Langston Hughes and Maleness

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Masculinity is one of those terms which make very broad assumptions about a person’s role, behaviour and attributes. It can be a very unhelpful way to think of someone as it restricts them to the emotions and characteristics that society has constructed as typically male. In this thought piece I will consider what masculinity is using the work of Langston Hughes as an example.

Langston Hughes was a poet, fiction writer and playwright born in 1902 in Joplin, Missouri. He was well travelled as a child and adult with a variety of different professions including cook, waiter, sailor and doorman, before starting his writing career. He played a major role in the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s, a cultural and artistic movement in American cities within the community. His work portrays working class life without sentimentality or stereotypes. It also formed part of the works that shaped and defined the American Civil Rights Movement in the 1930s.

At that time the traditional views of masculinity and femininity were very much in place. The stereotypical norm of a man going to work to provide for his family whilst his wife stays at home to bring up the children and look after the house would have been true for the majority of people. Langston Hughes’ writing both reinforces the traditional masculine gaze and also challenges it. This thought piece will explore both sides of his work.

Poems such as Harlem Sweeties reflect a sligh

tly misogynistic description of the physical beauty of women. “Rich cream-colored / To plum-tinted black / Feminine sweetness / In Harlem’s no lack.” It isn’t totally offensive but does rankle as the whole female population is brought down to a description of their “feminine sweetness”.

The poem To Artina is a strong exclamation about the writer wanting to own their lover. “I will take your soul / I will be God when it comes to you.” It makes me shudder to read the possessive nature of the words; this is not romance it is control!

Harlem is part of the works which influenced Martin Luther King to write his sermon, “I have a dream.” It uses powerful words to evoke imagery: “dry up”, “fester like a sore”, “stink like rotten meat” all to describe “What happens to a dream deferred?” The last line asks, “Or does it explode?” It a short piece but contains so much anger and aggression. The writer uses words as weapons.

Hughes talks about segregation in the American South in I, Too. “I am the darker brother / They send me to eat in the kitchen / When company comes.” The poem ends with a message of hope, that tomorrow no one will dare tell him to eat in the kitchen, “I, too, am America.” There is rage contained within the stanzas despite the positive end.

Yet the same author writes tender and sensitive words in The Dream Keeper. “Bring me all of your dreams / That I may wrap them / In a blue cloud-cloth / Away from the too-rough fingers / Of the world.” This is such a beautiful poem and a contrast to the controlling nature of pieces such as To Artina. It feels like a lullaby, reassuring and gentle.

In Mother to Son, Hughes uses a feminine voice to encourage a son to keep going even when things are difficult. “Don’t you set down on the steps / ‘Cause you finds it’s kinder hard.” You can hear the love and affection in the voice yet the sternness to make the child listen.

The theme of perseverance despite the hardship is very common in a lot of the poems. Life is Fine describes the despair felt by a person that leads them to take their life. After a couple of failed attempts, the writer finds the strength to keep going. “I could’ve died for love / But for livin’ I was born.” The vulnerability shown in this piece is profound and refreshing. It is a dark subject but the whole thing reads like a song with plenty of hope and joy at the end. “Life is fine! Fine as wine! Life is fine!”

Sick Room describes how “A silent woman lies between two lovers / Life and Death / And all three covered with a sheet of pain”. The empathy in these six short lines conveys so much of the agony and tension when someone is seriously ill. Hughes is not afraid to tackle the difficult and painful topics which a lot of people do not want to confront.

I like the fact that Langston can be aggressive and angry but also tender and vulnerable. He allows all aspects of himself to be shown in his work. Some of these emotions and topics may be seen as feminine in the traditional sense but they are all part of his masculinity. Crying and showing empathy are not female characteristics; it is still masculine to show your emotions and not to be afraid of them. Allowing others to see your darkest suicidal thoughts is not weak; it is strong and admirable.

Langston Hughes reminds us that people are just people. We all have thoughts, feelings and emotions and should feel free to express them without fear of judgment or shame. What is masculinity? Whatever you want it to be!

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