Wednesday, February 01, 2012

Langston Hughes Day (Black History Month Begins)

Pastel drawing of Hughes
by Winhold Reiss
Today is the first day of Black History Month, one of many gifts that Carter G. Woodson gave to the United States. I've said before that every month should be black history month, and latino history month, and women's history month, and lgbtq history month, and so on; we should always be acknowledging the diverse and plural contributions of everyone who has created the world we live in, but unfortunately, as I need not detail, the reality is quite different, so this month still has an important role to play.

Today is also Langston Hughes's birthday. Born James Mercer Langston Hughes in 1902 in Joplin, Missouri, he went on to become one of the greatest poets in the American and African American traditions, dying in 1967.  Perhaps half a decade ago, I read and reread a large selection of Hughes' poetry with a student who was preparing for graduate oral exams, and what struck me in a way I had forgotten was not just the thematic wealth and formal breadth of Hughes's poetry, but its political ferocity, its consistent statement of resistance, its capacity for wresting beauty out of some of the ugliest moments in history, while still making sure that readers did not forget that ugliness.  Years ago when I taught junior and high school students, Hughes was one of the poets they most readily responded to. He would, I can imagine, have been proud that he was reaching young people and also helping to pave a graduate student's road to a doctorate.

Hughes's poetry well suited for today, even though the historical moment in which most of it was written is now past. The next time I participate in a Human Micropoem event I intend to read one or two of his poems, which are well suited for the public repetition style the Human Mic requires. But it's also the case that his poetry remains so salient and so relevant because so much of what it portrays, describes, invokes, and evokes, sometimes with lacerating grace, is still with us, has not yet fully passed. The struggles for bread and equality here, for freedom and democracy overseas, for communities bridging the numerous barriers that divide us, have hardly ceased. We have a ways to go. Hughes was aware of that. His poetry is aware of this and can make us aware of this. His aegis is one that poets and politicians and everyone else today would do well to acknowledge.

Hughes with students in Atlanta
during Negro History Week 1947
(Photo: Griffith J. Davis)

Here are several very short Hughes poems, which still pack a punch:


The past has been a mint
Of blood and sorrow.
That must not be
True of tomorrow.


It would be nice
In any case,
To someday meet you
Face to face
Walking down
The road to hell...
As I come up
feeling swell.

Go Slow

Go slow, they say-
while the bite
Of the dog is fast.
Go slow, I hear-
While they tell me
You can't eat here!
You can't live here!
You can't work here!
Don't Demonstrate! Wait!-
While they lock the gate.
Am I supposed to be God,
Or an angel with wings
And a halo on my head
While jobless I starve to dead?
Am I supposed to forgive
And meekly live
Going slow, slow, slow,
Slow, slow, slow,
Slow, slow,

All poems Copyright © The Estate of Langston Hughes, 2011. All rights reserved.

No comments:

Post a Comment