Born in Joplin, Missouri, in the year 1902, Langston Hughes grew up to become one of the most prolific poets of the 20th century, a pioneer of the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s. Hughes was integral to the creation of jazz poetry, writing his first jazz poetry piece, “When Sue Wears Red,” while still in high school.
More than a poet, he was a social activist, columnist, novelist, and playwright. His life and works were meant to capture stories of the vast black experience. He criticized many other black leaders of the time, such as W.E.B. DuBois, for their accommodation and reliance on eurocentric culture and values.
Hughes espoused a love and pride for his blackness, using his work to reflect it. An inspiration to many other notable black leaders, such as Aimé Césaire and Léon Damas, Hughes’ then-radical championing of racial consciousness to make art was an inspiration to the Négritude movement of France. Hughes wrote about black life and all that encompassed it, inlcuding culture, music, suffering and discrimination, and more.
In the wake of another high-profile killing of a black man by police officers, Hughes’ poetry continues to capture black frustration and pain at the almost daily killing of black and brown people at the hands of the police. Freddie Gray, a 25-year old black man, was apprehended by Baltimore police officers on April 12, 2015, for making eye-contact and fleeing unprovoked from them. During the ride to the police station, Gray fell into a coma and was taken to a trauma center. He died a week later from severe injuries, as his spleen ruptured and spine almost completely severed.
The city of Baltimore erupted into protest, mostly peaceful, over the period of six days. On April 25, some protests erupted into chaos, with looting and some violence among the protesters. Once more, the country caught a glimpse of the pain and frustration of 400 years of discrimination.
Hughes poem, Warning!, captures the ever-present frustration of under-served communities tired of marginalization, racism, and police violence. As the voices of dissent grow louder and louder toward the current status quo, the struggles that black communities in America continue experience mirror the struggles of the past.
By Langston Hughes
Sweet and docile,
Meek, humble, and kind:
Beware the day
They change their mind.
In the cotton fields,
Beware the hour
It uproots trees!