Throughout the short lines of this poem, Hughes uses very few words to create effective images. This is a testament to his skill as a writer and the thoughtful word choices he made. His passion for the people he cares for is clear from the first lines. Readers should walk away from ‘My People’ feeling something of what Hughes felt while writing it.
Explore My People
‘My People’ by Langston Hughes is an uplifting poem that celebrates the lives of men and women in Hughes’ community.
In the first lines of ‘My People,’ the speaker begins by listing out a number of professions that people he knows are engaged in. These help readers envision the different lives people live as well as their inner natures. They are more than dishwashers and cooks. They’re also storytellers, singers, and dancers. In the last lines of the poem, Hughes focuses on the joyous lives of these men and women and how they’re laughing in the hands of fate.
You can read the full poem here.
Nurses of babies,
Loaders of ships,
Comedians in vaudeville
And band-men in circuses—
In the first lines of ‘My People,’ Hughes begins what is essentially a celebration of the Black men and women he knows in his life and the wonderful array of lives they live. He lists out, with very little pause, the different professions these people engage in. Some are traditional, like “Dish-washers” and “Loaders of ships,” but others are more thoughtful and personal, like “Story-tellers” and “Jazzers” (the latter refers to Jazz musicians).
By bringing these lines together and using accumulation to ensure that readers see one word after another quite quickly, he’s emphasizing the different lives that people he cares about life. Black men and women are not one thing, despite society’s attempts to categorize them that way. This poem is a celebration of the diversity in Hughes’ community.
Loud-mouthed laughers in the hands of Fate.
In the second half of the poem, the speaker refers to “all,” from the dishwashers to the shiploaders, as “dream-singers all” and “storytellers all.” Through these phrases, he’s suggesting that there’s far more to these men and women than their profession. They’re deeply creative, caring, and ins[ired people. They are “dancers!” and “singers!” Hughes celebrates. Each moves through their life with grace and joy. He also emphasizes that they are are “laughers in the hands of Fate.” Life might’ve dealt many of these men and women a poor hand in life, but they’re finding all the joy where they can.
Structure and Form
‘My People’ by Langston Hughes is a twenty-nine-line poem that is contained within a singles stanza of text. The poem is written in free verse, something that isn’t uncommon to Hughes’ poetry. This means that the lines do not follow a specific rhyme scheme or metrical pattern. The lines are also quite short, sometimes only one word or one compound word. This makes the poem appear quite striking on the page. It also means that readers are going to be able to move through the lines very quickly.
Throughout this poem, the poet makes use of several literary devices. These include but are not limited to:
- Imagery: particularly interesting descriptions, ones that trigger and inspire the reader’s senses. For example, “Nurses of babies, / Loaders of ships, / Porters.”
- Alliteration: occurs when the poet repeats the same consonant sound at the beginning of multiple words. For example, “Dream-singers” and “Dancers” in lines one and three.
- Enjambment: can be seen when the poet cuts off a line before its natural stopping point. For example, the transition between lines seventeen and eighteen.
- Personification: occurs when the poet imbues something non-human with human characteristics. For example, “Loud laughers in the hands of Fate.”
The tone is uplifting and joyful. The speaker is impressed by and passionate about his “people” and the lives they live. They are filled with joy, and he is too.
The purpose is to share the joy of the lives of the speaker’s community. These Black men and women are living the best possible lives they can. They are dancers, singers, and hard workers. They’re filled with love for one another and life itself.
The themes at work in this poem include community and diversity. The speaker celebrates both of these and encourages the reader to see the depth of his community.
The meaning is that the Black community is not a singular entity. The poem ensures readers understand the depth of experience, love, passion, and creativity among the speaker’s “people.”
Readers who enjoyed ‘My People’ should also consider reading some other Langston Hughes poems. For example:
- ‘Beale Street Love’ – a short, powerful poem that speaks on the nature of love on Beale Street, an African American cultural hub.
- ‘Dreams’ – highlights the value of “dreams” by presenting two situations that revolve around the loss of those “dreams.”
- ‘Still Here’ – depicts struggle and weariness as well as victory and empowerment.