Langston Hughes (1902-1967) was a famous African-American poet, social activist, novelist and playwright and was recognized as an important literary figure who lived during the time of worldwide racial oppression and discrimination against the blacks. He was born on 1st of February, 1902 in Joplin, Missouri. Langston was involved in the Civil Rights Movement and also wrote protest poetry. He believed that poetry and art can bring out about changes and equality in a society. He was also a part of the Harlem Renaissance as one of the first poets to promote African-American culture, such as the jazz music, known for its free flow and expression. Langston Hughes was very much concerned about creating the African-American poetry as an independent genre in the world of literature.
“As I Grew Older” is a poem about the dreams that the poet was unable to achieve because of racial subjugation and discrimination. The poet, in his childhood, had dreams but as time passed and he grew up, he was subjected to racial prejudice and oppression.
Langston Hughes ‘As I Grew Older’ begins about a dream that the poet had ‘long time ago.’ The poet says his dream, bright as the sun, was right in front of him until a wall rose between him and his dream. The poet is an old man now and he is thinking about his dream which he dreamt long time ago. He thinks he has almost forgotten his dream. He remembers that his dream was not fulfilled as a strong barrier was created by his fellow white people who will not let his dream come true. The wall seems to grow forever and ever and it has become it has become so taller that it ‘rose until it touched the sky.’ The dream which was as bright as the sun has now turned dark. The wall has become a long dark shadow and has been blocking his dream. The dream being replaced by a shadow, the poet has become black.
The poet lies down beside the shadow which means he feels defeated and helpless. He finds that his dream is no longer above him and so he feels vanquished. Instead of his dreams, he finds the ‘thick wall’ and the ‘shadow’ above him. A plausible interpretation can be that the dream of freedom and independence is no longer real for the blacks and it has been overshadowed by the wall created by the fellow white people.
‘Dark hands’ refers to the poet’s own hands, the color of his skin, who will be able to ‘break through the wall’ and ‘find his dream.’
The poet wants to break the wall and shatter the darkness that is keeping him from attending his dream. He wants to break the shadow into thousand lights of sun and thousands of whirling dreams.
THEME: The poem is in negative effects of racism, prejudice and discrimination. It is a comment on any form of racial oppression where one is unable to achieve their dreams, whether it is because of age, gender, nationality or religion. The poem puts up a message that we should believe in ourselves and stand up against the unjust society and rise above any sort of discrimination.
The tone/mood of the poem, ‘As I Grew Older’, keeps changing as the poem progresses. In lines 1-6, the tone in the speaker’s voice is optimistic, naïve and innocent. In the next lines 7-16, the tone turns into a depressing, angry one. Lines 17-23, show a sign of pessimism and anger in the speaker’s voice. Finally in the lines 24-33, there is hope and the whole stanza expresses that he can still achieve his dream.
The poem’s changing tone signifies the speaker’s changing perspective on life as he moves from childhood to adulthood. Lines 1-6 show the speaker’s viewpoint when he was a child. Lines 7-16 reflect the change in the speaker’s viewpoint. Lines 24-33 show the present perspective of the speaker, that the time when the poem was composed.
The poem is composed in one stanza in free verse with irregularity in the length of the lines and no specific rhyme scheme. Diction used is very simple and lucid which makes the words important and the themes clear to the readers. since there is no regular rhyming scheme, the poet has used repetition of many words like dream, shadow, rose, dark, hands, thousands, sun and so on.
The poem, ‘As I Grew Older’, has a blend of powerful mix of light and dark images.
‘Light’ symbolizes dreams, hopes, optimism, possibilities, goodness, intellectual achievements and awareness. On the other hand, ‘darkness’ symbolizes prejudice, discrimination, hatred, racism, evil and ignorance.
The use of the words ‘dark hands’ symbolizes the color of the poet’s skin. The poet is black and he himself makes reference to his ‘dark hands.’ The speaker believes that he can break through the barrier of being born with a darker skin tone in a white society. ‘I am black’ and ‘my dark hands’ are examples of blunt truthfulness used by the poet in his poem, ‘As I Grew Older.’
The height of the ‘wall’ has been exaggerated to stress the vastness of the hindrances that was confronting the black people during the days of racial oppression in America.
The wall has been used as a metaphor. The wall is presented as an obstacle to the poet’s dream. The obstacle is racism and discrimination against the blacks. The poet feels defeated but at the same time he is not going to give up his dream. His ‘dark hands’ will help him to shatter the metaphoric wall which has been created by the whites and will destroy hatred and racism.
USE OF EXCLAMATION:
The poet has used five exclamatory marks in ‘As I Grew Older.’ Exclamations determine emotions and energy in expressing some idea. They are also used as loud commands or gestures. The use of exclamation in ‘As I Grew Older’ indicates the poet’s motivation to break out of this oppression. The verses are short yet punchy implying the speaker’s repetitive outbursts of effort.