One of the most promising of the young Negro poets said to me once, “I want to be a poet—not a Negro poet,” meaning, I believe, “I want to write like a white poet”; meaning subconsciously, “I would like to be a white poet”; meaning behind that, “I would like to be white.” And I was sorry the young man said that, for no great poet has ever been afraid of being himself. And I doubted then that, with his desire to run away spiritually from his race, this boy would ever be a great poet. But this is the mountain standing in the way of any true Negro art in America—this urge within the race toward whiteness, the desire to pour racial individuality into the mold of American standardization, and to be as little Negro and as much American as possible.
Langston Hughes wrote that to begin “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain" which was published in The Nation in 1926. Hughes argued that black writers should stop trying to be like white writers and focus on embracing their black heritage. His fellow black writers should pull from their own experiences, Hughes believed. “For no great poet is afraid of being himself,” Hughes writes in the essay. The essay became a manifesto for the Harlem Renaissance.
It was only the previous year, in 1925, that Hughes worked various jobs, including being a busboy at a hotel in Washington D.C. It was during this job that he had met poet Vachel Lindsay. Hughes seized the opportunity and shared some poems he had written with Lindsay. Impressed, Vachel Lindsay help publicized Langston Hughes, whose writings had been published before but was about to get more exposure in the literary world. A year later, “The Negro Artist and Racial Mountain” was published.
Langston Hughes would become a celebrated writer and a leading figure in the Harlem Renaissance movement. Today, February 1st, 2014 is his 112th birthday. Happy Birthday, Mr. Hughes!