James Mercer Langston Hughes (1902-1967), better known as Langston Hughes, was a Black poet, playwright, fiction writer, and political activist. Born at the turn of the century, he lived through the Great Depression, experienced the damaging effects of Jim Crow laws, and fought diligently through his actions and poetry to end segregation, racism, and discrimination. Known as the "people's poet" and as a prominent force during the Harlem Renaissance, Langston Hughes infused his writing with elements of Black culture. The poem "My People" (1923) is a testament to Hughes's ability to manipulate language and express deep thoughts and emotions in simple terms.
My People by Langston Hughes at a Glance
Here is some basic information about "My People" by Langston Hughes.
|Poem||"My People" |
|Written by||Langston Hughes|
|Structure||3 stanzas of two lines each|
|Literary devices||Refrain, simple diction, comparison, imagery, parallel structure|
|Meaning||The poem is a celebration of the Black community's inner and outer beauty.|
The Harlem Renaissance, also known as the New Negro Movement, was a social, political, artistic, and musical movement centered on the Harlem neighborhood in New York City. It celebrated the Black community's culture, heritage, and resilience. It began in the early twentieth century, from about 1910 to the mid-1930s. It was one of America's most artistically generative and celebrated eras.
Black people were migrating north to seek more opportunities and escape the oppressive climate in the South, and many settled in the Harlem neighborhood. Additionally, Black people became increasingly politically active. Harlem was a mere three square miles but contained a large Black population. Together, the community developed new forms of art, literature, music, and self-expression that were entirely different from what was in America. The artistic explosion helped form the new Black identity.
Fig. 1 - The community in Harlem was vibrant.
My People by Langston Hughes: Summary
While "My People" is a short poem, a summary is still beneficial before analyzing the poem. "My People" is a six-line lyric poem written in three stanzas. There is no discernible meter or rhyme scheme.
A lyric is a short poem from the perspective of a single speaker expressing a state of mind, the process of perception, idea, or feeling.
A stanza is two or more lines of verse visually grouped together on a page. A two-line stanza, as seen in "My People," is called a couplet.
Hughes used several comparisons to express his pride in the Black community and celebrate their beauty. Although Hughes never specifically stated the poem is about the Black community, the narrator's perspective and Hughes's recurrent themes focused on Black people, guides readers toward that conclusion. The ambiguity and simplicity of the title lends itself to multiple interpretations and provides a universality to the poem, which Hughes effortlessly creates using simple diction.
Diction is the specific word choice an author employs to convey an idea, emotion, or attitude toward a subject.
The first-person narrative takes the reader through several comparisons in each stanza. Hughes uses imagery from nature to express the natural beauty of his people. The first stanza compares the beauty of Black people to the night. Stanza 2 compares the beauty of the stars to the beauty found in the eyes of the Black community. Stanza three compares the sun's brightness and beauty to Black souls.
First-person is a form of narration where the narrator is part of the action and expresses ideas and experiences from their perspective. The information is filtered through the narrator and shapes the narrative for the reader, as ideas and emotions often influence how a reader perceives the information. First-person point of view typically uses the pronouns "I," "we," "me," "my," and "our."
My People by Langston Hughes: Full Text
Here is the complete poem "My People" by Langston Hughes.
The night is beautiful,So the faces of my people.The stars are beautiful,So the eyes of my people.Beautiful, also, is the sun.Beautiful, also, are the souls of my people."
My People by Langston Hughes: Analysis
An analysis of "My People" by Langston Hughes is easiest done stanza by stanza.
Langston Hughes begins by using incremental repetition that will occur throughout the poem and visual imagery to present an inarguable statement.
Incremental repetition is when a word, line, or phrase is repeated but with an addition that advances the text or ideas.
Imagery is a description that appeals to the five senses. Visual imagery appeals to the sense of sight.
The first stanza equates the night and darkness to beauty. Line 1 states, "The night is beautiful." This simple and direct statement is laden with imagery.
Fig. 2 - Hughes uses the sky to relate natural beauty to the beauty of the Black community.
In being vague in his description, Hughes leaves the reader to envision their version of a beautiful night — perhaps it is a sky sprinkled with stars or a clear and bright landscape. By giving the readers freedom to create their own version of "beautiful," it becomes impossible to deny the beauty of the night. Hughes succeeds in positioning Blackness and darkness together as beautiful and natural, consequently making it impossible for the reader or any individual to negate the beauty of Blackness.
The night is beautiful,So the faces of my people."
The words "beautiful" and "so the" are repeated, but with different imagery in each instance.
In the second stanza, Hughes expands on his comparisons between Black people and nature by including the stars. The night sky and the stars are often used in traditional forms of poetry to express admiration and present the poem's object in a romanticized light. Although Hughes utilized these natural elements, he did so in a realistic manner. He didn't exaggerate the beauty of "the eyes of [his] people" (line 4). The beauty of a people exists, just like the stars. The title of the poem and the refrain "my people" emphasizes the unity the speaker feels with the people and creates a strong sense of community while expressing pride.
The stars are beautiful,So the eyes of my people.
A refrain is a word, phrase, line, or group of lines repeated throughout the course of a poem to create emphasis and rhythm.
Throughout the poem, Hughes implements parallelism.
Parallelism is when ideas are expressed in a similar word order and structure.
Beautiful, also, is the sun.Beautiful, also, are the souls of my people.
Parallelism is used in stanza 3 to focus on the idea of beauty. By using parallel sentence structures, he draws parallels between beauty, the sun, and the souls of Black people. While Hughes doesn't employ a rhyme scheme in this poem, parallelism has a grammatical symmetry that creates its own rhythm to make this concept of beauty in Black people memorable.
My People by Langston Hughes: Tone
Langston Hughes's tone in "My People" is celebratory and proud. The poet uses key diction repeatedly that conveys a sense of admiration. The word "beautiful" is used four times in lines 1, 3, 5, and 6. The refrain and title of the poem, "My People," emphasizes a sense of camaraderie. The voice is willing to take ownership over the group of people by saying "my" in lines 2, 4, and 6. This repetition accents the honor of being connected to this group.
Fig. 3 - Hughes is proud of his people and wants others to feel the same.
This poem is an excellent example of Hughes's ability to mesh the traditional forms of poetry with his influences to create a new style. He implements the traditional use of nature that's found in European and early American literature to show beauty. He then uses an altered sentence pattern and applies the beauty of nature to communicate that Black people are naturally beautiful in their own right. With both outward physical beauty and inner beauty, their light shines through like "the sun" (line 5).
My People by Langston Hughes: Theme
While Langston Hughes is known for creating poems that express Black people's resentment for their mistreatment, it also shows their resilience to carry on the fight for social and political freedoms. This particular poem is a celebration of what it means to be both American and Black.
A central theme in the poem is the idea of Black pride. Hughes ironically draws attention to this idea by never mentioning it. The visual imagery referencing the night and the focus on the beautiful souls in "My People," paired with background knowledge of the poet and the context in which he is writing, is enough to conclude his "people" are Black.
However, Hughes simultaneously brings unity to the poem by refraining from identifying the "people" in the poem. The poem's title is purposely ambiguous and doesn't identify the specific people. The ambiguity creates togetherness, uniting both the reader and the audience. In refusing to delineate between Black people and others, the poem glues all groups together. This represents that the identification of people is unnecessary for there to be understanding and acceptance.
"My People" by Langston Hughes: Meaning
The meaning of "My People" expresses the need to celebrate the Black community's outer and inner beauty. Hughes accomplishes this by utilizing visual imagery and nature to compare the beauty of people to elements in nature. The night sky, the stars, and the sun are all aspects of nature that humankind appreciates instinctively. By drawing a parallel between nature, Hughes shows that the beauty of Black people must also be celebrated and appreciated.
My People Langston Hughes - Key takeaways
- "My People" is a short six-line lyric poem written by poet and social activist Langston Hughes.
- "My People" was originally published in 1923.
- The poem is a celebration of the Black community's beauty.
- The poem compares people to the night, stars, and sun to show that their beauty is as natural and authentic as the beauty found in nature.
- Hughes uses parallelism, refrain, repetition, and visual imagery to communicate the theme of Black pride.