friday feast: happy birthday, langston hughes!

LangstonHughes

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.”

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Hughes in the garden of one of his Harlem residences, 1955 (photo by Don Hunstein, Yale Collection of American Literature, Beninecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library) via Uptown Flavor

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.’

young langstonWhen 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.

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There is now a Busboys and Poets restaurant (4 locations in the D.C. area, spaces “to inspire social change”) named after Langston Hughes.

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!

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Wardman Park Hotel photo by Theodor Horydczak, ca. 1920-1950

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.

Tomorrow,
I’ll be at the table
When company comes.
Nobody’ll dare
Say to me,
“Eat in the kitchen,”
Then.

Besides,
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,
Murmuring gently
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.

collier cover

* * *

poetryfriday180The 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!

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Copyright © 2013 Jama Rattigan of Jama’s Alphabet Soup. All rights reserved.

52 thoughts on “friday feast: happy birthday, langston hughes!

  1. Reading this, I am so struck by the energy and joy with which Hughes went about his life. That picture with the children was so lovely. I had read that one of the things that Hughes did in his later years was to travel through the South, visiting segregated schools and serving as an inspiration for disenfranchised African-American students. Happy Birthday, Langston…and thank you, Jama for all this great stuff about him. Especially the video – so great to be able to hear his voice across time.

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    1. There’s a little story behind that picture. Apparently, the neighborhood kids used to trample on a little patch of earth beside his front steps — to keep them from doing that he created a little garden there and let the kids plant and maintain it. He placed little signs next to each plant with the child’s name, and it was called The Children’s Garden.:)

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  2. I adore how you have highlighted the joy in food that Langston shared. What a great post! You know he is one of my favorites.

    And I am delighted to see that lovely photo of our President in Hawaii on your sidebar right next to the form where I am typing. You are such a treat!

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    1. I’m anxious to learn more about Hughes’s relationship to food. Professor Opie’s book is on my TBR list! Hughes is one of my fave poets, too — don’t even get me started on how much I love the way he incorporated elements of jazz and blues in his poetry.

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  3. Langston Hughes is such an amazing poet! I haven’t read the poems you shared above but I love them, especially the first one. I like the line “I am the darker brother” and the last four lines:

    Besides,
    They’ll see how beautiful I am
    And be ashamed –

    I, too, am America.

    Themes of human rights and equality resonate through his poems. Two other poems of his that I enjoyed reading were “Madam and the Phone Bill” and “Dream Variations.” Thank you for sharing the poems above.:)

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    1. I love how in writing the truth about African Americans as he saw it, he also spoke about humanity as a whole — all the other oppressed and disenfranchised groups not only in the U.S., but around the world. And there was never any posturing with his poems; he spoke to the average person and was always accessible.

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  4. Wonderful ‘feast’ of information about Langston Hughes, Jama. I’ve sent your food link on to a few colleagues who are always looking for stories. It looks terrific. And we are readying for the African American Read-In at school, so perhaps I’ll share some of Hughes this time. You give me so much to ponder, Jama. Thank you!

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    1. Hope your colleagues find some stories they’d like to share. I can see that I will have to read the Hughes biographies Prof. Opie recommends on his site for more foodie tidbits!

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    1. Thanks for visiting, Liz. There’s quite a world of difference between the two poems, but both include the word, “ashamed.” We still have a long ways to go.

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  5. What a lovely post, Jama. You have a way with words like chef in the kitchen! Hughes was such a wonderful poet. I love his work. I love the simplicity and strength of his images. And I have fond memories of hoe-cake, and sorghum syrup. I’ve never had corn dumplings, but they sound intriguing.

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    1. You’re exactly right — there is such strength in simplicity. The iconic poems have such universal resonance; he was able to get to the heart of things with just a few strokes. And his words really stay with you!

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  6. LOVE! What a wonderful post, what a wonderful man. He was so human and accessible and joyful – and what a treat to hear his voice, just as I would have imagined it. I haven’t read any Hughes in a long time, and now I don’t know what I was thinking. Time to get out the old books.

    His anecdote about the thousand chickens and “killing me with entertainment” is hilarious! Thanks so much for celebrating Langston today, Jama!

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  7. Hi, Jama. What a beautiful photograph of Hughes enjoying a garden with children. These food stories from his life — so much fun to read. And duck stuffed with pears? That’s a recipe I’d love to try.

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    1. I’d never heard of duck stuffed with pears either! Clearly we’re traveling in the wrong circles. Hughes was so well traveled and must have had so very many unique food adventures. I thought it was such a sweet gesture to create that little garden for the neighborhood kids.

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  8. Of course, there’s my favfavefaveFAVORITE Langston Hughes poem, MY PEOPLE, does as a photo essay by the Divine Charles R. Smith… so beautiful, that little person on the cover, and those throughout.

    Indeed, a joyous little celebration.

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    1. I hear you and am with you on MY PEOPLE and Charles R. Smith’s sublime photos!! Every time I see that cover my heart just overflows with good feelings.:)

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    1. So much to learn, isn’t there? Had some good soul food down in Richmond, but now would love to go to Sylvia’s in Harlem — the video I linked to is well worth watching.

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  9. Jama, what an interesting look at Langston Hughes. I loved the poem about The Dinner Guest. Thanks for opening the month with Hughes.

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  10. Wonderful post about a wonderful poet, Jama. My parents had a copy of The Panther & the Lash, and I used to go into a corner and just say the poems to myself; they were so powerful. Love the way you set those two dinnertime poems together here.

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  11. You will SO want to read Blue Balliett’s newest book when it’s released (March, I think) — HOLD FAST. Her setting is again Chicago, but she’s moved away from the characters in her first books. Langston Hughes’ poetry plays a huge part in the plot, and the settings include homeless shelters and the Chicago Public Library.

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  12. Hi Jama,

    Thanks for this celebration of Langston Hughes’s birthday and the peek into his life! I loved hearing him read “I Too.” I have a special fondness for this poet…he taught me how to write blues poems.

    Best, Tamera

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  13. so brilliant. i loved hearing hughes read his own poem. as for bryan collier, i saw him speak at SCBWI this past summer. one of the most heart-felt inspirational speakers. ever. love him.

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  14. I was watching the video clip, and my 9 year old walked by. “Oh I know that dude. He wrote “Hold Fast to Dreams” and then she recited the entire poem!!! OMG!

    And when I ask what she did at school, she replies “Nothing…” I think not!

    (sorry…proud mama moment. I was so shocked!)

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  15. What a beautiful tribute to such a great man. I’ve also done a Langston Hughes special when I read The Dream Keeper and other poems – so true, so real, simply genuine in his emotions. A man who is able to make himself emotionally bare and vulnerable through his words is a wonderful man – and yes his words do live on.

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    1. Yes, I remember your awesome Dream Keeper post. I like that he can be both a very “public” poet as well as a private one. His emotional truths keep shining on.

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  16. Such a beautiful tribute to a beautiful man! Thank you for sharing. The Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH) is having their 87th Annual Black History Month Luncheon at the Wardman on the 23rd, and I was made aware yesterday that this was where Mr. Hughes got his big break. I am told that there is a plaque of him there. I will be sure to find it!

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    1. Thanks so much for reading and commenting, Cynthia. Yes, the Wardman! How exciting that you will be attending the luncheon there and will get to see the plaque.:)

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