Sometimes while walking alongside a river or lake I feel a
little Langston in me. Suddenly I have a desire to throw all my possessions into the water
and listen to my heart. I felt this way after reading The Big Sea (Hill & Wang, 1940)
in college. I wanted to stand on the S.S. Malone with Hughes heading towards Africa. There
was something romantic and spiritual about what Langston Hughes did on the deck of that
boat. I like his courage and his decision- making. I interpreted the throwing away of his
books as the search for another way to live; I saw it as being the journey of the poet.
During his career, Hughes would embrace
every genre and his work would define as well as interpret the black experience. It is
through the eyes of Hughes that we can understand the significance of the Great Migration
of black people from the south to the north. Hughes was a witness to the movement of black
bodies from fields into factories-his people's transformation. He saw dreams fighting for
sunlight in the shadows of tall buildings. He wrote of Harlem as if it were Mecca, and his
work provided hope through its reliance on the survival rhythms of blues and jazz.
always been easy to remember Hughes. His name is linked to the Harlem Renaissance and the
black development of modern literature. However, I like to remember Hughes for his
radicalism and celebration of blackness. Poems like "Dream Variations" are
simply delicious. They leave a sweetness in one's mouth. Everyone has a favorite Hughes
poem. At the top of the list would probably be "Mother to Son," "The Weary
Blues," and "The Negro Speaks of Rivers." Mine is one of his long poems,
"Let America Be America Again." This poem is critical of our country but it
strongly reaffirms a belief in its principles and heritage. It's also a visionary work,
the kind I would like to see more of today.
There is much for a writer like myself to learn from Langston.
His productivity-and the fact that he wrote for a living-is an inspiration. In many
photographs, Hughes is laughing or smiling like the Buddha. I have often wondered what he
was thinking. He maintained extensive correspondence with other writers like Arna
Bontemps. I remember an interview with Amiri Baraka where he spoke of receiving a postcard
from Hughes in the fifties expressing his joy and surprise at finding out he was black.
Hughes was a lover of art and of his people. His heart embraced
more than a city, neighborhood, or community. His words tear through flesh to embrace
spirit, helping to preserve our cultural memory. He produced classical work rooted in the
folkways of black people. If Hughes was a dream keeper it was because of his ability to
love the word, the language and the people who everyday gave birth to its brightness.
Hughes was a man of the world. Among what critics describe as his
"miscellaneous" poems are works that examine nature. But it is here that we find
the private Langston; the man who loved the sea. These poems are as important to the scope
of his work as the poetry he wrote about race and social issues. In his anthology The
Garden Thrives. Twentieth Century African American Poetry (Harper Perennial Library,
1996, ISBN 0-060-951214), Clarence Major selected two rarely touted Hughes poems,
"Moonlight Night: Carmel" and "Seascape." As we approach his
100th birthday in 2002, 1 hope that future anthologies of African American literature will
continue to provide wider representation of Hughes' work.
looking at Langston, with his Buddha smile and easy laugh, makes me think about what it
means to possess a poet's heart. I too have known rivers. I like to think of Langston as
being not just the keeper of our dreams, but builder of the ferry that we ourselves can
guide to take us there.
Reading Langston ...
Simple's Uncle Sam
by Langston Hughes
Hill & Wang, May 2000, $13.00 ISBN 0-809-08681-6
BLACK ISSUES BOOK REVIEW 15