Dining With Langston Hughes

May 22: On this day in 1967 Langston Hughes died, aged sixty-five. While still in his mid-twenties, in an essay entitled "The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain," Hughes announced the theme that would become his preoccupation:

We younger Negro artists now intend to express our individual dark-skinned selves without fear or shame. If white people are pleased we are glad. If they aren't, it doesn't matter. We know we are beautiful. And ugly too... If colored people are pleased, we are glad. If they are not, their displeasure doesn't matter either. We build our temples for tomorrow, as strong as we know how, and we stand on the top of the mountain, free within ourselves.

His poem "I, Too, Sing America," written about the same time, shows similar confidence and patience:

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 be at the table

When company comes.

Nobody'll dare

Say to me,

"Eat in the kitchen,"

Then.

By the '50s he was famous enough to be invited to sit, if only to be given lip service; the following lines are from "Dinner Guest: 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….

Throughout his last decade, as more militant Black Americans dismissed him as a voice too tame and tolerant for the times, Hughes stuck to his non-guns:

When I was graduated from high school, I went to live with my father for a time in Mexico, and in my father I encountered the kind of bitterness, the kind of utter psychiatric, you might say, frustration that has been expressed in some Negro novels…. I did not sympathize with that viewpoint on the part of my own father. My feeling was this is my country, I want to live here. I want to come back here, I want to make my country as beautiful as I can, as wonderful a country as I can, because I love it myself....


Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John's, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.

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