Ain’t No Mountain High Enough: Langston Hughes and the Racial Mountain

Aspects of Negro Life: Song of the Towers by Aaron Douglas

Langston Hughes was one of the most influential and paradoxical poets of his time. He is both so deeply invested in the foundations of our Modern American culture and grossly underrepresented in the scholarly literature of said culture. Langston Hughes was among the leaders of the Harlem Renaissance, a political, artistic, and cultural movement in Harlem around the 1920’s and 1930’s. Similar to the European Renaissance, the Harlem Renaissance was about vocalizing and celebrating the African-American experience, announcing this simultaneously new and ancient experience to America and to the world, and creating great art. Before Langston Hughes became a Harlem Renaissance heavy hitter, he grew up in Kansas, briefly attended Columbia University on track to become a mining engineer. Eventually he dropped out of Columbia and dropped into the world of Art and Poetry, Harlem. One of his most culturally impactful pieces was an early essay / manifesto called “The Negro Artist and the Racial Artist”. In this he articulates the difficulties facing “The Negro Artist” in 1920’s America, of which there were many. He speaks about the dangers of the phrase “I want to be a poet — not a Negro poet”, saying, “meaning, I believe, ‘I want to write like a white poet’; meaning subconsciously, ‘I would like to be a white poet’; meaning behind that, ‘I would like to be white'”.  Hughes goes on to say that “no great poet has ever been afraid of being himself. And I doubted then that, with his desire to run away spiritually from his race, this boy would ever be a great poet.” This essay is essentially a battle against “this urge within the race toward whiteness, the desire to pour racial individuality into the mold of American standardization, and to be as little Negro and as much American as possible.” Hughes postulates that the deeply culturally and systematically racist society that America supported for so long ingrained a subconscious idea of white superiority, specifically in art and literature, in the minds of all. This backwards hegemony is horribly detrimental to aspiring artists because, according to Hughes, artists must know and love themselves before they can be a “great poet”. Hughes in this essay is encouraging “The Negro Artist” to produce art that is wholly themselves, to try not to be anything thing that they are not, to cling to their own all encompassing identity so resolutely as to not be shaken from it by the battering that “truly racial” art receives. Hughes uses Jean Toomer’s Cane as an example, saying, ” The colored people did not praise it. The white people did not buy it. Most of the colored people who did read Cane hate it. They are afraid of it. Although the critics gave it good reviews the public remained indifferent.” Hughes closes the essay with this line, “If white people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, it doesn’t matter. We know we are beautiful. And ugly too. The tom-tom cries and the tom-tom laughs. If colored people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, their displeasure doesn’t matter either. We build our temples for tomorrow, strong as we know how, and we stand on top of the mountain, free within ourselves,” which is a great summation of the larger theme of the work. As an artist and as a human being, you will not find external success among internal strife. You must come to terms with your many multitudes and learn to love them.



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