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What inspires a person to write? Whether it be poetry or lyrics to a song, people always have a personal motive for writing that particular piece. Some people write to pass the time, but in many cases, writings have a deepened meaning intended to depict a story or circumstance that a person has experienced within their own life. Take the music industry for example, where modern-day artists such as Kendrick Lamar and J. Cole tell their stories of growing up in impoverished neighborhoods where they witnessed and encountered racial discrimination. The inspiration one obtains from their society is a custom that has been seen throughout history. The time period in which a literary work is written has a massive impact on it, and that piece may in turn have a large influence on the people reading it during that time. Take for example the prominent African American poets of the 1900s who reflected on social injustices during the time. To understand the motive for writing pieces based on civil rights in America as well as the impact that they had on society at the time, one must first examine the societal norms in the United States in the 19th and 20th centuries. Towards the end of the 1800s, events like the Civil War and the ratification of the ratification of 13th and 14th Amendments sought to provide equal rights for blacks and whites within the United States. Despite legislation being passed in the 19th century in an effort that sought to provide equality for all citizens, blacks still suffered from racial oppression throughout America, and these issues inspired poets like Langston Hughes and Jean Toomer to write pieces that reflected on their personal encounters and experiences during their lifetime.

Langston Hughes, born in 1902, faced social inequalities firsthand from the time he was a child, and they inspired him in much of his literature. During his elementary school years, Hughes attended an all-white school after his mother had fought against the district that expected him to attend a Jim Crow school. Here, his classmates in addition to several of his teachers treated him with contempt. It went as far as having his classmates throw stones at him, and these events made him question the American Dream. In the poem “Let America Be America Again”, he outlines his issues with the American Dream and explains how he feels that that is all it is; just a dream. He begs the notion, “O, let my land be a land where liberty is crowned with no false patriotic wealth / But opportunity is real and life is free / Equality is in the air we breathe”. Although he primarily highlights the racial injustices faced by blacks throughout America, Hughes still speaks for all minority groups of America; “I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart, I am the Negro bearing slavery’s scars. I am the red man driven from the land, I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek— and finding only the same old stupid plan of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak”. The same idea is reflected in “I, Too”, where Hughes displays his feelings utilizing simple word choice to exemplify the simple fact that all Americans should be treated equally. The poem begins with the line, “I, too, sing America / I am the darker brother”, trying to say that he is just as much of an American as every other American citizen regardless of his race. This simple yet powerful message allowed all members of American society to understand how Langston Hughes personally felt about America, and it inspired others to speak out on the same issues. However, there were others who still could not understand his message, including Hughes’s father himself. He alludes to this in his first novel “Not Without Laughter”. Here, he references the various perspectives he has witnessed from his family of the American Dream and of society itself. In this fiction novel, the main character Sandy is most likely an embodiment of Langston himself. He sees that his father hates blacks and hates himself for being black. His one aunt Tempy tries to imitate whites, while his other aunt Harriet despises whites. His grandmother feels hopeless and she sees it best fit to wait for her death to escape the faulty American Dream. Despite growing up witnessing these different perspectives, he developed his own outlook on America, and felt that there was both good and bad within society; something that most people were not able to understand. This novel is a direct parallel with Hughes’s own life, and it speaks of his enlightenment living in a segregated society in spite of the turmoil he grew up with. In addition to his novels, Hughes created a handful of fiction short stories that followed the life of Jesse B. Semple, better known as Simple. In “Jesse B Semple: A Negro American” by Arthur B Davis, he speaks further on this Hughes’s renowned fictional character:

…Simple’s most appealing trait is that he is a Negro comic figure at whom Negroes themselves can laugh without being ashamed. Simple is so human, so believable, and so much like each of us that we are drawn to him in spite of ourselves. We laugh with Simple rather than at him, and our laughter is therapeutic because it tends to make us aware of our own cliché-thinking on the race question.

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Simple caused people to realize the lack of meaning behind differing races with his own simple-minded perspective of how life should be lived and how people should treat each other. Hughes highlights this same idea of universal acceptance in other works of his such as “Mullato”, a play that explains the dynamic between a boy, Robert, and his father, Norwood. These characters carry a dynamic similar to that of Hughes and his own father, as Robert deals with the mistreatment from others as a black man while Norwood cannot seem to accept blacks. Although Robert has accepted the dynamic between his white father and himself, Norwood seems to have a predisposed hatred for his son because he is black. However, the end of the drama presents a thought-provoking conclusion in which Norwood cannot come to kill his son despite having a gun loaded and ready to kill. This ending correlates with Hughes’s own perception of the racist society; all people are good in some sense regardless of what their words or actions may say. Perhaps in this drama, Norwood cannot kill Robert because he comes to see past race and finally values him as his own son. Aside from his personal encounters with peers and associates, Hughes’s dynamic with his father and other family members also served as a great inspiration for many of his literary works.

In a similar manner, Jane Toomer, a reputable poet of the 19th century, examined his feelings towards the societal constructs of America at the time. From an early age, as a man of mixed heritage, Toomer preferred to be classified by others as an American rather than by a race. In his three-part novel “Cane”, he addresses many prevalent societal issues that date back to times of slavery. Before discussing current issues in “Cane”, Toomer discusses the harsh conditions imposed on slaves in the South during the slavery era. He feels that there is a rich culture and history that exists within the South and feels that it should not be lost as a result of cultural appropriation. Further in the novel, however, Toomer addresses issues pertaining to his time. During the time in which “Cane” was written, many blacks in the North struggled with their identity living in a society dominated by whites. In the novel, Toomer states how many blacks tended to conform to society give up their racial pride, and abided by the norms of whites. For Toomer, this was an unfortunate consequence of societal standards being that he himself was highly embarrassed of his own culture. This was perhaps one of his biggest quarrels with the society that he had lived in; culture and heritage were abandoned by many blacks during the 1800s and 1900s as a result of the white-dominated society. These ideals are also referenced in his collection of poems referred to as “The Blue Meridian”, where Toomer suggests that the idea of miscegenation may serve as a potential solution for the conflicts of American society. In it, he states how he envisioned a new America in which there is only one race; American, and he considered himself to be one of the first conscious members of that race. While these works did not reside well with many Americans, they made many hopeless Americans, black or white, hopeful for the future of the country. The time in which Jean Toomer grew up had a large influence on his writings, and those writings evidently depicted his visionary leadership as an African American.

Ultimately, the social injustices of the 1900s throughout the United States inspired many of the mistreated to write literature based on their experiences. Dealing with the instilment of segregation laws in addition to personal accounts of racial discrimination led authors like Langston Hughes and Jean Toomer to voice their opinions and emotions. By relating to their audience by writing simple yet simultaneously intricate works of literature, authors like Langston Hughes were capable of portraying their worthy messages across America. In poems like “Let America Be America Again” and “I, Too, America”, the imperfections of the American Dream are outlined and addressed in a passive manner that forces the reader to consider the flaws of the societal constructs held at the time. In Jean Toomer’s eyes, American citizens needed to see past the societal constructs that divided people, while still remaining conscious and appreciative of the beauty that comes with one’s own race. Through their writing, Langston Hughes, Jean Toomer, and many other social activists were able to portray their outlook on a socially unjust American society.

Works Cited

    1. Pellegrini, Gino Michael. ‘Jean Toomer and Cane: ‘Mixed-Blood’ Impossibilities.’ Short Story Criticism, edited by Lawrence J. Trudeau, vol. 233, Gale, 2017. Literature Resource Center, Accessed 15 Dec. 2019. Originally published in Arizona Quarterly, vol. 64, no. 4, 2008, pp. 1-20.
    2. Presley, James. ‘The American Dream of Langston Hughes.’ Contemporary Literary Criticism, edited by Deborah A. Schmitt, vol. 108, Gale, 1998. Literature Resource Center, Accessed 15 Dec. 2019. Originally published in Southwest Review, vol. 48, no. 4, Autumn 1963, pp. 380-386.
    3. Roessel, David. ‘(James) Langston Hughes.’ American Writers, Retrospective Supplement 1, edited by A. Walton Litz and Molly Weigel, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1998. Literature Resource Center, Accessed 15 Dec. 2019.

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