Langston Hughes Poems To Read On His Birthday

by Kerri Jarema
Jack Delano/Library of Congress

February 1st not only marks the start of another Black History Month, it is also what would have been beloved Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes's 115th birthday. Langston Hughes remains one of the most celebrated poets in the world and his work has long been taught in classrooms from elementary school to universities. Hughes worked during a time of great innovation and creativity in the Black community, but also one of great upheaval. Hughes wrote a lot about the experience of the American Black man and woman, particularly about what it meant to have personal dreams paired with the desire for equality and freedom.

In our country today, it sadly sometimes feels as if not much has changed. In 2017 Black men and women are still fighting for the rights to fulfill their dreams and to live with equal rights, respect and safety. We can't think of a better time to revisit some of Hughes's most famous poems, not only to celebrate the profound beauty of their words, but to confront how relevant they still are today. It would not be surprising to read any one of these works and be told that they had been written by a young new poet. That is a testament to their universal resonance, but also of how far we’ve still got to go toward making the true American Dream available to all.


'Let America Be America Again' (1936)

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.

Click here to read.


'Mother to Son' (1922)

Winold Reiss/Library of Congress
Well, son, I'll tell you:
Life for me ain't been no crystal stair.
It's had tacks in it,
And splinters,
And boards torn up,
And places with no carpet on the floor—
But all the time
I'se been a-climbin' on,
And reachin' landin's,
And turnin' corners,
And sometimes goin' in the dark
Where there ain't been no light.
So, boy, don't you turn back.
Don't you set down on the steps.
'Cause you finds it's kinder hard.
Don't you fall now—
For I'se still goin', honey,
I'se still climbin',
And life for me ain't been no crystal stair.

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Harlem (Dream Deferred) (1951)

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?

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'Life Is Fine' (1949)

Carl Van Vechten/Library of Congress
So since I’m still here livin’,
I guess I will live on.
I could’ve died for love—
But for livin’ I was born
Though you may hear me holler,
And you may see me cry—
I’ll be dogged, sweet baby,
If you gonna see me die.

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'I, Too, Sing America' (1945)

I, too, sing America.
I am the darker brother.
They send me to eat in the kitchen
When company comes,
But I laugh,
And eat well,
And grow strong.
I’ll be at the table
When company comes.
Nobody’ll dare
Say to me,
“Eat in the kitchen,”
They’ll see how beautiful I am
And be ashamed—
I, too, am America.

Click here to read.