Often based on blues forms and themes, Langston Hughes's poetry celebrates the humblest voices of the black community and affirms their rightful place in American literature. Hughes's attempt to forge a realist poetic rooted in black dialect often met with critical derision, but because of his reputation as a major and innovative poet, many critics consider him the poet laureate of black America.
One of Hughes's most widely anthologized poems, "The Negro Speaks of Rivers" (1920), appeared in his first collection, The Weary Blues (1926), which features blues' themes and structures. Hughes's growing concern for the black masses informs the slight but acutely attuned poems of his second volume, Fine Clothes to the Jew (1927), which was followed by Dear Lovely Death (1931) and The Dream Keeper and Other Poems (1932).
Hughes's anguished social protest against the economic and political crises of the Depression years informs "Let America Be America Again" (1935) and is felt strongly in the radical collection A New Song (1938). In Shakespeare in Harlem (1942), the vibrancy of his early Harlem Renaissance poems give way to a bleak vision. The poems of One-Way Ticket (1949) feature Alberta K. Johnson, a counterpart in poetry to Hughes's prose creation, Jesse B. Semple. The decline of Harlem, however, is the subject of one of Hughes's most celebrated works, Montage of a Dream Deferred (1951), a series of verse sketches written to be read aloud with accompaniment. Jazz is also at the heart of Ask Your Mama: Twelve Moods for Jazz (1961), which is considered by some critics to be Hughes's finest work. Hughes's final work, the posthumously published The Panther and the Lash: Poems of Our Times (1967), reflects Hughes's bitterness, anger, and frustration about race relations in America.
Hughes's long and distinguished poetic career and his innovations in style and subject matter have inspired two generations of black writers and have immeasurably affected the shape of contemporary black literature.