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Langston Hughes

BOOKS ::: POET :::

The Harlem Renaissance kicked off the post-World War I peace era and suffered a sudden death at the advent of the Great Depression. It was Black America's first Motherlode moment - a mix of high and low culture aimed at reinventing art.

It was a cultural revolution in music, art, theatre, dance, film, books, fashion and politics. It was the Jazz Age - Roaring 20s - and Hughes proudly announced, "The negro is in vogue." Our boy Carl Van Vechten spent the era snapping endless roles of film while penning the not so PC quasi-fictional account of the times, Nigger Heaven..

Langston's life's work revolved around demystifying - sucking all the pretentious air out of - the art form of poetry. He wanted people to know that you shouldn't need a freakin' PhD to enjoy it. You would never have need for cliff notes to decipher his prose - that was a burden for Shakespeare fans. He could have put words to paper with Ivy league ease but instead he chose to use everyday street speak with a strong black dialect. It only makes sense that he gravitated towards poets like the great Paul Laurence Dunbar, the folk art stylings of Carl Sandburg and words for the everyman written by Walt Whitman. They were the sums of the whole that added up to one of poetry's most important innovators.

Hughes was born of mixed race in the once lawless midwest mining town of Joplin, Missouri in 1902. There he remained where he was raised by a grandmother (who was once wed to a member of John Brown's raid party) before reuniting with his natural mother in Kansas at the age of thirteen. There he wrote his first poems. When it came time for college he headed to New York's Columbia University where he studied for one year to pursue a career in engineering which he soon learned held little or no interest to him. He was well travelled visiting Mexico to see his father as a teen before shipping out to Europe and Africa to find himself not long after he gave up his formal studies. He would later return to the neighborhood of Harlem just next door to his former Columbia University campus. Hi first work was published in 1926, The Weary Blues.

The Weary Blues

Droning a drowsy syncopated tune,
Rocking back and forth to a mellow croon,
I heard a Negro play.
Down on Lenox Avenue the other night
By the pale dull pallor of an old gas light
He did a lazy sway . . .
He did a lazy sway . . .
To the tune o' those Weary Blues.
With his ebony hands on each ivory key
He made that poor piano moan with melody.
O Blues!
Swaying to and fro on his rickety stool
He played that sad raggy tune like a musical fool.
Sweet Blues!
Coming from a black manís soul.
O Blues!
In a deep song voice with a melancholy tone
I heard that Negro sing, that old piano moanó
"Ainít got nobody in all this world,
Ain't got nobody but ma self.
I's gwine to quit ma frownin'
And put ma troubles on the shelf."

Thump, thump, thump, went his foot on the floor.
He played a few chords then he sang some moreó

"I got the Weary Blues
And I canít be satisfied.
Got the Weary Blues
And canít be satisfiedó
I ainít happy no mo' And I wish that I had died."
And far into the night he crooned that tune.
The stars went out and so did the moon.
The singer stopped playing and went to bed
While the Weary Blues echoed through his head.
He slept like a rock or a man that's dead.

From The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes, published by Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. Copyright © 1994 the Estate of Langston Hughes.

Langston Hughes soon became involved with a long run of black literary publications, leagues and organizations. His political leanings embraced anti-War sentiment, the stuggles for worker's rights and black equality for which drew the attention of the authorities.

He was a contributor to the leftist rag, New Masses with it's star studded line-up featuring Max Eastman, John Dos Passos, Upton Sinclair, Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, Dorothy Parker, Eugene O'Neill and Ernest Hemingway.

In 1931 he joined a black delegation to Russia to study the Soviet Union where was turned on to the great russian poet Alexander Pushkin. Stalin's Great Purge was still five years away so black Americans like Hughes and Paul Robeson enjoyed their time there unfettered in A Land Where There Is No Jim Crow. Jim Crow law still segregated US troops contrary to what Langston Hughes saw in the spirit of the United States Constitution.

While speaking abroad in Japan in 1933 about the mistreatment of African-Americans he caught the attention of the FBI who kept a dossier on Hughes throughout the rest of his life. Most of the records which are now public failed to get much of anything correct about him. He was never a member of the Communist Party. He never did marry that white woman. Come WWII, Hoover had informants crawling up Langston's ass. The Bureau seemed obsessed about his poem Goodbye Christ which made it into his FBI file.

Goodbye Christ

Listen, Christ,
You did alright in your day, I reckon-
But that dayís gone now.
They ghosted you up a swell story, too,
Called it Bible-
But itís dead now,
The popes and the preachersíve
Made too much money from it.
Theyíve sold you to too many

Kings, generals, robbers, and killers-
Even to the Tzar and the Cossacks,
Even to Rockefellerís Church,
You ainít no good no more.
Theyíve pawned you
Till youíve done wore out.

Christ Jesus Lord God Jehova,
Beat it on away from here now.
Make way for a new guy with no religion at all-
A real guy named
Marx Communist Lenin Peasant Stalin Worker ME-
I said, ME!

Go ahead on now, Youíre getting in the way of things, Lord.
And please take Saint Gandhi with you when you go,
And Saint Pope Pius,
And Saint Aimee McPherson,
And big black Saint Becton
Of the Consecrated Dime.
And step on the gas, Christ!

Donít be so slow about movin?
The world is mine from now on-
And nobodyís gonna sell ME
To a king, or a general,
Or a millionaire.

He got dragged into court during the early days of McCarthyism and lived to see the birth of the Civil Rights Movement and the early strains of the Black Power movement.

Harlem's East 127th Street has since been renamed Langston Hughes Place.

Ralph Ellison


Max Eastman


Richard Wright


Carl Sandburg


Walt Whitman


Carl Van Vechten


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