For Black History Month I wanted to write about one of the most important poets in American history, Langston Hughes. With the current political climate being in a state of perpetual unrest with growing fascism at its forefront, it is especially important to realize that the racial problems within the United States have been systematically ever present long before this election. People of color, immigrants, and indigenous people have faced extreme injustices that have not only continued to bleed into contemporary society as it is today, but bring to light the privilege of those of us that are shocked by the corruption that is allowed to occur in the country, for not everyone has the luxury of being surprised. Black History Month is still incredibly essential and necessary, as the struggles, accomplishments, and contributions of black people are still vastly underrepresented in mainstream culture. It is also pertinent to remember that expanding one’s world view should not be limited to a single month, and it should be lifelong goal to continue learning about other people and their journeys.
Langston Hughes has quickly become one of my favorite poets, for although I was aware of him before, it is only very recently that I have dove into his poetry and had the realization that he’s an absolute genius. His style has a very jazz-esque type of musicality, which reflected the 20’s era he himself was immersed in, and he wrote about everyday black people in an accessible way during a time where it was not popular to write about the average black experience. He faced backlash from not only whites, but from black intellectuals who thought that it was detrimental to write about the black struggle that perpetuated the “sad” black steryotype; that they should promote their “higher selves” instead of creating more content that laid their pain out for the world to see.
His response to these critics is so telling about the kind of person he was, and to me encapsulates everything that is beautiful about Hughes’ way of looking at the world. He said,
“I sympathized deeply with those critics and those intellectuals, and I saw clearly the need for some of the kinds of books they wanted. But I did not see how they could expect every Negro author to write such books. Certainly, I personally knew very few people anywhere who were wholly beautiful and wholly good. Besides, I felt that the masses of our people had as much in their lives to put into books as did those more fortunate ones who had been born with some means and the ability to work up to a master’s degree at a Northern college. Anyway, I didn’t know the upper class Negroes well enough to write much about them. I knew only the people I had grown up with, and they weren’t people whose shoes were always shined, who had been to Harvard, or who had heard of Bach. But they seemed to me good people, too.”
I love how earnest and understanding he is, even in the face of criticism. However, his wisdom and insight about how regular people also deserve to have their stories told, and how their lives also contain goodness and multitudes strikes me the most. It shows how much he truly cares about seeing the people around him, and how much he was devoted to expressing truth. I hope to be half as talented, worldly, and authentically decent as he was.
These three poems are my favorites (so far), and every time I read them I have an intensely visceral reaction. They’re powerful, personal, and have an interesting way of being both accessable and transcendent. I love each of them so much for different reasons, and I’m incredibly excited to explore more of his works, which I recommend all of you do too. Thank you, Langston Hughes, for all of the beauteous expressions of your soul. You are deeply missed.
I am God—
Without one friend,
Alone in my purity
World without end.
Below me young lovers
Tread the sweet ground—
But I am God—
I cannot come down.
Life is love!
Love is life only!
Better to be human
Than God—and lonely.
“Theme For English B”
The instructor said,
Go home and write
a page tonight.
And let that page come out of you–
Then, it will be true.
I wonder if it’s that simple?
I am twenty-two, colored, born in Winston-Salem.
I went to school there, then Durham, then here
to this college on the hill above Harlem.
I am the only colored student in my class.
The steps from the hill lead down into Harlem,
through a park, then I cross St. Nicholas,
Eighth Avenue, Seventh, and I come to the Y,
the Harlem Branch Y, where I take the elevator
up to my room, sit down, and write this page:
It’s not easy to know what is true for you or me
at twenty-two, my age. But I guess I’m what
I feel and see and hear, Harlem, I hear you:
hear you, hear me–we two–you, me, talk on this page.
(I hear New York, too.) Me–who?
Well, I like to eat, sleep, drink, and be in love.
I like to work, read, learn, and understand life.
I like a pipe for a Christmas present,
or records–Bessie, bop, or Bach.
I guess being colored doesn’t make me not like
the same things other folks like who are other races.
So will my page be colored that I write?
Being me, it will not be white.
But it will be
a part of you, instructor.
You are white–
yet a part of me, as I am a part of you.
Sometimes perhaps you don’t want to be a part of me.
Nor do I often want to be a part of you.
But we are, that’s true!
As I learn from you,
I guess you learn from me–
although you’re older–and white–
and somewhat more free.
This is my page for English B.
“Let America Be America Again”
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!