The Poetry of Langston Hughes Introduction Langston Hughes was a major figure in the Harlem Renaissance. He wrote powerful poems, articles, short stories and plays, often using Afro-American dialect even when this was frowned upon by some writers. His writings also reflected aspects of Afro-American music, particularly blues and jazz. He travelled to many parts of the world, including Mexico, Cuba, Haiti, France and several countries in western Africa, the latter when he worked on the crew of a freighter in his youth. Intensely affected by class and national oppression, he was drawn to socialism, although he never joined the Communist Party of the U.S.A. The poems presented here, written in the 1930s, reflect his most revolutionary period. They show both his roots in Afro-American culture as well as his strong internationalist stand. In 1932, Hughes travelled to the Soviet Union as part of a group of 22 young Afro-Americans to take part in a film about Afro-American life in the U.S. The film was never made, largely because the Russian script writer tried to mechanically translate what he knew of tsarist oppression to the conditions of Blacks in the U.S. Hughes decided to stay on in the Soviet Union for about a year, spending much of that time in the Central Asian Republics where he saw how socialism was putting an end to the discrimination against and economic backwardness of the non-white peoples who lived there. After World War II, Hughes was affected by the anti-communism of the McCarthy period. He was denounced as a Communist in the U.S. Senate, and was subpoenaed to testify before McCarthy’s Senate Sub-committee on ‘subversion’ in 1956. After repudiating his past radicalism (although he refused to give names of other radicals), he was exonerated by the sub-committee. One is reminded of the repudiation by 2004 Democratic Party presidential candidate John Kerry of his earlier positions against the Vietnam War, and of the repudiation by then candidate Obama of his backing of the radical Reverend Jeremiah Wright. Unfortunately, in the bourgeois democracy of the U.S., both now and in the past, many people have had to apologise for telling the truth. George Gruenthal
Let America Be America Again Let America be America again. Let it be the dream it used to be. Let it be the pioneer on the plain Seeking a home where he himself is free. (America never was America to me.) Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed Let it be that great strong land of love Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme That any man be crushed by one above. (It never was America to me.) O, let my land be a land where Liberty Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath, But opportunity is real, and life is free, Equality is in the air we breathe. (There’s never been equality for me, Nor freedom in this ‘homeland of the free.’) Say who are you that mumbles in the dark? And who are you that draws your veil across the stars? I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart, I am the Negro bearing slavery’s scars. I am the red man driven from the land, I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek And finding only the same old stupid plan. Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak. I am the young man, full of strength and hope, Tangled in that ancient endless chain Of profit, power, gain, of grab the land! Of grab the gold! Of grab the ways of satisfying need! Of work the men! Of take the pay! Of owning everything for one’s own greed! I am the farmer, bondsman to the soil. I am the worker sold to the machine. I am the Negro, servant to you all. I am the people, humble, hungry, mean I am the man who never got ahead, The poorest worker bartered through the years. Yet I’m the one who dreamt our basic dream In that Old World while still a serf of kings, Who dreamt a dream so strong, so brave, so true, That even yet its mighty daring sings In every brick and stone, in every furrow turned That’s made America the land it has become. O, I’m the man who sailed those early seas In search of what I meant to be my home For I’m the one who left dark Ireland’s shore, And Poland’s plain, and England’s grassy lea, And torn from Black Africa’s strand I came To build a ‘homeland of the free.’ The free? Who said the free? Not me? Surely not me? The millions on relief today? The millions shot down when we strike? The millions who have nothing for our pay? For all the dreams we’ve dreamed And all the songs we’ve sung And all the hopes we’ve held And all the flags we’ve hung, The millions who have nothing for our pay Except the dream that’s almost dead today. O, let America be America again The land that never has been yet And yet must be the land where every man is free. The land that’s mine the poor man’s, Indian’s, Negro’s, ME Who made America, Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain, Whose hand at the foundry, whose plough in the rain, Must bring back our mighty dream again. Sure, call me any ugly name you choose From those who live like leeches on the people’s lives, We must take back our land again, America! O, yes, I say it plain, America never was America to me, And yet I swear this oath America will be! Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death, The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies, We, the people, must redeem The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers, The mountains and the endless plain All, all the stretch of these great green states And make America again!
Ballads of Lenin Comrade Lenin of Russia, High in a marble tomb, Move over, Comrade Lenin, And give me room. I am Ivan, the peasant, Boots all muddy with soil. I fought with you, Comrade Lenin. Now I have finished my toil. Comrade Lenin of Russia, Alive in a marble tomb, Move over, Comrade Lenin, And make me room. I am Chico, the Negro, Cutting cane in the sun. I lived for you, Comrade Lenin. Now my work is done. Comrade Lenin of Russia, Honoured in a marble tomb, Move over, Comrade Lenin, And leave me room. I am Chang from the foundries On strike in the streets of Shanghai. For the sake of the Revolution I fight, I starve, I die. Comrade Lenin of Russia Speaks from the marble: On guard with the workers forever The world is our room!
Song of Spain Come now, all you who are singers, And sing me the song of Spain. Sing it very simply that I might understand. What is the song of Spain? Flamenco is the song of Spain: Gypsies, guitars, dancing Death and love and heartbreak To a heel tap and a swirl of fingers On three strings. Flamenco is the song of Spain. I do not understand. Toros are the song of Spain: The bellowing bull, the red cape, A sword thrust, a horn tip, The torn suit of satin and gold, Blood on the sand Is the song of Spain. I do not understand. Pintura is the song of Spain: Goya, Velasquez, Murillo, Splash of colour on canvass, Whirl of cherub-faces. La Maja Desnuda’s The song of Spain. What’s that? Don Quixote! España! Aquel rincón de la Mancha de Cuyo nombre no quiero acordarme.... That’s the song of Spain. You wouldn’t kid me, would you? A bombing plane’s The song of Spain. Bullets like rain’s The song of Spain. Poison gas is Spain. A knife in the back And its terror and pain is Spain. Toros, flamenco, paintings, books Not Spain. The people are Spain: The people beneath that bombing plane With its wings of gold for which I pay I, a worker, letting my labour pile Up millions for bombs to kill a child I bought those bombs for Spain! Workers made those bombs for a Fascist Spain! Will I make them again, and yet again? Storm clouds move fast. Our sky is grey. The white devils of the terror Await their day When bombs’ll fall not only on Spain But on me and you! Workers, make no bombs again! Workers, mine no gold again! Workers, lift no hand again To build up profits for the rape of Spain! Workers, see yourselves as Spain! Workers, know that we too can cry, Lift arms in vain, run, hide, die: Too late! The bombing plane! Workers, make no bombs again Except that they be made for us To hold and guard Lest some Franco steal into our backyard Under the guise of a patriot Waving a flag and mouthing rot And dropping bombs from a Christian steeple On the people. I made those bombs for Spain. I must not do it again. I made those bombing planes. I must not do it again. I made rich the grandees and lords Who hire Franco to lead his gang-hordes Against Spain. I must never do that again. I must drive the bombers out of Spain! I must drive the bombers out of the world! I must take the world for my own again A workers’ world Is the song of Spain.
A New Song I speak in the name of the black millions Awakening to action. Let all others keep silent a moment. I have this word to bring, This thing to say, This song to sing: Bitter was the day When I bowed my back Beneath the slaver’s whip. That day is past. Bitter was the day When I saw my children unschooled, My young men without a voice in the world, My women taken as the body-toys Of a thieving people. That day is past. Bitter was the day, I say, When the lyncher’s rope Hung about my neck, And the fire scorched my feet, And the oppressors had no pity, And only in the sorrow songs Relief was found. That day is past. I know full well now Only my own hands, Dark as the earth, Can make my earth-dark body free. O, thieves, exploiters, killers, No longer shall you say With arrogant eyes and scornful lips: ‘You are my servant, Black man I, the free!’ That day is past For now, In many mouths Dark mouths where red tongues burn And white teeth gleam New words are formed, Bitter With the past But sweet With the dream. Tense, Unyielding, Strong and sure, They sweep the earth Revolt! Arise! The Black And White World Shall be one! The Worker’s World! The past is done! A new dream flames Against the Sun!
Sister Johnson Marches Here am I with my head held high! What’s de matter, honey? I just want to cry: It’s de first of May! Here I go with my banner in my hand! What’s de matter, chile? Why we owns de land! It’s de first of May! Who are all them people Marching in a mass? Lawd! Don’t you know? That’s de working class! It’s de first of May!
Open Letter to the South White workers of the South Miners, Farmers, Mechanics, Mill hands, Shop girls, Railway men, Servants, Tobacco workers, Sharecroppers, GREETINGS! I am the black worker, Listen: That the land might be ours, And the mines and the factories and the office towers At Harlan, Richmond, Gastonia, Atlanta, New Orleans; That the plants and the roads and the tools of power Be ours: Let us forget what Booker T. said, ‘Separate as the fingers.’ Let us become instead, you and I, One single hand That can united rise To smash the old dead dogmas of the past To kill the lies of colour That keep the rich enthroned And drive us to the time-clock and the plough Helpless, stupid, scattered, and alone as now Race against race, Because one is black, Another white of face.
A Song to a Negro Wash-woman Oh, wash-woman, Arms elbow-deep in white suds, Soul washed clean, Clothes washed clean, I have many songs to sing you Could I but find the words. Was it four o’clock or six o’clock on a winter afternoon, I saw you wringing out the last shirt in Miss White Lady’s kitchen? Was it four o’clock or six o’clock? I don’t remember. But I know, at seven one spring morning you were on Vermont Street with a bundle in your arms going to wash clothes. And I know I’ve seen you in a New York subway train in the late afternoon coming home from washing clothes. Yes, I know you, wash-woman. I know how you send your children to school, and high-school, and even college. I know how you work and help your man when times are hard. I know how you build your house up from the wash-tub and call it home. And how you raise your churches from white suds for the service of the Holy God. And I’ve seen you singing, wash-woman. Out in the back-yard garden under the apple trees, singing, hanging white clothes on long lines in the sun-shine. And I’ve seen you in church a Sunday morning singing, praising your Jesus, because some day you’re going to sit on the right hand of the Son of God and forget you ever were a washwoman. And the aching back and the bundles of clothes will be unremembered then. Yes, I’ve seen you singing. And for you, O singing wash-woman, For you, singing little brown woman, Singing strong black woman, Singing tall yellow woman, Arms deep in white suds, Soul clean, Clothes clean, For you I have many songs to make Could I but find the words.
Johannesburg Mines In the Johannesburg mines There are 240,000 Native Africans working. What kind of poem Would you Make out of that? 240,000 natives Working in the Johannesburg mines.
To Certain Intellectuals You are no friend of mine For I am poor, Black, Ignorant and slow, Not your kind. You yourself Have told me so, No friend of mine.
Scottsboro 8 black boys in a southern jail. World, turn pale! 8 black boys and one white lie. Is it much to die? Is it much to die when immortal feet March with you down Time’s street, When beyond steel bars sound the deathless drums Like a mighty heart-beat as They come? Who comes? Christ, Who fought alone. John Brown. That mad mob That tore the Bastille down Stone by stone. Moses. Jeanne d’Arc. Dessalines. Nat Turner. Fighters for the free. Lenin with the flag blood red. (Not dead! Not dead! None of those is dead.) Gandhi. Sandino. Evangelista, too, To walk with you 8 black boys in a southern jail. World, turn pale!
The Negro Mother Children, I come back today To tell you a story of the long dark way That I had to climb, that I had to know In order that the race might live and grow. Look at my face dark as the night Yet shining like the sun with love’s true light. I am the child they stole from the sand Three hundred years ago in Africa’s land. I am the dark girl who crossed the wide sea Carrying in my body the seed of the tree. I am the woman who worked in the field Bringing the cotton and the corn to yield. I am the one who laboured as a slave, Beaten and mistreated for the work that I gave Children sold away from me, husband sold, too. No safety, no love, no respect was I due. Three hundred years in the deepest South: But God put a song and a prayer in my mouth. God put a dream like steel in my soul. Now, through my children, I’m reaching the goal. Now, through my children, young and free, I realise the blessings denied to me. I couldn’t read then. I couldn’t write. I had nothing, back there in the night. Sometimes, the valley was filled with tears, But I kept trudging on through the lonely years. Sometimes, the road was hot with sun, But I had to keep on till my work was done: I had to keep on! No stopping for me I was the seed of the coming Free. I nourished the dream that nothing could smother Deep in my breast the Negro mother. I had only hope then, but now through you, Dark ones of today, my dreams must come true: All you dark children in the world out there, Remember my sweat, my pain, my despair. Remember my years, heavy with sorrow And make of those years a torch for tomorrow. Make of my past a road to the light Out of the darkness, the ignorance, the night. Lift high my banner out of the dust. Stand like free men supporting my trust. Believe in the right, let none push you back. Remember the whip and the slaver’s track. Remember how the strong in struggle and strife Still bar you the way, and deny you life But march ever forward, breaking down bars. Look ever upward at the sun and the stars. Oh, my dark children, may my dreams and my prayers Impel you forever up the great stairs For I will be with you till no white brother Dares keep down the children of the Negro mother. *
Dark Youth of the U.S.A. A recitation to be delivered by a Negro boy, bright, clean, and neatly dressed, carrying his books to school. Sturdy I stand, books in my hand Today’s dark child, tomorrow’s strong man: The hope of my race To mould a place In America’s magic land. American am I, none can deny: He who oppresses me, him I defy! I am Dark Youth Seeking the truth Of a free life beneath our great sky. Long a part of the Union’s heart Years ago at the nation’s start Attucks died That right might abide And strength to our land impart. To be wise and strong, then, studying long, Seeking the knowledge that rights all wrong That is my mission. Lifting my race to its rightful place Till beauty and pride fills each dark face Is my ambition. So I climb toward tomorrow, out of past sorrow, Treading the modern way With the White and the Black whom nothing holds back The American Youth of today.
Good Morning Revolution Good-morning, Revolution: You’re the very best friend I ever had. We gonna pal around together from now on. Say, listen, Revolution: You know, the boss where I used to work, The guy that gimme the air to cut down expenses, He wrote a long letter to the papers about you: Said you was a trouble maker, a alien-enemy, In other words a son-of-a-bitch. He called up the police And told ‘em to watch out for a guy Named Revolution. You see, The boss knows you’re my friend. He sees us hangin’ out together. He knows we’re hungry, and ragged, And ain’t got a damn thing in this world And are gonna do something about it. The boss’s got all he needs, certainly, Eats swell, Owns a lotta houses, Goes vacationin’, Breaks strikes, Runs politics, bribes police, Pays off congress, And struts all over the earth But me, I ain’t never had enough to eat. Me, I ain’t never been warm in winter. Me, I ain’t never known security All my life, been livin’ hand to mouth, Hand to mouth. Listen, Revolution, We’re buddies, see Together, We can take everything: Factories, arsenals, houses, ships, Railroads, forests, fields, orchards, Bus lines, telegraphs, radios, (Jesus! Raise hell with radios!) Steel mills, coal mines, oil wells, gas, All the tools of production, (Great day in the morning!) Everything And turn’ em over to the people who work. Rule and run ‘em for us people who work. Boy! Them radios Broadcasting that very first morning to USSR: Another member the International Soviet’s done come Greetings to the Socialist Soviet Republics Hey you rising workers everywhere greetings And we’ll sign it: Germany Sign it: China Sign it: Africa Sign it: Poland Sign it: Italy Sign it: America Sign it with my one name: Worker On that day when no one will be hungry, cold, oppressed, Anywhere in the world again. That’s our job! I been starvin’ too long, Ain’t you? Let’s go, Revolution!
Always the Same It is the same everywhere for me: On the docks at Sierra Leone, In the cotton fields of Alabama, In the diamond mines of Kimberley, On the coffee hills of Haiti, The banana lands of Central America, The streets of Harlem, And the cities of Morocco and Tripoli. Black: Exploited, beaten and robbed, Shot and killed. Blood running into Dollars Pounds Francs Pesetas Lire For the wealth of the exploiters Blood that: never comes back to me again. Better that my blood Runs into the deep channels of Revolution, Runs into the strong hands of Revolution, Stains all flags red, Drives me away from Sierra Leone Kimberley Alabama Haiti Central America Harlem Morocco Tripoli And all the black lands everywhere. The force that kills, The power that robs, And the greed that does not care. Better that my blood makes one with the blood Of all the struggling workers in the world Till every land is free of Dollar robbers Pound robbers Franc robbers Peseta robbers Lire robbers Life robbers Until the Red Armies of the International Proletariat Their faces, black, white, olive, yellow, brown, Unite to raise the blood-red flag that Never will come down!
Song of the Revolution Sing me a song of the Revolution Marching like fire over the world, Weaving from the earth its bright red banner For the hands of the masses to unfurl. Sing me a song of the Revolution Drowning the past with a thunderous shout: Filled with the strength of youth and laughter, And never the echo of a doubt. O mighty roll of the Revolution, Ending the centuries of bloody strife, Ending the tricks of kings and liars, Big with the laughter of a new life. Breaking the bonds of the darker races, Breaking the chains that have held for years, Breaking the barriers dividing the people, Smashing the gods of terror and tears, Cutting, O flame of the Revolution, Fear from the world like a surgeon’s knife, So that the children of all creation Waken, at last, to the joy of life.
One More “S” in the U.S.A. Put one more s in the U.S.A. To make it Soviet. One more s in the U.S.A. Oh, we’ll live to see it yet. When the land belongs to the farmers And the factories to the working men The U.S.A. when we take control Will be the U.S.S.A. then. Now across the water in Russia They have a big U.S.S.R. The fatherland of the Soviets But that is mighty far From New York, or Texas, or California, too. So listen, fellow workers, This is what we have to do. Put one more S in the U.S.A. [Repeat chorus] But we can’t win by just talking. So let us take things in our hand. Then down and away with the bosses’ sway Hail Communistic land. So stand up in battle and wave our flag on high, And shout out fellow workers Our new slogan in the sky: Put one more S in the U.S.A. But we can’t join hands together So long as whites are lynching black, So black and white in one union fight And get on the right track. By Texas, or Georgia, or Alabama led Come together, fellow workers Black and white can all be red: Put one more S in the U.S.A. Oh, the bankers they all are planning For another great big war. To make them rich from the worker’s dead, That’s all the war is for. So if you don’t want to see bullets holding sway Then come on, all you workers, And join our fight today: Put one more S in the U.S.A. To make it Soviet. One more S in the U.S.A. Oh, we’ll live to see it yet. When the land belongs to the farmers And the factories to the working men The U.S.A. when we take control Will be the U.S.S.A. then.
Ballad of Roosevelt The pot was empty, The cupboard was bare. I said, Papa, What’s the matter here? I’m waitin’ on Roosevelt, son, Roosevelt, Roosevelt, Waitin’ on Roosevelt, son. The rent was due And the lights was out. I said, Tell me, Mama, What’s it all about? We’re waitin’ on Roosevelt, son, Roosevelt, Roosevelt, Just waitin’ on Roosevelt. Sister got sick And the doctor wouldn’t come Cause we couldn’t pay him The proper sum A-waitin’ on Roosevelt, Roosevelt, Roosevelt, A-waitin’ on Roosevelt. Then one day They put us out o’ the house. Ma and Pa was Meek as a mouse Still waitin’ on Roosevelt, Roosevelt, Roosevelt. But when they felt those Cold winds blow And didn’t have no Place to go Pa said, I’m tired O’ waitin’ on Roosevelt, Roosevelt, Roosevelt. Damn tired o’ waitin’ on Roosevelt. I can’t git a job And I can’t git no grub. Backbone and navel’s Doin’ the belly-rub A-waitin’ on Roosevelt, Roosevelt, Roosevelt. And a lot o’ other folks What’s hungry and cold Done stopped believin’ What they been told By Roosevelt, Roosevelt, Roosevelt Cause the pot’s still empty, And the cupboard’s still bare, And you can’t build a bungalow Out o’ air Mr. Roosevelt, listen! What’s the matter here?
Call of Ethiopia Ethiopia Lift your night-dark face, Abyssinian Son of Sheba’s race! Your palm trees tall And your mountains high Are shade and shelter To men who die For freedom’s sake But in the wake of your sacrifice May all Africa arise With blazing eyes and night-dark face In answer to the call of Sheba’s race: Ethiopias free! Be like me, All of Africa, Arise and be free! All you black peoples, Be free! Be free!
White Man Sure I know you! You’re a White Man. I’m a Negro. You take all the best jobs And leave us the garbage cans to empty and The halls to clean. You have a good time in a big house at Palm Beach And rent us the back alleys And the dirty slums. You enjoy Rome And take Ethiopia. White Man! White Man! Let Louis Armstrong play it And you copyright it And make the money. You’re the smart guy, White Man! You got everything! But now, I hear your name ain’t really White Man. I hear it’s something Marx wrote down Fifty years ago That rich people don’t like to read. Is that true, White Man? Is your name in a book Called the Communist Manifesto? Is your name spelled C-A-P-I-T-A-L-I-S-T? Are you always a White Man? Huh?
Roar China! Roar, China! Roar, old lion of the East! Snort fire, yellow dragon of the Orient, Tired at last of being bothered. Since when did you ever steal anything From anybody, Sleepy wise old beast Known as the porcelain-maker, Known as the poem-maker, Known as maker of firecrackers? A long time since you cared About taking other people’s lands Away from them. THEY must’ve thought you didn’t care About your own land either So THEY came with gunboats, Set up Concessions, Zones of influence, International Settlements, Missionary houses, Banks, And Jim Crow Y.M.C.A.s. THEY beat you with malacca canes And dared you to raise your head Except to cut it off. Even the yellow men came To take what the white men Hadn’t already taken. The yellow men dropped bombs on Chapei. The yellow men called you the same names The white men did: Dog! Dog! Dog! Coolie dog! Red!... Lousy red! Red coolie dog! And in the end you had no place To make your porcelain, Write your poems, Or shoot your firecrackers on holidays. In the end you had no peace Or calm left at all. PRESIDENT, KING, MIKADO Thought you really were a dog. THEY kicked you daily Via radiophone, via cablegram, Via gunboats in her harbour, Via malacca canes. THEY thought you were a tame lion. A sleepy, easy, tame old lion! Ha! Ha! Haaa-aa-a!... Ha! Laugh, little coolie boy on the docks of Shanghai, laugh! You’re no tame lion. Laugh, red generals in the hills of Sian-kiang, laugh! You’re no tame lion. Laugh, child slaves in the factories of the foreigners! You’re no tame lion. Laugh-and roar, China! Time to spit fire! Open your mouth, old dragon of the East. To swallow up the gunboats in the Yangtse! Swallow up the foreign planes in your sky! Eat bullets, old maker of firecrackers And spit out freedom in the face of your enemies! Break the chains of the East, Little coolie boy! Break the chains of the East, Red generals! Break the chains of the East, Child slaves in the factories! Smash the iron gates of the Concessions! Smash the pious doors of the missionary houses! Smash the revolving doors of the Jim Crow Y.M.C.A.s. Crush the enemies of land and bread and freedom! Stand up and roar, China! You know what you want! The only way to get it is To take it! Roar, China! Click here to return to the April 2010 index.