Authors: Langston Hughes
Copyright © 1926 by Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House, LLC
Copyright renewed 1954 by Langston Hughes
Foreword copyright © 2015 by Kevin Young
All rights reserved. Published in the United States by Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House LLC, New York, and distributed in Canada by Random House of Canada Limited, Toronto, Penguin Random House Companies.
Knopf, Borzoi Books, and the colophon are registered trademarks of Random House LLC.
Front-of-jacket image: Facsimile from the original 1926 design by Miguel Covarrubias. Print courtesy of the Harry Ransom Center, the University of Texas at Austin.
Published January 1926
TO MY MOTHER
I wish to thank the editors of
The Crisis, Opportunity, Survey Graphic, Vanity Fair, The World Tomorrow
The Amsterdam News
for having first published some of the poems in this book.
One never grows weary of
The Weary Blues
. Langston Hughes’s first book, published by Knopf in 1926, is one of the high points of modernism and of what has come to be called the Harlem Renaissance—that flowering of African American literature and culture in the public’s consciousness. Really an extension of the New Negro movement that began toward the start of the twentieth century, international as much as based in New York, the Harlem Renaissance represented different things to different people: to “race men” like W. E. B. DuBois and James Weldon Johnson, the black cultural ferment found from the teens to the nineteen twenties and beyond provided an opportunity to prove in culture things sometimes denied black folks in society—namely, their humanity.
For a younger generation of black artists like Hughes, their humanity proved self-evident. What’s more, the freedom of expression they sought and Hughes insisted on in his 1926 manifesto “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain” didn’t require putting a best foot forward in writing, or uplift in any easy sense. “We younger Negro artists who create now intend to express our individual dark-skinned selves without fear or shame,” he wrote. “We know we are beautiful. And ugly too.” As such, Hughes and other young writers often sought to scandalize as a form of sympathizing with those for whom life “ain’t been no crystal stair.” If Hughes’s second book would take this
as a kind of gospel, using the form of the blues to represent washwomen, porters, rounders, fools, and heroes—creating one of the best and most influential books of the twentieth century in the process—then
The Weary Blues
represents the start of this newfound and profound blues and jazz aesthetic.
Hughes was in fact the first to write poetry in the blues form. He was the first to realize the blues are plural—to see in their complicated irony and earthy tone the potential to present a folk feeling both tragic and comic, one uniquely African American, which is to say, American. The blues made romance modern; modernism borrowed from the blues a new way of saying what it saw: Hughes made the blues his own, and ours too.
As I mention in my introduction to the Everyman’s Pocket Poets volume
(2003), the form of the blues fights the feeling of the blues. If Hughes hasn’t yet mined the blues form as fully in
The Weary Blues
as he would later on, he has already embraced and in large part invented the blues aesthetic, “laughing to keep from crying”:
Does a jazz-band ever sob?
They say a jazz-band’s gay.
Yet as the vulgar dancers whirled
And the wan night wore away,
One said she heard the jazz-band sob
When the little dawn was grey.
The simplicity of this “Cabaret” may distract from the fact that jazz bands and vulgarity weren’t easily found in poetry before Hughes wrote of them. Hughes’s opening question here is well aware that what F. Scott Fitzgerald named the Jazz Age
too often saw jazz bands as not only exclusively white but also relentlessly happy. By implying them black, and making their night not merely the fictional Great Gatsby’s grand party but its wan aftermath, Hughes reveled in the gray (and gay) he saw around him in his travels to Mexico, his exile in Paris, and home in his adopted Harlem. “Show me a hero and I will write you a tragedy,” Fitzgerald wrote. Hughes took tragedy and made it heroic, finding it comic too.