10 Most Famous Poems by Langston Hughes

Active in the twentieth century, James Mercer Langston Hughes (1902 – 1967) was an African American writer most renowned for his poetry and for being the leading figure of the movement known as the Harlem Renaissance. Hughes was one of the early innovators of the genre of poetry known as Jazz Poetry, which demonstrates jazz like rhythms. Many of his poems are based on African American culture and blacks being denied the American dream of equal opportunity for all. Know about the poetry of Langston Hughes by studying the analysis of his 10 most famous poems.

#10 As I Grew Older



It was a long time ago.
I have almost forgotten my dream.
But it was there then,
In front of me,
Bright like a sun,—
My dream.

And then the wall rose,
Rose slowly,
Between me and my dream.
Rose slowly, slowly,
The light of my dream.
Rose until it touched the sky,—
The wall.

I am black.

I lie down in the shadow.
No longer the light of my dream before me,
Above me.
Only the thick wall.
Only the shadow.

My hands!
My dark hands!
Break through the wall!
Find my dream!
Help me to shatter this darkness,
To smash this night,
To break this shadow
Into a thousand lights of sun,
Into a thousand whirling dreams
Of sun!


This poem starts by describing how once the speaker had a dream but with time a wall arose between him and his dream, plunging him into darkness and away from his dream. In the second part of the poem the speaker expresses his impulse to use his ‘dark hands’ to break the wall and shatter the darkness; and ‘To break this shadow into a thousand lights of sun’. ‘As I Grew Older’ talks about the American dream of equality, rights and opportunities which was dreamed by all Americans but denied to African Americans. It expresses their frustration, their agitation and their want for action.

#9 Dreams



Hold fast to dreams 
For if dreams die
Life is a broken-winged bird
That cannot fly.

Hold fast to dreams
For when dreams go
Life is a barren field
Frozen with snow.


This poem describes beautifully the importance of dreams and what one’s life would be without them. There is no set form or meter in the poem perhaps to shape it like a dream. Hughes uses the imagery of a broken winged bird that is unable to fly to indicate hopelessness and loss of freedom with the death of dreams. He then compares the loss of dreams to a barren field frozen with snow implying the loss of life without the presence of dreams.

#8 Theme for English B



The instructor said,

      Go home and write
      a page tonight.
      And let that page come out of you—
      Then, it will be true.

I wonder if it’s that simple?
I am twenty-two, colored, born in Winston-Salem.   
I went to school there, then Durham, then here   
to this college on the hill above Harlem.   
I am the only colored student in my class.   
The steps from the hill lead down into Harlem,   
through a park, then I cross St. Nicholas,   
Eighth Avenue, Seventh, and I come to the Y,   
the Harlem Branch Y, where I take the elevator   
up to my room, sit down, and write this page:

It’s not easy to know what is true for you or me   
at twenty-two, my age. But I guess I’m what
I feel and see and hear, Harlem, I hear you.
hear you, hear me—we two—you, me, talk on this page.   
(I hear New York, too.) Me—who?

Well, I like to eat, sleep, drink, and be in love.   
I like to work, read, learn, and understand life.   
I like a pipe for a Christmas present,
or records—Bessie, bop, or Bach.
I guess being colored doesn’t make me not like
the same things other folks like who are other races.   
So will my page be colored that I write?   
Being me, it will not be white.
But it will be
a part of you, instructor.
You are white—
yet a part of me, as I am a part of you.
That’s American.
Sometimes perhaps you don’t want to be a part of me.   
Nor do I often want to be a part of you.
But we are, that’s true!
As I learn from you,
I guess you learn from me—
although you’re older—and white—
and somewhat more free.

This is my page for English B.


In this poem, a white English teacher asks his students to write a page. The speaker is the only African American student in the class and is twenty two years old. He wonders whether it is as simple for him to write a page from his heart as he has been instructed to do. In the first half of the poem the speaker describes how he is different from his white classmates. But then he says that just because of his color it is not necessary for him to not like the same things as people of other races do. In one of the most famous lines of the poem the speaker wonders, “So will my page be colored that I write?” He concludes by declaring that both he and his teacher can learn from each other perhaps suggesting that white and colored Americans can learn from each other.

#7 Life Is Fine



I went down to the river,
I set down on the bank.
I tried to think but couldn't,
So I jumped in and sank.

I came up once and hollered!
I came up twice and cried!
If that water hadn't a-been so cold
I might've sunk and died.

     But it was      Cold in that water!      It was cold!

I took the elevator
Sixteen floors above the ground.
I thought about my baby
And thought I would jump down.

I stood there and I hollered!
I stood there and I cried!
If it hadn't a-been so high
I might've jumped and died.

     But it was      High up there!      It was high!

So since I'm still here livin',
I guess I will live on.
I could've died for love—
But for livin' I was born

Though you may hear me holler,
And you may see me cry—
I'll be dogged, sweet baby,
If you gonna see me die.

     Life is fine!      Fine as wine!      Life is fine!


The speaker in this poem tries to sink in the river but is unable to do so as it is too cold. He then thinks about jumping down from the sixteenth floor of a building but is unable to do so because it is too high. So he decides that since he is still living, he might as well continue doing so. The poem talks about the importance of persistence in great adversity and how life is fine even with all the difficulties it throws at you. The poem is structured like a blues song and is among Langston’s most famous lyric poetry.

#6 Let America be America Again



Let America be America again.
Let it be the dream it used to be.
Let it be the pioneer on the plain
Seeking a home where he himself is free.

(America never was America to me.)

Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed—
Let it be that great strong land of love
Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme
That any man be crushed by one above.

(It never was America to me.)

O, let my land be a land where Liberty
Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,
But opportunity is real, and life is free,
Equality is in the air we breathe.

Read Full Poem Here


This poem speaks of the injustice in America being faced by not only African Americans but also other economically disadvantaged and minority groups. The speaker declares that the dream of equality and opportunity for all in America has never been realized and thus ‘America never was America to me’. He talks of racism, greed, corruption and materialism which has plunged millions into darkness and ruined the American dream. He ends the poem by urging the reader to take action to redeem our land and make America, America again.

#5 Mother to Son



Well, son, I’ll tell you:
Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.
It’s had tacks in it,
And splinters,
And boards torn up,
And places with no carpet on the floor—
But all the time
I’se been a-climbin’ on,
And reachin’ landin’s,
And turnin’ corners,
And sometimes goin’ in the dark
Where there ain’t been no light.
So boy, don’t you turn back.
Don’t you set down on the steps
’Cause you finds it’s kinder hard.
Don’t you fall now—
For I’se still goin’, honey,
I’se still climbin’,
And life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.


In this famous poem, a mother tells her son, through an analogy of climbing a staircase, about the difficulties she has had to face in her life and how important it is to persevere through them and keep climbing on. She tells him that life for her has been no ‘crystal stair’, perhaps referring to the path the wealthy have to tread which is not loaded with such difficulties. Instead her stairs have tacks, splinters, dark spaces and no carpet to cover the floor. At the end of the poem, she urges her son to keep climbing up like she has done and never to turn back or fall.

#4 I, Too, Sing America



I, too, sing America.

I am the darker brother.
They send me to eat in the kitchen
When company comes,
But I laugh,
And eat well,
And grow strong.

I’ll be at the table
When company comes.
Nobody’ll dare
Say to me,
“Eat in the kitchen,”

They’ll see how beautiful I am
And be ashamed—

I, too, am America.


In this poem, Hughes declares that patriotism is not limited by race. He describes the unceasing racial discrimination in America through the perspective of an African American servant who is not allowed to sit at the table and must eat in the kitchen when someone visits the house. The poem then takes an optimistic tone suggesting that there will be a time tomorrow when blacks will sit at the table by the side of white Americans, who will be ‘ashamed’ for the way they have treated their ‘darker brother’ for centuries.

#3 The Weary Blues



Droning a drowsy syncopated tune,
Rocking back and forth to a mellow croon,
I heard a Negro play.
Down on Lenox Avenue the other night
By the pale dull pallor of an old gas light
He did a lazy sway. . . .
He did a lazy sway. . . .
To the tune o’ those Weary Blues.
With his ebony hands on each ivory key
He made that poor piano moan with melody.
O Blues!
Swaying to and fro on his rickety stool
He played that sad raggy tune like a musical fool.
Sweet Blues!
Coming from a black man’s soul.
O Blues!
In a deep song voice with a melancholy tone
I heard that Negro sing, that old piano moan—
“Ain’t got nobody in all this world,
Ain’t got nobody but ma self.
I’s gwine to quit ma frownin’
And put ma troubles on the shelf.”

Thump, thump, thump, went his foot on the floor.
He played a few chords then he sang some more—
“I got the Weary Blues
And I can’t be satisfied.
Got the Weary Blues
And can’t be satisfied—
I ain’t happy no mo’
And I wish that I had died.”
And far into the night he crooned that tune.
The stars went out and so did the moon.
The singer stopped playing and went to bed
While the Weary Blues echoed through his head.
He slept like a rock or a man that’s dead.


This poem was supposedly written by Hughes after visiting a cabaret in Harlem. It was first published in the Opportunity magazine and won the magazine’s prize for best poem of the year. The poem takes place at an old Harlem bar on Lenox Avenue where a piano player is playing the blues. It is late at night; the musician is weary, and he is expressing his loneliness through his melancholy tone. The Weary Blues blends jazz, blues, and poetry into powerful lyric poetry and music is the underlying theme of the poem. It is considered one of the best works of Hughes and is among his most renowned poems.

#2 Harlem (Dream Deferred)



What happens to a dream deferred?

      Does it dry up
      like a raisin in the sun?
      Or fester like a sore—
      And then run?
      Does it stink like rotten meat?
      Or crust and sugar over—
      like a syrupy sweet?

      Maybe it just sags
      like a heavy load.

      Or does it explode?


Harlem first appeared in a 1951 poetry collection by Hughes titled Montage of a Dream Deferred. The dream in the poem refers to the American dream of rights; equality of opportunity for prosperity and success; liberty; and democracy; which at the time when Hughes wrote the poem was denied to most African Americans. In response to his question at the beginning of the poem, Hughes gives examples of what happens to things with deferral and negligence and asks whether the same is happening to the African American dream. Hughes brilliantly uses neat one syllable rhymes, as used in nursery rhymes, suggesting simplicity but accompanies it with imagery and rhythm which tell a more uncomfortable and hurtful tale. The famous last line of the poem then gives warning of dire consequences for everyone if the dream continues to be deferred.

#1 The Negro Speaks of Rivers



I’ve known rivers:
I’ve known rivers ancient as the world and older than the
     flow of human blood in human veins.

My soul has grown deep like the rivers.

I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young.
I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep.
I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it.
I heard the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln 
     went down to New Orleans, and I’ve seen its muddy 
     bosom turn all golden in the sunset.

I’ve known rivers:
Ancient, dusky rivers.

My soul has grown deep like the rivers.


Langston Hughes wrote his most famous poem when he was only seventeen. The idea of it came to him while he crossed the Mississippi river while travelling on a train to Mexico to meet his father. He began to think what Mississippi had meant to Negros in the past leading him to think what other rivers had meant to them and the thought came to him, “I’ve known rivers”. He then penned down this much acclaimed poem in around fifteen minutes. In the poem Langston connects to all his African forefathers through rivers which are ‘older than the flow of human blood in human veins’. He places his ancestor on important historical and cultural sites and uses active verbs like ‘I built’, ‘I bathed’, etc. to demonstrate their active participation in civilization since ancient times, even when they had to face discrimination.

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