What Langston Hughes Said A Century Ago About Activism, Writing, and Determination
Now is a great time to reflect on and appreciate the lessons of Black artists. The life and words of Langston Hughes, a preeminent artist, activist, and writer of the early 20th century, are certainly applicable to us today.
Exactly 100 years ago in New York City, Black Americans were leading a cultural movement. It was a blossoming of intellectual, social, and artistic life centered around what is now called the Harlem Renaissance. To say that Langston Hughes was involved would be a gross understatement. Hughes was not only a central leader in the Harlem Renaissance but also a central voice for Black Americans everywhere.
Born in Joplin, Missouri in 1902, he moved to New York City as a young man and made a life for himself as a poet, novelist, playwright, and activist. He aimed to present, with transparency, both the challenges and triumphs of working-class black life. In doing so, he certainly faced harsh criticism.
Through the decades, he expressed powerful ideas regarding revolution, activism, and politics. He also had thoughts on art, the writing process, and going about life. The rest of this article discusses his lessons that can apply to some of today’s challenges.
“In all my life, I have never been free. I have never been able to do anything with freedom, except in the field of my writing.” — Langston Hughes
Creating Art and The Writing Process
Hughes felt that there was freedom in art. This was not just about the freedom to make choices about the art itself. It is also about the freedom to ignore criticism and choose to not give in to fear.
To him, art starts with the individual. But it’s not just about the artist. It is about the way people see the art, and how it helps them see the beauty in their own selves.
“An artist must be free to choose what he does, certainly, but he must also never be afraid to do what he might choose.”
Amongst his works of art, Hughes is well known for his poems. Given that he believed there is freedom in art, he knew that he should only write by his own will. The writing process for Hughes was an opportunity for self-transformation and learning. We get to choose when you want to write, but also what we want to write about. We should avoid writing about the same thing just because it is comfortable.
“Writing is like traveling. It’s wonderful to go somewhere, but you get tired of staying.”
To Hughes, a person should be proud of the way that they are, because they are beautiful.
“Perhaps the mission of an artist is to interpret beauty to people — the beauty within themselves.”
Approaching Activism, Democracy, and Politics
“I swear to the Lord, I still can’t see, why Democracy means, everybody but me.”
The Harlem Renaissance era included an expansion of political activism amongst Black Americans. Although democracy as a system of government is designed to give political power to common people, racism has historically undermined those foundations. Hughes strongly believed in activism, in its many forms, to change the way things are.
“Good morning, Revolution: You’re the very best friend I ever had. We gonna pal around together from now on.”
Hughes said that the mix of writing with politics can be detrimental to the artist. But, then again, writing can also be the way forward to prosperity. Democracy in America needed improvement, he knew, but it would take extreme determination in the face of opposition.
“Democracy will not come Today, this year Nor ever Through compromise and fear.”
Determination, Dreams, and Living A Life
“A dream deferred is a dream denied.”
To Hughes, proactiveness was an essential characteristic to have in the face of life challenges. Being proactive to him meant to be not just active in your pursuit of what you want, but also dismissive of the temptation to procrastinate. Without this sort of attitude, the things that you want to achieve will keep getting pushed back and then eventually be unachievable.
“I tire so of hearing people say, Let things take their course. Tomorrow is another day. I do not need my freedom when I’m dead. I cannot live on tomorrow’s bread.”
If we are intentionally proactive, he believed, you will have the potential to open and explore opportunities for yourself. Doing so can significantly improve our lives, perhaps in the present and definitely in the future. Similar to Hughes’ stance on being an artist, all of this also starts with the individual. How can you go out and change the world if you haven’t thought inward about yourself first?
“When a man starts out to build a world, He starts first with himself.”
What does this all mean for us today?
Today, may we consider thinking inwardly and taking care of ourselves so that we can go outward with pride and start creating the world that we want to live in.
Today, may we consider having a difficult conversation with someone for the sake of learning something new. May we consider committing to listening, understanding, and acting by fostering inclusive, open dialogues. May we consider supporting each other.
Today, may we consider expressing our thoughts and feelings in forms that make sense to us. May we consider finding ways to make a meaningful, positive impact. May we consider starting by observing this list of helpful resources provided by Black Lives Matter. May we consider choosing ways to volunteer time to learn and give support. May we consider donating to an organization (e.g., donation link here for Black Visions Collective). Today, let us not wait until tomorrow.
We hear you, see you, and are here to make a change.
The way that Langston Hughes thought about writing, activism, and determination a century ago can be applied to the way that we think now. Do you have any thoughts? Please feel free to comment below. Discussion is important. I’m always learning. Thank you for reading.
[Tribute to George Perry Floyd Jr. (October 14, 1973 — May 25, 2020)]