Photo Credit: The Wisdom Daily
American poet Langston Hughes was born in 1902. His life as a black man in such a time as this gave voice to that of many in America. Especially blacks, but to others as well who also found themselves marginalized by the powerful and influential of their day. He died much too young at 65.
I discovered his poetry in 2020…very late to the party or revolution.
Raised by a loving, Godly mom, I was taught to be color-blind regarding races of people. It turns out that didn’t prove to be healing to black friends, neighbors, and strangers on the street. Blacks whose lives had been deeply and darkly affected by a racism I simply had not learned or experienced. How could that be? Yet, it is true.
[My mom had a pure heart; I’m sure of this. She wanted to believe that there was only one race, the human race. She grew up poor, worked hard all her life, mostly making minimum wage, held her family together, and kept her faith. Much like the black women who lived in that distant, unknown part of town. She just didn’t know what was happening in government and the private sector that divided us…and diminished some. All of us, by degrees.]
Racism is wrong and must be exposed and wrestled down. I don’t believe that what has happened in the US over 2020 will move us in that direction. I could be wrong. For sure.
Still…I’m so thankful for people who, despite the wrongs done to them or around them, have flourished. Like the rising tide, raising all boats in its wake. My desire is to recognize and support those who resist street-level thuggery and use platforms that don’t divide but draw us all in.
Langston Hughes is an example of that sort of person. [Now, he died during a pivotal time in the Civil Rights Movement, a year before Martin Luther King, Jr., was killed. Had he lived longer, I don’t know how his thinking or poetry would have changed.]
I’d like to let just a few of Langston Hughes’ words speak for him:
“Looks like what drives me crazy
Don’t have no effect on you–
But I’m gonna keep on at it
Till it drives you crazy, too.”
“I swear to the Lord,I still can’t see,Why Democracy means,Everybody but me. ”
“I have discovered in life that there are ways of getting almost anywhere you want to go, if you really want to go.”
On this day, commemorating Hughes’ birthday, a friend of mine posted on Facebook the two following poems (one by Walt Whitman followed by a poem of response by Langston Hughes):
I Hear America Singing – Walt Whitman – 1819-1892
*I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear,
Those of mechanics, each one singing his as it should be blithe and strong,
The carpenter singing his as he measures his plank or beam,
The mason singing his as he makes ready for work, or leaves off work,
The boatman singing what belongs to him in his boat, the deckhand singing on the steamboat deck,
The shoemaker singing as he sits on his bench, the hatter singing as he stands,
The wood-cutter’s song, the ploughboy’s on his way in the morning, or at noon intermission or at sundown,
The delicious singing of the mother, or of the young wife at work, or of the girl sewing or washing,
Each singing what belongs to him or her and to none else,
The day what belongs to the day—at night the party of young fellows, robust, friendly,
Singing with open mouths their strong melodious songs.”*
I, Too – Langston Hughes – 1902-1967
“I, too, sing America.
I am the darker brother.
They send me to eat in the kitchen
When company comes,
But I laugh,
And eat well,
And grow strong.
I’ll be at the table
When company comes.
Say to me,
“Eat in the kitchen,”
They’ll see how beautiful I am
And be ashamed–
I, too, am America.”*
Hughes wrote about America and life as a black person in America. Especially as it related to freedom of expression:
“This is the mountain standing in the way of any true Negro art in America — this urge within the race toward whiteness, the desire to pour racial individuality into the mold of American standardization, and to be as little Negro and as much American as possible...Then there are the low-down folks, the so-called common element, and they are the majority — may the Lord be praised!…These common people are not afraid of spirituals, as for a long time their more intellectual brethren were, and jazz is their child. They furnish a wealth of colorful, distinctive material for any artist because they still hold their own individuality in the face of American standardization. And perhaps these common people will give to the world its truly great Negro artist, the one who is not afraid to be himself.” – Langston Hughes, The Weary Blues
Here, on the first day of Black History Month, in a more somber America 2021, I salute the great poet Langston Hughes. May we learn from him and from each other.
[May we also beware of those who “seem to be influential” in our culture today – those who would divide and diminish us – when we have the capacity and capability to help each other flourish…all of us. – This warning coming of all places from my reading in the Bible this early snowy morning, Galatians 2.]
I’d like to close with just an excerpt of the powerful Hughes poem “Let America Be America Again” (recited in full in the YouTube video above):
“O, let America be America again– The land that never has been yet– And yet must be–the land where every man is free. The land that’s mine–the poor man’s, Indian’s, Negro’s, ME– Who made America, Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain, Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain, Must bring back our mighty dream again. Sure, call me any ugly name you choose– The steel of freedom does not stain. From those who live like leeches on the people’s lives, We must take back our land again, America! O, yes, I say it plain, America never was America to me, And yet I swear this oath– America will be! Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death, The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies, We, the people, must redeem The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers. The mountains and the endless plain– All, all the stretch of these great green states– And make America again! “
I Dream a World – Langston Hughes
*Poets – Lesson plan, which features poems by Walt Whitman, Langston Hughes and Elizabeth Alexander
10 of Langston Hughes’ Most Popular Poems – Rachel Chang
The Bold Wisdom Within Langston Hughes’ Poems – Ellen Levitt
Black Lives Mattered to Langston Hughes – Robin Bates