This month, 606 is honoring Black History by sharing art and poetry by black artists and poets. We’ve invited artists, art historians, curators, archivists, literary scholars, poets, and others with expertise in art and poetry to share their favorite pieces of art and poems by black artists around the globe. If you find your life enriched by this blog series, say “thank you” by buying art from a black artist and poetry by black artists, visiting a museum, asking your local art museum to include more black artists, donating to an art scholarship for students of color, asking your library to stock more books on black art and by black poets, dropping off some art supplies at your local community center or daycare or senior center, or donating art by artists of color to your local school, community center, or house of worship.
Today, we thank Dr. Adriano Elia for insights into the poetry of Langston Hughes.
Above, Langston Hughes, The Weary Blues, 1926. Illustrations by Miguel Covarrubias. From the Collection of Alden and Mary Kimbrough. Image courtesy of the Museum of the African Diaspora.
In the autobiography The Big Sea, Langston Hughes recalled his childhood days in Lawrence, Kansas. His grandmother, a proud woman who looked like an Indian with long black hair, would tell him stories about “people who wanted to make the Negroes free.” In these stories, nobody ever cried, and the young Langston seemed to absorb this message fully – he didn’t shed a tear even when she died because she had involuntarily taught him the pointlessness of crying about anything. Such imperturbability proved essential for Hughes as a means to keep safe his true self.
This is apparent in a historical video broadcast on the Canadian program “The 7 O’Clock Show” in 1958, where Hughes recites his poem “The Weary Blues” accompanied by the jazz of the Doug Parker Band. Although the poem ‒ and the gloomy blues song it evokes ‒ is about the emotional condition of sadness and loneliness, Hughes’s detached delivery somehow disrupts its content. His gravitas was probably intended as a reaction to decades of minstrel shows, where African Americans were always portrayed as stereotypical caricatures.
Above, Hughes recites “The Weary Blues” with accompaniment by the Doug Parker Band.
Over fifty years since his death, Hughes’s contribution still resonates in different ways: in 2015, for example, the prestigious Barbican theatre in London commissioned from rapper Ice-T and jazz trumpeter Ron McCurdy a performance based on Hughes’s collection of poems Ask Your Mama. Ice-T was thus both a credible contemporary interpreter of Hughes’s person behind the persona as well as a living embodiment of his enduring influence on 21st-century arts and letters. Just consider the often-quoted definition of poetry Hughes offered not long before his death: “It is the human soul entire, squeezed like a lemon or a lime, drop by drop, into atomic words.” In today’s chaotic socio-political scenario, more than ever it is crucial for a poet to condense in few, effective words feelings and thoughts having an impact on the behavior of contemporary readers: “Hang yourself, poet, in your own words. Otherwise, you are dead.”
Adriano Elia, PhD., is Senior Lecturer in English at the University of Rome “Roma Tre”. His publications include books and essays on word-image interrelationships, contemporary British fiction, Afrofuturism, Hanif Kureishi, W.E.B. Du Bois and Langston Hughes.