Writing black America – Dan’s Papers

He was drawn to it.

Perhaps it was this serene expanse of Havens Beach that invited him to shed the noise of the city streets and explore the bay. It was perhaps the opportunity to meet other creators. Or, perhaps, it was breaking free from the still isolated societies of the East End, New York City, and the Deep South of the 1950s.

Before discovering this safe place, Langston Hughes, the “Harlem Poet Laureate”, led the era of Harlem Renaissance jazz. The culture of the African American neighborhood inspired poets, artists, musicians and intellectuals to celebrate black consciousness in the 1920s and 1930s. Throughout the 1940s, “Hughes, more than any other black poet or writer , faithfully recorded the nuances of black life and its frustrations, ”wrote PBS Utah.

In the 1950s, the social activist, novelist, playwright, and journalist – the man whose musical poetry anticipated that of the Beats, black art poets, and rappers – was ready to kick off his shoes and feel sand between his feet. toes.


A descendant of paternal great-grandmothers who were African-American slaves and paternal great-grandfathers who were white slave owners, James Mercer Langston Hughes began life in Joplin, Missouri, in 1902. Abandoned by his father, the young boy was brought up by his mother and maternal grandmother. Hughes later recalled being “miserable for a long time and very lonely … and I began to believe in nothing but books and the wonderful world of books – where if people suffered, they suffered in a way. beautiful language”.

In Illinois, her high school English teacher emphasized the importance of poetic rhythm. With only two black students in his class, he was voted class poet because “everyone knows – except us – that all ‘Negroes’ have rhythm,” he recalls wryly. So he started to write poetry. In high school, he read Carl Sandburg’s work, edited the yearbook, wrote for the school newspaper, and sent his work (unsuccessfully) to magazines.

After graduation, he traveled to Mexico, the west coast of Africa and Spain on a freighter, and to Paris, exploring what he called “racial rhythms”; African-American publications and Vanity Fair magazine published his poems.

He was influenced by the late Walt Whitman, whom he called “America’s greatest poet”. En route to Africa, admiring Whitman’s statements about equality with black slaves, Hughes threw all his books overboard, with the exception of Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. Hughes I’s poem, Too became popular: “I too sing about America. I am the dark brother. They send me to eat in the kitchen… ”, He included poems by Whitman in his anthology The Poetry of the Negro and recommended that black writers read Whitman.

Returning to the United States, he pioneered the simple style of jazz poetry and syncopated rhythms backed by jazz combos. While working as a diner in Washington, DC, in 1925, he slipped his poem “The Weary Blues” next to poet Vachel Lindsay’s plate. After reading Hughes’ lines on the bluesman – “With his ebony hands on every ivory key, he made that poor piano moan with a melody.” O blues! – Lindsay introduced the young poet-author to publishers. Hughes graduated from Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, the first historically black university, in 1929; her first novel, Pas sans rire, won the Harmon Gold Medal for Literature.

From 1942, he worked for the New York Post and the Chicago Defender; his poetry flourishes, ignoring classical forms, incorporating improvised jazz and black folk rhythms.


About 100 miles east of Manhattan, summer bungalows for upper and middle class African Americans sprang up in the 1940s and 1950s in Sag Harbor Hills, Azureest, and Nineveh, known as “WITHOUT”. Returning WWII soldiers and other black people bought property because it was almost impossible for them to get mortgages or access the beach elsewhere due to anti-black laws and attitudes that perpetuated mortgage discrimination and segregation.

Hughes traveled frequently to Nineveh Place in the 1950s to stay with his college roommate, historian William Pickens. They were reading poetry on Pickens’ porch, about “workers, roustabouts, singers and job seekers … – people of today and tomorrow, working this week and fired the next, beaten and bewildered, but determined not to be completely beaten …, “Hughes wrote.

He continued to write what he knew about loneliness, hopelessness and humor, and recorded albums of spoken word with jazz greats like Thelonious Monk and Charles Mingus before he died of prostate cancer. in 1967.

Hughes ‘pioneering works have survived for more than half a century: today Ice-T, Mos Def (Yasiin Bey) and other rappers celebrate Hughes’ jazz poetry, and in Nineveh, the porch of the poetry is featured on the Literary Sag Harbor Walking Tour.

This story first appeared in Long Island Press.

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