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The Process of Langston Hughes

In the 1940s, the poet Langston Hughes was a major author who worked in many different literary forms, from poems and short stories to newspaper columns, essays, and songs. He was also a prominent public figure who produced commentaries on culture and race relations in the United States—one publisher later called him “the unchallenged spokesman of the American Negro.”

One of the pieces Hughes wrote was about African American educator Booker T. Washington. Four typewritten, marked-up drafts and a final copy of Hughes’s poem “Ballad of Booker T.” are available on the Library of Congress Web site, allowing students to follow the creative process as the poet makes changes to his work over the course of three days.

The Library of Congress shares some teaching ideas related to these artifacts:

  • Compare the drafts and the final copy to find some of the edits that Hughes made as he revised the poem.
  • How much changed between each version of the poem? Is there one draft that changes the poem most dramatically? Can students find any relationship between the dates on the drafts and the kind of changes in each version of the poem?
  • Speculate about the reasons for the author’s edits. Can students identify any possible shifts in the poem’s attitude towards Booker T. Washington?
  • Read an early draft and the final copy out loud. How have Hughes’ edits changed the way the poem sounds?
  • Speculate about why Hughes might have written this poem when he did, twenty-five years after Washington’s death.

How have you used authors’ rough drafts to help your students gain insight into the creative process?

Curious about the NCTE and Library of Congress connection? Through a grant announced recently by NCTE Executive Director Emily Kirkpatrick, NCTE is engaged in new ongoing work with the Library of Congress, and “will connect the ELA community with the Library of Congress to expand the use of primary sources in teaching.” Stay tuned for more throughout the year!