I am so tired of waiting,
For the world to become good
And beautiful and kind?
Let us take a knife
And cut the world in two –
And see what worms are eating
At the rind.
In the 1986 foreword to Hughes’ first autobiography — The Big Sea — Amiri Baraka writes, “Langston is the Jazz Poet! He is the singer, the philosopher, the folk and urban lyricist. His poetry is still one of the touchstones of American civilization, in its originality, feeling, and open commitment to social transformation.” Langston Hughes is one of the most popular poets in North America, and is famous as one of the key figures of the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s. Jessie Redmond Fauset, the literary editor of The Crisis, the NAACP magazine where Hughes published his poetry, once said to Hughes, “You assuredly have the true poetic touch, the divine afflatus, which will someday carry you far.” Hughes’ poems are well-known and beloved, and lines have been used in popular book titles such as “Black like Me” by John Howard Griffin, and “A Raisin in the Sun” by Lorraine Hansberry, but his influence is more than that, as I’ve come to realize over the years.
Hughes was a poet, playwright, essayist, memoirist, and a social activist who I’ve been familiar with for the last decade or so. He started publishing his poetry in 1921 and his first autobiography was published in 1940. Decades later Hughes is still as important as ever. Funnily enough, he began to write poetry mainly because of a stereotype his teacher held:
“I was a victim of a stereotype. There were only two of us Negro kids in the whole class and our English teacher was always stressing the importance of rhythm in poetry. Well, everyone knows, except us, that all Negroes have rhythm, so they elected me as class poet.” – Langston Hughes, The Big Sea
Hughes’ poems explore various themes such as religion, race, racism, love, and the diaspora. His poetry is readable, yet profound. He is a humanist whose poetry discusses subtleties in a wide range of poetry topics. As a woman I was pleased to see Hughes wrote about women in an understanding and compassionate way, particularly as the Harlem Renaissance has often been criticized about being patriarchal and misogynistic:
In the quiet darkness,
This troubled woman
Weariness and pain
In the frozen rain,
Wind-blown autumn flower
That never lifts its head
Rereading Hughes recently reminds me of the fact that he was the first poet who made poetry accessible to me, particularly by creating poetry I found relatable to some of my experiences as a member of the black diaspora. Hughes brought to life the black experience in poetry form; the Harlem I had always heard about or seen in movies was illuminated by his words, and the lives of everyday folk that I wasn’t used to reading about were immortalized. To me this was all so very unlike the British poetry I grew up on which, although good, I always felt a disconnect from.
Several of Hughes’ poetry, in this age of the much publicized news on police brutality towards black Americans, serve as a much needed balm. It not only seems prescient in that so many of his poems are still relevant to this present time, his poetry also has cathartic and therapeutic qualities, and is often a reminder to black Americans that they are strong, powerful people, and in these times, poetry is as essential as ever:
The night is beautiful,
So the faces of my people.
The stars are beautiful,
So the eyes of my people.
Beautiful, also, is the sun.
Beautiful, also, are the souls of my people.
I opened my copy of Hughes’ Selected Poems after hearing the news of Philando Castile’s murder by the police and came across the poem “Democracy”, which seemed just right to voice the frustrations of black people living in the U.S.:
I tire so of hearing people say,
‘Let things take their course.
Tomorrow is another day.’
I do not need my freedom when I’m dead,
I cannot live on tomorrow’s bread.
Reading his two autobiographies — The Big Sea and I Wonder as I Wander — I was able to get a deeper sense of who Hughes was, and which events and experiences contributed to the man he became. With his wit, dreams, keen observations of life, this explorer who encountered the world and met with issues of race at every turn, left us two very insightful accounts of his life. Being a black man in America, race is on the forefront of many of his observations, and Hughes’ explorations of what it means to be black in America, in Mexico, in Europe, and in Africa, are very important accounts to this very day.
Hughes’ poetry still has great reach and influence. It seems to me that to be someone of Hughes’ calibre, it’s important to be a compassionate and sensitive observer.
After all, I suppose, how anything is seen depends on whose eyes look at it.
— Langston Hughes, I Wonder as I Wander
Rowena was raised in Scotland and Malawi and now calls Vancouver, Canada home. Because of her diverse upbringing Rowena has always been passionate and inquisitive about culture and identity. As a graduate of Intercultural and International Communication, her prime focuses and interests lay in issues of diversity, feminism, identity and storytelling. Rowena finds that literature and music keep her very grounded.