There is substantial evidence that by 1926, with the publication of TheWeary Blues, Langston Hughes had broken with two well-established traditions in African American literature. In The Weary Blues, Hughes chose to modify the traditions that decreed that African American literature must promote racial acceptance and integration, and that, in order to do so, it must reflect an understanding and mastery of Western European literary techniques and styles. Necessarily excluded by this decree, linguistically and thematically, was the vast amount of secular folk material in the oral tradition that had been created by Black people in the years of slavery and after. It might be pointed out that even the spirituals or “sorrow songs” of the slaves—as distinct from their secular songs and stories—had been Europeanized to make them acceptable within these African American traditions after the Civil War. In 1862 northernWhite writers had commented favorably on the unique and provocative melodies of these “sorrow songs” when they first heard them sung by slaves in the Carolina sea islands. But by 1916, ten years before the publication of TheWeary Blues, Harry T. Burleigh, the Black baritone soloist at New York’s ultrafashionable Saint George’s Episcopal Church, had published Jubilee Songs of the United States, with every spiritual arranged so that a concert singer could sing it “in the manner of an art song.” Clearly, the artistic work of Black people could be used to promote racial acceptance and integration only on the condition that it became Europeanized.
Even more than his rebellion against this restrictive tradition in African American art, Hughes’s expression of the vibrant folk culture of Black people established his writing as a landmark in the history of African American literature. Most of his folk poems have the distinctive marks of this folk culture’s oral tradition: they contain many instances of naming and enumeration, considerable hyperbole and understatement, and a strong infusion of street-talk rhyming. There is a deceptive veil of artlessness in these poems. Hughes prided himself on being an impromptu and impressionistic writer of poetry. His, he insisted, was not an artfully constructed poetry. Yet an analysis of his dramatic monologues and other poems reveals that his poetry was carefully and artfully crafted. In his folk poetry we find features common to all folk literature, such as dramatic ellipsis, narrative compression, rhythmic repetition, and monosyllabic emphasis. The peculiar mixture of irony and humor we find in his writing is a distinguishing feature of his folk poetry. Together, these aspects of Hughes’s writing helped to modify the previous restrictions on the techniques and subject matter of Black writers and consequently to broaden the linguistic and thematic range of African American literature.