A Trusted Friend in a Complicated World

10 Powerful Langston Hughes Poems Everyone Needs to Read

The pioneer of the Harlem Renaissance wrote about race, love, ordinary Americans and relatable struggles. These phenomenal Langston Hughes poems are the perfect introduction to his impressive body of work.

Powerful Langston Hughes Poems Everyone Needs to Read on a cyan-blue watercolour background

Langston Hughes poems guaranteed to move you

Langston Hughes is one of the most prolific yet most underrated American poets of all time. He was the first Black writer and poet to make his living through his words. He led the Harlem Renaissance, which saw Black poets and writers come together to express their thoughts and opinions. Heck, he practically invented jazz poetry, a form focused on rhythm, and his work remains a staple of the art form to this day. Langston Hughes poems are about the ordinary Black man—his struggle, his mundane life, his beauty and his dreams.

There’s no better way to describe Hughes’s poetry than with his own words: “If white people are pleased, we are glad. If they are not, it doesn’t matter. We know we are beautiful. And ugly too.” Hughes is at the top of the list of Black poets who really managed to convey just what the experience of being a person of color in 20th-century America was like, with all its prejudices and societal changes.

When he left the world in 1967, he left behind a massive body of work, including poems, poetry books, novels, plays, essays and so much more. As for his poetry, it is as varied as the forms he wrote in. Hughes published works dealing with racism, Black history and conditions of living. He wrote tender love poems. And he penned stirring verses that praised physical beauty, especially that of the Black man, which led many people to speculate about his sexuality.

While “Dreams” is arguably his most famous poem (and certainly merits a read), it’s not the sole example of the poet’s mastery. Hughes’s bibliography is long and well worth your time and attention. To get you started, we’re focusing on 10 of the most powerful Langston Hughes poems. Consider this your introduction to the incredible potency of the celebrated poet’s words and their rhythms.

Get Reader’s Digest’s Read Up newsletter for more poetry, humor, cleaning, travel, tech and fun facts all week long.

Powerful poem The Negro Speaks of Rivers everyone needs to read by Langston Hughes on watercolour purple background
rd.com, Getty Images

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.

One of the most famous Langston Hughes poems is also one of his earliest: “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” was published in 1921 in The Crisis, the magazine of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Rivers have always been a strong symbol in Black poetry and music—you can hear it in classic blues. Here, Hughes deviates from traditional poems about nature to use the river as a symbol of the scale and importance of Black history. Through it, he reminds readers that Black people have seen the entire world through its most important rivers.

Powerful poem Mother to Son everyone needs to read by Langston Hughes on watercolour green background
rd.com, Getty Images

2. “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.

Through this famous poem, Hughes explores the other side of parental relationships. A mother figure gets real with her son about how unfair life can be—but not to discourage him. On the contrary, her words of sorrow soon turn into encouraging phrases urging him to move forward with life. It’s a great example of a Mother’s Day poem that shows how precious mothers can be.

Powerful poem Homesick Blues everyone needs to read by Langston Hughes on watercolour blue background
rd.com, Getty Images

3. “Homesick Blues”

De Railroad bridge’s
A sad song in de air.
De railroad bridge’s
A sad song in de air.
Every time de trains pass
I wants to go somewhere.

I went down to de station.
Ma heart was in ma mouth.
Went down to da station.
Heart was in ma mouth.
Lookin’ for a box car
To roll me to de South.

Homesick blues, Lawd,
‘S a terrible thing to have.
Homesick blues is
A terrible thing to have.
To keep from cryin’
I opens my mouth an’ laughs.

“Homesick Blues” is one of the most famous Langston Hughes poems and expresses the familiar desire to return home. In the case of the poet, who was born in Joplin, Missouri, home is the South. Formulated like a classic blues song, this great poem about life can be called blues poetry, a predecessor of sorts to jazz poetry, which Hughes delved into later in his career.

Powerful poem Harlem Night Song everyone needs to read by Langston Hughes on watercolour pink background
rd.com, Getty Images

4. “Harlem Night Song”

Let us roam the night together

I love you.

The Harlem roof-tops
Moon is shining
Night sky is blue.
Stars are great drops
Of golden dew.
In the cabaret
The jazz-band’s playing.

I love you.

Let us roam the night together

“Harlem Night Song” is a great example of the sort of work that elevated Hughes’s status and led him to become one of the pioneers of the Harlem Renaissance. Whether read as a love poem for women or for men, the beautiful ballad wonderfully captures the feelings and essence of the movement.

Powerful poem Hard Daddy everyone needs to read by Langston Hughes on watercolour orange background
rd.com, Getty Images

5. “Hard Daddy”

I went to ma daddy,
Says Daddy I have got de blues.
Went to ma daddy,
Says Daddy I have got de blues.
Ma daddy says. Honey,
Can’t you bring no better news?

I cried on his shoulder but
He turned his back on me.
Cried on his shoulder but
He turned his back on me.
He said a woman’s cryin’s
Never gonna bother me.

I wish I had wings to
Fly like de eagle flies.
Wish I had wings to
Fly like de eagle flies.
I’d fly on ma man an’
I’d scratch out both his eyes.

It’s no secret that Hughes did not have the best of relationships with his father. His parents were separated, and his dad lived in Mexico. When an 18-year-old Hughes visited and told him of his dream of being a writer, he refused to fund his son’s education unless it was in engineering. But this isn’t the true source of the tension between the two men: As the poet himself stated, the elder Hughes’s apparent disdain for his own people drove a wedge between them. While “Hard Daddy” is not exactly a Father’s Day poem, it does manage to explore just how tragic such a parental relationship can be.

Powerful poem Fantasy in Purple everyone needs to read by Langston Hughes on watercolour cyan background
rd.com, Getty Images

6. “Fantasy in Purple”

Beat the drums of tragedy for me.
Beat the drums of tragedy and death.
And let the choir sing a stormy song
To drown the rattle of my dying breath.

Beat the drums of tragedy for me,
And let the white violins whir thin and slow,
But blow one blaring trumpet note of sun
To go with me
to the darkness
where I go.

“Fantasy in Purple” is a fantastic example of Hughes’s famous jazz poetry, alive with the rhythms and themes of the 20th-century African American music this great poet loved so dearly. While it could be interpreted as something as sorrowful as a funeral poem, it remains open to interpretation. On the surface, Hughes tackles themes of loss and tragedy, but through the poem, he also honors the music of his time.

10 Powerful Langston Hughes Poems Everyone Needs To Read The Jester 1
rd.com, Getty Images

7. “The Jester”

In one hand
I hold tragedy
And in the other
Masks for the soul.
Laugh with me.
You would laugh!
Weep with me
You would weep!
Tears are my laughter.
Laughter is my pain.
Cry at my grinning mouth,
If you will.
Laugh at my sorrow’s reign.
I am the Black Jester,
The dumb clown of the world,
The booted, booted fool of silly men.
Once I was wise.
Shall I be wise again?

One of Hughes’s many strengths is his use of comedy tropes to express the exact opposite. While at first, “The Jester” appears to be a mere funny poem, as the reader progresses, it becomes clear that comedy is Hughes’s way of expressing sorrow, suffering and frustration, particularly that of fellow Black Americans.

Powerful poem The White Ones everyone needs to read by Langston Hughes on watercolour yellow background
rd.com, Getty Images

8. “The White Ones”

I do not hate you,
For your faces are beautiful, too.
I do not hate you,
Your faces are whirling lights of loveliness and splendor, too.
Yet why do you torture me,
O, white strong ones,
Why do you torture me?

Serving as both a cry for more tolerance and an offering of racial peace, this inspirational poem is a perfect display of how simple yet powerful Hughes’s words could be. What grants “The White Ones” its devastating power is the way its conveyed emotions change in the span of a few lines, from praise to conviction.

Powerful poem Harlem Prayer everyone needs to read by Langston Hughes on watercolour purple background
rd.com, Getty Images

9. “Prayer”

I ask you this:
Which way to go?
I ask you this:
Which sin to bear?
Which crown to put
Upon my hair?
I do not know,
Lord God,
I do not know.

Religion isn’t often an overt theme in contemporary poetry, but that wasn’t always the case. Themes of God and spirituality were some of the most pressing in the poetry of previous generations. Hughes’s take on the subject is this short poem that manages to convey feelings of existentialism and doubt in a few lines.

10 Powerful Langston Hughes Poems Everyone Needs To Read Poème D'automne 1
rd.com, Getty Images

10. “Poème d’Automne”

The autumn leaves
Are too heavy with color.
The slender trees
On the Vulcan Road
Are dressed in scarlet and gold
Like young courtesans
Waiting for their lovers.
But soon
The winter winds
Will strip their bodies bare
And then
The sharp, sleet-stung
Caresses of cold
Will be their only

French for “Autumn Poem,” Hughes’s “Poème d’Automne” is a reflection on love and warmth in the cold of the world. Many great American writers spent time in Paris in the early 20th century, including Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald and James Baldwin—Hughes is no exception. He lived in a little hotel room there and worked odd jobs, as he did while traveling the world in his early years. If the poem has inspired you to experience a Parisian autumn of your own, know that the City of Light is one of the best cities for literature lovers of all kinds.


Akram Herrak
Akram Herrak is a writer from Casablanca, Morocco. He has a BA in English Literature and an MA in Cultural Management and Policy. He has been writing about film and literature for the past five years for publications including High on Films, A Fistful of Film, Independent Book Review and more. In his spare time, he plays a lot of chess and sings in a couple of bands.