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Langston Hughes published “The Weary Blues” in his 1926 collection The Weary Blues, which helped establish his legacy as a leading figure in the Harlem Renaissance. The Harlem Renaissance refers to a major explosion of Black intellectual and artistic activity that erupted in the 1920s. Though centered on the Harlem neighborhood of New York City, the Renaissance had an international reach that witnessed the flowering of Black intellectual discourse, literature, visual art, music, and fashion. All these forms of cultural and artistic production sought to challenge racism, subvert predominant stereotypes, and develop a progressive new politics that advanced Black peoples and promoted integration. At the center of the Harlem Renaissance stood the figure known as the New Negro. The “Old Negro” remained hampered by the historical trauma of slavery. The “New Negro,” by contrast, possesses a renewed sense of self, purpose, and pride. Langston Hughes contributed to this vision of the “New Negro” through his poetry. In works like “The Weary Blues,” he affirmed the importance of Black cultural production and its value for Black empowerment and advancement.
Blues music holds a place of great significance in the Black American musical tradition. The significance of this musical form has to do with its origins among African-descended slaves in the Deep South. Slaves often sang songs and spirituals as they were forced to toil in plantation fields. Considering the conditions under which these songs first emerged, it’s unsurprising that their primary subject matter concerned the sorrow, pain, and suffering that slaves had to endure every day. It’s precisely this melancholy that gives the blues its name. And yet, despite the pain and suffering expressed in the music, the blues occupies a place of central importance in the Black American music tradition. For one thing, blues provided the musical foundations for the many types of jazz that arose in the twentieth century. The blues also featured prominently in the work of W. E. B. Du Bois. His landmark book from 1903, The Souls of Black Folk, included a chapter on Black “sorrow songs” that proved influential to many figures in the Harlem Renaissance, Langston Hughes included. “The Weary Blues” honors the legacy of blues music by recognizing the pain it channels as well as the sense of meaning and belonging it inspires.