiences from history. Bet it in King Caesar’s empire or under the Egyptian Pharaohs or as captives in native Africa or under the hands of Belgians in Congo, blacks have suffered great oppression throughout history. What more, slavery of blacks had occurred in different corners of the earth, under various political and social contexts, making it a global curse for the race. (Scott, 2006, p.2) The skill of the poet lies in connecting these disparate events in history through the theme of slavery and its attendant oppression.
Indeed, much beyond oppression, humiliation has been the collective black experience under various masters. From being made to clean door-steps, to brushing the boots, to slogging as manual labourers, black slaves were denied their dignity across history. The forms of humiliation they had suffered included mutilation of limbs, chained confinement in ship barracks, etc.
In a poignant analogy, Hughes relates the colour black to the darkness of the night. Darkness is further related to ignorance and decadence. It is unfortunate that blacks are thus automatically associated with the meanings given to a particular colour. The suggestion being that even nature, by virtue of having its ‘dark’ side, has been unfavourable to the race. In contrast, the colour white had always been associated with purity, innocence and knowledge. This easy metaphor is conveniently exploited by the light-skinned races into subordinating blacks. It is a shame that a systematic and cruel institution such as slavery was born on such misguided dichotomies of human character based on skin-colour. (Wallace, 2007, p.32)
For the historically informed reader, Langston leaves a subtle hidden message. All the regimes of black repression in the past had inevitably met a decline and an end. Be it the Egyptian Pharaohs or Roman Emperors or Belgian imperialists – their empires eventually collapsed, perhaps under the weight of their own immorality. Here is a lesson and a warning to American whites. The message is that, if the American ruling class does not abandon racism and discrimination, then they are treading the same path of arrogance that many empires from the past had treaded. Hughes suggests that, to save themselves from such an impending disgrace, the whites in America should abandon this practice immediately. (Ford, 1992, p.436)
Writing in the middle of the 20th century, Langston Hughes’ message through the poem can be seen as a war cry for liberation. Indeed, Hughes was quite popular among African Americans and his poems served as anthems for the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. Hughes genius lay in his ability to pin down the grand narrative of black slavery onto a few concise stanzas. This helped propagate his message far and wide among the black community, who would otherwise be loath to reading academic treatises. Yet, Hughes managed to educate his audience while also entertaining them, all the while eschewing high jargon. This proved very effective and made him a popular intellectual. (Gohar, 2008, p.17) His poetry, as testified by Negro, set the agenda for the legislative successes for blacks in the second half of the 20th century.
Ford, Karen Jackson. “Do Right to Write Right: Langston Hughes’s Aesthetics of Simplicity.”Twentieth Century Literature 38.4 (1992): 436+. Print.
Gohar, Saddik Mohamed. “Subverting the History of Slavery and Colonization in the Poetry of M. Al-Fayturi and Langston Hughes.” The Western Journal of Black Studies 32.1 (2008): 16+. Print.
Scott, Jonathan. Socialist Joy in the Writing of Langston Hughes. Columbia, MO: U of Missouri, 2006. Print.
Wallace, Maurice. Langston Hughes: The Harlem Renaissance. New York: Marshall Cavendish Benchmark, 2007. Print.