Langston Hughes and Richard Wright. Langston Hughes has established himself as one of the great American poets, and he has also become considered by many as the African American poet (arguably). Richard Wright, too, made a name for himself, mostly due to the fact that a lot of his works were considered controversial by the audiences of his time. One large difference between these two is the way in which their works are perpetuated, or if they are at all. (Revisiting this draft, I can’t help but think of Chuck Klosterman’s newest book where he ponders why we remember what we remember, among other things).
Any student who takes a poetry course will probably read one of Langston Hughes’ poems. However, Richard Wright’s works are far harder to come by. As an English major, and a reading enthusiast, I consider Langston Hughes to be a household name; however, I have only heard of and studied Richard Wright after seeing his name on a syllabus. This is mainly due to the nature of these men and their works. Langston Hughes was one of the main voices, if not the main voice of the Harlem Renaissance; his works have come to represent an entire historical period in the United States. Richard Wright’s work was controversial, and he spent much time moving and living abroad. Resultantly, his legacy is nowhere near as respected as that of Langston Hughes.
Langston Hughes provides insight into what it was like to be a struggling African American during the Harlem Renaissance. The main reason that his legacy is one of such respect and honor is because he was not just a poet–he was a social poet, and he was aware of this. Hughes wrote on his life as a social poet, and this is a very valuable source to show why he is remembered so prominently. He states, in “My Adventures as a Social Poet,” that he “wrote about people’s problems–rather than [his] own personal difficulties” (Hughes 205). This caused him to be embraced by the Harlem community, as well as the entire African American community. It was as if, through his poetry, he was the spokesperson of their struggle–almost like Martin Luther King was the spokesperson of the Civil Rights movement. The African Americans were not the only people to take notice of his “social poetry,” as people who opposed his writing would report it to the police, because, as Hughes put it himself: “when poems stop talking about the moon and begin to mention poverty, trade unions, color lines, and colonies, somebody tells the police” (Hughes 205).
However, Hughes’ role as a social activist is not enough on its own to create a legacy as prestigious as his. His time period was filled with activists, but the reason he is remembered is because he stood out, and regardless of what he was put through for standing out, he did not budge. Throughout his life, authorities were always searching for reasons to censor his work or ways to ruin his standing among the people. He even writes of the consequences of his visit to Russia, stating that “[He was never] a Communist, but [he] learned that anyone who [visited] the Soviet Union and [spoke] with favor of it upon returning [was] liable to be [labeled as one]” (Hughes 209). He also received “many scurrilous anonymous anti-Negro letters from persons whose writing did not always indicate illiteracy” (Hughes 212). With all of this against him, Langston Hughes did not stop being a social poet. He wrote of what he knew, and did not care who had a problem with it. He wrote: “I was born poor–and colored–and almost all of the prettiest roses I have seen have been in rich white people’s yards–not in mine. That is why I cannot write exclusively about roses and moonlight–for sometimes in the moonlight my brothers see a fiery cross and a circle of Klansmen’s hoods. Sometimes in the moonlight a dark body swings from a lynching tree–but for his funeral there are no roses” (Hughes 212). Langston Hughes wrote poetry of true substance. That is why his legacy lives on today, because it actually has meaning and the capability to strike a chord in even a white man’s heart. That is why his legacy has been perpetuated in a positive manner.
While Langston Hughes is one of the best known American poets, the average American has probably not heard of Richard Wright. This leaves the question: why has he been marginalized? Intellectuals such as Howard Zinn see the value in Wright’s work, praising him as a “gifted novelist, a black man.” Zinn notes that Wright’s “autobiography of 1937, Black Boy, gave endless insights: for instance, how blacks were set against one another, when he told how was prodded to fight another black boy for he amusement of white men” (Zinn 446). In his work Bright and the Morning Star from Uncle Tom’s Children, he does a good job capturing the intensity of the fight that blacks endured against whites, as he describes the relief that one African American feels when she finally gives up the fight and loses her life to the white men. He wrote: “She lay without struggling, looking upward through the rain at the white faces above her. And she was suddenly at peace; they were not a white mountain now; they were not pushing her any longer to the edge of life” (Wright 261). She’s been pushed to death, the whites cannot push her any further, and she finally feels at peace. Wright also did a good job of capturing the hope that African Americans had, the belief that things would get better someday. He writes in the vernacular to make his characters seem more authentic, having them discuss how they trust that “the good Lawds gonna clean up this ol worl some day! Hes gonna make a new Heaven n a new Earth!…Things can’t go on like this forever” (Wright 159). Clearly Wight’s work is historically valuable, but he was somewhat of a controversial figure–even more controversial than Hughes.
Part of the shroud of controversy that hangs over Wright’s name has to do with the fact that he was a member of the Communist Party and married a Communist, but I feel that is not reason enough for his marginalization. Jack London also had questionable political views, but we still read his stories such as The Call of the Wild and White Fang. So what could be the reason for Richard Wright’s lack of a legacy? The combination of his political views with his race might have been enough for people to write him off and not give his work the credit that it is due. Zinn notes that “black Communists in the South had earned the admiration of blacks by their organizing work against enormous obstacles” (Zinn 447). This is what sets Wright apart from Hughes and could have ultimately led to the demise of his legacy. Hughes was threatening to whites, but at the end of the day he was just a poet, a spokesperson, nothing more. While he was an exceptional person and social poet, Wright displayed other qualities: organizational skills, new ways of thinking, and a drive to rebel (all evident in his political allegiances), that would have been threatening to white Americans, and they would make a great effort to make sure people were not inspired by his thinking. Also, Wright travelled the world, living in Paris until he died. This removal from American society also probably contributed to his lack of a prominent legacy in America. America is a land of patriotism, and it is frowned upon when people do things that could be construed as abandoning America–even if America was begging to be abandoned. Wright’s actions could be interpreted as so. The culmination of all these factors have caused Wright’s legacy to be nothing but a withered shell of what it could have been.
Today, more people are studying Richard Wright as they should be, but it is still clear that Langston Hughes is the preferred of the two, and I believe he deserves the preference of the masses. Hughes has a higher quantity of works, and his works are of a higher quality than Richard Wright’s. For me, personally, as an English major growing up on the East Coast in a predominantly white town on the New Hampshire border, I feel that reading the work of Langston Hughes is a lot more beneficial than reading the work of Richard Wright. It gives a better picture that is more easily accessible to those who are not exposed to the African American struggle, and therefore is worth more to a broader audience than the work of Richard Wright. I’ve been reading Langston Hughes since freshman year of high school, and I feel that had I been reading Richard Wright I would have one: not understood it as well, and two: not have been able to draw as good of a picture of the African American struggle.
Hughes’ poems became the voice of an era in American history, and he will always be remembered as one of the great American poets. He can be appreciated not only for the beauty and eloquence of his writing, but for the meaning and power behind his words. His talent and work can still be appreciated today, and his messages are still relevant. There is always oppression occurring in our country and in our world, and Hughes’ messages and perseverance in the face of adversity will always be applicable to the situations that occur in the world. In modern society, Hughes can be seen as an inspiration for anybody who faces a daily struggle–from illegal immigrants, to the impoverished, to those who are forced to make lifestyle changes based on the recession–they can look to his poems for inspiration.
Wright too is slowly becoming more appreciated. Like Zinn, people are starting to recognize the importance and relevance of his work. I personally see the value of Wright’s writing to a more learned and scholarly audience, and those who will truly be able to understand it will reap many benefits from reading it. It is almost as if Wright’s minimal presence in the scholarly eye is a blessing in disguise, as people can read his work and see it as new, while everybody who has ever studied poetry, the Harlem Renaissance, or even elementary English, has probably heard of Langston Hughes. Wright is proving to be a refreshing supply of new literary material for scholars of many varieties. Wright and Hughes have completely different legacies, but both are valuable sources regarding the struggles of African Americans throughout American history
Hughes, Langston. “My Adventures as a Social Poet.” Phylon 8.3 (1947): 205-12. Print.
Wright, Richard. Uncle Tom’s Children. New York: HarperPerennial ModernClassics, 2008. Print.
Zinn, Howard. A People’s History of the United States. New York: Harper Perennial, 2010. Print.