Langston Hughes Centennial, 1902-1967: The Beat Goes On

By Graham, Maryemma | The New Crisis, January/February 2002 | Go to article overview

Langston Hughes Centennial, 1902-1967: The Beat Goes On


Graham, Maryemma, The New Crisis


LANGSTON HUGHES CENTENNIAL

Langston Hughes' verse continues to resonate and influence

"Hughes left us with a model of the perfect work of art"

-Leopold Senghor

Those of us engaged in this racial struggle in America are like knights on horseback - the Negroes on a white horse and the white folks on a black. Sometimes the race is terrific. But the feel of the wind in your hair as you ride toward democracy is really something!!

- Langston Hughes

At 20 East 127th St. In Harlem, the former home of Langston Hughes, seven poets gather to pay homage - and to film a new documentary by Jamal Joseph, a community activist and youth organizer. They are seated around the dining room table enjoying a meal prepared by Sonia Sanchez and passionately discussing the late poet.

"He made literature and art what it was supposed to be, for the people," says Kevin Powell, editor of Step Into a World: A Global Anthology of the New Black Literature, a book inspired by Hughes. "Langston Hughes was definitely a political writer and not afraid of being so. He loved being Black and made it possible to be so without shame."

"Langston's reach is like Muhammad Ali's, long, powerful, accurate," adds Harlem poet Willie Perdomo. In February, Henry Holt will publish Visiting Langston, Perdomo's book for young readers. "In Hughes' work, everyone is family, all is love and even in struggle you can find a glass half-full, something to laugh at, someone to cry with. You're never the same after you're done reading or listening to his work."

Jessica Care Moore offers an aggressive nod. "It's important that the hip-hop generation knows Langston because we were birthed from his ideas, humor, stories and his love for expression," says Moore, an Atlanta-based poet and performance artist.

The veterans in this group, Sanchez, Amiri and Amino Baraka, and Abiodun Oyewole - an original member of the legendary Last Poets - were among the stars of the Black Arts Movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s, a time when artists asserted themselves as revolutionaries and Black nationalist sentiments flooded the airwaves and the streets. The artist's role, Amiri Baraka once proclaimed, was to "aid in the destruction of America as he knew it." The movement driven by the social and political forces hailing "Black Power," thrived for a time before losing ground in the wake of new Black literary superstars of the 1980s. Still its icons, Sanchez, Amiri Baraka, Nikki Giovanni and Haki Madhubuti, can draw crowds.

Baraka had frequent encounters with Hughes in the '60s, and once called him "glib and facile." At dinner, he admitted having little respect for Hughes then, but reiterated his conviction that "Langston is the Jazz Poet! The constant communicator of blues... the singer, the philosopher, the folk and urban lyricist." Baraka's reassessment mirrors the sentiment offered by scholars, traditional poets and word artists, who today consider Hughes' work prophetic in ways that we are only beginning to understand. He had, Baraka says of Hughes, an intuitive understanding of the sources of great art.

The scene in Harlem might be a rehearsal for events surrounding Langston Hughes' centennial in February. Poets and other literary figures, including those at the Harlem dinner last December, will gather in Lawrence, Kan., Hughes' boyhood home, for "Let America Be America Again: An International Symposium on the Art, Life & Legacy of Langston Hughes." The marathon celebration for the beloved poet and acclaimed chronicler of the "low down folks" begins on the eve of his 100th birthday and will feature artists and scholars such as Alice Walker, Paule Marshall, Ishmael Reed and Hughes biographer Arnold Rampersad. Actor and activist Danny Glover is also scheduled to attend, along with people from four other continents.

There is not a single important development in American poetry that cannot be linked to Langston Hughes. …

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