James Mercer Langston Hughes, simply known to us as Langston Hughes, was only 65 years old when he died of complications from prostate cancer on May 22, 1967. That was 50 years ago today.
The Joplin, Missouri born-raised in Lawrence, Kansas native, years before his death, was a defining figure of the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s. It was a magical decade in which an explosion of talent expressed in the arts came one after the other by Black people in the United States. Many of them congregated in said neighborhood of uptown Manhattan. The movement gave us jazz tunes illustrated by Duke Ellington and Claude McKay and stirring novels, so sensitive yet acute of the Black woman experience, by the likes of the introverted Nella Larsen.
For Hughes, before he sought a higher education and earned a degree from Lincoln University in 1929, it was in 1921 that Hughes was first published professionally, and at the age of 19, in The Crisis, the official newspaper of the significant National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (the NAACP). The Crisis would continue to publish his poetry up until his death. Specifically during the ’20s, his impassioned poetry certified him as the walking heartland of a much welcomed and necessary New Negro age. The Harlem Renaissance made up for lost time in a community that had been silenced artistically for too long (amongst other inhumane acts). Black/people of color were given intermittent recognition for projects and literary gems that couldn’t be denied such as Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass and Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, both published before the Reconstruction era.
Hughes’ poems such as “The Negro Speaks of Rivers”, “Dreams”, Montage of a Dream Deferred”, and “The Weary Blues” are still regarded as insight into the determined soul of Black America. On September 22, 2016, marking the 50th anniversary of its release, The New York Times published in full his 1926 plea “I, Too.” Hughes famously and succinctly described the agony of the Black man or woman waiting for the White man to see them as human and not as inferior or monstrous. And also, in the quickness of just a line in a stanza, how those same tired individuals discharged the waiting game and on their own accord declared themselves worthy of respect and an equal chance to be just as great, just as noticed.
It remains so powerful in its intent to lift anyone that has endured neglect, felt forgotten, and this is chiefly in reference to race, culture, or in modern times, sexual orientation and gender identification. The sly caveat of Hughes’ work is that as romantic and wistful as he was with words, he was just as eloquent in his anger, distrust, and surprise towards those so willing to be ignorant and hateful. See, “Warning”:
Sweet and docile,
Meek, humble and kind:
Beware the day
They change their mind!
In the cotton fields,
Beware the hour
It uproots trees!”
The literary world would come to see this juxtaposition again in the novels and televised interviews of fellow great James Baldwin and the terrifically sharp Toni Morrison.
The timing of the Times honoring “I, Too” was not lost on anyone aware of its presence that week. It was weeks before the most heartbreaking Presidential election any living American has seen or read about. And during continued unrest in America as demonstrators rallied for the unjust castigation of Black and brown people, through police brutality, and blatant sexism and homophobia.
On a personal level, I’ve always gone to Hughes’ poems for when I needed an emotional and mental pick-me-up. He and Maya Angelou, always through their words and often through poetry, knew just how to remind me I was not alone or incapable. I was allowed to feel how I felt, whether it was sadness, loneliness, regret. But their sincere insistence to not allow such sunken thoughts to guide my existence beyond acknowledgement felt profound every time.
2017 also marks the year that Hughes could’ve turned 115 years old. While the average human rarely lives to see such an intense age of experience, the noted fact only makes Hughes seem more immortal despite his physical presence having been long departed.
In loving memory of his talent and influence, let’s salute the magnificent poet Langston Hughes on the 50th anniversary of his passing. The writers and artists in us thank you for the inspiration. The mind and hearts of our beings thank you for being open, honest, and benevolent through your talent.
Rest in art.
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. Tomorrow, I’ll be at the table When company comes. Nobody’ll dare Say to me, “Eat in the kitchen," Then. Besides, They’ll see how beautiful I am And be ashamed— I, too, am America.