Most readers associate Langston Hughes with the Harlem Renaissance, identifying him as the typifying force of the artistic boom. The Harlem Renaissance is usually read and understood in terms of it being a literary and cultural movement of sorts, but the roots of this event went far deeper than just that. The Harlem Renaissance became a milestone in black cultural and political explosion, emblematic of racial pride and the demand of civil rights. Initially referred to as the “New Negro Movement”, it found a shrine in Harlem, where writers, artists and musicians flocked and gradually consolidated a literary circle. With the onset of the economic depression of the 1920s, interest in the Harlem Renaissance waned, but it picked tempo with the Civil Rights Movement.
Langston Hughes was one of the recognized literary figures of this period. His works can be collectively described and understood through his own words; his literature is about:
workers, roustabouts, and singers, and job hunters on Lenox Avenue in New York, or Seventh Street in Washington or South State in Chicago—people up today and down tomorrow, working this week and fired the next, beaten and baffled, but determined not to be wholly beaten, buying furniture on the installment plan, filling the house with roomers to help pay the rent, hoping to get a new suit for Easter—and pawning that suit before the Fourth of July.
Hughes wrote about the lay black person because he felt he could relate more to the common man than the one with access to higher reaches of money and education. He was a man who celebrated his ontological origins at a time when being black in an essentially white society was seen as a condition, rather than a racial difference. As expected, this invited major criticism of his works- most critics refused to take him seriously, while some others simply discarded his talent as trash. But Hughes had a way with his art. He perceived the lives of black people through the worm-eye view, approaching it through its nuances and idiosyncrasies instead of providing what gets dangerously close to becoming a generic social commentary.
Hughes’ stock persona was Jesse B. Semple (popularly called Simple), a poor man of Harlem who, through his stories, brings to light the problems of being a racial outsider in an increasingly intolerant society. Through the development of Simple’s character, he becomes the culmination of the aspirations and contradictions of every ordinary man. The charm of the narrative lies in its profound simplicity, in the fact that through extremely uncomplicated portrayals, Hughes actually highlights the universality of human nature and the belief that this essence existed in everyone, whatever their physical appearance or racial origins.
Hughes was a writer who held on to his belief and faith in the inherent goodness of humanity. He was a poet of the people; instead of making his work self-centric, self-conscious or esoteric, he simplified his language and produced profound literature. This simplicity is an integral aspect of the kind of writer that Hughes is, and deeper readings of Hughes reveals the often-confused distinction between the simple and the simplistic.