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Author: Michael Paul

Ink Speaks

Although Langston Hughes was by no means the only voice of the Harlem Renaissance, he had an immense amount of influence in his objectives to portray the reality of America at the time. One poem of his that particularly stood out to me was “Will V-Day Be Me-Day Too.” In this poem, Hughes says, “When we see Victory’s glow, Will you still let old Jim Crow” showing his commitment to his country but also identifying what he is actually fighting for (and how ugly it might be). He later equates black oppression to the oppression of the “Germans to the Jews.” Clearly, Hughes is describing immense problems with America at the time. He is patriotic but recognizes that there is still a long way to go for the American dream. “America was never America to me” is another line that stood out for this reason. Hughes clearly has a well-defined sense of what America should be in his mind, even if reality doesn’t fit his expectations. He is still optimistic about the future but realizes that it takes effort to create the America he wants. Hughes’ poetry works to close the gap between his (and many others’) dreams and the actuality of what America realistically is.

What made Hughes unique and possibly what caused his poems to be so well known today is that he takes a unique take on America. He is both hopeful, but realistic; crude and refined in his diction. This is probably why his works appealed to such a diverse crowd. He uses lingo that is representative of the black community at the time in his well structured and poems and works, clearly showing his education at Columbia University. It is easy to understand the purpose of his poems at a quick glance but it takes a much deeper effort to realize his genius. Hughes is clearly a part of high culture today with influences that span much wider categories. J.I.D., for example, is a rapper from Atlanta who has, on multiple occasions, claimed he is heavily influenced by Langston Hughes. With such a wide influence today, I wonder how his works were received in the early to mid 20th Century or if Hughes ever knew the impact he had. Like many of the artists mentioned in “Or Does it Explode,” it would make sense that the conflicting responses Hughes received at the time are a testament to the power of his written word and of him as a prominent figure.

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The Timeless Influence of Art

When it was first published in 1852, Uncle Tom’s Cabin reached an array of audiences differently quite differently. Although only 1.5% of the non-slave population read the book, its influence was much further reaching. Reactions varied considerably, ranging from ridiculing the book for its inaccurate depiction of slavery to praising it for its message that was quite unpopular for the time. Especially considering that most slaves were illiterate, it took decades before Uncle Tom’s Cabin moved from its place in low or pop culture to the high culture it is treated as in the classroom now. 

Part of the reason the book might not have been as accepted during the time it was written is that it resonated positively with a small subset of the audience. As Hagood discusses, Stowe would have been able to reach a larger audience if she sympathized more with the plight of women. While this would have reached a wider audience and potentially received a more positive appraisal in the mid 19th century, it would have taken away from the purpose of Stowe’s writing. Humans construct their reality through storytelling, and although Stowe’s depiction of slavery illustrated “colors that make up the picture but not the world of ours,” it contributed to its overall reception, especially in the long-term. Stowe clearly did not want to accurately depict slavery because people already knew what it was like – they lived through it at the time. By exaggerating and focusing on the worst aspects, Uncle Tom’s Cabin was able to resonate more deeply with its readers, whether positively or negatively. 

The book struck the emotions of the nation. Some were outraged and some were moved to improve the world, but overall, there was a strong set of reactions, which Stowe was probably looking for. Any publicity is good publicity and Uncle Tom’s Cabin started a conversation that never ended and perhaps even influenced Abraham Lincoln’s movement towards abolition. Because of Stowe, I am even writing about her work today, nearly 150 years later. In my mind, that is a success and proves that the most influential works don’t have to be the most accurate. Digging into the purpose of a creation may take time to get the point across, but if you go deep enough, the answer lies within.

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The Connection of Legitimacy and Popularity

Clearly, Shakespeare had a deep knowledge of historical and pop-culture events that allowed him to write in-depth and thought-provoking plays during his time. One of these was Richard II, a historical play about Richard II (clever title, right?). What is unique about this play is that it seems to be relevant during all time periods. There is always the problem of establishing legitimacy for leaders, and there will always be dissatisfied a dissatisfied public (at least partially). 

I immediately noticed a connection between the content in Richard II and the 2016 presidential election. In both, there is a power grab from an outside individual, whether that by Henry, who was not initially in a position to grab power, or Donald Trump, who had no previous experience in politics. Both leaders were viewed as a solution to problems that fell under both of their previous leaders, and both found legal ways to become a formal leader, despite possible opposition from the public. It is true that legitimacy and popularity are tightly connected since both mentioned leaders became large debating points. Trump’s ability to win the presidential election, despite losing the popular vote is a partial reason why his legitimacy may be questioned. One of the main differences between the leader-follower relationship in Richard II and America today is that it is much more difficult now to overthrow a leader. Legally, Trump is a legitimate leader, but if he begins to lose popularity, then there is the option to elect another more popular leader.

This relationship between legitimacy and popularity has another recent example with the election of George W. Bush. Like Trump, Bush also lost the popular vote but was still able to win the electoral college. Over time, like most presidents, Bush’s popularity declined, but he was able to improve his popularity with the start of a “war” – the War on Terror. There is a clear connection between this and Henry’s grab for power. When Henry’s legitimacy was questioned, he started a war as well. This constant connection between popularity and legitimacy gives rise to leadership practices that might not be in the best interest of the public. History seems to be a constant cycle between ruler and usurper as the legitimacy of leaders ebb and flow with time. This poses the interesting question of leader emergence vs effectiveness and their relationship, but that might be for another class.

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