Thursday, February 01, 2018

Black History Month/Langston Hughes Day + Poems: Nicolás Guillén & Langston Hughes

Langston Hughes in Harlem,
1959. (The LIFE Picture
Collection/Getty Images)
Happy Black History Month! February ushers in the month on the US calendar when the history, culture, and experiences of people of African descent, African Americans and all other Black peoples, in America and across the globe, occupy the foreground. As readers of J's Theater know well, every day, every month, every year here offers an opportunity to highlight the artistry, past and present experiences, and rich cultures of Black people, and to the extent that I can do so this month as every month, I intend to.

February 1 is also the birthday of arguably the greatest and most prolific African American poet, (James) Langston (Mercer) Hughes (1902-1967), a Joplin, Missouri native whose poetry transformed Black American and American literature, and who was one of the central figures in the Harlem Renaissance and a link to many of the Black American and non-US literary traditions that followed. One of the many aspects of Hughes' career that has deeply influenced me is his work as a translator; he brought into the English the drama of Spain's Federico García Lorca, the poetry of the Afrocuban luminary Nicolas Guillén, and the prose of Haitian writer Jacques Roumain.

I've previously posted one of his translations of Guillén's poems from Motivos de Son (1938), the collection that made the Cuban poet's reputation. I shared it in conjunction with my trip to Cuba,  which though 9 years ago feels like it was just yesterday. Hughes visited Cuba three times, in 1927, 1930 and 1931, before the Revolution, and as Ervin Dyer discussed in a CBS News piece, the American poet played a role in helping the country connect to its African roots, engaging in conversations with and championing the work of Afrocuban artists and writers at a time when racial discrimination there, as in the US, was rife. One of the poets he met and whom he encouraged was Guillén, who interviewed him for Diário de Marina, according to Dyer. Many stars aligned: Hughes was already famous and being translated in Cuba, Guillén's career was ascendant, and the newspaper had a page dedicated to fighting racism. Hughes would go on to translate Guillén's poetry and cultivated their friendship to the end of his life. At the same time, his presence in Cuba and his art continued to galvanize an array of Afrocuban artists working across genres.

Here is Hughes' translation of Guillén's "Little Song for the Children of the Antilles," which I screenshot from The Translations: Federico García Lorca, Nicolás Guillén, and Jacques Roumain, by Langston Hughes, edited and with an introduction by Dellita Martin-Ogunsola, Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2003.

And here is a poem Dyer mentions in his article, one of Hughes' tributes to Cuba, "To the Little Fort of San Lázaro on the Ocean Front, Havana." It is also a humorous and sarcastic critique of capitalism, especially of the predatory US kind, which had reached its tentacles deep into Cuba before Fidel Castro and the Revolution hacked it away.  We also might think of it as a fitting epigraph for a good deal of what gentrification and global capital are laying waste to today.


by Langston Hughes

Watch tower once for pirates
That sailed the sun-bright seas —
Red pirates, great romantics.


Against such as these
Years and years ago
You served quite well —
When time and ships were slow.
  But now,
Against a pirate called
What can you do alone?
Would it not be
Just as well you tumbled down,
Stone by helpless stone?

From The Collected Works of Langston Hughes: The Poems, 1921-1940, edited and with an introduction by Arnold Rampersad, Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2001. All rights reserved.

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