BOOK: Selected Poems of Langston Hughes
AUTHOR: Langston Hughes
YEAR OF PUBLICATION: 1958
With the current news about the DREAMers and their uncertain future, I have been unable to stop thinking about Langston Hughes and his words on dreams, and dreams deferred. So I pulled my copy of his Selected Poems off the shelf to have another look.
This collection, chosen by the poet himself, some from earlier volumes of poetry, others from a privately printed limited edition, and others published for the first time in this volume, represents work from almost his entire career, and is a good place to start if you’re unfamiliar with the author.
Hughes was a leading figure in the Harlem Renaissance, and an early practitioner of jazz poetry. His work celebrates the experience of African-Americans–their culture, their struggles, their music, and their joy. He wrote about working people, men and women, descendants of slaves, the poor, the forgotten, the outsiders, musicians, lovers, tenants in disputes with landlords, the suicidal, the lonely, survivors, drinkers, storytellers. (Also Walt Whitman and Billie Holiday.)
My favorite poem by Hughes, “Let America Be America Again,” isn’t included here, but on a similar theme there’s “Freedom’s Plow” at the end of the collection, which quotes Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and Frederick Douglass, and ends with lyrics from the folk song, “Gospel Plow,” making explicit and generous connections between the struggles of black people and the struggles of “all races and all people.”
Another standout is “I, Too,” a poem which is quoted on the wall of the new National Museum of African American History and Culture on the National Mall. It begins: “I, too sing America. / I am the darker brother. / They send me to eat in the kitchen / When company comes,” and goes on to look forward to tomorrow, when “I’ll be at the table” and “Nobody’ll dare / Say to me ‘eat in the kitchen.’” And it ends, “Besides, / They’ll see how beautiful I am / And be ashamed—/ I, too, am America.”
They didn’t call it cultural appropriation back then, but that’s what Hughes addressed in “Note on Commercial Theatre.” “You’ve taken my blues and gone– / You sing ‘em on Broadway /…And you mixed them up with symphonies…” It’s a complaint, but it also contains self-confidence and humor and personality. And a remedy: “But someday somebody’ll / Stand up and talk about me, / And write about me — / Black and beautiful — / And sing about me, / And put on plays about me! / I reckon it’ll be / Me myself!”
But back to those DREAMers. Selected Poems includes Montage of a Dream Deferred, a poem suite about post-WWII Harlem, its need for justice and social change, its history, and its separation from the rest of New York. It’s full of many voices, of abrupt transitions, of music, and of dreams: to graduate, to study French, to buy two new suits at once, or a white enamel stove, a decent radio, a television set, getting the furniture paid off. Hughes notes that black and white people are packed too closely on the subway to fear each other in that intimate space. He observes that some folks blame too much on Jews, and muses that “Sometimes I think / Jews must have heard / the music of a / dream deferred.” In “Comment on Curb” there’s a bit of an All Lives Matter vs. Black Lives Matter type argument: “You talk like / they don’t kick / dreams around / downtown.” And the response: “I expect they do– / But I’m talking about / Harlem to you!” And of course, there’s the most famous, and ominous, part, “Harlem,” in which he asks “What happens to a dream deferred?” The possible answers proposed, including “dry up / like a raisin in the sun,” “fester like a sore,” and “stink like rotten meat” are rather unappealing, but he saves the worst, the possibility of violence, for last, with the unanswered question, “Or does it explode?” It’s not a threat; it’s a warning, one that predates the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.’s famous description of a riot as the language of the unheard.
It’s actually rather unsettling how very much of Hughes’ work is so resonant today, with his combination of an optimistic hope for better things and his keen detailing of the discouraging and unfair world as it is. It highlights, as always, the distance between our high-minded beliefs, our American dream of equal opportunity and liberty and justice for all, and the current state of political disarray and dysfunction.
Read some Langston Hughes…you won’t find answers in his poetry, but you will find wisdom and history. And maybe the strength to keep on fighting the good fight, even if “life…ain’t been no crystal stair.” Another famous poem he wrote (“Dreams,” not included in this collection) has some advice for us all: “Hold fast to dreams / For if dreams die / Life is a broken-winged bird / That cannot fly.”
RATING (one to five whistles, with five being the best): 5 Whistles
HOW TO PURCHASE: Amazon
Laura LaVelle is an attorney and writer who lives in Connecticut, in a not quite 100-year-old house, along with her husband, two daughters, and a cockatiel.
Laura can be contacted at email@example.com
ALSO ON OUR BOOKSHELVES: