"The Negro Speaks of Rivers"
Why is it important that we know that the speaker is black?
What expressions are repeated in the poem, and why are these important? What would be lost if the poet just said, "I'm familiar with several rivers," and moved on?
What does the speaker claim has been "his" history? How do we know that he isn't being entirely literal? For whom is he speaking? Why does he mention the Euphrates river, or the Nile?
Abraham Lincoln worked on a flatboat in 1829 and 1831, and in New Orleans he witnessed a slave market. Why does Hughes claim that the Mississippi "sang" when Lincoln made this trip?
What is the final image of the poem's main section? Why is this important?
How is sound used in the poem's five sections to build up to its point?
Why do we hear about the rivers but not the specific details of past lives? What is the poem's final affirmation?
What are some ways the poem's sounds are arranged to make its point? Does the meaning build to a climax?
Are the pauses in the lines significant? How much of the poem is rhymed? Patterned?
Is the last line effective? Why is it in italics? Should the poem be longer?
"Mother to Son"
Does the form of the poem suggest its subject?
What is added by the fact that the poem is written in the voice of an older black woman speaking to her son?
What image does she give of her own life? Is the use of an image more effective than giving specific details?
What does she tell her son he mustn't do? What view does she give of her own old age?
Does the language sound authentic? Is this important to the poem's meaning?
"Theme for English B"
The "college on the hill" above Harlem is Columbia University, slightly south of Harlem in Manhattan. Hughes himself attended Lincoln University in Pennsylvania.
Whose is the voice in the italics? What advice does he give for writing an essay?
What makes the speaker's response more complicated than that of the other students? What things does he feel the need to explain to his teacher before he can begin?
How is his life as a college student different from that of others? Similar?
What is his relationship to his instructor? The instructor's to him? How do they both relate to "America"?
Is the speaker confident that his professor will also learn from him? What understanding is conveyed by his noting that his instructor is "somewhat more free" rather than entirely free?
How are the rhythms and line lengths of the poem varied to convey natural speech patterns? What are some places given special emphasis?
What seems the purpose of this poem? The message of its ending?
"The Colored Soldier"
What is added to the poem by the fact that it is supposed to be performed dramatically by two speakers? By the contrasting rhythms of the two voices?
What background does the main speaker give us? What has been the different fate of the two brothers? Where is "Over There" and why is this mentioned? [a title of a cheerful World War I patriotic song]
What is added by the words in which the dead brother describes their past life? To what ideal does he also appeal?
What is added by the fact that the poem includes a dream of the brother's return? By the speaker's own emotions as he is forced to confront the falsity of his and his brother's hopes?
What is striking about the last line?
"Dream Boogie" and "Harlem "
These are both part of a sequence, "Montage of a Dream Deferred," which uses popular African-American music rhythms to describe Harlem life.
What sounds/rhythms are characteristic of a "boogie-woogie"? How does the poet play on these features?
What is the poem's setting and tone? What question does the speaker ask "Daddy"? What information does he give him?
How are italics used? Questions?
Why does the speaker say, "I'm happy! / Take it away!" Do the music and the poem have a double meaning, and if so, what is this?
"Harlem " is Hughes' most famous poem. What future possibilities for black America are presented? What concrete images are used? Is the order significant? Are these possibilities all unpleasant?
What is implied in the final line?
What is the subject of the poem?
Who is the speaker? What is his attitude towards his life?
How is the reader expected to evaluate the speaker's choices? What lines of thought, word choices and images convey the poem's message?
How does the arrangement of stanzas help convey the poem's content?
What types of music are suggested by the sounds of this poem? What are the poem's rhythms and stanza arrangement?
Langston Hughes wasn't directly religious, but he was interested in African American religion as an expression of black identity and emotions. What do you think motivated him to write a poem on this topic?
What point is made by the poem's title? By its simple form? What aspects of the historical Jesus are emphasized? How would this have been a non-standard view?
How do the stanzas develop from one another? What aspects of "ma Lord"'s behavior and life provide an example for the speaker? Which of his qualities provide comfort?
Based on this poem, what do you think is Langston Hughes' view of religion? Of Christianity?
What does the poem reveal about the speaker's background? What has been/is his attitude towards his parents? Why may this be the case?
What dilemma does he face?
How is his attitude toward his mother different from that toward his father?
Why does the poet wait until the last stanza to describe his parents' different social positions? What does the great gulf in their circumstances imply?
What is suggested by the poem's title? Are there several interpretations of the word "cross" which may apply?
What is the effect of the use of strong rhymes and ballad stanza quatrains?
Why does the poem end with a question mark? Is there a solution to the speaker's problem?
Is this an effective poem, and if so, why?
"The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain"
What attitudes does Hughes believe are hurting the development of African-American art?
What criticisms are leveled against himself? What does he see as one of the most important forms of African-American expression?
What does he feel about censorship of subject matter? What attitude does he suggest a "Negro Artist" should take towards their potential black and white audiences?
"Letter to the Academy"
Why does he address the dead writers of classics on the topic of revolution? What topics have they written about?
What does Hughes mean by "revolution"?
What is unusual about the poem's form? How does it suit the subject?
What progress does Hughes think society has made thus far? What does he believe should be the purpose of art?
What is the tone and effect of the last two lines? The use of "in the hell"?
What is the poem's subject? How are humans contrasted with animals?
What reflection does the poem make on the fate of animals?
What is the effect of the poem's organization into three short stanzas?
On War: "Comment on War," "Peace," and "Wisdom and War"
What does Hughes believe are the motives for armed conflict?
In "Peace," what does he identify as the results of war?
How are the form and tone of these poems designed to convey his point?
"Notes on Commercial Theater"
Who is the "you" addressed? What does the speaker think about the use of African-American music for mainstream commercial purposes?
What does he hope for the future of African-American art?
How does his rhetoric reinforce his meaning?
some to read: "Southern Lady," "I Too Sing America," "Cultural Exchange," and "Junior Addict."