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How to Use Langston Hughes’s Poetry to Encourage Student Expression

Updated: Nov 11, 2022

Written by Francesca Barucci, Kikori Content Blogger in Residence

One of the most highly revered and influential poets in American history, Langston Hughes, was a noteworthy leader in cultivating the cultural revolution in Harlem NY, known as the Harlem Renaissance, in the 1920s and 30s. Langston Hughes lived a nomadic and vibrant life, and used his art form to share his struggles, while also writing about his love for Harlem, allowing him to touch hearts all over the country.


Poetry can be a very powerful tool in connecting with your emotions, and how you really feel about something. Writing in general brings about this beautiful connection between your heart and your voice. Writing can bring a clarity that isn’t known by many today, due to the distractions we face daily. Whether it be social media or just social interactions in general; I can’t imagine how much louder it might be for a young person.

The emotional connection to myself, and the ways I have been able to validate my own emotions throughout both my childhood and young adult life, are quite frankly the backbone of who I am. I wouldn’t be who I am had I not made this connection with poetry. That's why I write

this today, and chose to highlight Langston Hughes and the Harlem Renaissance for Black History month; because there is a power in poetry that I think Langston Hughes has used effectively in his writing career.

Hughes made a difference in a way that was meaningful to him. Hughes was living his life, writing about his experiences candidly; he was being himself. One can tell from reading his poetry that he was clearly experiencing it all; the love, and artistic charm that Harlem had, as well as the battles and strife that bred there. And all the while he was purely emoting onto the pages of his notebook, not knowing the impact his words would have one day.


Students should know that Langston Hughes is more influential because of his human quality. You don’t have to be the loudest person in the room to make change. You don’t have to lead vast marches or conduct sit-ins to bring attention to a culture that you love. Langston Hughes proves that getting to the core of a feeling, the core of an injustice, or the core of an experience is enough to make a difference. No one can hear you if you don’t express yourself.


What is Langston Hughes’ story?

Langston Hughes’s parents divorced soon after his birth in 1901. With his mother traveling often around the country and his father having moved to Mexico, he was raised primarily by his maternal grandmother until his early teen years. Because of their separation, Hughes and his father did not have a great relationship, and Hughes felt his father rejected his own African American people by moving to Mexico.

After the passing of his grandmother, Hughes settled with his mom in Cleveland, OH where his poetry career really began. He was writing for his school’s literary magazine and often submitted to other poetry magazines, even though he would be rejected majority of the time. After graduating high school, Hughes moved to Mexico with his father ultimately asking for money to pay for his tuition at Columbia University in New York City. Long story short, his father was not supportive of his ambitions to be a writer, so they settled that Langston Hughes would go to Columbia for engineering in exchange for his father’s help with tuition.

After one year at school in New York, Hughes ended up dropping out in 1922 due to the racial discrimination he faced, which lead him to become a major part of the cultural movement starting to boil over in Harlem, a movement we now know as the Harlem Renaissance. Working odd jobs in the city can only be so stimulating for a young poet, so Langston Hughes soon traded his city shoes for sea legs and worked on a freighter overseas. He traveled to Africa, Spain, and eventually ended up in Paris for a short time, all the while gaining inspiration and writing poetry throughout his endeavors.

Upon returning to the United States in 1924, he was able to finish school at Lincoln College in PA, and published his first poetry book, The Weary Blues, in 1926. He moved back to Harlem after graduating in 1929 and continued to produce works in harmony with the cultural explosion that was occurring around him. And he didn’t stop there! One of his most notable works was written in 1951, entitled Montage of a Dream Deferred; a book length poem about what the American Dream really meant to an African American. I’ve included the opening lines below;


Harlem

by Langston Hughes


What happens to a dream deferred?


Does it dry up

like a raisin in the sun?

Or fester like a sore—

And then run?

Does it stink like rotten meat?

Or crust and sugar over—

like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags

like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?


Why is Langston Hughes important to learn about?


A lot of educators may find much of the poetry written in the late 19th and early 20th centuries hard to digest, especially for younger audiences. I think Langston Hughes’ poetry has a strong voice; it is clear and to the point which I think many younger audiences might find easier to interpret. His use of imagery is outstanding, which I feel like can be key to unlocking imagination in a young student.

What I love about Hughes’s work is he made sure to infuse it with the happiness, laughter, and the musical influences that people experienced alongside their suffering. He writes with plain but powerful jargon, to depict harsh realities of his time. But he was also known to use jazz

influences and dialect to accurately depict city lifestyle at the time. He’s painting a picture; it’s a scene he’s thrown you into. When I was doing research, and reading some of his poems, I could envision smoldering streetlights and the sounds of saxophones lingering around every corner.

Langston Hughes clearly writes to Harlem. His poetry is out of LOVE for Harlem. His work has that….warm, nostalgic feeling. You know; that same feeling you have when you think back to a place that brings you joy, or comfort. He writes candidly about his surroundings in Harlem, but he doesn’t overlook the more positive details that make Harlem in the 1920s something to look back on with nostalgia. That’s why Langston’s work is so extraordinary; he’s able to promote black culture, in a non-victimizing way. A lot of his work is empowering, clearly stating his views, and wants for his people. The Harlem Renaissance was a cultural explosion because it was actively being infused into artistic, and social culture while it was occurring. It doesn’t take a historian to look back and tell us that.


How can you use Langston Hughes’s poetry to encourage student expression?

Appreciate Your Place is a fun writing activity where students choose a Langston Hughes poem they resonate with to inspire their own poetry of the appreciations and struggles of their own place.


Students will take away: Black History, writing skills, appreciation, reflection, and grounding.


Discussion/ Writing Prompts for Students:

  • What is the change you would like to see in the world? How can you contribute in your own way?

  • What is something you do in your free time that you would consider an artform? Why? (It doesn't have to be traditional forms of art!)


What does poetry mean to the author, Francesca Barucci?


In all honesty, I preferred poetry books to novels in my middle school and high school years, simply because they were quicker to read; meaning I didn’t have to spend as much time on my summer reading! But overtime, I grew to actually enjoy poetry, for the space it gave my mind to roam, and interpret it. On top of that, I spent many high school and college years frequenting the pages of my diary with the petty stresses of everyday life, so overtime it was natural for me to start working my feelings into my own kind of prose. I started to mold them into something beautiful, like a potter with her wheel.


Poetry is a lot like me, as a person (and it’s a lot like most of us as HUMANS). Poems are potent with meaning, both as a whole and in their separate parts. Every single word means more than it does in any other form of writing. Standalone or with others, every word carries its own weight. It can sometimes take an immense amount of thinking, to convey a feeling or set a scene with poetry. It takes the ability to cut out the fluff, all the in-between, and get to the core of it all. From what I’ve read, many poets must have gotten to the core of themselves as people before they had the ability to convey powerful emotion in such a manner.

I do not want the youth of today’s generation to lose the critical skills that come along with reading and writing poetry. Not only to salvage the artform, but also to absorb the same benefits that writing has given to me, like; learning to validate your own emotions, goals, hopes and dreams, and assembling your thoughts into tangible, and beautiful pieces of art.


Have any favorite Poets/Authors that you’ve used in the classroom to inspire your students? Comment them below to spark new lesson ideas!



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