In continuing to explore the Future Poetry post 1920 we turn to Langston Hughes who was the major poet of the Harlem Renaissance. The Harlem Renaissance was a movement that included many writers from the Caribbean whose post-colonial voices form a choir with the children of American slaves. It follows that to the extent English language post-colonial literature and poetry is an important force in 21st century writing the poets of the Harlem Renaissance are still to be reckoned in thinking the Future Poetry.
The poem by Hughes below ironically echos Whitman. Following the article on Hughes is a piece on the Harlem Renaissance as post-colonial phenomena, rc.
I, Too, Sing America
by Langston Hughes
I, too, sing America.
I am the darker brother.
They send me to eat in the kitchen
When company comes,
But I laugh,
And eat well,
And grow strong.
I’ll be at the table
When company comes.
Say to me,
“Eat in the kitchen,”
They’ll see how beautiful I am
And be ashamed–
I, too, am America.
The Negro Speaks of Rivers
I’ve known rivers:
I’ve known rivers 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 I’ve seen its muddy
bosom turn all golden in the sunset.
I’ve known rivers:
Ancient, dusky rivers.
My soul has grown deep like the rivers.
(February 1, 1902 – May 22, 1967)
Born in Joplin, Missouri, James Langston Hughes was a member of an abolitionist family. He was the great-great-grandson of Charles Henry Langston, brother of John Mercer Langston, who was the first Black American to be elected to public office, in 1855. Hughes attended Central High School in Cleveland, Ohio, but began writing poetry in the eighth grade, and was selected as Class Poet. His father didn’t think he would be able to make a living at writing, and encouraged him to pursue a more practical career. He paid his son’s tuition to Columbia University on the grounds he study engineering. After a short time, Langston dropped out of the program with a B+ average; all the while he continued writing poetry. His first published poem was also one of his most famous, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers”, and it appeared in Brownie’s Book. Later, his poems, short plays, essays and short stories appeared in the NAACP publication Crisis Magazine and in Opportunity Magazine and other publications.
One of Hughes’ finest essays appeared in the Nation in 1926, entitled “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain”. It spoke of Black writers and poets, “who would surrender racial pride in the name of a false integration,” where a talented Black writer would prefer to be considered a poet, not a Black poet, which to Hughes meant he subconsciously wanted to write like a white poet. Hughes argued, “no great poet has ever been afraid of being himself.” He wrote in this essay, “We younger Negro artists now intend to express our individual dark-skinned selves without fear or shame. If white people are pleased we are glad. If they aren’t, it doesn’t matter. We know we are beautiful. And ugly too… If colored people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, their displeasure doesn’t matter either. We build our temples for tomorrow, as strong as we know how and we stand on the top of the mountain, free within ourselves.”
In 1923, Hughes traveled abroad on a freighter to the Senegal, Nigeria, the Cameroons, Belgium Congo, Angola, and Guinea in Africa, and later to Italy and France, Russia and Spain. One of his favorite pastimes whether abroad or in Washington, D.C. or Harlem, New York was sitting in the clubs listening to blues, jazz and writing poetry. Through these experiences a new rhythm emerged in his writing, and a series of poems such as “The Weary Blues” were penned. He returned to Harlem, in 1924, the period known as the Harlem Renaissance. During this period, his work was frequently published and his writing flourished. In 1925 he moved to Washington, D.C., still spending more time in blues and jazz clubs. He said, “I tried to write poems like the songs they sang on Seventh Street…(these songs) had the pulse beat of the people who keep on going.” At this same time, Hughes accepted a job with Dr. Carter G. Woodson, editor of the Journal of Negro Life and History and founder of Black History Week in 1926. He returned to his beloved Harlem later that year.
Langston Hughes received a scholarship to Lincoln University, in Pennsylvania, where he received his B.A. degree in 1929. In 1943, he was awarded an honorary Lit.D by his alma mater; a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1935 and a Rosenwald Fellowship in 1940. Based on a conversation with a man he knew in a Harlem bar, he created a character know as My Simple Minded Friend in a series of essays in the form of a dialogue. In 1950, he named this lovable character Jess B. Simple, and authored a series of books on him.
Langston Hughes was a prolific writer. In the forty-odd years between his first book in 1926 and his death in 1967, he devoted his life to writing and lecturing. He wrote sixteen books of poems, two novels, three collections of short stories, four volumes of “editorial” and “documentary” fiction, twenty plays, children’s poetry, musicals and operas, three autobiographies, a dozen radio and television scripts and dozens of magazine articles. In addition, he edited seven anthologies. The long and distinguished list of Hughes’ works includes: Not Without Laughter (1930); The Big Sea (1940); I Wonder As I Wander” (1956), his autobiographies. His collections of poetry include: The Weary Blues (1926); The Negro Mother and other Dramatic Recitations (1931); The Dream Keeper (1932); Shakespeare In Harlem (1942); Fields of Wonder (1947); One Way Ticket (1947); The First Book of Jazz (1955); Tambourines To Glory (1958); and Selected Poems (1959); The Best of Simple (1961). He edited several anthologies in an attempt to popularize black authors and their works. Some of these are: An African Treasury (1960); Poems from Black Africa (1963); New Negro Poets: USA (1964) and The Best Short Stories by Negro Writers (1967).
Published posthumously were: Five Plays By Langston Hughes (1968); The Panther and The Lash: Poems of Our Times (1969) and Good Morning Revolution: Uncollected Writings of Social Protest (1973); The Sweet Flypaper of Life with Roy DeCarava (1984).
Langston Hughes died of cancer on May 22, 1967. His residence at 20 East 127th Street in Harlem, New York has been given landmark status by the New York City Preservation Commission. His block of East 127th Street was renamed “Langston Hughes Place” .
By: Andrew P. Jackson (Sekou Molefi B)
African American Review, Robert Philipson
“Wonder why he chose an American college? Most of the chiefs’ sons’ll go to Oxford or bust. I know–this fellow is probably from Liberia or thereabouts. American influence–see?”–Rudolph Fisher, The Conjure Man Dies
The Harlem Renaissance–as American as Florence Mills in Shuffle Along, Langston Hughes composing “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” while crossing the Mississippi on a train, Zora Neale Hurston collecting Black folklore for Franz Boas. And yet the road version of Shuffle Along also hosted chorine Josephine Baker, who scored international stardom as a headliner for the Paris Folies Bergere; Hurston followed her first successful reworking of African American folklore in Mules and Men (1935) with Tell My Horse (1938), an examination of the practice of voodoo in Haiti; and Hughes’s poem grounds itself specifically in a diasporic consciousness that embraces the Euphrates, the Congo, and the Nile as rivers of Black geography. On the home front, the biography and career of Casper Holstein, an immigrant from the former Danish Virgin Islands, then ruled by the US Navy, illustrates just how seminal was the West Indian presence in the Harlem of the 1920s. Holstein, a former porter, invented and enriched himself through the numbers racket; yet as historian David Levering Lewis points out, he used a portion of his wealth not only to promote the Harlem Renaissance but to make the linkage between American racism at home and its export to its unacknowledged empire. “Invited by his young friend Walrond to use [the National Urban League's journal] Opportunity as a sounding board for conditions in the Virgin Islands, Holstein wrote a detailed, carefully argued article for the October 1925 issue. From then on, the Opportunity network had a generous friend…. Holstein’s gift of a thousand dollars made the 1926 awards possible” (When Harlem Was In Vogue 130). (1)
In Alain Locke’s groundbreaking anthology The New Negro (1925), which announced the arrival of the Harlem Renaissance on the literary scene, the Caribbean presence is evident. Prominently featured were poems by the Jamaican immigrant Claude McKay, and a short story titled “The Palm Porch,” by the West Indian writer Eric Walrond. Essays were contributed by Puerto Rican bibliophile Arthur Schomburg (“The Negro Digs Up His Past”), and by the Jamaican-born journalists Joel A. Rogers (“Jazz at Home”) and Wilfrid A. Domingo. Domingo’s “Gift of the Black Tropics” not only claims McKay as a Jamaican poet but explicitly states, “It is probably not realized, indeed, to what extent West Indian Negroes have contributed to the wealth, power and prestige of the United States” (344).
The literary contributions of these Caribbean Blacks reflected the demographics of Harlem, where almost 25 percent of the Black populace came from outside the United States (Osofsky 131). This presence often resulted in intraethnic tensions. American Blacks often applied the insult “monkeychaser” to residents of West Indian origin–but many West Indians made their presence felt in the left-wing and radical movements of Harlem’s political scene. (2) Journalists and activists of West Indian origin, including Cyril Briggs, Richard B. Moore, Hubert Harrison, and Amy Jacques Garvey, played prominent roles in the United Negro Improvement Association, the Socialist Speakers Bureau, the Peoples Education Forum, and the African Blood Brotherhood, an early nationalist organization founded by Briggs that eventually allied itself to the Communist Party. Domingo explains that, coming from countries in which Blacks had experienced no legalized segregation and limitations upon opportunity, West Indians were better prepared to challenge racial barriers in the United States than the more docile American Blacks: “Skilled at various trades and having a contempt for body service and menial work, many of the immigrants apply for positions that the average American Negro has been schooled to regard as restricted to white men only, with the result that through their persistence and doggedness in fighting white labor, West Indians have in many cases been pioneers and shock troops to open a way for Negroes into new fields of employment” (344-45).
The West Indian presence in Harlem made itself felt not only in radical and literary circles, it brought to African American intellectual thought a postcolonial perspective that shaped the ideology of the Harlem Renaissance in fundamental ways. McKay and Walrond were formed by a colonial history and education against which they struggled but within which they found themselves ultimately entangled. This struggle bore obvious analogies to the effort of many African American writers to distance themselves from a racist American discourse, but the colonial world provided, by definition, an international perspective and a geographically distanced locus of the ruling discourse. Given the time period, the great colonial empires were alive and well, but the intellectual seeds were already being sown for their eventual dismantling. The postcolonial attitudes of McKay, Walrond, and Holstein lay in their rejection of the imperial worldview that always put Caribbean and African Blacks under the indefinite–and presumably benign–tutelage of the white races.
The Harlem Renaissance developed postcolonial discourse in three ways: (1) it provided a publishing platform for writing about life in territories under imperial rule; (2) it extended postcolonial modes of thought and resistance into an American intellectual and political context; and (3) it provided a model and inspiration for subsequent postcolonial ideologies. When speaking of the Harlem Renaissance and its influence as a postcolonial phenomenon, we must distinguish between the modes of thought and culture developed in three different empires–the British, the French, and the American.
The British Empire cast the deepest shadow on the Harlem Renaissance’s literary scene. McKay’s militant sonnets electrified the American left and the Black intelligentsia; while Walrond’s collection of expressionistic short stories, Tropic Death (1926), garnered critical acclaim. Although McKay and Walrond wrote American material with American settings, much of their writing reflected and analyzed conditions in their British colonies of origin, Jamaica in the case of McKay, and for Walrond, British Guiana and Barbados. In the context of their American-based literary careers, McKay and Walrond were given a platform from which they published Commonwealth Literature.
McKay made his first literary reputation in Jamaica with the appearance of two locally published books of poetry, but at that time, having been educated in colonial schools and mentored by an Englishman, Walter Jekyll, he was still and unproblematically a poet of the British Empire. Later in the 1920s and 30s, when New York-based Harper & Brothers supported his publishing career, several stories in his collection Gingertown (1932) and his third novel Banana Bottom (1933) were situated in Jamaica without obvious American overlay. One of the Gingertown stories, “When I Pounded the Pavement,” bears direct comparison to George Orwell’s famous essay “Shooting an Elephant,” in that both protagonists are reluctant, alienated members of the colonial constabulary forced into acts of aggression by a colonial hegemony that they are powerless to resist. In his description of the police hierarchy of “When I Pounded the Pavement,” McKay offers a pithy, incisive analysis of Jamaican society:
Many of our sergeant-majors and some
of our inspectors had come to us from
the Irish Constabulary and socially as
white men they were practically
nowhere in our very British-spirited
colony with its insouciant mass of
black and brown natives, a proud and
self-sufficient mulatto aristocracy that
had been building up and propagating
its kind for generations upon generations,
and a handful of British administrators.
Because of the US-centered perspective of Harlem Renaissance criticism, McKay’s Jamaican prose and poetry has been slighted, but increasing interest in Caribbean literature has broadened these horizons. Heather Hathaway’s analysis of McKay’s oeuvre as the product of a Caribbean identity restores a vital element to understanding his work and contribution. Hathaway masterfully uncovers the Caribbean inspiration behind the militant poems that first established McKay’s reputation in the United States. Noting that in “New York, McKay’s aesthetic and personal philosophies began to change and develop,” she argues that McKay increasingly comprehended the centrality of color in class matters (41). Moreover, Hathaway suggests, he shared with many immigrants from the Caribbean the perception that race affected “every aspect of his life in the United States” (41). She continues:
Under the realities of American segregation,
in a world where he was now a
member of the minority rather than the
majority, McKay became critically
aware … of what it meant to be black
in his new culture. Whereas the social
criticism of his Jamaican poetry
revolved almost exclusively around
class oppression, the focus of McKay’s
American verse shifted to address…