Langston Hughes was the preeminent black writer of his generation. From the publication of "The Negro Speaks of Rivers" in 1921 until THE PANTHER AND THE LASH appeared in 1967, the year of his death, his was the voice which expressed most profoundly the joys and sorrows of his people. He was amazingly prolific, publishing dozens of books and hundreds of poems as well as innumerable plays, song lyrics, stories, articles, and tributes. FIRE!! was the concrete manifestation of his artistic credo, first articulated in 1926, a few months before FIRE!! itself appeared:
We younger Negro artists who create now intend to express our individual dark-skinned selves without fear or shame. If white people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, it doesn't matter. We know we are beautiful. And ugly, too. The tom-tom cries and the tom-tom laughs. If colored people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, their displeasure doesn't matter either. We build our temples for tomorrow, strong as we know how, and we stand on top of the mountain, free within ourselves.
His contribution to FIRE!!, the poem "Elevator Boy," captures perfectly that ironic apathy which so often masks rage and pain: a detachment completely genuine, but not at all as simple as it seems.