I can’t think of a better way to welcome February, commemorate Black History Month and anticipate all things love for Valentine’s Day than by celebrating the 111th birthday of noted Harlem Renaissance poet, novelist, social activist, essayist, playwright, and columnist Langston Hughes.
In light of recent events — the inauguration of President Obama, the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, and the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday — I’ve been trying to imagine what Langston would say about all that’s going on in America today.
No doubt he will continue to be universally beloved for championing creative expression and human rights and remaining an accessible inspiration to people of all socio-economic backgrounds. Many of his iconic poems (“Let America Be America Again,” “I, Too, Sing America”), resonate more strongly than ever as our struggle continues to build a nation where “opportunity is real, and life is free, Equality is in the air we breathe.”
This week I’ve learned more about Hughes’s life and was delighted to discover a blog called, Food As a Lens, written by Babson Professor Frederick Douglass Opie, who teaches and writes about the history of food traditions, cultures, and systems and how and why they have changed.
While researching his book, Hog and Hominy: Soul Food From Africa to America (Columbia University Press, 2010), he came across many food-related stories about Langston Hughes that he shares on his blog. I enjoyed hearing about Langston growing up in the Midwest and enjoying the fresh garden produce from his aunt and uncle’s Kansas farm:
Hughes recalled that his aunt cooked wonderful ‘greens with corn dumplings’ along with ‘fresh peas and young onions right out of the garden,’ . . . ‘There were hoe-cake, and sorghum molasses, and apple dumplings with butter sauce.’
When he was fourteen Langston lived with his father in Mexico and described many of the delicious foods he ate there, including “steaming-hot tortillas” and “roast duck stuffed with pears and turkey with mole sauce.” When he served as a war correspondent in Spain during the Spanish Civil War, Langston talks about the foods he missed most from home (hamburgers, hot dogs, sugar doughnuts and ice cream).
Perhaps the story I like best is about doing a book tour in the 1930’s. White authors and lecturers stayed in segregated hotels while traveling the circuit, but African American authors like Hughes were forced to stay in private homes where they couldn’t escape some of the over-zealous hosts when they craved a little peace and quiet:
Southerners are great ones for hospitality. Warm and amiable and friendly as it was, I was nevertheless almost killed by entertainment, drowned by punch, gorged on food, and worn out with handshaking . . . I must have eaten at least a thousand chickens that winter.
These are fascinating tidbits for literary foodies, and I also love that in 1925, when Langston was bussing tables at the Wardman Park Hotel in Washington, D.C., he slipped several poems to Russian poet Vachel Lindsay, who declared in the newspapers the next day that he’d discovered a new poet. One of these poems, “The Weary Blues,” became the title poem for Hughes’s first book that was published the following year. Good things happen in restaurants!
Today, I thought it fitting and interesting to compare two of his poems with food references: 1) the aforementioned “I, Too, Sing America,” first published in 1945, a good ten years before the start of the Civil Rights Movement, and 2) “Dinner Guest: Me,” published in 1965, two years before Langston’s death.
Note his proud proclamation of a perfect America, where African Americans will no longer have to “eat in the kitchen when company comes” vs. the narrator in the second poem no longer eating in the kitchen, but being “wined and dined” in a fancy Manhattan restaurant with its stabs of hypocrisy and contempt.
I, Too, Sing America
by Langston Hughes
I, too, sing America.
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.
I’ll be at the table
When company comes.
Say to me,
“Eat in the kitchen,”
They’ll see how beautiful I am
And be ashamed —
I, too, am America.
* * *
Dinner Guest: Me
by Langston Hughes
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. —
Wondering how things got this way
In current democratic night,
Over fraises du bois,
“I’m so ashamed of being white.”
The lobster is delicious,
The wine divine,
And center of attention
At the damask table, mine.
To be a Problem on
Park Avenue at eight
Is not so bad.
Solutions to the Problem,
Of course, wait.
* * *
Interestingly enough, Associate Professor Carmaletta M. Williams of Johnson County Community College in Overland Park, Kansas, feels Hughes is taking a “shot” at W.E.B. Dubois (scholar, social activist, co-founder of the NAACP):
That’s a direct shot at Du Bois who, in his book The Souls of Black Folk, has a wonderful essay in which he discusses the conception of blacks in this country as the Problem. It’s not just any problem; he is talking about the racial problem.
* * *
Here’s a video of Hughes reading “I, Too, Sing America”:
* * *
♥ Read more food stories (with recipes!) at Professor Opie’s blog, Food as a Lens. Also check out this great video about the origins and evolution of Soul Food, where Appetite City host William Grimes briefly talks to Opie. Be prepared to crave peach cobbler and mac and cheese. There’s also a demonstration on how to cook breaded pigs’ feet :).
♥ Bryan Collier’s picture book rendition of Hughes’s poem, I, Too, Am America (Simon & Schuster, 2012), a beautiful tribute to pullman porters, just won the 2013 Coretta Scott King Award for Illustration.
* * *
The multi-talented and endlessly energetic April Halprin Wayland is hosting the Roundup at Teaching Authors. Be sure to check out the full menu of poetry goodness being served up in the blogosphere this week!
Copyright © 2013 Jama Rattigan of Jama’s Alphabet Soup. All rights reserved.