Langston Hughes (1902-1967) was the first black writer in America to earn his living from writing. Born in Joplin, Missouri, he had a migratory childhood following his parents’ separation, spending time in the American Mid-West and Mexico. He attended Columbia University from 1921-1922 but left, disillusioned by the coolness of his white peers. Hughes’ experience of racial exclusion was compounded by his sexual orientation which made him doubly separate from the “norm” of white society. His homosexuality remained hidden throughout his life, and referred to in his writing only through coded references, in the manner of one of his literary heroes, Walt Whitman. However, he did feel able to speak out against the racial oppression he witnessed all around him and had experienced first hand, and his first poems were published in the magazine Crisis which was run by the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People. After leaving University, Hughes travelled, first on a freighter to Africa – where the lack of political and economic freedom of the native people disturbed him – and then extensively in Europe before heading back to the USA. On his return he published his first collection, The Weary Blues, to great acclaim. From 1928-1930 he lived in New York and was a prominent member of the ‘Harlem Renaissance’, the name given to the flowering of intellectual and cultural activity amongst the black community of New York at the time. As well as poetry, Hughes’s prolific output included plays, essays and articles, some of which expressed his admiration for the Soviet Union and socialist principles. This led him to be investigated by the McCarthy Committee during the anti-Communist hysteria of the 1950s and it took a while for him to restore his reputation. However, by the 1960s his services to literature were recognised by the government and he was made a cultural emissary to Europe and Africa for the US State Department. Hughes died in 1967 in New York having lived into the Decade of Protest and seen many of the reforms he’d fought for introduced.

This recording features two of Hughes’s best known poems. One of Hughes’s poetic innovations was to draw on the rhythms of black musical traditions such as jazz and blues, but in ‘The Negro Speaks of Rivers’ it’s the heritage of Negro spirituals which is recalled by the poem’s majestic imagery and sonorous repetitions. Written when Hughes was only seventeen as he travelled by train across the Mississippi, ‘The Negro Speaks of Rivers’ is a beautiful statement of strength in the history of black people, which Hughes imagines stretching as far back as ancient Egypt and further into Africa and the cradle of civilisation. The poem returns at the end to America in a moment of optimistic alchemy when he sees the “muddy bosom” of the Mississippi “turn all golden in the sunset”.

‘I, Too’ written just before his return to the States from Europe and after he’d been denied passage on a ship because of his colour, has a contemporary feel in contrast to the mythical dimension of ‘The Negro Speaks of Rivers’. It is no less powerful however, in its expression of social injustice. The calm clear statements of the ‘I’ have an unstoppable force like the progress the poem envisages. Hughes’s dignified introductions to these poems and his beautiful speaking voice render them all the more moving.


This recording was made in 1955 by the jazz specialist label, Folkways.

Poems by Langston Hughes

The Negro Speaks of Rivers - Langston Hughes