The topic of Langston Hughes’ “Negro” deals with an extremely general description of the history of African Americans or blacks from the pre-1922 era until 1922. Hughes lets the reader know about historic experiences of blacks to show us the impact that blacks have had in past eras. He touches on past, historical events, like the days of “Caesar” and the “Belgians…in the Congo” (5 and 15).
The murderous oppression that Hughes speaks about uncovered when he says, “They lynch me still in Mississippi” (16). Hughes has made his poem more understandable by the use of such elements as setting and situation, speaker, tone and diction, images, and symbols.
The title, “Negro”, explains two items in one word: who is the subject and what the poem is about. Hughes identifies himself by saying, “I am a Negro” (1 and 17). Then Hughes describes the works of the Negro by using the terms “slave,” “worker,” “singer,” and “victims” (4, 7, 10, and 14).
The first example is a situation that has taken place in Africa; the second in the United States. Finally, Hughes uses repetition of the first and last stanza to conclude his poem. To thoroughly understand the point that Hughes is making, one must take an enhanced inspection at certain elements that Hughes uses throughout the poem.
In “Negro”, Hughes gives the reader a compact visual exposé of the historical life of blacks. He does not tell the reader in detail about what has happened to blacks; therefore, Hughes allows these actual accounts to marinate in the mind of the reader.
Instead of saying that he[Hughes] is a black man living in America, he simply says that “I am a Negro” (1 and 17). He does not create a mysterious aura about blacks, but leaves that up to the reader. Thinking, on the reader’s behalf, plays a major part in understanding “Negro.” The different meanings that this poem has is entirely left for the reader to discern.
The setting of “Negro” is 1922, the year in which it was written. A time when blacks were often treated badly because of their race. A limited account of the history of blacks, Hughes could recite this poem to a group with any racial makeup at any given location. Someone could ask Hughes, “Who are you?” The answer to that question can be this poem.
Hughes is possibly the speaker of the poem, but clearly this speaker symbolizes all blacks in America. The continuous usage of “I’ve” before he names a description demonstrates the bond that he feels with his ancestors (4, 7, 10, and 14). Hughes makes use of the pronoun in “my Africa” to reveal the possessive emotional ties he has with Africa (3). When Hughes says, “I’ve been a victim…They lynch me still in Mississippi,” we see his real feelings (16).
Since, in 1922, the reading audience consisted of predominantly white, he waits until the end of the poem to reveal his real agenda because he wants people to understand that oppression of the past is still prevalent today.
Hughes wants everyone that reads this poem to understand its meaning; therefore, the diction that Hughes uses is very basic and easy to understand. To represent all blacks in America, Hughes chooses to use the pronoun “I.” The beginning of the original and final stanza is “I am a Negro”; Hughes is emphasizing to the reader the collective voice that he is using (1 and 17).
He uses well recognized landmarks, that are familiar to us, to describe points of his interest such as building the “pyramids,” “[making] mortar for the Woolworth Building,” and “[making] ragtime” (5, 6, 13). With the structure of the sentence arrangements, Hughes tells us either what has happened to blacks or what blacks have done; so all can understand his need to identify himself and describe in writing the real record of blacks.
He, however, avoids dialect or lofty prose to reach his audience. Hughes’s diction thus reflects his tone. He wants his poetry to be “direct, comprehensible and the epitome of simplicity” (Meyer 884).
Moreover, Hughes uses a plethora of images in “Negro” to reinforce the oppression that blacks were experiences. “Black as the night is black,”, gives the reader the idea that “blacks” are as dark as night (2). “Black like the depths of my Africa.”, creates a mysterious, fictionalized character of blacks (3).
Hughes allows the reader to recognize the accomplishments of blacks by saying blacks built the Great Pyramids of Africa and the “Woolworth Building” here in America (8 and 9). “They lynch me still in Mississippi.”, portrays how the blacks were still victims in 1922. The enslavement period is referred to when Hughes says that he “brushed the boots of Washington” (6). Hughes refers to the making of “ragtime” which tells us of the musical impact that blacks have had in America (13).
Hughes uses numerous symbols in “Negro” to mirror the significance of his images. The building of the “pyramids” represents the knowledge of architecture and mathematics that blacks have in Africa and America (8). The use of “Negro” has a symbolic meaning attached to it (1 and 17).
That is the acceptance of society’s labeling of blacks. “Black” and “night” have a mysterious meaning that is often referred by the white, reading audience in the 1920s (2, 3, 18, and 19). Although these are very general, we get an actual sense of black presence throughout history.
Clearly, this theme is not new to a 20th century reader because we now know of this history that Hughes is explaining. However, we experience the uncommonly true fear faced in the 1920s. Hughes shows us that there is more than one way to explain matters.
He seduced us into thinking “Negro” was about being labeled, yet surprising us in the end uncovering the ongoing lynching of blacks in the South (16). Hughes made it a point not to unveil what he really wanted us to see until he gave us a brief lesson in history.
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