By: Ellen Nimmo
Langston Hughes was a poet. Born in Joplin, Missouri Hughes eventually made his way to New York where his writing career began. A leader of the Harlem Renaissance, Hughes’ writing portrayed lives of blacks in America. Working-class lives, lives of depth and courage, lives of hardship and of joy, of music and wit; Hughes illuminated black culture and experience in America with the light of celebration, revealing a racial consciousness that commanded attention, thought and action. His cause and care: to create, without fear, a body, a “temple for tomorrow, strong as we know how” (The Nation).
When I read (or listen) to Langston, I am forced to reckon with the underbelly of our Nation’s history. In the strength and experience of a man, in the clemency and hope of a child, the poet Hughes looks straight into the eyes of white and black America and says: awake.
My friend Matt did a series of recordings based on a Langston Hughes character, Jesse B. Semple, often called simply, Simple. Stories of Simple lead readers into conversations over racism, American society, and humanity at large; offering wisdom in the vernacular of the every-day black man, the working man.
Like his character, Simple, Langston’s stories and poems seem to knit simplicity and complexity together, seamlessly. One such poem I read recently disturbed me.
I know I am
The Negro Problem
Being wined and dined,
Answering the usual questions
That come to white mind
Which seeks demurely
To Probe in polite way
The why and wherewithal
Of darkness U.S.A.—
Wondering how things got this way
In current democratic night,
Over fraises du bois,
“I’m so ashamed of being white.”
The lobster is delicious,
The wine divine,
And center of attention
At the damask table, mine.
To be a Problem on
Park Avenue at eight
Is not so bad.
Solutions to the Problem,
Of course, wait.
Hughes unmasks the white sympathizer, the white guilt which inquires ever demurely, over lobster and wine, asking all the “usual questions” and giving the usual answers. Probing in that “polite” way revealing, oh how dark that democratic night.
A mirror to our contemporary struggle.
A voice from our haunting past.
I pray that another 50 years won’t have us in these same cycles, white America, God help us.
As George Floyd, in his dying minutes, pleaded for mercy, for equality, for freedom, innate dignity and God-given gift – unhindered breath – I hear the echoing prophetic, Hughes. By condemning the racism and injustice he saw, celebrating the black lives and culture he loved, Langston Hughes, without trace of shame or hesitation, in that raw voice of Truth which taps in determined regularity, calls America into the light of reality – into the hope of change.
O, let my land be a land where Liberty
Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,
But opportunity is real, and life is free,
Equality is in the air we breathe.
[Excerpt from “Let America Be America Again” by Langston Hughes]