April is NATIONAL POETRY MONTH and 3 Chics would be remiss if we didn’t start our celebration by sharing the works of poet Langston Hughes. Afterall, we can’t allow former U.S. Senator Rick Santorum tohijack one of Mr. Hughes most indelible works, and once learning the origins and originator of the poem, admitted he didn’t have anything to do with the campaign slogan, and that he doesn’t even read poetry.
Howard University Library System: Born in 1902 in Joplin, Missouri, Langston Hughes grew up mainly in Lawrence, Kansas, but also lived in Illinois, Ohio, and Mexico.
By the time Hughes enrolled at Columbia University in New York, he had already launched his literary career with his poem “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” in the Crisis, edited by W E. B. Du Bois. He had also committed himself both to writing and to writing mainly about African-Americans.
Hughes’s sense of dedication was instilled in him most of all by his maternal grandmother, Mary Langston, whose first husband had died at Harpers Ferry as a member of John Brown’s band, and whose second husband (Hughes’s grandfather) had also been a militant abolitionist. Another important family figure was John Mercer Langston, a brother of Hughes’s grandfather who was one of the best-known black Americans of the nineteenth century. At the same time, Hughes struggled with a sense of desolation fostered by parental neglect. He himself recalled being driven early by his loneliness ‘to books, and the wonderful world in books.’
Leaving Columbia in 1922, Hughes spent the next three years in a succession of menial jobs. But he also traveled abroad. He worked on a freighter down the west coast of Africa and lived for several months in Paris before returning to the United States late in 1924. By this time, he was well known in African American literary circles as a gifted young poet.
His major early influences were Walt Whitman, Carl Sandburg, as well as the black poets Paul Laurence Dunbar, a master of both dialect and standard verse, and Claude McKay, a radical socialist who also wrote accomplished lyric poetry. However, Sandburg, who Hughes later called “my guiding star,” was decisive in leading him toward free verse and a radically democratic modernist aesthetic.
His devotion to black music led him to novel fusions of jazz and blues with traditional verse in his first two books, The Weary Blues (1926) and Fine Clothes to the Jew (1927). His emphasis on lower-class black life, especially in the latter, led to harsh attacks on him in the black press. With these books, however, he established himself as a major force of the Harlem Renaissance. In 1926, in the Nation, he provided the movement with a manifesto when he skillfully argued the need for both race pride and artistic independence in his most memorable essay, ‘The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain.”
By this time, Hughes had enrolled at the historically black Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, from which he would graduate in 1929. In 1927 he began one of the most important relationships of his life, with his patron Mrs. Charlotte Mason, or “Godmother,” who generously supported him for two years. She supervised the writing of his first novel, Not Without Laughter (1930)–about a sensitive, black midwestern boy and his struggling family. However, their relationship collapsed about the time the novel appeared, and Hughes sank into a period of intense personal unhappiness and disillusionment.
One result was his firm turn to the far left in politics. During a year (1932-1933) spent in the Soviet Union, he wrote his most radical verse. A year in Carmel, California, led to a collection of short stories, The Ways of White Folks (1934). This volume is marked by pessimism about race relations, as well as a sardonic realism.
After his play Mulatto, on the twinned themes of miscegenation and parental rejection, opened on Broadway in 1935, Hughes wrote other plays, including comedies such as Little Ham (1936) and a historical drama, Emperor of Haiti (1936). Most of these plays were only moderate successes. In 1937 he spent several months in Europe, including a long stay in besieged Madrid. In 1938 he returned home to found the Harlem Suitcase Theater, which staged his agitprop drama Don’t You Want to Be Free? The play, employing several of his poems, vigorously blended black nationalism, the blues, and socialist exhortation. The same year, a socialist organization published a pamphlet of his radical verse, “A New Song.”
With World War II, Hughes moved more to the center politically. His first volume of autobiography, The Big Sea (1940), written in an episodic, lightly comic manner, made virtually no mention of his leftist sympathies. In his book of verse Shakespeare in Harlem (1942) he once again sang the blues. On the other hand, this collection, as well as another, his Jim Crow’s Last Stand (1943), strongly attacked racial segregation.
Perhaps his finest literary achievement during the war came in the course of writing a weekly column in the Chicago Defender that began in 1942 and lasted twenty years. The highlight of the column was an offbeat Harlem character called Jesse B. Semple, or Simple, and his exchanges with a staid narrator in a neighborhood bar, where Simple commented on a variety of matters but mainly about race and racism. Simple became Hughes’s most celebrated and beloved fictional creation, and the subject of five collections edited by Hughes, starting in 1950 with Simple Speaks His Mind.
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.
You can hear Langston Hughes recite the poem on audio here.
This week, feel free to Drop a poem or link at 3 Chics to some of your favorite poems/poets. Have a great Monday!