New Langston Hughes Poems DiscoveredJANUARY 31, 2009
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It's Langston Hughes's birthday this weekend, and people across the country are celebrating one of America's most beloved poets with poetry performances and other events. Poetry magazine has given Langston Hughes fans even more reason to celebrate. This month's issue features three previously unpublished Langston Hughes poems, written in 1930. Langston Hughes's biographer Arnold Rampersad, says he was elated to find out about these newly discovered poems.
Arnold Rampersad: At Hughes's funeral, he said that the event was to conclude with a little jazz trio or so playing Duke Ellington's "Do Nothing Until You Hear From Me," and when I read these poems, I felt that Hughes was speaking once again. It was like hearing from an old friend that you hadn't heard from in a very long time. Suddenly, there he was, speaking words I hadn't heard before that seemed almost uncannily appropriate to the world in which we are living.
In 1930, Hughes had behind him twp volumes of verse. Nineteen-thirty, of course, is also one year after 1929, and Hughes can see poverty all about him. His conscience is bothering him because he is drawing this money from his Park Avenue patron when people are starving on the streets, and all of his instincts that lead him toward socialist ideals are poured into these three poems.
The poem, "You and your whole race" engages shortcomings in both the black and the white world. Hughes loved black Americans, but he was also keenly aware that whole sections of the black community had no sense of how to move themselves forward. The black middle class, for example, he often attacked because they seemed insensitive to the problems that faced poorer black people; they were poor imitations of white folk, and the white folk were oppressing them by and large. It also speaks to white folks by emphasizing the extent to which the relationship between whites and blacks is an exploitative one with whites holding power and keeping blacks in "supine poverty," in "stupid ignorance that breeds children" and leads to what he calls "humble shelters of despair." Instead of a home, you have a "humble shelter of despair."
Langston Hughes was certainly optimistic about America - you would think from some of his poems that he was not, but I think Hughes had a lover's quarrel with America. He recognizes America as a dynamic place where reality must be recognized and at this moment, 1930, with the market having crashed, with poverty sweeping the country, Americans must be challenged and America must be changed.
Special thanks to the Poetry Foundation for this story.
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