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Langston Hughes
Wave of sorrow,
Do not drown me now:
I see the island
Still ahead somehow.
I see the island
And its sands are fair:
Wave of sorrow,
Take me there.

This poem by Langston Hughes is probably the shortest poem we’ve looked at in this series – just eight short lines, 30 words in all. But there is a lot happening in those 30 words!
February is Black History Month, and so it seems fitting to start this month off with a poem by Langston Hughes, one of the leading figures in American literature in the 20th century. Hughes was born in Joplin, Mississippi in 1901. His father left the family when Hughes was still an infant, and settled in Mexico City. Hughes was raised mostly in Lawrence, Kansas, by his maternal grandmother, who instilled in him a love for the oral tradition, and a strong sense of pride in his race and his people. Nevertheless, it was a lonely childhood. Hughes wrote: “I was unhappy for a long time, and very lonesome, living with my grandmother. Then it was that books began to happen to me, and I began to believe in nothing but books and the wonderful world in books—where if people suffered, they suffered in beautiful language, not in monosyllables, as we did in Kansas.” He fell in love with books and poetry.
Hughes’ father agreed to fund his education at Columbia University in New York City, on condition that his son study engineering. But Hughes was more drawn to the vibrant cultural life of Harlem. He dropped out and worked various jobs in Harlem, meanwhile dedicating more and more time to his writing. Eventually, he attended Lincoln University, where he was a classmate of Thurgood Marshall.
Hughes was a prolific writer of poetry, essays, and short stories. He was hailed, as well as criticized, for introducing authentic Black voices and jazz rhythms into his poetry. Hughes died in 1967 at the age of 66.
The poem Scott read, “Island,” is typical of Hughes in its brevity and the simplicity of its language (Hughes later said jokingly that the longest poem he ever wrote was 16 lines, written when he was serving as class poet in high school.) In Hughes’ poetry, every word matters.
“Wave of sorrow / do not drown me now.” The poem is a single extended metaphor: we do not know how the speaker ended up in these waves. Was he shipwrecked? He is almost drowning in sorrow. And yet, he can see “the island.” Is the island his destination—or just a place of safety? We don’t know; all we know is that the island is “fair” in his eyes. The poem ends, “wave of sorrow, / Take me there.”
We can read this short poem in various ways. On the one hand, it could be a purely personal subject: Hughes would not be the first poet to represent grief or depression as drowning waves. That idea goes back to the psalms: “your billows and all your waves swept over me” (Psalm 42:8). The poem could be the prayer of any who feel overwhelmed and yet still hopes for a haven, even if it is far away. On the other hand, Hughes was often described as a “spokesman” for his race, and he took that role seriously. From that perspective, the poem speaks powerfully to the struggle for racial justice which spanned Hughes’ whole lifetime. The endless disappointments, the barbarity of Jim Crow, and the seemingly limitless power of the opposition, could have crushed the spirit of resistance among Black Americans. Instead, it gave impetus to the Civil Rights Movement. The “wave of sorrow” that threatens to drown is also the wave that will carry him on to the island, to the promise.
In this poem, the waters of sorrow are both drowning waters, and the way forward. Waters were a persistent image in Hughes’ work. In his first published poem—and one of his most famous—water is a way of connecting with the Black experience. To conclude this reflection, here is Hughes himself, reading “The Negro Speaks of Rivers.”




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