20 pages • 40 minutes readLangston Hughes
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“The Weary Blues” is a poem by the essayist, playwright, fiction writer, children’s author, and poet Langston Hughes. It’s one of his most famous poems and serves as the title of his debut collection of poetry, The Weary Blues—published in 1926 by Alfred A. Knopf. The work established Hughes as a preeminent Black voice in American literature. Hughes was one of several gifted Black artists associated with the Harlem Renaissance. This literary movement acquired its name from the predominantly Black New York City neighborhood. During the 1920s and 30s, many Black artists in Harlem began to create critical works that helped other Black artists express themselves boldly and unapologetically. These artists didn’t just reshape Black literature—they transformed American literature. “The Weary Blues” reflects both the vision of Hughes and the tenets of the Harlem Renaissance. The poem provides an unflinching portrait of Black existence in a voice, tone, rhythm, and style authentic to Hughes and his community. His poem addresses the pain, frustration, and struggle of a Black man’s existence in the early 20th century. Along with poems like “I, Too” (also a part of 1926’s The Weary Blues), “The Ballad of the Landlord” (1940) and “Harlem” (1951), “The Weary Blues” regularly finds itself in authoritative anthologies. As John Edgar Tidwell and Cheryl R. Ragar write in their introduction to the collection of essays they edited, Montage of a Dream: The Art and Life of Langston Hughes (2007), The Weary Blues “established a standard of excellence to which other poets should aspire.”
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Langston Hughes was born in Joplin, Missouri in 1902. His mom, 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 blocked her dream. Eventually, Carrie met James Nathaniel Hughes, Langston’s father. A year after Hughes’ birth, James moved to Mexico City. Carrie left Hughes with her mom, 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.” The real world of Hughes and his grandma was not wonderful. Mary had trouble providing food and paying the mortgage, so Hughes was hungry and “never quite sure the white mortgage man was not going to take the house” (The Big Sea, 16).
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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. The power of poetry made Hughes want to write more poems.
After quarrelsome visits with his 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, Hughes returned to New York in 1925. He met Alain Locke, Zora Neale Hurston, Wallace Thurman, and many other critical figures associated with the Black artistic boom 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. The book was popular caused a stir in the literary community. W. E. B. Du Bois applauded the stress on the struggles of ordinary Black people, while Countee Cullen criticized it as “one-sided” and overly focused on “strictly Negro themes.”
In 1926 Hughes also 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.”
In 1927, Hughes published his second volume of poetry Fine Clothes to the Jew (Alfred A. Knopf), which continued his unflinching portrayal of the Black community. In 1930, Hughes published his first novel Not Without Laughter. Throughout the late 1920s and 1930s, Hughes visited places outside of America, like Cuba, Mexico, China, Spain, and the Soviet Union. His global journeys gave him an international audience and familiarized him with leftist, anti-capitalist political arrangements like communism and socialism.
While traveling to Russia in 1932 Hughes published a controversial poem, “Goodbye Christ,” that suggested communist figures like Karl Marx, Vladimir Lenin, and Joseph Stalin should replace the capitalistic Christ. 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 others, but his disavowal caused a split between him and notable Black figures like Du Bois and the famous Black actor Paul Robeson. Tidwell and Ragar attribute his supposed ideological shift to “economic reality” and Hughes’ aim to “continue making a living as a full-time writer.” If Hughes wanted a wide audience and the money that came with it, he may not be able to be as radical as he’d like.
The year 1940 began with the publication of The Big Sea. Richard Wright also published his violent and controversial novel Native Son in 1940, and Hughes criticized its bellicose message. Later, Hughes expressed 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 Baraka and James Baldwin criticized Hughes as overly basic and insufficiently transgressive.
Despite the ideological discord, Hughes remained prolific. In 1951, Hughes published Montage of a Dream Deferred. In 1959, Knopf published his Selected Poems. In "Sermons and Blues," Baldwin reviewed the book for The New York Times and criticized 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 illustrious 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. Hughes died a year later in May of 1967 in a New York hospital due to prostate cancer.
Langston Hughes didn’t leave behind a spouse or children. In the forward to Montage of a Dream, Arnold Rampersad, the prominent Hughes biographer and scholar, says speculation about Hughes’ sexuality has “added tangy spice to commentary on Hughes’ life and work in recent years.” The well-known cultural critic Hilton Als believed Hughes was gay. Als thinks one reason why Baldwin was so critical of Hughes was that Hughes wasn’t as open with his gay identity as Baldwin. In her review of Rampersad’s two-volume Hughes biography in The New York Times, “The Laureate of Black America” (1988), the distinguished poet Rita Dove depicts Hughes as “a lonely man” in general. Whatever the case may be, the interest in Hughes’ personal life ultimately comes back to his outstanding literary output.
Hughes, Langston. “The Weary Blues.” 1926. Poetry Foundation.
The poem starts with the speaker telling the reader how he was listening to a slow song with a jarring rhythm, and this “syncopated tune” (Line 1) made the speaker rock back and forth. The person playing the song was “a Negro” (Line 3)—or, to use a less fraught term—a Black person (Line 3). The speaker was listening to the tune “the other night” (Line 4) on Lenox Avenue—a rather famous thoroughfare in Harlem. The venue was somewhat rundown and faded as the “old gas light” created a “pale dull pallor” (Line 5).
The speaker describes the movements of the singer. He “did a lazy sway” (Line 6-7) as he played the piano on a “rickety stool” (Line 12). Much like the physical space, the song is “sad” and “raggy” (Line 13), yet at the same time, the tune is soulful and deep. The Black man passionately sings about his isolation and troubles, which he wants to get rid of and put “on the shelf” (Line 22).
In Stanza 2, the musician added to the tune by thumping his foot on the floor. He continued to play and sing. He sings about how he has the Weary Blues—the musician is continually unsatisfied, unhappy, and wishes he was dead. The person performs their song late into the night. The performance lasts for such a long time that the stars and moon have disappeared by the time it's finished. Finally, the singer stops performing and goes to bed. However, the Weary Blues still “echoed through his head” (Line 34). Even though the person couldn’t get away from their blues song, they could sleep “like a rock or a man that’s dead” (Line 35).
By Langston Hughes