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In every stage and period in history, the black American is present, as demonstrated in the line of imagery repeatedly used in the poem, "My soul has grown deep like the rivers."
The poem portrays the Negro as the cause rather than effect of human civilization. "The Negro" is a historical narrative of the life of the black American. Evidently, he had been present where human civilization thrived. Thus, human society in general has the obligation to preserve the race where humanity has possibly originated or came from. The black American race traces its roots from humanity's earliest peoples, and it is through them that humanity can learn more from their past and hence, they can appreciate the present and their future better because of these direct descendants of the earliest humans on earth. Put in the historical context, pure imagery and symbolism in "The Negro" gains deeper meaning, relevance, and significance to the reader.
However, it is important to note that the poem is also put in the political context that Hughes had been put in during his time. The poem, though written in a purely historical context, can also be interpreted as an attempt to create awareness to the reader about the regretfully sorry plight of the black American race as it embarks in a new period and society -- that is, the period of intellectual and material progress, modernism.
It becomes apparent in the poem that Hughes feels threatened with the emergence of modernism, fearing that the black American heritage will be erased from the hearts and minds of black Americans, specifically, and humanity, generally. For him, the prevalence of modernism marks the further dominance of the white American, which means marginalization of the black Americans would prevail, and perhaps, become tolerated, in the same way that black slavery became a legitimate practice in the 18th and 19th centuries.
In line with this argument, Higgins (1988) supports the claim about Hughes being averse about the promise and eventual effects of modernism to humanity, and most especially, to the black American society. He contends that Hughes considers modernism as "intellectually pretentious," a period and movement in history wherein humanity loses its significance, and the Negro society being put in danger of 'social extinction,' which means the eventual loss of the heritage and culture of the African race. For Hughes, humanity can only realize its full potential is he or she uses his/her skills and talents rather than leaving humanity's plight to science, technology, and development, concepts that involve only machines, objects as commodities, and other tangible materials that puts greater value to the object itself rather than the maker of the object.
Lund (2002) expresses this dichotomy between modernism and Hughes' belief in traditional means of living life. In her analysis of the poets' works, she argues that Hughes' poetry is laden with message that "intend to express our individual dark-skinned selves without fear or shame...We know we are beautiful. And ugly too. If colored people are pleased, we are glad. If they are not, their displeasure doesn't matter either. We build our temples for tomorrow." This assertion from Hughes reflects his own meaning of attaining emancipation from the white American society. Instead of integrating himself to the society, he seeks to diversify himself and establish his own identity as a black American, with the end towards achieving recognition of the black American heritage and culture as an important factor that helped build and develop human civilization.
This end is also expressed in "Dream Variations," a poem where Hughes is known to express his true, individual self. As opposed to poems that seek to achieve emancipation collectively, "Dream Variations" seeks to achieve personal emancipation, a process wherein an individual achieves intellectual emancipation by clearing someone's mind from any prejudice and discrimination. As evident in the poem, Hughes used his subjective and personal interpretations of what it is like being a black American in his society. In the poem, his being black is associated with the darkness of the night. For Hughes, it is only during the night that differences among people fade and give way towards equality. However, as shown during the day, the Negro has yet to experience equal status with the white American, and "[t]o fling my arms wide in the face of the sun" is but a dream that is yet to materialize as truth and reality for Hughes. Imagery and symbolism pervades "Dream Variations" in order to express this point or dichotomy. The poem seeks to reconcile the black American's dream for himself and his race and the hard realities that he experiences as a member of a marginalized race in the dominantly white American society.
Aaron, D. (1988). "The life of Langston Hughes." The New Republic, Vol. 199, No. 15.
Barker, a. (1997). "Art of the soul men." History Today, Vol. 47, No. 8.
Huggins, N. (1988). "The life of Langston Hughes: I dream a world." The Nation, Vol. 247, No. 9.
Hughes, L.E-text of "Dream Variations." Available at http://www.poets.org/poems/poems.cfm?45442B7C000C07010E77.
____. E-text of "Harlem." Available at http://www.csustan.edu/english/reuben/pal/chap9/hughes.html.
____. E-text of "The Negro Speaks of Rivers." Available at http://www.vmlinux.org/ilse/lit/hughes.htm.
Lund, E. (2002). "Langston Hughes set poetry jazz to a beat." Christian Science Monitor, Vol. 94, Issue 66.[continue]
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