Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Love Affair With Langston Hughes

What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore--
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over--
like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?

-Dream Deferred by Langston Hughes

One day I'll write a poem, or an essay -a book probably- on how profound this poem is. But for now, I want to talk about the man who wrote it, and when I met him, and why I've been in love with him ever since.

I'm weird. I sometimes fall in love with dead people: authors, poets, singers, songwriters, activists, artists... maybe it's safer to love them dead than alive. I especially love African-American history. MoTown music (late 1950s onward). Martin Luther and friends (1960s). Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad (1859). Rosa Parks and her indispensible 'but' (1955, pun intended). The Harlem Renaissance (1920s-60s). And especially Langston Hughes.

It was sixth form literature. We studied the Harlem Renaissance, one of the most profound periods in Afro-American history, a precursor to what would soon happen in the Caribbean when we started to develop our own (recognised) intellectual traditions (1960s-70s-now?). I always think it must have been awesome to live in a period when black people were defining their own identities (not that I'd ever trade places with anyone from that time. I'm fine here and now, thank you.)

The first poem we studied was Dream Deferred. And that day, Mr. Hughes won my heart. I marvelled at the simplicity of his language: the raw potent explosiveness behind his carefully measured words. Mesmerised, I started to research his life beyond class requirements. I began to read his poems with more fervency and passion, to feel reverence for this amazing man whose words helped to transform an entire nation. I wrote a whole book of (amateur) poems just feeding off the energy from his words alone. That was the same year I came third in the country for CAPE Lit. Langston really turned me on, I tell you! (no pun intended; and I studied Ayi Kwei Armah's 'The Beautyful Ones' that year as well - another absolutely powerful piece of work!)

One thing I've learnt is that history really makes literature come alive. Whenever I get the historical context for a piece of writing, my appreciation for it multiplies hundredfold. Reading about Langston's rise from Joplin, Missouri to Harlem, New York made him real to me. If writers who are able to articulate the feelings and hopes of an entire nation/race are dangerous, then Langston Hughes was lethal. He effectively captured the frustration and depression that afflicted African-Americans in 1950.

I felt his every word, and in my mind's eye, I could see him walking on desecrated black streets, passing dilapidated shops, looking into the faces of desperate people: broken men, women and children; reading the hurt in their eyes, and wondering... "what happens to a people who have lost the will to live? What happens to a dream deferred?"

I hope to grow up soon. And when I do, I hope to be a lethal writer too. Not like Langston Hughes. Like me. But with the same kind of intensity that makes the world turn on its axis, or that makes a little girl studying in high school many generations later sit up straighter in class, and start to really pay attention... and maybe even become inspired to write a legacy of her own...


Ruthibelle said...

I must also admit that Mr. Hughes was a very... um, comely young man...

Gordon Swaby said...

I hope so you too, your pretty good:)

Will said...

he's one of the first poets (and this is one of the first poems) i introduce my students to... invariably they love him...

then i introduce them to some of his more controversial work and they sit there, dumbstruck... an athiest??? surely not, sir!!! possibly gay??? never!!!

helps them reevaluate their stance on literature and how they approach it... hughes is great for that... as well as for being an amazing example of writing of course... :-)

Ruthibelle said...

@Gordon: pretty good?? oh dear. I have a lot of work left to do!! JK, thanx :)

@Will: In my (wonderfully biased and awfully romanticised) imagination, I can't see anyone (except crazy racists and ardent black despondents) who didn't love Langston Hughes. I mean, after you read his work, what's there NOT to love??

Matters not if he's brown, black, yellow, white, crooked, straight or slightly lean. His writing is just awesome. Period.

Will said...

Ruthi - I totally agree... critics have always been a bit divided because there're some hughes poems that are quite unremarkable... but by and large i think he use words so simply, so effortlessly and yet so meaningfully that he is definitely one of my favourites...

ps - crooked, straight or slightly lean? aaaaaaaaaaaaaaahahahahahahaha... i love it... slightly lean... *shakes head and chuckles*

Ruthibelle said...

:) no comments.

Wuthering said...

Ruthi you never cease to amaze me!

I have to say the Black History education in America is excellent. Or maybe it's because i'm from the liberal Northeast. I just gotta say, I too read these great literary works and feel the desperation and will against insurmountable odds and just feel so many emotions. One including a heart filled to the brim.

Interestingly, I'm presently taking a course that touches on many socioeconomic and government factors in American as well as the rest of the world. Quite frankly it's been kicking my but!(*it's my last non-science or non major class and as luck would have it I signed up for this honors course. Geez i need better advising.)

Ok. get ready for my ramble:

Anyway, I'm reading "The New Geography of Global Income Inequality" by Glenn Firebaugh... as i've always suspected America's "middle class" experienced greater wealth by through the riding on the backs of the exploitation of minorities and gender inequality.

Of course nothing new since our country was formed by imperialistic control allowing a near complete genocide of the native American.

Basically...(Imperialism and the next ( i don't even know which word to chose) slavery are the greatest social crimes non-withstanding war crimes).

Anyway, AND N O W, we finally have a semblance of equality in America.

We also still have our cowboy individualism. Cultural norms and sneaky social engineering leading to no government support. "Getting government off our back" would seem like a good idea to most, especially since most governments are costly and corrupt in one way or another.

However, with no regulation this leaves the most vulnerable at the bottom with little or no chance to rise up from their circumstance.

A G A I N... the C L A S S system rears its domineering head. (i'm leaving out all the techniques used by free market, corporation, etc.)

It just goes to prove that as long as people have greed in their hearts all of the greatest human suffering will just continue on.

I'm sure I've said nothing you don't already know... just talking ;)))))

Ruthibelle said...

lol Luce. I understand. Many would say that's why we have this fantastic "crash" right now: greed.

Class systems that perpetuate prejudice and poverty. It always comes down to the green-eyed monster. I get what you're saying.

And Hughes articulates the frustrations of the people who end up at the bottom of the hierarchy in his society very very well...

Ruthibelle said...

lol... hierarchy is such a funny word. Say it quickly several times and then try to spell it... it sounds weird, doesn't it?? LOL!

Abeni said...

Well ruthie, I think you ar eon your way to being a lethal writer. Look at how you have us mesmerised:)

Ruthibelle said...

lmao.. Abeni. Faaaar way to go, I tell you!

Annie Paul said...


I used to love Hughes too, haven't read him recently but have you read his travelogues to the former Soviet U?

lol bout lethal writer...you already are, but when you graduate to truly lethal, you can call yourself The Ruthless One...

Ruthibelle said...

lol. now there's a thought!

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