Discrimination towards the African American community was at a peak in the early twentieth century. There had been many writers that emerged during the Harlem Renaissance, a movement about the celebration of the black arts and being black. Langston Hughes was a popular author that emerged during this time, and his work still stands relevant today. Hughes spoke about what it was like being a man of color in America during the early 20th century. He discussed important themes such as discrimination by racial segregation. Langston Hughes exemplifies discrimination by racial segregation in his poems, “Children’s Rhymes”, “Let America Be America Again”, and “I, Too”.
Langston Hughes illustrates racial segregation in his poem, “Children’s Rhymes”. The title suggests that the poem foreshadows the subject being something sweet and fun to sing. Instead it is a black child’s point of view on life. The child narrator states that, “I know I can’t/ be President” (Hughes, lines 4-5). The narrator knows that because he is black, he will not be able to live his dreams the way he would like too. The child knows he will not be able to do a white man’s job and these “negative experiences to race entails a threat to a stable and salient social identity” (Chae).
The President of the United States is a prestigiously white title. It is the symbol of a man in power and the freedom to run for president. This is something a black man could not physically do because of the segregation laws. Colored children and white children could not use the same restroom, let alone debate to be the next Commander in Chief.
In lines 6-8, the child narrator exemplifies his frustration, “What don’t bug/ them white kids/ sure bugs me:’ (Hughes). The black kids get the short end of the stick in the segregation laws. The worlds of the white kids are completely different. The white kids do not have to worry about segregation. Richard Wright provides an example relevant to this line in his autobiographical short, “The Ethics of Living Jim Crow: An Autobiographical Sketch”. When he was a child, he was involved with his friends in a war with the white kids. The black kids had their cinders and cinder barrage but the white kids “replied with a steady bombardment of broken bottles” (Wright). The white kids had trees to hid behind and the black children just had the cinder barrage. This shows that during the segregation, that the white community always had the bigger advantage. They were provided with the better tools in life. The white kids are not bothered with that they have, but the black children are bugged by the disadvantages that are purposely handed to them.
The narrator ends the poem with a question to the foundations of America, “Liberty and Justice–/ Huh!—For all?” (lines 14-15). The essence of the word “liberty” is being free from oppressive restrictions. The word “justice” pertains to peace and a genuine respect for people. These words are ironic to use as the slogan for America, as the narrator questions if liberty and justice really is for all. The Jim Crow laws are literally the opposite of what America is supposed to stand for. If it was for all, and not just the white people of America, there would not be oppression, racism, discrimination, or the existence of racial segregation. The poem is a raw description from an innocent child’s point of view of the reality of being black in a white man’s America. That sure does bug him.
Hughes illustrates racial discrimination by segregation in his poem, “Let America Be America Again”. The narrator of the poem depicts a picture of an America that is free, but has not had that experience being a black man. This can be seen in lines 3-5, “Let it be the pioneer on the plain/ Seeking a home where he himself is free/ (America never was America to me)” (Hughes). The narrator references a time in history when America was welcome to all sorts of pioneers to explore the new land and make a new life from them. It was celebrated as a melting pot of cultures. Then the narrator mentions how America was never the America the white man experienced. The minorities, the black community, were never considered as equal human beings. The narrator correlates with this train of thought when he states that “he” was, “torn from Black’s Africa’s strand I came/ to build a “homeland of the free”” (Hughes, lines 49-50). This is a reference on how his ancestors were stripped from their free land of Africa and forced into slavery to be the work force to build America.
The use of the quotation marks indicates the sarcastic tone in that line. A theme in this poem is racial segregation and the sarcastic remark of building the home of the free emphasizes on how the narrator does not feel free. Referencing back to the poem, “Children’s Rhymes”, the narrator asks if liberty and justice really is for all at the end of the poem. This poem, ‘Let America Be America Again”, seems to answer that question by stating that he has never experienced America.
The narrator “speaks of the freedom and equality which America boasts, but never had” (Presley) in lines 63-64. The speaker wants “the land where every man is free./ The land that’s mine—the poor man’s, Indians, Negro’s, ME” (Hughes). That is the potential that America has, but has not lived up to that potential. It is more than one ethnicity that is discriminated against. This poem illustrates the opposite of freedom that America claims that is has. The pioneer at the beginning of the poem, in the beginning of America, represents the freedom America once had. The racial discrimination with the arrival of slaves have only made the matters worse. America boasts as a land of diversity, but anything diverse from the white man is not celebrated. The narrator emphasizes that neither he or his ancestors experienced the freedom of America the white man has experienced.
Hughes illustrates racial segregation in his poem, “I, Too”. The title itself plays an important role in the poem because it summarizes the poem well. It states acknowledgment and the narrators own existence. The choice of the word “too” is interesting because the reader can easily hear “two”. This “shifts the terrain to someone who is secondary, subordinate, even, inferior” (Ward). This perspective is relevant because the poem speaks on how the black man is treated, inferior and unequal. Throughout the poem, “Hughes presents the miserable conditions of the negros by expressing his genuine emotions and says that is not just the white man who is American” (Subhashe). In lines 2-3, the narrator states that, “I am the darker brother./ They send me to eat in the kitchen” (Hughes).
The speaker presents himself as the voice for the black community by using the word “the” instead of implying “one of the”. That would leave the word “they” as a term for the opposite race, the white people. This immediately gives to the theme of racial segregation. The narrator refers to slavery when the kitchen slaves were sent to remain in the kitchen when any kind of company arrives. They were not invited to sit and eat at the dining table because the black community was not seen as equal but inferior to the white race. This racial segregation, black and whites visibly separated, continued on for many years after slavery was abolished.
The narrator states his own existence in the title but he also knows how beautiful the black community is, “They’ll see how beautiful I am/ And be ashamed” (Hughes, lines 16-17). When “they”, the white people, realize one day that they are equal to one another and just as American, they will be ashamed. They will feel rather foolish for their treatment of their fellow Americans because of the color of their skin. The narrator is hopeful that one day the black and white communities can coexist in the dining room in peace.
The narrator ends the poem similarly how it started, “I, too, am America” (Hughes, line 18). The narrator once again states his own existence. Since he is the spokesperson for the black community, he is stating the existence of African Americans. They are just as American as they “helped sing America into existence and for that work deserve a seat at the table, dining as coequals with their fellows and in the company of the world” (Ward).
Langston Hughes brought a large sum of problems of being black in America to light. His themes were not always celebrated by critics, whether they did not think it was appropriate to a white audience or some of the black community did not think their struggle should not be showcased. Either way, Hughes work has made a large impact in the continuation of America better and used as civil right protests. He was an author that contributed to the fight of equal opportunities for all and the end of segregation. His poetry is still influential to the twenty-first century. His theme of discrimination by segregation in a large portion in his poetry. He has exemplified this in his poems, “Children’s Rhymes”, “Let America Be America Again”, and “I, Too”.