The cultural moment of the Harlem Renaissance during the 1920s was an especially significant time in American history for the literary, artistic, and musical expression of the Blacks who shaped its experience. While there were many influential creative people who shared in this important era, Langston Hughes is a writer who frequently stands out among his peers. Perhaps more than any other writer during the Harlem Renaissance era, Hughes was a spokesman for his times and his texts still resonate with audiences today. One reason for this unique effective seems to be in his talent for bringing the reader almost directly into the experiences he relates in his poems.

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The literary theory of New Historicism was developed during the 1980s by Stephen Greenblatt’s analysis of William Shakespeare and other authors in a historical context. This literary criticism approach is “characterised by a parallel reading of a text with its socio-cultural and historical conditions” (Mambrol). The critical lens of New Historicism provides a thought-provoking view in the analysis of Langston Hughes’ poetry.

For Langston Hughes and a majority of Black men and women living and working in Harlem during that time, their shared sociopolitical conditions created a strong bond between them in many ways. For many, it was the first time they had an opportunity to truly express some of their creative ideas (Hoover). While several generations had already passed since the Emancipation Proclamation and the end of the American Civil War had set them free from the bondage of slavery in 1865, there were still an oppressive range of sociocultural factors that hindered their progress. Yet during the 1920s, many talented Blacks found their way north, away from the restrictive prejudices and discrimination practices of their previous environment.

The 1920s was an exciting and highly prosperous time for Americans, and there were many economic opportunities for people with creative talent to earn a good living in Harlem. Close to the highly prosperous areas of Manhattan and other White enclaves, many musicians who played nightly at local clubs in Harlem found large, well-paying audiences to attend. In fact, they were highly sought after and times were good (Hoover). However, there was also a thread of discontent running through the lived experiences of musicians and artists, which were expressed in a myriad of ways. According to the tenets of New Historicism, the “historicity of text refers to its inevitable embedment within the socio-political conditions of its production and interpretation” (Mambrol). Among these expressions, jazz music and especially the blues were central to the Harlem Renaissance era.

The intersection of all of the arts were present in this time: “as music, as dance, as drum, but also as art and culture” (Wipplinger 166). Thus, the artists and writers who created important works in Harlem were often fully immersed in the music scene as well, a factor that seems apparent when reading Langston Hughes’ expressive prose and poetry. Weary Blues, a poem that he wrote in 1926, articulates the cultural moment from the opening lines of the poem. In these lines, he describes a Harlem music event in a very unique way: “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!” (Hughes). This depiction brings the reader into the cultural moment of the Harlem Renaissance, showing it not as a time of rejoicing, but rather as a time and place when Blacks found an audience for sharing a mixture of heartfelt emotions. Although it is challenging to determine how these messages were perceived by White audiences during the boom times of the 1920s, one can surmise that they were touched deeply at many levels of human understanding.

    Works Cited
  • Hoover, Leah. “Harlem Renaissance.”, 1 May 2014. . Accessed 11 July 2017.
  • Hughes, Langston. “Weary Blues,” 1926. <> Accessed 9 July 2017.
  • Mambrol, Nasrullah. “New Historicism,”16 Oct. 2016. Literary Theory and Criticism Notes. <>. Accessed 11 July 2017.
  • Wipplinger, Jonathan O. “Singing the Harlem Renaissance: Langston Hughes, Translation, and Diasporic Blues.” In The Jazz Republic, 2017. University of Michigan Press.