Of Poets and Presidents

Natural History, February 2009 | Go to article overview

Of Poets and Presidents


AMNH celebrates African-American Heritage Month

When Barack Obama accepted the Democratic nomination last August, he recalled an event 45 years earlier on the Mall before the Lincoln Memorial, when people came "to hear a young preacher from Georgia." It was August 1963, and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., delivered his historic "I Have a Dream" speech at the end of his March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.

"The men and women who gathered there could have heard many things," Obama said. "They could have heard words of anger and discord. They could have been told to succumb to the fear and frustrations of so many dreams deferred. But what the people heard instead - people of every creed and color, from every walk of life - is that, in America, our destiny is inextricably linked, that together our dreams can be one."

It didn't take long for those in the know to pick up on the phrase "so many dreams deferred" and its homage to the late poet Langston Hughes. It was Hughes who wrote the nowlegendary lines, "What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun?. ..Maybe it just sags like a heavy load. Or does it explode?"

As the American Museum of Natural History marks African-American Heritage Month on February 21, only weeks after Barack Obama's inauguration as the first African- American President of the United States, perhaps the most poignant tribute is the scheduled reading of the works of Langston Hughes.

Born James Mercer Langston Hughes in 1902, the poet counted among his ancestors John Mercer Langston, thought to be the first African American ever to hold public office in the United States. John Mercer Langston began his career as the first black lawyer in Ohio and was elected Town Clerk of Brownhelm, Ohio, in 1855; he then served on the city council of Oberlin, Ohio, from 1865 to 1867, and after a contested election, became the first African-American Congressman from Virginia. (Speaking of firsts, Lorraine Hansberry's play "A Raisin in the Sun," which took its title from Hughes' poem, was produced on Broadway and won the 1959 New York Drama Critics' Circle Award for Best American Play, both firsts for an African-American woman. …

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