The Harlem Renaissance, Jim Crow laws, and the Great Depression all played a part in worsening the race relations between blacks and whites. It is against the background of these social and economic challenges that Hughes wrote and published his works. From the day that he was born until his death in 1967, Hughes struggled with all sorts of socio-economic issues. His parents divorced when he was still a baby in 1902. Hughes was brought up by relatives even though he used to spend some time with his father.
Before Hughes was born, there was already an exodus of African Americans from rural southern states to northern cities in 1890. They were hoping to find better opportunities and less discrimination. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People was formed in 1910 and also established the monthly magazine Crisis. In 1917, when Hughes was still in high school; another organization led by Marcus Garvey was formed. The organization called United Negro Improvement Association aimed to unite blacks and form their own nation.
Violence against blacks was on the increase between 1917 and 1919. Blacks were denied equal rights as citizens. Blacks even participated in First World War. The poem "I, Too" which was published in 1923, lamented on the lack of rights in their own country. He states that "I, too, sing America. I am the darker brother. They send me to eat in the kitchen" (Hughes, pp 996-997) in 1921, Hughes published the poem "The Negro Speaks of Rivers". In this poem, Hughes states that "I've known rivers ancient as the world and older that the flow of human blood in human veins. My soul has grown deep like the rivers" (Hughes, p 995). In this poem, he is reflecting on his heritage. He is proud of his roots in the midst of all the racism and victimization. "Song for a Dark Girl" published in 1927 talks about the lynchings of black people particularly in the South. The poem says that "they hung my black young lover to a cross roads tree. Way Down South in Dixie. Bruised body high in air. I asked the white Lord Jesus. What was the use of prayer" (Hughes, p. 999). According to Davis (2009), "lynchings were the most extreme forms of Jim Crow violence." Davis states that, "most blacks were lynched for demanding civil rights, violating Jim Crow etiquette or laws, or in the aftermath of race riots."
The Great Depression and the pre-existing discrimination compounded by Jim Crow laws pushed the African-Americans to the limit. About 50% of African- Americans were out of work. According to a report, the exodus of blacks to cities up North had created competition for jobs. Farms had already started reducing workers required for plowing, hoeing, and weeding. Davis (2009) notes that "despite declining opportunities in cities, the proportion of blacks living in urban areas rose from 44% in 1930 to nearly 50% by the onset of World War II." It is also reported that black women "were forced into the notorious Depression era slave market, where even working-class white women employed black women at starvation wages." Poems like "Mother to Son" highlighted the plight of black in the urban areas. The mother in the poem is concerned that his son may not be aware about the harsh realities of the black person in America. The poem also highlights the poor living conditions "and places with no carpet on the floor" (Hughes, p 995). Hughes also shows his frustrations with the state of the black person in America in the poem "Dream Deferred". He asks that "what happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun? Or fester like a sore" (Hughes, p994).
Hughes used the history of black people from the days of slavery, the Renaissance, Jim Crows laws, and the socio-economic conditions that followed after the Great Depression to write. The African-American intellectual life that blossomed in Harlem, provided blacks the power and courage to fight for equal rights in America. The fight for equality during the Great Depression could have been tougher without the artistic works of Hughes and other music and theatre artists.
- Hughes, L. (2007). In R. DiYanni, Literature (pp.994-999). New York: McGraw Hill
- Davis, R (2009). Resisting Jim Crow. Retrieved February 5, 2010, from http://www.jimcrowhistory.org/history/resisting2.htm