THE NATION CLASSROOM
American History as It Happened
RACE RELATIONS and CIVIL RIGHTS
MODULE TWO: 1919-1929
STUDENT PRACTICE ACTIVITY TWO
1. Langston Hughes makes reference to the “colored near-intellectuals” and the “smug Negro middle class.” Who are they, and what appears to be his opinion of them? Why? Hughes, who was writing at the start of his career as a highly regarded poet and playwright, is talking about prosperous African Americans who he believes have adopted white culture as superior to their own, as he cites “their white, respectable, ordinary books and papers.” He holds these people in disdain, and thinks that they should instead accept and celebrate their true selves.
2. Hughes refers to a drum (the tom-tom) several times in this piece. How does the tom-tom figure in the argument he is making? Hughes uses the tom-tom as a symbol for jazz, and a metaphor for the beating heart of African-American life, culture, and individual experience and emotion.
3. Even if you don’t know the individuals he mentions, what assumptions can you make about them? They are all black artists who are expressing and defining a new African-American culture.
4. What does Hughes mean when he says, “We know we are beautiful. And ugly too.” He means “We African Americans are human—with all the various attributes of human beings within each of us individually and among us as a people.”
5. What is the writer’s attitude about white people? Hughes says that they are welcome to share in and appreciate the rich experience of African Americans, but ultimately, their opinion doesn’t matter.
6. What is Hughes’s main point? The path to social progress is not by adopting white ways and culture, which is held up by some blacks as a false idol. Rather, African Americans must celebrate, embrace, and believe in their own value, beauty, and distinctive culture, which is as worthy as any other. Only by doing that will they find freedom and a better future.