10 Langston Hughes Poems to Read

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Langston Hughes was at the forefront of the 1920s Harlem Renaissance, a time when black artistic and intellectual life was celebrated across major cities in the US, especially in the majority-black areas of Harlem, NY. 

Hughes is most famous for his poetry, but he also wrote numerous essays, novels, short stories, and plays. His work focused on what he viewed as the positive and negative elements of being black and working class in a nation with deeply engrained racial divides. 

He was widely celebrated throughout his career, but his work also drew some criticism, especially from his fellow black intellectuals. Some accused Hughes of portraying black life in a negative light, at a time when whites were still very much the ruling class. 

But in the face of criticism, he was still able to draw a huge fan base, and he became one of the first African Americans to earn his living entirely from writing and delivering public lectures. 

Langston Hughes died in 1967, but his poems are as poignant today as they were back in the Harlem Renaissance period. If you’ve not read any of Hughes’ work, then I highly recommend you do; here are ten of his best-loved poems to get you started. 

1. The Negro Speaks of RiversFirst published in 1921

I’ve known rivers:

I’ve known rivers ancient as the world and older than the flow of human blood in human veins.

My soul has grown deep like the rivers.

I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young.

I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep.

I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it.

I heard the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln went down to New Orleans, and I’ve seen its muddy bosom turn all golden in the sunset.

I’ve known rivers:

Ancient, dusky rivers.

My soul has grown deep like the rivers. 

2. Dreams: First published in 1922

Hold fast to dreams

For if dreams die

Life is a broken-winged bird

That cannot fly.

Hold fast to dreams

For when dreams go

Life is a barren field

Frozen with snow.

3. Mother to Son: First published in 1922

Well, son, I’ll tell you:

Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.

It’s had tacks in it,

And splinters,

And boards torn up,

And places with no carpet on the floor—

Bare.

But all the time

I’se been a-climbin’ on,

And reachin’ landin’s,

And turnin’ corners,

And sometimes goin’ in the dark

Where there ain’t been no light.

So boy, don’t you turn back.

Don’t you set down on the steps

’Cause you finds it’s kinder hard.

Don’t you fall now—

For I’se still goin’, honey,

I’se still climbin’,

And life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.

4. The Weary Blues: First published in 1925

Droning a drowsy syncopated tune,

Rocking back and forth to a mellow croon,

I heard a Negro play.

Down on Lenox Avenue the other night

By the pale dull pallor of an old gas light

He did a lazy sway. . . .

He did a lazy sway. . . .

To the tune o’ those Weary Blues.

With his ebony hands on each ivory key

He made that poor piano moan with melody.

O Blues!

Swaying to and fro on his rickety stool

He played that sad raggy tune like a musical fool.

Sweet Blues!

Coming from a black man’s soul.

O Blues!

In a deep song voice with a melancholy tone

I heard that Negro sing, that old piano moan—

“Ain’t got nobody in all this world,

Ain’t got nobody but ma self.

I’s gwine to quit ma frownin’

And put ma troubles on the shelf.”

Thump, thump, thump, went his foot on the floor.

He played a few chords then he sang some more—

“I got the Weary Blues

And I can’t be satisfied.

Got the Weary Blues

And can’t be satisfied—

I ain’t happy no mo’

And I wish that I had died.”

And far into the night he crooned that tune.

The stars went out and so did the moon.

The singer stopped playing and went to bed

While the Weary Blues echoed through his head.

He slept like a rock or a man that’s dead.

5. Po’ Boy Blues: First published in 1926

When I was home de

Sunshine seemed like gold.

When I was home de

Sunshine seemed like gold.

Since I come up North de

Whole damn world’s turned cold.

I was a good boy,

Never done no wrong.

Yes, I was a good boy,

Never done no wrong,

But this world is weary

An’ de road is hard an’ long.

I fell in love with

A gal I thought was kind.

Fell in love with

A gal I thought was kind.

She made me lose ma money

An’ almost lose ma mind.

Weary, weary,

Weary early in de morn.

Weary, weary,

Early, early in de morn.

I’s so weary

I wish I’d never been born.

6. Let America Be America Again: First published in 1936

Let America be America again.

Let it be the dream it used to be.

Let it be the pioneer on the plain

Seeking a home where he himself is free.

(America never was America to me.)

Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed—

Let it be that great strong land of love

Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme

That any man be crushed by one above.

(It never was America to me.)

O, let my land be a land where Liberty

Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,

But opportunity is real, and life is free,

Equality is in the air we breathe.

(There’s never been equality for me,

Nor freedom in this “homeland of the free.”)

Say, who are you that mumbles in the dark?

And who are you that draws your veil across the stars?

I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart,

I am the Negro bearing slavery’s scars.

I am the red man driven from the land,

I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek—

And finding only the same old stupid plan

Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.

I am the young man, full of strength and hope,

Tangled in that ancient endless chain

Of profit, power, gain, of grab the land!

Of grab the gold! Of grab the ways of satisfying need!

Of work the men! Of take the pay!

Of owning everything for one’s own greed!

I am the farmer, bondsman to the soil.

I am the worker sold to the machine.

I am the Negro, servant to you all.

I am the people, humble, hungry, mean—

Hungry yet today despite the dream.

Beaten yet today—O, Pioneers!

I am the man who never got ahead,

The poorest worker bartered through the years.

Yet I’m the one who dreamt our basic dream

In the Old World while still a serf of kings,

Who dreamt a dream so strong, so brave, so true,

That even yet its mighty daring sings

In every brick and stone, in every furrow turned

That’s made America the land it has become.

O, I’m the man who sailed those early seas

In search of what I meant to be my home—

For I’m the one who left dark Ireland’s shore,

And Poland’s plain, and England’s grassy lea,

And torn from Black Africa’s strand I came

To build a “homeland of the free.”

The free?

Who said the free? Not me?

Surely not me? The millions on relief today?

The millions shot down when we strike?

The millions who have nothing for our pay?

For all the dreams we’ve dreamed

And all the songs we’ve sung

And all the hopes we’ve held

And all the flags we’ve hung,

The millions who have nothing for our pay—

Except the dream that’s almost dead today.

O, let America be America again—

The land that never has been yet—

And yet must be—the land where every man is free.

The land that’s mine—the poor man’s, Indian’s, Negro’s, ME—

Who made America,

Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,

Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,

Must bring back our mighty dream again.

Sure, call me any ugly name you choose—

The steel of freedom does not stain.

From those who live like leeches on the people’s lives,

We must take back our land again,

America!

O, yes,

I say it plain,

America never was America to me,

And yet I swear this oath—

America will be!

Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death,

The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies,

We, the people, must redeem

The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.

The mountains and the endless plain—

All, all the stretch of these great green states—

And make America again!

7. I, Too: First published in 1945

I, too, sing America.

I am the darker brother.

They send me to eat in the kitchen

When company comes,

But I laugh,

And eat well,

And grow strong.

Tomorrow,

I’ll be at the table

When company comes.

Nobody’ll dare

Say to me,

“Eat in the kitchen,”

Then.

Besides,

They’ll see how beautiful I am

And be ashamed—

I, too, am America.

8. Life is Fine: First published in 1949

I went down to the river,

I set down on the bank.

I tried to think but couldn’t,

So I jumped in and sank.

I came up once and hollered!

I came up twice and cried!

If that water hadn’t a-been so cold

I might’ve sunk and died.

But it was cold in that water! It was cold!

I took the elevator

Sixteen floors above the ground.

I thought about my baby

And thought I would jump down.

I stood there and I hollered!

I stood there and I cried!

If it hadn’t a-been so high

I might’ve jumped and died.

But it was high up there! It was high!

So since I’m still here livin’,

I guess I will live on.

I could’ve died for love—

But for livin’ I was born

Though you may hear me holler,

And you may see me cry—

I’ll be dogged, sweet baby,

If you gonna see me die.

Life is fine! Fine as wine! Life is fine!

9. Harlem: First published in 1950

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?

10. Brotherly Love: First published in 1956

A Little Letter to the White Citizens of the South

In line of what my folks say in Montgomery,

In line of what they’re teaching about love,

When I reach out my hand, will you take it

Or cut it off and leave a nub above?

If I found it in my heart to love you,

And if I thought I really could,

If I said “Brother, I forgive you,”

I wonder, would it do any good?

So long, so long a time you’ve been calling

Me all kinds of names, pushing me down –

I been swimming with my head deep under water,

And you wished I would stay under until I drown.

But I didn’t! I’m still swimming! Now you’re mad

Because I won’t ride in the back end of your bus.

When I answer, “Anyhow, I’m gonna love you,”

Still and yet, you want to make a fuss.

Now listen, white folks!

In line with Reverend King down in Montgomery –

Also because the Bible says I must –

I’m gonna love you – yes I will! Or BUST!

Conclusion

These are some of Langston Hughes’ most celebrated poems, but there’s a lot more to his body of work. He’s got several short stories, novels, essays, and even plays to explore. What are your favorite Langston Hughes poems, and why? Let me know in the comments below! 

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