It was only appropriate that I kick off this month of posts about black Americans with a post about the founder of Black History Month, Carter G. Woodson. Most of the people I will write about this month will not be household names, especially among white people. But, the subject of my second post is well-known black American poet Langston Hughes, who I chose for personal reasons.
Why I chose Langston Hughes
When my mother passed away in 2000, a collection of Hughes’ poetry was on her bedside table; for her obituary, I used his poem Teacher (read it below.) I leafed through that book, trying to gain an understanding of what my mom was thinking about in her final days. My mother had always celebrated black culture, in large part because she was raised in the East Bay (Berkeley/Oakland) and sang gospel with her POC friends. Much of the music playing in our house when I was a kid was Robert Johnson, Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, and Mahalia Jackson. Despite growing up in a place with few black people (see the note below), I was taught to appreciate black culture. But, even so, it was significant to me that the days leading up to her death were partly spent immersed in poetry that beautifully describes the nuances of black American life and culture – its beauty, pain, and frustrations. It accentuated the importance she placed on the art and music created by black Americans. This is when I became more intentional in seeking to better understand this community of people with whom I had (to that point) limited personal experiences.
Now…About Langston Hughes
James Mercer Langston Hughes was born in Missouri in 1902. Both of Hughes’ paternal great-grandmothers were slaves and both of his paternal great-grandfathers were white slave owners. His parents divorced when he was young, and his father moved to Mexico. For many years as a child, while his mother traveled looking for work, Hughes lived in Kansas with his grandmother. She was the first black woman to attend Oberlin College in Ohio, and she deeply influenced Hughes’ life-long racial pride.
He began writing poetry in grammar school, and expanded to include short stories and plays in high school. In 1921, he moved to New York City to attend Columbia University, but he left school after one year because of racial prejudice among students and teachers. Hughes became a seaman, which took him to Africa, Holland, France, and Italy. He then returned to the US, landing in Philadelphia to finish his degree at Lincoln University. He continued to travel his entire life, visiting Cuba, Haiti, the Soviet Union, Central Communist Asia, and Japan. In the 1930s, he spent time in Spain while working as a correspondent for the Baltimore Afro-American, covering the civil war. It’s no wonder why he titled his second autobiography I Wonder as I Wander.
Hughes became recognized as one of the most important writers of the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s. He was the first African-American to make his living as a poet and the first to be generally accepted by the all-white literary establishment. His first acclaimed poem, The Negro Speaks of Rivers, was written before he went to New York, while watching the sunset reflected on the Mississippi River. It was published in W.E.B. Dubois’ Crisis magazine in June 1921, and then reprinted in Literary Digest. Interestingly, his early work was often criticized by black intellectuals because they believed he portrayed an unattractive view of black life. Truly, Hughes told the stories of real, every day black Americans in ways that reflected their culture, as well as their suffering.
“Writing in the early 20th century, Hughes avoided an intellectualized modernism or a distanced formalism for verse that was steeped in the lives of ordinary men and women. Even more than Whitman, whose evocation of the Common Man was always a little distanced—Walt didn’t actually write like the Bowery B’hoys talked. Hughes directly articulated the emotional lives of post-Emancipation African Americans.” – Smithsonian Institute, Why Langston Hughes Still Reigns as a Poet for the Unchampioned
Music had a distinct influence on his writing, as is seen specifically in his book-length poem Montage of a Dream Deferred. Hughes said of this poem: “In terms of current Afro-American popular music and the sources from which it progressed – jazz, ragtime, swing, blues, boogie-woogie, and be-bop – this poem on contemporary Harlem, like be-bop, is marked by conflicting changes, sudden nuances, sharp and impudent interjections, broken rhythms, and passages sometimes in the manner of a jam session, sometimes the popular song, punctuated by the riffs, runs, breaks, and disc-tortions of the music of a community in transition.”
Hughes’s far-left radical politics, his travels to the Soviet Union and Communist Asia, and his vocalized objections to the treatment of blacks in America made him suspect in the eyes of anti-Communist Senator Joseph McCarthy. In 1953, Hughes was called to testify before the Senate Permanent Sub-Committee on Investigations. After Hughes’ lengthy statement detailing what it was like to be black in America, the Subcommittee dismissed him. Sadly, when Hughes published Selected Poems, it was missing the politically-charged poems that caught the attention of McCarthy.
Hughes entered the literary scene at a young age and was prolific in his writing throughout his life. He published:
- two autobiographies
- 16 volumes of poetry
- three short story collections
- two novels
- nine children’s books
- 20 plays
- numerous scripts for radio, television and film
- translations of the works of Jacques Roumain, Nicolás Guillén and Federico García Lorca
- And, a 500-page collection of correspondence with friends, fans and publishers called Selected Letters of Langston Hughes, published in 2015
Hughes’ residence at 20 East 127th Street in Harlem has been given landmark status by the New York City Preservation Commission, and East 127th Street has been renamed “Langston Hughes Place.”
Teacher, by Langston Hughes
Ideals are like the stars,
Always above our reach.
Humbly I tried to learn,
More humbly did I teach.
On all honest virtues
I sought to keep firm hold.
I wanted to be a good man
Though I pinched my soul.
But now I lie beneath cool loam
Forgetting every dream;
And in this narrow bed of earth
No lights gleam.
In this narrow bed of earth
Star-dust never scatters,
And I tremble lest the darkness teach
Me that nothing matters.
Edit: I recommend you listen to Weary Blues, an album where Hughes recites poetry over jazz composed and arranged by Charles Mingus and Leonard Feather, released in 1958. Click here for the first track, Blues Montage. (Thanks to my friend Peter for sharing this.)
Photo of Langston Hughes (above) was taken in 1943 by Gordon Parks (who I featured in a post on February 23.)
Side Note about Santa Fe County Population
The 2010 census puts the population of Santa Fe County at 144,170, with 1.2%, or 1,730 people, being black/African American. I grew up in Santa Fe County in the 1980s/1990s, when the population was 75,360 to 98,928, which, if the percentages were the same, would have meant only 904 to 1,187 black people lived there at that time.