When I think of Langston Hughes at pivotal moments in his life, I think of my favorite photographs of him, such as the one with him in a jacket, tie, and rather urbane looking fedora. That is the way I imagine him looking when he returned to Harlem from his travels to discover that his play Mulatto was being produced for Broadway without his consultation. Or I imagine him sitting on segregated trains, riding to a speaking engagement with his hat sitting next to him, his eyes looking out on a country that he knew was both fascinating and frustrating, one that guaranteed him his freedom and then challenged him to claim the same. I imagine him sitting there dreaming in the manner of poets, one image shifting into another, pieces of language made song growing out of one another like a fine crochet.
Dr. King delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech in 1963, and Langston Hughes died four years later. Hughes was 62 years old when Dr. King delivered that speech, and the Dean of Afro American letters, as Hughes was sometimes called, had lived and fought and dreamed through nearly a half century of a life in letters, a life where he wrote under the most extreme censorship.
In the McCarthy era, he was brought before the House UnAmerican Activities Committee on suspicion of being aligned with enemies of the government. He dreamed and lived the life of a man of letters with a courage that has not been described often enough as the courage of mythic heroes, a mettle that faced a nation hobbled even in our own day by its own contradictions.
It is appropriate, I submit, that we begin Black History Month with the birth of the great poet Hughes — a writer whose mind produced the classic poem, “The Negro Dreams of Rivers,” a masterpiece that rolled out of his imagination and his love when he was not quite 25 years old, from a genius who helped to fashion a literary tradition made real by the ability to dream.
Hughes’ was a courage we speak of when we speak of great people, people of an imponderable depth of spirit. He gave his life to his work, and to his people, and to his nation in the face of adversity that would crush most aspiring poets, and he gave this devotion with the highest discipline and civility.
In a Chicago Defender article entitled, “Adventures in Dining,” Hughes wrote of his experiences traveling on trains in the South during a lecture tour. Dated June 2, 1945, the article comes at the end of World War II and after Roosevelt’s federal order prohibiting discrimination in the armed forces. He sat where he was not supposed to sit, and he was served. When asked by one waiter if he was Puerto Rican or American, he responded, “I’m hungry.” It was his humor in the face of adversity, and even danger, that carried him through at times, …read more
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