Langston Hughes has been on mind all week. One can only imagine what he might have been inspired to write. Throughout the course of his life (1902-1967), Hughes wrote movingly, painfully, and honestly about blacks in America, in poetry, plays, essays, and stories. He was inspired by American poets Walt Whitman, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Claude McKay, and Carl Sandburg (“my guiding star”, Hughes called him).
In a 1947 article, “My Adventures as a Social Poet”, Langston Hughes wrote,
Poets who write mostly about love, roses and moonlight, sunsets and snow, must lead a very quiet life. Seldom, I imagine, does their poetry get them into difficulties. Beauty and lyricism are really related to another world, to ivory towers, to our head in the clouds, feet floating off the earth.
Unfortunately, having been born poor — and colored — in Missouri, I was stuck in the mud from the beginning. Try as I might to float off into the clouds, poverty and Jim Crow would grab me by the heels, and right back on earth I would land. A third floor furnished room is the nearest thing I have ever had to an ivory tower.
Some of my earliest poems were social poems in that they were about people’s problem’s — whole groups of people’s problems — rather than my own personal difficulties. Sometimes, though, certain aspects of my personal problems happened to be also common to many other people. And certainly, racially speaking, my own problems of adjustment to American life were the same as those of millions of other segregated Negroes. The moon belongs to everybody, but not this American earth of ours. That is perhaps why poems about the moon perturb no one, but poems about color and poverty do perturb many citizens. Social forces pull backwards or forwards, right or left, and social poems get caught in the pulling and hauling. …
After detailing some of his experiences and including some poetry, Hughes concluded,
So goes the life of a social poet. I am sure none of these things would ever have happened to me had I limited the subject mater of my poems to roses and moonlight. But, unfortunately, I was born poor — and colored — and almost all the prettiest roses I have see have been in rich white people’s yards — not in mine. That is why I cannot write exclusively about roses and moonlight — for sometimes in the moonlight my brothers see a fiery cross and a circle of Klansmen’s hoods. Sometimes in the moonlight a dark body swings from a lynchng tree — but for his funeral there are no roses.
One essay about Langston Hughes I remember reading, Arnold Rampersad‘s “Unwearied Blues” for PEN on the centennial of Hughes’ birth, came to mind when I read a recent Guardian Books Blog post, “Presidents who write well, lead well” by Rob Woodard. Here are the two bits:
From “Unwearied Blues”,
Langston Hughes loved books. During his lonely childhood, while he was living with his aged grandmother, books comforted him. “Then it was,” he confessed, “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.”
From “Presidents who write well, lead well”,
Given what I do for a living, I suppose it’s only natural that I have a high degree of respect for those who write well. Good writing very often signals a strong intellect and in many cases a deep vision. It also shows its author to be a person of some discipline, in that even those who are born with a great deal of talent in this area still usually have to work hard and make sacrifices to develop their abilities. All of which is making me giddy at the prospect of Barack Obama’s coming presidency.
For Poetry Friday today, I offer a selection of the poems of Langston Hughes.
I, Too (1925)
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.
* * *
Let America Be America Again (1938)
Let America be America again.
Let it be the dream it used to be.
Let it be the pioneer on the plain
Seeking a home where he himself is free.
(America never was America to me.)
Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed–
Let it be that great strong land of love
Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme
That any man be crushed by one above.
(It never was America to me.)
O, let my land be a land where Liberty
Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,
But opportunity is real, and life is free,
Equality is in the air we breathe.
(There’s never been equality for me,
Nor freedom in this “homeland of the free.”)
Say, who are you that mumbles in the dark?
And who are you that draws your veil across the stars?
I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart,
I am the Negro bearing slavery’s scars.
I am the red man driven from the land,
I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek–
And finding only the same old stupid plan
Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.
I am the young man, full of strength and hope,
Tangled in that ancient endless chain
Of profit, power, gain, of grab the land!
Of grab the gold! Of grab the ways of satisfying need!
Of work the men! Of take the pay!
Of owning everything for one’s own greed!
I am the farmer, bondsman to the soil.
I am the worker sold to the machine.
I am the Negro, servant to you all.
I am the people, humble, hungry, mean–
Hungry yet today despite the dream.
Beaten yet today — O, Pioneers!
I am the man who never got ahead,
The poorest worker bartered through the years.
Yet I’m the one who dreamt our basic dream
In the Old World while still a serf of kings,
Who dreamt a dream so strong, so brave, so true,
That even yet its mighty daring sings
In every brick and stone, in every furrow turned
That’s made America the land it has become.
O, I’m the man who sailed those early seas
In search of what I meant to be my home–
For I’m the one who left dark Ireland’s shore,
And Poland’s plain, and England’s grassy lea,
And torn from Black Africa’s strand I came
To build a “homeland of the free.”
Who said the free? Not me?
Surely not me? The millions on relief today?
The millions shot down when we strike?
The millions who have nothing for our pay?
For all the dreams we’ve dreamed
And all the songs we’ve sung
And all the hopes we’ve held
And all the flags we’ve hung,
The millions who have nothing for our pay–
Except the dream that’s almost dead today.
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,
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!
* * *
Words Like Freedom
There are words like Freedom
Sweet and wonderful to say.
On my heart-strings freedom sings
All day everyday.
There are words like Liberty
That almost make me cry.
If you had known what I know,
You would know why.
* * *
My People (1923)
The night is beautiful,
So the faces of my people.
The stars are beautiful,
So the eyes of my people.
Beautiful, also, is the sun.
Beautiful, also, are the souls of my people.
* * *
Colored child at carnival
Where is the Jim Crow section
On this merry-go-round,
Mister, cause I want to ride?
Down South where I come from
White and colored
Can’t sit side by side.
Down South on the train
There’s a Jim Crow car.
On the bus we’re put in the back —
But there ain’t no back
To a merry-go-round!
Where’s the horse
For a kid that’s black?
* * *
Mother to Son (1922)
Well, son, I’ll tell you:
Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.
It’s had tacks in it,
And boards torn up,
And places with no carpet on the floor—
But all the time
I’se been a-climbin’ on,
And reachin’ landin’s,
And turnin’ corners,
And sometimes goin’ in the dark
Where there ain’t been no light.
So boy, don’t you turn back.
Don’t you set down on the steps
‘Cause you finds it’s kinder hard.
Don’t you fall now—
For I’se still goin’, honey,
I’se still climbin’,
And life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.
* * *
One-Way Ticket (1949)
I pick up my life
And take it with me
And I put it down in
Any place that is
North and East —
And not Dixie.
I pick up my life
And take it on the train
To Los Angeles, Bakersfield,
Seattle, Oakland, Salt Lake,
Any place that is
North and West —
But not South.
I am fed up
With Jim Crow laws,
People who are cruel
Who lynch and run,
Who are scared of me
And me of them.
I pick up my life
And take it away
On a one-way ticket —
Gone up North,
Gone out West,
* * *
Dream Boogie (1951)
Good morning, daddy!
Ain’t you heard
The boogie-woogie rumble
Of a dream deferred?
You’ll hear their feet
Beating out and beating out a —
It’s a happy beat?
Listen to it closely:
Ain’t you heard
like a —
What did I say?
Take it away!
* * *
As I Grew Older (1926)
It was a long time ago.
I have almost forgotten my dream.
But it was there then,
In front of me,
Bright like a sun —
And then the wall rose,
Between me and my dream.
Rose slowly, slowly,
The light of my dream.
Rose until it touched the sky —
I am black.
I lie down in the shadow.
No longer the light of my dream before me,
Only the thick wall.
Only the shadow.
My dark hands!
Break through the wall!
Find my dream!
Help me to shatter this darkness,
To smash this night,
To break this shadow
Into a thousand lights of sun,
Into a thousand whirling dreams
* * *
For more on Langston Hughes:
The Voice of Langston Hughes; CD from Smithsonian Folkways, recorded by Moses Asch, featuring works from
Langston Hughes: Voice of the Poet; Hughes reads his poetry (audiobook, with accompanying book)
The Essential Langston Hughes; more of Hughes reading his poetry, from Caedmon
The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes, edited by Arnold Rampersad
Poetry for Young People: Langston Hughes, edited by David Roessel and Arnold Rampersad
Langston Hughes by Milton Meltzer, a children’s biography by Hughes’ friend and writing partner, published the year after his death
Langston Hughes: American Poet by Alice Walker, illustrated by Catherine Deeter; children’s picture book biography
The Dream Keeper and Other Poems by Langston Hughes; his poetry collection for young people, illustrated by Brian Pinckney
A Pictorial History of African Americans (1995) by Langston Hughes and Milton Meltzer; the most recently revised edition of what was originally published as A Pictorial History of the Negro in America (1956), and then A Pictorial History of Black Americans (1973)
The Glory of Negro History (1955), Langston Hughes’ spoken word history on Folkway Records
The Story of Jazz (1954), Langston Hughes’ spoken word musical history on Folkway Records
* * *