Langston Legacy

Langston Hughes' inspirational writings have kept the poet current 100 years after his birth

February 22, 2002|By M. Dion Thompson | M. Dion Thompson,SUN STAFF

Langston Hughes lives!

Listen to his poetry sounding through the voice of a fifth-grade boy who ends a recitation of "I, Too, Sing America" by raising a defiant fist straight from the days of Black Power:

They'll see how beautiful I am

And be ashamed -

I, too, am America.

Langston Hughes, the black poet laureate of the Harlem Renaissance, lives. He's on a postage stamp issued this month. He looks good, suave and elegant in that classic style. You could easily imagine him toasting the evening with Duke Ellington and keeping company with Lena Horne. After all, he was a night owl, most comfortable between 11 p.m. and 5 a.m.

He lives because in this, the centennial year of his birth, his art continues to set off sympathetic vibrations in the hearts of those who approach his work.

Andrea Jackson, who this month is guiding her Northwood Elementary School students on a journey through Hughes' life and literature, knows this to be true. As the young defiant one takes his seat, she turns to her class and asks:

"What connections did you make?"

"That we are proud to be black, and proud to be Americans," one student replies.

Therein lies a summation of Hughes, a writer who, in the words of Professor Dolan Hubbard, a Hughes scholar, celebrated "the linguistic universe of black people."

Of course, he wasn't always a revered figure. Hughes, whose life includes the classic wanderlust of American writers, was controversial when he began publishing in the 1920s. Works that have since become touchstones of America's literary voice were then cause for concern.

Critics complained his poetry was too straightforward, too simple. It lacked depth. For the first time black literary expression was being widely recognized. Writers struggled over who would speak for black America and with what voice.

On one hand there was Countee Cullen, whose eloquent sonnets of black life - "Yet Do I Marvel" and "From The Dark Tower" - sounded a tone handed down from Shakespeare and John Donne. Some would say Cullen wrote in a foreign tongue. Then there was Hughes.

"Langston Hughes harkens back to a Walt Whitman, who said the poets should write in the language of the people," said Hubbard, chairman of the department of English and language arts at Morgan State University.

Maybe that is why his poems are well-remembered and recited by children, like the ones from Highlandtown Middle School who gave a presentation earlier this week at the main branch of the post office on East Fayette Street. Maybe that is why the playwright Lorraine Hansberry turned to his "Dream Deferred" for the title of her groundbreaking play, A Raisin In The Sun. Hughes' language was familiar. It came from the American experience.

"He wrote about the common black people, and what could be more indicative of the common black people than the language they created, the vernacular, the blues," said Hubbard, also president of the Langston Hughes Society, a national group of academics and Hughes devotees. "Hughes was not only looking to liberate black language, but liberate black expression from the Anglo-European aesthetic traditions."

In "Madam and her Madam" his narrator gives off this blues lament:

I worked for a woman,

She wasn't mean -

But she had a twelve-room

House to clean.

He wanted his poems to be a true statement of the lives of his people. Then as now, it was too easy to fall into stereotypes and caricatures, too easy to turn the vernacular into a comic dialect. Hughes consciously sought to avoid that trap. And his audiences responded.

"When he read his poetry, people could see themselves in his words," said Hubbard. "They could hear the voice of their relatives and their friends."

Jackson said her fifth-grade students were fascinated by Hughes' life as much as by his poetry.

He was born in Joplin, Mo., in 1902 to a family that numbered among its ancestors a militant abolitionist, a member of John Brown's fighters at Harper's Ferry, and John Mercer Langston, a prominent black man of the 19th century. Hughes was raised by his maternal grandmother, Mary Langston.

He left Columbia University in New York after a year and began three years of wandering. For awhile he worked aboard a freighter off the west coast of Africa. He also spent several months in Paris, the de rigueur stop for American artists, before returning to the United States in 1924. He had already published "The Negro Speaks of Rivers."

It is the type of poem fit for Paul Robeson or James Earl Jones, someone with a sonorous, commanding voice, someone who can bring a certain stature to the words.

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

I've known rivers:

Ancient, dusky rivers.

My soul has grown deep like the rivers.

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