An uncommon voice for the common people

Wish Langston Hughes a happy birthday.

If he were alive, he'd be 100 Friday.

There's a big do in his honor at Kansas University next week. Among others, they're bringing in novelists Alice Walker and Ishmael Reed, poet Sonia Sanchez and playwright Amiri Baraka, aka LeRoi Jones. Oh, yes, and actor Danny Glover.

The symposium is called "Let America Be America Again." That's the title of a Hughes poem that's full of hope and hurt and defiance. Here's a snatch of it:

"Let America be America again

The land that never has been yet

And yet must be � the land where every man is free."

Hughes thought himself a voice for the common people � yet was himself uncommon.

He lived in Lawrence from ages 3 to 15. Mom? Well, she was busy trying to break into the theater. Dad? He was engineering a successful business � in Mexico. So a stern grandmother raised Langston Hughes.

Sometimes, kids chased him home from school, throwing rocks and tin cans.

Hughes writes in "The Big Sea," his autobiography: "But there was one little white boy who would always take up for me � So I learned early not to hate 'all' white people."

The black community � the one he came across at church, anyway � didn't feel like home either.

At age 12, he and other youngsters were prayed over. Everybody was hoping they'd be saved. Poor little Langston felt nothing � but faked a conversion.

"That night, for the last time in my life but one � I cried," he writes.

He had lost his faith because Jesus didn't show up to help him.

Books became a fort for this child to dwell in. In books, Hughes wrote, "if people suffered, they suffered in beautiful language, not in monosyllables, as we did in Kansas."

The lonely boy grew into a lonely artistic man, says Maryemma Graham, a KU English professor who worked with KU historian Bill Tuttle to organize the Hughes event.

Graham says, "Hughes had a mask of being the people's poet � of loving and befriending everyone � but he isolated himself. He could belong to the middle class because of his achievements but despised middle-class people because of their values."

His life stopped in many ports. He never married, never had a day job, drove to readings with his car trunk full of books to sell, Graham says. He rented friends' houses, pawned items to buy clothes.

Perhaps his ironic eye, as well as his restless feet, helped distance him from people. Irony keeps you safe, because you don't hope too much. But it also can pinch off pleasure.

Hughes was present with poets Countee Cullen and Claude McKay and Alice Dunbar Nelson during the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s, Graham says.

That was a time when the words "Negro" and "chic" became synonyms, when white folks colonized Harlem's clubs � and Hughes' sense of irony could feed abundantly.

"I was there," Hughes writes. "I had a swell time while it lasted. But I thought it wouldn't last long. � For how could a large and enthusiastic number of people be crazy about Negroes forever?"

Hughes' irony did not extend to the kind of language he heard on the street.

He took that seriously and made art out of it, using the rhythms and repetitions heard in jazz and blues to drive the words along.

"What was genuine for Hughes," Graham says, "was what black people had deep down inside that they'd sustained and that no one could take away."

In coffee houses, Hughes read his common-language poetry against a jazz backdrop. Today's performance poets, rappers and hip-hop generation all owe a debt to Hughes, Graham says.

Graham would like to see Hughes' art taken more seriously. His poetry may seem uncomplicated, but his mind was not, she says. It is a mind that bored into both black and white culture, sparing neither.

Minds that tell us what we do not wish to hear get lonely, so think kindly about Langston Hughes on his birthday. Appreciate his strong spirit, which lifted him, at times, above sorrow and irony.

You can hear that strength in the closing words of "Let America Be America Again":

"O, yes,

I say it plain,

America never was America to me,

And yet I swear this oath

America will be!"

� Roger Martin is a research writer and editor for the Kansas University Center for Research and editor of Explore, KU's research magazine Web site, which can be found at Martin's e-mail address is


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