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Issue #1779      May 31, 2017

Jazz Poetry man

Langston Hughes, American poet, social activist, novelist, playwright, and columnist was born in 1902 and died 50 years ago on May 22, 1967. He was an early innovator of the literary art form called jazz poetry, and was a leader of New York City’s Harlem Renaissance.

In 1932, Hughes became part of a group of black people who went to the Soviet Union to make a film depicting the plight of African Americans in the United States. The film was never made, but Hughes took the opportunity to travel extensively through the USSR, including the Soviet republics in Central Asia. He also travelled to China and Japan before returning to the States.

Hughes’ poetry was frequently published in the Daily Worker, and he was involved in initiatives supported by Communist organisations, such as the drive to free the Scottsboro Boys. As a show of support for the Republic during the Spanish Civil War, in 1937 Hughes travelled to Spain as a correspondent for the Baltimore Afro-American and other African-American newspapers.

Hughes was also involved in other Communist-led organisations such as the John Reed Clubs and the League of Struggle for Negro Rights. He signed a 1938 statement supporting Joseph Stalin’s purges and joined the American Peace Mobilisation in 1940 working to keep the US from participating in World War II.

Hughes did not favour black American involvement in the war because of the persistence of discriminatory Jim Crow laws and racial segregation and disfranchisement throughout the South. He came to support the war effort and black American participation after deciding that war service would aid their struggle for civil rights at home. Hughes, like fellow writers Lorraine Hansberry and Richard Wright, was a humanist and nontheist, a strain often ignored in the narrative of the civil rights movement.

Accused of being a Communist by many on the political right, Hughes always denied it. When asked why he never joined the Communist Party, he wrote, “It was based on strict discipline and the acceptance of directives that I, as a writer, did not wish to accept.”

In Langston Hughes’ honour, we offer a few of his poems.

The Penguin Book of Socialist Verse, edited by Alan Bold, 1970

People’s World

I, Too, Sing America

I, too, sing America.

I am the darker brother.
They send me to eat in the kitchen
When company comes,
But I laugh,
And eat well,
And grow strong.

Tomorrow,
I’ll sit at the table
When company comes.
Nobody’ll dare
Say to me,
“Eat in the kitchen,”
Then.

Besides,
They’ll see how beautiful
I am And be ashamed –

I, too, am America.

 

Song for a Dark Girl

Way Down South in Dixie
(Break the heart of me)
They hung my dark young lover
To a cross-roads tree.

Way Down South in Dixie
(Bruised body high in air)
I asked the white Lord Jesus
What was the use of prayer.

Way Down South in Dixie
(Break the heart of me)
Love is a naked shadow
On a gnarled and naked tree.

 

Merry-Go-Round

Where is the Jim Crow section
On this merry-go-round,
Mister, cause I want to ride?
Down South where I come from
White and coloured
Can’t sit side by side.
Down South on the train
There’s a Jim Crow car.
On the bus we’re put in the back –
But there ain’t no back
To a merry-go-round!
Where’s the horse
For a kid that’s black?

 

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.

 

Mother to Son

Well, son, I’ll tell you:
Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.
It’s had tacks in it,
And splinters,
And boards torn up,
And places with no carpet on the floor –
Bare.
But all 6-climbin’ on,
And reachin’ landin’s,
And turnin’ corners,
And sometimes goin’ in the dark
Where there ain’t been no light.
So, boy, don’t you turn back.
Don’t you set down on the steps
’Cause you finds it’s kinder hard.
Don’t you fall now
For I’se still goin’, honey,
I’se still climbin’,
And life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.

 

Next article – Film Review – Strike

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