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Langston Hughes

Children’s Rhymes

Fiction | Poem | Adult | Published in 1926

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Summary and Study Guide


“Children’s Rhymes” is a poem by Langston Hughes. A longer version of the poem appeared in Hughes’ 1951 collection Montage of a Dream Deferred. A shorter version of the poem came out in his 1967 posthumous poetry collection The Panther & the Lash—this is the version commonly found today. The poem is a lyric and relates to Hughes’ association with the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and 30s. Harlem was a Black neighborhood in New York City. Ultimately, the artistic movement transcended place and time and propelled generations of Black artists to express themselves forcefully. The poem also links to Hughes’ affiliation with the civil rights movement and the drive to deliver freedom and justice for Black people across America during the 1950s and 60s. Hughes was a prolific writer. He published short stories, novels, plays, newspaper articles, two autobiographies, translations, children’s books, and hundreds of poems. One key message that runs across Hughes’ output is the inequality between white people and Black people in America. The belief that Black people lack the rights and opportunities granted to white people is central to “Children’s Rhymes.” Although the poem is relatively popular, other parts of Hughes' poetic canon, like "The Weary Blues" (1925) or "I, Too" (1926) are generally more well-known.

Poet Biography

Langston Hughes was born in Joplin, Missouri, in 1902. His mother, Carrie Langston, came from a prosperous family. Her dad was a successful grocer and farmer, and her youngest brother would go on to become the president of Howard University. Creative and passionate, Carrie wanted to be a performer, but the racist and sexist norms of the 19th-century obstructed her dream. Eventually, Carrie met James Nathaniel Hughes. In 1900, before Langston came into their lives, Carrie gave birth to a boy who did not survive infancy. A year after Hughes’ birth, his father James moved to Mexico City. Carrie left Hughes with her mother, his grandmother Mary, and followed James to Mexico.

In Lawrence, Kansas, Hughes was unhappy with his grandma. Then, as Hughes writes in his autobiography The Big Sea (1940), “books began to happen to me, and I began to believe in nothing but books and the wonderful world in books” (16). The real world of Hughes and his grandma was hardly wonderful. Mary had trouble providing food and paying the mortgage, which left Hughes hungry and “never quite sure the white mortgage man was not going to take the house” (16).

Hughes’ parents fought often and eventually separated. Carrie remarried, and Hughes spent a great deal of his adolescence moving around the Midwest with his mom and stepdad. In eighth grade Hughes was named class poet, which Hughes attributed to racial stereotypes. As Hughes writes in The Big Sea, “My classmates, knowing that a poem had to have rhythm, elected me unanimously—thinking, no doubt, that I had some, being a Negro” (24). At graduation, Hughes recited his poem and received a loud ovation. Witnessing the power of poetry made Hughes want to write more of it.

After cantankerous visits with his hard-nosed dad in Mexico, Hughes moved to New York and enrolled in Columbia University in 1921. A year later, Hughes left Columbia. After traveling and working on ships, he returned to New York in 1925, where he met Alain Locke, who edited the influential anthology of Black writers, The New Negro that year. He also met Zora Neale Hurston, Wallace Thurman, and many other critical figures associated with the artistic explosion in New York City that became known as the Harlem Renaissance.

Carl Van Vechten was one of the major supporters of the Harlem Renaissance artists and introduced Hughes’ poetry to Alfred A. Knopf. In 1926, Knopf published Hughes’ first poetry collection The Weary Blues. That same year, Hughes published “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain” in The Nation. In this seminal essay, Hughes draws attention to the central traits of the Harlem Renaissance and the mission of many other Black artists when he declares, “We younger Negro artists who create now intend to express our individual dark-skinned selves without fear or shame.[…] We know we are beautiful. And ugly too.”

In 1927, Hughes published his second volume of poetry Fine Clothes to the Jew, which portrayed some of the ugliness in the Black community. In 1930, Hughes published his first novel Not Without Laughter. During the 30s, Hughes’ work made it onto Broadway, and he started theater companies in Harlem and Los Angeles. In 1931, Hughes visited the American South and met with the Scottsboro Boys—nine Black teens who were falsely accused of raping two white women on a train near Scottsboro, Alabama. Later in the decade, Hughes traveled to the Soviet Union and Spain, where he reported on the Spanish Civil War as a newspaper correspondent.

The year 1940 began with the publication of The Big Sea. Richard Wright also published his violent and controversial novel Native Son (Harper & Brothers) in 1940, and Hughes criticized its bellicose message. Later, Hughes voiced his disagreement with the radical politics of the Black writer Amiri Baraka (then known as LeRoi Jones) and the revolutionary organization the Black Panthers. In turn, writers like James Baldwin criticized Hughes for producing overly simplistic, insufficiently transgressive work. In 1951, Hughes published Montage of a Dream Deferred. A year later, he wrote the introduction to the centenary edition of Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin. In a famous essay “Everybody’s Protest Novel” (1955), Baldwin lambasted Stowe’s antislavery novel for whitewashing Black people.

Hughes’ affiliation with the Soviet Union and communism made him a target. During the 1940s and 50s, the supposed threat of communism preoccupied politicians like Senator Joseph McCarthy. This period was called the Second Red Scare, and it led to myriad rumors and accusations. In 1953, Hughes spoke to McCarthy’s Subcommittee on Investigations and distanced himself from communism. Hughes’ didn’t implicate anyone else, but his disavowal caused a split between him and other notable Black figures, like the writer W.E.B. Du Bois and the actor Paul Robeson.

Despite the discord and tension, Hughes remained productive. In 1959, Knopf published his Selected Poems. In "Sermons and Blues," Baldwin reviewed the book for The New York Times and faulted the “fake simplicity” of the poems and wished Hughes was a “more disciplined poet.” Nonetheless, Hughes continued to flourish. In 1961, he was inducted into the prestigious National Institute of Arts and Letters. A year later, he began his weekly column for The New York Post. In 1966, President Lyndon B. Johnson made Hughes the leader of an American delegation to the First World Festival of Negro Arts in Dakar. In May of 1967, Hughes died in a New York hospital due to prostate cancer.

Poem Text

Hughes, Langston. “Children’s Rhymes.” 1967. Veterans of the Civil Rights Movement.


In Lines 1-3, the speaker separates themselves from “white kids” (Line 2). This detail—the skin color—signals that the speaker is not a white kid, and, based on the author of the poem and his work, suggests that the speaker is a Black kid.

The speaker (the Black kid) and the white kids are different. What “sends” (Line 1) the white kids isn’t “sent” (Line 3) to the Black kid. The speaker and the white children don’t receive the same sorts of things or opportunities. “I know I can’t / be President,” says the speaker (Line 4-5). Unlike the white kids, the speaker doesn't have the chance to hold what's arguably the most powerful position in the United States of America. The speaker's potential is limited.

In Stanza 2, the speaker gets things that the white kids don’t—but not good things. “What don’t bug / them white kids” (Lines 5-6) annoys the speaker because the speaker is aware that not every person in the United States has the freedoms conferred upon the white kids. “We know everybody / ain’t free,” says the speaker (Line 9-10), and the plural pronoun “we” signals that the speaker feels comfortable speaking for Black people at large.

In the final stanza, the speaker calls the idea that everybody is free “lies” (Line 11). The speaker says the falsehoods are for white people and not “for us” or Black people (Line 13). In the last two lines—Lines 14-15—the speaker provides specific examples of lies. “Liberty And Justice — Huh? — For All?” asks the speaker. The speaker knows that America regularly withholds liberty and justice from Black people and that to say otherwise is to tell a lie.

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