18 pages 36 minutes read

Langston Hughes


Fiction | Poem | Adult | Published in 1931

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Summary and Study Guide


“Tired” is one of Langston Hughes’s less publicized poems. First published in the February 1931 edition of an American Marxist journal called New Masses, the lyrics touch on the themes of injustice, inequality, and oppression—ideas that occur throughout Hughes's work and in his better-known poems like “The Ballad of the Landlord” (1940) and “Harlem” (1951). Hughes was a part of the Harlem Renaissance. The movement acquired its name from the predominantly Black New York City neighborhood. In the 1920s and 1930s, many Black artists in Harlem began to create critical works that helped them and future Black artists express themselves boldly and unapologetically. These artists reshaped Black literature and transformed American literature overall. Hughes’s voice was one of the most prominent. A prolific writer, Hughes wrote newspaper columns, plays, screenplays, fiction, a novel, books for children, two autobiographies, and countless poems. As with many of Hughes’s works, “Tired” relates to his lifelong commitment to writing about the manifold wrongs of the world.

Poet Biography

Langston Hughes was born in Joplin, Missouri in 1902. His mother, Carrie Langston, came from a prosperous family: Her father was a successful grocer and farmer, and her youngest brother became the president of Howard University. Creative and passionate, Carrie wanted to be a performer, but the racist and sexist norms of the 19th-century quashed her dream. Eventually, Carrie met James Nathaniel Hughes. Langston Hughes was not their first child. In 1900, Carrie gave birth to a boy who didn’t survive infancy. A year after Hughes’s birth, James moved to Mexico City. Carrie left Hughes with her mother, Mary, and followed James to Mexico. In Lawrence, Kansas, Hughes was unhappy with his grandmother, Mary. She had trouble providing food and paying the mortgage, which made Hughes hungry and scared about the future. However, he began to develop a love of books.

Hughes’s parents fought often and eventually separated. Carrie remarried, and Hughes spent a great deal of his adolescence moving around the Midwest with his mother and stepfather. In eighth grade, Hughes was named class poet. At graduation, Hughes recited his poem and received a loud ovation. The power of poetry inspired Hughes to keep writing.

After quarrelsome visits with his father 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, where he met Alain Locke, who, that year, edited the influential anthology of Black writers, The New Negro. He also met 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.

A big supporter of Harlem Renaissance artists was Carl Van Vechten, who showed Hughes’s poetry to Alfred A. Knopf. In 1926, Knopf published Hughes’s 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.

In 1927, Hughes published his second volume of poetry Fine Clothes to the Jew (Alfred A. Knopf), which portrayed some of the ugliness in the Black community. In 1930, Hughes published his first novel Not Without Laughter (Random House). In 1931, Hughes visited the American South and met the Scottsboro Boys—nine Black teens 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 Baraka and James Baldwin criticized Hughes as overly basic and insufficiently transgressive. In 1951, Hughes published Montage of a Dream Deferred (Henry Holt and Company). 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.

As Hughes’s relationship with publications like New Masses indicates, Hughes was sympathetic toward communism and its emphasis on the working class. During the 1940s and 1950s, 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’s didn’t implicate other people, but his disavowal caused a split between him and notable Black figures like the writer W. E. B. Du Bois and the actor Paul Robeson.

Despite the ideological discord, Hughes remained productive. In 1959, Knopf published his Selected Poems, and 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. Then, in May of 1967, Hughes died in a New York hospital due to prostate cancer.

Poem Text

Hughes, Langston. “Tired.” 1931. Genius.


Langston Hughes’s poem “Tired” starts with a declaration: “I am so tired of waiting” (Line 1). In Line 2, the speaker addresses the audience and asks the reader or listener, “Aren’t you”? Next, the speaker explains that he is tired of waiting “[f]or the world to become good / And beautiful and kind” (Lines 3-4). Thus, the speaker wants to know if the reader feels the same about how long it’s taking the world to blossom into a decent, lovely place.

Halfway through the poem, the speaker suggests a remedy to the problem articulated in the first part of the poem. Offering a solution to the bad, ugly, and mean world, the speaker proposes, “Let us take a knife / And cut the world in two” (Lines 5-6). In the final two lines of the poem, the speaker explains the intended results of this action. By slicing the world in two, the speaker and the reader can “see what worms are eating / At the rind” (Lines 7-8). Now, with the world cut open, it’s possible to identify the bad actors (the worms) who are comprising (eating) society (the rind).

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