Despite his success in a variety of genres, Hughes considered himself primarily a poet. In the late 1930s, after producing numerous plays and short stories, he returned to writing poetry. These later collections of verse, however, show an increasingly bleak view of black America. In Montage of a Dream Deferred (1951) Hughes contrasted the drastically deteriorated state of Harlem in the 1950s to the Harlem he had known in the 1920s. Ask Your Mama: 12 Moods for Jazz (1961) consists of twelve poems that comment on the political turbulence of the early 1960s. Hughes’s final collection of verse, The Panther and the Lash: Poems of Our Times, was published posthumously in 1967.
Hughes encountered mixed reactions to his work throughout his career. Black intellectuals often denounced him for portraying unsophisticated aspects of lower-class life, claiming that this furthered the unfavorable image of his race. Toward the end of his life, as the struggle for American civil rights became increasingly widespread, Hughes was also faulted by militants for failing to address controversial issues. Nevertheless, Hughes’s reputation with readers has remained consistently strong, chiefly due to his poetry and short stories.
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Influenced by Alain Locke’s 1925 anthology The New Negro, Hughes responded by reinterpreting the black experience to promote a positive identity for the African American and to subvert white stereotypes of ”Negroes.” He also experimented in order to embrace those the black elite would rather obscure. The criticism each Hughes production brought from one group or another, even within the African American population, shows the difficulty of writing for the stage during this era. African Americans could not agree on what an authentic black production should be, and because of racism prevalent in American culture, they were especially sensitive to what audiences made of black representations. This critical judgment from all sides did not diminish Hughes’s efforts to portray the African American spirit and culture in various ways. Many of Hughes’s dramas remain unproduced—and unpublished in some cases. Increasing critical recognition of his contributions may, however, lead to production and publication of some of these works.