Kwame Alexander on LANGSTON HUGHES
(February 1, 1902 - May 22, 1967)
"While in Washington, I won my first poetry prize...I wrote many poems...They always seemed good when I wrote them and, usually, bad when I would look at them again. So, most of them were thrown away."
I spent the first ten years of my writing life trying to be Langston. Because of one essay. It was classic Langston. Bold and correct, harsh and funny. He called it "How To Be A Bad Writer." Published over a half century ago, it is a wonder (and a sorrow) that its literary lessons still ring true. This, of course, is the phenomenon that defines Langston Hughes: the ability to speak truth that lasts. An inherent remembering of one man's words that moves beyond all circumstance. A small Black man with a timeless knack for making folks the world over laugh to keep from crying.
James Langston Hughes was born in 1902 in Joplin, Missouri and raised by his grandmother. After graduating from high school, he spent a year in Mexico with his father. His life experiences during his formative years were wide and varied: college student, assistant cook, launderer, busboy, and seaman--traveling to Africa and Europe.
During the early 1920s, Black Washington--home to Alain Locke, Angelina Grimké, Georgia Douglas Johnson, and Sterling Brown--was experiencing a literary rebirth. In the fall of 1924, the 22-year-old Hughes decided to give collegiate life a second chance, moving to Washington, D.C. to enroll at Howard University. He lived at first with relatives in LeDroit Park, then moved to 1749 S Street NW, and later to a room at the YMCA just south of U Street (still standing; now the Thurgood Marshall Center for Service and Heritage at 1816 12th Street NW).
After college, armed with a liberal arts degree and a passion for literature and theatre, I made my way to Washington, DC--via Greensboro, NC, and Norfolk, VA--to put my creative skills to use--as a waiter at Bennigan's Restaurant. But I was not deterred. The tips were good, and there were plenty of starving artists waiting tables with whom I could discuss my plans. The primary goal was to publish my poetry and start a performance troupe grounded in the neo-revolutionary ideals and energy of the Hip Hop Generation. (At least, that's what the press release stated.) So it was quite a bold move to feature, in my first community theatre production, the verse of Langston Hughes. Not quite the hip hop, Hughes's poetry nonetheless struck a chord with the audience almost 70 years after it was written. As evidence, one need only read "Montage of a Dream Deferred," still the most insightful and accurate portrayal of Black life (and strife) in America.
While in Washington Hughes worked a number of jobs, hoping to earn enough money to afford the tuition at Howard. (In 1926 he would enter Lincoln University, outside Philadelphia, instead. Lincoln was less expensive, and was where his friend and fellow poet, Waring Cuney, was also a student. He graduated from Lincoln in 1929.) The two years he spent in the District were lonely and somewhat unhappy times for the poet, but a very productive period for his writing. During this time he published his first prose, "Mexico Games," in Brownie's Book, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People's periodical for children. Hughes accepted an advertising job at the Black weekly, The Washington Sentinel, worked at a laundromat, and eventually landed a coveted position as assistant to historian Dr. Carter G. Woodson.
During his leisure hours he spent time on Seventh Street NW. Along the storefronts, he observed ordinary Black people eating fish sandwiches and barbecue. Seventh Street residents were poor but lively. They shot pool and told tall tales. Here, Hughes saw something else of interest. People sang and played the blues. Although the songs were happy or sometimes sad, they often contained the theme of the underdog moving on despite social unrest. As he wrote in his autobiography, The Big Sea, "I tried to write poems like the songs on Seventh Street...Their songs...had the pulse beat of a people who keep on going."
After leaving the job with Dr. Woodson (Hughes complained that the work hurt his eyes), he landed a gig at the Wardman Park Hotel as a busboy. (This hotel still exists, as the Marriott Wardman Park at 2660 Woodley Rd., NW.) Hughes wrote feverishly, starting many new poems and finally completing several old ones. One of those poems, "The Weary Blues," he slipped to famed Russian poet Vachel Lindsay, then a guest at the Wardman Park. Due to the city's segregated policy, Hughes was unable to attend the poet's reading in the auditorium. The next day, Hughes read an article in a Washington daily with the headline "Russian Poet Discovers Negro Bus Boy Poet." Even though Hughes had been writing for years, the publicity brought new celebrity that did wonders for his career in poetry. Soon after, he would win the famed Opportunity Magazine poetry contest, and, with the assistance of his pal Carlo (Carl Van Vechten), receive a publication deal from Blanche Knopf for his first collection of poems, The Weary Blues.
Inspired by the creative productivity of Hughes, I set out to do the write thing. Between 1994 and 1998, I wrote and published four books and produced four plays. For myself and many of my fellow poets in the Washington area, Hughes was our Shakespeare. We emulated his jazzy poetic stylings. Conversed about his ideas and ideals. Speculated about his sexuality. He was who we aspired to be. Literally, and literarily. When my first book was published in August of 1994, I gave Bennigan's my two weeks' notice and set out to take my poetry on the road. Teaming with an artist friend for the next six months, I drove halfway around the country reading, performing, selling books and artwork--at colleges such as Duke University and Fisk University, and also theatres, coffeehouses, churches, and the occasional home of friends and friends of friends. Book tours were not in vogue yet, but I learned this bit of guerrilla marketing from two men and a Ford in 1926.
Hughes wrote in the second volume of his autobiography, I Wonder As I Wander: "...I did not want a job. I wanted to continue to be a poet. Yet sometimes I wondered if I was barking up the wrong tree. I determined to find out by taking poetry, my poetry, to the people...I began to write to the presidents of all the Negro colleges in the South. Almost immediately, answers came back from several institutions offering to book me...I bought a Ford. But I could not drive, and I had no license. I found a former classmate of mine at Lincoln University, Radcliffe Lucas...He could drive and had a good business head, I knew, because he had worked his way through college running a weekend taxi service...So we set out about five o'clock one October morning, headed South. The back seat of the car was filled with luggage and books of mine to sell on tour. I carried along also a large number of books by other contemporary Negro writers for a cultural exhibit. As we left Harlem the sun was rising. All was well."
Most readers know Hughes by his poems, such as "Mother to Son" and "Dream Deferred." My first introduction to The Black Bard of Harlem came via his plays. In college we staged "Soul Gone Home," a one-act play about the relationship between a mother and her dead son, and "Limitations of Life," a parody of the 1930's film Imitation of Life. Later, we would take his blues-inspired poems, which were obviously "mini-musicals", and stage those as well:
I woke up this morning
'Bout half past three
The doctors and undertakers
Both at my do'
Sweet gals was a moanin'
Sylvester's gonna die
And a hundred pretty mamas
Bowed their heads to cry...
("Sylvester's Dying Bed")
While compiling pieces of Hughes's work for a theatrical celebration in 1993, a writer friend of mine ran across a book entitled Simple's Uncle Sam. This collection of stories, featuring the hilarious musings, pseudo-intellectual rants, and plain commonsense riffs of one Mr. Jesse . Semple, originated as a column in the Chicago Defender. Semple, also known as Simple, was the unchained voice of Black America during the Jim Crow era. As we read these stories, nearly a hundred or so, we were amazed at how the content was still relevant--racial profiling, war, unemployment, Black leaders, police brutality, Black vs. white colleges, etc.--50 years after Hughes had written them. We realized that the Simple stories were ripe for the stage, with the consistent barroom setting of each story, the running plot line of Simple's relationship woes, and the high-brow and sophisticated humor that was characteristic of Langston Hughes. That year, we produced the first of three tributes to Hughes's Simple stories: Jazz Jive & Jam at the Gunston Arts Center Black Box Theatre in Arlington, VA. In 1998 we produced Simpleminded at the National Theatre in Washington, DC. And as if to complete our Metro-area Simple assault, we staged a new Jesse B. Semple adaptation as part of the Morgan State University Reading Series in 2003. The Simple stories are by far the most wondrously meaningful writing I've ever read. My favorite is "Feet Live Their Own Life":
"These feet have stood on every rock from the Rock of Ages to 135th and Lenox. These feet have supported everything from a cotton bale to a hongry woman. These feet have walked ten thousand miles working for white folks and another ten thousand keeping up with colored. These feet have stood at altars, crap tables, free lunches, bars, graves, kitchen doors, betting windows, hospital clinics, WPA desks, social security railings, and in all kinds of lines from soup lines to the draft. If I just had four feet, I could have stood in more places longer. As it is, I done wore out seven hundred pairs of shoes, eighty-nine tennis shoes, twelve summer sandals, also six loafers. The socks that these feet have bought could build a knitting mill. The corns I've cut away would dull a German razor. The bunions I forgot would make you ache from now til Judgment Day. If anybody was to write the history of my life, they should start with my feet...Do you see that window in that white man's store across the street? Well, this right foot of mine broke out that window in the Harlem riots right smack in the middle. Didn't no other foot in the world break that window but mine. And this left foot carried me off running as soon as my right foot came down. Nobody's else's feet saved me from the cops that night but these two feet right here. Don't tell me these feet ain't had a life of their own."
As I've matured in my writing, two things have become clear to me: First, a good writer must be courageous enough to share the soul eternal. To speak truth, and do it in a way that makes the reader feel something other than what was felt before. Secondly, a great writer must write all the time, until that last bit of juice is squeezed from the lemon, and even then, she must find another lemon. This is the sweetness of life that Langston has taught and brought us.
A writer of novels, short stories, plays, operas, librettos, television and film scripts, children's books, lyrics, essays, reference manuals, as well as poetry, Langston Hughes moved to Harlem, suitcase in one hand, with a rich cast of Black Washington's characters and unforgettable experiences to flavor his writings for decades to come.
THE WEARY BLUES by Langston Hughes
Droning a drowsy syncopated tune,
Rocking back and forth to a mellow croon,
.............I heard a Negro play.
Down on Lenox Avenue the other night
By the pale dull pallor of an old gas light
.............He did a lazy sway...
.............He did a lazy sway...
To the tune o' those Weary Blues.
With his ebony hands on each ivory key
He made that poor piano moan with melody.
Swaying to and fro on his rickety stool
He plays that sad raggy tune like a musical fool.
Coming from a black man's soul.
In a deep song voice with a melancholy tone
I heard that Negro sing, that old piano moan--
............."Ain't got nobody in all this world,
.............Ain't got nobody but ma self.
.............I's gwine to quit ma frownin'
.............And put ma troubles on the shelf."
Thump, thump, thump, went his foot on the floor.
He played a few chords then he sang some more--
............."I got the Weary Blues
.............And I can't be satisfied.
.............Got the Weary Blues
.............And can't be satisfied--
.............I ain't happy no mo'
.............And I wish that I had died."
And far into the night he crooned that tune.
The stars went out and so did the moon.
The singer stopped playing and went to bed
While the Weary Blues echoed through his head.
He slept like a rock or a man that's dead.
Selected Books by Langston Hughes
The Panther and the Lash (poetry, 1967)
Simple's Uncle Sam (fiction, 1965)
Five Plays by Langston Hughes (drama, 1963)
Something in Common and Other Stories (fiction, 1963)
Ask Your Mama (poetry, 1961)
Best of Simple (fiction, 1961)
Selected Poems of Langston Hughes (poetry, 1959)
Tambourines to Glory (fiction, 1958)
Famous Negro Heroes of America (biography, 1958)
The Langston Hughes Reader (anthology, 1958)
Simple Stakes a Claim (fiction, 1957)
I Wonder As I Wander (autobiography, 1956)
The Sweet Flypaper of Life (fiction, 1955)
Famous Negro Music Makers (biography, 1955)
Famous American Negroes (biography, 1954)
Simple Takes a Wife (fiction, 1953)
Laughing to Keep From Crying (fiction, 1952)
Montage of a Dream Deferred (poetry, 1951)
Simple Speaks His Mind (fiction, 1950)
One-Way Ticket (poetry, 1949)
Fields of Wonder (poetry, 1947)
Shakespeare in Harlem (poetry, 1942)
The Big Sea (autobiography, 1940)
The Ways of White Folks (fiction, 1934)
The Dream-Keeper (poetry, 1932)
Not Without Laughter (fiction, 1930)
Fine Clothes to the Jew (poetry, 1927)
The Weary Blues (poetry, 1926)
Arnold Rampersad, The Life of Langston Hughes (two volumes), Oxford:
Oxford University Press, 1986 and 1988
Maureen Honey and Venetria K. Patton, eds., Double-take: A Revisionist Harlem Renaissance Anthology. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2001.
Brian Gilmore, "The Seventh Street Blues: DC
Colored the Life of Langston Hughes, Born 100 Years Ago This Week," The
Washington Post, January 27, 2002.
I highly recommend this web site, compiled by David Kresh and courtesy of the Library of Congress, which includes a web cast, essays, photos, views of original typescripts of poem drafts, links to the library's holdings, links to other web sites, and a bibliography: http://www.loc.gov/rr/program/journey/hughes.html
Short bio on the PBS Web site under "Duke Ellington's
Washington: Notable Black Washingtonians":
On the Academy of American Poets site, bio, bibliography, more links: http://www.poets.org/poets/poets.cfm?prmID=84
Also see The Literary Traveler: http://www.literarytraveler.com/langstonhughes/langstonhughes.htm.