Wednesday, March 3, 2021

Poems 1931-1940 by Langston Hughes


Source of book: I own the complete poems of Langston Hughes


This is book one of my official choices for Black History Month this year. (You can see the entire list on this page.) You can also read my post on Hughes’ earlier poems here


While there are plenty of similarities between the poems of the 1920s and the poems of the 1930s, there are definitely some differences. The 1930s were the Great Depression, the rise of unionism and the Communist party in the United States - both were a response to the plundering of the economy by the bankers and capitalists, the relentless lowering of wages, and the violent response to union activity. All of these find echos in the poems that Hughes wrote during this decade. He praises unionization - envisioning a time when workers benefited from their labor rather than the capitalists. He speaks extensively and favorably of Communism, which many did at that time. This was back when it was morally defensible to side with the Soviets. Stalin’s purges wouldn’t start until the middle of the decade, and wouldn’t really come to light to the West until after World War Two. In many ways, the Soviet Union seemed to be making progress in the world, and succeeding in much of what it attempted. Mao and Pol Pot were still in the future. Later, of course, things would become more complicated, to say the least. 


Also in this collection are plenty of poems about the hardships of the Great Depression, which, we easily forget, fell harder on minorities than on whites (as economic downturns still do today.) Also similar to our own time, FDR comes in for criticism for doing too little, and not being “strong” enough against the other party. 


Along with the more overtly political are a number of lyric works, blues poems, and truly inspiring visions of the future. Here are my favorites:




I am so tired of waiting,

Aren’t you,

For the world to become good

And beautiful and kind?

Let us take a knife

And cut the world in two –

And see what worms are eating

At the rind.


Me too, Langston, me too. Hughes also has zero patience with those black folk who choose to sell out to racist whites and tickle their ears. (I can think of a few these days too…) 


To Certain Negro Leaders


Voices crying in the wilderness

At so much per word

From the white folks:

"Be meek and humble,

All you niggers,

And do not cry

Too loud.”


Hughes also distrusted the supposedly wise “elders.” This next poem reflects a lot of what I feel about the older generations these days - the ones who I would have loved to have been able to trust and ask for advice. But many of them chose and continue to choose their own wealth and comfort over the futures of their own grandkids. (From climate change on down…) They chose a system of half-truths and lies, evasion, and money. And power. And ultimately, they mostly enriched the ultrawealthy. 


Elderly Leaders


The old, the cautious, the over-wise—

Wisdom reduced to the personal equation:

Life is a system of half-truths and lies,

Opportunistic, convenient evasion.



Very well paid,

They clutch at the egg

Their master's

Goose laid:







It is far too long to quote, but I will link to “Advertisement for the Waldorf-Astoria,” a scathing indictment of the wealthy and their gall to build and advertise an ultra-luxurious playground for aristocrats while everyone else starved. (The Waldof Astoria opened in 1931.) In it, he notes that there are homeless outside its doors, people starving in the alleys behind, and, of course, black people weren’t allowed. 


Another fascinating long poem is “Good Morning Revolution,” one of the overtly communist poems. Particularly this stanza:


The boss's got all he needs, certainly,

Eats swell,

Owns a lotta houses,

Goes vacationin',

Breaks strikes,

Runs politics, bribes police,

Pays off congress,

And struts all over the earth — 


Another communist-inflected poem is this one. While I don’t entirely agree with the solution he proposes, he diagnoses the disease superbly. In fact, he saw the commoditization of religion long before the rest of us “apostates.” 


Goodbye Christ


Listen, Christ,

You did alright in your day, I reckon —

But that day's gone now.

They ghosted you up a swell story, too,

Called it Bible —

But it's dead now,

The popes and the preachers've

Made too much money from it.

They've sold you to too many


Kings, generals, robbers, and killers —

Even to the Tzar and the Cossacks,

Even to Rockefeller's Church,


You ain't no good no more.

They've pawned you

Till you've done wore out.



Christ Jesus Lord God Jehova,

Beat it on away from here now.

Make way for a new guy with no religion at all —

A real guy named

Marx Communist Lenin Peasant Stalin Worker ME —


I said, ME!

Go ahead on now,

You're getting in the way of things, Lord.

And please take Saint Ghandi with you when you go,

And Saint Pope Pius,

And Saint Aimee McPherson,

And big black Saint Becton

Of the Consecrated Dime.

And step on the gas, Christ!



Don't be so slow about movin'!

The world is mine from now on —

And nobody's gonna sell ME

To a king, or a general,

Or a millionaire. 


It’s so incredibly frustrating to understand that Christianity has become so perverted that kings, generals, and millionaires think God is on their side. He has been sold to the worst of humanity, debased beyond recognition. 


This next poem was intended to be performed, not read. Unfortunately, I cannot find a video of a group doing it. Which would have been awesome. Anyway, here it is:



Chant for May Day    


To be read by a Worker with, for background, the rhythmic waves of rising and re-rising Mass Voices, multiplying like the roar of the sea.


WORKER: The first of May;

When the flowers break through the earth,

When the sap rises in the trees,

When the birds come back from the South.


Be like the flowers,

10 VOICES: Bloom in the strength of your unknown power,

20 VOICES: Grow out of the passive earth,

40 VOICES: Grow strong with UNION,

All hands together—

To beautify this hour, this spring,

And all the springs to come

50 VOICES: Forever for the workers!

WORKER: Workers!

10 VOICES: Be like the sap, rising in the trees,

20 VOICES: Strengthening each branch,

40 VOICES: No part neglected—

50 VOICES: Reaching all the world.

WORKER: All workers:

10 VOICES: White workers,

10 OTHERS: Black workers,

10 OTHERS: Yellow workers,

10 OTHERS: Workers in the islands of the sea—

50 VOICES: Life is everywhere for you,

WORKER: When the sap of your own strength rises

50 VOICES Life is everywhere.

10 VOICES: May Day!

20 VOICES: May Day!

40 VOICES: May Day!

50 VOICES: When the earth is new.

WORKER: Proletarians of the world:

20 VOICES: Arise,

40 VOICES: Grow strong,

60 VOICES: Take Power,

80 VOICES: Till the forces of the earth are yours

100 VOICES: From this hour.


Hughes also saw through American Imperialism - and the myth that we are somehow an exceptionally moral nation. (We aren’t.) 





My dear girl,

You really haven't been a virgin for so long

It's ludicrous to keep up the pretext.

You're terribly involved in world assignations

And everybody knows it.

You've slept with all the big powers

In military uniforms,

And you've taken the sweet life

Of all the little brown fellows

In loin cloths and cotton trousers.

When they've resisted,

You've yelled, " Rape, "

At the top of your voice

And called for the middies

To beat them up for not being gentlemen

And liking your crooked painted mouth.

(You must think the moons of Hawaii

Disguise your ugliness.)


You're getting a little too old,


To be so naive, and so coy.

Being one of the world's big vampires,

Why don't you come on out and say so

Like Japan, and England, and France,

And all the other nymphomaniacs of power

Who've long since dropped their

Smoke-screens of innocence

To sit frankly on a bed of bombs?


O, sweet mouth of India ,

And Africa ,

Manchuria, and Haiti .



You darling,

Don't shoot!

I'll kiss you!


Hughes sees the eventual redemption of America in the lives of its downtrodden. And, as many of his poems attest, he understood that the wellbeing of our nation is inextricably tied up with the wellbeing of our non-white citizens. There are a number of poems on this them. I rather liked this one:


Black Dancers



Who have nothing to lose

Must sing and dance

Before the riches

Of the world





Who have nothing to lose

Must laugh and dance

Lest our laughter

Goes from



And this one, which references a beautiful place in my beloved California:


Moonlight Night: Carmel


Tonight the waves march

In long ranks

Cutting the darkness

With their silver shanks,

Cutting the darkness

And kissing the moon

And beating the land's

Edge into a swoon.


That’s a truly beautiful word picture. I love it more every time I read it. 


I would be truly remiss if I didn’t include a blues lyric. It is a shame that there isn’t (as far as I can tell) a blues group just setting Langston Hughes to a 12 bar beat. I mean, really. This one was co-written with Richard Wright


Red Clay Blues


I miss that red clay, Lawd, I

Need to feel it in my shoes.

Says miss that red clay, Lawd, I

Need to feel it in my shoes.

I want to get to Georgia cause I

Got them red clay blues.


Pavement's hard on my feet, I'm

Tired o' this concrete street.

Pavement's hard on my feet, I'm

Tired o' this city street.

Goin' back to Georgia where

That red clay can't be beat.


I want to tramp in the red mud, Lawd, and

Feel the red clay round my toes.

I want to wade in that red mud,

Feel that red clay suckin' at my toes.

I want my little farm back and I

Don't care where that landlord goes.


I want to be in Georgia, when the

Big storm starts to blow.

Yes, I want to be in Georgia when that

Big storm starts to blow.

I want to see the landlords runnin' cause I

Wonder where they gonna go!


I got them red clay blues.


I can’t omit this one either. The WPA seems perfect for a blues song. For this one, you can actually listen to Langston Hughes read his own poem


Out of Work


I walked de streets till

De shoes wore off my feet.

I done walked de streets till

De shoes wore off my feet.

Been lookin' for a job

So's that I could eat.


I couldn't find no job

So I went to de WPA.

Couldn't find no job

So I went to de WPA.

WPA man told me:

You got to live here a year and a day.


A year and a day, Lawd,

In this great big lonesome town!

A year and a day in this

Great big lonesome town!

I might starve for a year but

That extra day would get me down.


Did you ever try livin'

On two-bits minus two?

I say did you ever try livin'

On two-bits minus two?

Why don't you try it, folks,

And see what it would do to you?


Speaking of songs, one of the poems in this collection is “In Time of Silver Rain,” which was (along with other Hughes poems) set to music by African-American composer Robert Owens. We performed the string orchestra and tenor version a few years ago - great stuff. Enjoy this lovely version by Xavier Durden. 



I want to end with two poems that contrast well. The first is about war - Hughes loathed war and wrote many anti-war poems. It resonates with me, not just because of the senseless (and unsuccessful) wars that have raged my entire lifetime, but also in connection with the Culture Wars™. My generation of Evangelicals was expected to serve in the conflict. In essence, to sacrifice ourselves to fight a war that our parents’ generation believed in. A war supposedly about truth, but, in the end, revealed to be a “bundle of vicious lies” - a racist, misogynist, homophobic bundle of lies. 


Comment on War


Let us kill off youth

For the sake of truth .


We who are old know what truth is —

Truth is a bundle of vicious lies

Tied together and sterilized —

A war-makers' bait for unwise youth

To kill off each other

For the sake of



That also ties back in with the supposed “wisdom” of the elders. And the supposed “superiority” of the past. In contrast, the second poem is my all-time favorite Hughes poem, and one I have posted for the last two presidential inaugurations. It is a far more truthful look at the past, at the present, and an inspiring vision for the future. It is, in every possible way, the Anti-MAGA. 


Let America Be America Again


Let America be America again.

Let it be the dream it used to be.

Let it be the pioneer on the plain

Seeking a home where he himself is free.


(America never was America to me.)


Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed—

Let it be that great strong land of love

Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme

That any man be crushed by one above.


(It never was America to me.)


O, let my land be a land where Liberty

Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,

But opportunity is real, and life is free,

Equality is in the air we breathe.


(There's never been equality for me,

Nor freedom in this "homeland of the free.")


Say, who are you that mumbles in the dark?

And who are you that draws your veil across the stars?


I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart,

I am the Negro bearing slavery's scars.

I am the red man driven from the land,

I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek—

And finding only the same old stupid plan

Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.


I am the young man, full of strength and hope,

Tangled in that ancient endless chain

Of profit, power, gain, of grab the land!

Of grab the gold! Of grab the ways of satisfying need!

Of work the men! Of take the pay!

Of owning everything for one's own greed!


I am the farmer, bondsman to the soil.

I am the worker sold to the machine.

I am the Negro, servant to you all.

I am the people, humble, hungry, mean—

Hungry yet today despite the dream.

Beaten yet today—O, Pioneers!

I am the man who never got ahead,

The poorest worker bartered through the years.


Yet I'm the one who dreamt our basic dream

In the Old World while still a serf of kings,

Who dreamt a dream so strong, so brave, so true,

That even yet its mighty daring sings

In every brick and stone, in every furrow turned

That's made America the land it has become.

O, I'm the man who sailed those early seas

In search of what I meant to be my home—

For I'm the one who left dark Ireland's shore,

And Poland's plain, and England's grassy lea,

And torn from Black Africa's strand I came

To build a "homeland of the free."


The free?


Who said the free?  Not me?

Surely not me?  The millions on relief today?

The millions shot down when we strike?

The millions who have nothing for our pay?

For all the dreams we've dreamed

And all the songs we've sung

And all the hopes we've held

And all the flags we've hung,

The millions who have nothing for our pay—

Except the dream that's almost dead today.


O, let America be America again—

The land that never has been yet—

And yet must be—the land where every man is free.

The land that's mine—the poor man's, Indian's, Negro's, ME—

Who made America,

Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,

Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,

Must bring back our mighty dream again.


Sure, call me any ugly name you choose—

The steel of freedom does not stain.

From those who live like leeches on the people's lives,

We must take back our land again,



O, yes,

I say it plain,

America never was America to me,

And yet I swear this oath—

America will be!


Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death,

The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies,

We, the people, must redeem

The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.

The mountains and the endless plain—

All, all the stretch of these great green states—

And make America again!


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