Langston Hughes' Poems: Lesson for Kids

Instructor: Elizabeth Hance

Elizabeth has taught elementary and middle school special education, and has a master's degree in reading education.

Langston Hughes is one of the most important American writers of the 20th century. As a central figure in the Harlem Renaissance movement, his poems have resonated with people for decades. In this lesson you will learn more about this noteworthy poet and some of his most famous poems.

Biography

Langston Hughes, a descendant of African American slaves, was born in Missouri on February 1, 1902. He grew up primarily in Kansas where his maternal grandmother raised him. Hughes was interested in books and storytelling from a very young age and was elected class poet by his grade school classmates. During high school, he started writing stories, plays, and his first example of jazz poetry, 'When Sue Wears Red'. Jazz poetry relies on the rhythm and structures of jazz music--when reading aloud, it almost sounds like a song.

A portrait of Hughes as a young man
hughes portrait

As an adult, Hughes lived and worked abroad in Europe for several years before returning the U.S. where he lived in Washington, D.C. He earned a degree from Lincoln University in Pennsylvania and eventually moved to Harlem, New York where he lived for the majority of his life. His writing was first published in 1921 in the NAACP's magazine, The Crisis. This magazine published more of his work than any other journal. During the Harlem Renaissance, he wrote novels, poetry, and essays that depicted the lives of people of color and confronted racism and stereotypes. The Harlem Renaissance was a period of time from post-World War I to the mid-1930s during which art (photography, novels, poetry, etc) and culture were exploding. Harlem, a mostly black area of New York City, was the center of the movement.

Common Themes

Langston Hughes in 1936
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Hughes poems are a perfect example of the art and writing created during the Harlem Renaissance. They describe the joy and difficulties of life as an African American in the early 20th century. He wanted to show the struggles of working class black Americans and encouraged people to be proud of their diverse black culture.

His writing was also deeply influenced by jazz music, and the rhythms and phrasing of jazz music can often be heard when you read his poetry. Below are some of Hughes' most well-known poems.

One of Hughes poems immortalized outside the New York Public Library
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Dream Deferred

'What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up

Like a raisin in the sun?

Or fester like a sore--

And then run?

Does it stink like rotten meat?

Or crust and sugar over--

like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags

like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?'

In Dream Deferred Hughes speaks directly to the experience of many African Americans who are unable to realize their dreams and hopes. When a dream is put off, it can spoil, it can hurt the dreamer, or it can explode, hurting more than just the dreamer.

I, Too, Sing America

'I, too, sing America.

I am the darker brother.

They send me to eat in the kitchen

When company comes,

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