Feb 2, 2017

Black History Month: Langston Hughes

With February being Black History Month, the library would like to acknowledge some of the many contributions African Americans have made to American life and culture.  Each week during February, we will post at least twice about significant and sometimes lesser-known figures in African-American history...which is to say American history.  These posts will be admittedly short and we will not be able to write about all of the African Americans who deserve to be and should be recognized for their contributions to America, but we hope they may encourage you to get out and explore African-American culture and history on your own.

The first Great African American we’ll look at is Langston Hughes, one of the most compelling figures in the Harlem Renaissance, an explosion of creativity that took place in Harlem, New York during the Twenties and Thirties (some argue it went on longer than that).  For African Americans, the Harlem Renaissance is a pivotal time because it catapulted African-American art, literature, and music into the American mainstream.

Langston Huges (Library of Congress, public domain)

Hughes was born in Joplin, MO in 1902, but many of his formative years were spent in Lawrence, KS with his grandmother.  He also lived Lincoln, IL, Cleveland and for a year in Mexico, where his father emigrated.  In 1921, he attended Columbia University in New York, but after two years he withdrew from school and took a job as a mess-boy on a ship and traveled to West Africa and Europe.  In Paris, he took a job washing dishes in a nightclub.  He stayed in Europe for a year, taking time to travel around the Mediterranean region before returning the US in 1925 and in 1926 moved to Harlem.  Though he lived all over the US, he usually associated with New York, where he died in 1961.

He was a very prolific writer, publishing poetry, novels, short stories, stage plays, radio plays, screen plays, song lyrics, autobiography, and translations of Spanish and French writers, but he is mostly remembered as a poet--in fact, he thought of himself as a poet first.  His first major work was “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” a poem that captures his delight in the beauty of the Mississippi, his gratitude for Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, an early sense of black pride, but also profound sadness about the experience of slavery--his grandfather participated in John Brown’s revolt and he had other radical abolitionist family members.  The poem embodies the tension between celebration and pain that we find in the blues, gospel, and jazz music.  “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” is considered a masterpiece of American poetry.  Below is an audio clip of him introducing the poem and then reading it.

Hughes had a deep love of jazz and the blues and his irregular forms and rhythms reflect those found in these musical genres.  He mixed long and short lines and used repetition like jazz soloists.  He also repeated lines the way blues singers do.  This was such a mark of his style that he is sometimes called the first jazz poet.  In the following video clip, we see him reading one of his poems to a bluesy jazz groove.  There’s no time here to show how this all works out, but Hughes’s work helped set the stage for the development of rhythm and blues, rock and roll, and funk, which set the table for rap as a musical form.

If you are interested in reading Hughes' work, the library has his complete works in print and electronic form.


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