Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Poems 1921-1930 by Langston Hughes

Source of book: I own the complete poems of Langston Hughes

This is my official choice for Black History Month this year.

Here is the list of Black History Month selections since I started this blog, and also some related books:

2016:   Go Tell It On The Mountain by James Baldwin
    Black Boy (American Hunger) by Richard Wright

Other notable books by African American or African authors:

Poems by Phillis Wheatley
Zone One by Colson Whitehead
I Greet The Dawn (Poems) by Paul Laurence Dunbar
Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

Books on Black History by other authors:

The Slaves’ War by Andrew Ward


I remember discovering Langston Hughes in high school, although, honestly, I cannot remember exactly which poem it was - two and a half decades tend to do that. However, I can say with confidence that it was a revelation to re-discover “Let America Be America Again” in the aftermath of election of an openly white nationalist candidate in 2016. In any case, I do enjoy Langston Hughes.

I also will be performing a song cycle by Robert Owens, Fields of Wonder, with texts from the poems of Langston Hughes, this weekend. Good stuff.

Hughes was part of the Harlem Renaissance, a great flowering of the arts among the African American community in Harlem, New York City, in the 1920s. It is interesting that this took place during the same period as the revival of the Ku Klux Klan (the “second” KKK). Causation is tricky, but it seems plausible that insecure whites felt threatened by the entry of black artists and art into the mainstream.

I have long been fascinated by the Harlem Renaissance, because of the high quality that was produced, and also the sense of community that bridged class divides within the movement. It is easy to see the influence that Duke Ellington, W.E.B Du Bois, Zora Neale Hurston, Marian Anderson, and so many more have had on art, music, and writing throughout the 20th and 21st Centuries. Langston Hughes too was influential, and remains one of the best loved poets of the era.

I am slowly accumulating an extensive poetry collection for my own library, and as part of my poetry project, I am systematically reading poetry. In this case, I started at the beginning, with Hughes’ first decade of poems. Obviously, I intend to return and read through the rest later.

This collection is both expected and unexpected. Certainly, I expected the many poems about the African American experience - Hughes is rightly renowned for bringing the Harlen culture to life. I also expected his more lyrical and descriptive poems. What I did not expect was that quite a few would be on the topic of suicide. There are quite a few, and they are from the perspective of someone either contemplating or doing the deed. Sometimes, these are circumstantial: the speaker has suffered some heartbreak or hardship, and contemplates ending it all. Some are just the speaker’s intent and mindset. A bit chilling in many instances. Fortunately, whatever ideation Hughes had in his youth led merely to some haunting poetry, rather than his untimely death at his own hands.

The other thing I did not expect was that Hughes wrote many poems in the form of blues lyrics. These are quite good - you could set them to a 12 bar framework and they would fit perfectly in meter and mood. I’ll quote some of these.

One more thing I will mention is that Hughes doesn’t sugar coat anything. All the dark parts of our human experience are in these poems, from domestic violence to rape to poverty to despair. But there are also the positives too. Hughes is unashamed of his race, and expresses pride at the African American spirit, their experiences and hardships, and their resilience. He stands up in the face of a reinvigorated white supremacy with his head high, his gaze dead ahead, and doesn’t apologize for anything.

Here are the poems that particularly stood out.


When the old junk man Death
Comes to gather up our bodies
And toss them into the sack of oblivion,
I wonder if he will find
The corpse of a white multi-millionaire
Worth more pennies of eternity,
Than the black torso of
A Negro cotton-picker.

Short and sweet. We all take up our five or six feet of earth in the end, right?

The Negro Speaks of Rivers

I’ve known rivers:
I’ve known rivers ancient as the world and older than the
    flow of human blood in human veins.

My soul has grown deep like the rivers.

I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young.
I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep.
I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it.
I heard the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln
    went down to New Orleans, and I’ve seen its muddy
    bosom turn all golden in the sunset.

I’ve known rivers:
Ancient, dusky rivers.

My soul has grown deep like the rivers.

This one is rightly regarded as one of his best. Every time I read it, it gives me a thrill.

The next one is rather uncomfortable. But true, which is why it is uncomfortable.


It is we who are liars:
The Pretenders-to-be who are not
And the Pretenders-not-to-be who are.
It is we who use words
As screens for thoughts
And weave dark garments
To cover the naked body
Of the too white Truth.
It is we with the civilized souls
Who are liars.

I love how Hughes uses multiple layers of meaning in this one. Dark garments, white truth. Truth offends us because it is too bright. It is also white in the sense of light and darkness. And “white” truth may well have the meaning of what whites believe or wish to be true, or perhaps the truth of white supremacy which has been endemic to American society since the first slave was brought here. And certainly acting “civilized” has during my lifetime served to cover some real ugliness which became obvious once the dark garments were removed.

I, Too

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.
Nobody’ll dare
Say to me,
“Eat in the kitchen,”

They’ll see how beautiful I am
And be ashamed—

I, too, am America.

This classic was certainly one of the first Langston Hughes poems I experienced. And, for much of my life, I lived under the illusion that most people I knew agreed with it. It was quite the shock in the last two years to realize that in fact a great many people I know do not agree. And those people have dedicated a lot of political capital to ensure that America does not in fact become any browner than it is. The foundational truth that we are all America runs contrary to the goals of a shockingly high percentage of our population. I do not believe it is a majority overall, but it appears to be among conservative whites at least. That makes me sad.

But regardless, “I, Too” remains an inspiring poem to me, and I hope I live to see it truly come to pass.

In some cases, Hughes gets openly political - and in ways that would have him categorized with modern day protesters. Here is one of those:

God to Hungry Child

Hungry child,
I didn't make this world for you.
You didn't buy any stock in my railroad.
You didn't invest in my corporation.
Where are your shares in standard oil?
I made the world for the rich
And the will-be-rich
And the have-always-been-rich.
Not for you.

Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the church of Ayn Rand, commonly known as the modern GOP.

On a related note, this one resonates with me: it is how I feel about my former faith tradition, which appears to take its morality not from the Holy Writ, but from Fox News and Brietbart.

To Certain “Brothers”

You sicken me with lies,
With truthful lies.
And with your pious faces.
And your wide, out-stretched,
   mock-welcome, Christian hands.
While underneath
Is dirt and ugliness,
And rotting hearts,
And wild hyenas howling
In your soul's wasteland.

Because ultimately, there is no welcome. There is no use for the poor, the immigrant, the brown, or for those outside the political tribe. That much was made clear to me on my way out the door.

How about some blues? Langston Hughes wrote literally dozens of blues lyrics during this decade, any of which would be worth quoting. I picked one, but could have quoted many more.

Midwinter Blues

In the middle of the winter,
Snow all over the ground.
In the middle of the winter,
Snow all over the ground —
'Twas the night befo' Christmas
My good man turned me down.

Don't know's I'd mind his goin'
But he left me when the coal was low.
Don't know's I'd mind his goin'
But he left when the coal was low.
Now, if a man loves a woman
That ain't no time to go.

He told me that he loved me
But he must a been tellin' a lie.
He told me that he loved me.
He must a been tellin' a lie.
But he's the only man I'll
Love till the day I die.

I'm gonna buy me a rose bud
An' plant it at my back door,
Buy me a rose bud,
Plant it at my back door,
So when I'm dead they won't need
No flowers from the store.

I’m a classical musician for the most part, but I enjoy a wide variety of music. Over the last couple of decades, I have come to appreciate the blues more and more. It is no exaggeration to say that all of the truly “American” musical forms are African American in origin. Heck, no less a luminary than Antonin Dvorak, after his tour of the US in the 1890s, wrote a series of articles urging American composers to look to the music of African Americans for the true American sound. And so it was. From Ragtime to Jazz to Rock to Hip Hop, the innovation has come from there. Perhaps, as Dvorak realized, power and privilege may well be able to buy good music, but it cannot invent it. Music comes from the depths of the soul - and from ordinary people with hard lives. I am not a composer, and never will be, but I can at least take musical ideas and add my own soul to the music. And thus, I love blues improvisation. It is challenging and rewarding, and speaks to a part of me in a special way.

The blues aren’t the only music that makes it into Hughes’ poems. He was a pioneer of “Jazz Poetry,” and the sounds of the speakeasies and street music pervade many of his works. Here is an example:

Lennox Avenue: Midnight

The rhythm of life
Is a jazz rhythm,
The gods are laughing at us.
The broken heart of love,
The weary, weary heart of pain,-
To the rumble of street cars,
To the swish of rain.
Lenox Avenue,
And the gods are laughing at us.

I’ll finish with this short poem, which is one of my favorites.


Desire to us
Was like a double death,
Swift dying
Of our mingled breath,
Of an unknown strange perfume
Between us quickly
In a naked

Just wow. Sometimes a poet just speaks in a way that goes beyond the actual words of the poem. The picture, the things left unsaid, the meaning in the margins. I love this poem.

I started my Black History Month reading with poetry, and I still find that it is one of the most powerful expressions of truth and beauty and meaning. The voices of the Harlem Renaissance still seem fresh and timeless today. Langston Hughes is a good poet to start with, but there are many others. If you haven’t spent some time reading them, what are you waiting for?

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