Writing a Legacy: Langston Hughes and Maya Angelou

By Isobel Tighe

Arnold Rampersad best captured the essence of Hughes’s writing when he described him as a writer who “simply liked people.” Through his poetry, plays, novels and essays, Hughes was inspired by Harlem’s African American community. It is for that reason that Hughes is remembered today as one of the most important figures in the Harlem Renaissance. 

He was a writer engrossed by the human experience of black, working-class Americans, yet Hughes’s work didn’t only speak of dreams and black struggles. Behind each dream was a quietly angry murmur of resistance. His words were tiny placards, fuelled by a deep determination to protest against injustice. 

In 1943, the creation of Jesse B Semple, or “Simple”, solidified his understanding of the African American experience. Published in a series of stories for the Chicago Defender, Simple was depicted as an uneducated, black American living in the city. Through conversations with Boyd, Simple’s story highlighted his frequent oppression. While this oppression was distinctively African American, Hughes managed to present Simple as a universal character. Perhaps that’s why the sketches continued to be published for a further 25 years. 

The universal qualities of Hughes’s writing allowed him to achieve great literary success. At only 18, his poem “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” was published in The Crisis magazine. In 1925, his poem “The Weary Blues” won first prize in the Opportunity magazine literary competition. Consequently, Hughes was offered a scholarship at Lincoln University. After his graduation, he won the Harmon gold medal for literature for his debut novel, Not Without Laughter. As such, Hughes became the first black American to make a living from writing and lecturing. 

Hughes’s dream is yet to manifest itself.

Hughes’s legacy was strengthened by his use of realistic idealism. He was realistic enough to know that this segregated America would not alter overnight. He was idealistic enough to hope that a ‘just’ world would come in time. 

Black History Month gives us time to reflect upon significant figures, like Hughes, who was crucial in the fight for equality. We know all too well that the battle against racism persists today. Hughes’s dream is yet to manifest itself. There is no denying that Hughes successfully provided a cultural platform for the oppressed voices of Harlem. His ability to emotionally connect with people allowed him to make the personal, the universal. We must continue to revisit his work if only to remind us that we have a long way to go before his vision of a ‘just’ world is achieved. 

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Note: Death and sexual violence

Maya Angelou (1928 – 2014) experienced great hardship in her lifetime but she also achieved great success as she became a symbol of hope for African Americans. Angelou fought for Black Civil Rights alongside Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. She was the first African American and the first woman to recite poetry at a presidential inauguration. She even went on to receive more than 50 honorary degrees amongst many other accolades.

Angelou is, however, perhaps best known for her series of seven autobiographies that focus on her childhood and early adult experiences. Her debut novel, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969) details her life up until the age of 17 and brought her international recognition and acclaim. 

At only eight years old, she was raped by her mother’s boyfriend, who was then killed by Angelou’s uncles after they became aware of the crime. This situation caused Angelou to enter a period of mutism, in which she chose to remain silent for five years out of fear that her voice would kill people. This did not stop Angelou’s voice from becoming a source of strength for others as she turned to writing and activism. 

She also reshaped the way many people think about race.

In 2010, Angelou was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Barack Obama. However, her work was still met with controversy. Angelou was one of the most frequently banned authors in America. Her debut novel was removed from school reading lists, taken out of school libraries and discarded as indecent and inappropriate for young readers. In response to these efforts to ban her work Angelou once said: “I feel sorry for the young person who never gets to read it”.

Angelou was a keen civil rights activist and was employed as coordinator for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference led by Martin Luther King. King went on to die on Angelou’s birthday, 4th April 1968. Consequently, for many years after Angelou no longer celebrated her birthday and instead took the opportunity to reach out to King’s widow, Coretta Scott King. Each year on 4th April they would either meet up, call or send each other flowers. 

The recent emergence of the Black Lives Matter Movement has seen new activists tackling many of the same issues as Angelou once did with the Civil Rights Movement. This Black History Month it is essential we remember the work of Angelou and people like her. Not only did she enthuse generations with her brave championing of the African American experience, but she also reshaped the way many people think about race. As a result, Maya Angelou’s writing and activism continue to have a positive impact today. 

Illustration: Verity Laycock

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