ChickenBones: A Journal
for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes
Hughes set out to do what few, regardless of race, creed, or color,
have succeeded in doing, a body of work that has given us a rich,
varied, and often vivid picture of the tops of a lot of things about
Negroes and Negro life in America; rather little at depth
about any one person, especially about himself.
Books by Langston Hughes
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Langston Hughes and Africa
By Harold R. Isaacs
Of all the poets in Harlem who sang of Africa in the 1920s, Langston Hughes was the only one who had been there. Perhaps this was why he sometimes sang of Africa in a key different from the rest:
We cry among the skyscrapers
As our ancestors
Cried among the palms in Africa
Because we are alone,
It is night,
And were afraid.
Or, in a different mood:
We should have a land of trees
Bowed down with chattering parrots
Brilliant as the day
And not this land where birds are grey.
It was more common to sing about happy Africans long dead, or imaginary Africans who never lived, but Langston Hughes saw himself trying to shake hands with live Africans, now:
We are relatedyou and I.
You from the West Indies,
I from Kentucky.
We are relatedyou and I.
You from Africa,
I from these States.
We are brothersyou and I.
As he tells it, the young poets trip to Africa happened to him like an odd chance, as unpremeditated as a line of poetry coming unbidden into his head. He had wanted simply to get away, to break from his young life up to then, and like a lot of young people who had this urge, he tried to do it by going to sea and to any far place he could reach. On the first try he got a job on a freighter tied up among the war-weary discards of the Hudson; going nowhere. He stayed aboard her for a long season; excursioning to Bear Mountain and only a few times back to Harlem. Come spring, he tried again; took the first job offered and only afterward learned that the ship was sailing for Africa. In telling this story in his autobiography, The Big Sea, Hughes does not even add an exclamation point to this discovery of his unplanned destination. The exclamations came later. At the moment what mattered was not where he was going but what he was leaving.
That night, sailing out of New York, in a scene that can stand forever as an image of youth declaring its manhood, twenty-one-year-old Hughes dumped all his books into the bay and felt that it was like dropping all his burdens, everything unpleasant and miserable out of my past . . . like throwing a million bricks out of my heart.
Langston Hughes tried to take Africa as he tried to school himself to take most things: casually, on the surface, and wherever possible, with a laugh, even a sad laugh. With Hughes this was more than a device or a literary style; it was a way of functioning, of coping with life. There was so much on the Negro surface, after all, hardly noted by anyone until he came along. Langston Hughes achieved a real uniqueness as a poet by describing the life and people of the Negro ghetto, catching them by their sights and sounds, by some of their sorrows and some of their angers, but mostly by their sardonic humors.
He achieved his effect mostly by peeling off a layer of the surface, hardly ever more than a single layer, and then usually leaving what he found there undescribed, for the reader to see and hear if he could. He molded his emotional patterns on the blues who rhythms he adopted. This mood as he explained in a prefatory note to an early volume of his poems, is almost always despondency, but when they are sung people laugh.
In addition to this, Hughes set out to do what few, regardless of race, creed, or color, have succeeded in doing, a body of work that has given us a rich, varied, and often vivid picture of the tops of a lot of things about Negroes and Negro life in America; rather little at depth about any one person, especially about himself.
Still, even under that single layer, and even to his Africa so briefly glimpsed through young eyes bright with adventure, we do learn something about Hughes if we look hard enough at what he has shown us. The exclamation points about Africa came on that first voyage when Hughes, fresh (he said) from a gay night in a love palace in Las Palmas, kept watching for the first sight of the African coast:
And when finally I saw the dust-green hills in the sunlight, something took hold of me inside. My Africa, Motherland of the Negro peoples! And me a Negro! The real thing, to be touched and seen, not merely read about in a book.
Dakar was too French and too Mohammedan, but:
farther down the coast it was more like the Africa I had dreamed aboutwild and lovely, the people dark and beautiful, the palm trees tall, the sun bright, and the rivers deep. The great Africa of my dreams!
But here, in the Africa of his dreams, the young Hughes almost immediately finds again the heaviest of the burdens that for a heady moment he had imagined dropping with his books into New York Bay. Here in Africa, where everything was dark and beautiful, we come upon Hughes touchinglightly as alwayson one of the central themes of his life:
There was one thing that hurt me a lot when I talked with the people. The Africans looked at me and would not believe I was a Negro. You see, unfortunately, I am not black.1
And this is where Hughes goes back to tell the story of his life, of his family with all its mixtures of bloods and colors, of white great-grandparents, of strains of poets and statesmen and Indian chiefs, Cherokee, Jewish, Scotch, French, and Negro forefather, whom he saw once when he was six and not again until he was seventeen. He tells of his wandering life, with his mother, migrated to Mexico to make his way because there was no color line or Jim Crow there. His father hated niggers and hated himself too, for being a Negro; he had great contempt for all poor people and valued only money made to keep.
It was while he was bound for Mexico to see his father that Hughes, just out of high school, wrote one of the best known of all his poems, The Negro Speaks of Rivers. This act of creation came out of a fusing of thoughts about his father, Negroes, himself, slavery, and his ancestors in dim and distant Africa. He was on the train out of St. Louis, he relates, and was feeling, badly over his parting from his mother (my best poems, he adds in a parenthesis, were all written when I felt the worst! When I was happy, I didnt write anything.) He goes on:
It came about in this way. All day on the train I had been thinking about my father, and his strange dislike of his own people. I didnt understand it, because I was a Negro, and I liked Negroes very much. . . . Now it was just sunset, and we crossed the Mississippi, slowly, over a long bridge. I looked out of the window of the Pullman at the great muddy river flowing down toward the heart of the South, and I began to think what that river, the old Mississippi , had meant to Negroes in the past . . . how Abraham Lincoln had made a trip down the Mississippi on a raft to New Orleans, and how he had seen slavery at its worst, and had decided within himself that it should be removed from American life.
Then I began to think about other rivers in our pastthe Congo, and the Niger, and the Nile in Africaand the thought came to me: Ive known rivers, and I put it down on the back of an envelope I had in my pocket, and within the space of ten or fifteen minutes, as the train gathered speed in the dusk, I had written this poem, which I called The Negro Speaks of River.2
Much of what made up the inner life of Langston Hughes stares out at us from the telling of this story of how he made a poem. He has told us here and elsewhere of some of its separate parts. It is of their inner connections that he has never written.
In Mexico he experienced a great crisis in his hatred for his father. The teen-age boy fell into a deep illness that no doctor could diagnose, much less cure, because Hughes preferred to lie in his expensive hospital bedhis father was paying the billsand not to tell them what was the matter with him. It was two years after this, following a try at student life at Columbia, a series of odd jobs, and his winter the dead fleet in the Hudson, that he crossed the sea and saw Africa he said he had dreamed of it:
A long sandy coastline, gleaming in the sun. Palm trees sky-tall. Rivers darkening the seas edge with the loam of their deltas. People black and beautiful as the night. The bare, pointed breasts of women in the market places. The rippling muscles of men loading palm oil and cocoa beans and mahogany on the ships of the white mans world
It was 1923, and the Africans Hughes met had heard of Marcus Garvey and they hoped that what they had heard about him was truethat he really would come and unify the black world and free and exalt Africa.
Our problems in America very much like yours, I told the Africans, especially in the South, I am a Negro, too.
But they only laughed at me and shook their heads and said: You, white man!
It was the only place in the world where Ive ever been called a white man. They looked at my copper-brown skin and straight black hairlike my grandmothers Indian hair, except a little curlyand they said: Youwhite man.
One of the laborers aboard, a Kru from Liberia who knew about these things, explained to Hughes that most nonwhites who came to Africa from abroad came to help the white man, whether as missionary or as clerk or helper in colonial governments, so the Africans call them all white men.
But I am not white, I said.
You are not black either, the Kru man said simply. There is a man of my color, and he pointed to George, the pantryman, who protested loudly.
Dont point at me, George said. Im from Lexington, Kentucky, U.S.A. And no African blood nowhere.
You black, said the Kru man.
I can part my hair, said George, and it aint nappy.
But to tell the truth, George shaved a part in his hair every other week, since the comb wouldnt work. The Kru man knew this, so they both laughed loudly, for Georges face was as African as Africa.
And then Langston Hughes adds this astonishing parenthesis:
(Yet dark as he was George always referred to himself as brown-skin and it was not until years later, when a dark-skinned minister in New Jersey denounced me to his congregation for using the word black to describe him in a newspaper article, that I realized that most dark Negroes in America do not like the word black at all. They prefer to be referred to as brownskin, or at the most as dark-brownskinno matter how dark they really are.)3
In this remarkable statement Langston Hughes, the poet whose appeal and repute was based on his sensitive awareness of the common mores of Negroes, ask his readers to believe that until the late 1920s he had no idea that Negroes had any special feelings about the word black. We are asked to imagine a youthful Hughesthe same one who wrote Weary Blues and Fine Clothes to the Jewequipped with a selective soundproofing device which kept out all Negro talk of blackness but let in all the other words and sounds and feelings out of which he made his poems. Whether this is what Hughes really remembered about himself when he wrote these words (in 1945), or whether he was deliberately misremembering, the effect is much the same: it reveals a block so deep and so important that ones first impulse is to step away from it.
But his statement is so extravagantly absurd that it becomes a revelation in itself; Hughes the writer is violently signaling that Hughes the man had some superspecial feelings himself on this subject of blackness. This becomes even clearer as we go on, because this curious little parenthesis is sandwiched in between the story of how Africans had called him a white man and the story of golden-skinned boy who came aboard at one port looking for reading matter in English. He was the son, he told Hughes, of an African woman and an Englishman who had gone back to England. Now he and his mother were ignored by the whites and shunned by the blacks.
Was it true, the boy wanted to know, that in America the black people were friendly to the mulatto people? Hughes later had a letter from the boy but never answered it because I have a way of not answering letters when I dont know what to say. Instead Hughes wrote of the encounter in a short story called African Morning. He says he had always been intrigued with this problem he also wrote several other short stories: a poem called Mulatto about which he says, I worked harder on that poem than on any other that I have ever written; and a play called Mulatto, which ran successfully on Broadway.
Langston Hughes never did write a poem about Africans calling him a white man. Instead he wrote many poems about being black, black, black.
I am a Negro:
Black as the night is black,
Black like the depths of my Africa.
In Dream Variation:
To fling my arms wide
In the face of the sun,
Dance! Whirl! Whirl!
Till the quick day is done.
Rest at pale evening
A tall slim tree
Night coming tenderly
Black like me.
Again in Me and My Song, a poem 80 words long, the world black appears nine times. A sample:
As the gentle night,
Black as the kind and quiet night,
Black as the deep and productive earth,
Out of Africa,
Strong and black
As the black night
From the dark lips
As the black night
Out of Africa,
Me and my song.
Hughes had also joined in the popular poetic pastime of beating the tom-toms:
The low beating of the tomtoms
The slow beating of the tomtoms,
Stirs your blood
But in the end he was badly tripped himself by the vogue for primitivism and the noble-savage idea. When the bright Renaissance was fading into the grey depression, Hughes had got himself a patron, a rich old lady who lived on Park Avenue. She fed him well, sent him around town in her chauffeured limousine, and generally made his life comfortable and pleasant so that he could write beautiful things. But one day he wrote a crude and angry poem contrasting the lushness of the newly opened Waldorf Astoria with the toil and growing deprivation outside. His benefactor did not like it at all. She wanted him to write out of his simple primitive soul, and poor Hughes did not know how.
She wanted me to be primitive, and know and feel the intuitions of the primitive. But unfortunately, I did not feel the rhythms and write of the primitive surging through me, and so I could not live and write as though I did. I was only an American Negrowho had loved the surface of Africa and the rhythms of Africabut I was not Africa. I was Chicago and Kansas City and Broadway and Harlem. And I was not what she wanted me to be.4
His parting from his patron threw Hughes into the second great emotional crisis of his life. As he had in Mexico in the crisis of his hatred for his father, he now again, fell violently ill. It was a complicated shame and anger he felt, and an even more complicated loss. What he did was to go home to Cleveland, to his own mother, who had always demanded much of him and given him little. In Cleveland he took to the bed which his mother and stepfather vacated for him and stayed sick until he had spent what was left of his Park Avenue money, mostly on doctors who did not know what was wrong and could do nothing for him.
Hughes was, in truth, not Africa at all. Africa had become another one of the worlds places he had liked and left. During the next ten years he circled the world and saw much of its busy surfaceRussia, China, Japan, Spain. In a second volume of his autobiography, chronicling these travel up to 1938,5 nowhere in all the pages filled with the sights he had seen and the names endlessly dropping does he again revert to the subject of Africa except in one or two incidental mentions. His notions about Africa remained mostly locked away among his old poems and old thoughts and he did not bring them out and dust them off until recent years when new Negro and world interest in Africa rose so sharply. Then he revived them all, full of their drumbeats and ancestral memories and sad yearning, and wrote some new ones in the new mood and made them all part of The Poetry of Jazz, a sequence of reading that he performs for large audiences, reciting to the accompaniment of beating drums. His new tone on Africa sounds like this:
Youve been resting awhile.
Now I see the thunder
And the lightning
In your smile.
Now I see
The storms clouds
In your waking eyes:
And the new
Your every step towards
The new stride
In your thighs.
Big roll, says the direction to the accompanying drummer, as this poem ends.
1. The Big Sea (New York, 1945), pp. 1011.
2. Ibid., pp. 5455. The poem, his first to be published outside of his high-school paper, appeared in Du Bois Crisis in June, 1921:
Ive known rivers.
Ive known rivers as 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 Ive seen it muddy bosom turn all golden
in the sunset.
Ive known rivers;
Ancient, dusky rivers.
My soul has grown deep like the rivers.
3. Ibid., pp. 102104.
4. Ibid., p. 325.
5. I Wonder as I Wander (New York, 1956).
Source: Isaacs, Harold R. The New World of Negro Americans. The John Day Co., NY 1963.
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Scholarly Books on Langston Hughes
Faith Berry. Before & Beyond Harlem: Biography of Langston Hughes. 1995.
Onwuchekwa Jemie Langston Hughes: An Introduction to the Poetry (1985)
Edward J. Mullen. Langston Hughes in the Hispanic World and Haiti (1971)
Steven C. Tracy. Langston Hughes and the Blues. 2001
R. Baxter Miller. The Art And Imagination of Langston Hughes. 2006.
Jonathan Scott Socialist Joy in the Writing of Langston Hughes. 2006
posted 4 May 2009
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By Tracy K. Smith
Tracy K. Smith, author of Life on Mars has been selected as the winner of the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. In its review of the book, Publishers Weekly noted the collection’s “lyric brilliance” and “political impulses [that] never falter.” A New York Times review stated, “Smith is quick to suggest that the important thing is not to discover whether or not we’re alone in the universe; it’s to acceptor at least endurethe universe’s mystery. . . . Religion, science, art: we turn to them for answers, but the questions persist, especially in times of grief. Smith’s pairing of the philosophically minded poems in the books first section with the long elegy for her father in the second is brilliant.” Life on Mars follows Smith’s 2007 collection, Duende, which won the James Laughlin Award from the Academy of American Poets, the only award for poetry in the United States given to support a poet’s second book, and the first Essence Literary Award for poetry, which recognizes the literary achievements of African Americans. The Bodys Question (2003) was her first published collection.
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A Novel by Jesmyn Ward
On one level, Salvage the Bones is a simple story about a poor black family thats about to be trashed by one of the most deadly hurricanes in U.S. history. What makes the novel so powerful, though, is the way Ward winds private passions with that menace gathering force out in the Gulf of Mexico. Without a hint of pretension, in the simple lives of these poor people living among chickens and abandoned cars, she evokes the tenacious love and desperation of classical tragedy. The force that pushes back against Katrinas inexorable winds is the voice of Wards narrator, a 14-year-old girl named Esch, the only daughter among four siblings. Precocious, passionate and sensitive, she speaks almost entirely in phrases soaked in her familys raw land. Everything here is gritty, loamy and alive, as though the very soil were animated. Her brothers blood smells like wet hot earth after summer rain. . . . His scalp looks like fresh turned dirt. Her fathers hands are like gravel, while her own hand slides through his grip like a wet fish, and a handsome boys muscles jabbered like chickens. Admittedly, Ward can push so hard on this simile-obsessed style that her paragraphs risk sounding like a compost heap, but this isnt usually just metaphor for metaphors sake.
She conveys something fundamental about Eschs fluid state of mind: her figurative sense of the world in which all things correspond and connect. She and her brothers live in a ramshackle house steeped in grief since their mother died giving birth to her last child. . . . What remains, whats salvaged, is something indomitable in these tough siblings, the strength of their love, the permanence of their devotion.
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By Michele Alexander
Contrary to the rosy picture of race embodied in Barack Obama’s political success and Oprah Winfrey’s financial success, legal scholar Alexander argues vigorously and persuasively that [w]e have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it. Jim Crow and legal racial segregation has been replaced by mass incarceration as a system of social control (More African Americans are under correctional control today… than were enslaved in 1850). Alexander reviews American racial history from the colonies to the Clinton administration, delineating its transformation into the war on drugs. She offers an acute analysis of the effect of this mass incarceration upon former inmates who will be discriminated against, legally, for the rest of their lives, denied employment, housing, education, and public benefits.
Most provocatively, she reveals how both the move toward colorblindness and affirmative action may blur our vision of injustice: most Americans know and don’t know the truth about mass incarcerationbut her carefully researched, deeply engaging, and thoroughly readable book should change that.Publishers Weekly
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By Gil Scott Heron
Shortly after we republished The Vulture and The Nigger Factory, Gil started to tell me about The Last Holiday, an account he was writing of a multi-city tour that he ended up doing with Stevie Wonder in late 1980 and early 1981. Originally Bob Marley was meant to be playing the tour that Stevie Wonder had conceived as a way of trying to force legislation to make Martin Luther King’s birthday a national holiday. At the time, Marley was dying of cancer, so Gil was asked to do the first six dates. He ended up doing all 41. And Dr King’s birthday ended up becoming a national holiday (“The Last Holiday because America can’t afford to have another national holiday”), but Gil always felt that Stevie never got the recognition he deserved and that his story needed to be told. The first chapters of this book were given to me in New York when Gil was living in the Chelsea Hotel. Among the pages was a chapter called Deadline that recounts the night they played Oakland, California, 8 December; it was also the night that John Lennon was murdered. Jamie Byng, Guardian
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From The World and Africa, 1965
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update 5 July 2012